Now…don’t act all surprised by the topic of this Mission Fortnight. You have all thought it. Goodness, I’ve thought it and I’m one of ‘em. So, let’s get past the awkwardness and take a look at this phenomenon. Why do missionaries always seem just a little bit off? I believe the answer is: Because we are a little bit off in several important ways. Let’s see if I can unpack the layers of weirdness so you can understand the dynamic a little better.
- Missionaries look weird. Well, yes…we missionaries often dress in old and out of style clothing which makes us look odd. There are actually reasons for that. Missionaries don’t usually live and work in the fashion Mecca’s of the world. You just don’t have a lot of mission efforts to New York, London, and Paris. In the developing countries we work, old and faded clothing from the 80’s is the norm. Your average homeless American has newer and more stylish clothing than a large percentage of the world’s population. So, that faded, ratty outfit your missionary is wearing may be an edgy fashion statement overseas. Granted, I sometimes see colleagues wearing worn out clothing like a badge of righteousness, as if to say, “I’m spiritually above the materialism.” Sadly…there’s plenty of that out there. But for the most part, it’s a matter of style ignorance and context.
- Missionaries think weird. From the beginning of my time living abroad, I was constantly reminded that I think like a Westerner. My priority was the product…not the process. I thought in linear terms…not global. I thought about individual rights…not group or family responsibilities. I thought in equalitarian terms…not social strata’s. I thought about having an opinion…not about harmony. I learned that weird is usually in the eye of the majority beholders. Most missionaries have had their worldviews expanded and overwritten to include seemingly conflicting values. Please, don’t be surprised if your missionary forgets that Americans can only tolerate a single twenty minute sermon on Sunday morning. They’ve probably been in a strange place where Christians aren’t watching the clock during the church service and actually enjoy worshipping together. Go figure.
- Missionaries believe weird. Oh boy…it can get really whacky when you start talking politics or theology to a missionary. Gulp. You may have walked away from such a conversation thinking, “Yikes. I could agree with some of what he said but there was a lot in there that just plain scares me.” Before I lived overseas I knew the “right” answers to all matters of faith and politics and societal woes. I felt I had given these topics considerable thought and felt I had a really tight set of beliefs. But it didn’t take me too long living in a multinational community in a developing country to have all my rightness challenged. I’m not talking about the agreed upon fundamentals of the faith. I’m talking about how I handle New Testament prophecy and my views on proper worship and American foreign policy and social welfare. I learned that there are really legitimate and viable counter viewpoints to my version of the right answer. I lost quite a lot of smugness but gained a sober sense of the limitations in having all the answers. Please keep in mind, those who lean further to the left of center also get their smugness dinged overseas. Encountering another culture naturally leaves everyone thinking, “Uh oh. There is actually more to that topic than I thought.”
- Missionaries are weird. My late brother-in-law, Brad once said, “To do what you and Denise are doing takes a certain kind of person. You gotta have a lot of (spit) and vinegar in you to pull this thing off.” Brad was right. Just the nature of the mission endeavor screens people to be different than the average bear. You gotta swim upstream against family expectations, financial aspirations, and safety considerations to sign up for a career in missions. In order to take the plunge in this lifestyle you will be viewed as a little bit off. No matter how much you dress us up…no matter how much you get our heads back into an American mindset, you can take the missionary out of the weirdness but you can’t necessarily take the weirdness out of the missionary. At the end of the day, the truth is: Missionaries just aren’t normal. Hopefully, in a good way.
Did that answer your questions about missionary weirdness? Great. It sure cleared things up for me. Now go out there and have a big ol’ weird fortnight.