The other day, someone said something to the effect of ‘you guys are working for God in Tanzania’. I guess that’s what being ‘missionaries’ means. But at the moment, we’re not doing anything that looks much like ‘Christian ministry’. We get up, have language class, practice language, do homework, collapse into bed and repeat it all the next day.
Apart from within our family, we don’t read the Bible with anyone, pray with anyone or mentor anyone. We can’t build ‘intentional friendships’ yet; we don’t even know enough of the culture to work out how to show Jesus without words by the way we live! The average worker in a secular environment in Australia has more opportunities for witness than this ‘missionary’.
1. ‘Not being in ministry’ is an excellent discipline for those of us who are professionally religious.
There’s a reason Arthur and I both chose to work in non-ministry jobs before we went to theological college. Actually, there’s a myriad of reasons. But one reason was because we wanted to know, feel and experience life as a Christian ‘worker’: the time pressure of working 40 hours and trying to do ministry on the side; the challenges of workplace evangelism; the humdrum of admin that you can’t baptise because it’s not for church.
This season of language learning is another opportunity like that. We hope our Swahili learning will benefit the kingdom in the long-term but at the moment, that’s hard to see. It feels endless and decidedly ordinary. Which is an excellent reason to do it. Because I suspect that many others have this vague feeling of not-productive-for-the-kingdom-ness as they balance spreadsheets or mark history papers or fix electrical sockets.
2. We only think we’re not-productive-for-the-kingdom because we don’t understand what it means to ‘work as for the Lord.’
Notice that Paul doesn’t say ‘get all your work done only adequately so that have enough spare time to do stacks of ministry’ or ‘the time spent in boring meetings is only justified by the evangelistic conversations you had over the lunch table.’ Instead, he paints work as something that can glorify God.
A pastor of mine once talked about work as ‘bringing order out of chaos’, whether that be helping a child to speak clearly, or designing a train tunnel to lessen the congestion of peak hour. This is part of what it means to work for and participate in the work of the Creator God. It stops us sorting activities into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ and gives meaning to even the most menial of tasks.
So God is at work in our language learning, not just because it’s preparing us for future ministry, but because in the now we are learning again to identify with the very people we’ve come to serve and experiencing again the God who is not above the humdrum.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.