by Phil Parshall
This survey reveals major needs in the lives of many.
Spirituality is an abstraction subject to many definitions. Can one ever be declared to be a spiritual person? Is spirituality being, or doing, or both? What mix of the active and passive is most pleasing to God?
It would seem impossible to construct a generally accepted “Spirituality Scale.” Yet, while interacting with many missionaries, I have found that they share trials, struggles, and spiritual aspirations.
To test my theory on a wider scale, I sent a questionnaire to 800 missionaries. Undoubtedly, the range and depth of issues covered will not satisfy everyone. But I do hope to pry open a veil of secrecy and allow a fresh wind of frank openness to blow among us. As one respondent observed, “A study of missionary spirituality is in order and overdue.”
From 32 countries, 390 missionaries serving with 37 different mission societies returned the completed questionnaire—a 49 percent response, unusually high for a survey. The great majority of the respondents are affiliated with member missions of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association.
PRAYER AND BIBLE READING
Two hundred and fifty-seven missionaries cited mind wandering during prayer as a frequent occurrence (1). Only one respondent stated this never happened to him.
How much time do missionaries actually spend in prayer (25)? Eleven percent pray less than an average of five minutes a day, while 60 percent pray between 11 and 30 minutes daily.
The reading of the Word of God is a “joy” to 92 percent (2). The majority are New Testament oriented in their reading (3). Only 19 percent use a commentary with any regularity (4).
Seventy percent spend between 11 and 30 minutes daily reading the Bible (27). Twelve percent exceed the 30-minute mark.
Seventy-six percent of the married missionaries have family devotions on a sustained basis (5). Yet, 24 percent infrequently or never pray together as a family.
One hundred and eighteen respondents identified the problem of maintaining a systematic devotional time as their greatest spiritual struggle (30). No other problem in the Christian life even came close to this one.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Some missionaries grapple deeply with the question, “How can an all-powerful God who is good and just allow people to suffer?” Yet other missionaries can, with apparent ease, shrug off any discussion of the subject with a statement like, “It’s all a mystery. There is no sense trying to comprehend the perplexities of life.”
In the survey, 30 percent stated they never questioned God regarding evil and suffering (6). This, however, leaves 70 percent who do not engage in some measure of introspection on the subject. It may seem contradictory that over 90 percent of the respondents have absolute assurance of eternal life (7), while 42 percent stated that at times, they are “afraid to die” (8). Probably, this group is commenting on the process of dying rather than the fact of death. Married women under 40 have the highest degree (97 percent) of assurance of eternal life and at the same time the top level (58 percent) of the fear of dying. However, this anxiety is not obsessive, as most of these respondents marked “infrequent” as their response rather than “always.”
A rather surprising eschatological insight relates to 22 percent who indicate that the return of Christ is less than a dynamic reality to them (9).
“Do you ever feel you would like to be something other than a missionary?” (10). It seems this sentiment affects, to some degree, 64 percent of the missionaries. This statistic reinforces the professional ambivalence I often find in confidential talks with my peers.
An overwhelming 97 percent stated they are pleased with the policies of their mission board (11). This is a high commendation.
Many boards make it possible for their missionaries to study while on furlough. Seventy percent indicated that they have some interest in doing so (12).
Among missionaries, deputation is frequently criticized. Thousands of miles to drive, messages to repeat ad nauseum, hands to shake ad infinitum, and support raising nightmares all combine to make “hitting the circuit” one of the least liked parts of missionary life. Thus, it was no surprise to note that 85 percent of the respondents had some reservation about deputation (13). Unexpectedly, 14 percent said they always enjoyed it.
Magazines most read (31) and number of respondents:
Moody Monthly 78
Christianity Today 72
Reader’s Digest 56
Evangelical Missions Quarterly 52
Fifty-three percent do not read any secular books in a one-month period of time (32). In regard to Christian books, the picture is somewhat brighter. Forty-four percent read one book a month (33). However, 21 percent read none.
Is there such a thing as a “closet agnostic” evangelical missionary? Possibly not, but there certainly are a significant number of missionaries who are troubled by doubts about their mission’s doctrinal statement. I have talked to missionaries who have questioned the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They are sincerely perplexed about the dividing line between hypocrisy and integrity. When do doubts become convictions? How can one suddenly give up all one has lived for in regard to mission, supporters, and life’s work? Most will never even broach the subject with their mission leadership for fear of becoming the object of critical scrutiny.
