When I try to explain what I do here in Thailand a frequent response is that I am a missionary. I find this response to be fairly accurate, but also somewhat difficult to understand since I come from a religious background that does not emphasize missionary work, even when people engage in it. I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Therefore, I would like to muse both upon what it is I do here in Thailand, as well as some commentary about the role of the missionary in the early Christian church, and why it appears very different nowadays, even among those church organizations who fervently believe in preaching the Gospel.
By any reasonable standard the work I do here in Thailand would be considered missionary work. My work is really divided into a few different but somewhat interrelated categories. Some of my responsibilities relate to teaching. I teach five classes: Public Speaking, Leadership (which is mostly theory), and History of the Old Testament (which amounts to an Old Testament Survey class) to second-year students, and Doctrines and History of the Christian Church (which amounts to a New Testament Survey class) to third year students. In addition I also help with choir class. Along with these duties of instruction, I also handle administrative problems (for example, all demerit requests), serve as a Duty Achan sleeping on campus one every three weeks in the “Teacher’s House”, lead the cleaning crews , and also handle infrastructure requests on campus.
But these, while these are my normal duties, are only a part of what I end up doing. In addition to this work (which would still qualify as being a missionary) I also preach somewhat regularly. These messages are translated into Thai and Burmese (and I prepare the messages usually a week ahead of time to give the translators plenty of time to look up the sometimes difficult English words I am fond of using, or to ask me to explain them–somehow they never seem to ask until I am giving the message though). In addition to these normal speaking duties (which are relatively frequent), I also have a huge amount of material to prepare for the Feast of Tabernacles this year in Khun Yuam . I am about a third of the way through my work on that project. Again, preaching in a foreign land would also be considered under missionary work, even though it is not my normal habit to do so, by virtue of not having a missionary-centered religious vocabulary.
A third component of my work here in Thailand relates to serving the needs of the Karen refugee camps and Burmese brethren of the Church of God. Though I do not speak or write in Burmese, or Karen for that matter, I work with a team of translators for both written and spoken materials, make copies of the tapes or cds (we are switching from tapes to cds because it is now impossible to find 90 minute cassette tapes for sale in Thailand). This also means I also spend a lot of time asking people to call others or trying to find out information about third parties that I don’t even know personally about what is going on in Burma or the refugee camps. It is fascinating work, and may eventually lead me to visit the refugee camps on the weekend occasionally, once the rainy season ends (and it seems to be holding on tenaciously for now). At any rate, all of that work would very easily be considered (by most) to be missionary work. So yes, I am a missionary here in Thailand, as unusual a concept as that is for me personally.
It is indeed puzzling to me why the concept of missionary work is so unfamiliar to a church culture that is heavily focused on the proclamation of the Gospel. I have some ideas, but they are only my own thoughts and speculations, for what it’s worth. In the religious culture where I come from, “the work” (as missionary and evangelism has been called) has typically been seen as being done by ministers. Ministers are the ones who have traditionally written (most) of the articles in church magazines, have been the voices of our radio broadcasts and the faces (and voices) of our television broadcasts. They have (usually) been the ones giving messages in foreign lands, meeting with kings and presidents and prime ministers. Compared to such lofty work, the genuine work that lay members like myself have done seems very modest indeed–folding and stamping and mailing letters, preparing refreshments for seminars, making phone calls, and the like. Even such work as going overseas to serve for weeks or months (or years) has not been considered missionary work, even though other religious traditions (like the Mormons) who do such work tend to call it such openly and to expect that religiously minded young adults will do so for at least a year or two of their lives.
It is my own personal theory that the lack of a recognized missionary language in my own religious tradition springs largely from what could be called class concerns. Preaching the Gospel has traditionally been seen as something that ministers do, while the support that members provide has been considered as either “blue collar” physical labor or “white collar” administrative support–neither of which has been considered to be particularly valuable, even if it is very necessary. Now, this is starting to change in some organizations, but not yet across the entire Church of God culture. So, that automatically has tended to prevent ordinary members from considering themselves to be missionaries, because “the work” was limited by class to the ministry class (to which I do not belong, nor does my family belong to it).
And those who could, within my religious background, have claimed to be missionaries largely did not. Their identity as a ministerial class was more based on titles and rank and class structure rather than based on function. For example, a functional form of identity would have clearly separated functions or tasks between evangelistic work (like writing or foreign missionary work) from local work. But such work has almost always been blended–people moved from one department to another, one location to another, and ministers in the “domestic work” and those in the “foreign work” considered themselves to be equal in status. And especially in many of the smaller groups, it has been impossible to separate functions because there simply have not been enough people to do all the jobs independently (which is why I wear so many hats myself in Thailand). So a field minister is also a writer or editor, and also appears on the television broadcast. Some of that work is “missionary,” some of it is not, but the work is so blended and the missionary strands of it are not always recognized as such that the thought of our following in the footsteps of the early apostles is often forgotten.
It appears that, based on what we can read from 3 John or 2 Timothy or Titus, some of the few books that talk about the issue, that there seemed to be a parallel administration in the early Church. When the apostles were over the Church, they could go where the Spirit led them, or remain at or return to the “Headquarters Church” at Jerusalem. They also brought with them people (often young people, like John Mark or Timothy) in the missionary work to train up as leaders, even while training local leaders who remained in one congregation. Even in the apostolic era (see 2 and 3 John) there were problems with either roving heretical ministers or local pastors who wanted to keep control over their own “flocks,” leading to strong tensions between the local ministry and the evangelistic missionary work, the two pillars of the Great Commission.
Historically speaking, it was the local elders and ministry, who gradually turned the word “bishop” from overseer of a local congregations to a position in an episcopal hierarchy. Likewise, others turned the word pastor and deacon from works meaning shepherd and waiter into titles of power and prestige. It is strange what the pride and lust for power and ambition do to our understanding of God’s approach towards authority and His work. Once the apostles died, the bishops largely took over because they had a local tithe-paying base of members while the missionaries were scattered and lacking in a firm base of support. Later attempts to restore the beliefs and practices of original Christianity have similarly struggled with the desire both to effectively serve the local brethren, preach the Gospel to the world, while keeping ministers from being able to develop an independent base of support in a local congregation that would allow them to defy the directives of any kind of central authority. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
In examining the work of a missionary as it is commonly understood, I am doing the work of a missionary right now. That said, my religious background lacks a language to describe such work as I am doing as “missionary work,” even if that is the idea that many others would have about what I am doing. As I see it, the reasons for this lack of a language to describe the work of lay members as “missionaries” is because the religious language of my religious tradition has largely been focused on titles and ranks rather than functions (For example, evangelist was a high ranking minister, not someone who proclaimed the gospel to the world). This is in stark contrast to the very real (if very contentious) relationship that existed between missionaries and the local church leadership within the early church, which recognized the importance of missionaries but struggled to balance the needs of the local flock and the need to preach the gospel to new areas and new people. It is still a difficult balance today.