When asked what kinds of identity issues missionaries face, the proper response would be, “legion.” As with many other struggles, the mission field tends to amplify and multiply things that already existed in seed form in our hearts back in our passport countries.
Men who come to the mission field tend to be coming from backgrounds where they were highly effective in life and ministry. They might be used to pegging their sense of faithfulness to their productivity and ministry fruit. Then, all of a sudden they are the linguistic equivalent of a toddler, bumbling along in a culture where they do not know how to get things done, a culture that proves to be remarkably non-task-oriented even after the missionary learns the local processes – not to mention also being remarkably resistant to the gospel. For men who were driven high-achiever ministry types back home, this shift to seeming-incompetence can be disorienting and doubt-inducing. Men can also face the erasure of clean work/home boundaries, suddenly finding themselves needing to live family life and do ministry in an extremely integrated way. Where does work end and home life begin? How do I gauge whether or not I have committed enough hours to the work of the ministry this week if I had to spend all day searching the market in a distant town for a part to fix my generator?
Women on the field can face a rapid multiplication of roles. Whereas there was barely enough time back home to be a faithful wife, mom, church member, and part-time employee, now they are asked to also be full-time language learners, home-school teachers, evangelists, disciplers, relief and development workers, and mobilizers, while perhaps carrying other language or prayer-related roles for their team. It is impossible to succeed at all of these roles at any given time, so culture-shocking moms are often loaded down by an additional sense of continual failure. Then there is the constant nagging of the thought, “Am I doing enough for our kids or is our ministry lifestyle going to scar them for life?”
Singles on the field can face intense loneliness and sometimes deal with the sense that they are not viewed as the equals of their married colleagues. The assumption that they have all the time in the world can lead toward guilt when they take some down time or take a vacation. Having learned how to navigate the “Why aren’t you married yet?” question back home, now they must face it again coming in new ways from locals, some of these ways being painfully blunt.
Missionary kids don’t know which culture they belong to – their parents’ or their local friends’. This can lead to an over-identification with one culture and a despising of the other. It can also lead to plain confusion, as things which are appropriate to ask and say in one culture are not appropriate in another. They must carve out their own “third culture,” borrowing from both cultures while never fully belonging to either, hoping not to be embarrassed by missing some important cultural cue. Missionary kids can struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” And the idea of home becomes an elusive one which can haunt them for decades to come.
Living in a closed country introduces its own struggles, as missionaries struggle to live with a public identity as a business man, teacher, or NGO worker, while secretly conducting missionary work. This can lead to a nagging sense of uncertainty about how honestly relates to full identity disclosure. Workers on the field train one another to not say “missionary” or “missions,” but then after a day and a half of air travel must embrace these terms and the public identity of a missionary again in order to serve their supporting churches.
Finally, there is the always-present specter of ministry idolatry, where a missionary comes to define his worth primarily in his role as a cross-cultural worker. Other types of work and ministry come to be seen as less valuable than their own and the pedestal they are often placed on becomes too eagerly embraced.
What is to be done with missionaries’ legion of identity issues (Of which the above is a mere sampling)? One of the great secrets of missionary care is that we don’t need anything different than what other believers need. We need Christ. We need the gospel. And that is enough. Missionaries may have unique attacks on their identity, but the needed defense is the same – a relentless reminder of their identity in Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). We are in Christ and that is our primary identity, one which is eternally secure, no matter how productive I’ve been this week, no matter how poorly I speak the language, no matter how many roles I’ve failed in, no matter what. I have value in God’s eyes because of what Christ has done for me, not because I am a failed missionary or the next Adoniram Judson. I am a citizen of heaven (Phil 3:20), a member of God’s household (Eph 2:19) and those are truths that are fixed for all eternity, even if I wrestle mightily with a nagging sense of homelessness in this world.
Yes, missionaries have many struggles with identity. But there is one who can deal with the legion. As we look away from ourselves and remember that our primary identity is found in our calling to him, we will find the grace needed to walk faithfully in our secondary callings.
Missionaries, let us remind ourselves today of our identity in Christ, of our place in the new heavens and the new earth. Friends of missionaries, please remind us also of these things. Let us not forget who we are, for only then will we able to truly serve the nations for God’s glory.