Monday, February 4

What missionaries wish they had known before going overseas*

*I wish I had had more realistic expectations.

-Answer from Mike in West Africa...
I could make a similar comparison to marriage. Many girls and young women have unrealistic ideas about the romantic bliss found in marriage and never see the problems or day-to-day hard effort needed to really make a marriage work. Missions is no different. In most missionary presentations,you hear about all the victories and what great things the Lord is doing. I think that is for two reasons. First, missionaries are trying to recruit people into the work, so they strongly emphasize the positive side. Second, most people, and maybe especially missionaries, don't want to be vulnerable and reveal that they have problems. This is not helped by the fact that church people want to put missionaries on a pedestal as super spiritual for being willing to sacrifice "all" and live under harsh conditions. So it is important to talk with missionaries one-on-one so you may be able to hear their struggles as well as their victories.

Another common fallacy is that the "heathen" are crying out for someone to tell them the gospel. There may be the rare exception (in Papua New Guinea, one tribe did build a church in anticipation of the missionaries coming to tell them the Good News), but in general, the "heathen" are blinded just like the Jews. They are not searching for God and are living deceived in the darkness of their blinded condition. One will most commonly find indifference to the message, and at worst, there will be downright opposition.

I am often amused by missionaries who have the idea they are going overseas to do a great work for Jesus. First of all, we are participating in the work that God is already doing. This is well-explained in the workbook Experiencing God. Of course, all your friends here will tell you what a great and wonderful thing you are doing. Then WHAM! You come face to face overseas with all your inadequacies and weaknesses. You realize how much you are actually going to have to depend on God to see something accomplished. Many missionaries when confronted with the reality of living in a foreign culture and the time needed to impact the people simply become discouraged, turn around and come home. It is only when we realize that we are totally dependent on God and wait on Him and work with Him that we finally see some beautiful fruit.

I wish I had known how difficult missions really is.

-Answer from Tim, who has been a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1974, serving in Cameroon and the United States...
I would have gotten more cross-cultural training, especially focused on the culture to which I was going. I would have taken more time in language learning. But most of all, I needed realistic expectations. Working in a foreign field is the same as being in a war. I know. I've fought in both and the similarities are striking. There is not much glorious about warfare. It may look exciting on TV or in the movies, but in the trenches it's real life, and people get hurt and die. It's a lot of hard work, sloshing thru the rice paddies. It stinks. And the enemy has ambushes everywhere. Often you can't tell the enemy from the friendly. And your friends get injured and killed. It hurts.

The culture won't make a bit of sense and you'll even resent the people sometimes, or think how ridiculous they do things. But you will learn how to live there. You'll learn new cultural cues and you'll begin to see how they do make sense in your new culture. And in the learning, you'll grow to love the people. So learn to laugh at yourself!

Don't give up! When you go, determine that you're going to stay. It's like God meant marriage to be. It won't always be easy, but make it work! Don't expect the other person to change. Change as you need to. And there's probably no better environment to promote change in us than working in another culture.
I wish I had known language learning & missy relationships.

-Answer from Mike in West Africa, who is translating the Bible with WEC International.
Language learning is a long process. Most North Americans have never learned a language and do not understand the time, work, and patience needed. Even some missionaries don't see the importance of learning the language.

Most adults do not know how to handle the humiliation of learning a new language, of having people give them confused stares, just outright laughing at them, or becoming angry because you are in their country and can't speak the language. Many people in my language school suffered from loss of identity and inferiority. These were well-educated people who had been successful in their occupations back home. Now they were learning language full-time and couldn't understand why they were having such a hard time when they did so well in their home occupations. They didn't understand that learning a language is a completely different animal than making good grades in history or nursing. Being "smart" does not guarantee that you will automatically find learning language easy.

Never assume that you and your colleagues are going to be one big happy family. Generally you cannot choose who you are going to work with and no one is going to hit it off with everybody. So you may find that your colleagues have different interests and backgrounds that you cannot relate to well. You may find that they do things that are quite irritating to you. You may find some of your colleagues to be quite carnal, having major problems with anger, critical spirit, gossiping, etc. Good relationships take a lot of time and effort. I would say that it is just as important, if not more so, to spend time "bonding" with your colleagues as well as bonding with the nationals.
I wish I had learned about spiritual warfare.

-Answer from Tim, who has been a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1974, serving in Cameroon and the United States.
I wish I had known more about my relationship to God and about spiritual warfare. One book every Christian should read is Victory Over The Darkness by Neil Anderson. This will help you understand and recognize spiritual warfare. Wherever you're living right now, you're in the middle of a battle. We need to understand the nature of that battle so that we can be victorious over our enemy. When we cross over into another culture, where satan has built his strongholds for centuries and where cultural cues vary, the battle looks different. However, our victory over the powers of darkness is still in Christ.

We all have much to learn in this life, and much of what God has to teach you, you'll only learn by going where He leads. So do some good thorough preparation, and then GO. Don't ever think you've got to be totally prepared before you go, or you'll never go.
I wish I had known how difficult long-term fruit really is.

-Answer from John McVay, who wrote the following after serving one year in western Europe.
On a short-term you may go to a responsive area and see numerous decisions for Christ. But among less responsive people-groups, missionaries often struggle with spiritual infertility. Sometimes those who make a decision may not follow through. On a short-term you saw people pray for salvation and then you were back on the plane. But as a missionary you may discover that this "convert" no longer even wants to see you.

