A number of years ago, some short-term missionaries and I went to visit a remote unreached community in the Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. Our reception, and that of the Gospel, was astounding. We had laid some groundwork in the area previously, but it was quiet and very much under the radar. Having asked for their permission to return with some more people later (something I always ask for), we did exactly that. Things actually went quite well. In that situation, there were pictures taken of those ministering with those being ministered to etc., and no one had problems with it. I know the value of a good ministry/mission pic. In fact, those pictures can often mean the difference between life and death of a missionary’s support and the mission work itself.
It’s the kind of thing that tweaks everyone’s conscience, but we convince ourselves that taking pictures is for the greater good and that it will only help to more effectively reach people for Christ.
Having spent over 10 years in the field, I have made many such concessions in order to make sure that the work goes on. I have posted a lot of pics. A LOT! Recently, someone told me that seeing pictures, for them, was ‘inspirational.’ I can understand that, and for the most part I’d agree. But photo ops, if we’re honest, happen best when ministry is superficial. There’s always a degree of staging or posing which contributes to disingenuousness.
Something tragic happened in the community I mentioned above, although I can not say for sure that it was our fault. There was a man in the community who was very glad to see us. He approached us and was happy that Christians had come to his small neighborhood so far ‘away from civilization.’ We had great discussions with him and made commitments to come back and see him again. He was not from this community, but had moved there to start fresh… to simply get another chance at life.
We left the community that day proud of ourselves for having ’planted a new church.’ Many ‘accepted Christ into their hearts,’ (unfortunate phrase)* etc. Reports could be sent back to the sending church, pictures could be relayed, and we could feel content with having started a new work. The short-term mission team left, and a small group of us continued to visit, talk about matters of faith, and have genuine fellowship with people there.
Only a short time after the initial visit, we heard of the brutal murder of that man. People went to that community to find him and kill him, and had succeeded in shooting him there, but he escaped and went to a nearby town for medical attention. After he left the clinic, he was trying to get back to his home in that remote community and was met once again by the same people. They shot him again and killed him.
As I said, I can’t say that it was our fault for taking pictures, posting them on social media etc., but it seemed too coincidental. Additionally, I was unsure of his faith and his commitment to Christ. The man who might have been looking for salvation, might have found death and lostness because of our felt need to publish our efforts.
It makes me sad still when I think about it, but it did teach me a valuable lesson.
I want to be clear. This article is not about Mission Selfies or the potential dangers, it’s about a much deeper issue.
I just got back from working in the Earthquake torn Ecuadorian Coast and doing some very effective ministry there with others who sacrificed much to do the same. I saw and heard some heart wrenching things. I was in situations where people wanted to get their pictures taken and some where taking photos was absolutely prohibited. I personally had contact with a gang leader, some very rough folks, and a lot of hurting and displaced people.
Truth is, I couldn’t take many pictures while in the throws of that grunt mission/ministry work because:
- It might have put both me and the people I was ministering to in danger.
- It might have been disruptive to the spiritual work going on. (Which is much more common)
- It might have communicated that our differences were vast and that I was more concerned with taking pictures ‘of them’ than identifying ‘with them’ in their needs.
There were very few opportunities to collect data, i.e. photos, to send back to folks who supported and might continue to support this work or others like it.
I can assure you though, there was some very serious work going on. So much so in fact, that I saw the need to raise more support for a continuing work along the 5-700 kilometers of the coast that suffered, and continues to suffer, from the earthquake.
To be honest, it shocked me that folks weren’t ‘jumping all over the opportunity’ to help. But I get it, I really do. Both you and I have been conditioned to missionary work as usual. There’s a protocol, if you will. You build vision, you do your homework (hopefully), you send forward observers, and then send a team to work short-term. You take a bunch of pictures, write up a report, give a mission-success presentation at your church, and then try to go back or throw your support behind a person who has committed to follow-up. At each step in the process, support is needed and sought after.
How else can a missionary raise support for the work?
