Newsflash: We’re Not Better Because We Live Overseas

by Laura Parker on June 26, 2013

I read a lot of missionary blogs.

When someone comments from Peru or Vietnam or Sudan, I click, and I read. Because the world fascinates me. It is a big, beautiful place, and God is doing amazing things on all corners of it. Absolutely.

But, as I have read missionary blogs, and as I have watched videos about world races, I am struck with the subtle arrogance of the Western missionary’s language. Things {something} like this are all over our websites and newsletters:

“I knew that there was more to life than the 9-t0-5 in America. I was just a businessman, and now I get to be so much more.”

“I felt God calling me into a bigger story. One that wasn’t so comfortable and easy.”

“I am living a good story, because I am moving overseas to Africa.”

“I’ve spent my whole life in the normal, but now I am embracing real adventure.”

“There is desperate need in India, and I finally get to become Jesus’s hands and feet.”

Okay, friends.  Put yourself in the non-missionary’s shoes. What does this kind of language communicate? Reading our overseas blogs from North Carolina or Colorado or California, what are we saying to all of those who aren’t choosing to live in a foreign country?

That their story isn’t good because they aren’t feeding African children?

That they can’t see God work in miraculous ways in the West?

That there is something selfish about simply rooting where you are planted?

That God doesn’t show up in dramatic ways in the “normal,” that there isn’t need in the States?

That their Christ-following is somehow, less?

This is wrong. All of it.

Because yes, the video of the white guy with the poor kids and the inspirational music in the background is dramatic and inspirational, but his story isn’t better by any means than the housewife who is trying to flesh out her faith in the same hometown she grew up in.

It. is. not.

Despite what our media sells us. Or our Christian circles tell us. Or the popular communicate in their highly-edited videos.

Following Jesus and loving others well can happen anywhere. Is hard anywhere. And can speak transformationanywhere.

And, so, friends who might read here and who aren’t choosing to live overseas, let me officially apologize– on behalf of myself and on behalf of all the missionary-media you’ve seen.

If the power of your story has felt devalued because you have chosen to do the hard{er?} work of staying and loving others right where you are, I ask your forgiveness.

Because a good story most definitely does not require a passport.

And, to my missionary friends, please, please, forthelove, be careful in your communication. Be careful that you are not subtly telling your followers, your supporters, your friends back home that they are less.

The choice to usher in the Kingdom deserves respect, wherever it takes place.

*Version originally appeared on LauraParkerBlog, March 2012

*****

Do you communicate, or believe, that the “more Godly” move is an international one? How does that attitude play into our communications with our support back home? Or even our sense of pride?

Laura Parker, Co-Founder/Editor, Former Aid Worker in SE Asia

blog   |   work 

Print Friendly

About Laura Parker

Living on three continents and moving 15 times in 15 years of marriage, Laura is no stranger to transition. Recently living in SE Asia with her family, Laura now serves as the VP of a counter-trafficking organization which her husband began, The Exodus Road. Laura is the co-founder and editor here at A Life Overseas and writes at her blog, http://www.LauraParkerWrites.com.
  • Terri

    I am sooo skeptical of missionary work and this woman put it into words:

    http://www.theveryworstmissionary.com/2013/05/deciphering-missions.html

    • Terri, Thanks for stopping in. One thing I’ve learned both in living overseas and living home is that following Jesus looks like a million different things and people often do it really well and epically screw it up. This is true across the board. Though I understand much of Jamie’s concerns/observations, I will say that I’ve met some amazing, Godly, brave people that are missionaries in foreign lands. In fact, many of them frequent the pages of this blog in writing or comments.

      Thanks again for visiting today.

  • Richelle Wright

    i don’t think i believe that international is better or more godly.

    but i know that as a missionary, i remain more focused, feel more in-tune with God and His ways, His plans… when i’m living overseas. i find i’m so easily distracted when i’m “back in the west.” i wonder if some of that dissonance is what causes the “overseas is better and therefore more worthy” attitudes to potentially creep into what i say and write – or otherwise communicate.

    which, of course, is perceived as nothing more or less than arrogant. my son wrote a really, really good research paper touching on a similar idea – how it is often true, not just of missionaries but of Christians in general – our words and intentions run far ahead of our actions, and often, it looks as though our lives don’t back up the truth of those words. perhaps words should follow and give reason for the hope that inspires our actions instead?

    since we missos have acted… do we wrongly feel that our words don’t need to be carefully measured, gentle and full of grace? do we assume that others, who’s actions look different – aren’t really acting?

    regardless of my intentions, i need to recognize wrong words or even careless words that convey wrong attitudes and are open to misinterpretation, require repentance and personally seek forgiveness each and every time this happens.

    which also means i can’t shift blame or take offense when confronted with this problem.

    thanks for a courageous post… and for caring enough to confront me with this continual battle.

