A missionary sees clearly

Southern Cross: People Matter

People Matter was a regular column by Phillip Jensen in Southern Cross, the monthly magazine of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Originally Published:
Jensen, P 'A missionary sees clearly'. Southern Cross, November 2000.

Tagged: materialism wealth

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“...let us throw off everything that hinders...” Hebrews 12:1, NIV

Mary and I were sharing an umbrella in the long walk from the convention hall to the accommodation block. She was one of the many ex-missionaries for whom the convention ministry was a spiritual home.

She told me of being on the field for 20 years and how hard it was to readjust back to Australia. I listened without talking much, for in those days I had not experienced or understood culture shock, let alone reverse culture shock.

As we trudged through the rain a car drove past carrying some of the convention people. They stopped and offered us a lift, which Mary quietly but very firmly refused. I was a little wet and would have gladly accepted, but now had no choice but to trudge on!

“I would never get in their car,” Mary almost spat.

I was taken back by the emotional fervour of her comment.

“Why?” I asked, noticing now that the car was not only warm, dry and comfortable, but fast disappearing.

“Look at it,” she said, “luxury and worldliness.”

I looked at the tail lights and sure enough it was a more expensive car than I ever anticipate owning. But to refuse a lift for that reason, to refuse a lift in the rain, to refuse people who are being kind and generous, seemed a bit of an over reaction.

“They've been coming to this convention as long as I have,” she commented. “And we sat together through those wonderful messages of Mr X and Mr Y. They were all for ‘full submission’, and opposed to all forms of ‘worldliness’. And look at them now. Still coming to the same conventions but driving rich cars and living in big houses.”

I tried lamely to question the charity of Mary's attitude, only to be told: “Some of us went to the missionfield. Others stayed at home promising support and prayer. We went through real difficulty and hardship, and every time we came home they were living in bigger houses, driving better cars, sending their children to expensive schools. They finally went overseas but only on holidays ... and (they were) still coming to the conventions”.

It was a sad and yet very informative conversation that Mary and I shared that long wet walk home. Sure she was suffering from reverse culture shock. Certainly she was giving the evil one room in her unrepentant bitterness. But yet she was also making a prophetic point with great clarity and force.

‘Standards of living’ often change imperceptibly. Just as we see the growth of children in the occasional photograph more clearly than by observing them day to day, so also our culture's development is seen more clearly by the missionary who returns home once every three years than by those of us who live here all the time.

I have now welcomed home many missionaries. They have not all been as hurt and angry as Mary was at the convention all those years ago. She was in pain and real spiritual difficulty. But they all comment on the growing materialism—not just in the Australian community, where they expect it, but amongst the Christians.

And it is not just those missionaries working in the poorer countries of the world who notice. Missionaries from countries of a comparable if not higher ‘standard of living’ than Australia notice it as well. It may well be time for us to revisit the issue of ‘worldliness’.