“One day I want to marry with you.” Thus began my now-husband’s request for us to pursue a serious relationship. In Creole “marry me” is replaced with “marye avèk mwen” (marry with me). There are other things like this in the language. Love with me. Talk with me. Kiss with me. When on a motorcycle there is no “rider” you are both just on the motorcycle, together. These are interesting things to ponder grammatically.
In Haiti the very language makes many things I knew only in an individualized context about partnership. My actions are less about me and more about us. I like to refer to each of those sentences as “a with.”
I think there is a lesson buried in the Creole language for the body of Christ. For missionaries particularly.
A “With” In Scripture
One of my favorite writings of Paul is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8. He is writing to the young church of Thessalonians. He says this:
For our appeal does not come from delusion or impure motives or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very lives, because you had become very dear to us.1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 (emphasis added)
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were first “approved by God” (tried and proven faithful) then “entrusted with the gospel” (sent out to share the hope they found with the lost). They went preaching and teaching in new areas. As men were being saved, they dicipled them and taught them to do the same for their people. This was the Great Commision at work.
I want to look not only at the fact that these men went onto a mission field, but also how they went.
First, “without delusion.” They knew preaching this gospel would be costly to themselves and their families. They weren’t blinded by some rosy picture of ministry without hardship. “Without impure motives.” They weren’t in it for their own gain. Riches. Fame. Reputation. Or fun. “Without any attempt to deceive.” They weren’t sugar coating the gospel to get converts, hiding information that might be hard to swallow, or promoting a denomination, rather the simple truth of Jesus Christ.
“Not to please man.” Whether the ones back home that thought they should go or the ones on the field who longed for them to come. “Not with words of flattery.” Not hiding the fact that these new believers were sinners, in order that they would not feel convicted. “Not with greed.” Not caring about numbers or getting money for themselves. “Not seeking glory from people.”
“With gentleness.” Calling out sin in love and not harshness. Offering a hand up rather than a pointing finger. “With care.” The focus was on the people, caring for each of their hearts, being willing to sit down with them and listen and share Christ without another agenda. “With affection.” Loving and tender affection. Sweetness.
“With the sharing of lives.” Now this is the greatest of points Paul was making.
The Short Term Missions Facade
In 2017, I signed up to go to Haiti for the first time. In preparation for that trip I gathered gifts for the children at the school. I walked every day trying to work up some muscle for our looming 6-hour mountain hike.
I remember thinking, “I hope I can do enough for these people to make it worthwhile. Worth the time, worth the money, worth the physical toil.” I thought my going to Haiti was going to have an impact on the people. As if somehow, one week in my presence would be life changing for them.
My expectations of being the hero were instantly shattered. I couldn’t even carry my own backpack up the trail. I couldn’t help build the roof. (Because I am a woman and culturally it is a man’s job.) I couldn’t share much of the gospel because our translator was stretched thin. They fed me, they offered a hand when I stumbled, they carried my bag, they shared stories that encouraged my faith, they sacrificed for my comfort.
Oftentimes, coming from America, we have this mentality that we are in ministry to a certain people group. We are encouraged to “do missions,” because of what a great impact we will be making on those poor kids in Africa. We are told we have so much to offer. Not only do we have Jesus, but we have so much more. As if our riches are worth anything eternally.
Scenarios On The Field
There are many attitudes of newbies going on to the mission field as well as long termers that vary greatly from Paul’s description in Thessalonians. I’m going to spell out some popular mindsets I have seen in Haiti and elsewhere. Then I’m going to give the probable outcome of each of them.
You go with great expectations. Thinking God needs you and the people need you and you will be of so much help. Full of the idea that ministry looks like rescuing people from death daily and hundreds of converts in the first month. Your sacrifice seems so extraordinary, your faithfulness exemplary.
Ministry quickly becomes a let down–mundane, boring, and stressful. Everyone wants something and your riches suddenly seem too small to help with all the needs. Burn out sets in. You quit and leave with some excuse about God calling you into a season elsewhere. Locals are left with resentment and distrust of missionaries.
You have big plans. You get on the field and instantly find opportunities. Beautiful pictures with poor kids clutter your once boring social media, though you don’t even know their names. Money starts pouring in and you become the hero, building things and funding programs. You don’t have time to learn the language or consult the locals on your choices. Barging ahead, your ministry grows. Your living grows more comfortable too and soon you have all the modern American conveniences in a third world country.
Locals get turned off to the idea of missionaries. The sharing of the gospel is hindered by the created gap of high and low standards of living. Distrust of the Christian’s motives develops. People come to Christ for stuff then fall away when they remain poor. The missionaries “ministry” becomes more of a money maker and a show than anything else.
The Guilt Trip
You didn’t plan on being a missionary. You just went for the experience. The kids touched your heart. They looked so hungry and so needy. You realized you have too much and were depressed by it. So, you started helping. You hand out cash to beggars, you find some orphanages online to send money too, you are moved by every sad story and your reaction is to give more. Your guilt lessens when you give to the needy. Your giving stays material. You are out on your own with no local Christians to consult or feed your support through.
The focus is off of Jesus. Missionary gets taken advantage of. Locals become less independent and their ability to survive is threatened by too many handouts. Base level relationships form but never go deeper. No lasting impact or sustainable methods. The ignorant giving funds trafficking rings, an orphanage of neglect, or is used in ways unintended by the giver.
You’ve seen so many ministries that are just about material help. You know God calls us to store up spiritual riches and not material. You go onto the field to do it right. True missionaries don’t fundraise. You go village to village evangelizing, telling people to turn from their sins and be saved, that God will bless those who love Him, that Christ can pull them out of their poverty. You go back to the US or on to a new area (or country) leaving behind new converts.
