Evangelical Christians are committed to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. It is our mandate. For two thousand years, Christians have imperfectly crossed cultures to bring this good news, and today there are believers from more languages and peoples than ever before.
Yet as always, Satan lurks in the shadows, plotting against the Spirit’s work and lashing out “because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). He has already lost, but his disinformation continues, and sometimes we get caught believing lies about God’s mission to all nations. It is hard work to sift through what the Spirit is really doing in the world: myths persist, and many believe them. The way out is to shed light on some of the most common myths Christians today believe.
We Experience Calling Alone
Interpreting God’s calling on our lives is hard. I’ve read my journal from when I first became a Christian and, wow, I had no idea what I was talking about. I’ve needed the church again and again to help me interpret God’s word and his call on my life. You do too, regardless of your vocation. Being a missionary is difficult work, and none of us should be left to figure it out on our own. There is a reason the New Testament letters focus so much time on the community of faith. We easily mistake our personal abilities and callings, and head out believing we are doing God’s work. We tend to think the best about ourselves.
Consider, however, the church of Antioch, who sent Barnabas and Saul, already proven leaders, and confirmed their missionary call by laying hands on them (Acts 13:1–3). The church should send missionaries out “in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 6), which includes confirming our call and preparing us to go. Having great preparation and confirmation doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly, but it does set us up for success over the long term.
Missions Reporting Must Be Positive
I don’t think many are purposefully lying. The pressure is real: Will people give to me or my organization if it seems we are ineffective? Expectations fueled by snippets from the lives of our missionary heroes have fed the temptation to think that missions reporting must always be positive. There are problems at institutional and personal levels.
At the institutional level, research and reporting can give the impression of victory after victory. “Hundreds of churches were planted.” “We led thousands of people to Christ on the organization’s short-term mission trip.” And then these stories get perpetuated. But those on the ground are often discouraged when they hear these reports, which are typically created by people who do not understand what they are experiencing. My friend once read the newsletter of his own mission organization and, to his surprise, he had led multiple people to Christ!
At the personal level, missionaries can feel pressure to produce positive reports — or, if they do say something negative, to relate it to persecution. Our social-media personas are selective, and sometimes we are surprised to learn what people think of us who know us only by what we post. The same is true in missionary reporting. As an exercise, live this week as you normally would, and then try to turn it into a missionary support letter. Think about what you would emphasize and what you would leave out. You might begin to appreciate the pressure missionaries feel.
Everyone Is Doing Missions Wrong
Many missionaries can indulge a critical spirit, a spirit I also fall into on occasion. We need to take great care about how strongly we criticize practitioners who are trying to stay afloat in hard ministry locations. What team wants to hear from a guy in the U.S. that the way they are doing ministry is wrong?
Of course, we should hold up the Bible as the lens to understand how people are approaching the mission, and we should not shy away from trying to bring reformation to mission practices. But before we do, let’s consider Paul, who rejoiced simply because “Christ is proclaimed,” despite poor motives (Philippians 1:18). Let’s consider how much we know about places far away, and then tread carefully as we push back. It’s easy to criticize from afar.
Missionaries Are Super Christians
When we talk about missions, we tend to talk about heroes. These heroes typically look like us and have forsaken what we have for a different life. But as we read more realistic biographies, we find all kinds of idiosyncrasies and bewildering behavior.
“Missionaries are sinners saved by grace. Every problem that occurs in your local church occurs on the mission field.”
Missionaries are sinners saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Every problem that occurs in your local church occurs on the mission field. Even if missionaries are trained, are willing to go, and have suffered hardship, these dear brothers and sisters struggle and are often lonely and overwhelmed. They sometimes yell at their children. Marriages are challenging. Relationships with other missionaries can be strained. These realities should surprise no one. If we are going to treasure the gospel, part of that treasuring involves not being surprised by human sinfulness.
This truth can be an encouragement if you feel you will never measure up to the standard you have inflicted on yourself. It can also be a call for churches not to forget the real needs of those they have sent out.
The Farther You Go, the More Committed You’ll Be
Some aspiring missionaries think that if you travel for a purpose to a faraway place, you will be more committed to Jesus than if you stayed near home. At its worst, this impulse essentially treats missions as a self-discovery project, and the farther away you get from home, the more focused you will find yourself. But the reality is that your sin nature and weaknesses will not stay behind when you board a plane. They will be there when you land, and more exposed than ever before.
When I take my kids fishing, they instinctively want to cast as far as possible. They assume the bigger and better fish are the farthest away from them at any given point. The same is true for many people in ministry. But the reality is that the people next door may be just as alienated from God as the people at the uttermost parts of the world. We would be wise to do evangelism now in our own contexts before we go to the ends of the earth (Luke 16:10).
Missionaries Are Excited to ‘Come Home’
Missionaries “come home” for furloughs or forever. We can imagine that missionaries will love the chance to be near family and old friends again. But for many, home assignments are mostly stressful.
Imagine that you have a young family and have been gone for five years. You have just made friends and adjusted to the culture, and your kids are in a school routine. And then you pull out for six to twelve months in order to live on the road. I recently heard a missionary say that he felt most distant from Christ during home assignments because of how numbing day-to-day life was for him in the United States. Sending churches would be wise to consider carefully the expectations they want to place on people who may be relieved to return to their place of ministry when furlough is over.
The problem can feel more acute, however, when missionaries return permanently (for whatever reason). They commonly hear, “Aren’t you glad to be home?” and the answer is rarely a resounding “Yes!”
Of course, there is a lot to love about being closer to family, but there are more significant reasons why it is hard. Some missionaries find themselves facing reverse culture shock, unable to navigate the culture they grew up in. Friends and family have changed in the time they have been gone. Kids are not happy to leave their friends “back home.” Relationships don’t make sense, and work doesn’t feel as meaningful.
A friend who used to be a missionary in Uganda once said to me, “In Uganda I was in charge of multimillion dollar projects and led many people to Christ, but now that I am back in the U.S., I have to ask permission whether I can put napkins on the table at a men’s prayer breakfast.” Returning is often painful, disorienting, and numbing.
Missions Without Myths
We have been given a mandate that cannot be ignored. We are to send or go. But we also are to be aware of how myths shape our worship and practice. Our attitudes can be misinformed. Our actions can be immature.
Exposing these myths is not intended to put a damper on a passion for the nations, or quench a desire to go out for the sake of the name, or cause you to be hesitant to obey Jesus. It’s about seeing the world as it is in order to better serve God’s global people that he is calling to himself.