Sunday, 12 March 2017

Christians working overseas, but not 'missionaries'?

'Are you a missionary?' is a question I am often asked. And just as often, I don't really know how to answer.

At first I would always say, 'No'. I am a Christian doctor working in an overseas setting because I want to use my God-given gifts here, to share my faith and to serve in our local church. But my actual job is in a secular university setting, and I receive a part-time salary for the work I do. So, no, I am not a missionary. (But then I would reflect, my husband is working as a doctor and tutor in a Christian institute, and serves as a volunteer with no salary. Does that then make him a missionary?)

So, what is a missionary anyway? I think that is where we can face a real challenge! What is it that the person asking the question has in mind?

Some people would say that all Christians are missionaries, just that we might assume this role in our 'home culture' or further afield. People who make this argument point to the many places in the Bible where we are called to share our faith, to make the most of every opportunity, to love and to serve others, to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have, and so forth. However, there are flaws with this argument too, as discussed here. I used to hold this view - that what we are currently doing in east Africa is pretty much the same as what we did in the UK - we serve in several ministries through our local church, we seek to have a reasonably open home and show hospitality, we homeschool our children and we work part-time using the skills we have. It's pretty much the same here. Except when it isn't!

Some people would define a missionary as a person who has been sent by their local church with a specific purpose and 'calling'. But even then, the word 'calling' can be quite emotive and has its limitations. Our calling is to be children of God, faithful to Him and loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is relatively rare for a person to have a very specific, crystal-clear sense of calling to a specific country or people group; more often, we are given some liberty to consider the spiritual expediency of different opportunities. Certainly, we feel it is right to be where we are for now, and we were sent out with the blessing of our UK  church. So, are we missionaries?

Or, does one need to be affiliated with a mission organisation? Is it necessary to have been to Bible college and have had a period of cultural orientation and language study? But that definition would have limitations too!

Or is it relating to the source of income? Does a missionary need to raise full support and 'live by faith', or could one have a part-time source of income enabling them to work without needing to depend on external resources and donations? Didn't the Apostle Paul and some of his companions work as tentmakers for that very reason? So it can't just be a source-of-income issue!

One might suggest this is an academic argument, and doesn't really matter, that it is pedantic semantics. And in many respects it may not matter - it is just a label. However, I have lately felt that it does make a difference how we broadly define ourselves, and what 'bracket' people put us into, perhaps particularly in terms of how we relate to one another and those around us.

One important area is support. (And NO, I do not really mean financial support, I mean spiritual support, and perhaps even simple friendship and encouragement). If a church is supporting 'missionaries', in likelihood (although I do know that this is not invariable, and can often be erratic), they will consider carefully how best to support these people - perhaps through regular contact (email or Skype), praying for them, following up on challenging situations and prayer requests, spending time with them when they are back in their 'home country' and so forth. But if a church member is located overseas but doesn't seem to fall into that 'missionary' bracket, there might be less thought given to the support that a person or family might benefit from.

More locally, there might be a bit of a missionary community - friendships where people can talk honestly about some of the struggles and dilemmas, and the approach to situations where it is not always quite clear what the most loving and helpful thing to do is. It can be just so amazing to be able to talk with people who seem to understand what the job involves, understand the frustrations and understand the desire to know and love a different people but often feel one is falling short of that. Recently, I have built friendships with people in this country who are 'missionaries' - and the bond there is strong, largely because of that shared motivation and desire, and that the challenges we face are often broadly similar. It is a huge relief when you realise that you are not alone in this, and that others grapple too, and that there are no simple 'one size fits all' answers to some situations. But it can be strange - I can still feel that I am a kind of 'imposter' because my job is secular! It can be difficult for somebody like me to break into this kind of network, and it has taken time (we've been here a couple of years now) to build relationships.

I love the blog because the writers often touch on themes that I resonate with, but which I don't often have the opportunity to talk about. I think there can also be different challenges for a Christian who is serving in an overseas setting but is not what they might consider to be a missionary. For some people, their desire to serve God might not have been the major factor in their geographical situation. And yet, circumstances have called that person to be where they are, and there are many opportunities to serve. Especially if that person's faith is quite new or immature, there can be a great need for teaching, support and discipleship as challenging cross-cultural situations unfold.

