Our mission agency is currently trying to convince us all that we need to write job descriptions for ourselves. I’m not sure what I think of this idea. I don’t feel particularly warm to it, but I don’t know if that’s just because I’m a typical gen-Xer* who prefers having freedom to being nailed down and put into a box, or because I’m against bureaucracy in general, or because I’m against managerial missiology in all its forms and I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe a bit of all of the above. On the other hand, I am in favour of missionaries being self-evaluative, and thinking about whether what they’re actually doing relates to what they think they should be doing.
But there’s another reason to be in favour of job descriptions for missionaries: it helps to remind us that there’s no such thing as a typical missionary. Yeah, it’s something that we say: “I’m a missionary.” But it’s like saying “I’m an office worker.” It doesn’t communicate at all what you do. There are missionaries who are Bible translators, and some who are pastors, and some who are preachers, and some who are musicians, and some who are IT consultants, and some who are development workers, and some who do disaster relief, and get this, there are some who are not pastors or preachers or church workers in any sense, and yet they still get lumped in with this general category of “missionary”, which makes people think that they are church workers.
There are some senses in which “missionary” is a useful word, but on the whole I am starting to wonder if we’re better off without it.
There are two reasons why I’m in favour of the term as it’s currently used. The first is because it still carries overtones of Victorians in pith helmets and I enjoy appropriating and subverting stereotypes. But that’s a bit of a silly reason. The more sensible reason is that it reminds us that what we do, whatever we do, is vocational, it is related to a bigger and wider mission, and it happens as a result of God’s sending and self-sending into the world. Those are good things. They’re almost enough to make me want to keep hold of it.
On the other hand, though, I work in Japan. The Japanese word for missionary literally means “religion-spreading teacher”, which is horrible. (And OK, I know words aren’t just the sum of their constituent morphemes, but by goodness there isn’t a single one of those morphemes I’d like to keep.) Not only that, but here it conjures up the image of a particular skill-set which is just one subset of what mission is about; here, a “missionary” is a preacher, (maybe primarily a preacher) evangelist, and pastor. There is no other kind.
But I don’t want to be a pastor. I have zero–well OK, less than zero–desire to pastor a Japanese church. Yet if there’s a need for pastors in local churches, denominational leaders look at us with this wide-eyed stare as if to say “What do you mean, you don’t want to pastor our churches? You’re missionaries, aren’t you?” Now of course there are different kinds of missionary, and of course to me that question reads like, “What do you mean you don’t play the xylophone? You’re musicians, aren’t you?” But that’s because right here the cultural understanding of the word “missionary” in Japanese churches–and, I suspect, a lot of other places to–is equal to “church worker.”
Maybe if we dropped the word “missionary” and started describing what it is we actually do, that might start to change. Let’s not be senkyoshi, “religion-spreading teachers”, but let’s be kyokaikaitakusha, “church pioneers”. Maybe that would help.
Well, who am I kidding; you don’t change a culture just by changing the terminology. But at least it would mean that we could shoot back some wide-eyed stares of our own: “What do you mean, you’re asking us to pastor a church? We’re church pioneers, aren’t we?”
* Apparently at a recent convention in our agency, they had a session on working across generations, and someone said, “If you want to see how Generation Y thinks, go and look at Simon’s blog.” I feel flattered, but not necessarily convinced.