When we hear the word “missionary” we tend to think of a ministry that is distant from us, or foreign to us. But in the broader sense of the word, missionary is simply a disciple sent by Christ to preach in his name and make new disciples, someone who takes into heart the command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Missionary is not only the person who leaves her comfortable home for a third-world country forever, but also the African Christians reaching out to Muslims in America. Missionary is also an ordinary boy inviting his lonely pal to go to Sunday school together. Therefore, although technically a Christian missionary refers to a specific calling, a life-time occupation supported by the church, there is no doubt that all of us, as Disciples of Christ, have the same mission to make more disciples.
A Story of a Missionary
This is the story of Lee. Lee was born in Chun ju, South Korea, in 1963. He was not Christian by birth, and no one in his family was either. When he was a kid, he would show up for Sunday school when he was bored and just for the holiday events when the pastors would give away free candy. It was not until he went to the city of Pusan for college that he found a good church and started believing in God.
After studying mechanical engineering for three years, Lee decided that he was going to be a missionary. Nothing really dramatic had happened to him to prompt his decision, nothing close to the calling of Samuel or Paul’s dream of the Macedonian. Every weekend he had helped his pastor evangelize to foreigners who arrived to the port, and he had found that he simply wanted to do this kind of work for the rest of his life. The missionary work abroad he envisioned for his future was to be an extension of the missionary work he was been practicing at home.
Lee graduated in 1987. He applied to a seminary in Pusan in 1989 and after three years, he moved to Seoul to obtain his masters degree. He enjoyed studying at the seminary a lot more than when he had studied engineering.
Then the rest worked out like a puzzle. Though in the beginning, Lee’s intention had been to go to Japan and work there as a missionary, his church thought that Japan was too close and well-off for missions work and rejected his proposition. So Lee did some research and learned that the countries with the least number of missionaries were Peru and Mexico. After a couple of months, a message from Peru came saying that they needed a missionary.
Eventually the time came for Lee and his wife to leave their homes, families, and culture. Carrying a three year old, a baby of ten months, and two large immigration bags, they set foot on the arid city of Trujillo in the month of June, 1995. When asked about what he had felt when he arrived to the opposite side of the globe, Lee answered, “In that situation, there is no space for thought; there is no space for feeling. You just find yourself focusing every minute on adapting to the new environment.”
Among the hardships Lee and his family had to go through were homesickness, the inability to digest the local food, and the lack of knowledge of Spanish.
For one year, they stayed with another missionary in Trujillo to learn about the language and the culture of the country. In their second year, they moved to a town of red clay roads called Pucallpa in the Amazon jungle to help a colleague build a school. In 1998, they returned to Trujillo, and from that time on they remained in that city as the only Korean family in the area.
Lee specialized in planting churches and helping them grow until they were able to become independent. In the course of 17 years he had planted three small churches, which in turn built two other churches by themselves. Each of them had its own set of problems of economy, leadership, and fellowship. But sometimes they met for a picnic at the beach or a volleyball tournament.
He was the happiest when he saw people change for good. He found it the hardest to see people who had been Christians for a long time refusing to change. He never regretted coming to Peru. He knew what his role was in God’s plans. He had not worried much about how his decision would affect his children. He had been sure that God would take their futures into His hands.
According to Lee, his job had always been to “evangelize and serve others while sharing his life with them.” Like Lee said, a missionary’s job is not to simply go and make as many converts as possible, it is to share one’s own life with others. Just like Jesus shared his.
Mother Teresa once said, “It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”
Being a missionary abroad has its own list of hardships, but being a missionary at home is just as hard. We humans are creatures of compartmentalization that many times like to have our jobs separate from our hobbies, our church friends separate from our school friends. But when being a “local” missionary, our identities as disciples are not nametags we use when we go to church or volunteer at another town— they are lifestyles.
John Eldredge is President of Ransomed Heart Ministry. He furthers the spiritual lives those around the U.S. through his work and books of counseling. Jenny Simmons’ music reaches out to those that are heartbroken in their homes. Adam Sterenberg, as the principal of Tree of Life School in Kalamazoo, shows his love and passion for the Lord through education and the renewing of minds.
These are only a few of the “local” missionaries around us. Let us be inspired by them and ask ourselves how we are being “local” missionaries ourselves. There is just so much to do right here.
Missionary work comes with its own set of controversies. For instance there are concerns that missionaries lack respect for other cultures as they put their goals of evangelization first. For example the Akha people of South East Asia complained the missionaries prioritized the building a church than building a clinic. Also, because Christianity often requires change within the culture and could potentially destroy traditional social structures and values, sometimes mission work is perceived as a threat to cultural diversity.
On the opposite spectrum, there is the concern that the original mission of evangelization will be overshadowed by the needs of the people. As Oswald Chambers points out in My Utmost for the Highest, “to the point that human sympathy for those needs will absolutely overwhelm the meaning of being sent by Jesus.”
As imperfect people, missionaries always tend to lean to one side more than the other. This is why we need the greater wisdom from God to balance both sides, to not neglect the needs of the people while bringing the gospel to the culture to add to it rather than to take the pieces that are precious and beautiful away from it. God calls us to be disciples and missionaries outside the country, in the streets, our churches, and our homes. After all, love and the Gospel are not things that can be limited by space and time.