7 Things I Learned About Missions
Today, the word “church” means different things to different people. For the month of May, we are trying to expand that definition.
Jonathan Hogue dives into this by showing what missions actually is, expanding the narrow box he once held it in.
In my seven months on the World Race, I’ve learned one major thing: Missions does not fit the small narrow box that I once held it in. Before coming on the Race, I held a lot of romantic ideas about what missions life would look like. But throughout this year, I’ve come to realize that missions is so much more than what the basic white girls who visit African villages will tell you about.
There’s a whole lot I thought I understood about missions before leaving for this trip. But after having served with many different kinds of ministries alongside many different kinds of missionaries, I’ve learned some things. And after having met so many incredible, passionate, sacrificial, Jesus-loving missionaries around the world, I realize that I, a short-term missionary only spending one month in each country, am only just getting a small glimpse of what the rigors of a true missionary life look like. In many ways, I feel more like an observer of missionaries than an actual missionary.
From my experiences these past seven months on the World Race, here are a couple of things I’ve learned about missions.
1. Missions is a commitment, not a high-chaser.
It’s easy to get excited for the World Race. It’s an opportunity to travel the world, it’s full of adventure, it allows you do try different types of ministries, and best of all, it has an end date. I’ll be honest, I was a little encouraged by this whole “11 in 11” thing, because I knew that if I ever got assigned to a tough month, I’d only have to endure it for one month tops. And as much as some months feel like a million years, I can’t imagine what it must like to actually LIVE in many of these countries.
The hard part about the Race is that you get hooked in by the promise of the “high”. It looks real from the pictures and videos and blogs, at least. You see pictures of people holding small children in Southeast Asia, praying for people on the street, and standing on a cliff looking out at a sunset with arms wide out like in “Titanic” (captioned with lyrics from Bethel’s “You Make Me Brave”, of course), and think “WOW – they look like they’re really LIVING.” And really, the first couple months have moments like that. But after month 6 or 7, you realize that those rare moments of “high” really are pretty infrequent, and Race life starts becoming so normal and boring and frustrating that you want to run back home and hope you find that “high” again while riding Space Mountain at Disneyland.
Long-term missionaries are not led by the “high”. Sure, their ministry to small villages in the Amazon sounds incredible and purposeful, but after the “oh my gosh is this really my life!?!” phase wears off, they’re still left there with a purpose that they’ve committed to for the long run. And even if they come onto the missions field with intentions not to chase the “high” of adventure, they still run the risk of chasing the “high” of success. Many come out initially expecting the harvest just because they said “yes” to God but instead get several years of “seed-planting” before they get to see any fruit of their labors. They endlessly persevere in the midst of their circumstances, knowing the greater purpose Jesus has for calling them to this place.
2. Missions is a sacrifice, not an escape.
“Oh, I wish I could just leave this boring job and go start a school in Africa.”
I’ve heard that one before. In fact, I’ve probably said it before. Because, let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to leave their job on a rough day and escape to a bunch of cute kids who obsess over you day and night? Often times, I’ve thought of missions as an example of living “real life”, especially as a Christian. Nothing sounds more like a fulfilling Biblical life than a life on mission in a third-world country.
But missions is not an escape from your life. It is not an escape from your family trouble, or your worries, or your personal struggles. In fact, missions will more likely enhance these issues than hiding them. Nothing about traveling the world for missions will give you the kind of fulfillment or peace that will cover the things you’re trying to run away from back home. Because when missions life starts to become normal life, you realize that you’re still the same person that you were in your cubicle in America as you are in this hot little classroom in Africa.
Missions is a real sacrifice. It requires you to abandon a lot of things that once were a part of your life, often the thing you didn’t realize you’d struggle to live without. And typically, that abandonment can often trigger even deeper struggles that enhance the things you already struggled with before. I can empathize with the many American missionaries I’ve met on the field because I know they struggled to sacrifice their lives in America for an unfamiliar culture with an unfamiliar language. It’s hard enough to adapt even for just one month! Missions require you to truly surrender your life to Jesus in more ways that you’d ever know back home. And yet, as things get hard, these people do not give up and run back to America, because this is now the only “home” they have to run back to at the end of the day.
3. Missions is a lifestyle, not a career.
Our American culture has wired us to find identity in the careers we choose. However, at the end of the day, we leave our jobs and go home to find identity in our private lives – our passions, our hobbies, our family systems, etc. In the same way, we often struggle to connect our faith life on Sunday mornings with our normal life on Monday mornings, those who live on a mission do not.
