Having returned from the Solomon Islands, I witnessed several challenges that missionaries face. Most of these challenges are common to all missionaries, but some of them are related especially to what I recently encountered. I share these with you so that you might be better equipped to pray for the advance of the Gospel around the world and so that you would be fully informed about the unique challenges that missionaries face.
Challenge #1 Missionaries have lots of bosses
Missionaries are unique in that they have lots of people to whom they are accountable. When those people are unclear or especially if they contradict one another in priorities, the missionary is justifiably nonplussed. Here are some of the “bosses” of missionaries:
--Sending churches. Often there can be more than one. What happens if sending churches differ in priority from one another? What happens if a sending church experiences decline or decides to reallocate resources away from the missionary?
--Supporting individuals. There can be hundreds of supporting individuals on a missionary’s mailing list. All of them are interested in the missionary, but some of them feel like they can be the missionary’s boss. This goes particularly to lifestyle choices. I knew of one missionary who was given a Cadillac to use for furlough, but they could not use it because supporting individuals felt that it was “extravagant” for a missionary to have a luxury automobile. The problem is that all of us make choices in our lives with the resources granted to us. What might be “extravagant” to one person could be a relaxing hobby for another person.
--Missions agency. The agency that the missionary serves with has priorities which often can interfere with where the missionary actually wants to serve. I knew of a camp in South America that no one in the agency wanted to direct because it was so dangerous to travel to the camp. However, the camp was an effective ministry. The solution was to give the job to the newest missionary on the field, and whenever a new missionary arrived, the job was shifted to the newest missionary.
--Field Directors. Most mission groups have a field director. The missionary is often evaluated and given assignments by this field director. Most agencies also have a field committee which exists as a balance of power on the field director. The missionary is accountable to some extent to all such on field authorities.
How would you feel having so many bosses? As you pray for your missionaries, pray that they might be able to sort out this sometimes confusing array with wisdom and discernment.
Challenge #2 Getting Along with Fellow Missions Team Members
This might well be the greatest challenge facing most missionaries. There is an expectation that missionaries will all get along and serve the Lord with gladness and grace. However, everyone takes their sinful nature to the mission field. This means that along with all the other challenges that missionaries face, they have to face conflict with fellow missionaries. This can be extremely disillusioning because it can be so unexpected. We can expect the poisonous snakes, the hot or cold weather, but to be expected to work with weird, unpredictable, and sinful missionary colleagues?? Think about it—do you get along perfectly well with everyone in your church? Are there some people that you try to avoid working with? Or perhaps there are just some people that you really, really like working with, while others are simply “okay” to work with? On the mission field, you are not given that luxury. You are called to live out the beauty of the church even amidst challenging conflicts. There is no easy way to plan avoiding a colleague.
Challenge #3 Marriage and Family
Life in another culture is stressful. For many, just the task of getting meals prepared, clothes and dishes washed, rooms cleaned, vehicles maintained, and shopping done can take more time than is available in a day. It is easy for missionaries to feel guilty that they are not “doing enough” to justify their presence on the field when just living takes so much time.
This has a way of spilling over into marriages. Frustrations which cannot be expressed to others are all too frequently deflected onto spouses. This leaves marriages in great need of refueling. Further, since there are often isolated settings for mission work, there is no place to get away to be playful as a couple. There is often such a small margin of financial resources, even if there was a possibility to get away, there would be no money for it. This was why this past year, our missions team gave money to each EWO missionary couple for a getaway.
The raising and particularly the education of missionary children have particular challenges. These challenges change as the children grow. Third culture kids (as MK’s are known) have unique blessings and peculiar challenges. They are part of both the culture of parental origin and the culture where they serve, BUT they are also NOT a part of either culture. They can easily feel like they never fit, no matter where they are. Launching MK’s into adulthood feels like a huge burden to most missionaries.
Challenge #4 Cultural Literacy
It goes without saying that language acquisition is the beginning of developing cultural literacy. However, the missionary has a greater task than just becoming fluent in a language. She/he needs to understand the culture to which she/he is sent. This can be a lifelong task, as some cultural intricacies are known only after spending a lifetime in the culture. Sometimes, it can feel like years are being wasted. Other times, a false sense of understanding and even of ministry effectiveness comes, only to be revealed later as a huge cultural misunderstanding. What can be thought of as a cultural value might only be the unique behavior of one individual. Further, there is the challenge of what to do when one has a hard time getting along with an indigenous believer, especially if that person is a spiritual leader.
Challenge #5 Unique Hardships
In the Solomon Islands, almost all of the missionaries have had to deal with parasites, malaria, illnesses, infections, etc. In some mission fields, it is the harshness of the cold, while in others, it is the suffocating heat. Sometimes it is political strife; other places, it is demonic opposition. Some places are so wet, that everything is moldy; other places are so dry, that one’s cheeks are constantly chafed and windburned. The challenges of dangerous animals, destroying insects, earthquakes, mudslides, floods, droughts, it goes on and on! In the midst of all this, the missionary has limited resources, often only what could be carried to the mission station. Clothes are worn until they literally fade away; computers are both a blessing and a curse. The sense of isolation, even in the era of Skype, can be daunting.
Challenge #6 Inefficiency
We Americans love efficiency and productivity. If we something that is efficient, effective, and productive, we will love and support that endeavor. If we something that is inefficient, ineffective, and unproductive, we call into question the person’s capabilities and even character. Don’t believe for a second that your missionaries do not recognize this. That is why they feel compelled to tell you the rosier side of their story. They do not lie, but I think that many missionaries feel scared to tell the whole truth, for fear that the lack of “efficiency” will make supporters go away.
Understand this—the call to make disciples of the nations is necessarily an inefficient endeavor. That does not mean that missionaries are permitted to be lazy, but the very nature of opposition arrayed against the missionary is so daunting that it cannot be that we can measure it solely in terms of productivity and efficiency. I have observed that we often lead with “efficiency” questions when we question our missionaries. This leads them to have to justify their existence, which leads us to be satisfied (or not) with their answer. I think that leads to phony conversations.
What to Make of All This?
With all of these challenges, why would anyone want to be a missionary? Why indeed would one subject himself to these burdensome and painful challenges.
Well, if hell is not real and if heaven is not real, then it would be foolish to do this. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, then it would be foolish to do this. If Jesus did not command us to take the Gospel of Christ to the nations, then it would be foolish to do this.
But hell is real, and many people will go there. (Matthew 7:13--Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.)
Heaven is real, and a few will go there. (Matthew 7:14--For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.)
The Great Commission is Jesus’ command to His church. (Matthew 28:18-20--And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”)
So, we go; we send; we pray; we give. We GLADLY accept these challenges and bear any burden to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Someday, Revelation 7:9-10 will happen, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
And the missionaries that I witnessed in the Solomon Islands last month will rejoice, for it will not be in English that that cry will be uttered, but in every language under heaven, including the 70+ languages of the Solomon Islands. And it will be worth it all, every bit of it!