February 15, 2009

What’s the difference?

“Is there an ontological difference between relief/development work and mission work?”

That’s a comment I scrawled in my notes at last year’s mission training (yes, I use words like ontological in my notes), notes I pulled out of a box in my parents’ basement in September and it’s a question that I’ve been gnawing on for a while.

Basically, the question I wanted answered then is if there is a core or essential difference between the kind of work done by, say, a Peace Corps volunteer and a YASC missionary. It’s an important question because in many ways I saw YASC and the Peace Corps as equivalent before I joined the former and my prime motivations for moving overseas were to do the type of work epitomized by Peace Corps folks.

The question has popped up again for me in the conversation I’ve been having with other missionaries about the church’s proposed change of the term missionary to “mission partner.” Some missionaries have written me to say that in their countries missionaries are held in higher regard than NGO workers, which I hadn’t expected. That conversation also led to the article I linked to in a previous post in which the atheist author argued for missionaries in Africa.

The answer I wrote to this question in my notes at mission training was “in mission work attempting to enrich souls with God’s grace; not just do good but be good.” I guess that’s true but it’s still hard to see the concrete ways in which the difference between my work and that of a PCV is apparent.

Any thoughts on the matter?


Elizabeth said...

I think it ranges from stark contrasts to few visible differences.

If someone is trying to be an ambassador for Christ, that should be evident, don't you think? But depending on his beliefs, a Peace Corps volunteer could be a missionary. There can be overlap.

Since tent-making is encouraged, any kind of work can be a context in which a missionary can serve.

A missionary's primary commitment is to God, not to the work itself. Sure, the Bible talks about serving earthly needs as well as spiritual. But a non-missionary would be serving without the Gospel, and that makes a pretty big difference.

Your everyday life might look like everybody else's, but how about when things are tough? Where does your strength come from?

Michelle said...

The way I tend to interpret these differences (as a Catholic) is that there are differences in both motivation (i.e., the reasons you're doing the work) and reception (i.e., how others see or interpret the work you're doing). What is the purpose of mission work - is it to bring people the Word of God, to bring them basic care and teach them survival skills? A Peace Corps volunteer could do those things too, but might have chosen the different venue for a variety of reasons.

There can absolutely be overlap but that extra faith / belief in God is an external requirement for missionary work, I would think.

Inner strength does not come from God, not for everyone; Peace Corps volunteers could view that strength (and their ability to do their work) as coming from their interactions with others, and the nature of their work. While one person sees that as coming from God, another might not. It does not devalue the nature of the work.

How do you, as a missionary, bring the Word of God to the people in your community? Is it much more overt, or are acts of kindness seen as enough?