Summary: I believe that there are at least four key areas that are critical for an individual, couple or family to be successful on the mission field. These four areas are: Screening, Training, Preparation/Evaluation and On-field Support. This article looks at the area of Screening.
Everyone who is preparing for missionary service wants to be successful. They want to prepare well, arrive well, learn the culture well, learn the language well and they want to thrive in their new place of ministry. But sometimes people who put themselves forward for missionary service have not honestly evaluated their own lives; enthusiasm does not equal qualification.
I am convinced that anyone preparing for missionary service sees themselves as being successful on the mission field. When they think about their future they think about a time in the future when they can look back on years of fruitful ministry, time spent in meaningful relationships with national believers and maybe even a legacy that involves a bible translation project, a church plant (or several) or significant results from years of discipleship.
So what happens? Why do nearly half of the people that leave for career missionary service leave the field after five years or less? I believe that most of the disappointment, discouragement, frustration and ultimately, the failure of the missionary to thrive can be attributed to lack of knowledge of what they might encounter as they prepare for the field and what they can expect when they arrive in their place of service.
I had this topic heading in my original thoughts then removed it because it seemed so obvious – if I am not a good fit for missions, I shouldn’t pursue this option. But I put it back in my list of successful areas after a conversation I recently had. A gentleman I met shared a bit about his desire that their family would serve as missionaries. They did the requisite paperwork, raised support, met with people and left for the mission field – only to return 18 months later. What had happened? In the entire process the husband knew of a dark secret affecting their marriage but had but believed that if they followed God and gave up everything to serve Him, God would automatically heal this troubled area.
This is not the first time I have heard of circumstances like this. There is a belief among some that because I want to serve God as a missionary, but I have marital issues or I am not truly qualified God will still bless me or use me. Maybe I realize that I can’t stand bugs and humidity, or self sacrifice or deprivation of basic comforts– that regardless of what I am dealing with, God will heal this issue or make it go away because I am choosing to serve Him. This is simply not true! God is not in the business of trading wholeness for your flaws simply because you want to “give your life for Jesus” in missions. It doesn’t work that way. Any issue that may seem small or minor in your home context can become a major concern when you add the stresses associated with changing language and cultures.
Who should begin the process of pursuing ministry full-time in a cross-cultural context? How do I know if I might be the right person who can thrive in missionary work? Let’s look at the topic of “Screening”.
A mission agency or mission group has a screening process whereby they attempt to discern a person’s fitness for cross-cultural ministry. But I am thinking even more broadly here, I am thinking of self-screening. Asking myself questions about my fitness for ministry:
Am I adaptable to new places and changing circumstances?
Do people enjoy working with me in a team setting or environment?
Do I daily seek God through the reading of His word and in enjoy His presence in prayer?
Do I know what it means to listen in prayer for the voice of God?
What am I doing about any financial debt or obligations that I currently have?
Am I actively trying to retire my debt or am I busy accumulating more debt?
Am I involved in a local church and do I live in submission to their spiritual authority over my life?
Am I accountable to someone right now with whom I can share my shortcomings and successes in my life and my walk with God?
Am I being honest about with my accountability partner about my life?
Am I currently involved in ministry in my local church or am I waiting to “really be used by God”?
Do I have a good biblical understanding of who I am? (and/or who we are as a couple) My worth as an individual to God? My strengths? My weaknesses?
The answers to these questions are going to reveal a lot about your own fitness or readiness for full time ministry. When I read the New Testament I read about the mindset expected of those who wanted follow Jesus. This mindset involved a transfer of our affections from things on this earth to the things that really matter to God.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7) Jesus sets out the standard for those who would live in His kingdom (hence those who would work for Him to bring others into the kingdom of God). God’s kingdom people are those who allow their hearts to be broken by the things that break the heart of God, people who are willing to submit their personal ambition to the greater call of doing the work of God in our world, those who are willing to suffer for doing good and willing to suffer for following in the steps of the Lamb of God.
In the gospels we read of those who volunteered to follow Jesus. Rather than just take anyone and everyone into his band of followers, Jesus sought to show these people what was in their own hearts (see Matthew 8:19-22 and Luke 9:57-60). Jesus told one of his potential followers that ministry at times could be tenuous and insecure. Another would-be follower was told that the Kingdom of God had to take precedence over his family obligations and a third volunteer was reminded that following God is a single-focused priority.
There are other places in the gospel accounts where Jesus seems to decry family relationships, maybe even despise them. “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me …” (Matthew 10:37). And in Luke 14:25ff Jesus echoes these thoughts, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Does Jesus really despise family relationships? What is he trying teach us about our fitness to serve in the kingdom of God?
As we read on the in the Luke 14 passage we see that so many people were desirous of following Christ, He was making every effort to help them count the cost of being a true disciple. Being a true disciple involves not the hatred of your family, but the willingness to put the will of God over the wishes of our family. One commentator stated it this way, “new life changes old relationships.” We know that we are to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12; one of foundational truths of a follower of God) but when we give our lives wholly and completely to God, our “father in heaven” now must have first priority in our lives. Additionally Jesus wanted the crowd to know that a true disciple is someone who counts the cost of following Christ and realizes that it will cost him everything, maybe even his or her own life.
So, not to get too far afield here in our discussion of our own fitness for missionary service, let’s stop and ask some questions:
Am I a willing follower of Christ; ready to obey in whatever He asks?
Can I see signs in my life where I have sacrificed to follow Christ?
Am I so tied to my life right now; my comforts, my job, routines, that I couldn’t possibly give them up or change them?
Am I living as a citizen of the kingdom of God in my life right now?
Am I connected to a local church and do I live in submission to the leadership in that body of believers?
Am I actively and generously giving to the work of God through my local church and supporting missionaries already on the field?
Do those around me see me as someone who is actively seeking to do the will of God and the work of God in my daily life?
Am I someone who can work with others and someone who brings harmony to a team setting and not discord and criticism?
Depending on your answers to these questions you may be in a good place to be pursuing full time ministry in a cross-cultural setting. If you look at these questions and see too many red flags, or if you talk these questions over with your pastor or trusted friend and they have concerns, then you can evaluate and focus some time and effort on making the changes that you need to make.
Is there a need for missionaries? Yes! The opportunities are unlimited and the needs in our world can seem overwhelming, but you must be at a place in your walk with God where you have submitted your life and desires to Him and as you ask God to prepare you for His service, be ready for what He brings your way!