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The Missionary ‘Pecking Order’comment (0)

March 13, 2014

By Bob Terry

The Missionary ‘Pecking Order’

Among Southern Baptists, those called to serve God as international missionaries usually receive the greatest honor. While these special servants are worthy of all the respect and admiration they receive, perhaps it is time to make a change in the informal structure of the “pecking order” Baptists seem to live by where missionaries are concerned. 

Leaving one’s homeland to serve God in a foreign country is traumatic and demanding. Yet God calls and equips some of His servants to do just that. Like Abraham, the great patriarch of the Old Testament, they leave their country, their people and their families to go to a new part of the world that God shows them. They learn a new language, a new culture and fall in love with a new place and a new people. 

More than 4,800 Southern Baptists serve God in foreign nations currently. They tell people “of every tongue and every tribe” about the love of God demonstrated in giving “His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” 

Whether it is the sacrifices these international workers make or the romanticism that lingers with international missions, most Baptists place international missionaries in a special category. It is not unusual to hear someone say with an excited voice, “I met a real live missionary.” Our respect and admiration for them and for what they do is unequaled in Baptist life. 

North American missionaries generally follow in the pecking order. Today that means most of these “missionaries” are church planters — generally in underserved areas of the United States from a Southern Baptist perspective. Most have moved far from home, must learn a culture far different from the Deep South and serve with few resources with which to share the gospel and grow a new congregation. 

Most Southern Baptists seem to recognize the difficulties these North American missionaries face and honor them with respect, appreciation and prayers. 

State and associational missionaries usually come next in the pecking order. Referring to these leaders as missionaries is like going back to the future. Missionary was the original title for their positions but over years, that term was abandoned for titles such as “director of … .” Now leaders are trying to tie back into the original purpose of strengthening and coordinating the work of churches by returning to the missionary title. 

For some the title still has an unusual ring. It is hard for them to see someone living next door to them as a missionary. 

Perhaps that is the reason that those at the bottom of the Baptist pecking order have such a difficult time. They are the local missionaries not the local church pastor. Pastors have a pecking order all of their own. The local missionary is the person who visits the jail every week to teach the Bible and tell people about Jesus. The local missionary is the person who works in the church’s food pantry or clothes closet and uses every opportunity to demonstrate God’s love and compassion. 

The local missionary is the dentist who unselfishly gives his time and talents to serve underprivileged clients or the one who loves internationals enough to help them learn English as a teacher in the English as a Second Language program. 

In short, local missionaries are individuals who invest themselves in programs of compassion, ministry and evangelism of their local churches or associations. They are people who sit next to us in Sunday School or worship and live down the street. 

It is said that “familiarity breeds contempt” and that may be the problem for local missionaries. Because we are familiar with them, we sometimes fail to appreciate the impact of their ministries. For example, one local missionary in Alabama invests herself through Christian Women’s Job Corps. Through that ministry God used her to intervene in the lives of women who had been trafficked for sex. This local missionary was able to help break the hold traffickers had on these women, help the women learn legitimate job skills and help them establish normal lifestyles. And in the process, she introduced them to Jesus. 

Had these events happened in a foreign land and the primary character been an international missionary, the story would have been told across the denomination. But because it was a local missionary in an Alabama city, people usually yawn when the report is recounted. 

Alabama Baptists are a missions-minded people. Through the years we have sent an unusually large number of missionaries to serve overseas. We have pastors and others who serve as North American missionaries across the nation. Our state demonstrates its love of missionaries through being a leader in financial support of missions through the Cooperative Program, the primary channel of missions support.

Alabama Baptists also are blessed with thousands of faithful men and women who serve God by serving others as local missionaries. They serve migrant workers and international seamen. They work in free medical clinics and literacy centers. They feed the hungry and repair homes for the helpless. They drive the aged to the doctor and care for children after school. They lead Backyard Bible Clubs and teach healthy lifestyles for adults. Their ministries of service and compassion become channels of blessings to open doors for sharing the gospel message. 

Legion are the lives touched and the souls saved because of the faithfulness of local missionaries. 

Perhaps instead of worrying about some kind of pecking order among missionaries, we should just celebrate the faithfulness of all God’s servants who open themselves to become channels of blessings for the gospel. After all, isn’t that what being a missionary is all about? 

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