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Missionaries have always been . . . weird.
Growing up the son of a minister in the Midwest meant that at least once a year I would give up a bed for a missionary, and usually their family, for the annual “Mission Fest.” (Once upon a time, a two-or three-day affair after harvest, during which the church welcomed missionaries from far-off lands, ate together several times and worshipped even more than the usual two-a-days on Sunday.)
Missionaries. Odd ducks.
They knew about people, places, and things our imaginations would never have conjured. Turns out knew a lot of things because they’d seen a lot of things.
They’d certainly seen other parts of the world that an Iowa boy living in a parsonage five miles removed from a town of 600 (well, aspirational 600) could only hope to witness someday.
But what made them weird wasn’t that they had seen so many things my eyes would likely never behold.
The weirdifier in the equation is they’d learned to see themselves differently in the world. Somewhere along the line the missionaries (the white-skinned ones, anyway) had moved from the “center” to the “margin”, from the majority to a (relative, in the US) minority. Although they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the exotic “foreigners,” they had been changed from assuming the role of “the one who says” and had learned to become “the one who listens”.
Turns out the missionaries were never weird.
They were only weird to a lad like me who had never undergone the fundamental missionary conversion experience: the first people who need to be converted in effective mission work are the missionaries themselves. That is, they need to learn to unseat their assumptions and presuppositions enough to see the culture in which they are working from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
Such a conversion may yield delightful changes in the missionary, but is surely no less dramatic an experience than being blinded and having the eyes scale over and walk blindly for a bit.
And that brings us to the Reformed Church in America at the moment.
Churches and networks of churches from several countries in Latin America, we are told, are coming to the RCA, asking to become part of the denomination that has of late seen a significant departure of congregations and members. It is easy to view such congregations coming to us as an aid to the survival of a nearly 400 year old denomination.
- Why would they want to be part of us (which is an odd self-shading)?
- Will they make the RCA more “conservative”? Is this a hidden kind of colonialism? Are they trying to get something out of us?
- Will they destabilize the denomination? (An ironic question if ever there was one.)
- How will we maintain standards for ministry?
- Pastors who recoil at a church member saying “we’ve never done it that way before” are saying “we’ve never done it that way before.”
Thing is, they’re right. We haven’t done it that way before. The RCA has long had a specific policy of not starting RCA churches outside the United States and Canada.
Like any other voyage into the unknown, this journey is frightening.
Many are, to put it mildly, uneasy with the movement of international, indigenous congregations toward the RCA. Maybe we’re displaying the kind of uneasiness that the RCA showed when it balked at the American Arabian Mission initiated by Samuel M. Zwemer, which was endorsed only after five years of discussion. (In a classic instance of how outliers become sanctified, New Brunswick Theological Seminary eventually named its main campus building after him.)
Is it fair to wonder whether my discomfort with churches coming to the RCA stems from the fact that I just don’t know exactly what’s going on, when all my life I’ve been near the center of a (albeit tiny) circle, and hence able to see clearly in all directions? Is this territory too uncharted? Am I simply in an interim stage of unknowing?
I’ve always been humbled by missionaries, as they paraded around the floor of General Synod in years past, wearing exotic (to me) clothing. They told stories of establishing a school with a Kenyan people group, or translating the gospel into dozens of languages, or bearing faithful witness to Christ in contexts where few if any new disciples have ever been made. Such grand tales!
I compared them to the lack of dramatic stories in my little church in Iowa. The missionaries were significant in ways I longed to be. The missionaries’ stories became the hagiography written on my heart. They had renounced themselves, took up their crosses, and, really, followed Jesus. I pondered all they had sacrificed: their majority status, their USAmerican identity; their like-me-ness. I was, indeed, deeply humbled for a season.
Then I went home. We all went home, to our old normal.
I don’t know the way forward for the RCA any better than anyone else.
What I wonder about is the source of my discomfort, which finds immediate expression in the need to move prudently and define policy and vet candidates from other places and discern their motives. Well, those matters all have their place, and, certainly we need to be clear and honest, not just about who “they” are, but about who “we” are. (And who is the “we?”)
But prudence and policy and vetting and decency and orderliness may also be my natural defensive responses to being decentered, i.e., my resistance to no longer being a sender of missionaries, but a person to whom missionaries are being sent. I can never discount my own lack of willingness to “bear the mark of nails.” (To be clear: this is a reflection and offering of my internal dialogue, and is not meant as a critique of anyone else’s words or motivations.)
Perhaps the way of radiance in the RCA for such a time as this is a radical (and perhaps reckless) welcome, which, because it involves deep encounter, will necessarily require deep change. Perhaps conversion is what lies ahead, not only for me, but for many others like me. Perhaps Christ is calling me to be converted to a new way, not only of seeing myself, but a new way of walking with him along the pathway to my own Damascus: blinded for a time, but on the way to meeting but Ezequiel or Freddy or Rosa or Sung, who, if they are patient and are willing to show me grace, will help the scales fall from my eyes. Perhaps even I can hear the call to help the RCA take root in places as foreign to me as Colossi, and Philippi, Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus were to Paul.
It would be a very different future for the RCA, indeed. Perhaps, regardless of whatever gains or privilege I possess that have made me “confident in the flesh,” the call of God for this time and place – the call of God for me — is to “come to regard [such gain] as loss because of Christ.”
And to become, for Christ’s sake, weird.