Let’s Stop Romanticizing Missions

Perched on a well-worn pew, inside a girl-next-door kind of church, smack dab in the middle of a forgettable town, I caught my first glimpse of an exotic spiritual life where God was still doing exciting things. I was eleven years old. My family was at church so much it felt like a second home. And the whole enterprise had my preteen self yawning. One more Sunday, six more hymns, thirty more minutes of pulpiteering. One more mouthful of sawdust.

Until today. We had a visiting preacher. He came to us from across the deep blue sea. He spoke of jungles and huts and esoteric languages. He painted a picture of a land where Jesus was electrifying. There, the church pulsated with life. The gospel radiated adventure. The Bible wasn’t just a Sunday school prop but a living thing, newly translated with the Spirit flying out of every page. I sat mesmerized, intoxicated by a newly discovered romance: missionary work.

That was many moons ago. I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up the childish ways of romanticizing mission work. Or, at least, I’ve tried. But it’s an arduous task, this de-romanticizing, especially when the glory and extraordinariness of mission work is as much a part of the ethos of American Christianity as apple pie and VBS.

“When I became a man, I gave up the childish ways of romanticizing mission work. Or, at least, I’ve tried.”

“Declare his glory among the nations,” the psalmist sings, “his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Ps. 96:3 ESV). Declaring God’s glory in Brazil, his marvelous works in South Korea and South Africa, sounds like a life of discipleship worthy of its own Instagram filter. Everything looks more awesome overseas, even Jesus.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, this romanticizing of mission work, especially because we already romanticize God and his ways of working in our world. Until we see the mundane glory of how Christ is working in our lives, our families, and our churches in our own backyard, we will always be blind to the ways he’s working in lands and among peoples much different from our own.

Divine Work in the Grind

Recall the story of Elijah at Mount Sinai. When the Lord walked into his closet to decide which outfit to wear when he paid a visit to that prophet, he had a multitude of choices. On one hanger was a great and strong wind powerful enough to break rocks into smithereens. Next to it was an earthquake that made the mountains tremble. Further along were tongues of fire that licked the earth.

All these loud costumes were viable choices for the Lord to wear that day. But one by one he left them on their hangers. “But the Lord was not in the wind . . . but the Lord was not in the earthquake . . . but the LOrd was not in the fire” (1 Kings 19:11–12 ESV).

Where was he then? “After the fire the sound of a low whisper” (v. 12 ESV). The “still small voice,” as the KJV rendered it. The Hebrew word for “low” or “small” (dakah) is used to describe the thin cows in Joseph’s dream (Gen. 41:3) and the wafer-like manna (Ex. 16:14). This was no awesome, bellowing sound but a thin, easily missed, almost inaudible whisper. This whisper was the clothing God chose to wear.

But, from our perspective, it was a bad choice. It doesn’t seem to fit the Almighty. The wind, the earthquake, the fire—those hugged his frame nicely, made him godlike, were tailored to his divine dimensions. But a thin voice? No. That’s too small, too unimpressive, too missable.

Yet this dispirited prophet, who didn’t see any grandiose work of God in his time, who was sucking his thumb and grouching about being a lone-ranger believer—that’s what he needed. He’d been looking for God in all the big places.

“Don’t look for divine work in the grand but the grind.”

What Elijah needed is what we need. Don’t look for divine work in the grand but the grind. Don’t expect stadium-filling, mind-blowing, numerically measurable growth in the kingdom of God. Expect a whisper. Expect thinness. Expect God’s appearances and labor in this world to be the most easily missed activity on earth.

The church today needs aha! moments of Elijah clarity. The glory of God, which we declare at home and abroad, is not the kind of glory that wears power ties and loud costumes from heaven’s closet. It wears whispers. It wears cups of water to the thirsty, plates of food to the hungry, visits to the incarcerated, and liberating conversations about the cross to the sin-slaves of the world. When God is at work in our churches and in our streets, he’ll be surrounded by the aura of the ordinary.

Glorious God in the Inglorious

When Jesus sent his disciples to make more disciples in the four corners of the earth, the most important promise he gave them was the assurance of his companionship. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20 ESV). He was with them—and us—in the teaching and the baptizing. Not much razzle-dazzle there. Not much to romanticize about.

But that’s God being God. He prefers to cloak his glory in the inglorious, his voice that created the cosmos in the quiet teaching of a missionary, his re-creation of a sinner in the waters of baptism. Precisely there, clothed in the ordinary, sits the Lord of heaven and earth in his whispering presence.

From Boringville, America, to São Paulo, Brazil, from the cornfields of Iowa to the veldts of Zimbabwe, the angels watch over pastors, missionaries, and common Christian folks who labor, usually unnoticed, on their little acre of the kingdom of Jesus. They all have the same old, rugged cross, not a newfangled, scintillating variety. Same old cross, same old gospel, for same old sinners. But cloaked in this sameness is the most extraordinary thing in this world: the Son of God, rolling up his sleeves to reveal scars that betoken his undying devotion to the world.

If you’re looking for the romance of mission, well, that’s as close as you’re gonna get. You’ll find it in the God of love, made man, whose huge heart is hidden in small acts of grace that make all the difference in this wide world he came to save.

Chad Bird writes at chadbird.com. He is the author of Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places. You can follow him on Twitter @BirdChadLouis.