Where Being a Pastor is A Night Job
” We don’t find missionaries, they find us!” Dominic Rivkin
Dominic Rivkin graduated from Concordia seminary not as a pastor, but as a missionary, a missionary to America. Only six of the graduates of his seminary class had completed the “Missionary Formation Track,” three for traditional missionary overseas work and three for the mission field of America. He is now the director of LINC in Los Angeles – a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi- mission-opportunity city.
To many, “missionary to America” sounds strange. It shouldn’t. My own denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has declined by 500,000 members from our high of 2.6 million members – and we are expected to lose another 500,000 souls. Not one denomination in America showed more members in the last census than it had in the previous. I asked Dominic what his biggest challenge is. He replied, “Established churches don’t get it. They understand mission as something that is done ‘over there,’ outside the United States. They don’t see America as the mission field it is today. Even if they do, they find it very difficult to change and become a mission base.”
Change is, of course, coming – you can see the change in how LINC (Lutheran Innercity Networking Coalition) does mission work in twenty-first century America. LINC missionaries are different, not only in how they carry on their ministry, but how they are recruited and how they are supported. We can learn something from this.
You will hear in a later blog about the LINC missionary Stella Yau. Stella was born in Hong Kong. Her pastor in Hong Kong was the missionary Will Holt. As a girl Stella saw mission work in action; it permeated her soul, became part of who she was. When China was about to take back Hong Kong from the British, her family emigrated to San Francisco – where Missionary Holt had gone to begin work among thousands of Chinese who chose to live in the West.
Stella and her family joined the mission. This is not unusual. For over a century the LCMS has been sending missionaries overseas. Today the daughters and granddaughters and sons and grandsons of those our overseas missionaries had converted are returning the favor, by coming to America as missionaries.
Stella had a good education in America, graduated from college and could have earned a lot of money working outside the church. However, that mission passion distracted her. And then she found LINC. Today she is a missionary to Asian immigrants in Los Angeles.
Dominic says “We don’t find missionaries, they find us.” As director, Dominic is paid a salary. His calling is to be involved in the city, observe new ministries springing up, share LINC’s ministry, and be open to partnerships. Inevitably he comes in contact with local people who were impelled by the Holy Spirit to begin some Christian outreach. A few will take initiative and contact LINC to find support. LINC accepts those who have a passion to reach the community, entrepreneurial mission leaders, women and men of great faith.
LINC was begun to support the missionary-entrepreneurs, someone who has started a ministry and needs help to continue and grow the mission. When God sends that person to LINC they are not given a salary, but they are given support – help to be authorized for public ministry, support from a circle of like-minded missionaries, and help from partnerships with established churches.
“The ability to get a higher education degree is not a Biblical qualification. It’s four guys in a fishing boat with a mentor” (Dominic Rivkin). In the West, we have put too much emphasis on education degrees, and not enough on calling. If you look at a traditional seminary, students come from privileged backgrounds: they have been prepared to serve in an established congregation, with a salary and health and retirement plans.
They have proven they know how to be good students. This, in my opinion, is fine for Pastors, who spend most of their time caring for a group already gathered. The gifts and talents are different for someone who goes into a place where there has been no Christian witness. They give up many privileges.
While a good grounding in doctrine is essential, an equal requirement for a missionary is they have shown they can begin something new, starting from the ground up. They are so driven by a passion to share Jesus’ love with others they will sacrifice anything. During the day the missionary works to earn a living, preferably in a ministry that will allow them to be involved in and witness to their neighborhood. Being a pastor on a mission field is their night job. These missionaries eschew privilege: “ All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34).
Of course, we still need pastors, those who re-present Jesus to a gathered community of Christians. Strong congregations will provide support to new expressions of outreach. Pastors are vital in giving missional leadership. But I wonder how many contemporary pastors, and missionaries, would have applied to seminary to work as LINC missionaries among unchurched Americans. Maybe some fishermen, or a tax collector, or a turncoat Pharisee. Or a missionary from LINC Los Angeles. Just like Jesus. I also know Jesus paid the price for our inability to sacrifice everything, and that He did this for us!
I do not know the answer to how to help every church come to understand we minister on a mission field. I do not know how many churches will be able to change their approach to bringing Christ to the city, or the suburb, or rural America. But I do have confidence that the change has begun. I say this because I have met Dominic Rivkin, and Stella Yau, and, Jesus.