“So, what do you do for a living?”
It’s the party-stopper of all questions. Suddenly, we seem a bit too intense. Our stories don’t go down easily with appetizers or fit snugly into the discussion of new sitcoms and SUVs.
“I am a missionary,” we say and wait for the inevitable follow-up.
“Really? So, like, where do you live?”
And, something in me cringes. Why? Because we live here in the USA…and now our polite conversation just got confusing. I mean, missionaries leave here and go there, right? Yes and no, not always.
To begin, what is a missionary anyway?
Big question, and it depends in what era it’s asked. Years back, a missionary was one who packed up his life and headed off into the unknown for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He learned a new language, culture, and way of living. He devoted his life to his assignment, and his supporters watched his kids grow up on Facebook. (Just kidding, there was definitely limited communication.)
It would be really simple if that’s how it went for us. I can see Jay and I stepping off the plane, bleary eyes and white knuckles around our few belongings. Before us stretches our mission field, as Jay points his young family to our new humble abode: a tan ranch-style house with a red door and a forever grass-less front yard.
Never mind. It didn’t work that way.
We didn’t step off the plane to enter Small Townville. We never left our homeland. We never even left our sending church.
Yet, we are surrounded by multiple languages. We are learning new cultures and ways of living. We eat, sleep and breathe ministry. Our life and priorities have been radically changed, although our physical location has not.
So, are we missionaries? Are you a missionary? Can the difference be explained away merely by one’s location?
The bigger question: does it matter?
To be honest, it can matter among fellow missionaries. The hardcore 10-40 folks would define us as “ministry workers” and reserve “missionary” for those going to unreached people groups. I do understand the differentiation, and there probably should be one. Except, it gets messy when unreached people are living in our town. Yes, they have access to the Bible and church – but has the Gospel been presented contextually, in their language, in a way in which it could be received? (Wait, what is “unreached” again?)
In an increasingly connected world, those “unreached” places that are alone reserved for the “missionary” term are becoming fewer with greater gray areas.
It leaves one wondering if being a missionary depends on location – or on one’s calling.Maybe it's not about leaving here & going there but being where He's called you. Click To Tweet
From our experience, this question also can matter a great deal in regards to finances. You see, missionaries raise their own financial support, as we do. Churches support missionaries. Fellow Christians support missionaries. So, as far as our monthly budget is concerned, it is pretty vital for this role to be validated and supported.
It matters because we serve in the USA. Church and state are to remain separated. The term “missionary” is a little less palatable than “non-profit director” or even “ministry worker.”
It matters to some pastors. Sometimes, rather than allies, missionaries can be seen as a threat. (Are we saying they aren’t doing their “jobs” adequately? Are we going to occupy their sheep with other activities? Are we going to ask for even. more. funds?)
And, it matters to me. I don’t like having a crisis of identity. I want to know my role, and I want a quick, simple answer about what exactly we do for a living here in the United States. But, alas, it evades me. This calling doesn’t fit in a box. Lesson to learn: one’s ministry role in the USA isn’t easily definable.
The grand finale – I don’t believe it matters to God. Between Him and me, I understand my orders. I understand His commission to me. Whatever title is applied, I have my assignment and must obey. So, that’s what we do for a living.
And, I guess that’s all the really matters.