10 things I learned on my journey to become a missionary

10 things I learned becoming a missionary

I first felt called to become a missionary overseas when I was 16. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned quite a bit since then. Looking back on everything that’s happened on my 14-year journey there are so many things that I wish I would’ve known sooner.

So, I’ve narrowed down the list to 10 things. I hope these are encouraging to you, especially if you’re considering becoming a missionary. Even if you aren’t, most will still apply.

1. A good sending church is invaluable

“Baptizing yourself is silly. And going to the nations without the support of a local church is a little like baptizing yourself. Being a self-proclaimed lone-ranger missionary is as ridiculous and arrogant as baptizing yourself.”

Mack Stiles

No missionary should go to the field without being sent by a local church. This doesn’t only have biblical precedence (Acts 13:1-4) but should be common sense. Almost all missionaries avoid this mistake, but some function this way in practice because their sending churches are so hands off. Once the missionary is sent, he may get an email from the church every few months checking in, but that’s it. In other words, he’s been sent and then left alone.

A good sending church will continue to care for its missionary even though he or she is on another continent, though obviously in different ways. For example, people from our church write us several times a month asking how we’re doing and saying they’re praying for us. I video chat with at least one of our church’s pastors every 2-3 months, and only a small part of the conversation is about ministry. It’s mostly about how we’re doing spiritually, as a family, and just talking as friends.

We are with Pioneers, a sending agency, and they provide on-field care like this, but our sending church isn’t content with that. I’m not saying they think it’s bad. That’s one of the reasons our pastors encouraged us to go with an agency. Instead, they feel a personal responsibility for us and want to stay involved in our lives in that way.

Serving overseas is hard enough as is. I can’t imagine doing it without a good sending church.

2. Fundraising is hard (and I think it’s meant to be that way)

Typically, missionaries have to raise their own funds. There are great resources to help you learn how to do this (like the book The God Ask), but it’s still hard. Very hard.

US Missionaries often have to visit more than a dozen churches in various states to present their ministries and fundraise. Some take more than a year to get fully funded. They get used to hearing, “No.” All of this takes a toll and it’s easy to grow weary.

Without realizing it, I was very arrogant my first time fundraising. I was good at networking and had the right people skills. I worked hard and did everything by the book, then sat back and waited to see the donations. After 6 months, I was less than 25% of my goal.

I was so confused and asked God what the problem was. That’s when I realized that I was the problem. I was trusting in my own efforts and abilities. It took my failure to knock some sense into me. I then devoted myself to praying for the funds and got to 100% in just a few weeks.

So, I think God often makes fundraising hard on purpose so that we realize our need for Him to work and are driven to prayer.

3. God answers prayers

Continuing from the last point, fundraising truly taught me that God answers prayer. Yes, I knew it before that and had seen Him answer prayers before, but this was different somehow.

I would sometimes pray for a specific amount of support from a church and would receive it exactly. One time I prayed for more speaking opportunities at churches. When I checked my phone after saying, “Amen” there was a text from a random friend saying his church wanted me to come and speak.

Things like that happened all of the time. Again, I knew God answered prayer but I really got to see it in action while preparing to go to the field.

4. God doesn’t need us, but He chooses to use us

My wife and I live and work with a tribal group in the Amazon Jungle. Though I felt called to this ministry when I was 16, I didn’t actually get here until I was 24. That’s a long time to wait!

I took the time to get biblical training and then spent 2 years looking for a sending organization that would let me do this type of ministry. Once I got here, it took another 3 years for me to choose the tribe and be invited to work with them. It’ll take at least another year for me to learn their language and begin teaching. It’s been 14 years since I felt called to be here and I’m still not in a position to teach the Bible to the tribe.

It’s been a long, frustrating, wonderful journey. The main thing that it has taught me is that God doesn’t need me. It seems like our timeline gets pushed back every time I start to think, “They need me. I’ve got to get there and teach.” I have no doubt that He has chosen to use me to reach this tribe, but it couldn’t be any clearer that He is in control and will do it in His timing.

He doesn’t need you or me to fulfill the Great Commission but has graciously chosen to involve us in His work or redemption. This should be both humbling and comforting.

5. Life isn’t non-stop ministry

This is a big misconception about missionaries and pastors. I knew it wasn’t true but I think I expected it to be this way when I got to the field. Once “church planting” is my full-time job I’ll obviously be preaching the gospel 24/7, right? Not so much.

