Wednesday, February 26, 2014

10 Lessons Christian Missions Can Learn From The Peace Corps

When I decided to join the Peace Corps, I did so at the prompting of a couple of Christian missionaries. While studying abroad in Chile, I talked extensively with an American missionary couple who shared with me about missions and tent-making, fundraising and accountability. They offered sage advice which ultimately led me to apply to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’m so very glad I did.

I cannot think of a better launch pad into a missionary life than the Peace Corps. As I observe many of the missionaries we come into contact with – in Zambia and elsewhere – I notice a frequent return to certain themes. As I listen to these missionaries share about their life and work, I find myself often thinking (but of course never saying), “It’s a shame your sending organization didn’t train you as well as the Peace Corps.” Despite being a completely secular organization, The Peace Corps does a lot of things right, and quite likely has something substantial to teach global Christian missionaries.

Before I go any further, I must insert the really big disclaimer that what is written below is not true for all missionaries in all places. Please do not take offense if you are a missionary who does speak a local language or who prioritizes integration. Likewise, please do not take offense if you are a missionary who has chosen, with good reason, to not be particularly sustainable or to focus on "the big guys." This post aught to be a tool for self reflection above all else. The goal is to honor Christ in all we do. My only hope is that some of these lessons might teach us to represent Him better.

1. Local language is not optional
            Even in Zambia where English is the official language, Peace Corps Volunteers are put through rigorous language training. We were not permitted to move to site until our language skills were up to par. Because it is so easy to get by with English, many missionaries only bother to learn a few phrases, shrugging and casually mentioning how they probably aught to know more. What they fail to recognize is that, for most people, their local language is a heart language. If the goal is speaking to people’s hearts, it is not going to happen with an American accent.

local language = insiders language

2. Safety and security are developed through integration and mutual trust
            When missionaries land on “the dark continent,” the first thing many of them do is make a personal safety and security plan. We’ve been given well meaning advice from Zambian missionaries before: trust no one, build fences, barbed wire, guards, dogs, keep people out. The emphasis is on building as many divides as possible between you and the dangerous things that lurk in the shadows. Peace Corps did tell us to lock our doors and not leave our bikes laying outside at night. But the thrust of the safety and security guidelines depended on friendship. “Your greatest security depends on the extent to which the community loves you and will rally to protect you.” We were taught how to integrate and gain peoples’ trust. Safety came by drawing people in, not keeping people out. While many missionaries live in constant fear, Peace Corps volunteers tend to be some of the most secure people around.

for this reason, the Malisawa family still has my back

3. Cultural exchange needs to go in TWO directions
            Out of Peace Corps’ three goals, the second and third goals address the bi-directional work of cultural exchange. Volunteers go to great lengths to link America with their host country, facilitating dialogue and greater understanding, serving as flag savers for the third world amongst the first. What would a missions presentation sound like if it included not just “What we’re doing on the field and how you can support us,” but also, “Here is an exhortation the Zambian believers have for the American church.” Missionaries, of all people, aught to use their platform to give the majority-world church a voice amongst the western believers to share the wisdom and insight that God has given specifically to them.

he has more to teach us than roof thatching technique

4. Think sustainably
If I had to choose one word that was drilled into me more than anything else in Peace Corps training, it would be SUSTAINABILITY. We were taught to work through existing structures, empowering local leaders to reach their full potential. This is a slow - and sometimes painful - but developmentally sound way of achieving lasting results. Missionaries are often too ambitious and/or too well funded to sit and wait for communities to mature, mobilize and proceed at a local pace. Chaos is often the unfortunate fruit as missionary-funded churches, orphanages, clinics and schools are “released into self-autonomy” when the missionary-led venture is handed over. Essential reading for any Christian working overseas: When Helping Hurts, which outlines the normal programmatic functioning for Peace Corps volunteers, but simultaneously calls for a radical adjustment in Christian missions.

give a pumpkin cake, feed for a day… teach to make pumpkin cake, and all kinds of good comes of it

5. Integration for communication’s sake
            The first thing the Peace Corps did with us as new volunteers in the country was to ship us off to remote villages to live with more seasoned volunteers and begin the process of learning about village life. Thrown in at the deep end, our process of integration began early. It was communicated over and over, “Your ability to integrate will determine the effectiveness of your message.” This is very different from the common missionary mantra, “I don’t have to become less American or more Zambian because the Bible is cross cultural!” In many ways, the Peace Corps takes 1 Corinthians 9:22 more literally than many overseas missionaries: “I have become all things to all men that I might save some.”

