Friday, July 16, 2010


Last week, my old Minnesota buddy Dr. (I love calling him that) Chris Gonzalez listed his Face Book status as “Chris Gonzalez thinks missionaries are probably the most controversial people on the planet.” The comments started flying. My brain started racing, but I was in the midst of doing 3,000 miles and 4 ROC receptions in a week. I’m still now and I can’t resist the subject.

Are missionaries the most controversial people on the planet? No. Maybe? Yes.

No. Give me a break. In order to be controversial one must be both relevant and influential. Many missionaries are not. They are not society’s power brokers. They are irrelevant in manipulative political games. Those missionaries whose opinions are outside of the populism of either their sending organization or converts can easily be neutralized. Deprive them of church pulpits and denominational publishing and they are neutralized by their disagreeable senders. If they have no access to media and social function in their host country it is almost impossible for the masses to know who they are – let alone what they believe.

Maybe - after all the self-reflective missionaries are ones of great paradox. Some would call it humble contrition mixed with immense strong wills. Many have been strongly opinionated, denominationally loyal, protective, and just simply ornery. Their peers describe them as extreme, flamboyant, and flawed. They chose the wrong battles. They wish they had said less, listened more; and then kick themselves for not standing strong on the issues that truly mattered. They did the wrong work while the right work could easily be accomplished. They closed their careers apologizing to both their hosts and senders. In the end, their controversy was because of their failings. They speak of grace because they are so in need of forgiveness.

Yes, but only the effective missionaries during seasons of community discovery and reformation.

Let me start with a controversial definition of a missionary. Most English New Testaments do not use the word “missionary.” Linguists will pull “misseo” from Latin New Testaments to get “missionary.” When we check the original Greek it uses “apostolos” where the Latin writes, “misseo.” Thus a missionary is actually linguistically in English an apostle. Chris did a great job of qualifying his statement as “non-kook missionaries,” but frankly many missionaries don’t pass my kook test. They are nuts who think God has given them the same level of authority as Peter, John, and Paul.

Jenkins' family being commissioned by CCR to serve African Great Lakes Diaspora
To survive the kook test let me propose an ordinary, but controversial definition. A missionary is simply a messenger sent to make disciples of Jesus and develop churches. If someone is a missionary they must be sent. All missionaries have a sense of call. The kooks are so self-absorbed they confuse their delusions of grandeur with a call from God.

A call is always confirmed in community. Without a community to send a missionary is a kook. Missionary personalities are quite similar to entrepreneurs. The recent jargon of “social entrepreneurs” summarizes their call well. However, honest personality evaluations notice that white collar criminals and entrepreneurs are remarkably similar. A sense of community sending is a must to provide balance and accountability. This sending process may not look the same. One can be sent by a missionary organization, local church, or small group of friends; but there are no self-sent missionaries. Their call is heard by the needs of distant community and confirmed by their home community. They can label themselves many things from tent maker to pastor. Missionaries are not defined by their employer, but by the responsibility they take in the global body of Christ.

CCR Diaspora in Washington DC - Eustache Nsinga (RIP), Amanda Moore, Frances Cossar
The missionary task is two-fold. First they must make disciples of Jesus. It is a simple process of befriending, praying, and teaching. However, the implications are immense. Jesus so challenged religious norms that he was executed. Disciples of Jesus will shake the world up wherever they are. As Chris said disciples of Jesus can easily be seen as subversive.

The second task is to develop churches. This is where it all becomes paradoxical. Churches are a stabilizing cultural institution. They take the always troubling mating cycles of human beings and turn it into a solemn ceremony. Youth are guided, married, and their reproduction is celebrated. They also frequently build schools to educate and facilitate scholarships. Lately, they’ve been leaders in facilitating small business. Their members come from all portions of society and find both hope and conviction as they leave Sunday to start their jobs on Monday. Bottom line – Churches make life tasty and sustainable.

However, the paradoxical nature of church means they are prophetic. They hold society accountable to keep her covenants and protect the most vulnerable. Cultural change has always been led by churches. They were the forces of abolition and liberation throughout history. They are the institution that calls every generation to discover faith anew. They are dead without a revival in each generation. Missionary types are the catalyst for this both cultural stability and generation renewal.