My questionnaire provided an opportunity for some missionaries to respond to this issue in an anonymous forum. Thirty-nine percent of all respondents indicated some problem with “intellectual doubts about Christianity” (14). Another parallel question was, “Do you ever feel you are preaching a message you don’t fully believe?” (15). Thirty-one percent answered “infrequently,” and 4 percent indicated “frequently.”
Biblical inerrancy is a controversial issue in some circles. Three questions (34-36) probe this matter. The first question was, “Do you understand the doctrine of inerrancy?” Ninety-seven percent answered in the affirmative. Some of the respondents were feisty. “You’ve got to be kidding!”; “What is inerrancy?”; and “Mostly fruitless babble.”
“Do you fully subscribe to inerrancy?” This question was affirmed by 358 and denied by 15.
The most provocative response came from the following question: “If you subscribe to inerrancy and came to doubt it, would you inform your mission leadership and colleagues?” Thirty-five did not answer the question. Fifteen said no. Then a fairly large group expressed some reservation about whether they would share this doubt with fellow missionaries. Comments included, “Not unless asked, I suppose”; “I would reveal it only to thinking colleagues”; “Yes, but not immediately”; “I should”; and “If I were to doubt it, what point would there be in living?”
Their answers must be seen in light of the fact that almost all of them are members of missions which require a clear and strong commitment to inerrancy. Therefore, it would seem appropriate for missions to encourage non-threatening discussions on doctrinal issues like inerrancy.
Emotional breakdowns have been the cause of many missionaries leaving the field. In the survey, a very large majority 276 missionaries indicated they experience discouragement (16).
“Is frustration a part of your life?” (17). The affirmative response to this question soared to 99 percent. It is therefore not surprising to find 124 missionaries who are very often emotionally tense and another 248 who experience tension on an occasional basis (18). This represents 97 percent of the respondents who are forced to deal with tension as an integral part of their lives.
Seventy-seven missionaries (20 percent) have taken tranquilizers at some time since becoming a missionary (37). Alcohol may or may not be utilized as a relaxant. Twenty-six percent stated that they drink occasionally (35). Fifty-four percent of the unmarried women under 40 drink alcoholic beverages.
It is no easy task to define a holy life. I have chosen only a few areas for investigation, while acknowledging that there are many other important facets of spirituality.
Anger is an occasional problem to 71 percent of the respondents, while 17 percent placed it in the frequent category (19). This comes to a rather unexpected total of 88 percent. I wonder if the high tension level experienced by missionaries does not help explain their anger.
Forty-four percent stated that pride is a significant spiritual battle (20). Another 53 percent indicated “infrequently” in the response. One can only speculate about whether these responses tell us more about missionary pride or about missionary humility.
Missionaries apparently get along well. Eighteen percent stated that they always “love their missionary colleagues,” while 79 percent indicated “frequently” (21). Ninety-seven percent find it easy to forgive missionaries who have offended them (22). In recent years, I have visited a number of Third World countries and often I have found serious church-mission tensions. Therefore, I was particularly interested in obtaining the missionary perspective on relationships with nationals. One hundred and one respondents “always” are able to love national Christians (23). Another 276 find no problem in this area. This represents 97 percent of all who responded.
Sexual temptation is an ongoing battle for a number of respondents. Five questions were asked which directly related to this subject (24-27, 39).
Do you have sexual fantasies of lust?
Frequently: 57; Infrequently: 215; Never: 112
Do you read sexually stimulating literature?
Frequently: 4; Infrequently: 127; Never: 268
Do you attend R rated movies?
Frequently: 1; Infrequently: 61; Never: 322
Do you attend X rated movies?
Frequently: 0; Infrequently: 12; Never: 375
Have you remained sexually moral since becoming a missionary?
Yes: 372 No: 10
Women and men were about even in answering “infrequently” to the question about lust, as well as attending of R-rated movies. More women occasionally read sexually stimulating literature than do men. The 10 missionaries who have not remained sexually moral since becoming missionaries are equally divided between men and women. The question was asked, “What is the greatest spiritual struggle in your life?” (30). “Lust” came in third after (1) maintaining a successful devotional time, and (2) having spiritual victory.
