"If you want to live here you must eat our food, live in our houses, wear our clothes and speak our language." With these words, spoken to my father about 40 years ago, the chief of a remote valley in Colombia was sure that he had discouraged us from ever coming to live in the mountains with his people. A few months later our family made the treacherous 30-mile journey by foot and mule on winding trails through the mountains which led us to our new home. There was no electricity or running water, no grocery store or doctor. Our home measured 12 x 20 feet; its walls and floor were made of mud and the roof was thatched. The language of the native people we hoped to serve had never been written down. No dictionary or grammar existed. In order to reach these people, we chose to be incarnated into their culture. As St. Paul says, “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22) This process of incarnation is essential to all missionary work.
The heart of the word 'missionary' is the word mission. A missionary is a person who is dedicated to fulfilling a mission. In the case of Christian missionaries, it is a person who dedicates himself to fulfilling our Lord's last great command before His ascension: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." (Matt 28:19) This command is also the first Gospel which is read to every new Christian at their baptism. This means that every baptized Orthodox Christian has been commanded by our Lord to make disciples of all nations. It was this command that compelled my family to go to Colombia when I was a boy, and what inspired me to serve as a missionary with my family in Albania in adulthood.
All Orthodox Christians must be engaged in the process of disciple-making. For this to be successful, we must work together as members of the Body of Christ. There are many different ways in which each member can participate in the process of taking the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. All missionaries are not theologically trained clergy. The essential thing is that each missionary is working in a strategic way to make it possible for the Church to reach out to and incorporate those who have not previously been joined to Christ and to the life of His Body the Church. Many, who themselves do not go to faraway places as missionaries, participate in the ministry of missionaries by supporting them.
The process of disciple-making occurs in a relationship between persons. It is not primarily a transfer of knowledge and it is not recruiting fellow adherents of an ideology. Disciple-making is introducing others to Christ and helping them to be formed in His image. For this reason, one of the primary tools which the Church has used throughout the ages for making disciples of all nations is long-term cross-cultural missionaries who travel from their native land to a place where the Gospel has not yet been preached.
The Importance of Self-Emptying
The primary model for missions is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul describes this process in his letter to the Philippians. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
We are told to have the same mind in ourselves which Christ Jesus had when he became man for the salvation of the world. As missionaries, we must be willing to empty ourselves of everything that is an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel in the place where we are called to witness. We do not set aside our fundamental identity as persons just as Christ did not set aside his fundamental identity as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity. Rather, He emptied Himself of those things which would have hindered His coming to live among us as man (John 1:14). As missionaries this means setting aside the comfort and familiarity of our homes in order to go to the place that God is calling us. At times these are things related to the fact that the standard of life in the United States is higher than in most other parts of the world; but often there are things which are simply different. For the sake of this emptying, the missionary must choose not to take all of his life in the United States with him into the mission field.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to leave behind in the self-emptying process required when becoming missionaries is our family. As missionaries we live in countries far from home and return to the United States only at long intervals. This means that we do not see our families for many months and sometimes years at a time. This separation is often very difficult both for those who go and for family members who are left behind. This painful reality has been alleviated somewhat by e-mail, inexpensive phone calls and even video-conferencing on the Internet. Still the missionary must choose a road of self emptying in regard to his family. A missionary who lives overseas but is always looking over his shoulder at the homeland he left behind can not be fully incarnate and effective. I have been blessed with a family that is fully supportive of my missionary calling. They have never opposed us being overseas. Nevertheless, it is still hard to be so far away so much of the time. We are deeply comforted by the fact that we can look forward to spending eternity together where there will be no separation.
Paradoxically, this painful separation from our families opens a door for God to bless us with a new family. As our Lord said, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life." (Matt 19:29) We have seen the truth of this statement many times over. We have been blessed with a network of wonderful friends which stretches across North America and around the world. These are people who have adopted us into their families because of their love for Christ and their support of our work as missionaries. We experienced this in a special way during my former wife Lynette’s battle with cancer. We were overwhelmed by the fact that thousands of people around the world, many of whom we had never met, were praying for us. We truly had a family many hundredfold.
The mission of our Lord to this earth for our salvation did not end with His becoming man. He went on and "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross", as St. Paul says. As missionaries in the 21st century, we are not often called to die physically for the sake of Christ but many missionaries throughout the centuries have been martyred. Nevertheless if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ, we must be prepared to lay down our lives for him if it is necessary. If the missionary only stays at his post as long as it is safe and comfortable, his hypocrisy will become evident to those to whom he is striving to witness. We cannot call others to commit themselves fully to Christ unless we ourselves have done so.