    • YES! I hear you! It’s a tension b/c I admit, too, that my time overseas catapulted my faith in amazing ways and here it is so much harder to stay awake. It’s a tricky tension. I think the sweeping generalizations that one is more godly than the other is the biggest thing in our communications that we need to fight– esp as those who have lived/are living overseas.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Oh.Wow. So this one is a hard one and goes right along with some of what I’ve been writing, thinking about. First off – a disclaimer – I’m not a missionary – I’m daughter of missionaries and lived in that world until around 26 when my husband and I majorly failed at doing a short term missions thing. Since then we’ve lived overseas and the U.S. but not as missionaries. We’ve been with US AID and universities. But speaking from a TCK/MK perspective. We did think overseas was better. We thought there were more stories, more adventure, more fun. That was the perspective of a child. Now I’m an adult. And a couple of things I’ve noticed. One – churches perpetuate a pedestal mentality. When Brother Bob invites you on stage and tells the good folk that you’ve been serving in “Africa” the country not the continent 🙂 and are therefore a worthy warrior then there is an immediate division. The guy working two jobs to try and support his family is a defeated soul, not good enough, not a worthy enough warrior. On the other side – Missionaries are put into boxes all the time. And boxes hurt. There are no doors in boxes that can be opened to relationship. All of this changes when the missionary meets the guy who works two jobs and they become friends, their families interact, they realize what they have in common, that it’s tough in our broken world to live out faith in a winsome way. And then there’s an added dimension that may be just personal to me as an adult TCK but I don’t think so – I like myself better overseas. I’m more patient, I don’t expect efficiency, I give the benefit of the doubt, I’m secure. When I’m in my passport country that belonging is lost and I suddenly become judgmental and arrogant. Does that come across to people? I hate it but of course it does. So much more I want to say…but I’m rambling. Thanks for this honest post.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Also just wanted to add…the thing with kids is we needed something. We didn’t have home in our passport countries, but we did overseas. That was our reality. And yes – we thought it was a pretty great reality but it was perceived at times as “better than”. When we got older we had to struggle with real arrogance, often put on because the TCK belonging in our adopted countries that held us so tight was gone.

    • Dalaina May

      I appreciate that you pointed out that much of the time, the pedestal is not of our own making. We’ve had to push back against our church and pastor in some of the ways that they have tried to “sell” us to the congregation.

      • Marilyn Gardner

        Yes! “Sell” is the exact word. Some of my friends called it a Dog & Pony show. While that sounds cynical, they so struggled with the almost expected exaggeration and hyperbole.

    • Marilyn, you make a great point in that the people we become might be better/worse overseas. I find myself more engaged and connected spiritually and honestly it feels harder for me to wake up and stay awake in the States. So I get this.

      And I also agree that pedestals never helped anyone.

  • Liz K

    Love this Laura!! We’re constantly telling people “we’re nothing special, just obeying God, just like you. God’s plan for us just happens to be in Costa Rica.” Thanks for this!!

  • Dalaina May

    Very thought provoking…
    On one hand, I am totally with you! My husband and I fight the “wow, you are so special” message that we get thrown to us and about us all the time. We’ve made it a point to say from the furlough pulpit that our calling is no different than any other believer’s (to make disciples), only that we do it in a different location. We are also very intentional about sharing our struggles and defeats (to the point that our supporters knew when I got put on anti-depressants a few years ago).

    But…
    I have a really hard time dealing with lukewarm believers (the ones whom I personally know well) who pull the “I could never do what you do” line. I want to say, “No. Because your commitment is not to the Lord, it’s to your comfort/security/bank account.” When I see passionate-about-Jesus people living as homemakers/students/professionals, I’ve got nothing but respect for their doing what God called them to do in the place He called them too. The lukewarm American Christian population, though, is another story. Frankly, they tick me off because they AREN’T doing what they are supposed to do (like fulfill the Great Commission). My personal struggle is balancing grace for where they are and encouraging them to step out in faith however that may look for their lives. And yes, there is certainly a fight against pride in that area too because, dang it!, I know I am doing my best to live for Christ and they couldn’t care less. (Just keeping it real… you know, being authentic and stuff.)

