Enter the Hero Missionary

I was seventeen, sitting in my high school’s weekly chapel, and picturing my future self. I called him Missionary Matt, and he was super cool:

I’m in a thatched-hut village in the Congo. I kneel beside a war orphan, checking his ears for infection and telling jokes to lighten his mood. The sun beats through the ferns, bronzing my arms and beading sweat on my skin-tight v-neck. Finishing the treatment, I stand up and pat the boy on the head. He scampers off to his family, prattling about this amazing American stranger. I stride toward the Chief to discuss the well I’m building for the village. But then my Bantu friend, Shaka, bursts through the underbrush with wild eyes. Western poachers have entered the jungle, he cries, and they’re after the gorillas! Nodding, I grab my machete and bullwhip from the jeep, readjust my cowboy hat, and barrel into the heart of darkness.

Now I’m in Calcutta. Flitting through Mother Teresa’s House of the Missionaries of Charity, I help the sisters dress the wounds of the dying, and astonish the nuns with my compassion. Glancing at my watch, I realize I’m late for a meeting. Bowing to the sisters, I set off into the Calcutta streets, melting like a phantom through the markets of spice and saris. I arrive at the onyx gates of the Hindu temple, deities and demon-kings carved on every crevice. I nod at the snake charmer and enter. The temple’s falcon-eyed high priest emerges from an incense-clouded sanctuary. We continue our philosophical discussion about Jesus and the true Nyaya.

Now I imagine coming back to Colorado Springs for my class’s tenth reunion. Although I keep to the shadows to smoke my pipe, classmates flock to me. They wonder about this mysterious stranger with his Italian suit, sun-drenched hair, and scar over his right eye. They puzzle over what primeval tribe gave me the fiery tattoo, or how I got a lion tooth on a band around my neck. The formerly-popular kids won’t shut up about me. The old quarterback whispers that I rescued an Inca village from slavery to a mining company. The old cheerleader claimed I lived at a Tibetan monastery for eight months. The old guitarist insisted I was dating a Bollywood actress. Was this that nerdy Mellema kid from high school?

I jolt back to reality. The chapel speaker was finishing his sermon on why we should all become missionaries. The lights dimmed, the guitar strummed, and the speaker prayed that we would answer God’s calling to the mission field.

All of a sudden, the mission field didn’t seem so horrible. I had discovered the appeal of the Hero Missionary.

The Hero Missionary is a venerable evangelical stereotype. Growing up, it loomed over much of my faith. It looms over lots of young evangelicals’ faith. My guess is that at some point in high school or college, most of us fantasized about becoming a Hero Missionary.

There are lots of great reasons to become a missionary. But being a Hero isn’t one of them. Some of the problems include:

  • The Hero Missionary scares people from missions. I’ll be honest. In the moments following chapel, Missionary Matt seemed great. But the rest of the time, he terrified me. The chapel speakers’ mission field was apocalyptic: skeletal hunger and distended bellies, malaria flies buzzing around burning trash. There was no way I’d go there unless I absolutely had to.
  • The Hero Missionary sends people for the wrong reasons. Even though I didn’t want to go, I felt like I had to. To hear the chapel speakers, going to the deepest, darkest parts of the mission field was the only way to truly be “sold out for God.” And I wanted to be sold out for God. So what other choice was there?
  • The Hero Missionary leads to a skewed view of the Church. Universal calls to the mission field sound great at a conference or a youth retreat. But saying that everybody should want to be a missionary doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying that every body part should want to be an elbow.
  • The Hero Missionary risks distorting the gospel. The implication underlying  most of the chapel talks was clear–God loves missionaries more than he loves everybody else. So if you REALLY want God to love you, you need to take drastic action: find the most desolate, locust-infested war-zone possible, and start accomplishing deeds of heroic evangelicalism. In other words, if you want God’s love, you have to earn it. That doesn’t sound much like the gospel…

Okay, I’m done griping about chapel speakers now. But I have more to say about missions. This is actually the first in a series of missions post. If you’re lucky, Missionary Matt could even stop by….

Did anybody else want to be a Hero Missionary? Any good stories?

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Photo credit: Ninara

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