My former wife Lynette gave an eloquent witness of this principle. When she was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2004 we returned to the United States in the hope that she could be successfully treated and continue missionary service in Albania. By the spring of 2006, it was clear that her cancer was terminal. She chose at that point to return to Albania and continue serving for as many months as God would grant her. She also chose to die and be buried in Albania.
Being Incarnate for Those We Serve
One of the most important aspects of the incarnation that the missionary strives to achieve on behalf of the people they are called to serve, is learning the language of the people to whom they minister. It is significant that Christ is called the Logos. The Logos is not easily translated into English. It is normally rendered as "Word". The concept of the Logos is closely connected with human language. Therefore the incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God, requires that we speak to people in their native language.
Speaking in the native language of those with whom we are trying to communicate has an importance which goes beyond the simple transfer of intellectual knowledge. The native language of each person is closely connected with his identity. By speaking directly in their language, we can reach them on a much deeper level than if we were to solely rely on translators. Understanding the language is also important. Through a translator, there is always a filter between the missionary and the local people. Whoever translates for the missionary inevitably shapes what is said whether they intend to or not. It is only when the missionary is able to effectively communicate with people in their own language that they can become fully effective.
Learning languages is difficult and is one of the major obstacles to those who consider becoming missionaries. For most people it takes six months to two years to achieve a basic level of fluency. A real deep knowledge of the language can take many more years. I began studying Albanian before our arrival in the country. I had about five months of regular lessons after our arrival but then I began teaching at the seminary so I had to discontinue the language lessons. I continued to study Albanian on my own and gradually transitioned to functioning without a translator over the next two years. I am still learning Albanian and struggling to increase my vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. It is important not only that we make ourselves understood but that we speak as clearly and eloquently as possible. If we do not know how to say what we mean, we will never mean what we say. Additionally, speaking the language well communicates love and respect to the people we are trying to reach.
Other aspects of incarnation may be less tangible but still very important. As missionaries we must adapt to the way of life of the people that we are ministering to. Sometimes these differences are dramatic and obvious; at others they are subtle and much harder to spot. The people that my family lived with when I was a child in Colombia wore traditional non-Western clothes, they lived in mud and thatch houses, they ate unusual food. These differences were easy to see although not always so easy to adapt to. Albania is a modern European country. In many ways dress, food and other customs are deceivingly similar to our own. However, there are many subtle differences which are important to understand and adapt to. If we are not able to do this, it is much more difficult to build bridges and communicate the Gospel. Often we unknowingly create misunderstandings and confusion. We offend people and hurt their feelings simply because we do not know how to adapt to their culture. Like a language, this process of incarnation in the culture can take months or even years.
Missionary as Apostle
Leaving one’s home to learn the language and culture of another in the name of Christ is what it means to be an apostle – a role and concept necessary for the mission of the Church. Each time we say the Creed we affirm that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We often think of apostolic in connection with the apostolic succession connecting us to the apostles. In reality, the primary sense in which the Church must be apostolic is in its missionary witness. The primary meaning of the word apostle is "one who is sent, an envoy,"
The fact that an apostle/missionary is sent implies that there is someone who sends him. All missionaries are, of course ambassadors of the Lord, but missionaries are also sent by the members of His Body, the Church. As missionaries, we cannot go unless we are sent. The fact that we are sent creates a reciprocal responsibility. The church that sends us is responsible for supporting us with prayer and sacrificial offerings. They are also responsible to oversee our ministry. As missionaries, we are responsible to report on our ministry to the churches that have sent us. This close connection between the missionary and the sending church is essential for the success of the missionary enterprise.
As missionaries, we spend a significant portion of our time fostering this relationship. Before a missionary goes overseas he must build a strong support team which will join him in the ministry that he is undertaking. Support team members commit to pray for the missionary regularly and make pledges towards his financial support. OCMC long-term missionaries are completely dependent on gifts of financial support designated to the name of the missionary. Through this partnership, members of the sending church become fellow ministers with the missionary and share in God's grace. Please consider becoming part of the support team of one of the OCMC long-term missionaries by praying for them and supporting them financially.
As a long-term missionary, I am deeply aware of the awesome privilege which we have as we become the incarnate face of Christ to those who do not yet know Him. This is a terrifying responsibility and I am deeply aware of how unworthy I am for this task. I would not have the courage to attempt it if He had not commanded it. We must always remember that whatever we accomplish in His service is by His grace. As Paul says a few verses after the passage quoted from Philippians above, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13)