If our outlook on ‘missions’ is focused only on ourselves, and namely the things we do and the ways we behave, it is going to manifest itself in  inadequate and half-hearted relationships. 

I sent that in response to a brother I met a few months ago through online discussion. He has been struggling significantly with the prospect of continuing in his Mennonite church. There are many reasons that I believe are legitimate issues that he needs to weigh considerably, and then as is almost always the case, there are a few superficial, emotionally charged issues that could be easily worked through with love and humility. 

One of the legitimate issues that he brings up often in our conversations is that if you were to put the success of Mennonite missions up for evaluation, he isn’t sure he could deem them a success. This may or may not come as a surprise to my readers… I’m inclined to agree with him. 

Why Are You Here? 

If you were to approach some of the more prominent Mennonite missionaries, and ask them ‘Why are you here?” The answers you get will vary. But often, they will either err on the side of one of these two camps. 

  • I’m here to win souls and make a difference for the Kingdom of God, to bring light to this darkness
  • I’m here to love, I’m here to live life, this is my home, and I love living here

People inaccurately believe that I would be 100% into the second camp, and would abhor the first one. I’m unable to do this, as my own father, Clayton Shenk, in many ways coined what was the vision for the church here in York for decades. Winning the City of York For Jesus.

I’ve never agreed with that vision on paper. But it wasn’t because I thought the heart of the man who said it was wrong, and if he were alive today he would probably  not be met with critique from me on the statement. For me, it simply does not communicate the fullness of the gospel, it speaks nothing of the core of what makes all of this possible. What should guide the heart and purpose of someone who calls themselves a missionary.

Clayton spent most of his life doing the exact opposite of what most people do who say such things. Many people focus on soul-winning and struggle to relate and love people at a close level. This is why tent meetings bring numbers but hardly ever any members. In fact, many of us may have been taught that such close relationships are wholly inappropriate and antithetical to Christian life. They are unbiblical, people are taught to safeguard against letting people on the street influence them, more than they are taught how to have a strong impenetrable love for Christ. Many prominent missionaries, even some of which hold the biggest names in the Menno world, spent their early years outside of the community they were ‘winning for Jesus’. 

Clayton penetrated this stigma, and did so with great criticism and backlash. People told him for years that if he moved his children into the city of York, into such a place of grave darkness, that Satan would have free reign and he would regret it. I know that my father had many regrets on his deathbed, but choosing to raise his children in York and love people like me was not one of them.

See a video from Clayton about some of this stuff here.

So it is by the mere fact that my own family and spiritual upbringing I was blessed with (from the age of 13 on) that I believe that both camps hold a piece of the greater vision. One that not only builds the Kingdom of God authentically, but does so by passionately,  unapologetically seeking to proclaim the Truth for the sake of salvation. 

Famous missionaries are used to these questions. Laymen, bible club teachers, and ‘regular missionaries’ (whatever these things really mean) are rarely pressured with these questions. It is to a tremendous fault if you ask me. 

If missionaries had to answer these questions on a regular basis, they would be forced to consider their purpose and intentions. There would be accountability, not just from the internal echo chamber, but from the community they are serving. This accountability is usually more in line with Biblical accountability than our own systems and structures, it is championed by authentic and real human interaction. One marked by the humility and the fruits of the Spirit. This is one reason men like Rick Rhodes speak of programs as an incomplete and temporary institution. Just this last month  I shared the stage with him at a conference I serve on the board for. I was moderating the panel discussion for the evening, and someone asked a question about programs. Rick (who is a master speaker) postured up and dramatically stood in the middle of the stage. He proclaimed to the 200+ urban missionaries in the audience… “You people would make more impact if you would go home and cancel all your programs [insert vocal encouragement and excitement from me] and each one of you would just pray that God leads you to one person to reach.” Rick stared into the crowd for a brief moment, and then sat down. Rick understands, like many who have been in mission work and seen the pros and cons of how things are done, that whatever form of ‘missions’ we do, it needs to be real, authentic, and a shared human experience. 

…whatever form of ‘missions’ we do, it needs to be real, authentic, and a shared human experience.

Keeshon Marshall Washington

So when someone asks me why I choose to work where I do, I usually tell them because it’s my home. I was born and raised in York. I take no shame in saying this because I believe it to be the truth based on my perspective… The only ‘missionaries’ that have been successful here in our city, are those who were able to call this place home as well. Jot that down. This has been true in Philly, Reading, New York, California, D.C… Or so I’ve heard anyway. 

I think one of the most powerful responses a missionary can give someone, whether it be someone indigenous or someone on a homestead looking for details… “I’ve made this place my home.” We already know that the call of the Kingdom of God is to execute the great commission to the fullest extent. We know that true Christian life is meant to be done up-close and with brotherhood that is close enough to exhort and sharpen one another (that’s pretty close isn’t it?) 

If you are fully in love with Jesus, dead to the old you and surrendered to His will, the biggest factor from there is where you choose to dig your feet in the sand. 

Mission Relationships

I am of the opinion that one of the most critical mistakes missionaries make in their attempt to dig their heels in the sand and press more passionately on is disregarding the book of James…

We are taught in Romans and Acts and that God is not a respecter of persons. It means he does not change His desires for anyone, He is impartial. He is Just. This means that the grace that He has readily available to you is also readily available to me. That ANYONE who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved. 

We are also then directed in the book of James to exercise the same principle. We’re given the context of the rich and the poor. Status vs greater status. 

