When is it work, when is it ministry? What does tent-making look like and is it something to aspire to or to avoid if possible? To live and serve in Asia required having a job in the region of the country that the Father had called us to. There are many parts of the world where there is no such thing as a "Missionary", however there are open doors for "Christians with purpose".
Integrating ministry with daily regular work commitments was an essential balance in our calling to serve God in overseas work.
As I have thought about the difference between life here in NZ and life in a mission context, I am more and more convinced that the difference is more about mindset and perceived purpose than anything else.
For our family, daily life looked much like it does here in NZ; there was work and study and family life and all the usual social engagements with friends, colleagues, co-workers and children thrown in between. The difference was that while in Asia, we saw ourselves as "on mission", and not "home"; seeing work as the place and platform for making Christ known rather than the primary source of our identity or daily provision.
When we think about work, we can fall into the error of considering "work" as simply secular stuff we do, while the spiritual and important things are really the "ministry" roles that we have. This can play out in different ways.
Some people can see work as a purely secular activity that provides money for the more "important" things of life. This can lead Christians to be ruthless and efficient businesspeople during the week, but then teach grace and gospel on Sunday OR it can lead to a careless attitude to work commitments, and colleagues.
It can also lead to differing standards of behaviour and morality between the weekdays and Sunday. One other common result of this mind-set is a failure to look for ministry opportunities in our workplaces as we await "pre-set" ministry opportunities. For example, in a volunteer setting or a ministry building or a Christian event. This attempt to separate our lives into compartments is foreign to Scripture. All of life is to be lived for God, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God." Doing this will look different for different people and different contexts, however at the very least this verse calls us to consider all of life a platform for glorifying God and making Jesus known, so that what we do in our workplace becomes just as much a point for "incarnational ministry" as serving on Sunday in church.
With this in mind, there were some key decisions that we, and our organisation made about work. Each of those decisions was made to ensure that work served the primary call that God had given us – to make Him known. How did that work out practically? It meant many things, but I’ll attempt to highlight some of the key aspects for us:
We did not over-commit. We ensured that the work contracts we signed allowed sufficient time to do other things. Life in a foreign setting is tiring. Trying to keep a full-time job and disciple others, teach others, lead others (and not neglect family) requires a commitment to godly boundaries. We were not called primarily to heal bodies, but to see spiritual healing and life.
We evaluated opportunities with a Romans 10:14 lens. Was this work situation going to give opportunities for gospel conversations and "modelling" the gospel? One colleague decided to "resign" from a work position after a year when she found it involved a lot of "block-teaching" to large revolving groups of students with very little time to establish relationships. This position provided a stable visa for remaining in that region, but ministry was almost impossible within the workplace, even towards other teachers. The gospel often has the most impact through "life-on-life" interactions. The best spiritual conversations generally happen in private settings where relationships are built, and people can be vulnerable and honest with questions and answers. It happens best in a context where people know they are valued and cared for.
We considered work opportunities in the context of the wider ministry team or Church. Rather than taking jobs where-ever, we sought to be prayerfully engaged with our fellow Christian workers about where God would have us be within a city or community rather than working in scattered isolation. We strongly believe that God calls us to work together with others rather than as isolated islands. God calls us as members of church communities that work best when each part does its work. Being part of teams meant we could keep one another accountable; we could naturally share friendships with one-another’s friends and host events and activities naturally together. Our organisation has a policy that business initiatives (and by extension, work platforms), were never to be simply "visa platforms" but needed to have some connection with the ministry focus of our team or church. It also means that we intentionally seek jobs or businesses that will bless and bring benefit.
We worked with integrity. This has 2 meanings. Firstly, we did what our visa said we were in Asia to do. Having a work permit or a student visa meant we needed to be people of integrity who studied hard or who turned up to work on time and did the job we had committed to doing. The temptation to use a job visa simply as a "ticket" into a region and then do the least possible at work to allow for more "gospel ministry" was ever present. Unfortunately, some workers did try to separate "faithfulness to earthly masters" from "faithfulness to our Heavenly master". The result was not fruitful ministry, but a bad name for the gospel, increased suspicion about employing Christians, and accusations of deception by these people. Colossians 3:23-24 tells us that whatever we do we are to do it with all our heart as working for the Lord, not for human masters...it is the Lord Christ you are serving."
Secondly, we ensured we lived lives that were above reproach. Sin is just as devastating and ugly in a cross-cultural situation as it is in NZ. Whether immorality or dishonesty or some other sin, they all very effectively close the door for the gospel. We saw ministry doors opened because even the atheistic government recognised that Christian professionals were people of integrity who were a blessing to have around rather than causing problems. Conversely, we saw communities and ministries and individuals closed to gospel outreach by sinful behaviour from those who claimed the name of Christ.
We sought to be accountable about our work. Being intentional about gospel conversations and friendships was no less challenging in Asia than it is here. As part of a ministry team, we ensured we had "prayer & accountability partners". Key goals from these relationships were to encourage one another and spur each-other on to be speaking about Christ and praying about conversations that were taking place and seeking mutual encouragement to think through how to effectively make Christ known in our daily lives. If we really see our workplaces as places of ministry, then we ought to pray for them like we would other ministries and seek to support and help one another spiritually, emotionally, and professionally in those roles.
In Titus 2, we find Paul talking to different groups in the church about what gospel living looks like. In verses 9-10 he says, "Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive". I love that phrase. It is a beautiful picture of what work as a Christian ought to aim at.
We live in NZ now but the principles of serving God in our work are the same. Rather than dividing our lives up into "sacred" and "secular" components we need to see work as worship; a place to make our Saviour attractive. We need to have a theology of work as ministry. Work is not a consequence of the fall into sin, it was something that God mandated before Adam and Eve sinned. It is a reflection of His image in us that we are given capacity to be productive and creative and use the things of this world that He has given to bless and benefit others… to support ourselves and those around us.
Serving in Asia was a tremendous opportunity to be "on mission" and see how God used that in our own lives and in the lives of those we lived and worked and served amongst. I would challenge you as I challenge myself to apply that mission mindset to the workplace that God has called you to here in NZ to work and serve as someone who is not yet home, as a "Christian with purpose."
This article was contributed by a brother who served as a missionary in East-Asia for a number of years. For security reasons he has asked to remain anonymous.