Yesterday at my blog, I made a quick report about persecution of Christians in India (HT: Brad Williams) which got some people reading and thinking about the Gospel work, and good for them. And good for the Gospel, yes? That’s the point of being a servant of the Gospel even unto death: preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to this lost and dying world.
And let me also offer full disclosure in that I am sitting here listening to my fancy black iPod in a warm office with a Coke and a very-unhealthy breakfast from Sonic (Phil: I'm thinking of you), so if anybody is a fat, happy Christian, it would be me. Very fat, very comfortable. Very risk-insulated in spite of the fact that they are knocking down the wall in my store today to add 500 sq ft so I can better
That said, I’m not going to elaborate on what in particular has incited me to write this post – which is bound to draw flack from all sides. However, I want to start by considering a passage of Scripture:
Acts 18:1After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.Fair enough, right? Paul is in missionary mode, and after his first pass through the ancient world with Barnabas he is living in Corinth and (in somewhat-useful modern terms) is a bi-vocational preacher until his helpers arrive.
5When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. 6And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." 7And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. 8Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. 9And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, "Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people." 11And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (ESV)
I think that example says much good about our friends and brothers in India (as one example) who are being mistreated even under that law for the sake of their Gospel work. But the thing about the Gospel, and the work, and the Bible, which is always apparent to me is that it also says something about the wannabes.
Before I go on, let’s be clear that when we first become disciples of Christ and not just members of the local religious club we are all wannabes. As I remember my conversion experience, it was a pretty heady thing. And I wanted to try everything – try being in the choir (be glad you missed it), try being a teacher (which, if your church is right-minded, it does not let new believers do), try being a greeter (as if I was that nice in person), etc. Again, if you have decent elders and discipleship going on in your church (and that’s what I think I had when I first came to the church as a disciple), there’s nothing wrong with this if it is contextualized or moderated with the end of true discipleship in mind. It’s fine to see all the places at the dinner table, but in the end you should sit in one seat and not handle everyone’s silverware for them.
But then we all meet our first real-life missionary – someone who lives in a place we never dreamed of who preaches the Gospel to people we never imagined existed -- and we get blown away. And rightly so, because the person living in danger of his life (or her life, or the life of their whole family) is actually doing the Gospel work in a black-and-white kind of way. I believe strongly that it is possible and necessary to do the Gospel work in our secular workplaces – as necessary as preaching to Muslims and Hindus – but somehow (especially to a new believer) the exotic nature of preaching to people in a completely alien culture seems like the American Dream of Christian service. We get this picture that we could be both Indiana Jones and Saul of Tarsus, and boy is that cool.
So in that respect, we are all wannabes in our spiritual immaturity, and we think we wannabe Indiana Tarsus or Prof. Saul Jones or whatever and "really" "do the work." That is: as if making sure there’s a Christian church and culture here at home to come back to and to supply foreign missions is not really doing the work. Someone who is spiritually mature recognizes that missions (as we use the term in 2006) is a function of the great commission but that it is not the only function of the great commission.
In that context, I want to consider an example as generically as possible. Let’s imagine that there’s a work going on in Central America which is seeking out, sheltering, educating and discipling abandoned children. It’s heart-rending when you see these kids on the videos – absolutely devastating. You can see them sleeping huddled together in trash heaps at night to keep warm – any night of the week, but particularly in the video you are watching. And in the video, you see a lot of American youngsters who flew down there to spend a week doing part of that work – fishing these kids literally out of the trash and placing them in a new home and with a new lease on life.
Booyah, right? It is hard to say, "yeah, what a waste of time," when these Americans could have just as easily chosen Daytona or Cancun or whatever – clearly, if that’s the choice, they did good. My suggestion is that this is a false choice stacked up by an immature view of commitment and sacrifice.
Before you read another word, let me say this clearly: I am not advocating an end to short-term mission work. I am advocating an end to treating missionary work as if it was a vacation.
Think about this for a second: to fly down to El Salvador (as an example) for a 10-day stay requires a minimum of 3 days travel time, round trip. You have to spend time in customs, you are flying for a whole day each way, and after you finish driving to wherever you are going and back, it’s at least 3 days. So your 10-day trip is more like 6 or 7 days on the ground. Once you get there, you need a day of orientation (which we might call "sight seeing" if we were feeling a little hard-headed), which brings you down to about 5 or 6 days on the ground. So you might put in 6 days at 10 hours a day, which in the US would go for about $500, but in El Salvador someone could be hired to do that work for less than half of that. But let’s value your service down there at $500.
Now, what you spend to get down there is more like $2000 after you get your shots and buy your tickets – and if this is your first trip out of the country, you also buy luggage, so maybe you spend $2500. And about 4-6 times a year (on average), a plane load of about 30 people make this trip down. So for the cost of about $75,000, they provide this mission with about $15,000 in services which the mission could probably have purchased for about $7500.
And before I start sounding like Tony Campolo here, maybe the cultural interaction is worth it on both ends. Maybe having someone spend their vacation in a mission rather than in a hotel on a beach is worth it. I can tell you from personal experience that I will never vacation in the Caribbean again because I was conscience-stricken the whole time I was there back in 1997. I spent about $5000 on a vacation with my wife driving past people who were going to eat less that month than I did in any single day at the resort. I was mortified. If you’re going to spend $5000, go to Disney where you can pretend there are no hungry people even at $8 for a sandwich and $3 for a Gatorade – without which you will die.
But is it actually any better to treat mission work like a vacation? For example, what does it say about our beliefs to spend about 6 days doing what appears to be good work in Christ’s name and then coming home, taking a shower, and going back to our dorm room or our neighborhood or whatever as if the work is all done?
It’s dilettante missionary work. It makes us feel better that we did the "Christian" thing for "those people" (you might be nicer and say "those kids"), but it is wildly wasteful and self-aggrandizing. To spend $75,000 to provide $7500 in value is absurd in any circumstance, but to do it for the sake of making us feel like Indiana Tarsus – we went into the Third World, man, and we built a house because, like, they don’t have Home Depot -- is frankly ridiculous.
Here is what would make more sense: the first plane load of folks down – they stay for the whole year. Net cost: $75,000, plus room and board at EL Salvador standard. Then the next 4 plane-loads of folk should simply send their $75,000 per plane load for a net $225,000 in cash for the mission – which is a lot of money in El Salvador. But what that would mean is that 3/4th of the people who were going to vacation in El Salvador would simply have to do something for the sake of the Gospel rather than the sake of their experiences and make a personal sacrifice. And the ones who go down for the year? Dude: they are spending a year off from work in a country that’s like a discarded suburb of Miami (which I don’t think is a nice thing to say) in terms of climate and habitat, making a personal sacrifice for the Gospel work. And like Paul in Corinth, they have the chance to live for the sake of the Gospel.
The work is important. If you are reading this blog entry, hear me say that the work is important. The work is important. My point today is that it is so important that we ought to treat it like it is important rather than a hobby. The Gospel is not a hobby. The lives we may or may not reach with that good news – they are not hobbies.
Jesus Christ is not a hobby. If you have made him one, today would be a good day to do something about it.