It struck me then. What about those who work with underground churches in China? What about those who work in countries or zones where conversion to Christianity is a death sentence? Where are the mission-selfies from those works? Preposterous question right?
I know some folks who are in situations like those. They never check-in to a location on Facebook, they never take pictures, and they never mention anything that could put their lives or the lives of others in jeopardy. They dress like the culture they’re imbedded into, talk like them, eat like them, and participate in their activities. They take every step to not be ‘noticeable’ in their respective tasks. But, they are supported. People who understand that paradigm also understand that there is no glory in giving to those causes. They understand that in order for real work to happen, it must be quiet and somewhat obscured.
For the past year or more I have found myself working with a people who are nomadic, estranged, on the run, political refugees, displaced, and unique. They are also conscientious and contributing members of their respective communities. In many respects they live a more sanctified life than many believers I know. But, they are also without Christ. Some, because they simply chose to run away from hypocrisy, others because the gospel has not been communicated to them in a way that they can understand.They haven’t met folks who are willing to befriend them because of the stigma that comes along with hanging out with folks like them. Truth be told, there’s very little return on investment in working with these kinds of folks in mission because taking pictures and giving reports is not going to be understood BY THEM. In other words, they may feel used by you in getting what you want at the the cost of their need. It’s a different language. Your very presence amongst them communicates. How that presence is interpreted by those you’re taking pictures of can vary. Not to mention that the device you’re using to take photos often represents months of meals for them and their families. In any case, I can assure you, there’s some very real and good work going on.
When Hudson Taylor dressed like the people he ministered to and acted a preservative to that culture instead of one trying to change it, his actions were celebrated. I’m sure that some believers had thought he’d ‘gone native,’ but they were few. He also never solicited funds for his mission, but the support did come. His faith and manner of mission was only challenged by the most ardent of the religious community from where he came from in the West.
My appearance, style of dress, and activities have changed greatly over the past year and a half, but unlike Taylor, the bulk of my fellow believers who are looking in from the outside think that I have ‘gone native’ and left God behind. This is far from the truth. Because I am posting fewer pictures of myself doing classical missionary stuff in classical missionary ways, my faith and my calling has been called into question. All I can say, is walk with me for a while and make your own decision.
I suppose it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the missionary that you are supporting? Do you trust that the work you are supporting is being done? Have you talked to him or her personally or asked questions about things that might give you pause? Are you confident that even in the absence of normal mission shots or detailed reports that Christ is being represented? Can you accept the fact that mission work can be as diverse as the nations we’re called to reach?
I am entering into a phase of missionary work with a unique people group that requires an extreme amount of subtlety. It is risky, and sometimes dangerous, work. It is a challenge to get folks behind the effort in the absence of traditional mission marketing.
I am not alone out here in my efforts even though it might feel like that at times. There are very traditional people and churches that know what I am up to and whom I remain accountable to.There are also some very untraditional and anonymous ones that have a deep-seated desire not to be known for which works/missionaries they support. But they are the exception rather than the rule. For me, things are very different than I would have imagined over 10 years ago when I left for the mission field. Im looking for people who are willing to risk with me. Take a risk on me. I am looking for people who will come and work with me in ways which might not make any sense to them but are willing to learn. I am looking for folks who will support my current trajectory, and who trust that the Lord has me right where he wants me. I am a different sort of missionary than I was just a couple of years ago. I wait in faith for those who are a different sort of missionary/mission supporter than they were a few years ago.
I need your support
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If you have questions, you can email me here.
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* "Accepting Christ into one's heart," is not biblical language and is at best confusing. Revelation 3:20, a verse commonly used to substantiate this idea mentions nothing of the heart nor requires a believer to 'ask' anything. In this case, Jesus is asking the Laodiceans (a church) to be restored to a right relationship with Him. John 1:12,13 may be helpful as well. The word 'receive' is commonly used in the NT but not with the idea of 'into one's heart' as a sign of salvation.