Where Do We Go From Here?
Like no other time in history, we live in a migratory world. The news is regularly reporting on forced migration caused by war, famine, and persecution. Just recently it was reported that Jews are leaving France in record numbers. Additionally, families regularly uproot themselves to pursue job or educational opportunities. There was a slight decrease in this trend when a significant number of people were stuck in homes due to being underwater on their mortgages, but now the numbers are rising again.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, there has been an increasing desire to seek a better life in a new locale. Admittedly, the United States exists because of mass migration for this very reason. However, within the country a change began with the modernization of American cities. Early on, the desire for a better life meant leaving the rural farms to look for work in the city. This shift has undeniably altered the landscape of our world. On a recent trip to China, I visited Beijing and Shanghai, both top ten cities by population with 20,000,000 and 23,000,000 people, respectively. In contrast to the bustling megalopolis of Shanghai, we found deserted towns and countryside areas that used to be major population centers. Now, they are inhabited only by the very old and very young. The young are left with their grandparents so their parents can seek employment in the nearby urban areas.
Most residents of small towns understand well the problem this poses. The most capable young people leave, thus decreasing further the economic prospects for the children who will soon come of age in the town after those who leave. This, of course, makes the likelihood of their departure almost a forgone conclusion. And so the cycle intensifies.
The dynamics are different, of course, in the big cities. Some major U.S. cities – Detroit is a powerful example – are in decline as people leave seeking better opportunities elsewhere. But for most cities, it isn’t that declining population is necessarily a problem. Many cities are experiencing growth as a new urban movement and revitalization trend are taking hold. However, the population in the city and among the cities is churning constantly. People in. People out. Migration – without a major change in the overall population numbers, to be sure – that leaves the cities constantly in flux.
For the Christian, this leaves us with a very serious question – Has the culture’s wanderlust been a welcomed or unwelcomed influence in relation to the disciples of Jesus fulfilling their calling in the world?
Judea, Samaria, and the End of the Earth
Some Christians have long had a desire the share the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” as Jesus puts it in Acts 1. However, the modern missionary movement where the Church equips and commissions numerous believers in an attempt to bring the Gospel to all nations truly began in in the late 1700’s as William Carey and others began to preach and share their sense that the words of Jesus in Acts 1 applied directly to them and that the burden for sharing the Gospel with the entire habited world lay squarely on their shoulders.
It’s no coincidence that this coincided with the advent of an easily navigable world. Up to that point, world travel took much longer and was much more dangerous. However, by the late 18th century, ships could take an Englishman or American, for example, across the seas to any continent in weeks instead of the months (sometimes over a year) required by land and short sea travel of previous centuries. Both the accessibility and the excitement of world travel touched the hearts and minds of Gospel ministers. William Carey, himself, was inspired by the adventures of Captain Cook, a British explorer
Thus it was that Christian conviction merged with the new adventure seeking culture of the modern world. Today, over 2,000,000 Americans go on short term mission trips every year. There are over 400,000 missionaries serving currently around the world. While there is much we can rejoice about here, the situation is not uniformly positive. There is a concern that the short-term teams are really just vacationaries – not missionaries – and therefore do more harm than good, that they are a burden on the full-time missionaries, or that the trips create a sense of the “greater thans” helping the “lessor thans” and so exacerbating a sense of American (or other) superiority. For the long term missionaries there are complaints of financial abuses, a saturated field that results in underfunded workers who are therefore hindered in their work, the unquestionable historical link between missions and colonialism that may still impact how some missionaries view their role in the culture within which they work, and the ongoing debate about whether missionaries or “nationals” make the best workers for the cause of Christ in any given place.
The questions are good, but are not the primary focus here. What about those of us who stay in our nation, and yet still have no deep roots in a place because we move too often?
Many Americans have reasons to move – and move often – that have nothing to do with the propagation of the Gospel. And yet, the deep seated impulses in modern Christianity impact how we look at those moves. We might move for a better house, better schools for our kids, a better job, or access to certain types of recreational opportunities. We might even see it as an opportunity to have a new harvest field. This is especially true if we do not feel that the harvest has been plentiful where we are now. What we often do not consider is that each time we do this, we pull up our roots and must plant again. When this is done regularly, it leads us toward an attitude that deep roots are not worth the hassle, or may even be too painful when we know we will be moving again sometime soon (even if soon is 5-10 years away).
But what if God has you in a place for a reason unrelated to your comfort in your home, the quality of your kids’ schools, or the level of salary at your job? What if he placed you there on purpose for a purpose? How could you even know?
Before I go further, let me acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to move, and for a few people, to move often. Some people have jobs that require them to move, such as the military or any other career that gives you an assignment over which you have little control. Someone needs to do these jobs. Even some churches assign pastors and the pastor knows it will be impossible to stay long-term. Some move back to their childhood home or community to care for ailing parents. Still others move with a sense that God has placed a calling on their life and in their heart that they must respond to in order to be faithful. Sometimes we are forced to move due to economic hardship or circumstances beyond our control.
For most of us, however, this is not the case when we move. We move to attain something. While this may not be inherently wrong, it is worth considering how your move will impact your effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus. What relationships will you lose? What respect have you earned that will be underutilized? What inroads have you developed in your job, your neighborhood, or your broader community that will now bear no fruit for the Gospel? For the most part, we need to engage in relationships and communities over the long haul in order to have the respect and trust needed to have a deep impact there.
When we are given an opportunity, oughtn’t we at least compare the opportunities for us against the lost opportunities for others? Or is this too much of a sacrifice for the average American Christian? I sure hope not.
For many of us, we never stay in one place long enough to really see the fruit of our labor. The harvest never comes because we have only planted seeds and cultivated long enough to see plants grow but not long enough for those plants to bear fruit. We need deep roots and time. Just as trees do not bear fruit for years, so our efforts to impact our neighborhoods or offices may not bear tangible fruit for years. But if we are willing to press in and be faithful over the long haul, we will see more fruit. Trust must be developed between neighbors before active sharing and a willingness to hear from you can be formed. Trust takes time. It takes consistency.
Consider this – How many of your neighbors move each year? If the number is high, what impact might that have on the energy, time, and emotional effort people in the neighborhood are willing to give towards true community in your neighborhood. This must be overcome by someone – you – staying and showing that you are both willing to invest in relationship with others and are worth others investing in relationship with you. After all, being faithful where you are is just as clear a mandate as going to the ends of the earth.
The same holds true for your office. The same holds true in your church.
If our lives have purpose beyond ourselves, it stands to reason that our choices about where we live and where we work and go to school should at least have these concerns factored in. I do not believe Christians should never move. I just think we need a new calculus when deciding if that move should happen.
What do you think?