Not Coming Nor Leaving as Christian Individualists

We don’t need anyone coming to the mission field – nor leaving – as Christian individualists. By Christian individualists, I mean those who decide on massive life/ministry decisions without a healthy involvement of their church, mentors, family, and believing community. The problem with Christian individualism – especially when it comes to missions or ministry – is that it baptizes lone ranger decisions with the nigh-untouchable “God is calling me to…”

Thankfully, many sending churches and organizations have realized the danger of Christian individualists going to the mission field. The occasional Bruschko may end up working out, but the more likely scenario is a missionary who goes abroad while still unqualified, unfit, or at least woefully unprepared. This can cause untold damage to missionary teams, local believers, and the reputation of the gospel itself.

There is a trend of missionary-sending processes that increase the involvement of the local church. This is a very healthy development, one which pushes back against a previous tendency to outsource the assessment process to missions agencies. In fact, a healthy local church should be the primary place where a prospective missionary is assessed, affirmed, and sent. The church members and the leadership should be able to wholeheartedly vouch that the candidate’s character, knowledge, skills, and affections align with that of a qualified missionary-in-training. Individuals who do not meet these standards should be kindly redirected toward a different timeline or a different vocation.

Praise God, there is somewhat of a consensus – in reformed evangelicalism at least – on the need to not go to the field as individualists. This is a remarkably good thing given the militant individualism of Western culture. The difficulty of someone actually getting to the mission field without some degree of church and pastoral backing testifies to how the Western sending church is pushing back against its own culture with biblical wisdom.

However, we seem to have a blindspot when it comes to those who leave the field. Often this decision to leave is made with barely a fraction of the counsel, input, and testing that went into the decision to go in the first place. Sadly, many who come to the field, sent by their community, leave the field as Christian individualists. When wresting with leaving, they think and pray in private and then unexpectedly drop the bomb that God is calling them to leave the field, much to the dismay of their local friends and colleagues. Often, even if counsel is sought, the decision has already been made.

Several things make these dynamics understandable. Sometimes missionaries are simply too beat up or too burnt out to feel like they can handle the inevitable disappointment and pushback that comes when they float the idea of leaving. It can feel safer, or at least more bearable, to process privately and then try to go out quickly and quietly.

Leaving the mission field also means moving from a vocation that requires higher qualification, back to a lifestyle that does not require that same level of assessment. Leaving the role of a cross-cultural church planter to return to that of a church member in one’s native culture is a step back in terms of the leadership standards one must be held to – though basic standards of Christian faithfulness remain the same. So it makes sense that leaving would not naturally result in the same kind of robust processes and conversations.

Yet there’s also a lot of shame attached to the thought and reality of leaving the field. Does this mean failure? Are we leaving when just a little more pushing would have resulted in things changing? How can we let our colleagues down when they are already overwhelmed with life and ministry? How can I make sense of this to the local believers? I’m convinced that this sense of shame keeps the conversations from happening as openly as they might otherwise.

So the pattern repeats itself. Family after family announce their departure, rather than allowing it to be a decision which is not made until robust counsel has been sought and weighed. We revert to our enculturated individualism, and in our Christianese we tell ourselves and others that God has called us to a new chapter. Perhaps he has. But why have we not confirmed that calling in the same manner as we have in the past? What does that discrepancy mean? What have we been so afraid of?

I write this post in a season where we are very much wrestling with our family’s future on the field. Medical conditions have continued to pile up for our family, and in several weeks we will be returning to the US for yet another medical leave – one which may last quite a while. Will we be able to find the diagnoses and healing we need in order to be back on the field in a healthy place in six months? Or ever? We’ve not yet experienced this level of uncertainty regarding our future ministry in Central Asia. And it’s very sobering.

We are, however, trying to live out our convictions on this point of not living like Christian individualists. We have attempted to invite many into this process with us, so that they might pray for us and give us their counsel. If there is anything we are missing, we want to hear it. We will wait to make any big decisions until we can do so in the light and wisdom of many counselors. At the same time, I feel more than ever the pull of wanting to privately make a decision on our own, to protect myself from the uncertainty and the emotions of my friends’ responses. It is a very strong pull, even with my cross-cultural upbringing that slightly tempers my individualism.

Practically, I do have the spur of having advocated publicly for healthier departures from the mission field – and that means I now have the chance to eat my own words. This is a gracious thing on the hard days.

Our coworkers, leadership, local friends, and family have all been very kind counselors as we’ve tried to process this upcoming leave and its possible implications. Similar to confession of sin, I’m so glad we’ve been open about this. Whatever God wants us to do, we are hopeful that when clarity comes, it will come with the assurance that God’s people are actively speaking into the hard decision to leave, or the hard decision to stay.

Perhaps this is an area where churches and organizations can develop helpful structures and processes. Given the rate of attrition from the mission field, I wonder if an intentional and robust process which helps struggling workers wrestle with their desires to leave the field might not help clarify those who should indeed leave, and those whose calling has not changed, worn out though they are – some kind of a track that is the inverse of those used for mobilization, i.e. “So You Wanna Stop Being a Missionary?” I wonder if something like this could offer some protection from the dangers of subjectivism that come from being prone toward Christian individualism. Even after years of discipleship, we can be so adept at reverting to our human culture and playing cards that make our decisions almost unapproachable.

I believe we need to continue strengthening our commitment to not have any come to the mission field as Christian individualists, but rather with the backing of a healthy sending church and sending org. I also believe we need to awaken a commitment to not leave the field like Christian individualists, but as those with a spiritual family – churches, colleagues, and local brothers and sisters.

If leave we must, this won’t make it necessarily easier. But it will make it healthier. We would still grieve, but it would be good grieving, with less regret and less shame.

Pray for families like ours facing uncertainty on the field. Even in the midst of the strangeness of these conversations, pray that we would honor Jesus – and also honor his bride.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Not Coming Nor Leaving as Christian Individualists

  1. Very sound teaching and I think this can also apply to our every day lives in general. It’s easy to withdraw into yourself and be too self-righteous, prideful, busy, or ashamed to seek counsel or to serve. Reaching out to others requires a great sacrifice that we should always be willing to make. I confess I do not do that often. May God reveal to us the plan and purpose and importance of the Body!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Having been a missionary overseas and then left the field to return to our sending country this post really resonated with me. We left for different reasons but wrestled with similar feelings and processes. We tried to do things in the best way we could, though I’m not always sure how successfully. And ‘good grieving’ captures the experience well. May you know God’s closeness in the coming days.

    Liked by 1 person

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