Inside: When evangelical churches glorify missions and teach the great commission, they might not realize the message children are internalizing. And those messages? They’re so very far from healthy.
Last week, a post popped up in my Facebook feed. The teen daughter of a dear friend shared the intense disappointment the past two years had brought, especially how it had derailed her plans to spend a gap year overseas doing missions.
Now I know nothing of her long-term plans and whether her future will include missions – and that’s not the point. I hope she gets to do whatever it is that is on her heart to do.
The point is that this particular post tapped into a flood of memories from my own long and complicated relationship with missions, and the great commission in general.
How missions and the great commission were presented during my childhood and early adult years affected me – and not in a good way. I’m just beginning to unpack it all.
I have a feeling I’ll still be peeling back the layers for years to come. I hope my story can help you to understand, even if it’s just a little bit, how certain messages can lead to toxic thoughts and beliefs.
And for those who choose to remain in the church, I hope you’ll consider the ramifications of how the gospel and missions are talked about…especially with children.
When Your Parents Are Passionate About Missions
When I was young, we attended a Methodist church. All I remember about that church was my parents talking about how Sunday sermons were a joke. At the end of the day, they didn’t value or preach the Bible enough.
So we transitioned to a non-denominational evangelical church when I was around four or five.
That church itself was like any other evangelical church, although the defining characteristic in my mind was the strange insistence that God doesn’t speak to people today. He only speaks through the Bible and other people, apparently (because somehow we know this definitively…mmmm k).
Around that time, my parents for reasons unknown to me became passionate about missions. My dad was on the missions board, and he fought fiercely his entire life, at every church he attended, for missions to have more funding.
Now I’m proud of my dad. Buildings and brunches and retreats and technology (cough, cough, I’m lookin’ at you, Bethel with your fog machines for “worship”) dominate church budgets today. I’m all for reform and giving most of that money to people who actually need it for basic necessities things like food and shelter.
He fought hard battles with the church and stood up for what he believed was right. That takes a whole lot of conviction and courage.
But back to missions…my earliest memories of missions were of my parents praising missionaries, fighting for them, supporting them financially.
They were outraged (to put it mildly) when the church made decisions that devalued missions, cutting funding, instead of increasing it. Without fail, bigger church buildings and better programming always got the biggest slice of the pie.
After watching all of those battles, I internalized the belief that missions – and Christian ministry – was THE highest calling in life.
Did my parents ever say that verbatim? Probably not. But it’s the message I received loud and clear. And that message was only reinforced during my early adults years in the church.
Can’t Be an Engineer? Be a Missionary, Instead!
That unconscious belief became super clear when I was floundering towards the end of my freshman year.
I started college a relatively confident biomedical engineering major. Six months before I left for college, I considered changing my major to Deaf Studies.
Long story, but essentially I was studying engineering with the end goal of improving the cochlear implant to help (save?) the Deaf. I was so passionate about ASL and the Deaf community that I contemplated dropping engineering altogether.
My dad strongly encouraged me to stick with the engineering degree, so I did. But during my spring semester, I took my first American Sign Language class, only to discover that the Deaf community didn’t want the cochlear implant.
As soon as I realized they didn’t even want the device I was trying to improve with engineering (oh, and hating engineering), I decided to switch majors to Deaf Studies. But that meant my solid life plan that I’d been working towards for all of high school went up in smoke.
Not surprisingly, I felt utterly and completely lost. Call it perfect timing, but right around that time, a guy who was planning on being a missionary asked me out.
Looking back, I know that part of me said yes because this was my super secret back-up plan. My solution to not doing what I originally planned with my life (and what my dad had planned for my life) – and having no purpose or concrete plan for what I would do after college – was to follow what was clearly the ultimate calling: become a missionary.
After all, if you truly believe that every person who doesn’t know Jesus is going to hell for all eternity, and God is depending on Christians to share the message that could maybe, possibly save them from burning in hell for, I don’t know, FOREVER, how could any sane, compassionate Christian NOT care about missions?
When The Gospel Equals Saving People From Eternal Torment, How Can You Not Want to Do Missions?
I was raised to believe that anyone who didn’t “profess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord” was going to hell for all eternity.
Hell was at best, eternal separation from God. At most, it was burning and torment and anguish forever.
And the only way unbelievers had any hope of escaping that fate? People telling them the gospel – the “good news” – that Jesus died to save them from this fate. It’s a free gift: you just have to take it.
Of course, if they don’t take it, well, door #2 leads straight to hell. But regardless, they couldn’t make that choice IF NO ONE TOLD THEM.
Oh, and another thing. Even if you’ve never heard the name of Jesus, you still had no excuse. If you didn’t believe that He died on the cross for your sins, didn’t pray some version of the sinner’s prayer? You were also screwed. It’s hell for you, just like the one’s who had the chance to choose Jesus and didn’t.