Sex is seldom dealt with in prefield orientation. This is a mistake. We live in a promiscuous society that flaunts pre- and extra-marital sex as an easily available and desirable experience. Awareness is the first step toward deterrence. Missions should alert their missionaries to the danger signs of deviant behavior. Support and accountability should be a normal function of fellow believers.
THE CHARISMATIC EXPERIENCE
How sad to see divisions among Christians emerge out of controversies over sanctification. The very thing that is purported to make us more humble, gracious, sensitive, and godly has ended up splitting Christians into “haves” and “have nots.”
Twenty-four percent of the respondents stated that they have had a charismatic type experience (40). In looking through the breakdown of the survey, I was surprised to find the 24 percent ratio holds almost consistent for each group: age, sex, etc. This fact undercuts some of the stereotypes about who is more prone to be a Charismatic.
A more specific question asked was, “Have you ever spoken in tongues?” (41). Only 17 percent said yes, thus indicating that 7 percent of those who stated that they have had a charismatic-type experience have not actually spoken in tongues. This bears out the general confusion about the meaning of “charismatic.”
Another related question was, “Do you feel post-salvation sanctification experiences can be biblically valid?” (42). A large majority of 86 percent answered in the affirmative. At least this forms some basis for common ground among missionaries. If we can calmly accept a pluralistic view on this subject, and refrain from offensive propagation of any one particular view, I’m sure the body of believers will be spiritually strengthened.
Are missionaries spiritual? The question should cause not a small amount of probing and introspection. Perhaps it is time to have field seminars on the subject. Often a close friend or colleague can be a catalyst between us and the Lord. Group dynamics can be a sensitive method for team interaction.
Missionaries are sensing needs in their times of prayer and Bible study. Annual spiritual life retreats should be scheduled that are not encumbered with business agendas. Missions may want to consider the appointment of a field chaplain, whose only task is to minister to missionaries. Such a person could be shared among several smaller missions.
Tension and depression continue to be a major problem. Mission leaders should seek to alleviate continuous pressure points. Regular vacations and changes in routine are vital.
This survey indicates intellectual stagnation on the part of many. Reading problems, team seminars, and furlough study should all be incorporated into the normal flow of missionary life. Busyness should never be allowed to become an excuse for the neglect of one’s personal growth.
In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, spirituality is defined as “the state of a deep relationship with God.” This must be our goal, if we are to make our ministries fruitful and abiding.
QUESTIONNAIRE ON MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY
(Respondents had to choose from the following options: Always, Frequently, Infrequently, or Never.)
1. Does your mind wander when you pray?
2. Is Bible reading a joy?
3. Is your Bible reading New Testament oriented?
4. Do you use a commentary as you read the Bible?
5. If married, do you have family devotions together?
6. Do you question God regarding evil and suffering?
7. Do you have absolute assurance of eternal life with Christ?
8. Are you afraid to die?
9. Is Christ’s return a dynamic reality to you?
10. Do you ever feel you would like to be something other than a missionary?
11. Are you happy with the policies of your mission board?
12. Do you ever wish you had more academic degress?
13. Do you enjoy deputation?
14. Do you have intellectual doubts about Christianity?
15. Doyou ever feel you are preaching a message you don’t fully believe?
16. Are you ever discouraged about life?
17. Is frustration a part of your life?
18. Are you ever emotionally tense?
19. Is anger a problem to you?
20. Is pride a problem to you?
21. Do you love your missionary colleagues?
22. Can you forgive missionaries who have hurt you?
23. Do you love national Christians on the mission field?
24. Do you have sexual fantasies?
25. Do you read sexually stimulating literature?
26. Do you attend R-rated movies?
27. Do you attend X-rated movies?
28. On an average, how much time do you spend in prayer each day?
29. On an average, how much time do you spend reading the Bible each day?
30. What is your greatest spiritual struggle in life?
31. What magazines do you read regularly?
32. How many secular books do you read each month?
33. How many Christian-type books do you read each month?
34. Do you understand the doctrine of inerrancy?
35. Do you fully subscribe to inerrancy?
36. If you subscribed to inerrancy and came to doubt it, would you inform your mission leadership and colleagues?
37. Have you taken tranquilizers since becoming a missionary?
38. Do you drink alcoholic beverages?
39. Have you remained sexually moral since becoming a missionary?
40. Have you had a charismatic type experience?
41. Have you ever spoken in tongues?
42. Do you feel post salvation sanctification experiences can be biblically valid?
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