Writings by Cole Huffman

This Is A Pith Helmet Hardhat Area

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

Take that, you Chris Hitchens inspired, religion-poisons-everything acolytes. Those nineteenth century pith helmeted missionaries moving their belongings overseas in caskets were making the world better after all. (See the lead article in the January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today, “The World the Missionaries Made,” from which the above quotation was taken: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html.)

That the faults and flaws of human beings get overplayed in public perception goes double for proselytizers. It is commonly thought proselytizers possess too much zeal for controlling everybody’s belief and behavior. Proselytizers are the great imposers on the world, the anti-anthropologists, culturally clumsy if not manipulative, befriending the natives with chocolates and tchotchkes to set up the Church Raj. The world is like Elmer Fudd in its comic disdain of proselytization: Ooooh, I hate those wascally Quistians!

But you can’t stop the gospel you can only hope to contain it. So nice try, countries with anti-proselytizing laws: In your nations more people are bowing their knees to King Jesus today than to your Caesars. And you egotistical Western countries, preaching conformist tolerance too ironical to be considered proselytizing itself: You only look darkened. Reports of the church’s death in the West have been greatly exaggerated. And how’s this for divine humor? The nations we sent those pith helmet hardhat missionaries to so long ago now send missionaries to us.

Missions work. There are poisonwood Bibles, yes; men and women who take to fields ripe for harvest only to break their scythes on others’ shins due to their own sinful brokenness. Missionaries are human beings, after all, capable of errors. And we too, the rest of us, are capable of errors in relating to them, primarily two. One is to romanticize them for their work. The other is to despise them for their work.

I had a friend in Nashville years ago who worked in the Christian music industry. One of the artists he worked for complimented him by saying he appreciated that my friend didn’t “B.S. the artist.” He meant my friend wasn’t cloying, fawning over artists as if relating to people of talent required constantly reminding them of their Shekinah. He was personable with artists but honest with them too; impressed by their talents, a fan himself, but grounded enough not to romanticize their biz.

Missionaries rock. But romanticizing them and their work doesn’t just undercut their accountability, it uppercuts ours. If I think the missionary is doing the really vital work for God then what needs doing by me will go down for the count. I’ve seen people spend months preparing for a two-week venture abroad who never give that same energy to the Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria they spend their other 50 weeks in.

Why are we like that? Because we’ve romanticized missions. Everywhere else is the truly needy place. Everywhere else is where God is truly working. Vibrant support of missionaries and loving missions doesn’t require idolizing or idealizing. It doesn’t require looking past where you reside.

Our other error relating to missions is more subtle. I’m not thinking here of how the world despises proselytizing, as mentioned above, but how the church despises our proselytizers. We don’t quite let them be fully human.

Missionaries get tired of the people and places they serve. They have bad days at their offices. Missionary couples fight sometimes like any regular married couple. Their kids are not angels. Why is it more of a scandal when missionaries hit these vicissitudes of life than when you do? Why should any missionary feel anxiety for signaling they need a sabbatical or period of marriage counseling? You’re going to stop supporting them when they reveal they’re not Superman or Wonder Woman?

Don’t be guilted into supporting any missionary. Shared grace motivates our giving—and our going too for that matter—not guilt. The despising I have in view makes missionaries feel guilty for being human and needing grace themselves. I can’t think of a greater disservice we do to our emissary servants than this.

The church in the world is a pith helmet hardhat area. We have an annual missions conference at First Evan because the work of missions is never done. For eight decades now our church has stood on the conviction that evangelical missions work and our missionaries rock.

And for all eternity all of us, billions strong, will sing the new song in Revelation 5. I imagine the music loud, instruments from everywhere (thanks to missionaries), David-dances around the throne (thanks to our finally being free of self-conscientiousness), and crowns and pith helmets thrown in the air like no party anyone’s ever seen, including Pitbull: By your blood you ransomed people for God! From every tribe and language and people and nation! And you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God! And they shall reign on the earth! Amen!
Posted by Cole Huffman at 7:13 PM
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