While many overseas missionaries have jobs, like teaching, or construction, or management, their missionary life extends into all areas of their lives. They make themselves available to their friends there to serve them however they can. They host teams of young adults who want to come down and serve alongside them. The have bible studies and outreach programs and church ministries to run even when their “day job” is over. They always look for ways to serve their communities, knowing that their greater purpose in being in this place is not just to fulfill a career, but to fulfill a need. And because that need is spiritual, there’s a never-ending list of ways to plug into this.
My host in Costa Rica taught me this best. She serves as an English teacher at a woman’s prison during the week, but on the side serves her community in whatever way she can. She purchases eyeglasses on her own dime and arranges for women in the prison to get their eyes checked. She paints houses just to bless the local families. She serves at her church during the weekends in whatever ways she can. And she is always thinking of ways to bless others, whether that be buying flowers for a friend, or taking someone out for pizza, or meeting with someone to pray for them. Because she lives a lifestyle of missions, she has surrendered every part of her life to serving others for the Kingdom.
4. Missions is an opportunity to partner WITH God, not doing things FOR God.
This one is hard. When many people feel called to missions, they are most often inspired by a certain need. Maybe they saw a picture of a child starving on a street in Cambodia, or a video about a woman caught in sex-trafficking in Thailand, or a commercial about a village that has no access to clean water in Uganda. Whatever the need is, they feel compelled to come out to the other side of the world and make it right.
But, something happens when you are moved by a need. You realize that the need is much bigger than you, and there are so many more things that need to be done than just simply fixing the problem. Many of these issues stem from darkened and corrupted minds, or lack of government resources, or poor education. There are so many ways to care for a need, but not always one way to fix a need completely. It can be easy for the missionary to start feeling like their contribution is futile. And yet, it really doesn’t matter at the end of the day for the Christian, because you find out later that this issue was never going to be fixed by you alone. It’s only God who can do that.
In realizing this, what’s most amazing is when you realize that God doesn’t need you to fix the problem. He’s the God of the Universe! He could correct all of the problems of the world with the flick of His little finger if He wanted. And yet, because He hasn’t, He asks you to partner with Him to fix those things. It’s like when you were little, and your dad asked you if you wanted to help him fix up an old bike in the garage. You’re aware that you don’t know how to fix the bike, but because your Dad invites you to do it with Him, you say yes. In reality, he could have fixed it quicker himself. But in this moment, you not only fix the bike together, but you actually grow closer together as father and child. Our God never asks us to fix the world’s problems on our own, but He invites us into the journey of fixing it together that brings you and Him closer together in the end.
5. Missions is about the bigger picture, not your own personal mission.
It’s hard to come into a country for ministry, realizing that there’s very little you can do in only one month to really make a difference. It’s especially hard when you hear that your ministry host has been serving in this place for four years, and they’ve yet to see anybody come to the Lord. This can be increasingly frustrating when you start to realize that this whole year of traveling around the world sharing the Gospel might not bring the worldwide revival that many of your financial supporters might expect of you.
But the beautiful thing about missions is that it doesn’t stem from you. It stems from the Church. Yes, that big mega church you go to on Sundays, with the fancy lights and the trendy pastor and the waterpark (I’m guessing)? It’s also connected with the tiny house church in the middle of a village in Cambodia. Because we are all part of the Church. And the beautiful thing about the Church is that TOGETHER, we change the world.
So, when you show up to a country limited to only one month of service, you choose into serving the bigger picture. You find ways to further the mission of your ministry host, you plant seeds with strangers, you prayer walk, and you encourage those around you. Because even if at the end of the month you experience no miraculous events or have no crazy testimonies, you still can have joy knowing that God is doing something far bigger in the community established there than you will ever know. And you, yes YOU, got to be a part of that.
6. Missions is fueled by your intimacy with God, not your passion for the task at hand.
I thought that going on the World Race was going to make me more spiritual. I thought that living a year on a mission, serving the world, and loving everyone around me, would somehow fulfill me. I thought that out of doing things with a servant’s heart, I would somehow grow closer to God. Well, I was pleasantly surprised.
What’s been most surprising about the Race is that DOING things for God doesn’t mean that I grow closer to God. I don’t know why that is, but for some reason, digging up banana tree stumps and cleaning out old homes doesn’t quite feel like a Pentecost Spirit baptism. But it’s true; doing things for God doesn’t earn His favor. Why is that? Because we don’t live under the Law anymore. We live by Grace.
Sure, you might agree with me on this. But one of the fundamental issues that most Racers probably wrestle with is the fact that they, and only they, are responsible for their own spiritual growth. They think that they aren’t growing spiritually because their team doesn’t pour into them, or their ministry isn’t their favorite, or the external conditions are too rough. And yet, the question can be asked – are you surrendering yourself to the Lord every day? Are you staying in the Word? Are you praying and talking to God? Because believe it or not, you can be a missionary who serves at a local Christian school, feeds the poor on weekends, and goes to church on Sundays, and still not have a real relationship with Jesus. You can end world hunger, or sex trafficking, or the AIDS epidemic, and still not know Jesus. You can change the world and still never know the Creator. And at the end of the day, the Lord asks us to love Him first before anything else in this world, even our ministries.
Changing the world won’t change you, or even satisfy you. Only God can do that.
7. Missions is about serving God with whatever is in front of you, not just what you’re passionate about.
This one is the biggest thing I’ve learned from the World Race thus far.
When I signed up for the Race, I had in mind what ministry would look like. I imagined walking down dusty roads, meeting smiling locals, entering their homes to find bed-ridden old family members, praying and laying hands, and seeing miracles left and right. I imagined speaking in churches with a fresh word from God, and hundreds of people being moved by the Spirit and stampeding to the front to be saved. I imagined broken legs healed, demons cast out, scars shriveling up, prophetic words given, and maybe even an Angelic encounter or two.
So, imagine my surprise now, at the end of Month Seven, when my last seven months of ministry haven’t looked anything at all like I imagined. In Costa Rica, I questioned God as to how painting walls in a prison were going to one day lead to the women inmates being saved. In Honduras, I questioned why God needed us to serve at a special needs home if, at the end of the day, the residents wouldn’t be able to understand the message of salvation. Even this month in Cambodia, I questioned God as to why teaching English to children who knew only Khmer would show them that Jesus loved them, even if we could never actually share the Gospel. Because in these situations, I’m left to wonder: Why did God call me to fly halfway across the world to do this, when He could have just asked the person across the street?
Ministry, I’ve learned, really doesn’t find value in human definitions. I often feel guilty in these months where my ministry seems unfulfilling because I somewhat feel like I’m wasting time. And yet, God never sees what HE calls me to as a waste. Because if He calls me to it, then it must have a purpose. And if it has a purpose beyond what I see in the moment, then it must be my job to do it with a willing heart and turn it all back to the Lord. And so, in my last seven months of serving in countries around the world, I’ve realized that it’s not my job to question the purpose. If God calls me to it, my only job is to say “yes”.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it conclusive. Missions life has so many facets and faces, and the experience of any missionary can run the gamut.
If you’re reading this, and are either thinking about going out on a mission, or are on a mission and are struggling, I hope these things won’t discourage you but will rather point you to Christ. That’s who this whole thing is about. We can serve the world, we can love our neighbor, we can bless strangers and fix houses and solve problems, but if we personally lose our gaze on Christ in it all, then we missed the point.
If you’re reading this, and are not on the missions field or preparing to go a missions trip anytime soon, know this: you don’t have to leave your home to serve on a mission. If I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s that missions isn’t reserved for third-world countries. In your own city, in your own community, there is the need. Sometimes it’s physical need, like caring for the elderly, or the sick. or helping someone with a project in their home. Sometimes it’s spiritual need, like someone who is struggling with something, or grieving over a loss, or doesn’t know what true freedom in Jesus looks like. Don’t let missions be something reserved for foreign places. Sometimes, God doesn’t call us out into the world on the mission because He wants us to learn what it’s like to live on mission in our own normal lives. Because, as I remember it, that’s our whole purpose, right?
Let us not serve the Lord in search of something other than Him, like identity, purpose, or fulfillment. Let us not serve the Lord solely to run away from our deepest struggles. Let us not serve the Lord out of obligation, or shame, or fear. Let us not serve the Lord because we think we have the answer to life’s problems.
Let us serve the Lord because He invites us to partner with Him. Let us serve the Lord because He holds all salvation in His hands. Let us serve the Lord because He sees more in us and in this world than we will ever see.
Let us serve the Lord because He is WORTH IT.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:23-25
*featured photo by Justin Becker
Interested in learning what missions truly is? Check out our World Race routes to be God’s hands and feet in 11 countries in 11 months!