Sunday, March 14, 2010

Idolatry of Missions

I recently read in a Biola (my alma mater) magazine a confession of a missionary. His testimony was that he had made missions an idol. The idea of being a missionary was so all consuming that it affected his relationship with his wife. His spouse was not opposed to going to the mission field, but she saw their role as more of senders rather than goers. The conflict between them intensified until he came to grips with this one question: What is the core issue of life? Christ or being a missionary? It was at that point that he came to terms that missions had become, for him, an idol.

Sadly, there are people who really do believe that ministry, and missions in particular, is the highest calling of God and getting to the field is a passion that dominates everything else in their lives. In some ways I think this obsession is a “martyr for Jesus” complex. Some people, whether they are monks or nuns in a monastery or a desert rat on the backside of Yemen, actually feel like they have to “suffer” to really serve Christ. To deny themselves of family, a career outside of ministry, is in some ways is the truest test of holiness and dedication. The reality of the “martyr for Jesus” people is that suffering is, in some ways, a competition - a competition on who can deny themselves or suffer the most. The truth is there is always someone who suffers more and people feel guilty because they have somehow fallen short of real denial for Christ.

How do I know this? Because it happened to me. When I came off the field I was riddled with guilt. How could I possibly serve Christ to my fullest teaching missionaries in the U.S.? Sharing my frustration with Lloyd Kwast (former missionary to Cameroon and professor of missions at Biola) Lloyd asked me point blank, “Richard, do you really think God loves you more as a missionary in Kenya?” Like the guy who nearly tore up his family in pursuit of missions, I had made missions an idol.

Obviously I believe that being a career missionary is a noble profession. Having been one for 35 years I can testify that it has been a rewarding life; I have no regrets and wish more people would experience the sheer joy of living and working overseas for Christ. However, I have never believed that being a missionary is the highest calling a child of God can have. I maintain that the most important thing for any follower of Christ is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. Fulfilling that, the greatest of all commands according to Jesus (Mark 12:28-30), is that thing which all Christians should desire whether they are a truck driver, farmer, secretary, housewife, businessman or missionary.

Like most things in life, it’s the motive behind our decisions that is most important, not just what we do. Just this last week I heard a police officer make this statement that, “There are two type of law enforcement officers. You have some people who put on a badge who seek justice; others are in it for the feeling of power.”

Being a witness for Christ is not a profession; it’s a natural outflow of faith to a person who lived 2,000 years ago. When the task becomes more important than the person then we have changed the dynamics of our discipleship, from being a missionary to a mercenary; from making a calling an idol.