“Ahh, it’s wonderful! Magnificent! Heart-warming and soul-inspiring!
“The call of God on the life of a Christian to go to the world and preach His name! To give up America and its comforts, its air conditioning, its Walmart and Moon Pies! Oh, how sweet to give our all, knowing God will reward our sacrifices by giving back to us much more than we ever gave up!
“Who? Grandma? No, she won’t be giving up anything. She’s staying here in the US. We’re the ones leaving, not her. She and Grandpa will be fine.”
Eventually, all missionaries must admit their call and obedience. Grandparents and adult siblings are those most likely to express a familial opinion, and it isn’t always positive.
Once upon a time in the SBC, missionaries were former pastors who grew up in Baptist homes. Lottie’s photo hung in the hallway by the coat closet. Dad named the dogs Hudson and Taylor. Missions and ministry were greatly honored, and sons who pursued such callings had a place reserved on the familial Wall of Fame.
Oh, how 19th century.
Today, the IMB boasts workers who hail from atheistic, Mormon, agnostic, Muslim, Unitarian, Buddist, and cultural Christian backgrounds. Very often, a cry of “We’ve been called!” is met with rejection that runs anywhere from eye-rolling to outright disownment. Sometimes, Christian families respond worse than their non-Christian counterparts.
A random sampling of comments…
“If you go, don’t come back.”
“Just try it, and you’ll hear from our lawyer when we sue for custody of the kids. We’ll do what we have to do in order to protect our grandchildren from your fanaticism!”
“And what are you planning to do with that engineering degree I paid for?”
“Yes, we did sue the IMB for their actions. Did they think we would let them destroy our family?”
“When you come back from the ends of the earth and are ready to rejoin the family, let us know.”
“Anything that keeps you from being in this house, right here, on Christmas Day isn’t something you should be a part of.”
“Ahh…and all that talk about honoring your parents just goes out the window when it is inconvenient.”
“So third-world pagans are better than American ones?”
“I’ll call Children’s Services!”
“You? Missionary? Have you forgotten that we know you better than that? Does the IMB lack a screening process?”
Rinse, lather, repeat.
The anger, rancor, and bitterness are seemingly endless. They continue for years. Emails go unanswered. Marriages and funerals and pregnancies come to pass within the stateside family without anyone caring enough to inform the field-based family members. Sometimes the emotions are strong and volatile, though just as often they are subtle under-currents that pervade every family gathering and attempt at communication. Complicating attempts at resolution is the fact that rejection exists along a continuum. Some families disapprove of ministry but love that cross-cultural thing. Others bristle with enthocentrism without blinking at the ministerial aspect.
Even periodic returns to the US do little to soothe.
“You feed them what? Is that how I raised you?”
“Why is his Spanish better than his English? Does he hate America, too?”
“Ready to stop wasting your time?”
“I asked the kids how they liked being back home and they laughed. What does that mean?”
“Have you learned your lesson, or will you be going back?”
“Saved enough of them to consider the job done yet?”
“Your family doesn’t eat a Christmas turkey? Do our family traditions mean nothing to you?”
“I thought your kids would be a little better behaved. They leave doors open, don’t flush the toilet consistently, leave their shoes on the front porch, talk loudly, and laugh at the wrong things. Honestly…they’re a little backwards.”
“Peace? We’ll have that the moment you apologize to the entire family for abandoning us!”
Sometimes the anger is right out there on the surface. Other times, passive-aggressive guilt techniques work more subtly. The rejection response can even look like acceptance; the family verbalizes praise and approval while unashamedly working to ensure that the missionary is left out of everything because “apparently, that’s how he wants it. This is just the result of his own decision-making.”
It is sometimes easy for missionaries to brush off the rejection they receive from their non-Christian relatives. After all, only Christians would likely understand. Responding to a Christian’s rejection is much, much harder. The missionary is all but forced to assume what appears to be a theologically arrogant position by insisting that he truly knows the proper way to respond to God’s calling.
“Yes, Mom, I know there are local sinners who need Christ. Yes, I know the Great Commission said to start in ‘Jerusalem,’ a word we have traditionally interpreted to mean our local area. Yes, I know the Bible tells me to honor my mother and father. Yes, I know there are biblical examples of sons caring for their aging parents. Yes, I know I am not the only person who could possibly reach my target people group. Yes, I know I lack equity in our home and will lose money on the sale, something that smacks of poor stewardship. Yes, I know I can be a missionary in the workplace and within my own culture. Yes, I know you and Dad have been Christians for many years and qualify as my spiritual elders. Even so, you’re wrong and I’m right. See you in a couple of years.”
All neatly wrapped in a package of self-flagellating guilt that stems from the sneaking suspicion that somewhere along the way, a mistake has been made.
Call to International Missions, Part 2: Familial Approval