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WORLDVIEW: Tips & traps for aspiring missionaries

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Several years ago, a high school student sent a query titled, “Questions from a wannabe missionary” to an Internet missions forum.

What sort of college, she wondered, would best prepare her for missionary service? What should she study? What else should she do to get ready?

The first answer came from an anonymous respondent, self-identified as “One Who is a Slave.”

“Whatever you do, AVOID ALL DEBT TO GO TO SCHOOL, PERIOD,” urged “Slave,” obviously speaking from bitter experience. “Slave” quoted Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission:

“What is the greatest detriment to missions from the United States?” Winter asked. “It is the tragic, trudging procession of college graduates who are too burdened with debts to allow them to go into missions.”

Debts incurred after college don’t help, either. They’re difficult to resist, even in good economic times. The pressures on young adults to “establish good credit” or buy into commercial culture on the installment plan can be strong indeed.

I know a young man who served for two years as a missionary in Asia. He returned home to pursue seminary studies and prepare for career missions service. He loves to hunt, however, and he informed me with a mischievous grin that he desired only three things in life in addition to serving God: “a good woman, a good truck and a good dog — not necessarily in that order.”

He has since found a good woman and married her (if he values life and limb, I hope he never tells her about his “priority list”). They are now seeking missionary appointment together. I’m not sure if he ever found a good huntin’ dog. But if he wants to stay out of debt, the truck will have to wait.

Others who responded to the young “wannabe missionary” seeking advice urged her to study history, world cultures and at least one foreign language. Some recommended Christian colleges; others suggested public universities as great missionary training grounds.

“I feel the best way to learn how to build relationships on the [international mission] field is by doing it here first,” one respondent wrote. “I attended a secular school and it is a blessing that I did. I was a religion studies and theater double major. I took religion courses from non-believing profs. Eighty percent of my theater co-students were homosexuals. That is an education I could not have gotten at a Christian school….

“When needed, I took a stand in my classes, and when not, I sat back and learned. I learned to love those around me for who they are and what they might become. My classmates gained respect for me and my faith — not because I was a ‘religious’ guy, but because I was in the same place they were.”

I hope “wannabe missionary” makes it to the international mission field. She might already be there. To last very long, however, she and other young workers would do well to heed the counsel of George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization and veteran of nearly half a century in missions. Verwer lists a number of reasons why some missionaries leave their fields, often after only one term, and don’t return. Only the first — God’s leading in new directions — is a positive one. Some of the others:

— Poor leadership on the field: “One of our main ministries must be the training and formation of godly, gifted (missionary and local) leadership,” Verwer says.

— Unrealistic expectations: “We must be ready to forgive and grow together in repentance and brokenness. Leaders have to make hard decisions, and with the range of people on most [mission] teams, there is always someone who is not happy.”

— Moral/sexual failings: “Pornography, especially on the Web, is causing major damage in front-line mission work,” Verwer acknowledges. Isolation also can open the door to wrong relationships. “People sometimes face loneliness on the field and this can set them up for a quick (not from God) romance that ends in disaster.”

— Personality and strategy conflict: “There never seems to be enough time to sort everything out, and often leaders are on overload and on the way to burnout.”

— Failure in language learning and cultural adaptation: Humility, servanthood and love can make up for many a shortfall in language study, Verwer emphasizes. But lack of commitment to effective, culturally sensitive communication sets mission work back in many ways.

— Lack of teamwork and pastoral care: Many missions agencies have addressed these critical flaws in recent years, Verwer reports. Still, “We need people who have proven the reality of God’s grace in their lives, especially before they get into long-term missions.”

— Problems on the home front: One positive aspect of isolation on the mission field used to be distance from family conflicts, church splits and other problems back home. No more: They’re as close as the phone and the e-mail inbox, and they distract many missionaries from the task at hand.

— Satan and his forces: Without overstating the devil’s power, “[We] know that he militantly opposes world evangelization,” Verwer notes. “This is why a basic, Spirit-filled walk with God is the most important act in staying in the center of God’s will.”

That last bit of advice applies to every missionary who wants to stay on the mission field — and every believer who wants to be useful to God in a fallen world.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board in Richmond, Va. His column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges