Book Review: Sent

"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21. 

This has to be one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, especially for those of us living in the affluent West during the digital age. All too often Christians (and I would assume this phenomenon is not exclusive to Christianity) pick and choose which Bible passages or which dogma to follow, and Matthew 19:21 is never high on anyone's list. But this is exactly what the Alans of Chapel Hill, NC attempt to do in the new release by WalterBrook Multnomah Publishing. Sent is the story of one family who literally sold everything they had to move to a third world country to work as missionaries. However, while the motivation behind the book is honorable and the potential for a riveting narrative is there, Sent leaves too many questions unanswered or unexplored. 

The book opens with a lot of promise. Hilary Alan, her husband, Curt, and their two children are living the American dream. A beautiful home, a fast-track career, talented, successful children and an active church life all come together to create a "made for TV" family. But living a life that seems taken straight out of the Mitt Romney playbook just is not fulfilling enough for them. So they sell off all they have and move half way around the world to southeast Asia to help rebuild communities after the Tsunami of 2004. 

A tale like this one has so much potential to be a page turning and life affirming read. As I made my way through the first few chapters, which dealt with the Alans discerning of their future and the subsequent letting go of a lifetime’s worth of accumulated baggage, both physical and emotional, I found myself wondering what the future would hold for them. What would day-to-day life be like? What steps would they take to help these people who have been utterly devastated by nature at her cruelest? What exactly goes into “rebuilding a community?” I craved some nuts and bolts details about a journey I could never imagine myself being brave enough to take. 

As Sent progresses the clear narrative voice of Hilary emerges and we get to see the experience largely through her eyes. Her husband, Curt, and their two children do not factor into the book’s overall focus as much as I would have liked. It isn’t that Mrs Alan’s views are uninteresting, so much as they are limited. Her experience tightly revolves around her faith, so we read a lot about the establishing of their house church and her personal witnessing to those around her. We watch as she builds relationships with the people she encounters, but those relationships are often clouded by an employer/employee dynamic that falls short of authentic in this reader’s opinion. There is also a fair dose of look-how-great-my-kids-are narrative sprinkled throughout. As a parent I understand the temptation to shine a light brightly on those who mean the most to you, but this is hard to pull off as a writer without it coming across a little too saccharine.  

It is not clear from the text why we never hear about Curt’s position within the community. He is officially hired to manage the rebuilding process, but aside from a single anecdote about a false tsunami warning (which is actually one of the more powerful sections in the book) we hear little to nothing about how this process works. This is an unfortunate omission as I think that story would go a long way towards battling the stereotypes that often surround the idea of missionary workers. I realize that critics of the movement are not the intended audience for this book, and perhaps my own fault-finding here revolves more around the idea that I wish Alan wrote a different book- one that told how Christians can be the hands and feet on the ground, serving and helping, rather than just witnessing to those for whom they feel called to serve. 

 Overall, Sent is a good, but not great, book. If you are a Christian with evangelical leanings then this book will probably resonate with you. Seeing someone literally give it all up to go and do God’s work is a powerful thing. However, if you have reservations about the evangelical movement this will not necessarily allay those concerns, which is unfortunate. People like the Alans are doing amazing things all around the world - rebuilding homes, feeding families, teaching the poor and changing lives. A book that focused on the concrete aspects of this work could show those who have a stereotyped view of the evangelical movement that there is more going on here than simple proselytizing. Sent just isn’t that book.