The Do-Nothing Missionary
By: Joe Webb
“What are we going to do?” It was the first question I asked Doug Patterson when I met with him a little over a year ago to discuss joining the Orphan’s Tree team he was leading to Ivanovo in May 2013.
I thought it was a perfectly natural question. After all, weren’t “mission trips” all about doing something? Weren’t we supposed to build things, fix things, provide things to help the people we were going to see?
Doug quickly set me straight.
“The first thing you have to do is get it out of your head that we’re going to do anything.”
But Doug was right. And that statement has re-shaped my entire vision not only of what “mission” means, but what the church IS.
I have to admit, though, I didn’t get it all at once. “What do you mean we’re not going to do anything?” I retorted. “How am I supposed to explain to people why I’m going on this trip? How am I going to convince anyone to support me financially? What am I even supposed to tell people to pray about? If I’m not going to do anything, why would I go at all?”
Gently, in his best Santa-Claus-esque pastoral style, Doug laid it out for me. “We have to get past that American notion that it’s our job to save the world, to swoop in and fix everyone’s problems. That’s not what it’s about. What we’re going to do is simply to be…to be present for the kids, for the staff at the ministry center. To be their friends. It’s not about fixing anything. It’s about creating relationships.”
As I began to understand more about Orphan’s Tree and the work it does in Russia, I began to see the sense in Doug’s statement. To kids who have grown up in a strictly custodial environment and who suddenly find themselves in a complicated, competitive world, there’s not much you can do to “fix” anything for them. Apart from some simple infrastructure at the ministry centers, there’s not really anything to be built, no real physical labor to do.
What needs “fixed” for these kids is their ability to form relationships. Without it, they’re at a high risk at best, and doomed at worst, to perpetuate the cycle of helplessness and hopelessness orphans in Russia face.
But if they can experience genuine, healthy, authentic human relationships, if they can learn to trust, if they can learn to love and be loved, everything can change.
Of course, visiting Ivanovo brought all of that into clear focus. Once I was in a room with those kids, sharing a meal, playing guitar and singing with them, hanging out in the mall, and beating Oleg and Sergei at air hockey (seriously, they need a LOT of practice!) the truth of it all came to light.
And that truth went much deeper than flying to Russia to play air hockey with a bunch of orphaned teenagers.
It opened my mind to the reality that mission, at its heart, no matter what face it takes, is really all about relationships. And that, really, the only reason the church exists is for that mission.
Now that notion may fly in the face of what we believe about mission and what we believe about church. We’ve been conditioned to believe the church is made for worship, and that mission is something the church does in order to make other people’s lives better. And while there’s certainly some validity to our call to worship and improve others’ circumstances, it’s not, at the the most basic level, what church is about.
When you think it through, it’s really a pretty simple concept. And it’s based in the gospel itself. God created us in his image, in the imago dei, to be in relationship with him. Our rebellion broke the relationship, and ever since, God has been on a mission, his missio dei, to repair that relationship.
God called out Israel to display the imago dei to the world, and, in doing so, to fulfill the missio dei. But Israel began to see its calling as a privilege rather than a purpose. And so, ultimately, Jesus comes as God incarnate to fulfill the missio dei and restore the imago dei.
As the church, the people baptized into the life of Jesus, we carry his mission forward. It is now upon us to become the imago dei and to fulfill the missio dei.
Anything we try to do that doesn’t have that mission at its heart is simply contrary to our identity. And maybe that’s why sometimes church is so hard. We try to make it for us. We try to make it something that fills our needs. But what we miss is that we are most fulfilled when we are fulfilling the mission to which we are called.
Yes, the church is a worshipping community. Yes, it is a place of healing and nurture and making whole. Yes, it is a place where personal and spiritual growth can and does occur.
But those things are all an outgrowth of the missio dei. They’re how we become the imago dei.
So let us be about the business of relationships. Sometimes that means drilling water wells or building schools or translating Bibles. Sometimes is means supplying medicine or growing food or teaching skills.
But mostly, it means just being. Being present. Being authentic. Spending time with people. Sharing meals. Playing air hockey.
Sometimes we can’t fix anything. But we can always be a friend.