    • Great thoughts here and I am with you! There is so much to process isn’t there? Because both sides you talked about are true and YES we need to WAKE UP. I just wrote a post about that, calling the American church to DO SOMETHING that spoke to that– you can read it here if you are interested: http://www.lauraleighparker.com/2013/06/atheist-live-like-jesus-if-gathering/

      I think we just have to walk in the tension between grace and challenge. I think I was really hitting on the pride part of it that seeps in– and then we start to throw everyone who is not doing something dramatic for the Kingdom under the bus

  • Kind of an oblique response, but here you have it: As C.S. Lewis famously said (paraphrased), “the moment we think we’re being humble, we’re no longer humble.”

  • Dave

    Thanks for this great post. Makes me think about the different ways that I communicate. Of course, the key thing is to live faithfully in the specific context that God calls you to…wherever that might be. And in some ways, living ‘counter-culturally’ in a home culture may actually be a more challenging calling than living ‘cross-culturally’ in a foreign culture. Whatever context, the challenge is to try to live as ambassadors of the King — difficult in any setting. Encouragement goes a long way in helping people take those next faithful steps as Christ followers in the different contexts He calls us to.

    • Dave- yes! Communication and perspective is so key. And living the Kingdom out is the goal– regardless of latitude.

      Thanks for stopping in today, Dave.

  • Crystal

    Many people back in our home countries put missionaries up on pedestals and I think sometimes it’s easy to get sucked into this way of thinking. I struggled with this a lot when I first decided to become a missionary. Everyone was saying things like “thank you for what you’re doing” “what a sacrifice you’re making” and on and on. It’s not a sacrifice because this is what God has called me to just as He’s called people to be teachers, dentists, construction workers, etc. Shortly after that a missionary came to my home church for the missions conference and she said something that has stuck with me “If you’re obeying God and I’m obeying God, then we’re exactly the same.”

    • Love this Crystal– especially that last statement. It touches the heart of what I was saying:”If you’re obeying God and I’m obeying God, then we’re exactly the same.”

  • Harold

    Maybe I look at this from a different perspective, but I’ve never met anyone serving as a missionary either overseas or in the U.S. with such a prideful attitude. Instead, I’ve seen and heard them exhort others to serve God wholeheartedly in whatever role and in whatever location He has placed them. On the other hand, I’ve heard many in the lukewarm American Christian population call overseas workers “selfish” for leaving homes, families and friends, and careers behind to serve in other countries, usually in the context “when there are so many lost people here.”.Sadly, in many churches I’ve attended, there has been little interest in missions (beyond writing checks) no matter what is written in missionary blogs or newsletters.

    • Harold, I see what you are saying, but I do think that we missionary-types can get pretty arrogant and can begin to communicate the message that we have the corner on following God. And I dont think we do, at all. Because while perhaps as a whole the American church needs to wake up, there are people who are faithful and following Jesus in hard, beautiful ways– in normal “9 to 5” jobs. And we just need to be careful not to throw them under the bus . . . ya know?

      • Harold

        Actually, I’m not a “regular” missionary. 🙂 I am married to a Russian woman and we teach English here in Russia. We use that as a way to reach out to others. I guess my point is I’ve never heard anyone in my church culture back in the U.S. throw any of the “9 to 5 types under the bus” because that would include most of the church! At the same time, one of the most challenging speakers I ever heard at my home church once said at the start of the last night of a revival series where he was preaching, “You are nice people, but…” 🙂

  • Samuel John

    I know this may be a general statement but most people in the West aren’t living God’s story – ‘the big story’. If you hear someone say they’ve been called to a ‘good story’ or ‘the real adventure’ and it offends you then you’re probably not living out the Bible. It’s a vacancy you’re feeling. But if you read those same statements and you get excited and feel encouraged that someone has actually acted on what God spoke to them you probably are also.

    I think we have to be more cautious about what offends us rather calling out others trying changing what others say or communicate.

    I’d rather see missionaries raise the standard of what living a Christian life is than having missionaries walking on egg shells trying not to offend others that may be too fearful or apathetic to act out the Bible. The standard of Christian living in the West is very low, too low.

    • Harold

      Excellent words, brother!

    • I see this perspective, and I in large part agree. I even wrote on my personal blog a post recently calling people to that higher standard– http://www.lauraleighparker.com/2013/06/atheist-live-like-jesus-if-gathering/.