The theology got a little iffy on children. I mean, surely God is merciful, and He wouldn’t send children to hell, right?
But what age was the magical age? And if they died after that age came, and they hadn’t accepted the gospel? Not good.
But I digress. Here’s my point: if you really truly believe this message, deep in your soul, in your very bones, then the only logical conclusion is your life should be spent telling people about Jesus…saving all the people from eternal torture apart from God.
And if you aren’t spending every minute telling people about Jesus, you probably, at some point, have felt intense guilt and shame that you aren’t rescuing all these drowning people. It would be like watching thousands of people drown and not doing everything you could to save them.
You try to numb that guilt in various ways, of course.
Maybe you make yourself feel better by giving to missionaries that supposedly are telling people about Jesus every day (but then again, I’ve spent time with missionaries overseas…they aren’t spending every minute).
Maybe you tell yourself you have other gifts that serve the church. We can’t all be good at evangelism after all, right?
But at the end of the day, in those moments in between, the guilt waits. You should be doing more, working harder, spending all your time and money and energy to save.those.people dammit.
And if you aren’t actually the one saving them, then my goodness, at least go into ministry in the States and train up more little missionaries to go save all the dying people.
And if you can’t do that, then by golly, you sure as heck better be giving to missionaries and telling other people to do the same.
And that message, my friend, when you hear it all through childhood, is how you create an entire army of Christians with an evangelical hero complex.
When Ministry and Missions Is Exalted, Anything Else Is Less Than
I was primed to see ministry and missions as fantastic and awesome. So when I happened to choose a church in college that focused almost everything on church-planting and missions, well, what happened was probably inevitable.
My freshman year, the leader of the church movement sat outside with a bunch of freshman and pitched us a vision, a dream. “What if you could plant a church with your friends and change the world?”
Other ways of changing the world…well, they weren’t really talked about. The ultimate way to change the world was to plant a church in some way, or become a missionary. And imagine if you could do that with some of your best friends? Belonging plus purpose is an irresistible pair.
This particular talk happened to also coincide with changing majors. So when I felt most void of purpose, someone else swooped into that vacuum and offered me the ultimate purpose to replace it.
So even when I broke up with my missionary boyfriend, I still thought full-time ministry of some kind was the ultimate calling. Everything else was second-rate, settling.
Fast forward a few years: we got the calling. We were “chosen”, asked to take over the college pastor position our mentors were vacating. It was truly a dream come true at that point in my life.
Later on, we planned to go overseas to become missionaries. And honestly, we were more built for missionary life than for American church staff roles.
But for a lot of reasons I won’t go into right now, it didn’t work out. We reluctantly chose to leave ministry and reenter “the real world”.
Can’t Do Missions or Ministry? Brace Yourself for the Deep, Dark Void Left Behind
Sarah Bessey, she gets it. This was the message so many young evangelicals heard in churches:
“Do big things for God! Do radical things! Do hard things! You’ll reach thousands for Christ! And if you don’t, what is your life even worth to God?Sarah Bessey, Out of Sorts
So when she and her husband eventually left Christian ministry, they felt like failures and went through a major identity crisis.
The first five years out of ministry were dark for me. I felt intensely lost all over again, just like after my freshman year in college.
I felt like I had no worth, no purpose. I’d failed – well, we’d failed actually.
Because when I wasn’t blaming myself for not being good enough, or whole enough or put together enough for the ultimate calling, I was blaming my husband for also not being good enough. Great material for a strong and healthy marriage, right?
It was so bad that at my lowest, when I was battling postpartum depression after my fifth child, the lack of purpose, plus all that comes with PPD, resulted in thoughts of self-harm. Yes, the void left by the inability to do missions or ministry was that big, that dark.
The Hero Complex, The Effects Run Long and Deep
Even though I no longer believe in eternal damnation for non-Christians, I still struggle with a hero complex.
I feel like I need to save everything and everyone. My husband. My extended family. My children. My friends.
In fact, looking back, I’ve always been trying to save people. Whether it was my parents’ marriage, the Deaf, non-believers. My entire life has been spent trying to save people.
It’s so incredibly unhealthy. Dismantling the superiority mindset? A serious challenge because it’s woven through everything.
And it leaves you burned out and exhausted, both from physical actions you take in attempts to “save” them, and from the emotional toll it takes when you fail. You can never truly rest…because then people would be going to hell.
These underlying currents of traditional evangelical theology, they’re there if you look for them.
Is this what we want? A generation that believes their ultimate purpose is to be missionaries and ministers? That anything else they could possibly choose to dedicate their lives to is somehow less than? Second best? A back-up option?
Do we want a generation who always sees themselves as the heroes because they hold the key to salvation? They’re enlightened – everyone else needs the knowledge and wisdom they were so fortunate to have at a young age?
It’s no longer what I want for myself. It’s definitely not what I want for my kids.