We grow homesick on mission in a post-Christian world, but there is encouragement for those who embrace the adventure.
Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.
Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them. …
Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?
Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.
—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Tired and Homesick on Mission
Regardless of whether it’s been a good week in ministry or not, something about the work I do always feels like it takes more than it gives. Something about it feels dangerous, depleting, unsustainable. So I often find comfort in watching J.R.R. Tolkien movies. There’s something comforting and familiar about the drooping shoulders of a tired and homesick hobbit.
Recently, I saw my story in a new way. I can over-focus on what I’ve left behind and what it’s costing me. So I had to wonder: Have I spent as much time considering what I am actually invited into?
What if it’s something like an adventure?
One approach questions the abundance of God, while the other lives with desperate awareness of our reliance on it.
For me, this lesson took place over a Thursday conversation with a missionary, a Friday NPR podcast and a Saturday night spent watching The Hobbit movie. By Sunday I had more hope and energy for post-Christian ministry than I ever had. Let me share how that happened.
How Two Conversations, a Podcast and a Movie Helped Me Name the Lie of Scarcity
Over the course of the past three years, I’ve watched Leslie listening to the call to overseas work. And now, as I sit with her, I see a courageous young woman doing the hard work of raising support to step deeper into the hard work of bringing the gospel to post-Christian contexts. She’s leaving behind childhood, the comforts of her first culture, her family and friends and a regular paycheck for the sake of something else. And when I share words of encouragement with her, she relishes every single morsel. Maybe the reason I noticed it this week was because my most recent conversation with her came on the heels of a very different conversation.
I had just met with a young man who is around Leslie’s age and has been here about as long. About once a month, I hear he’s been saying how lonely he is here, how little the church is providing a home for him. Every time I meet with him, I leave feeling depleted and defeated. I’m pouring myself out here, trying to shape a space that is nourishing. Why is it never enough?
The next day I listened to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, an episode on “Scarcity.” In our congregation, we’ve been very careful not to take on a scarcity approach to our financial and physical resources. But as I listened to these stories of scarcity, I saw for the first time: There are other ways that ministry can grow from scarcity.
When every week leaves us feeling depleted, it’s easy to feel there’s never enough energy to do this work.
When members of our community still feel lonely, it’s easy to feel Christian community is mere crumbs to starving people. It’s easy to believe there’s never enough comfort or belonging to go around. It’s easy to believe that the description of the church as a home or family is just a platitude.
The podcast described how a mentality of scarcity begets scarcity, how the anxiety that grows from scarcity switches off our ability to think long-term or imagine other possibilities. It makes us into reactionary creatures in survival mode, only digging ourselves deeper into our own despair. This description reminded me of how we are when we get wrapped up in ongoing conversations about how to belong here, how to find home with one another, even when we’re not feeling it and the ongoing conversations are sapping all our energy.
It wasn’t until I got lost in Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth on Saturday’s family movie night that I looked back on my conversation with Leslie in a new way. The way she relished every morsel of encouragement and connection reminded me of how a fellowship of friends works when on an adventure. They may have just one piece of bread between them, and there may be Orcs on the horizon and there may be a storm brewing, but they’ll shelter under whichever tree they can find and gather around that piece of bread. That food and that fellowship will be treasured for whatever comfort it can offer, because they’re in a place that feels very unlike home and they need one another.
Leaving the Shire to Join the Adventure
For many of us ministering in post-Christian contexts, we’re no longer in “The Shire.”
The Shire may be childhood—the safe stage when there was always someone else to take care of things. It may be a more sheltered or more homogeneous context where we weren’t stretched by diversity and discomfort. It may be a more stable, traditional place where we can count on things always being the way they’ve always been.
And the people you minister to are often in the process of leaving their Shire. They’re transitioning from a suburban or rural context into an urban context. Or they’re transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Or they’re transitioning from a Christendom context to our post-Christian context. Or they’re feeling the upheaval of the culture and the church. Or they’re stepping into more ownership of the mission. Or all of these things at once!
All of the places they’re leaving felt safer, more secure. They’re leaving behind places where folks were more alike, more like them—socio-economically, culturally, philosophically. There was less expectation to change or be part of change, less expectation to step up into challenge.
As leaders in those places, we may also be feeling the pain, the lostness, the loneliness of these contexts. How can we feel that in deeply personal ways and still offer something to those entering it?
We certainly can be a place to name that grief and to help folks grow in their resilience, perseverance and sense of adventure.
But we can’t be the Shire.
The Shire is a real place, but it’s not this place.
The Shire does not always understand the brokenness, the diversity, the complexities of the broader world. But we have been called on mission to the broader world. The Shire is part of reality, but it’s not all of reality.
So the kind of comfort we can offer is the kind you find on adventure, when a band of friends gather around to share a few crumbs in the middle of a storm, and it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted.
We offer the kind of solace found in Rivendell—come, find rest and healing, weary travelers.
We speak the kinds of words spoken by Elves—these things have long been foretold, you’re part of an ancient story, you have resources beyond your own understanding.
We offer the kind of encouragement given by Gandalf—I can’t guarantee you’ll always be safe but you’re not alone. We’re part of something here that’s bigger than all of us.
We do this through offering space for community building, teaching people to own and step into mission, offering spiritual comfort, learning to pray against powers, telling the same story over and over, learning to be in relationship with folks who are different, teaching daily practices of life together and personal spiritual disciplines, figuring out how to share the gospel in a place that has hardened its heart against us.
It may feel unsettling and unsafe, we may be tempted to flee, it may feel like a place of scarcity—but this place on the edge of the culture is where we’re called to be. Why? Because the Spirit is already on an adventure here, and he draws us into that adventure.
And we should know by now the way that Spirit provides in wilderness places—the way of manna. Everything we need, he provides like manna—not only our physical resources, but our personal and spiritual and relational resources. Enough energy and ideas for today. Enough courage and comfort for today. Enough vision and answers for today. Always enough to attend to the very ordinary adventure of showing up here every day to watch the Spirit of the Living God at work.
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” —Gandalf
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the author of Making a Mess and Meeting God and The Vulnerable Pastor. This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.