I got to South America without knowing any Spanish and spent my first several months in language school. Guess how many times I shared the gospel to the locals during that time? 0. I literally didn’t have the words. It took a month just to learn how to order food. Talking about the resurrection definitely didn’t happen for a while.

Was I trying to live out the gospel and make friends with unbelievers so that I could eventually tell them about Jesus? Absolutely! But the majority of my time was spent in a classroom or at home studying the language…things that “normal” people do.

Even now when we’re back in the city, my wife and I watch Netflix and go on dates. We do normal stuff because, well, we’re normal people. Pastors and missionaries are just like everybody else.

6. Daily devotionals are still a challenge

Most of us struggle to have consistent quiet times. Like the last point, I used to think that once I became a “full-time missionary” I wouldn’t struggle with things like that anymore. Again, I knew it wasn’t true but I still expected it. I suspect that a lot of other people think this way about missionaries and pastors, too. Since we do ministry 24/7 (not true) we obviously must have our noses in the Bible all day.

Honestly, there are a lot of days when I struggle with the desire to read the Word even more now than before I came overseas. Why? Because so much of what I do is related to the Bible that I sometimes substitute that for the Bible itself, much like how seminary students learning learning the Bible academically all day often struggle with reading it to spend time with the Lord.

Being a missionary doesn’t magically transform you into your sanctified self. You still have to fight for holiness and godly desires each day.

7. Biblical and theological training is crucial

My job is to teach and train tribal pastors. I will be one of the primary theological shapers of at least one entire people group (more if they take the gospel to other tribes). That’s a lot of pressure! I’m never going to feel adequately prepared no matter how much I study. I give thanks daily that the Spirit works through my weakness.

Considering my ministry, most people would and should question me if I said, “I grew up in church. I don’t need to get theological training in order to teach these pastors.” That would be both a crazy and arrogant statement. This type of ministry obviously requires me to have extensive biblical and theological training.

Whatever ministry a missionary has, he or she must know the Bible and theology well. If you’re going to teach math at a school for missionary kids then you obviously don’t need the same depth of training as a church planter, but you still need a solid foundation.

8. Joshua Project and missions statistics can be misleading

It’s common to hear statistics about people groups in the world being unreached. This is often a deciding factor for missionaries when choosing an area to serve. They want to work somewhere without many Christians so they use these stats to determine where to go.

This is good and helpful and you should absolutely use sites like the Joshua Project. They help the church think through and pray for the Great Commission. That said, take them with a grain of salt.

For example, I struggled to find a sending agency to send me to work with Amazon tribes because there aren’t many agencies that still do this. Most tribes are considered reached even though this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many have heard the gospel and some even have believers but very few have been discipled.

A tribe may be 10% Christian, but it shouldn’t be considered reached if all of them are brand new believers without anyone to teach them. The stats don’t usually take into account things like this. So, these statistics are helpful but aren’t perfect.

9. The Holy Spirit trumps strategy

We need ministry strategies to keep us on track. The problem comes when we decide on a strategy without praying for the Spirit’s guidance.

I’ve read books and taken courses on oral Bible storying. It’s a great method that the Lord has used to reach illiterate and semiliterate people throughout the world. So, this has to be the right method to teach a semiliterate tribe in the Amazon, right? Not necessarily.

Let’s say a missionary used this strategy with a similar tribe and every single person came to the Lord. Great! That doesn’t mean that this is now the God-ordained way to do it. That missionary most likely prayed earnestly that the Spirit would show him how the Lord wanted him to teach those specific people. We should do the same.

Yes, we should study teaching methods and strategies to make us better teachers of the Word, but those strategies on their own will fail. God has to be in it. I’ve learned not to be strategy-centered with my teaching but prayer-centered.

10. There’s a huge need for missionaries

Assuming the Joshua Project stats are correct, there are still 7,000 unreached people groups in the world, 3,000 of which currently have no one trying to plant a church. Add to that the dozens of groups like the tribes here in the Amazon that have baby Christians who have been evangelized but not discipled. The need is great!

Thankfully, we know that the Great Commission can’t fail. Jesus will use us to fulfill His mission. This question is, what are you doing to help? You, just like the overseas missionaries, are sent by the King to go and make disciples throughout the whole world. That means if you stay in your town, you better find other ways to get involved.

You know the need and you’re called to do something about it. So, what will it be?

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