Thursday, February 21, 2008

Missions and Singleness

(Something I've been thinking about, preparing to teach on pioneers in missions, this week.)

I firmly believe that the sometimes-frustrating circumstances of our lives, and our apparent weaknesses and vulnerabilities, are just as much a gift from God as our skills and strengths. And sometimes these things are so 'redeemed' that they truly seem assets and not liabilities.

Case in point: being single. It's not unusual for me to meet young women who are interested in missions but don't think they could make it overseas without a husband - it seems like a real sacrifice, a real limitation. As a matter of fact many do go, so it must not be impossible. Friends studying in one Arab country told me, a few years ago, that the expatriate community in their city included 26 couples, 2 single men, and 21 single women.

Where are the marriage-minded, ministry-minded Christian guys? Not on the field. More often to be found in (or heading for) the pastorate? So, if you are a single woman, it's a great idea to find someone you click with once you get to the field. It happens. But the odds are against it happening very often. Marry a local? Possible, but not advisable in most cases.

So, we have to accept that single women on the field are a population here to stay. Even if they are a population most of us are squeamish about being part of. But, even if a single woman can accept her singleness - at least for a season - on a personal level, what effect does it have on her ministry? Some fear, going into a traditional society where being unmarried may seem shameful or inexplicable, they will be rejected, or misunderstood, or unable to have an influence. Nobody will listen to a single woman, will they?

These are legitimate concerns.

On the other hand, it's been my experience though that singleness can be a real asset in ministry (at home or overseas). Often we who are single can serve with greater flexibility and availability. The fact that we seem vulnerable only encourages others to take us into their families. That can feel awkward or humiliating at times, but in the end it really works. Single women may end up a lot less isolated, in terms of making local friends, than married women are. And the very 'weirdness' of the situation can be an open door to model what it looks like to trust God to meet one's needs, with or without a human agent.

Consider my friend M., who works in the Muslim world. Some of you know her; some years ago she was the personnel director at our now-dearly-departed former organization. M. writes:
"They're constantly astonished. I can't count the times I've had this conversation with Muslims here:

'Why don't you have any children?'
'God hasn't given me any... I've never been married.'
'You're kidding! Why haven't you been married?'
'God hasn't given me a husband.'
'Don't you want one?'
'Well, actually, it's been partly my choice to remain single, because I will only marry a man if he loves Jesus with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and there aren't very many of those kind in the world.'

"And so goes another natural opening for sharing about 'my Maker, my Husband, the Lord Almighty is His name, the Holy One of Israel, my Redeemer, the God of all the earth!' (Isaiah 54:5). So being single definitely has its benefits. I thank Him for these and many other encouraging moments He's given me in 2007 to scatter gospel seeds."


Dean Smith said...

Haven't most of the people who have gone into foreign lands to 'witness' for religious purposes been single? I'm thinking of the various Hermits, monks, nuns, etc. Isn't it only the Protestant missionaries who expected to be married? I don't know about Islam, but I understand that the early ones were polygamous. Maybe you're not unusual.

Marti said...

You raise an interesting point. Looking beyond 21st century American evangelicals, you see a lot more people saying, not only is it OK to be unmarried in this kind of life (if a bit odd for society as a whole, most times and places), it's in fact preferable or maybe even necessary. Lot of pretty admirable 'religionists' of various stripes never married... Jesus, Paul, most of the 'saints.'

Not sure about early Muslim missionaries; many were merchants and mystics. The former, esp, may have had a girl in every port? Some still carry on polygamy the same way today. But others, no, live quite fulfilled lives without sex / marriage.