A Breakthrough In Ministry Identity

I remember well the feelings of frustration and disappointment. After moving to Louisville, Kentucky, to finish school and work with Muslim refugees, four different work opportunities with ministry organizations had unexpectedly fallen through. Friends and mentors had encouraged me that these opportunities were a really good fit and surely would work out. Yet there I was, freshly back from the Middle East, jobless in a new city, and almost completely broke.

I knew the need. The Middle Eastern refugee population was woefully under-engaged by the thriving Christian community in Louisville. I knew what I had been called to, reaching Muslims with the good news of Jesus Christ. So why weren’t the pieces lining up like I had been told they would? If I were to be effective while a full-time student, I’d need the time to engage refugees that a paid ministry role provided. I wouldn’t have the opportunity I needed to go deep into the Middle Eastern community if I had to divide my week between my classes and a “normal” job.

I remember pacing and praying in the upstairs apartment I’d moved into with some friends. I was alone that afternoon in the heat of a sticky Kentucky summer. “God, you have been so clear with me about my calling, and the need is real… why aren’t you allowing this to work?”

I kept pacing, praying, and thinking. My heart did not want to reenter the secular workforce. I had a deep, inner resistance to this idea and a lot of thought-out reasons why I shouldn’t just go get a job “like a normal person would”. I had a calling. God had been very clear about that. It had been demonstrated as being truly from the Lord through a year of testing it in the dust and wonder of the Middle East. So many had affirmed this and pledged willingness to support me financially.

And yet, there I was. There was no organization that would take me on and let me raise support through them to do Muslim ministry in Louisville. I was too new and unknown. Refugee ministry was not on most’s radars. And I was at a dead end. God was silent and I was basically penniless. Why had I made this move based on assurances and not based on an actual position offered?

It was then that this conversation started happening in my head:

“If you went to prison for Jesus in the Middle East, wouldn’t you accept that as from the Lord?”

“Well, yes, of course. That would be clear.”

“Even solitary confinement?”

“…Yes.”

“So being put in solitary confinement with no access to anyone, no one you could share the gospel with or disciple, that would still be enough?”

“Well, yes, because I would still have Jesus, and that would be enough.”

“So Jesus could call you to lose your ministry and go to solitary and you would accept that because you’d still have him.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Don’t you see? Your primary calling has never been to Muslim ministry, your primary calling has always been to Jesus.”

I stopped pacing. My brow furrowed.

“If you lost your ministry because of a season in prison, you’d still have Jesus, and you would see that as from his hand. So, what if Jesus asks you to step away from ministry now? To go out and get a normal job? Why would you not also accept that as from him? Is he not your real calling?”

Once these words were formulated in my mind, there was no undoing them. The logic was sound and biblical. I had never been called to a particular ministry in some kind of fixed, immovable way. I had only ever served at the pleasure of my king. And he was free at any point to ask me to change my role.

I would always be called to him. Other secondary callings were not forever and unchanging as this primary calling was.

What followed was peace – and a clearer view of my identity issues. Turns out I am prone to putting my identity and my value too much in my ministry, in what I do for God, in being a missionary. This is what was underneath my emotional opposition to going out and getting hired to do a typical college student kind of job. There was pride there, confusion, and some fear.

God’s plan was better. I would go on to work some good, normal jobs. I would tutor, mow lawns, paint porches, deliver furniture, deliver sandwiches – and learn hard lessons just like many of my peers of how to share the gospel with unbelieving coworkers in the workplace. I would learn how to still somehow reach out to refugees, even when I was working multiple jobs and taking a full credit load. My best friend, a refugee himself, would come to faith in this season.

When God eventually opened up paid ministry opportunities for me again, I was able to approach those roles with a greater humility and appreciation. I was also able to step into those ministries with much greater freedom, because the pressure of my value and identity was not placed on them. I knew my primary calling was to Christ and I sought to submit to the twists and turns of how he wanted me to live that out – ministry role or not. Some have said, “If God calls you to be a missionary, do not stoop to be a king.” I have learned that it’s just as true that “If God calls to to be a furniture delivery man, do not stoop to be a missionary.”

Yet I do find these old struggles cropping up again these days. Here we are, unexpectedly stuck in the US on medical leave, unable to return to Central Asia while the Covid-19 cases rage in our adopted city and region overseas. So far we’ve been unable to get permission to return due to the high-risk factors our family’s health poses. Once again, the work that we know we have been called to has been temporarily taken away. But consider the needs! Are are we not called to plant healthy church among our Central Asian people group? Yes, but first we are called to Jesus. And he has asked us to stay put for now, to rest, to visit lots of doctors, to drink lots of iced coffee and eat lots of bacon (unavailable where we serve), and to write more than we have ever written before.

I don’t know exactly what God is doing in our extended season of transition. But I am comforted knowing that so many of us in the Church are wrestling with these very same identity issues at this time of global pandemic. I trust that God will help us to remember that our primary calling is to Jesus, and not to whatever ministry activities we may not be able to do right now.

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10 ESV)

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32 ESV)

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The Myriad Identity Issues of Missionaries

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.

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash

The Most Daunting Place For a Missionary Kid

There I stood at the counter, like a tree kangaroo in the headlights. The fast food worker in his visor and apron was clearly a little perturbed.

“Wait, I get to choose what bread I want? Um… what kinds do you have?” I did my best to make sense of the various options I was given, nodding as if I had actually heard of them before. “Um… Italian!”

