I have the unique fortune of training a good number of missionaries in my role at the seminary and through the church I pastor. It is a real blessing to be a part of equipping young families and singles to uproot their lives and move for the sake of the gospel. A regular component of this training is the use of media in the life of the missionary. Our generation (and all following) are now digital natives. The internet is an assumed part of life for all of us, and most of us are connected every hour of the day and night.
The internet has changed missions. Think back to the beginning of the modern missions movement. A move to the mission field virtually severed ties with anyone at home. Certainly, the missionaries maintained as much connection as possible, but that came in the form of letters that took months to deliver and then months more for response. The missionary calling was one of intense separation from church and family, and most often intense isolation from other believers or people from your culture. It was total immersion in a land where no one spoke like you, looked like you, acted like you, or believed like you. This is simply how missions worked all the way up to the middle of the 20th century. Eventually telegraphs and then telephones made more immediate communication possible, but this was extremely limited by location. With air travel, short term teams allowed a physical connection back to church and family in a way that was not possible before.
But all of this changed with the internet. It has taken some time for the internet to wrap its arms around the world, but we now live in a connected world. The furthest reaches of the planet are now developing means of connectivity. Major companies like Facebook are making it part of their mission to get connectivity out to the smallest villages in rural Africa. The internet age is fully upon us. For the missionary, this means instantaneous access to people back at home. Whether they serve across the country as church planters in a major city or across the planet in another country, most missionaries have some means of connection with home. Once, we learned about the lives of missionaries through great biographies. Now, we learn about them by reading their blogs.
Much is gained for the modern missionary through this connectivity. After all, that missionary does not stop being your church member, and sending a missionary is more than putting them on a plane. Local churches have a spiritual responsibility to the members they send, and the internet makes missionary care an easier, more realistic prospect than ever. There is not a month that goes by at my church where I do not hear stories of small groups skyping one of our missionaries to love on them and pray for them. The internet allows unprecedented access to our missionary force, and that meets all kinds of needs.
Nevertheless, missionaries are often uncritical of the internet in an unhealthy way. It is a real challenge for digital natives to see the dangers to ministry that exist in something so interwoven to life. When the calling is to uproot oneself from life at home and plant themselves in another context, there are some serious pitfalls to staying too connected.
Being a missionary requires a level of incarnation, or being physically present and planted in a context. In fact, the more present in context, the better a missionary can be at proclaiming the gospel and facilitating church plants. Of course, the reverse is true too. The less present a missionary, the greater the difficulty in developing the relationships necessary to serve well. To be successful, missionaries must undergo a great deal of cultural immersion. They must learn language and culture, and they must develop a deep understanding of worldview in their new context. Furthermore, gospel proclamation is highly relational and relies on a ministry of presence. In order for the missionary to succeed, they must be “all there,” totally present in their new home.
The internet can be a serious deterrent to presence. Talking to mom and dad while on the field is a good thing. Talking to them every night is not. Needing the relationships and interaction with people in their new home is one of the things that forces missionaries to develop culture and language skills. It is also the driver that pushes people into relationships. Staying hyper-connected to friends and family back at home actually hinders this necessary acclimation. After all, the missionary moved to this new place to share the gospel with the people there. It is highly ironic, and rather sad, to see someone spend large sums of money, time, and effort to leave home physically but never leave there emotionally. Hyper-connectivity serves as a deterrent for good missionary service.
What is more, missionaries are especially susceptible to the “Facebook effect.” You may not have heard it referred to this way, but you know the feeling of depression that comes from scrolling through endless posts of your friend’s best moments and comparing them to your mundane life. One is having a baby, and another just got married, and that one is on vacation in Aruba, and you are in a pair of gym shorts cleaning up the cereal you just spilled on the couch.
The Facebook effect gets us all, but it is especially severe for missionaries. For what it is worth, a missionary’s day feels rather mundane and often difficult most of the time. After the newness wears off of living in a foreign country, it is not unlike any other life, except for all the extra difficulties. It is hard living in a place where you feel like no one understands you, and you often do not understand them. In addition many countries have bad infrastructure, corruption, or any number of hardships that make simple tasks difficult. A trip to the grocery store where I served in Africa was usually an overnight trip into the city. Add all of this to the fact that the hyper-connected missionary spends more time staying connected back home than building new relationships. Now, measure that kind of life against the Facebook effect. Hyper-connectivity can negatively impact the missionary’s emotional health.
Finally, it distracts the missionary for a much more important endeavor, sharing the good news of Christ with a lost world. Again, being connected brings much benefit, but being hyper-connected becomes a distraction. This is spiritual warfare at its finest. It is so subtle that it can go unnoticed as a spiritual attack, but that is precisely what occurs. By stripping the missionary of their ability to make real relationships and root themselves into context, it takes away the urgency of the gospel task. Before long, Facebook and Netflix become a medication against the harsh world outside their doors. People in the US have a problem with binge-watching Netflix nowadays, imagine how much easier that is when you convince yourself that it is the deserved treat for volunteering to take on such a hard life. Nevertheless, every hour spent on YouTube is an hour the missionary is not actually being a missionary.
I cannot stress enough that there are many benefits granted by the ease of modern communication. I am so thankful that we can care for our missionaries from a distance, and that we can know immediately when there is a need for prayer, or even an emergency trip. In addition, it allows for awareness and mobilization at a whole new level. Nevertheless, we must be diligent to analyze the pitfalls. If you are a missionary, have you experienced the negative effects of hyper-connectivity? I know many who have, and I would love to hear your stories as well.