It's sexy to be a missionary.
Not in the "Hey, look at me, I'm wearing trying to be seductive" meaning, more in the "Hey, this seems like an awesome idea, so I'm going to jump on the bandwagon" sense of the word.
If you hang around the Christian youth group circles enough, you know what I mean.
Right now, hardly thinking about it, I can rattle off a list of twelve young people who have said they want to be missionaries. Why do they want to be missionaries? Because the idea of going to another country to be a missionary carries with it this romanticized, emotional feeling which isn't very grounded in reality. Do they know what missions work entails, what it looks like, practically? For most of them, probably not.
I think many of these would-be missionaries are expecting long-term missions work to be a glorified short-term mission trip. Lots of young people go on short-term mission trips and have a great time. So, in their mind, the mission field a fun, sometimes challenging, place to do some construction and play with kids. (Trust me, I've done both of these things on a short-term mission trip.)
While everyone loves playing with orphans or handing out food, that's not the totality of missions. That's the humanitarian side of the equation, but Christian missionaries are not simply aid workers who are motivated by their faith. The primary goal of missionaries, as with any Christian, should be to make disciples.
There's no question that compassionate, need-focused ministries are important, but they're not the most important thing. And when compassion is divorced from the Gospel and a call to holy living, missions work becomes a church-sponsored, UN-style aid group.
Too many people fall in love with their idea of what missions work is like, without understanding what it would look like in reality.
Now, despite all of what I just said, there's a good chance I'll spend a significant part of my life on the mission field. But if I do end up as a full-time missionary, I'm not expecting tenure to be one huge playdate with cute, African kids.
From everything I've read, heard, and intuitively know, the mission field is a tough place.
You want to be a missionary? Then be prepared to deal with a whole boatload of problems like syncretism, corrupt national pastors, discouragement, local customs that pose serious challenges, and cultural differences that make you want to start throwing people like Jesus threw tables in the temple.
Several months ago a missionary was telling me about one of the national pastors, in the nation where this missionary served, who was using his authority to gain more for himself. This pastor even went so far as to have his sons beat up those who opposed him.
The missionary shared how he, along with several other leaders, had to confront this pastor. It was a very charged and dangerous situation that posed a lot of problems. Not exactly the stuff of mission fairytales.
Out of the dozen young people I thought of at the beginning of this article who want to be missionaries, probably only three or four will work full-time on the mission field. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but from what I have observed, missions work has been turned into something mystical, when in reality it's a bunch of hard work.
People think that saying you want to be a missionary somehow makes you serious about your commitment to Jesus. Sometimes that's true. But I've often seen people profess an interest or call to missions while they're living according to the world's standards.
I hope more young people go to the mission field, but I hope they do it for the right reasons, and not because it's the cool thing to do.