Keeping mission vision alive and growing A quarterly publication of Mission Data International

Not fitting in

by Paul Nielsen

For those of us who’ve heard the Great Commission’s call and are being led into full-time mission work, the ease of getting plugged in varies. For some, the perfect opportunity presents itself in such a way that to say “no” would be like Jonah not going to Nineveh when he was so clearly instructed to do so.

Other people possess clarity of calling but can’t seem to get plugged in. Reasons for these circumstances vary, from the right opportunity not being out there to, I believe, God keeping some back — who truly desire to go — in order to mobilize.

My wife and I have experienced both of the above scenarios. We were clearly led to be a part of Mission Data International, and we acted on that. Before this, however, I agonized (and still do) over the lack of opportunities created and offered by mission agencies for visual artists, opportunities other than graphic design, illustration and photography.

It seems as though I just don’t fit into the whole missions thing. My own interest lies with the tactile arts of painting, sculpture and ceramics. Very few openings with established sending organizations exist for people who feel led to serve in long-term missions while using their talent as a potter or printmaker.

Existing opportunities
Organizations like PIONEERS give teams and individuals the flexibility to create their own strategies, employing a variety of skillsets in order to create dynamic church planting efforts. Last year I exchanged emails with a PIONEERS team eager to have an artist serving with them in Southeast Asia. This is encouraging and gives me hope things are moving in the right direction. However, job descriptions are often lacking in these circumstances. Someone trying to find their place in such instances must possess an entrepreneurial bent to get involved this way. Not all people led to be missionaries are such self-starters.

Operation Mobilization, is devoted to getting visual artists into missions. In this way artists who want to use their gifts overseas aren’t the ones coming up with the opportunities. Within the current American mission structure, efforts such as Arts Link are a must.

Going for going’s sake
I can imagine some people saying that if you are led to serve overseas, every effort should be made to participate in any way possible. There are needs, all kinds of needs all of the time, among mission projects all over the world. Pious work is pious work, right?

I met a missionary family some years back who arrived in Spain expecting to oversee a camp. When they got to the camp the current director decided he wasn’t ready to retire just yet. The family was reassigned to a nearby church plant, where they felt entirely out of place. After seven years of service at this awkward post, the family learned the camp director would now retire, and they finally took their post at the camp.

Some will argue this was part of God’s bigger plan. Perhaps the family wasn’t ready for certain challenges presented by the camp administration; maybe God was testing their faithfulness as he did with Abraham and Isaac. While time may give us a better idea of the reasons behind certain trials, we can’t always know the meaning of things like these in the moment. And regardless, such arguments don’t allow us to forgo making appropriate plans before we build our tower — or go to an unreached people group with the Gospel.

Serving for the sake of serving is commendable and sacrificial, but it’s also poor strategy and a waste of God-given resources. Scripture tells us that different members of the Body are given different talents. An eye can’t do what the hand is able to; the Body must work together.

So how much patience is required on the part of the missionary candidate? How long should a person planning to go into full-time missions work search and wait for the perfect opportunity? Or is not finding the perfect and most strategic opportunity the same as a closed door?

I’ve been reminded a few times in the last month of how one person cannot rightly judge the circumstances of another. Seeking counsel is Biblical and important, but wise counsel will understand that they aren’t the ones walking in your shoes. No one else can tell you how the Spirit of God might be leading you.

Instead of closing with a true yet cliched proverb, I want to encourage readers who find themselves on the outside (per se) to press on. Oops, I guess that’s a bit of a platitude as well. Still, press on! Press on by supporting existing programs that focus on your calling, even if they aren’t exactly what you’d like to be a part of. Brainstorm new ideas with people of similar passion and research what it would take to get them going. Stay in touch with people who share your ideas. Your work will not be vain.

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