What’s it like being a missionary in Europe? Not sexy. Let me explain.
My wife and I have been missionaries with a group called Global Scholars, an academic missions organization. We’ve lived in the Czech Republic since 1999. I remember a funny thing happening while I was raising support for our move to Prague, Czech Republic. I have a friend living in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the warm, beating heart of Dutch Calvinism in the States). I asked to meet with his pastor to check out whether his church would be willing to support us. It didn’t work out. I found out later that being missionaries in Europe “wasn’t sexy enough” for this church (my friend’s words). What he meant was that we wouldn’t be hacking into jungle undergrowth looking for an unreached people group, we wouldn’t be translating the Bible into a new language, we wouldn’t be dodging rebel gunfire while checking our mail. Instead, we’d be going to…the beautiful city of Prague to teach and meet with university students. Not very sexy.
And I’d have to agree. On the surface, it’s pretty pedestrian. I teach my classes. I write articles, work on books. I meet students for coffee or beer, or sometimes have a group of them over to my house. Occasionally I sit with one of them who is in the hospital when an appendix bursts. Mostly, it’s very everyday stuff.
Under the surface, it’s a little more dramatic. Czech Republic has the reputation (and the stats to back it up) of being one of the most atheist societies in the whole world. And Prague is the most atheist part of the country. There’s a spiritual hardness, an apathy, a restlessness that just cries out for someone to be here to represent Christ. And here’s the thing: these people are beyond the reach of most traditional church ministries. The church we go to, an evangelical reformed Czech church a long walk from our house, is pretty small, perhaps 150-175 people. And it’s one of the bigger churches in the denomination. Words like “church,” “pastor,” and especially “missionary,” are almost akin to swear words here (hence the pseudonym). Pastors and missionaries are considered worse than useless; they are propaganda tools for the brain-dead and manipulative. Czechs like the idea of somehow crawling out from under the record corruption, drug use, adultery and divorce rates that plague this culture, but they’ll be damned if it’s Christianity that’s going to help them do it. In their minds, 300 years of Austro-Hungarian Catholic rule/oppression mean that Christianity has been tried and been found sadly wanting. All without the gospel ever making a real impact.
So if missions is going to be successful here, it’s got to be integrated into the society in a way that’s “normal.” Like being a university lecturer. One of the things that I get a kick out of is seeing how the students’ categories shatter when they learn that a smart academic-type guy can also be a Bible-believing Christian. Melts some of their brains, and leads to some really interesting discussions. Even in our church, the greatest number of conversions comes through summer English camps, and those are only effective because there are a few Christians who teach in local high schools. The kids who come to know Christ are referred to English camps by teachers they know and trust. It’s the embedded, known, “normal” Christians who have the greatest impact.
The other reason why I feel called to the Czech Republic is because it’s a desert, at least in terms of Christian resources. I know that the U.K. is on wobbly footing spiritually as well, that the British church isn’t as robust as in years past. But seriously, come on, the U.K. has an embarrassment of riches compared to the Czech Republic. If part of being a Christian means going to where the need is greatest, hard to beat the ol’ CR (though I could come up with a convincing list of European alternates if pressed).
One final thought on the unsexiness of the Czech (and European) mission field: be prepared to be patient, to rejoice in the day of small things. This is not a “the fields are white unto the harvest” type of place. It is rock-strewn, dry, dusty ground where we do way more planting than harvesting. A bumper-crop year is when two people come to Christ. It might just be me, but I’ve compared notes with other Christian workers. It’s the same story. This is a population inoculated against the Christian faith for 300 years, and yet they have no clue about the gospel. They’ve been exposed to a form of Christianity, and haven’t yet tasted its power. So most of our efforts are fruitless scratching at hard scrabble dirt, with a few sprouts here and there to keep hope alive. Nevertheless, I think the work is invaluable. We endeavor to be faithful witnesses in a country where there are few (evangelicals number perhaps 30,000 in a country of 10 million), letting God do what he will with our witness. It took 200 years of fruitless missionary labor before God saw fit to cause Africa to explode with spiritual awareness. It might take longer here, but that doesn’t mean we can give up.
So, yeah, it’s not particularly “sexy,” but I’m not sure that missional sexiness is the best measure of true need or call. You go where God calls, and don’t be surprised if God points your attention to a barren wilderness where the need is great. It’s called Europe.
Pseudonym: Dr. Ned Ratutu.
Please pray for their work in Czech Republic.