It was 1992, and after only two years on the field we were “back home,” at least in the minds of our fellow Americans. But we were planning our return to Italy, for that was where God had called us and planted our hearts.
We’d gone out full of big dreams and great plans. But finance trickled in, and we struggled to put food on the table. Plus unsettled debt also took a good chunk of that already small pie. So we decided to temporarily move back to the USA and get things in order.
We shared back home just how difficult it had been for us financially. And we were told, “Well, you’re ‘real missionaries now.” With the obvious inference that real missionaries live in need. Lacking even basic things like new shoes or winter coats for their children. (Because yes, that was how tough it had been sometimes.)
A real missionary
Lacking basic necessities makes someone a real missionary? How could we respond to such statements? How would you respond?
No response came to me then. But today, after 30+ years on the field I have one. “No,” I would say. “That didn’t make us real missionaries. It only made us poor folk.” Living in poverty doesn’t make anyone a missionary. It only makes them poor!
A real missionary is a person sent-out on a mission – with the resources needed to achieve their task.
Missionaries are just people like you. Their children outgrow clothing, their cars break down and need fuel. They need a roof over their head and food on the table. And on top of that, ministry costs often have to come out of whatever support they receive.
“Tent-making” can help
Our offerings have improved over the years, but still only cover rent and utilities. So for this and other reasons, we decided to become bivocational (or tent-making) missionaries. As citizens we can work here, and it’s a real blessing to us.
But it’s important to keep in mind that many missionaries can’t get work permits. And if they could, they would often be taking work away from poor people who desparately need it.
We chose tent-making because it offers other advantages as well. We don’t have to spend time, emotional energy, or limited funds traveling home to raise support. And also because working just like everyone else helps us fit in better. Yet holding down a secular job takes time away from the work God has called us to do. So there are pros and cons.
A call to common sense
Please don’t think I’m complaining or making a financial plea. We are not as poor as in our early years, when we had to eat wormy cans of meat. We now have all we need (and then some). And our hearts overflow with gratitude.
A call to prayer
Rather, I’m sharing because this warped notion that missionaries should be poor actually hinders and slows missions work. Because while tent-making has positive aspects, holding down a secular job takes time away from the work God has called them to do.
Equating missionary with poverty is illogical. Common sense tells us that completing any task requires resources. And that worry over finances almost always saps energy and concentration, making it harder to complete that task.
Common sense says “real missionaries” are those who, having the necessary resources at hand, are getting on with their work. Fulfilling their mission.
And sensibility urges us to:
- Ask after the sent-out ones we know and learn how they’re doing.
- Inquire about their basic needs, physical, financial, and emotional.
- Discover the vision that propels them forward, and what they dream of doing.
- Learn what they lack that keeps them from being real missionaries, in the true sense of the word, able to get on with their task.
Have you ever questioned whether the missionaries you know are real missionaries? What yardstick did you use? Which will you use in the future? And how will YOU help them measure up?