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Missionaries Are Not Superheroes

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There’s this scene from the movie End of the Spear that has stuck with me.

If you haven’t heard of the film, it tells the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming; their martyrdom at the hands of the very tribe they were attempting to proclaim the gospel to; and the experiences of the Elliot and Saint families after the deaths of their husbands and fathers.

The tale of these men is famous. The story of the faithfulness of Elisabeth Elliot and others even more. But the scene from the movie that has sealed itself in my memory isn’t the portrayal of that fateful trip to the river bend. It’s a party at the Elliots’ house.

The reason why this scene stuck with me is because they all seemed so normal. Regular families with dads goofing around to make people relax and laugh; regular wives trying to make a meal similar to what they used to eat in America.

Honor and Fear
I grew up in the home of missionaries. My “aunts” and “uncles” on the field were all called by that auspicious name whenever they went home. I would hear people talk about missionaries as though they were modern day heroes––men like William Carey or Hudson Taylor––or living martyrs for the cause. Then I’d look around the dinner table and see people who were just that—people.

The impulse to honor missionaries for their faithfulness is good and right. But many times that honor is a cover for saying missions is something “those people,” the ones “over there,” do. We turn the work of evangelism and church planting into something overly complex, and we make missionaries into superheroes who fill the role we never could.

The danger is that missions becomes professionalized—something you have to bring the expert in to do, rather than something in which the Lord calls every church and believer to be involved.

So we slowly start to view evangelism in other places (and maybe even evangelism where we are) as something that only the trained professionals can do. We stop considering how we can be involved and instead consider how to get people around the pros.

We keep sending money, but we start viewing it differently than how Paul viewed the financial support of the Philippian church. It is no longer an act of partnership in ministry (Phil 1:5), where different believers are carrying out complementary roles in the mission. Instead, we send money as payment, so that the professionals undergo the discomfort of advancing the gospel on our behalf.

Who Can Be a Missionary?
Of course, not every Christian can be a missionary. The challenges of moving to a new culture and context are costly and difficult indeed. Not everyone is able to bear those costs, nor is everyone gifted enough in evangelism, firm enough in theology, and mature enough spiritually to be a helpful testimony in more isolated and challenging situations. Not everyone should become a missionary.

Yet we undermine the very way the Lord loves to work when we start to think missions can only be carried out by the super-saints.

It’s analogous to the idea that pastors are the priests of the new covenant. Yes, pastors are held to higher standards than others, but they are standards we want people to “aspire”to (1 Tim 3:1), not to see as unattainable. Even those standards, the qualifications for the office of elder or pastor are, frankly, basic. As D.A. Carson has pointed out, the remarkable thing about the qualifications for elder is how unremarkable they are. Read through the New Testament, and you’ll find (at different times) all the qualifications for elders presented as commands to all Christians (with the exception, of course, of the ability to teach and the prohibition of new converts). In other words, the kinds of people God wants us to recognize as leaders and servants in the church are those who simply exemplify Christian maturity.

Meanwhile, Scripture actually provides no explicit qualifications for the role of missionary. The only possible examples I can think of are John Mark in Acts and the apostle John’s comments in 3 John 7: it seems that the willingness to go is the crucial mark of a missionary. I also think the character qualifications of elders and deacons in Titus and Timothy are wise and prudent standards by which to evaluate missionaries. At the very least, the leader of a missionary team would need to meet the qualification of being able to teach, that is, if we want missionaries to make disciples.

An Extraordinary God
I remember talking to a friend in seminary. He was a godly man, wise in the Word and passionate about evangelism. He was from a small town in the rural South, and his plan was to go back and pastor in the rural South—not because he felt particularly called to go back, but because he didn’t think he was the kind of person who could go anywhere else. He was shaken to his core when someone asked him why he hadn’t considered whether he should go overseas.

How many potential missionaries have we been holding back, simply by teaching them (by example) that the role of missionary is something beyond the ability of any normal, faithful Christian?

Let’s honor brothers and sisters who move overseas for the sake of the gospel. Let’s encourage them, support them, and pray for them. But let’s be careful that they don’t become the spiritual equivalent of NBA All-Stars in our minds.

I’ve been around lots of missionaries. They are all normal people. They simply serve an extraordinary God.

Caleb Greggsen is involved in local church ministry in the Middle East.
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