      Having said that, I think it is VERY important to guard against spiritual pride for the missionary. When I was overseas I saw more often than not an attitude of “I’m holier because I live in a foreign country.” And this is sinful and wrong. Yes, we should call people out, but not in a way that claims that the only way to follow Jesus is to move overseas. We just need to leave more room, I think, for people “back home” to follow Jesus– right in their current situations. I think often missionaries prescribe missions as the ultimate Christ-following “move” and I just don’t believe that’s the case across the board.

      Thanks for this, and I appreciate your comment! And I totally agree with your last statement, as well.

      • Samuel John

        Thanks for the reply Laura. I think we’re on the same page.

        • Erin

          The thing to remember is that there are people to love wherever you are, and people who need Jesus, and spiritual battles to fight. People can do this, and fail to do this, wherever they are. So I think the main point is that you have to follow Christ wherever, and not compare yourselves to others. Some people are called to be a missionary in their hometown, and most missionaries had to learn to be missionaries in their home town before they moved around. Both are equal in God’s eyes, just like that one lost sheep is just a important as the 99 found..so the lost sheep in podunk idaho is just as important as the lost soul in Africa or whatever “missionary-glam” place there is.
          I know you probably won’t, but don’t assume all or most Christians being state-side missionaries are ignoring the great commission, or aren’t following the Lord! Can’t they do this as business men, store clerks, moms, etc.?

  • Thank you for this excellent post. Someone recently shared this blog with me and it’s been a blessing reading the posts from so many different people. As an IT professional who is in the process of serving full-time in missions this has made me think how I communicate with those God has placed in our circle of influence.

    • Cool, Jaco– thanks for serving ministry in such a practical way, and glad the post was challenging.

  • I totally agree with this post. We are all called to share the gospel and no one is “better” just because they have left their country for another. I still struggle with so many spiritual issues. I definitely do not want to be put on a pedestal by anyone.

  • i love this. Location does nothing to the person other then give them a different view. The process of following obedience may strengthen a persons character or faith but that process is separate then the location (and can take place regardless of location). Moving to the banks of the Nile changed nothing other then our view (which is quite lovely) and we didn’t expect it to. We wake up each morning and seek to love God, our family and serve others and fall short many days of our hopes and obedience just like when we lived in Washington State. Location changed nothing, obedience regardless of location affects everything.

    • Oh, Amie, this:

      “Location changed nothing, obedience regardless of location affects everything.” YES!!

  • Annie

    Thanks for writing this!! Such a great reminder. I am really wary for this reason to post much of “updates” and facebook statuses, repetitious photo albums, etc. because I just think we’re so much of the same–the christian who loves the children in her african neighborhood and the follower of Jesus who does the 9-5 thing and pours into the ones she meets in that setting. I am where I think He wants me and they are where they think He wants them–yeah, mine might be more glamorous or sexy, but it is not for one second more God-exalting… anyway, i wrote a post about this, kind of 🙂 but ended up on a tangent about sin….

    http://www.ramblations.blogspot.com/2013/02/living-in-africa-doesnt-make-you.html

    “Following Jesus and loving others well can happen anywhere. Is hard anywhere. And can speak transformation anywhere.” love this so much!!

    thanks again!

    • SOOOO glad you were encouraged, Annie! Sounds like we are totally on the same page. 🙂

  • Megan Tucker

    I have struggled greatly when people at church came up to me before I left and gushed all about how they look up to me, how they wish they could do something that requires so much, etc. It wrecked me to have people think that I am somehow more Christian, more holy, more godly, more whatever than them because I was moving to SE Asia. it still bugs me when well-meaning individuals tell me these things, and more. I want to badly to shake them and say “I wouldn’t need to be here rescuing baby prostitutes from slavery if the Church had been doing it’s job.” My step of faith moving here is no bigger, no more important than the faith to adopt a kid, or foster some, or raise your own; my faith in leaving for a job is no greater than your faith in sticking with one.

    Blah.

    When I blog, I try to not to make it sound like I’m doing some great, holy work over here that’s better than everyone working in an office building downtown. Because it’s not. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. I just want people to realize that living in America and going to work and living for Jesus THERE takes great amounts of faith, too.

  • Emily @OAAA

    This is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs.

  • Pingback: The Purpose of Missions: Uh, What is It Again?()

  • Pingback: Missionaries Dread This()

  • Pingback: Ever seen a baby lizard dressed in Polly Pocket clothing?()

  • Pingback: Seventy Times Seven, Conflict and Forgiveness()

Previous post:

Next post: