It was my very great privilege to be asked to speak this past Bank Holiday weekend at a small missionary conference for the Church Missionary Society of Australia (CMS). I travelled first to Slovenia to catch up with the organiser, an old friend and occasional visitor to CCB, Kingsley Box. He, his lovely and lively family and I travelled to Austria where we met with others who are working in Central Europe. There were missionaries and their families from Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Slovenia.
The conference was an opportunity to meet up with others doing similar things, to reflect on life and ministry and to encourage one another to persevere. I was asked to teach the Bible each of the three mornings. The rest of the time was spent listening to their stories and praying in response, participating in seminars and generally engaging them and their (many, many) children in conversation. We stayed in a self-catering ski hostel in the snow topped Alps. As you can see from the photo, it was idyllic.
As you might expect, I spent some time reflecting on the missionary experience. On the plane on the way back I scribbled down some common themes that characterised what I’d learnt. They’ll be familiar from conversations with other missionaries. But they’re worth repeating.
- Their lives are purposeful. Although doing life in a foreign culture is complicated there’s also a beautiful simplicity to what it’s about. It’s tied up with why they’re there. They’re there to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and the progress of the gospel. They’re doing that in different ways; with university students, with churches or with seminary students. But they’re all about the gospel. They’re on mission. They’ve got that front and centre. They have loads of other things to do; personal admin, family logistics and so on. But they see everything through that one lens. And there’s something to be said for getting that clear in our own lives.
- Their existence is lonely. One of the seminars was entitled ‘Living Between Two Cultures and Having Both on my Screen’. They thought about how to cope with trying to land in one culture but feeling split between two. That’s not helped because of the proliferation of social media. Unless you resolve not to use it (or somehow change the settings), it’s hard to avoid what’s going on back ‘home’ through the Facebook feed. And even though Skype provides brilliant opportunities to stay in contact, the ready availability of friends and family back home can mean that though you’ve physically left one continent, emotionally you never really leave. And that’s not good. There’s a sense of isolation that’s intensified by seeing what your mates are doing.
- Their ministry is costly. All genuine ministry is costly. It’s cross shaped. It’s marked by hardship and hostility now. But vindication and victory are saved for the New Creation. And so missionaries know that it’s going to be tough. No one’s hidden that from them. But there’s a difference between knowing that in theory and knowing it from the inside. It’s probably true that missionaries don’t really fit in anywhere. They don’t fit into their new culture because they come from another one. And they no longer fit into their old culture because they’ve been living in a new one. That’s especially true for the kids of missionaries. It’s pretty hard to feel that you never quite fit in. It’s much harder doing it to your kids.
- Their progress is slow. For some it’s painfully slow. One missionary family has been in Slovenia for nearly eleven years. And there are times when he asks what he has to show for his labours and their sacrifice. My friend and fellow Co-Mission colleague Andy Mason talks about having not only a ten year plan but a hundred year plan – to remind us that the Lord is the one who grows His church. And His timescale for fruitful ministry outlives ours and our plans. That’s perhaps a helpful way to think of things. CMS tell their European missionaries that in their first three year stint they need to learn their new language and culture and make sure that the family wants to go back after a brief break in Australia. I get that that’s vital, it’s just not a lot of ministry. And for task orientated people that’s hard to swallow. Progress is slow. But if it ends up being real then they’ll take that.
Is there anything that we can learn from their example?
I see no reason why our lives as missionaries to wherever the Lord has put us (for me it’s London) shouldn’t be marked by the very same characteristics.
- We ought to be purposeful about reaching our networks with the good news of Christ.
- We ought not to expect to fit in entirely with those we’re trying to reach, after all we’re exiles and heaven is our home. And if we live for Christ, we’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
- We ought to expect it to be costly if we’re serious about serving the cause of the gospel.
- And we ought not to be surprised if our progress is slow. But if it’s real then it’ll be worth the wait.