What is a missionary?
I once had a conversation with another American living here in Japan. He came here with his wife a year or two ago to work as a teacher in a private Christian school. Sometimes he and his wife sing at church services, special music events, that sort of thing.
We started talking about what we were doing here in Japan. I don’t think either of us ever considered becoming missionaries, but here we were; in Japan and heavily involved in a growing church. So, we asked ourselves, are we missionaries?
Our first response is that we were not. We don’t feel like missionaries. We hadn’t really given up or sacrificed anything. We both have TV’s, jobs, apartments with air-conditioning; we go out to eat, we engage in our hobbies, and face no persecution. So, that means we’re not missionaries, right? As a consequence, I started to feel like I have no purpose here. It was like I moved to a foreign country to do exactly what I was doing in America. After all, all I do is work, go home, and go to church; everything I would do back home. That seemed so silly, so ridiculous. Why would I spend so much money and expend so much energy moving to Japan just to do the same things here that I could have done at home?
To be honest, I started feeling depressed and frustrated. If I’m not a missionary, what am I? What’s the point of me being here?
It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand a few things about missions and missionaries.
Having grown up in the American Church, I heard from a few missionaries about missions. They would come to our church to talk about their ministries and ask for money. They would show slideshows of the deprivations they proudly suffered of; no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing; giant insects, poisonous reptiles, and vicious animals. These things became synonymous with foreign missions and missionaries, so it’s no wonder that I was so confused about my being here. If a missionary, by connotation (if not definition), suffers from these things, then of course I’m not a missionary. But, doesn’t that then mean that no Christian in a first-world country can be a missionary?
That seems obviously wrong. How could suffering from giant insects in one country make you a missionary, whereas living in a country with (relatively) small insects doesn’t when you’re evangelizing in both?
Of course the answer is it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is, the idea I had that a missionary is only a missionary when he or she suffers from insects or persecutions was wrong. So, what does that mean for people like me; people who live, work, and minister in a first-world country?
Well, it turns out, I have actually suffered sacrifice. Because I have little skill in Japanese, I have given up independence for a humiliating dependence on both friends and complete strangers. When I first got here, I had nothing familiar, nothing of my own. I had sacrificed to get here and I still do. So far, I have missed around twelve family birthdays, a family wedding, the birth of a nephew, and the death of an aunt.
So, how does this apply to people back in America? It should always be remembered, any Christian living in a foreign country is a foreign missionary, just as any Christian living in their home country is a local missionary. The distinction is so slight (that is, a difference of location) as to not even be worth considering. A Christian is an evangelist, no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing. The command to go and make disciples rests upon every one of us.
So, whether he is sweltering in southeast Asia or typing from his couch in Japan, support your foreign missionary; through prayer, through money, through whatever means God asks you to. They have given up a lot for the sake of the kingdom.