There seem to be two types of stories about missional work. The first, and perhaps most prevalent, is triumphal. These are stories of work in hard places, of people coming to faith, and of missionaries who seem like superheroes. The second type of missionary stories often come from people who have become disillusioned and see missionaries as foolish or dangerous. Those stories show ways missionaries have failed or done damage. They portray missionaries as the anti-hero. So, is the missionary the hero or the villain? Which story is true?
The problem with both types of stories is that the heart of the gospel, which is the heart of missions, isn’t primarily about missionaries at all. It is about Jesus, who came to bring good news to the whole world. He is the one who lived a perfect life, loved the world unto death, and destroyed our enemies through his resurrection. He is always the only Savior in the gospel story.
Jesus as Our Example
When I look at the life of Jesus, I marvel at his humility. He came into the world as a baby, dependent on his parents and community. He grew and listened and learned. He made it his work to identify with the rest of humanity.
One of the clearest places I see the humility of Christ is when he washes the disciples’ feet on the night he was to be betrayed. Scripture says,
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.John 13:3–5
Here we see Jesus about to walk through the most excruciating day of his life. But he knows where he came from and where he is going. He is so connected to his heavenly Father that he was able to serve the very disciples who would soon abandon him. He was not concerned with establishing a reputation because he knew who he was and still is. He also knew that true greatness meant putting aside his rightful place of honor and picking up a towel. He took a role the disciples found demeaning. He washed their feet—feet that would become dirty again tomorrow.
Mission work often feels like washing feet that will just get dusty and dirty again. Only when we trust the finished work of Jesus and when we know that we are going to be with him and the Father, will we have the power to love and serve others.
Expectations vs. Reality
People who serve as missionaries have differing experiences. Many come hopeful and energized but leave demoralized, discouraged, and sometimes even questioning the work of the church in the world. Others work for a lifetime with hope and grace and joy. They work through challenging seasons and experience discouragement and disappointment, yet they seem able to maintain a quiet confidence that God is working even in the midst of failures, loss, and transition. How do they maintain peace and joy when their work feels like failure?
When I first moved to Uganda, I thought I was going to help people. But when I landed, I realized that I didn’t initially have much to offer. I didn’t know anything about living in the place where I landed. I needed other people to help me shop in the market, cook in my kitchen, and understand the local language. The tables were turned on my expectations of being helpful almost immediately, because I became the person who needed help.
In the life of faith, we are not defined by success or failure. Our identity is rooted only in Jesus and his steadfast love. This frees us to love those we serve without looking to their response to define us.
Obedience to God does not guarantee an easy life—it carried Jesus to the cross. Obedience also doesn’t mean honor or glory. Jesus was often misunderstood, overlooked, and even hated. While he was rescuing the whole world, even his closest friends didn’t understand what he was doing and abandoned him. And yet, Christian culture today often sees suffering, failure, and loss as signs that God isn’t working and that you should move on to bigger and better things.
Living on Mission
How do we live on mission? We continue to find our identity in Jesus, we embrace commonality with those we seek to serve, we admit our own neediness and dependence, and we look for opportunities to wash others’ feet. Only then will we find strength and joy in missional living and have a powerful witness. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus told them, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Splashed across television screens, I have seen the great neediness of Africa: pictures of starving children and dying babies and families ravaged by HIV. Yet, living in Africa, I have seen families and communities working together. I have seen people laughing and entrepreneurs successfully building businesses. Even in suffering and poverty and in humble tasks of service, people are God’s image bearers, full of beauty and light.
Spend time together praying for God’s Spirit to show you the beauty of humility. Praise God for the ways he has pursued you and still pursues you in love. Confess ways you look for success or a good reputation to reassure you of your standing with God or with others. Ask God to grow in you a new confidence in your identity in Christ and to give you freedom to serve others humbly.
Excerpted from The Mission-Centered Life: Following Jesus into the Broken Places © 2019 by Bethany Ferguson. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
The Mission-Centered Life: Following Jesus Into the Broken Places
For Christians who long to serve God in broken places but aren’t sure where to start, The Mission-Centered Life speaks to the “whys” and “hows” of missional living. Bethany Ferguson shares why holistic missions are needed, how God’s grace empowers us to serve in places of need, what to do when we fail as missionaries, and how to cultivate hope in the midst of a broken world.