Lately I’ve felt the unspoken question of why I decided to go back to South America but not as a missionary (that is, not as a big ‘M’ conventional Missionary). This post is an attempt to explain this and, at the same time, share with you some of the thinking behind why I went to Ecuador then, and why I’m going to Bolivia now.
Why I went to Ecuador: a retrospective
I had a number of reasons for going to Ecuador back in 2011 – and I was open about them (you can read the list here). But there was one other reason. I mentioned the Great Commission of Matthew 28 in sharing about my plans with churches, but I never said I was passionate about evangelism and making Jesus known to the ends of the earth. Because I wasn’t. And I’m still not – not really. I wish that I was, in the way that people in church often wish they were “good Christians” (as if there were such a thing) with perfect lives.
No – the truth is, it was a simple matter of obedience over preference. On my departure from Ecuador, a friend from Quito gave me the book Radical, by David Platt. At the end of one of the chapters, he quotes a letter from a woman who went on a short-term missions trip to Guatemala. Her words describe, quite uncannily, my own motivation for going to Latin America:
I made the decision to go to [Ecuador] after seeing in God’s Word that He commands us to go and make disciples of all nations. I was going out of obedience, not because I had a heart for missions or a passion for the people of [Ecuador]. I want you to understand that I’m a [regular person] – I’m not a missionary, and I’m certainly not a preacher. I was just being minimally obedient to what I believed God’s Word tells all of us to do. Praise God He isn’t minimally faithful and doesn’t minimally bless us.
Being a Missionary
Ecuador taught me a lot about being a Missionary and about being a missionary – and about the difference between the two. Guess what, I even made a list of Ten things you should know about being a missionary and Seven lessons from the mission field.
The crux of it is that missionary is a loaded term and the reality of missions is distinct from the impression that most people (Christians and non-Christians alike) have. People have a preconceived notion of your identity (and your purpose, abilities, weakness, character). As with a brand like Coke or Nike or McDonalds, a person bearing the label of Missionary comes attached with expectations and biases, both positive and negative, that precede the product itself.
Yet what you are doing in a practical sense is what every single believer should be doing, irrespective of where we are. You are technically a missionary if you cross geographical or cultural borders – so really, you can be a missionary in your own country; I’ve met people who are.
Everywhere is a mission field and every believer is a missionary.
Now, the cool thing about wearing the official Missionary brand is that:
(a) It’s a conversation starter. No excuse not to talk about Jesus now!
(b) It gives you accountability and you’re held to a higher standard. It’s a huge challenge but as a Missionary you are more aware that you don’t belong to yourself, you don’t work for yourself anymore – it’s all for God. It’s hard to remember this when you’re living your “regular” life (especially if you’re “earning” your “own” money).
But, y’know, I’m not really into brands – even one as counter-cultural as Missionary. Don’t get me wrong – I deeply respect and admire the many men and women (and their families) who’ve “given it all up” to serve in the mission field, and there is great need for the work they do, particularly in unreached areas. It’s just that having had a squiz at that, I’ve realised that I want to be a missionary without being a Missionary; I challenge myself to witness in all I do – without the label – and invite God to use me mightily for His purposes – without the label.
Why I am going to Bolivia: back to the roots of my faith
Moving forwards after Ecuador, I wasn’t sure about what was next. I had a feeling it wouldn’t involve being a big ‘M’ Missionary. I had a feeling I wouldn’t stay long in Canberra. I had a feeling I would go back to South America. I had a feeling I would focus on social justice.
To tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of the catch-all phrase social justice. It suggests there is a kind of justice that isn’t social in nature, that it’s a sub-category of justice. Justice is justice. And justice matters.
Justice matters to me. It has as long as I remember. As a kid, I was keenly aware of the injustice taking place around me – in trivial things in my immediate surroundings (my sister seeming to get preferential treatment, playground politics in primary school) and in more serious things further afield (crime, war, poverty). When I say I was an “emo” kid before emo was cool, what I mean is that I was bitter and disillusioned about the world before I even got to high school.
Then I read the Bible. In its pages I found confirmation of the brokenness I saw around me and conviction about my own sin. But I also discovered hope in the midst of this darkness. I met a God of justice – and of mercy.
Justice matters to God. We wouldn’t be talking about good and bad and salvation and all the rest of it if we didn’t have a God who is angry at injustice, oppression, poverty, abuse; a God who wants His people to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke; to share our food with the hungry and the provide the poor wanderer with shelter (Isaiah 58:6-7). It’s an act of worship.
And so I find myself a month away from packing my bags yet again and zipping across to the other side of the world. I’m excited about working with International Justice Mission in La Paz, Bolivia, where poverty and a weak justice system conspire against the poor. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard about a boy abused by a neighbour, a girl sexually assaulted by her uncle, another girl pregnant by her best friend’s father. These are the children IJM fights for. This is faith in action. This is how people are going to meet the God of justice and mercy I met all those years ago.