I hated the shirt. Suppressing my disdain for the uncomfortable baby blue garment, I stepped from the changing room for a second opinion. An eager salesman materialized from the clothes rack and advanced on me.

“That shirt is a perfect fit! Can I show you our selection of ties?”

As he corralled me to the back of the store I questioned his motives. His compliments seemed hollow. He appeared driven more by self-interest than by goodwill. What is he getting out of this?

Though he may have disrupted my shopping experience, it was ultimately just a shirt. But what if it had been something bigger, an issue of far greater importance?

Too often we take up the cross as sanctified salespeople, attempting to double the amount of souls for the fiscal year. We know the details of works versus grace, but somehow the role of missionary ends up in the gray area. Aren’t we fishers of humanity? What if I don’t catch any fish?

This fear of neglecting Matt. 28:19 (“Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations”) leads many to misunderstand Christ’s desire, as if our own salvation is collateral until we secure some quota. The need to satisfy our biblical duty overshadows the simplicity of Christ’s message. We take the Good News to the far corners of the earth but neglect our own. How do we get to the root of Jesus’ message? How do we fulfill the missionary experience?

Perhaps it is easier to clarify what a missionary is not. God does not call us to win souls like chips in a poker game or to maximize membership as in fitness clubs. We are not made legitimate missionaries by a plane ticket, foreign currency or translation dictionary. Most importantly, it is never our responsibility to “sell” Jesus; that already happened—for 30 pieces of silver.

Coercion vs. Conversion

Maybe the misconception is merely an error of linguistics. The word missionary is rooted in the Latin verb missionem, “to send.” This word was first applied to the Jesuit monks who were sent from Europe to convert the natives of the New World in 1598. Thousands became “Christian” after a reign of terror that relied on deceit, coercion and torture. While such methods are no longer employed, the results of evangelism are often the same—nominal Christians who don’t fully know Christ because they weren’t fully shown Christ. Instead of converting other faiths, maybe we need to dive deeper into our own, becoming more like Jesus with every splash.

What is a missionary?

A missionary is the woman making friends under a bridge on a winter evening. A missionary is the man sharing Christ’s love with pedophiles, rapists, murderers and other marginalized sinners. A missionary is the child visiting sick and elderly patients, offering the unconditional love that seems to be repressed with age. Once we agree that the life of Christ was the perfect mission example, we better understand the paradox of a missionary lifestyle. Being a true missionary is nearly impossible because the price is life—a cost too great for many, but one that is ultimately necessary (Matt. 16:25). However, this mission-minded lifestyle is as simple as love and as close as the house next door.

Ironically, I didn’t fully grasp this truth until I became a salesman. It was my ninth and final month in Africa during an extended church building trip that had resulted in many friends, experiences, photos and tourist trinkets. I was eager to cherish all but the trinkets, which had seemingly reproduced under my bed. With limited baggage space, I was looking to swindle tourists with the same gimmicks I had fallen prey to over the past several months. The con took place in the market outside Victoria Falls, a sure trap for Westerners.

“Yes my friend, I give you special price! Ah, ah, ah—where are you going? Me, I can give you friend discount!”

As expected, the tourists were amused by my performance, but not nearly as entertained as the merchants themselves. During a slow hour I was invited to join in conversation, which quickly devolved into jokes about my accent, my phrasing and my products.

However, the dialogue turned biblical after the merchants learned of my purpose in Africa and my Adventist faith. The hours that followed were devoted to a heartfelt discussion on salvation, the Sabbath, and the concept of unconditional love.

I discovered that being a missionary is a mindset, not a location.

Though I had spent nine months doing “mission work” in an exotic location, it wasn’t until I made myself vulnerable during a comical gimmick that I truly felt like a missionary.

Whether we travel thousands of miles or none at all, we won’t live like Jesus until we love like Jesus—unconditionally. Only then can we show a God who has no motive other than our happiness—a God who gives us the freedom to choose the shirt or walk away.

Guest author Michael Rohm from Canby, Oregon is a junior international rescue and relief major at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.