The {Missionary} Lifestyle

I used to think missionaries had a different lifestyle than "normal" people. And I thought if you moved overseas, your lifestyle would change.

Sometimes it does. Sometimes people are bolder and more focused when they move and claim the occupation of missions. Sometimes their leadership qualities come alive and they push through the fears at the edges of their comfort zones.

Sometimes it happens like that, but I'm not so sure it's supposed to anymore.

In moving from Waco to Cambodia, my lifestyle hasn’t changed much. My occupation has, but my lifestyle hasn’t. There’s been nothing “radical” about this move except for the radical love for hammocks I’m developing. As I’ve thought about this lack of change, I’ve come to a conclusion: we, the Church, are confused. We’re confused about a lot of things, but in this case we’re confused about radical lifestyles, missionaries, and what God desires.

A Lifestyle of Discipleship

A while back my friend Amy and I were talking about missions, and she commented, “We aren’t called to be missionaries. We’re called to make disciples.” 

We came to the agreement that the only thing different about missionaries is that missionaries live in a place they’re not used to and are around people they don’t know. That’s the only difference. Aside from that, our lifestyles are the same: we spend our time working, investing in friendships, discipling and being discipled, resting, completing chores, and running errands.

No matter where in the world we live, our lifestyles—the way in which we approach life—will probably stay the same. Because we are the same. We will approach tasks and challenges the same way, with determination or attention to detail or anxiety or carelessness. We will handle conflict the same way, and we will treat our friends and ourselves the same way. Moving halfway across the world will not alter our strengths or weaknesses (though we may wish it would!). 

At the core, our values drive our habits and our lifestyles. If our lifestyles change radically when we move, something is wrong. We aren’t called to be missionaries but to build our lives around Jesus, to follow His lead and make disciples—a lifestyle of discipleship—wherever we are.

The Missionary Label

Though it’s easy to get caught up believing missionaries are spiritual superstars (especially when they have cool stories of conversions and healing and miracles), the hype and “missionary label” can actually can be very harmful.

First, it harms those who are sitting in the pews in sending churches. By placing missionaries in a “super spiritual” box, those of us who remain in our native countries can easily come to believe we are not called to the same lifestyle. Two standards of Christianity are created: one for the missionaries (and pastors) and one for “normal” people.

The result is a congregation who falls into one of two pitfalls: believing we are excused from a lifestyle of discipleship because we aren’t overseas or believing we must be specifically called to a lifestyle of discipleship. Both are great tragedies in the Christian life.

Secondly, the missionary label is harmful to missionaries. The expectations set up for those of us in missions (by others or by ourselves) pave the way for disappointment, frustration, and shame. In the book Expectations and Burnout, one missionary woman states,

“For the longest time I thought I was the only one who struggled with anything—and I felt really lonely because of that. Then I began to figure out that everyone else struggled too, but they put on the ‘happy worker’ face—maybe out of fear or being burned in the past or maybe out of the misguided notions that workers are supposed to be super-Christians or something” (p. 18).

This struggle is common among missionaries—and it can be strongly correlated with burnout:

“Due to this pressure for missionaries to appear close to perfect and reluctance to be open to sharing struggles, missionaries can hide many of the symptoms of burnout until it is impossible to do so any longer due to its severity” (p. 17).

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss.

Replacing the Label

To address the missionary label, we must address our beliefs around what God desires. We view missionaries as spiritual superstars because we think God is most pleased when we move across the world and give up everything we know for Him. We think Jesus is most glorified when we switch our focus from our jobs to ministry. We think He’s most honored by devoted, full-time service.

Maybe He is. Maybe He isn’t. 

When I read the Gospels, what I observe is that Jesus doesn’t want our service or sacrifices—not ultimately. He wants our hearts. He wants to be with us. He called Zaccheus down from the sycamore when he’d done nothing except steal from others and climb a tree. He didn’t call the "wee little man" down so he would give away half his money and repay all those he’d wronged. He called him down so He could be with him. Zaccheus’ generosity didn’t come because Jesus requested it. It came as a response right from the gut as he realized Jesus just wanted to be with him. No hidden agenda and no prerequisites. Just like He just wants to be with us.

He’s replacing the missionary label with an invitation.

The more I press into Jesus, the more I realize He doesn’t want our focus to be on what we call our full time jobs or ministry or the spiritual superstar industry. He wants our focus to be on Him. He wants us to let everyone around us know about His invitation into His presence and into heaven, and He wants us to leave the spiritual superstar work of salvation and everything else up to Him.

When moving across the world and leaving our homes means He gets more of us, He’s pleased. When walking across the street to meet a new neighbor means He gets more of us, He’s pleased. When driving across town to be with a group of believers means He gets more of us, He’s pleased! He’s pleased any time we accept His invitation just to be with Him.

With our focus on Him, there’s stability. There’s no shifting attention from career to ministry when we move overseas, and there is no lifestyle change because our attention and lifestyle were already built around Jesus.

The “Radical” in the Lifestyle

Whether in Cambodia or the States or anywhere else in the world, the invitation remains open for us to come to know this God who just wants our hearts. Knowing the Lord more deeply is what fuels lifestyle changes and brings the “radical” into a lifestyle. It’s what brings adventure and love and the deep satisfaction of His presence. Not living overseas. Not living in the town where we were born or living 10, 100, or 1,000 miles from it. Not learning a different language or starting a new job or even telling other people about Jesus. These things don’t have the power to change. It’s only when we look to Jesus and walk with Him that we will find our lives—and ourselves—transformed.

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