“Cheese,” the worker then mumbled.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, I have to choose the cheese too?” So I asked again, “Uh, sorry, what kinds of cheese are there?”

The worker sighed and rattled off, “American, cheddar, provolone, pepper jack.”

“…Cheddar, I guess.”

“Veggies?”

What was with this place? Didn’t they know that they, as the ones who work at the restaurant, are the ones responsible for making these decisions, expertly putting together delicious flavor combinations so that I could just pick the one that looks the most delicious from its picture? Why were they asking me to do their job for them?

“Sauces? Toasted?” This guy was relentless! And I was getting nervous. I noticed one of my new classmates nearby was clearly enjoying this exchange. Time to bring in an interpreter.

I whispered, “Laura! Is this normal? Help!” Laura composed herself, graciously intervened, and helped me navigate the rest of the unnecessarily-complicated sandwich process.

I, a missionary kid from Melanesia, had now ordered my first Subway sandwich ever. It was a decent sandwich, but I have to admit I was a bit rattled. It took me a while before I was ready to brave the Subway sandwich interrogation line again. Perhaps this even played into my working later for the competition, Jimmy Johns.

The most daunting place for a missionary kid is their passport country, the country which is supposed to be their home. This is because Missionary kids (MKs, or Third-Culture Kids – TCKs) thrive in the role of the obvious outsider. They have grown up in countries and cultures where it’s clear that they are foreigners, and thus shouldn’t be expected to know the unwritten rules. Most cultures give a certain grace to outsiders, and MKs find themselves at ease in this kind of relationship. They are glad to play the respectful learner and guest. Many cultures also give a certain honor to those outsiders who have surprisingly assimilated, and MKs also thrive in playing this role. It’s just plain fun to be a foreign kid who is able to speak the local language, cook local food, and play local games.

But when MKs come back to their parents’ country, they are often expected to be cultural insiders. The fact is they are not cultural insiders. While their parents have passed on some aspects of their home culture, there are big gaps. MKs in their home culture can sense that there are unwritten rules functioning, things they’re expected to pick up on, but they’re not picking up on them. And no one has spelled them out. They can feel like they are in one of those dreams where it’s exam day, but somehow you showed up for the test without studying, and then you realize you’re not even wearing any pants. MKs are very adaptable, and might play it off like none of this is happening internally, but these dynamics are often present, especially from junior high through the college years. They aren’t as much of an issue for younger MKs, who are mostly free to enjoy the strange adventures of the motherland as a kinfolk-filled curiosity.

Why is it so hard for MKs to seamlessly pick up on the culture of their passport country? It probably has to do with the nature of culture itself, which is fluid and regularly changing, and with the way in which culture is typically learned – more by osmosis than by direct teaching. Learning culture just takes time, years of it. When I would share in my college years in the US that I grew up overseas, I would often get an “Oh, that makes sense!” response. It took quite a few years before the responses shifted to, “Oh, really? Wouldn’t have guessed it.” Over time, you assimilate, you “catch” things you were missing or someone just spells it out for you. “I was supposed to be tipping my barbers this whole time? Oh, no!”

If you get to spend time with MKs who are back in their home country on furlough/stateside or for school, there are ways you can help. You can offer to be a safe interpreter. Not all MKs are the same, of course, but for many it would be very kind and appropriate if you offered to field any and all questions they might have about their home country. Ask if there are things they find confusing or strange, or even difficult. Try to be observant of MKs in situations where they might be feeling out of place or unsure of what to do or say. Offer to go with them if they’re attempting something for the first time. If they get embarrassed, try to engage, ignore, or laugh with them as seems most kind for that particular person and situation. Like an employee in a retail store who asks if you need any help finding things, you might get rejected at first, but if you invite communication, you just may find your MK friend coming back to you later with some good questions.

We MKs and TCKs are a complicated bunch, but just like anyone else, we need good friends who will take the time to talk and listen and process… and occasionally help us order sandwiches.

Ten Questions Missionaries Love To Answer

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

A hospital worker apologized to us today after asking us about how we ended up living in Central Asia. “I’m sorry, maybe you get tired of telling your story,” she said. We eagerly assured her that no, we are not tired at all of sharing how God led us to live in our unexpected corner of the world. The fact is that most missionaries are actually surprised by how few questions they get asked when they return to their home countries. Or, after years of living overseas, full of misadventures and crises, the only question that comes is, “So, how was your trip?”

“Um…it was… good?”

If you get the chance to spend time with missionaries who are back from the field, here is a list of questions most would be delighted to answer. Because so few ask questions like these, when someone does ask them it does our souls good, and we are encouraged as we speak of and remember God’s faithfulness.

  1. What were some of the mighty things you saw God do in your time overseas?
  2. What were some of the harder things that you faced?
  3. How have your kids been doing growing up as third-culture kids?
  4. How have you changed since you went overseas?
  5. Tell me about the things you love about your focus people and culture.
  6. How have you grown in your understanding of the gospel as you have served cross-culturally?
  7. How did God call you to go overseas in the first place?
  8. What are things you wish you could say to believers in your home country?
  9. Do you have any funny stories that happened while on the mission field? Epic language mistakes?
  10. What are the things your family most desperately needs prayer for?

Missionaries are storytellers at heart. But we’re often not sure if friends and family really want to hear our stories of breakthrough, tragedy, miracles, misadventures, and those times when we made complete fools out of ourselves. By asking these and similar questions, you let us know that you really do want to hear about our lives. And just as we are encouraged by sharing these things, we hope that our stories will also encourage you.