I have participated in several mission trips during my lifetime. My first was serving in UMARMY, a United Methodist Church summer youth mission trip that worked on homes in neighboring poor communities. I led a team of high school students building wheelchair ramps, fixing leaking roofs and repairing home interiors. My second mission trip was a week working in the mountains of Honduras building wooden school furniture for kindergarten children. The work was hard physical labor but also joyful as we showed love to our neighbors, both near and far.
One of my favorite modern theologians is Darrell Cosden, professor emeritus of theology at Judson University. I recently read his book The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013). He was a missionary in Russia and the Ukraine before gaining his PhD at the University of St. Andrews. His theological writings are on faith and work.
As a full-time missionary, he grew frustrated when Christians left home and went “to work” for God. This duality of work (one for humanity and one for God) is not theologically supported. In Chapter 6 within the section A Theology of Mission for the Rest of Us (pages 129-135), he asks: “What does it mean to be a “real” missionary?”
“Believers desperately need to grasp why and how mission is what they, the whole people of God, are engaged in already while at work. More specifically, they need to grasp why and how the work itself that we do is missionary activity rather than just an occasion for it. … Clearly, we need to think again about what a missionary is. For we have seen that, when done in a way that images God and thus co-operates with him, human work in itself is Christian missionary activity. Why? Because it is largely (though not exclusively) through our work that we reflect God’s image and co-operate with him in bringing people and the whole creation to humanity’s and nature’s ultimate maturity and future.”
Dr. Cosden believes that a Christian’s daily work in the secular world is missionary work. One does not need to leave home and occupation to “work for God.” Christians are missionaries when they teach school, manufacture goods, fly planes and distribute mail. “For the majority of Christians simply cannot now, nor could they ever, measure up to the modern faith missionary ideal of leaving home and work “to work” for God. For what that understanding of mission unintentionally does is marginalize and thus alienate the vast majority of Christians in the world who will spend most of their lives and life’s energy in ordinary work.”
God does not downgrade secular work below spiritual work because God honors all work that enables self-actualization and uplifts communities as workers follow the Holy Spirit toward the new creation. My mission trip work and my engineering and business work are all equally God’s work. All are earthly work and heavenly good.