Perhaps there are added challenges for the 'non-missionary' - for example, in the medical NGO world, there many be many Christians but there are also well-meaning people with strongly opposing worldviews - strongly humanist or athiest for example. How does a Christian reach out to this group? Another 'people group' I can find challenging are those who seem very immersed in an 'expat community' and seem to have very little awareness of what life is like for the people of this country; this group often includes Christians, and it can be easy to feel judgemental or frustrated (or, if I am honest, sometimes envious when life seems to involve many wonderful adventures to high-end lodges and enjoyment of the 'good life', especially at weekends when we are often busy with our church-related roles and of course celebrating the Sabbath). Such people sometimes might suggest we are making things more difficult for ourselves than we need through some of the choices we have made, and this can be a subtle but dangerous discouragement (reflecting on the temptations thrown at Jesus in Matthew Chapter 4!). Working in a mission hospital might involve a day that starts with prayers, working on a predominantly Christian team and having team Bible study once a week; a Christian doing a similar role in a secular organisation would not have that spiritual environment; one could argue this brings great opportunity, but it can bring isolation.

Furthermore, there can be different challenges that arise - I remember during the ebola epidemic feeling unsettled by how some of the people who seemed to be doing the most, and doing so selflessly, seemed to be the non-Christians, whereas those whose hope was in Christ often had excuses as to why they shouldn't risk going to west Africa at that time. (Of course I generalise here). Whilst I might academically 'know' the right answers to some of my questions, they can be unsettling and there are times when it would help to have older and wiser Christians to glean from, and to really discuss what the Bible has to say. I feel that I am reasonably grounded in my faith, and yet, some questions and challenges and situations can leave me asking questions which I felt I had resolved long ago. A Christian working in a challenging situation overseas needs spiritual encouragement and pastoral support, and one should not assume that because they are 'mature' or capable, that they will never waver in their faith. There needs to be a 'safe place' to ask questions or to admit to struggling with something - for me, that might be understanding why I was born in a country with access to high quality universal education, free healthcare, a good climate and economic and political stability, whereas my nearest neighbours here live in a slum area with high rates of HIV and teenage pregnancy, struggle to afford to have their children in school, are frequently hungry and have walked through significant trauma during conflicts over the past two decades. I can rationalise that, I can read books on it and listen to sermons and podcasts, and yet some part of me still screams out, 'Why???' I need somebody who is not afraid by that question, and who does not give platitudes. I need somebody who is not scared by the fact that a Christian who has been working in international healthcare for more than a decade can still grapple with these questions.

If Christians working overseas attend a local (as opposed to international) church, it might be that there are few in the congregation who understand their role, their challenges and responsibilities and the cultural context within which their spiritual questions are framed. That is to be expected, and much of the time it is not what would be considered a 'problem'. Often, as outwardly confident Christians who love to open their home (and have space to do so), it is easy to 'drift' into hosting and leading Bible studies and fellowship groups. I feel like we suddenly are involved in quite a number of ministries, and whilst this is absolutely what we want, and an ideal opportunity to serve, we also want people back home to know we are doing this, and to pray that we have wisdom - for example in distinguishing where a cultural tradition brings a moral challenge or a sin issue, or where it is simply a matter of preference or style. Also, it can sometimes just be tiring to host, bake, be cheerful and interested, and there can be a risk of burnout. As a homeschooling family, I don't believe time with our children suffers (in fact they love having a full home, and often invite people round), but it can be hard to make time for a marriage that doesn't feel like a series of business meetings and goal-setting workshops. One would expect 'missionaries' to be doing this type of work, and to face these kind of threats, but might not realise that medical academics may also do so.

I think if we assert that we are not missionaries, this whole element of spirituality - the need for spiritual support, encouragement and accountability, and that what we engage in is often spiritual warfare - can be neglected.

So, how would I conclude? Sometimes, I  reflect the question back: 'What do you mean by missionary?' Other times, when I feel that the question has more to do with whether I am motivated primarily by my desire to love and serve God here, and that includes through my professional skills, I simply say, 'Pretty much' or something that is almost, but not quite a 'Yes'. I would encourage churches who have members who spend time overseas for studies or work-related activities to be aware of the challenges and opportunities that may present themselves, and to commit to supporting these individuals through communication and prayer support. And I would remember that all Christians are called to love, to serve and to witness - and that each of us will face different challenges arising from our environment and our relationships. It is not that a 'missionary' is in any way spiritually superior, it's just the set of challenges faced tend to be different.


  1. You probably are missionaries in your outlook, sending and ideals. Why therefore would you not call yourself one?

    1. I think it comes down to integrity and not wanting to mislead or confuse anybody! The next question is likely to be, 'What organisation are you with?' and so forth, when in fact I am employed by a secular university. I am beginning to realise this is an increasing problem for Christian doctors (and probably other professions too) since there is a trend towards working on short- or medium-term projects with the NGO/ humanitarian aid sector which is often not faith-based, rather than becoming long-term missionaries supported by mission organisations. I hope my awareness of some of the challenges helps me to provide support and encouragement to others in similar situations!