ministry

On the Mission Field, Is Work a Distraction or an Instrument for the Gospel?

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The divorce between faith and work has pervaded far too long. Yet the winds of change are blowing. Many career-minded Christians are seeking to integrate faith with the rest of their lives. Pastors, seminarians and lay organizations are increasingly championing the movement. Everyday Christians are beginning to see that every believer contributes to the Great Commission, whether they work for a church or in an office.

But those of us on the other side of the ocean need some help.

See, I’m a missionary. It’s assumed missionaries are held to a higher calling. We’re called the “elite,” unordinarily brave and tirelessly energetic in evangelism. People assume that we’re able to scale mountains in order to bring the gospel to the lost — or that we can navigate the waters of work and ministry with ease given our incredible “calling.”

As a missionary, it’s my job to exegete culture, understand cross-cultural contextualization and execute a flawless church planting strategy. Yet, I must confess that the divorce between faith and work is a struggle for me. Somehow, despite all our prep work, we’ve missed the sermons on the marriage between work and faith.

Instead, the voices telling us how to do work and ministry are confusing. On one side, some missionaries operate with a “work platform” that keeps them secure in “closed” countries. Even though they work, it is assumed that real ministry only happens outside the walls of work. On the other side, other missionaries operate with a “ministry only” mindset. They see work as an interruption to the greater cause. Either way, these standards tell us work and ministry cannot coexist.

New missionaries arrive on the field pre-programmed with this mentality. The divorce perseveres. The missionary structures dictate that we become professional missionaries — fully furnished with an amazing tool-belt of equipment but lacking real time job skills. I myself experience this dynamic. I have the best church planting training in the world, but I have little ability to secure a real job in secular society.

Here’s why this divorce between faith and work matters: Missionary visas now create a stigma that is increasingly difficult to break away from — even in formerly secure locations. Our presence is suspicious without a contextualized designation. In urban areas, missionaries need to have an authentic contribution to the community. This is understandable. As a result, missionaries need a work/faith recalibration, too.

We are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, hinging on two dichotomous linchpins: Is work a distraction, or is it an instrument for the gospel? How do we define a global theology of work to better equip missionaries? Here are four places to start: vision, community engagement, training, and teaming.

We need a holistic vision for the community.

Before missionaries plant a team, we ask: What are the needs of the community? Where is God moving in Christian and secular populations? What doors are already open? Who else is working here? What are they doing? How can we partner and learn from them?

We are skilled in asking these questions about planting churches. But we fall short in thinking through how to leverage work for the gospel.

A holistic, God-driven vision not only evaluates the lost condition of people’s heart, but also the condition of the community. How can we benefit each community through work? We could ask questions like: How does work fit within the already present community? What individual experiences and qualifications do we bring to the table? Is there a current market, and can we effectively operate? And on the ministry side, perhaps we need to consider community partnerships and team qualification. Both sets of questions will create balance between the two worlds.

When teams are planted with only half of this picture, we risk our long-term effectiveness and sustainable presence in the community. We need to ask big questions before we move to the area, and the answers to those questions should help us cast a holistic, God-driven vision in response.

We need to live in and develop communities.

When we do our work well and in a God-honoring way — and when each work project provides a needed service — we move beyond our reputation as outsiders. We become contributors to the community’s economic stability. As our kingdom-minded businesses and work grow and expand, these business will shape the industry standards because we operate with excellence. Others will ultimately follow suit.

Here’s the temptation: It will be easy for missionaries to go along with what is trending. If one team has a successful integration of faith and work, we will want to copy what they did. But a cookie-cutter business strategy won’t necessarily improve the community, nor will it fit your unique gifts and talents. We need to ask: What kind of venture would utilize my talents and gifts? What would help this community? Do I have the skills to lead a community through my work? If not, who around me does? Are there others that are already building community I can partner with? These questions lead us toward a life of integration — and help us build actual communities, instead of dropping cookie-cutter solutions.

We need training.

If we want holistic ministry, we will need missionaries who can integrate faith and work. But how do you retrain an entire missionary force to understand this concept?

See, most of us have little to no other career experience. We arrive on the field with tools that focus on specific missionary engagement tactics such as evangelism, church planting strategies or discipleship. And these are absolutely integral to the mission! But how do we overcome the ingrained divorce of work and ministry without marketable job skills?

I’m going to be blunt: We need help. We need people to help us uncover our marketable skills, and we need to relearn how to operate in the changed dynamic. We need equipping to discover how to have a work ethic centered on love, care and service in the marketplace, or what the marriage of work and ministry looks like on a daily basis.

But, right now, we lack partnerships that could train us in these areas, such as long-term mentoring from career-minded Christians or “on-the-job” training opportunities that link church planting efforts and workplace gospel engagement.

This is tricky. After all, career-minded Christians and missionaries don’t start from the same place. So, simply joining hands in seamless unity is unrealistic. What we find on the field, rather, is that these two live on opposite sides of the tracks. And it makes sense. One is honored for “fulfilling the Great Commission in sacrificial service” — and career-minded Christians are forced to live in the shadow of this mentality. The other, an expert of work/faith integration, can feel misunderstood because he or she, per the typical mindset, settled for a career that can’t possibly produce results. Both sides can misunderstand each other. So, this step will require some work. We need training.

We need teamwork.

Finding training to bridge the gap between career-minded Christians and missionaries may be hard, but it will be worth it if it.

The Bible urges us to pursue unity in community. Christ modeled teamwork for us, by preaching and healing alongside a group of twelve very different people. As the body of Christ, we live in community with one another. This doesn’t mean that every team member contributes through the same job. Instead, each member leverages his or her own unique gifts and talents to support the greater purpose.

In missionary communities, teams can easily be sidetracked by a variety of challenges, such as a lack of spiritual community, poor communication, misguided focus, turf wars, power plays or other elements that devastate the mission. Yet team members need to feel freedom to operate as uniquely designed members of the body of Christ. That’s how teams thrive.

Crossing boundaries between the faith and work will require both sides to show intentional, proactive respect for each other. They will need honesty and transparency, the courage to try new things, side-by-side partnering with accountability partners, constant reevaluation of team success and failure, grace, forgiveness and loving confrontation. And we do this in the hopes that we’ll invite one another into deeper intimacy with Christ both individually and corporately.

But as our teams develop, we’ll need to remember that we need to invest in people’s communities before people will trust us relationally. We seek to further the community‘s stability rather then simply bringing a cookie-cutter, one-sided agenda. Once we prove that we care, our teams will be able to contribute to society through our work. And what’s more, we will have opportunities to share with the world the treasure of greatest value! Authenticity with cultural sensitivity guides our theology of work.

Conclusion

We missionaries won’t figure out the work/ministry marriage overnight, especially when faced with such entrenched values and traditions. Nor will it suffice to transplant a career-minded Christian in a cross-cultural job and expect them to decipher strategic engagement codes. This too is shortsighted.

But when we do begin to figure out how to integrate faith with work, the foundation will be laid to launch missiology into the future. It is the responsibility of all of us — pastors, teachers, career-minded Christians and missionaries — to link arms in mutual commitment to the cause of Christ. Perhaps through destroying the divorce of work and ministry on the mission field, we will move ever closer to this reality.

As we prepare to engage culture as viable, valuable members of the community, we need to slow the pace to consider vision, community engagement, training and teams.

You will not adequately prepare for the race in front of you, if you do not stop to recognize now what kind of race you are running. Love the sprints, but train for the marathon.[1]

[1] Sarah Cunningham, The Well-Balanced World Changer: a Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good, New ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013), 82.

 

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Lydia Harte

Lydia has served as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. Before, she worked in the business world, and most recently was involved in a Business as Mission endeavor. She is passionate about seeing the kingdom advance through fully integrated work and ministry. She is pursuing a degree in Global Studies from The College at Southeastern

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