If you want to see people saved, you need to spend time with non-Christians. But we were amazed at how much of our time was tied up in fellowship with other missionaries, people in the church, other national pastors, and friends who visited. We started to ask, "When was the last time we saw a non-Christian?" Then God led us to make contact with a pre-Christian every day. As part of this we invited families over for dinner once a week. Though few outsiders would come to a church meeting, no one turned down a dinner invitation!

Missions is sometimes a huge challenge. During our darkest days I would read Hebrews 11 aloud twice a day and pray for the faith to keep going. One day I continued into the next chapter and read Hebrews 12:11 "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful." I wondered if the Lord was disciplining me. Had I been disobedient? Then I read Hebrews 12:7 "Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons." Then I saw it. The hardship is something that God brought into my life. Then I reread verse 11 and exchanged the word discipline for hardship. "No hardship seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Like a good marriage, effective missions takes work. But it's worth every bit of it, too.
I wish I had known more about myself and being patient.

-Answer from Bethany who is serving in the Middle East with the Assemblies of God.
Here are my pearls:
  • Boredom is real. I heard that before I came, but I have found extreme periods of down time that I used to fill so easily. The first two months or so in a new place are the hardest as you establish new friendships and a new pattern of life.
  • Knowing yourself is very important. I have been stretched a phenomenal amount, especially in the first months of my assignment. If you have skeletons in the closet, God will bring them to light. Be willing to deal with them as they come up; don't push them away. God needs to break you to use you.
  • Be teachable and be a lifelong learner. It's easy to just depend on your ability to "figure it out once you get there," as firsthand knowledge may seem more dependable than book knowledge and theories. It's not true. Know before you go.
  • It takes time to ease into the structure. At home, I had lots of energy to fill my day from early morning to late at night. On the field it seems I tire so quickly. Realize that being stretched physically, emotionally, spiritually, and facing a new culture, language, living situation, etc. wears you out. It's okay to slow down. Being a missionary is not about being superhuman and accomplishing a long list each day. Some days all you'll accomplish is a trip to the grocery store or a government office. It's about trust and obedience and hearing the Master's voice.

  • I wish I had known how nationals view the economic status of missionaries.

    -Answer from Mike in West Africa, who is translating the Bible with WEC International.
    To me, my standard of living is drastically lower in a developing country. But no matter what level one lives at, the fact remains that you will always be considered wealthy in the eyes of the nationals. And in fact, you are wealthy. In our local currency $2,000 US dollars would equal a million, so almost all the missionaries are "millionaires" here. And even if you find it hard to live on the support you receive from back home, you still had enough to pay a ticket to come here, whereas your everyday national could never pay a plane ticket to visit another country.

    Also, one encounters the common idea that it is the duty of those with more money to distribute it to help others. So the nationals will never look at someone who has more money than them and lives at a higher level than them, and drives a car, as someone who is making a sacrifice. Don’t expect to be congratulated or thanked for the sacrifices you made to come. Americans in particular (and I speak as one) seem to have the idea that we must be constantly affirmed. Better get over that before heading overseas.

    Another fallacy is that nationals should applaud that you have "sacrificed all" to bring them good news about Jesus. The reality is that they probably won't give a hoot! Many missionaries go with the idea that they should be "appreciated" by the nationals for the sacrifices they have made. And of course we cannot serve God if we are not appreciated! Pray to be humbled now, before going out and being humbled overseas. Of course, depending on your job (doctor, nurse, well-digger), you might be better received than just a general evangelist. Or if you come to work a specific job by the church, they will be more appreciative than non-Christians. But I guarantee there will always come a time when you will feel that you are not "appreciated" (whether by the church, the heathen, or even your own colleagues).
    I wish I knew how to deal with conflict.

    Answer from Paul in CA who has served in Uganda and Rawanda for two years.

    When you want a job you usually put on your best for your prospective employer, like a first date, you hide all the bad and accentuate the positive. Unfortunately, I discovered after two failed attempts to work with missions agencies, this not a good way to "get married" to a sending organization.

    Just like my former wife and several bosses, I fell in love too fast, accentuated my and their positive points, and didn’t ask the critical question "How do they fight through a problem?" Neglect to do this and you will get seriously hurt.

    When you know how a spouse, boss, friend, co-worker, pastor, or mission agency resolves conflict you will know your chances of being able to have a long term relationship with them. Nice Christians who resort to threats, gossip, slander, lawsuits, giving the silent treatment, bullying etc. don’t tell you up front this is how they deal with conflict. You have to know them well before you commit to a long-term relationship. So find out how they fight before you sign up.

    *Reprinted from Ask A Missionary website which seeks to answer the common questions posed by people considering missions service overseas. The above is taken from the article,  "What missionaries wish they had known before they first went?"


    tim kunkel said...


    J. Guy Muse said...

    Thanks, Tim. I too thought the guys over at "Ask a Missionary" did a great job responding to this question.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks, for posting (re-posting?). good stuff. Jason Carlisle

    J. Guy Muse said...


    Yes, indeed I found the article helpful too. It comes from where there is a lot of good stuff for prospective missionaries. Check it out!

    Anonymous said...

    I think this is a MUST read for new missionaries and old alike. My family has served in Bolivia for 17 years and we learned this the hard way. Thank you for posting :)


    J. Guy Muse said...


    Thanks for stopping by. A lot of us are STILL learning a lot of these things the "hard way!"

    tinita said...

    I wish that all your wish will be granted!.. God Bless and thanks for the message.

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