this is not just a wedding, this is seminary level learning

6. Accountability primarily to nationals – not just other Americans
            While many Americans are employed by the Peace Corps, all national offices must maintain a certain balance of ex-pat and national staff.  What this means is that volunteers are largely accountable to host country nationals. Volunteers account for their service, behavior – even attitudes – to people who know the nature of the field… because they grew up in it. They know what things cost. They know what projects will work. They know what is legitimately hard and what is just whiney. Many missionaries roam free, accountable to basically no one because their boards aren’t close enough to commentate or question meaningfully. Occasionally, a missionary needs correction or realignment, but the cheerleader-only support network back home isn’t in a place to respond. A mission will always suffer without appropriate feedback.

this man, still the most authoritative voice in our lives

7. Don’t be so afraid to fail
            The wonderful gift of the Peace Corps is that the American tax-payers are footing the bill for the whole thing. (Thanks guys, you’ve been awesome!) I never realized how important this was until after I joined Jeremy and together we started to raise funds. Suddenly, I was feeling all kinds of pressure to be impressive and produce results and not mess this thing up. This was exactly the pressure the Chile missionaries had warned me about, and they were right. We’ve witnessed as missionaries quietly sweep failures under the rug and stretch the truth just a wee bit, held captive by the fear of loosing donor interest and support. When a volunteer signs on with the Peace Corps, he or she is trained, equipped and sent out with this sentiment: “You’ve got two years. Here’s your canvas, go paint something.” And truthfully, most volunteers close out their service with a beautiful piece of art. I have to wonder what kind of creative majesty the American Church might unleash in its missionaries if it sent them out in the same way: “We promise to fund you even if things don’t go as plan. Go in the security that we will back you no matter what. God speed.”

the well cap totally busted. and that's ok.

8. Embrace holistic
            Fish farmers teaching about HIV, Health workers digging a garden, English teachers coaching soccer. Most Peace Corps volunteers choose to get involved in activities beyond their “specialty” because of the access it gains them to other areas of people’s lives. While many missionaries are involved in diverse activities, still many others finds themselves reinforcing a sacred-secular divide. We hear it often: “We don't do that humanitarian stuff. We teach the Bible, plain and simple.” While Bible teaching is obviously valid in its own right, the attitude that other activity is somehow “less spiritual” produces a false dichotomy. How much more fruit could be born in people’s lives if the preacher put down his Bible and picked up a hoe, set down the concordance and picked up ball. All relationship is positive development, says the Peace Corps. Church? Are we listening?

not a coincidence that church leaders came to a meeting in this building

 9. Go to church
            I remember giggling the first time I heard, “You don’t have to be a Christian to go to church.” I had never thought of it that way. Our trusted Peace Corps trainers advised us that church was important in the Zambian communities. If we didn’t go, people would find us off-putting at best, and label us witches at worst. It has always surprised me how many missionaries don’t go to church in the communities in which they live. Some travel to entirely ex-pat churches, many make excuses for not going all together: “Local church is hot/boring/incomprehensible/smelly/painful. I get nothing out of it. Did I mention that it’s boring?” It’s amazing to me that non-religious Peace Corps has the wisdom and the guts to say what many missions organizations do not: Go to a local church. Your testimony depends on it.

brother/sister-hood builds here

10. Gravitate towards the little guy

            Peace Corps is a grassroots organization. Volunteers are oriented to identify groups and individuals for whose social and economic position is crying out for investment. Engaging the “scraps” of a society is usually neither quick nor glamorous, but it is often just. Christian missionaries often feel the need to seek out the maximum impact, story-tell-able work, which, particularly in Zambia means gravitating towards the urban, mobile, educated and influential people. Even when work engages the young, sick, rural or marginalized, it happens on a broad scale, day trip-outreach activity, turning those individuals into a face in a crowd or number on a spreadsheet. When Christ talks about “the least of these” and “letting the little children come,” it should spur images of the one-on-one, Christ with his beloved, the sick and lowly, the unimportant and unflashy – just the kind of people that Peace Corps volunteers do well to buddy up with and help them take the next step.

not an elder in his church, not a leader in his community, but still an object of God's grace

Almost five years after my Close of Service, I am still learning how to love, serve and sacrifice well for the glory of God and the good of people. I gladly invite comments and observations stemming from other's experiences!

RPCV's or seasoned missionaries - anything to add?


  1. This is so great! I am about to embark on my journey with Peace Corps and have faced doubt about the combination of our faith and this secular organization, both from myself and from others. It's encouraging to see how Peace Corps can actually teach us something about being light and salt!

    1. Congrats Graham! I hope your two year stint is as wonderful as mine was! Though I COS-ed 9 years ago, I am still living in the same village where I was posted and every day I am thankful for God placing me there! If you ever want to talk more about Peace Corps or the challenges of being a Christian in PC, drop me a line and we'll chat.