Missionary Work

I imagine that the work of a missionary into an area relatively unreached by outside influences would be a shock to many of the people back home who write the checks that allow this missionary to do his work.  We often assume that the work of a missionary is not just to preach the Gospel, but also – and sometimes first and foremost – to alter the behaviors of a given group of people to be more like the norms and mores back home.  Much of early mission work combined this emphasis not just on the Gospel but also on cultural conversion and transformation.  The idea being that if you are going to preach the Gospel, people need to be in a condition of behavior closer to the missionary’s in order to hear it.

Mission work may mean living for a long time with people with whom you communicate in a rudimentary fashion, since you probably don’t share a common language.  It likely means living as a kind of hybrid – bringing your personal behavioral norms and preferences into an environment that may have very different ones, and trying to strike a balance.  This balance may teeter between on one side going native, attempting to become one with the people you are trying to reach – a course of action that rarely results in anything other than the loss of the missionary and his mission.  On the other side is a refusal to meet the indigenous group in any way, expecting them to conform to the missionary’s norms and preferences and making it clear that their own ways are completely rejected.  This also seems problematic for building any kind of meaningful relationship.
Somewhere in the middle, that oft’ obscured tightrope is hung.  The missionary has to make decisions – many of them at first – about what areas must be maintained according to their personal preferences and expectations, and so maintaining a sense of continuity and identity with their past, and integrity with their future.  The missionary must also determine what areas they can meet the natives in.  What native practices can they engage in without the risk of losing themselves or compromising the Gospel?  What rituals and other practices can they engage in safely, thus building relationships?  
No doubt some of these compromise areas would shock the folks back home.  The idea of the missionary dressing like a native, or engaging in rituals with the natives might appear as though the missionary has gone native, when in reality there is a carefully ordered balance at work.  It would be the duty of the folks back home to help the missionary keep a sense of herself and her purpose, giving voice to concerns while also seeking to support and encourage the missionary to build relationships in ways that maintain their personal integrity and the message of the Gospel.  Supporters might be uncomfortable with some of the missionary’s decisions, but ultimately they would need to leave it to the missionary’s discretion.  It is a tricky line to walk.  And it is probably rarely a comfortable one – either for the missionary or his supporters.  Ultimately, it is only the passing of time which can determine whether the missionary’s decisions have been wise and helpful.  
Imagine if the missionary isn’t on the other side of the globe, though, living in a thatched hut with a bunch of primitive peoples in loincloths.  What if the missionary is also the local pastor, and is working with a group of unchurched people locally?  People with jobs and cars, but also with lifestyles very different from those of the folks in church on Sunday morning.  What lines would need to be drawn between the behaviors of this group and the pastor’s presence?  What things could be engaged in safely?  What things would the pastor need to recuse themselves from?  What activities could the pastor be present for, but not actively engaged in?  
These are difficult questions – perhaps more difficult than the missionary scenario.  After all, this is our own country and culture, and congregations have traditional ideas about what sorts of areas pastors will and won’t go, and what sort of people they will or won’t minister to.  It’s one thing for a missionary on the other side of the world to risk physical harm or illness, but another matter for the congregational pastor to risk slander or even arrest by association, not because of engaging in illegal activities personally, but because of being around people who do.    
We had a great discussion in Bible study yesterday based on this topic, and looped in with the larger lectionary reading themes of choosing life and the difficulties those choices might create for us (Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-35; Philemon 1-25, and Psalm 1).  The question was driven by one of our college student’s queries about Psalm 1.  Is this psalm warning us to stay away from the wicked, and if so, how can we be expected to share the Gospel with them?
This led into the disclosure that, in my pool league activities, I am routinely around people who enjoy recreational marijuana use.  Along with a few drinks, this is how they relax and unwind.  I don’t know if they all have medical marijuana prescriptions or not.  There are times when I know (after some experience being around them) that they are under the influence, and there are other times, particularly as we have become closer, that they will smoke it in my presence.  
I don’t participate in this, and while they’ve been kind enough to offer, I’ve made it clear it isn’t something that I personally want to do.  But I am not judging them for engaging in it either.  I use as my basis for this stance 1 Corinthians 5:11-13.  These people are not within the Church, and therefore my role with them is not to condemn them for practices that the Church might have a problem with, but rather to build relationships with them so that the Gospel might be shared.  
This came as a bit of a shock to some of my members in Bible study.
They knew I played pool in the bars, I’ve made it clear that I enjoy a good drink, they find my bartender certification to be rather humorous, and I’m sure at one level or another, if they had given it enough thought, they would have realized that I might be around people who do more than have a few drinks.  But the idea that I would be around them while they were engaging in that behavior was shocking.  
Discussion ranged over a variety of different tangential areas, all related and all thought provoking.  If I was willing to tolerate this, what else would I be willing to tolerate?   I found as I thought and responded that there were lines that I wouldn’t be willing to cross.  For instance, I couldn’t in good conscience stand by and watch these folks use meth or heroine or some other more powerful drug.  I apparently feel that there are greater dangers and a bigger moral conundrum with those more powerful drugs.  Is that an arbitrary line?  I suppose it is.  Many argue that our legal definitions of what substances are permitted and which are not is arbitrary, and I have to agree.  Many people like to argue that marijuana isn’t much different than alcohol, and alcohol is legal. &nbs
p;As much as I enjoy a margarita or a manhattan or a mojito, that sort of logic far more persuasively argues for the prohibition of alcohol than it does the legalization of marijuana.  
We talked about the fact that, if I’m present when these guys are doing these things, I could risk being looped in with them and arrested.  And this is true.  I’ve considered that possibility.  I don’t think it’s a very big one because of the recreational nature of their use, and the fact that this is Southern California and this sort of thing is pretty de rigueur, even if I’m not generally as close to it other places.  But it is a risk.  A risk similar to being poisoned or malnourished or even murdered by going to share the Gospel in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.  It is a missionary risk, and every missionary has to come to terms with this type of risk.
Again, I don’t believe that what these guys do is healthy, even if they happen to have medical marijuana prescriptions.  But I can either let my feelings on the matter sever or weaken our relationship, or I can say that this is not the battle to fight, or the time to fight it.  Rather, I focus on building the relationship, remaining in relationship, not condemning while not participating.  In hopes that someday, I might be able to share the Gospel.  These are good guys.  Nice guys.  Not perfect guys.  Guys like me in many ways, and vastly different in others.  Which do I focus on?  And if I don’t choose to ignore the differences and focus on the similarities, who will?
My congregants have a right to be worried and concerned.  They have a right to voice those concerns and I have a responsibility not just to hear them but to respond and engage with them, which is what we spent a good chunk of time in Bible study yesterday doing.  I need that sort of feedback and concern.  I need to be challenged in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, and even if we all come to terms that I ought to continue how I’m doing things, I need prayer.  This is how the Body of Christ operates.  
Thoughts?  Feedback?  Continued discussion?

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