With eight billion souls in our world, and three hundred eight-five thousand being born every day, the words of Jesus still ring true, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few.” We need thousands of new missionaries; and we need the present ones to stay the course! No one announces their intention to go to the mission field without a desire for a long, fruitful ministry. Yet, it seems that missionaries who spend decades on the field have become less common. Why? Recently, a missions-minded pastor asked me to share my thoughts on selecting missionaries to support who will stay the course. This article, which I pray will be a help to both missionaries and pastors, is the result.
While we encourage all to consider missionary service, presenting yourself to the churches as a missionary is like matrimony—it should not be entered into lightly. Some missionaries have asked churches to invest in them only to fail to reach the field or to depart prematurely. William D. Taylor with the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission claims that 71% of early missionary departures are preventable. God’s people want to invest in new missionaries, but they deserve some measure of assurance that the missionary will stay the course and do what he promises.
Missionaries are expensive but well worth the cost if they accomplish their goals. We understand that sometimes it becomes impossible for a missionary to reach the field or remain there. He may face political unrest or visa problems. But if this happens, it may be God’s direction to a different field, not His leadership back home. Sickness is a common reason for leaving the field. Missionary friend, if this happened—we should say when this happens—consider getting medical help there or in a neighboring country. If you must return stateside for treatment, determine to return to your field as soon as possible. Give up your support and stay home only as a last resort.
Sometimes missionaries leave their field due to unresolved conflicts with other missionaries or nationals. If these painful incidents occur, seek counsel from your pastor and others. Separate yourself from that location, if necessary, but not from your mission field. (See Acts 15:36-41.) God put you there; don’t let a man send you home!
Failure to learn the language well and become comfortable in the culture is often an underlying factor in early departures. Inability to communicate is very frustrating. Determine to spend at least your first two years in nothing but language and culture learning. Our pre-field linguistic training will help you learn quickly and accurately and help you to recognize and deal with the language and culture shock you will inevitably face. Your ability to adapt is vital to success in communication. It is difficult to remain in an uncomfortable place when you struggle to communicate.
If you are a supporting pastor, we suggest you not simply rely on a questionnaire or brief phone conversation before adding a missionary for monthly support. A personal call to the missionary’s sending pastor might reveal some valuable information. Does the pastor have any reservations about sending him? Is the sending church completely behind him, and how much money are they investing in him? Is the pastor willing to visit his missionary couple on the field to ensure that they are adapting well and learning the language?
Next, ask questions about the missionaries’ family life and active ministry. Are they humble, hospitable, and ministry-minded? Have they served faithfully in the church? Have they taught Sunday School or Junior Church, cleaned toilets, worked in the bus ministry, the jail, or in the nursing home? How well does the pastor really know the man, his wife, and his children? Does he only see them on Sundays and Wednesdays? What is the home really like? Is the couple training their children? Is the wife completely dedicated to a life on the foreign field? Are they willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the ministry?
Discover the character of the missionary. Is the pastor quite sure his missionary is not viewing pornography? Is he (or his wife) addicted to his cell phone or social media? Can he stick with a task? Can he put down his electronic toys and get his hands dirty? Is he an extra-mile Christian or does he do only what is expected? How does the missionary react to adversity? Can he respond Biblically to interpersonal conflicts? Is he faithful and consistent in giving of his finances? Language learning and missionary work require that he endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
Finally, discover all you can about the missionaries’ preparation. Do they know their Bible? Have they been to Bible college, or do they have a good explanation why it was not necessary? Do they plan to get specialized linguistic and cross-cultural training before going to the field? Do not accept the response, “We don’t have time.” They take time for financial preparation. Nine months of Advanced Missionary Training will prepare them to communicate clearly in a new language. Have they researched their country and know its history, heroes, culture, and government? What have they learned about the Bible they will be using? Do they care about its accuracy and purity? Do they know or care about the status of people groups in the country? Are they reached, unreached, or Bibleless? Is the missionary willing to find answers to these questions?
Before taking a missionary on, it is wise to have a face-to-face meeting. If you have concerns related to any of the topics above, share them. Be kind and gentle and do not expect perfection. Remember that God holds us all to the same standard. Give the missionary godly suggestions in the areas where he may be lacking and schedule a future interview; give him six or eight months to implement your suggestions. Be willing to qualify and slow to disqualify this precious missionary family! Above all, pray for discernment. God knows who will stay the course!