When I meet people for the first time and they ask me what I do, I have found that it is not very helpful to answer, ‘I’m a missionary.’ The reason is that in modern parlance, the word missionary has come to have a wider and wider range of meaning. There are all sorts of missionaries. ‘Missionary’ can refer to someone who is a carpenter, a well-digger, an eye doctor, a pilot, an entrepreneur, a translator, a teacher, a professor, an evangelist, or a church-planter. And the list goes on. So far has this semantic drift gone, that the word has even begun to be detached from a strictly religious connotation. I have met people who are more sure that they’re missionaries than they are that they’re Christians.
Until just decades ago, if you told someone you were a missionary, they would understand that you were working in another country trying to gain converts. And they would assume, I think, that it would have something to do with learning a language, preaching the gospel of Jesus, and planting a church. Not only is that no longer a stereotype, it is no longer a common form of missions.
Simply put, more things are happening today under the rubric of missions than at any time in history. While it is only natural that Christian groups that have denied the value of evangelism at home would also espouse non-evangelistic missions efforts overseas, this expansion of the mission can be observed to one degree or another in every denomination or fellowship that I am aware of in the West. Nor is it common for western Christians to think of this expansion in anything but positive terms. More believers doing more things in more places is seen as Great Commission progress.
Let us survey briefly some of the reasons for this mission expansion. These reasons will help us discover why creativity is so highly valued in missions today.
The first reason is the glaring problem of certain missionary-resistant groups around the world. The challenges of nations that restrict missionary activity, the challenges of Islamic contexts, the challenges of post-Christian cities: these are the sort of things that trouble the hearts of those who wish to see the gospel delivered to all of mankind. It is wondered, why have these places seen such low response to missionary activity?
In the face of such a troubling question, it is tempting to believe that missionaries in the past mainly picked the low-hanging fruit, carrying the gospel to cultures similar to their own, or where there was a ready response to the gospel. Now all that is left are these difficult places. This means that what the missionaries of the past did may not be our best guide as we move forward. Their methods only got them this far. But to move the ball further down the field, we will need to adapt. In fact, it is nothing less than our duty to find a way to reap the harvest in these fields, and it would be sinful for us to cling to the manmade methods of the past.
Thus, creative minds are welcomed to missions to help us think of new ways to make an impact in challenging environments. Missionaries must utilize new methods and strategies to win the gospel a hearing in these contexts.
The second reason is related to the first. In environments where the particular challenge faced by believers is persecution, the nature of missions activity seems to broaden as well. How will Christian workers establish a presence in these contexts? How will they carry on evangelism without being discovered? How will they interact with local believers without putting them in danger? Some kind of guise will be needed – a business or a profession – to divert suspicion away from them. In China, for example, this has primarily taken the form of teaching English. This even leads many missionaries into an ethical quagmire. One of the debates in missions today is, ‘is it dishonest to have a profession only as a cover, when your real purpose is to evangelize?’ Many conclude that what is needed are real businesspeople, not just people who are putting up a front.
Again, all this leads naturally to an emphasis on creativity. What kinds of clever ways might Christians penetrate these defenses and safely carry on ministry?
The third reason is Christian compassion. As believers witness the horrors and injustice of our sin-ravaged world, they feel compelled to act. Countless endeavors have been launched by western churches and organizations to address material crises, disaster relief, deficient education or healthcare, relational or political injustices, and systemic evils such as prostitution and drug trafficking.
There are at least two reasons that these endeavors end up categorized with missions. First, because they are part of the church’s policy towards people on the outside. By and large, these Christian endeavors of compassion are not specifically targeted at believers. Second, it is easy to think of them as missions because the places where these endeavors are most visibly needed are in exotic, far-away lands. It is only natural, then, that these projects would be loaded into the category of missions.
The need for creativity in missions is again apparent. As these endeavors are usually launched to combat knotty problems to which there is no obvious solution, missions leaders search for outside-the-box solutions.
The fourth reason is financial. It is a common belief that there is a real shortage of missions funds today. This is variously attributed to the apathy of Christians, mismanagement by organizations, or the sheer enormity of the task. Therefore, if missionaries are going to be sent, it might be wise for them to have ways of generating their own income. Much of the creativity expended in missions today is aimed at solving this crisis. What kind of people could be missionaries without representing a further drain on missions funds?
There are doubtless other factors playing into the growing value of creativity in missions today, but there are at least these four. The most obvious result is an increasingly diversified missions workforce. But there are many others, as well. For example, missions recruiting is increasingly aimed at entrepreneurial, creative types, at people with marketable skills, or those with expertise in a critical area. Overall, this means that the global missions workforce looks much different than, say, the American pastoral workforce.
In the next post, I’ll begin to examine some serious concerns about this trend. While it is a trend owing to several very different factors, it is hard to offer critiques that speak to all of its parts. Nevertheless, I think a few relevant things may be said.