The Need for a New Missions Paradigm
Christianity Today recently posted a groundbreaking article by Amy Peterson called Farewell to the Missionary Hero, and there are a few reasons why I feel it is extremely timely and essential to the movement I’m trying to build around a new missions paradigm.
I’ve been noticing a trend lately in modern missions that excites me, a trend rising up out of the desire for the authentic, un-romanticized accounts of missionary life. This trend is a gathering hunger for a shift in the way we think of and do missions.
This new missions paradigm is a hunger for a breakdown of the harmful stereotypes of the missionary, a hunger for a healthier way to spread the love of Jesus and change lives, and not be destroyed in the process.
The old paradigm of missionary story-telling was the David Livingston way of presenting the self as the sacrificial “hero,” who only tells the stories of the thousands saved, the triumphs achieved, the safari’s taken into the Amazonian jungle that lend a golden light to the already radiating halo around a missionary’s head. We still continue to idolize missionaries like Heidi Baker as super human or super spiritual, when in fact she is a human being with real needs just like the rest of us.
But this old paradigm is dangerous and we need a new missions paradigm shift to happen quickly.
The church needs to change it’s view of missions or we are in danger of sending people out grossly unprepared and chastising them when they “fail” or trail back in need of bandages.
Missionaries are not necessarily born dysfunctional, they can become that way through lack of care and support because missions is incredibly hard. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s what a new missions paradigm would look like:
Get rid of the unrealistic expectations
One of the most damaging issues leading to missionary burnout is inflated and unrealistic expectations of what life will be like on the ground and expectations missionaries have of themselves. The research from Expectations and Burnout claims that much of the trauma missionaries experience is the disconnection between what they thought life would be like, how they viewed themselves, and what actually ends up happening on the field.
Heroic jaunts into the jungle to unreached tribes are fewer and farther between. A more apt representation would be less glamorous trips to the local market to try and negotiate for your supper, or a hot and dusty afternoon spent at your computer trying to write a newsletter with 20% of your battery life left because the power is out again. That chasm between what you thought life would be like and what it actually is, leads to disassociation and despair. I myself experienced this.
I thought I had to hide my feelings of being overwhelmed and my disappointed at the differences of real missionary life, so that the churches and the supporters in America would continue to be a part of my ministry. What I really wanted to say was, “Hey I spent eight hours in a government office today trying to not get kicked out of the country and nope, no one got saved.” But I thought I needed to represent the super hero version of myself and tell the “happy stories,” and this led to self criticism, feelings of failure, and fragmentation.
Failures need to be excavated not swept under the rug
One of the hardest things about living on the mission field for six years, was the fact that I didn’t feel like I could be honest. I was so afraid of what people would think and that supporters would stop giving, that it was difficult to just say, “Hey, we tried this, and it didn’t work out, but we learned from it, and here’s why we’re doing things differently now.”
The reality is failures are an integral part of success and learning from them is how we create lasting and beautiful change.
We need to give people the freedom to fail and celebrate the humility it takes to admit it and pivot.
Living in a different culture and understanding it takes time and not every program no matter how elaborately conceived will end up working in a particular culture with foreign mindsets. It takes a lot of give and take, adjustments, and falling down to get back up again to create something that is effectively changing lives. Pivoting is a sign of a great leader, because it takes humility to say you were wrong and to try it a different way. We need to give our missionary leaders the freedom to make mistakes, share them, and get back up again, knowing we support them. Our obsession with only the “success stories” will be our downfall. It will cause us to be out of integrity with ourselves and that is a slippery slope towards moral failure.
We need to tell the truth
We expel our stories in exhales of honest surrender and somehow it helps us heal.
