A Michigan deacon, the Rev. Greg Lawton, serves as an Associate Dean of Students in Lithuania.
Deacon, Michigan Conference
This question came up frequently during my recent Mission to Michigan. It happened in casual conversation and it happened in more formal settings among those who financially support my work. Like most things, it requires a longer answer than “yes” or “no.”
The word “missionary” means different things to people. In broad strokes, in my lifetime and observation, missionary work has been defined in two ways.
For some, a missionary is someone whose purpose for traveling the world and encountering new people is to share the Gospel and offer those people a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. This could happen during a short trip or a lifelong commitment. The activities for this kind of missionary could include holding public worship services, handing out information, hosting classes or events, translating the Bible into local languages, or engaging in one on one conversations for conversion. These missionaries are typically commissioned and sent by a church or mission agency.
For others, a missionary is one who travels the world to encounter new people and helps those people address their basic needs – food access, housing, clean water, sustainable energy, education, health care, etc. This can also be done both in the short-term and for longer durations. These missionaries are also typically commissioned and sent by a church or mission agency. The work is grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ, but the invitation to follow him may be less direct. It may happen during casual conversation or by the living witness of the missionary or through activities intended to share fellowship with each other.
And of course, there are missionaries who find ways to both of these things. They are not mutually exclusive.
“It was good to see this kind of service change from “doing for the people” to “doing with the people” in my lifetime.”
I grew up doing the latter of these ways. Sometimes we called them Service Projects instead of Mission Trips, but in reality, our mission was service, and the better trips were always grounded in Scripture and called for sacrificial giving. It was good to see this kind of service change from “doing for the people” to “doing with the people” in my lifetime. This was an important step. Missions work of this kind finds ways to help a person or people achieve their goals with their gifts and resources with a little help as a visiting friend.
And of course, missions work can be done from our own homes, our own backyards. The Gospel needs to be shared everywhere and there are many ways to do it. There is much work to be done to help people rebuild their lives in dignity and grace. But, am I a missionary as I do this work in Lithuania?
Both kinds of workers in the above traveling scenarios require the financial support of others since the work itself comes without pay. A missionary doesn’t charge the homeowner when repairing a roof together. A missionary doesn’t charge a village to install a water system. And you don’t charge someone for offering them Christ. Likewise, I serve here without pay. That’s not exactly true since I get a stipend from the university to cover my housing. But besides providing for a roof over my head, I live on what I raise within the budget I set. I’m happy to report that I ended the 2017-2018 school year on budget thanks to your giving, but the cycle has begun again. I’ll write some other time about why and how this system of external funding is necessary to the services the university provides, but for now I simply wanted to say that economically I serve very much like a missionary.
But is my work missional? Am I offering Christ to those who need to hear a grace-filled invitation? Am I restoring hope or roofs or water to those that need it?
” … caring (carefully) is the nature of my work. And I do this because I want to love God, follow Christ and serve others with my whole being.”
I’ve probably written this before, but my work here can be summarized in one word: care. I care for our students in a variety of ways, either directly or indirectly. They need to have a safe and learning-conducive living environment. They need mental health support. They need someone to guide them through conflicts. They need to be taught the ideals of this center for higher learning through programs and activities. These are all within my job description and I accept this great responsibility.
The students I oversee don’t always appreciate or understand the care I am showing them but caring (carefully) is the nature of my work. And I do this because I want to love God, follow Christ and serve others with my whole being.
Does all this make me a missionary? You can decide for yourself. But as an experiential Wesleyan Christian, it sure feels like it.