It’s always been there for the kid growing up in the church. It’s not talked about much because to do so might make others question our Christian commitment. And God knows we wouldn’t want that.
After all, we have an image to protect.
But it’s always there.
If only it were a childhood disease that one out grows. But it’s not. It’s residual and in many cases, increasing in intensity as one ages. Depending on our brand of church, the symptoms of this condition vary. For some, a constant low-grade fever fueled by weekly announcements from the pulpit, prayer letters in our mailbox and ever present bulletin board posters. For others, months of asymptomatic remission interrupted by intense flare ups during spring break and one full week in the fall when it manifests itself into a full blown malady so overwhelming we are confined to our home.
Or the bar.
Anywhere but church.
Old-timers like myself know it well. We can spot the symptoms from 20 pews away.
It’s INAMS. The “I’m Not A Missionary Syndrome”.
Most every evangelical church is involved with mission programs. A few have it written into their constitution. “We commit ourselves to the support of gospel missionaries both foreign and domestic”, or some such noble wording. Jesus called us to “go into all the world and make disciples”. If it’s in His Book then we better put it in our by-laws.
The problem is that over the centuries we’ve come to define “all the world” as any place but where we live. The world is “out there”. Preferably someplace that requires a series of painful immunizations and a passport for entry. Because God gives bonus points to those selfless, dedicated souls who give up their brick business in Birmingham to go teach Bible in Botswana. And if their brick business was a BOOMING brick business in Birmingham, then expect some magazine articles and maybe a Christian book deal. After all, people need to know how they, too, can be true believers.
(Well, that and we’re not above publicizing our humility as long as it’s for the cause of the gospel, right?)
Because real Christians never stay home. They go somewhere else. Real Christians only come home for Christmas every third year on a furlough because real Christians are “out there” in the world.
At least that’s how those of us who suffer from “I’m Not A Missionary Syndrome” feel.
Understand clearly, it’s not the pastors or missionaries who are holding themselves as holier than us. To the contrary, 99% of pastors and missionaries know better than anyone that they serve by the grace of God in spite of their shortcomings. As do we all. The 1% of pastors and missionaries who think the show is all about them are insufferable self-aggrandizing people who sooner or later hang themselves on the gallows of their own narcissism. Pride goes before a fall. Vocational Christian workers are not exempt from that truth.
If it’s a matter of blame, there’s plenty to go around. Start with the false distinction we promote in church on a near weekly basis. It’s the phrase that puts a wrinkle in my church bulletin every time it’s uttered.
“Full-time Christian service.”
Every time I hear someone say “full-time Christian service” I want to scream. What does that make the rest of us? Part-timers?
The phrase “full-time Christian service” is typically reserved for pastors and missionaries. It’s for those whose paychecks come from a church or mission board. Part of the blame is ours, those of us who sit in the pews or padded chairs. Over time, we develop an unspoken attitude of, “We pay them to do ministry. It’s their job.” It relieves the guilt we feel of not being in that position ourselves.
And because we pay them through our tithes and offerings, we have expectations. Unrealistic expectations. We want our pastors to be captivating speakers, intuitive counselors, visionary leaders, soul winning evangelists, compassionate care givers, and selfless servants. Oh, and we want their marriage to be perfect, their children to be angels, that they strike perfect balance between work and home and be available 24/7 if and when we need them. But hey, no pressure, pastor. Because we want you to be relaxed and fresh when we introduce you to our neighbor who’s looking for a new church.
The same goes for missionaries. As the old saying has it, “All of us are equal, but some of us are more equal than others.” For those of us who suffer from INAMS, this is where our condition becomes acute. It’s our own fault. We’ve placed missionaries on this pedestal. Missionaries are the Grand Poo-Bah’s for those of us with INAMS. We feel guilty enough that we aren’t pastors or even para-church workers here in the states. When we get the prayer letters from our missionaries in Germany and Malawi and Papua New Guinea, we envision all the stars in their crown while we stare at our little tin badge. They translated Ephesians 1 into a native language last month. We generated a couple hundred TPS reports at work, identified the source of the foul odor in the minivan and finally got the 3-year old to stop saying “poop”. Two accomplishments that, thankfully, were unrelated.
This is why so many Christians who never miss a Sunday will find a way to be gone during their church’s annual missions week. We can barely handle the guilt while reading prayer letters. Seeing missionaries in person 7 days in a row would incapacitate us. Over the years I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “I love God. I’m thankful for missionaries. But I can’t go to that mission conference. It makes me feel second rate.”
Be it our pastors or our missionaries, we INAMS folk beat back our guilt by writing a check and sending it off. We love our pastors and our missionaries. We really do. We admire them. We pray for them. We just wish that in their presence, be it on paper or in person, we didn’t feel guilty about what we are compared to what we think they are. Or as comedian George Gobel once observed, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”
Surprisingly, if truth be told, you could fill a lot of church busses with pastors who suffer from “I’m Not A Missionary Syndrome”. Pastoring a flock in Houston has it’s challenges. But you’re not in Haiti. Maybe a real pastor would resign and move to Port-au-Prince? A guilty thought for the pastor to bat away while praying with his parishioner in the hospital.
Ever wonder how and why we’ve turned Christian service into a competition?
The result is predictable. INAMS people like us live and work and have our meaning, not in the freedom Christ promises, but in fear. Fear that God will yank us out of our happy place where we are using our gifts and talents and put us somewhere we don’t want to be. This can even hold us back from going deeper with God, fearing that if we show Him we’re really serious about our faith we might start to stand out as a promising candidate for Africa.
Thinking critically, of course this makes no sense. If God’s goal is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world, why would He want to do that with a bunch of square peg in a round hole, grumpy, unfulfilled people? More accurately, if we are not pointing people to Christ in our work here as butcher, baker or candlestick maker…how would becoming a missionary be any different?
For the record, the majority of us would be lousy vocational missionaries. But we are excellent sales people, teachers, business owners, writers, students, engineers, computer geeks, cleaners, mechanics, tree surgeons and cooks. By God’s grace and design, we are gifted in these positions. We are talented in these positions. Our career is to serve others with excellence where God has placed us, using the gifts and talents He’s given us. Our calling is to point people to Christ within that career. Our career may change. Our calling never changes.
This applies to all of us. There are pastors who should be plumbers. And there are plumbers who should be pastors. It’s not about a title. It’s about using the gifts and talents God gave us, not about feeling guilty that we aren’t something else. Why would God try to win the world with people who aren’t where they belong? “Hi. My name’s Bob. I’d rather be putting up drywall in Denver but I’m here to say Jesus loves you. Hey, Mgando, how do you say “I hate it here” in Swahili?”
Time for some cut to the chase, bottom line truths:
* If we are a follower of Jesus Christ, we are ALL in full-time Christian service. No exceptions.
* What pastors and missionaries do for God’s Kingdom in their vocation is no more or less important than what we do for God’s kingdom within our vocations.
* The gifts and talents God has given us are no more or less important than those He’s given to pastors and missionaries.
* There is no magic in being a pastor or a missionary. They are simply serving out of their gifts and talents the way we are serving out of ours.
* If we are not pointing people to Jesus Christ where we are, any move is a lateral move.
Go back and read that truth again.
Finally…We are never happier, more joyful, more fulfilled or more valuable to the Kingdom than when we are doing that which God has wired us to do.
So dump the guilt. It’s false. Point people to Jesus Christ where you are, being who you are, doing what you love to do.
For some crazy reason, people are attracted to that.
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:16
Todd A. Thompson – March 24, 2014