I grew up overseas as a missionary kid and returned to the US for college as a naive 18 year-old. I quickly learned that my best bet to make friends and keep them was to try and hide my quirky missionariness. In spite of attempting to cleanse myself of being a missionary, I could not remove this part of my identity. I was, and always would see the world through the lens of a missionary kid from Papua New Guinea.
I fixed my eyes on a new identity as I took courses in philosophy and Biblical studies and began to pursue becoming a pastor. I found myself wrestling with this whole new world of pastoral identity. Not having a traditional church experience or even regular interactions with a pastoral figure I felt very behind and backwards.
Fast-forward 10 years and I am now the director of student ministries at a church. Thanks be to God! Strangely though, now that I find myself here working in full time ministry I realize that underneath the new title and seminary degree I am at my core still a missionary. I am not a shepherd or a storyteller or any of the other images thrown at me in seminary in attempts to capture the essence of pastoral/ministry identity. I am a missionary, and that is precisely what the teenagers in my youth group need me to be.
I am called to enter into their world and to learn and understand their stories and their culture. I am not called to bring a set of beliefs and values and particular ways of “being Christian” and impose them upon these students. My job is to listen and study and to partner with them in helping them create an expression of faith that is authentic to their cultural context. I am not the expert come to save them. I am not bringing light into their darkness. I am helping them recognize where the light is already present in their world and together we are learning how to grow and strengthen that burning flame. I am not creating dependency on me. I am helping them to learn and lead and be missionaries to their own people. They are not sheep. They are highly skilled, deeply knowledgeable and culturally rooted teenagers with an over abundance of gifts and passions and possibilities. They are the ones teaching me about their world. They are the experts and I am the novice. Together we are developing a language of faith that makes sense in their context. Together we are figuring out who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.