Rebe McReynolds

Missionary Classism

By Mike Pettengill, May 3, 2016

Most of us are guilty of it. Senders and goers alike participate in it. That’s right, we are missions classists. Most of us judge missionaries and missions work on the wow factor. We place a hierarchy on missionaries and global ministries based on whether it tickles our ears and not on scripture.

Geography, danger level, pet-ministries, missionary lifestyles, and the tantalizing all play a major role in the missionaries we support and where missionaries are sent. Disciples of Christ must be careful to ensure we are not placing our personal preferences and views of missions ahead of God’s mandates for global evangelism.

Let’s take a quick quiz. Which missionary would you be most excited to read about or support?

Missionary A is a recent seminary graduate who is about to start a new ministry in a predominantly violent and Muslim region of Qatar (located in the 10/40 window). Missionary A will live in a small village and will work on church planting and Bible translation.

Missionary B is a 65-year-old widowed woman who will serve on an Indian reservation within the U.S. Missionary B will take over all administrative work and accounting for an existing mission team of 10 other missionaries.

We all selected missionary A. Right? Why? Was our rational biblical? Was our decision based on God’s glory? Is missionary B less qualified, less called, less competent? Clearly we have forgotten what Keith Green said when he told us, “To be a servant of Jesus Christ, an ambassador, a missionary, is the highest calling a man or woman can attain to!” All missionaries are worthy of our prayer and respect.

Missionary classism is frequently perpetrated by churches or sending agencies toward missionaries. Also, from one missionary to another. It can be demeaning and offensive and it can cause missionaries to question their calling or worth within the kingdom of God. Creating a missions pecking order diminishes the sacrifice a missionary has made. If a missionary is truly called by God to serve, who are we to question the details? Charles Spurgeon proclaimed, “If God has fit you to be a missionary, I would not have you shrivel down to be a king.”

Geographic classism
Frequently we assign greater worth to missionaries who do work in locations we approve of. We say cities are more “Pauline” than rural missions and the 10/40 window is more valuable than elsewhere. Often a premium is placed on where modern missions is done that simply does not exist in scripture.

Ministry classism
Certain types of ministries are held in higher esteem. Frequently church planting, Bible translation, or mercy ministries leave accountants, construction workers, and teachers wondering if they are even worthy of the title of missionary.

Lifestyle classism
Often we place added emphasis on how a missionary lives. A missionary serving in a dangerous area, living incarnationally, or living in greater poverty truly excites us. In our eyes, suffering and discomfort seem to add more value to the missions experience.

Title classism
Pastor, doctor, church planter or nurse—those are the real missionaries. All too often, missionaries who are untrained and undereducated are made to believe they should stay off the mission field until they are “ready.” Missionary Adoniram Judson said, “The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for life.’”

Avoiding classism
Too often we have biblical (or so we think) reasoning to justify our preference for one type of missions work over another. We say, “That’s what Paul did.” Or, “That’s where the unreached are.” Or, “That’s how missions should be done.” Indeed, some missionaries or ministries can appear to be better suited for success. That does not then mean the other missionaries are not needed, useful, or called.

If a missionary seeks the wisdom of the Lord and after great prayer, counsel, and deliberation concludes he is called to a certain ministry in a specific location, he should be encouraged. No, you are not mandated to support him or even agree. But refrain from belittling and criticizing his already difficult decision. David Sills said, “When God calls His child to live the life of a missionary, He gives him the desire with the calling.”

Missionaries do it too. We eat our young by placing extra worth on sexy ministries or by belittling missionaries who do not live as we do. Missionary C.T. Studd reminds fellow missionaries, “Had I cared for the comments of people, I should never have been a missionary.”

Certainly there can be biblical or philosophical reasoning to support one missionary or ministry over another. But take care not to disparage other missionaries in the process. Scripture tells us to “go” as we have been “commanded” (Mat 28:19-20), and if we obey scripture declares of us, “How beautiful are the feet” (Rom 10:15). A missionary should be appreciated for obeying the call and making the sacrifice few others are willing to embrace.

A missionary who leaves family, earning power, security, and predictability for the mission field is worthy of our praise no matter her ministry or location. Guard the heart and emotions of those who serve on the frontlines by loving them and respecting their sacrifice.

Mike Pettengill has served with MTW in Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. He is now the director of MTW’s West Coast office.

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