I take no shame in drawing this as a direct parallel to how we interact with people in our lives, both on the ‘mission field’ and in our inner circles. We’re told that the way we circumvent this is to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves’(James 2:8). It’s not just that we need to love the poor people of the city like we love our friends at the volleyball tournament… It’s that we love people as if they were us. Extending grace that we’d like to receive, and having mercy whereas we have been extended mercy. This is a tremendous and unbeatable call. This means that every measure of love we have received from God, is a measure we should seek to give to others. Freely we have received, and freely we will give. 

It’s not just that we need to love the poor people of the city like we love our friends at the volleyball tournament… It’s that we love people as if they were us.

Keeshon Marshall Washington

So when people tell me, in good intentions ‘I want to create more time for mission relationships’… I grow concerned. 

The beauty in this desire is that it shows the intentions of the heart – A heart that likely does seek to be like Jesus in a broken society. One that seeks to be a light. These are good intentions, they are Biblically defensible intentions. But we need not look any further than the Scriptures and the character of God to understand that the way to do better in this dilemma is not just to adjust our procedures, ratios, and methods. It’s to, at all cost, surrender our heart and soul to Jesus to be transformed into a Christian that models the behavior of Christ. One that among many things, is not partial in their relationships. One that is steadfast, not anxious about the impending cost that will come with close relationships. 

Relational distinctions are sensible at times. The depths in which I will sacrifice my schedule and energy for my family is vastly different than the depths I’d go to support a stranger. It’s only Biblical that we accept and agree that we are called to build up and sustain the household of faith first before branching out into the world to love our neighbors. But the terminology and heart behind these distinctions carry a great amount of significance.

People who agonize over getting the right amount of ministry time in their lives are missing the key to what would give them vibrant Christian relationships in the first place. Again, not in balancing our time-frames, but checking our hearts. We find more success praying for strength to have energy and focus to love everyone we encounter and care about in a day, than we do reading a 1000 books or articles on how to avoid burnout and have redemptive conversations with city/foreign folk. God is the source of life, strength, healing, and wisdom. Books and articles are only as great as they are at pointing back to this character and vision of our Almighty God. People who are dissatisfied with the idolatry and deadness of youth groups across our culture, the lameness of forced and orchestrated evangelical pursuits, and the trivial nature of many loosely structured mission organizations need to look in the mirror. They can accurately dislike the culture in which they stand, but if they are incapable of adopting the character/culture that will soar past it, they will be more critical and hostile versions of what they dislike in their less passionate peers. 

There are organizations, youth groups, and churches that are not detracting away from this pursuit. They are good things, but it is  common for people in their late teens and early twenties to grow dissatisfied and hungry for a closer representation of God’s Kingdom. The very things that make these institutions working distractions and noisy gongs is what will sit in the heart of anyone headstrong enough to believe that simply going out with the old and in with the new will suffice. That subtracting times with Mennonites and adding time with locals will change this all around. We have all sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. (More to be said about this at a later date this summer)

A dedicated focus on treating everyone in a subservient and loving manner will help us on all fronts. It allows us to love our Christian friends who may or may not share the same spark or passion for the people we do. It also allows us to stop drawing additional distinctions between ourselves and the people we love that may be outside our church or denominational world. There is already a significant difference between a believer and a non-believer, and we’ve been given direction on who to prioritize first in that instance. But if we aim to go deeper and pursue those outside our home culture, identifying these relationships as a certain kind of relationship usually stifles the genuinity one is trying to establish. If you want a deep relationship, treat people the way Jesus told you to, not the way your mission book or mission training  told you to. Find where those things merge, then you’ve got sound and pure advice. Everything else is just ideas and concepts to keep in mind. The call of Christ to wholly surrender and humble servants is no suggestion. It is His character. 

And this is how many people who seek for more are caught in the same cross-hairs of pride and prejudice that exists in what they’re trying to distance themselves from. In their hopes of working past their limited knowledge to learn from and serve those around them in urban or foreign lands, they end up revealing something in them that is worthily exposed. This ugliness that we all hold in our selfish desires is often what causes bitter walls in our toughest relationships. That’s not a missionary-to-mission person issue, that’s a human condition. One that only dies and subsides with passionate surrender to God’s leadership and help. 

Outside of this help, you will be just as, if not more prejudiced towards the very people you may advocate for and pursue. You may have your lap filled with little black children, but as they grow up they will not see the same surrender to human selfishness and pride in you they have read about in their Bibles. God help us. It’s not just you, it’s me too. It’s them. We’re all human, we all need help. People often leave these relationships in the dust not because someone was fallible, it was because someone didn’t do anything about it.

In this way, we can think less on how much time we should spend in our youth group in comparison to other more ‘holy and Godly’ relationships. These are distinctions that God already outlines for us. They should not usually create either/or situations for us, or dilemmas that curse our conscience. We can live freely in pursuit of Christ that if a man or woman calls for my service and needs my help, that God will sustain me with the time and energy to love and serve. That’s what we do in our homes, we don’t choose who our neighbors are, but we will love and serve them regardless. 

The balance can and should look different for others. Some people are full of relationships that people call ‘mission relationships’. I’m one of these people. People ask me how I do it, how I manage it. Some of them are the opposite, they may have none (despite being a missionary in any given place) and then hundreds of Christian connections. I jokingly ask them “how do you do it?!” The truth is, the greater question that lies before us all… Are we loving everyone in front of us? Family, friends, enemies,  neighbors… as ourselves? That’s the balance, that’s the paradigm, let’s pursue it!

And by the way, if you’re unsure that calling them ‘mission relationships is a questionable thing… Try telling them that’s how you see them. See how they feel. We’d do good to treat people like people. Let’s term them that way as well.

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