Friday, June 21, 2013

Missionary Ink... are tattoos a line in the sand for missionary service?

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Las Vegas enjoying a hot cup of coffee on another hundred degree day.  As I look out the window, there's a couple sitting at one of the outside tables.

Both of them are fully tatted up with almost all exposed skin real estate below the neck covered in ink.

As someone who thinks almost constantly about how the church can reach out to new generations of people, the tattoo culture has intrigued me for a while.  How does the local church, not the hip, niche ones in urban centers around the country, reach out to people who have made their bodies a work in progress art project?

This is not an issue that is going away any time soon, and it impacts more than just the local church.

Let’s leave behind the local question and think globally... to the “ends of the earth” if you will.

In my role as a missionary in Mexico, I get a number of chances to speak to churches and groups around the US.  Receiving short-term teams and providing mission direction for churches is a big part of what I do.  One of the first things that hits me when I meet a group for the first time is how many people have tattoos.  

Years ago, tattoos were the exception, sported by only a few people, and rarely exposed in public.  Now, they are everywhere and we are confronted with them daily.  With this reality has come a new issue for those of us in the field serving people who might not share US sensibilities about freedom in Christ.

The apostle Paul famously said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “all things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial.”  Sadly, I think many are only taking the first part of his statement to heart.

I get asked all the time whether or not a Christian can get a tattoo.  To me, it almost seems like a trick question.  Sometimes a youth pastor has told his or her charges to ask the missionary, as if I have some sort of divine knowledge that they do not have access to.  Even parents send their kids to me, hoping I guess that I will deliver the bad news so they don’t have to say no themselves.

But for me, there is no easy answer on this.  Tattoos are not a black and white, or even a color issue in spite of the desire by many conservatives to stand on a specific line in Levitican Law.  

So what do we do?

I have no answers for how our church culture welcomes people covered in tattoos.  Just look around at your members and you’ll understand what I mean.  If your church is like a majority of churches in America today, I am guessing when that person walks in covered in tattoos, he going to get a few stares.  Okay a lot of stares.  Yet unless we are willing to write off an entire generation of young people, we must address this issue.

On the mission front I can only look back 19 years to a young man named Brian who served with me in Guadalajara for two weeks.  Brian came to know Jesus after he had been tatted up.  So as we talked about his options to serve, Brian came to realize that he should keep his tattoos covered while he was in Mexico.  That became part of Brian’s mission, or his offering to us and our partners in Mexico.  Fortunately, Brian was able to cover all of his tattoos.  Many people today are unable to do that.

So here’s my answer to all of you who have asked me whether a Christian can have a tattoo.  Sure you can.  But understand this... getting a tattoo may forever make it impossible for you to fulfill God’s calling on your life to go to the “ends of the earth.”

Let me put it another way.  

Your body is not your own once you give your life to Jesus and your decision on whether or not to get a tattoo could profoundly affect your ability to serve God on the mission field.  

I fear that even as we are seeing increased interest from young people in the mission field, whether it be long or short term, we may have to leave some of our most talented people at home.  Many of the places the church is serving, and the places with the biggest need of a Gospel witness are going to struggle with, or outright ban missionaries with tattoos.  

Why would someone choose to do something that could limit their ability to serve God in these areas?

Thinking about it like this, doesn’t it just seem a little selfish?

I’m just askin...


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, I just read your entry on tattoos and found it very interesting. I myself have 7 tattoos. Most of which are able to be covered. I do have a cross with an infinity heart on my wrists, and as a missionary it hasn't hurt me one bit. I love my trips, the people that I meet are loving and warm and welcome it seems where ever I go. Knowing that God loves all of us whether or not we have tattoos is a big part of it. Sometimes tattoos are a story, part of our lives, our testimony to our service to the church, our commitment to the Lord. Nothing to be ashamed of. To put limits on whether or not you can have a tattoo and be of service... is just wrong. We are told not to judge, but that is what a lot of people do. It really is sad because it turns away a lot of young people who would love to try missionary work, and feel that calling very deep but then they read articles such as yours and feel like they are not worthy.

Mother Melody said...

I'm a priest. Not just a pastor. A priest-- white collar, ordained through apostolic succession, robes, the whole nine yards.

I'm also covered in tattoos. I have tattoos on both feet, one of my ankles, both arms down to the elbow, both wrists, and parts of m back. Many of my tattoos-- the giant image of Our Lady and the triquetra knot on my left arm, the half-sleeve of a stained glass window from the church where I was confirmed on my right arm, the sacred heart on my chest, and others-- are religious in nature and are actually great tools for talking about my faith. I think that, when I'm in public wearing my collar, that intimidates people. But when I'm wearing a collar AND you can see the tattoos on my arms, it makes me a little more approachable. People ask about them all the time.

My tattoos are ultimately a way that I give glory to God with my body. Selfish? I think not.

Pull the plank out, brother.

Dave Miller said...

D64... and Mother Melody... maybe you have both misunderstood me.

I am not for or against tattoo's per se. My point is that tattoos may have an adverse effect on a person's ability to serve cross culturally in another country.

As such, if someone is feeling called to a country where a tattoo would be construed as offensive to man, or God, perhaps he or she should think twice about getting that tattoo. Or, if it vitally important to the person, maybe having it where it can be covered up is a better example.

The fact is there are churches and countries around the world that do not approve of tattoos and the sight of a missionary could lead to serious division within those places.

The role of the missionary is to enter into, understand the culture, serve the local body and people and preach Christ. It is not to divide, or assert ones personal rights.

I applaud both of you for expressing your stories and faith with your tattoos.

All I am saying is that those same tattoos might limit where you are able to serve.

Brian Cumings said...

I am not sure that I understand how one can give glory to God by putting images of God on his person using a method of which God has previously disapproved.

Which is probably where the disconnect comes. Christians in other cultures seem to be more likely to take the Bible (all of it) seriously and to try and live in ways that align with what the Bible indicates God wants in terms of specific dos and don'ts.