Now let me become more controversial. Some contemporary preachers love the jargon that “all Christians are missionaries.” Non-sense. All followers of Jesus are called to be active persuaders in the resurrection of Jesus, but not all Jesus followers have the specific missionary call. For instance, all disciples should manage their money well, but not all disciples are called to be church treasurers. All disciples should worship the Lord, but not all disciples are skilled worship leaders. All the churches I’ve pastored would be disasters if I became their treasurer or worship leader. Maybe, the Holy Spirit had a point with this missionary call?

Why do some want every Christian to be a missionary? Could it possibly be either envy or just a veiled attempt to make the missionary calling less troublesome?

Nor is every Christian living outside of his home culture and doing good works in Jesus name a missionary. In order to be a missionary one must be a messenger sent to make disciples of Jesus and develop churches. Some today that are true disciples making a significant impact outside of their home culture are still not missionaries.

Three controversial missionaries quickly came to mind as Chris raised his question. Mission’s history makes them heroes, but to their contemporaries they were controversial. They were flawed. They push even my definition of missionary to the edge.

The first is David Livingston. He came to Africa as a traditional missionary, but sensed a call beyond the confines of mission compounds. His explorations were both flawed and inspiring. He loathed the slave trade. His mantra of "Christianity, Commerce and Civilization" brought practical results, but later enabled exploitive colonial economics. Livingston’s early journeys were controversial with slave traders. After his glory had passed he became controversial with his missionary peers and colonial financers. One of his lasting legacies is that his explorations and writing brought an end to the slave trade. Livingston’s legacy teaches us today that missionaries will be controversial as the implications of their endeavors break beneficial systems of economic exploitation.

A second is Alexander MacKay, one of the early Protestant missionaries to the Buganda kingdom. MacKay was a practical engineer, competent linguist, and die hard theologian. He was both diplomatic and prophetic. He sought friendships with the powerful King Mutesa, but also continued arguing against slavery, polygamy, witchcraft, human sacrifice, and war. When Mutesa’s son, Mwanga came to the throne MacKay fearlessly continued his arguments while his converts were martyred. MacKay’s legacy teaches us today that missionaries will be controversial as the implications of their endeavors confront the flawed ethics of the powerful.

The third is Dr. Joe Church, one of the pioneers the East African Revival. From remote Gahini, Rwanda sub-Saharan Africa Christianity was changed by the Balokole (Saved) movement. Though many now consider the Balokole movement ritualistic and irrelevant during its birth it was controversial. The Balokole embraced brotherhood across ethnic, racial, and denominational lines. For those living under the narcotic of denominational acceptance and identity the Balokole brotherhood threatened all sense of order. For those profiting from colonial racial segregation the Balokole threatened economic wealth. Church’s legacy teaches us today that missionaries will be controversial as the implications of their endeavors confront their sending institutions and country. Missionary voices are ones of prophets both in their host and sending country.

What will be the legacy of today’s controversial missionaries? I suspect old definitions and stories will recycle themselves.

Few expatriate development workers are friends with contemporary African intellectuals other than missionaries. Those friendships are transformational. Slavery is long gone. However, new forms of economic exploitation exist in the AID industry and neo-colonial economic agendas. Today’s controversial missionaries refuse to market pictures and stories that meet donor emotional needs while ripping the guts out of developing sustainable economic institutions.

Few expatriate development workers are friends with national political leaders other than missionaries. Rules of diplomacy do not permit diplomats to stay in a host country long enough to become friends. Ethical rules of development organizations insist on no political entanglements. The result is only missionaries celebrate life from birth to marriage to death within a community. In community friendships are established. Friendships are always beyond the reach of political agendas. As a result only missionaries can maintain their integrity while maintaining their friendships with political foes. These friendships allow prophetic voices to be heard. Missionaries are simply friends with a Jesus agenda. This makes them strikingly controversial.

Few denominational administrators understand the missionary enterprise. It is a difficult to comprehend paradox. It builds an institutional church for society’s stability, but many times is incompatible with its sending institution. The missionary enterprise is one of an entrepreneur outside of a denominational agenda. Today’s missionaries butt against denominational protection and this makes them controversial.

Are missionaries the most controversial people on the planet?

No. Maybe? Yes.

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