Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. College freshmen Joe joins your church. He’s on fire for Jesus. He wants to give his life to the Lord, which means devoting it to unreached peoples in the hardest parts of the world. Joe can hardly stand middle-class, American Christianity and its complacency and obsession with comfort. He listens to sermons challenging him to "go to the nations" on his way to classes, and can’t wait to get out of school so he can head straight into the jungles of Indonesia or Ecuador and take the gospel to those who’ve never heard it before. Most of your discipling of Joe involves helping him think more graciously of the saints in the same congregation as him—saints who’ve never left the States, but love Jesus and are faithfully serving the Lord through their ordinary, quiet lives.
And then . . . Joe meets Jane. They fall for each other. As graduation approaches, he realizes he needs to get a job (at least so he can buy a ring). Jane has a ton of college debt, and so he realizes they need to pay that off before they can go anywhere. At the same time, Joe has begun to understand the importance of having fellow believers involved in his life, particularly through the local church. He’s become a fixture in the church, consistently showing up to sacrificially serve those in need. He initiates evangelistic ministry and brings others along with him. He’s committed to faithfully loving his new wife, faithfully working at his secular job, and faithfully serving the church. Slowly, his dream of going overseas fades under the responsibilities and joys of his life as it is. Soon, he looks at that new bright-eyed freshman full of zeal and judgment and shakes his head, remembering how he also used to be like that.
I’ve seen this scenario play out over and over. At one level, there’s nothing wrong with people deciding the Lord has in fact not called them to cross-cultural missions. Settling into a local church for the long-term, working a secular job, and living a quiet life is not only “okay”―it’s an honorable vocation the Lord gives to many.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we’re not serving such young zealots well if only the most strong-headed persist in pursuing missionary work. For me, this situation is far from abstract as my wife, daughter, and I moved to the Middle East just last year.
This is important for at least two reasons. First, there’s a dreadful tendency for both “stayers” and “goers” (at least the young ones) to question motives of the other “side.” Second, missionary zeal and love for the local church should not be competing affections in our heart. If one seems to win out over the other, there is a problem, since the church is the body to whom our Lord has given the work of missions.
This isn’t just a problem because we all need to get along. The unintended consequence of this dichotomy is that the people willing to move their lives overseas for the sake of the gospel are often the least convinced of the importance of the local church. When people perceive missions and the local church as two wholly distinct and therefore mutually exclusive Christian lifestyles, we don’t just lose quality people who would have made great missionaries; we build churches who believe that missions is something “those people” out there do, not us.
How should we as churches recognize and respond? How do we help people, particularly young people, make wise decisions about how to give their lives in service to the Lord? How can we do this soberly, without demonizing or elevating the decision to stay or go?
The question obviously exceeds the bounds of a brief article, but here are a few initial proposals:
1. The local church is essential, but yours isn’t.
When people say they have grown in love for the local church, they often mean they’ve grown in love for their particular local church, and the people who are in it. Of course, that’s a wonderful thing. I pray it would be true of more and more Christians. But our lives are not necessarily tied to one local church for the rest of our lives. If you can’t imagine your life apart from one particular church, it may reflect a love for the comfort you currently experience rather than a love for Christ’s bride.
The local church is essential to the Lord’s plan. Christ himself promised us the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). But that doesn’t mean your church will be essential until Jesus returns. As we teach people to love the local church, we need to teach them to love the kingdom of God more, so that if the Lord calls them to it, they will be willing to give up fellowship in one church for the sake of helping another, whether it’s down the street or across the globe. Our membership in a church is significant because of its affirmation of our kingdom citizenship. Our membership in a local church matters because it is a manifestation of our far more important membership in the coming heavenly assembly.
2. Missions can be exciting, but it’s rarely romantic.
One reason many young people are so passionate about missions is because they see it as a grand adventure. Don’t get me wrong, it’s thrilling to be a part of the gospel going forward. It’s thrilling both in the abstract and in the real moments of seeing people come to faith, growing in maturity, and establishing a church.
But there’s also a lot of mundanity in missions. Let me describe to you what the first month of living overseas consisted of: red tape, applying for a visa, moving into an apartment, furnishing our apartment, waiting for our visa, bureaucratic red tape, finding our way around a new city, learning new driving rules, learning where to buy what food, more administrative red tape―oh, and have I mentioned the red tape? Add all this to other basic challenges of living in a new place—making new friends, meeting new people, adjusting to a new job and office dynamics, adjusting to parenthood (in our case)—and any romanticism quickly fades.
Just like life anywhere, life overseas is full of mundane moments. Waiting a full day at the post office or getting lost in a new city isn’t exactly the stuff of missionary biographies. If your main motivation for living a radical life is the thrill, you won’t last long through the hardships of real life. Your church members need a stronger eschatological vision of what you’re working toward; they need a steady view of day-to-day Christian faithfulness.
3. Missions is a sacrifice.
Just like any other form of Christian life, missions is sacrifice (Rom. 12). Perhaps in a reaction to youthful romanticizing of a “radical” lifestyle, some have seemed to argue that Christians shouldn’t aspire to accomplish much more than fulfilling their basic responsibilities as a family member, church member, or employee. But that can’t be right. It’s good and right for Christians to aspire to be used greatly for the Lord―for the Lord’s name, not their own.
In some cases, moving overseas means moving where there currently is no church. That’s a high sacrifice for a Christian to make, and it will hopefully be made by Christians who feel the cost most acutely, rather than by believers whose sense of dependence on a local church is dull. Think about how often the apostle Paul deeply missed the churches he left behind. He didn’t leave them for adventure or fun—he left them so there would be more churches in more places to the glory of God.
That many churches evaluate their current missionaries based on their immediate fruit works against this. Do your missionaries feel pressured to have amazing stories about hordes coming to Christ every time they visit? If so, through their lopsided reports and prayer requests, you may be teaching your future missionaries how to evaluate the success of their life overseas.
Living cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel is only sometimes impressive, but it’s always costly. Yet we know the Lord and his gospel are worth it.
Churches should rightly value the God-honoring sacrifice and kingdom-serving function of both the overseas missionary and the stay-at-home mom. By doing this, they will cultivate a healthy environment for every member to work out where and how they might serve the Lord.
4. Christian freedom cannot be a cover for sin.
There’s a human tendency to justify the good things we’ve done at the expense of other good things. As Christians, we can’t do that.
Marriage is a good gift, and so is singleness. Similarly, living cross-culturally and living in your native culture are both good ways to serve the Lord. We need for Christians to do both because no Christian can live in every context where faithful witnesses are needed.
Likewise, both good paths can be used as a cover for sin. Someone can choose to stay in their native culture because they love their comfort too much. Someone else can choose cross-cultural missions because they’re avoiding commitment and responsibility for the sake of adventure. Let’s not be so quick to find faults in those who’ve chosen the “opposite” life. We should instead be careful to check our own eyes for logs first.
Service in global missions and service to the local church aren’t opposed to each other—or at least they shouldn’t be.
And yet, we’ve often taught by example, if not explicitly, that a love for the local church looks like staying where you are for a long time. Imagine what could happen if your church started sending overseas those members who love and serve the church best. Imagine what could happen if your members grew in seeing missions as integrated into their lives as church members, whether they stay or go.
Caleb Greggsen is involved in local church ministry in the Middle East.