We heard from an Orthodox missionary at church yesterday, as I wrote in last night’s post. In his talk, he lamented that there is only a relative handful of Orthodox missionaries in the world. He mentioned that American Protestants are flooding Albania, where he serves, with missions, and that that’s having a big effect on the population. Far from complaining about this, he put the question to us Orthodox, in effect: do these Protestant Christians love the Albanians more than we Orthodox do, such that they are willing to sacrifice to serve them and bring them the Gospel?
It’s a good point. Of course there are plenty of people who have a problem with missionaries, but I think without the mission spirit, there would have been no Christianity, and there will be no Christianity. Yesterday’s missionary, Nathan Hoppe, addressed the objection that we Christians ought to sort out our own problems in our home communities before going overseas to engage others. Imagine, he said, that the early church in Jerusalem had taken that point of view, and decided that it was going to get things squared away where the church was born before sending apostles into the mission field. Christianity would have died with the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Those lines came to mind when I received the following e-mail last night from a friend and reader who grew up Southern Baptist. He writes:
I read about your missionary, and I support missionaries in principle. When I was a teenager, we heard about missionaries all the time in church, and the importance of the mission field was pounded into our heads constantly. That’s all well and good, but looking back on it, I was suffering from a lot of serious emotional problems back then. I needed help in a big way. Nobody could see me, and I couldn’t really see myself, because all we were told to think about was the missions. It would have seemed childish and selfish to have shared our own needs with the local church. How could I, a middle-class kid in [place], possibly have any problems compared with the poor suffering people in Africa, or wherever? That logic made sense to me back then, because we were all teenagers, and subject to the kind of strong emotions typical of teens. Today, though, I see all that as a form of denial, not only in myself but also in my old church community. I’m not saying that the mission field isn’t important. It really is selfish to ignore the Great Commission, and we Christians don’t have that option. All I’m saying is that I came out of a church tradition that strongly emphasized missions, but to a degree that in my view was unhealthy for the local church. We were all about getting as many people in the world saved as we could, but we weren’t so great about what to do with them after they had accepted Christ. We hardly knew what we were supposed to do with our own teenagers, of which I was one, confused, suffering, and full of self-doubt and self-hatred, but working hard to maintain a brave face and focus on the missions, because in my world then, that’s what it meant to be a good Christian.
Don’t misunderstand me, I really do support missionaries. Christianity is a missionary faith. Whenever the topic of missionaries comes up, though, I struggle with my own mixed feelings about whether or not people really have a heart to bring the world to Christ, or whether it’s easier for a certain kind of Christian to deal with the people of the Third World rather than with the people in his own back yard. Nobody ever thinks about “missions” to the lost teenagers of American suburbia, but boy, could I have used a missionary once upon a time.
I’d like to discuss that point in the thread. I didn’t come from a church background that emphasized missions, so I don’t know what to think about this. Could we please avoid the tired old conversation about missionaries-as-cultural-imperialists? Christianity and Islam, for example, have to be missionary faiths. Across the street from my Orthodox parish now is a Chabad Lubavitch house, dedicated to evangelizing for Judaism among fallen-away Jews. There is nothing in principle wrong with any faith taking it upon itself to tell the world about what they believe, in an effort to win converts. People who despise missionaries as a category (versus the behavior of particular missionaries, which can, of course, be disgraceful) are typically those who hate religion, or who don’t like religious freedom. I’m in favor of atheist missionaries too — their freedom to speak publicly about the supposed virtues of atheism, and their attempts to win converts — because I favor freedom of speech and freedom of religion (or no religion at all). That said, again, I’d like the thread below to focus on the point my formerly Baptist reader made about the mission field, and how missionary activity works among Christians in the developed world. I will say that I would rather we Orthodox Christians had the supposed problem the Baptists do, of possibly putting too much emphasis on the missions field, than the one we do have, which is that we pay almost no attention at all to it.