Without oversight or mentorship new Christians fall away. Babies are left to fend for themselves. The gospel is shared outside of any true relationship with the locals. Physical needs are not met. The sound of people’s hunger keeps them from hearing the gospel.
We’ve all seen at least one of these ministry fails. If you have gone on many missions trips you’ve probably seen all of them. We could point out several theology flaws at the root of each of these mindsets. Yet, it doesn’t need to be complicated.
In studying the New Testament church, and the way they went about spreading the gospel, I see a common theme. Every new area, every new group of converts, every ministry is going to be different practically. The dynamics of ministry will vary from culture to culture.
The point I am trying to make is not that giving isn’t Biblical, or that preaching in the streets is bad, or that big programs or A/C is inherently wrong.
Trust is built with time. Teaching happens in the mundane moments as doors open. Friendship leads to mentorship. The observation of your life leads to questions, deep spiritual questions and hunger to have what you have. And when a platform opens for you to preach, ears are opened and minds attentive. Not everyone will open the doors of their life and let you in, yet even if it’s only one, it’s worth it.
My Personal Delusion
I’ve gone through overcoming some of the above mindsets too. After all, I was a short termer with the cool t-shirts and high expectations. I too wanted to go in and fix everything for the people I was serving without asking their opinions or being willing to use some of their methods to achieve an outcome. I sped into missions ready to get going.
After the ideal of saving the world vanished, I crashed into the mundane, rather it crashed into me. I had to face reality. I became painfully aware that I could do nothing to fix Haiti. I didn’t have the money to end hunger in my village. I didn’t have the medical knowledge to keep dear friends alive. Over and over I felt like a failure. Those were dark seasons of my life.
But through those unwelcomed experiences I came to understand and appreciate these verses in Thessalonians. I was no longer delusional and no longer needed the praise and approval of other missionaries or people back home.
I wanted them to see me strong, gifted, and put together. Instead they saw me broken, weak, and needy. I wanted them to need me instead we needed each other. Some days I would teach them through a VBS story lesson or have the opportunity to share why I could smile at losses because I still had Jesus or explain why it is worth it to leave everything behind and become a part of their lives. Other days their joy in trial or peace in terminal sickness encouraged me in my own sufferings. Their blooming faith made mine stronger and my steady faith encouraged growth in theirs.
If I had held on to my fascination with being the hero I would have been out of Haiti long ago. No human can measure up to savior. Being fake is a recipe for mission field disaster! You may be a stronger Christian, or the only Christian, yet when you are humble you will find one million lessons those natives can teach you. Jesus didn’t only preach on a hill, He also shared meals with sinners, visited their homes, lived as the poor, and washed feet. Paul, in this passage, says that he “shared his life” with the people he was sent to reach.
How To Share Your Life
Sharing our lives sounds wonderful, and it is. At the same time much grace is needed. There are many learning moments when immersing yourself in another culture. Even if it is not overseas. Ministry always takes wisdom to navigate. I want to lay out a few warnings and encouragements for this task.
- Recognize the difference between Biblical commands and cultural or denominational defined traditions. There is no need to cause division and disunity over a personal tradition, cultural difference, or conviction.
- Don’t rush relationship forming, trust is earned slowly. Expecting to be treated as one of their own in a month’s time is just setting yourself up for failure. It took over three years for my friends and acquaintances in Haiti to stop referring to me as “the foreigner.” Patience is huge in missions.
- Ask for help. It’s not bad to have programs. In fact structure is needed for ministry to continue! Involve locals. Give the people opportunities to help you and teach you practical things. Spark a vision in local believers (or new converts) to make a change in their own communities alongside you and things will go further. Give a hand up, but don’t put yourself in the position of carrying the people with handouts.
- Don’t do for someone what they can do for themselves. This one is a mistake most short term mission teams make. Don’t take a paintbrush away from a local painter just because you need something to do! Let your focus be on sharing Christ and filling gaps that cannot be filled by a native.
- Embrace the beauties of the culture and recognize the unique gifts of the people. Sometimes our focus gets so set on doing everything and having big things to show to supporters back home that we forget to be present. Missionaries often start out in awe of the beautiful things God is doing then slowly forget that loving the people they are serving is the most important witnessing tool. Never forget to be in awe that you are witness of God’s work to unite His people of all cultures and colors.
- People above programs. I remember some personality quiz that equated people with an animal that had the same tendencies. There was one creature that was said to “value relationships with people over tasks” and another that cared “more about the task then bonding with the others who they were working with.” I don’t remember which animal was which, but in ministry we should be like the first. Whatever we are doing, take time to listen to others, share our hearts, pray for needs, be willing to pause everything and be available if the Holy Spirit would lead us to conversation with someone. It is the souls of men that God cares about, and so should we.
- Not in our strength, but with Christ. Above all prayer must be central. With Christ we can overcome cultural obstacles. With Christ we defeat negative thought patterns. With Christ we can rise above critics. With Christ we can master a language. With Christ we can discern differing traditions. With Christ we can take hold of unlikely opportunities. With Christ we can love people as a mother loves her child. With Christ we can share the gospel boldly. With Christ we can share our lives well.
At the end of our lives let us be found faithful servants who can say to those we served—
We did not go to you because we were delusional. We had no impure motives and did not attempt to deceive. Just as we were approved by God and entrusted with the gospel, we spoke, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. We never went into ministry with words of flattery, or with greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from those we ministered to or our families or friends, though we could have demanded their praise and their help as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among those we served, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. We were affectionately desirous of you, we were ready, and shared with you not only the gospel of God but also our very lives, because you had become very dear to us. (My paraphrase of the passage from Thessalonians.)
Let us, wherever we find ourselves, not be an island, but do life AVÈK whoever God leads us to minister to. Whether it be in Africa, Asia, South America, or simply in a neighborhood in the states.