Otherwise, we become isolated and continue to spiral down into despair. When we don’t feel like there is anyone we can tell our truth to, tell our story to, we lose heart. That doesn’t mean we only tell sad stories instead of testimonies. A culture of testimonies is pivotal to our survival on the mission field. We must celebrate the tiny victories, but we must hold the tension to not inflate stories for the newsletters. We need safe people we can say to, “Hey I loved this girl for seven years and she still stole from me,” or “I wasn’t able to rescue that one out of prostitution, she made different choices,” or “All I managed to do today was sit in bed and cry into the swath of mosquito netting.” When we tell the truth, it gives others permission to do the same and we realize we are not alone.
Telling the truth disrupts isolation, it ushers us into a community of other like minded souls who are hungry to be near someone who is safe and authentic.
We don’t have all the answers and we don’t need to
I know, shocking right? But as Americans imbibing a new culture we often think our solutions to “fix” the people and their problems are the correct ones. It takes a lot of time to learn what will really work to change lives in your particular culture, but time listening means there aren’t a lot of “action stories” to write home about. But I’d rather be a slow learner, than quick to the draw, end and up hurting the very culture I came to serve. Rather then succumbing to the pressure of a sending church to have all the right answers, or rather than churches expecting this, we need to understand it takes time to become culturally relevant and change in people’s lives is often slow, unsexy work.
Calling shouldn’t be more important than The Caller
In talking to missionaries, one of the big themes that continues to cause stumbling is falling into the attractive trap to let your calling define your identity. You’re the “Celebrated hero,” the “Sacrificial martyr,” the “Five minute Sunday sermon person,” the “Crusader of justice,” the “Sex-trafficking savior,” the one everybody looks up to without really knowing. And you like it, because it makes you feel valuable, seen, needed. But being a missionary isn’t about all that. It’s about being a partner with God to love people, about being an extension of Jesus, about being in a love affair with Him. The work should always take a backseat to your primary relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. But that’s not always the example we’ve been given to follow.
God doesn’t need martyrs
Coming into the knowledge of God as a good Father has probably been one of the most profoundly impacting revelations of my life. Knowing that changes everything. He doesn’t need my sacrifice, he doesn’t need me to kill myself to make Him happy. He doesn’t need me to save the world. It’s His joy to co-labor with me. It’s His joy to partner with me so I can pursue my passions and at the same time bring glory to His name. But as a daughter, the only thing required of me is to worship Him forever. But what happens as we fall more in love with God, is we fall more in love with people and the desire to see them walking in freedom grows. But the work doesn’t depend on us, the work depends on God’s spirit. Our job is to be little love bubbles that burst when other people rub up against us. Ok, that sounded way more hippie than I meant for it to.
We need saving before we can save others
I’m like a broken record around this mantra, but one of the key differences between missionaries of old and new ones rising up, are that we see a need for emotional health and we aren’t willing to compromise our health because we realize without wholeness, we will be of no use to anyone.
It’s imperative that missionaries and churches protect the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of those going out, that they don’t unwittingly send the message that the missionary is worth less than the mission.
If you need help, a list of resources is here.
We need to forgive each other
The reality is if you’re a missionary you’ve probably been wounded by the way the church or sending organization has failed to look after your hearts. If you’re a church or sending organization you might be resentful of the less than fruitful efforts of some missionaries, or angry because they didn’t take your advice. But all this time, what we really needed was brave and open communication. We needed compassion and understanding. We needed to talk about our needs and express them instead of being passive aggressive when someone didn’t read our mind. I know how hard that is. It takes great vulnerability to talk about your needs, to admit weakness, to say you need help or you don’t understand why something went wrong. But without brave communication misunderstanding and bitterness creep into relationships and destroy them. Let’s be different. Let’s be intentional and proactive, let’s be forgiving and kind, and open hearted.
My hope it to see a new breed of missionaries and churches rising up, forgiving each other, and starting a afresh with new eyes to respond to ancient problems.
My hope is that you use this to begin a conversation with other missionaries, churches, leaders to say that we’re not satisfied with the way things have been done and instead of complaining, we’re going to be brave and begin a revolution.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what a new missions paradigm would look like for you?