by Gerald E. Bates
“God is a missionary God; the Bible is a missionary book; the Christ of the Bible is a missionary Christ; and His Church is a missionary Church.”
"God is a missionary God; the Bible is a missionary book; the Christ of the Bible is a missionary Christ; and His Church is a missionary Church."
These were statements made by John Stott at the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly in December, 1976, in Nairobi, Kenya. They point out that missions—cross-cultural, international, global Christian proclamation is an enterprise very close to the heart of any true church. Therefore, the task of selecting just those people who should be sent as cross-cultural emissaries is a very critical question for the church.
This is true for at least two additional reasons: (1) Resources are limited, and (2) the negative potential of the wrong person on the mission field is great. The latter statement is something we do not like to hear very much, but for those in missionary administration it is a very real fact and a subject of great concern
In this article I would like to take a look at the theological underpinnings of missionary recruitment and also make a few practical observations that could be helpful to candidates for missionary service and to churches and their agencies committed to finding the right people for the missionary task.
WHO SELECTS THE MISSIONARY?
Who selects the missionary? In a very real sense God does – if we listen to his voice and understand his Word. There are two principles in God’s word that are determinative in the selection of missionaries. These are: the call and the doctrine of gifts. Emphasis on the first and neglect of the second has often led to trouble. In fact, it is likely that the order should be reversed and that, normally, an assessment of one’s gifts should precede a call—that growing conviction that God wants a certain person in a certain place. If we look at the classical "calls" of Peter and Paul to missionary work, it seems clear that these men were "gifted" before they were called. They had prior personal and spiritual potentials that God sealed with a special call.
The early churches at Jerusalem and Antioch demonstrated that the church, as a whole or as a local body, has a great responsibility in finding out the will of God with respect to those it proposes to send out as missionaries. The church has the sober task of examining the gifts of possible candidates so as to send only those with the greatest likelihood of success on the mission field. Even with all prayer and searching, the churches are not infallible in their judgments, but they certainly owe it to the Lord to be as circumspect as possible in knowing the conditions on the mission fields and in measuring the gifts of those whom they select to send.
The same is true for individuals who sense a stirring of interest in missionary service. They must earnestly and humbly seek God’s will. The proper gifts and sense of call and commitment can mean immensely fruitful and productive service on the mission field. On the other hand, those praying for guidance must be read to accept graciously a negative answer as just as much God’s will as a positive one.
In this respect, I have seen people on the mission field who have apparently managed to impose their will and personal ambition on a church or mission board, only subsequently to wreak havoc and great damage. There are also those who, having been turned down on certain grounds, regard this as a personal affront and spend their lives in bitterness and alienation from the church over a decision that in all likelihood saved both them and the mission an unpleasant and unprofitable experience.
The doctrine of gifts (1 Cor. 12:13ff; Rom. 12:3ff; Eph. 4:7ff) asserts that the members of the body of Christ have varying gifts that should determine the places of their optimum contributions of service to the building up of the body. In order to exercise the discernment necessary to apply the doctrine of gifts, there must be an adequate understanding of what the situation on the field demands.
Occasionally U.S. church leaders make such statements as: "He didn’t make it here at home, but we thought he would make a terrific missionary. " And, a few years after the fact, after personal disaster and organizational embarrassment, the "other side" of the assessment comes to light as hindsight. We can learn by experience. Our leaders and Christians at home can participate constructively in recruiting, counseling and helping to select those whom God has first "gifted" and wants to call to missionary service.
QUALITIES TO LOOK FOR
Briefly, here are a few observations, written from the overseas end of things, that may be helpful to those who feel God may be calling them to missionary work, and to those in the sending churches who can help in the selection of missionaries.
1. There is a great world need for the right kind of missionaries. The blooper on moratorium on missions sent up by the ecumenicists at the Bangkok Conference has been shot down by nearly every national church in the world. There is a new recognition that the church is a global organism and that cross-cultural workers are a normal part of its life. This perspective has replaced the old terminal "mission- accomplished" syndrome. Cross-cultural exchange of personnel is becoming more and more a two-way street, but as a phenomenon it is here to stay. There is a great call for workers in this area of service and it appears that it is a long-term one. In short, missionary service appears to have a future.
2. The demands on missionaries these days are more stringent than ever before. The accelerating pace of change, political pressures, the abrasion of cultural exposure, high expectations, language demands—all these, and many more, drain the resources of the missionary. He needs physical and emotional stamina and, spiritually, a low center of gravity. Recently, in my presence, an African church leader outlined three basic qualifications desired in missionaries: (1) That they be born again, spiritually alive, real Christians; (2) that they be professionally competent; and (3) that they be prepared to fellowship and be open with Africans.
Commitment is essential, the willingness to take a risk with regard to one’s own destiny. Research in cross-cultural relations shows that building long-term solid relationships is an immensely complicated task requiring time, sustained effort and deep commitment.
The youthful enthusiasm of the great campus conferences on missions, laudable as it is, will not, unless transformed into sacrificial life- investment, build the emerging churches and the cross-cultural bridges essential to the church’s global well-being.
Trying missionary work on for size, like trial marriage, has a high probability of failure precisely because it lacks the critical element that often makes the difference – commitment. When the going is hard and culture shock hits, the irrevocable commitment to succeed is, outside of God’s grace, the decisive factor in achieving as a missionary.
Language-learning requires sustained hard work. Isolated posts demand extraordinary professional competence and self-reliance under pressure. The mission field is no place for lazy, undisciplined people. Or for those who have not done their professional homework. Educational and technical levels are rising all over the world, so that the one who aspires to be a missionary should have something to offer not available on the local market at much less cost and bother.
Family harmony and the training of children can become critical factors in the fish-bowl existence of missionary life. In most places missionaries are public people and, as such, every detail of their lives comes under close and constant scrutiny. In this respect both the internal climate of family relationships and the willingness to submit to the rigors of a public existence are important preselection considerations for missionary candidates. Hospitality is a grace—and on most mission fields it is exercised almost constantly.
3. Missionaries should be church-oriented people. Nationals over most of the third world seem to have a great communal sense of family, clan, tribe or nation, and they see the church as the visible agency that integrates the people of God into one family. This view, translated organizationally, means that education, medical work, building, translation and evangelism all find their meaning in the context of the church and take their direction from it. A missionary oriented exclusively to his profession or activity, to the exclusion of the church, risks almost certain alienation and failure.
Church- orientation involves people- orientation as well – a genuine liking for people, a curiosity about them, their lives, their problems, and a willingness to open up and share ours with them. I know African peddlars who will refuse to sell to people who won’t take the time to joke and bargain with them. To them, the personal contact is more important than the sale.
4. Missionaries need a high adaptability quotient.Missionaries, by definition, are those who work in a culture not their own. This means that the effectiveness of their work depends heavily on an ability to maintain their balance while adjusting to a new set of circumstances, customs, linguistic cues—a whole new way of life.
Unfortunately, the mono-lingual, urbanized, personal satisfaction- oriented culture of North America is not the most ideal for preparing people to face the demands of life in many parts of the world. The same is true of the highly specialized education given in the Western countries which is not very well designed for survival in the lesser developed countries where the skills needed are more omnibus and generalist in nature.
I have seen grown men almost weep over the foibles of a kerosene refrigerator and capable women nearly defeated by a stick-shift vehicle. Sure, these skills can be learned (and were) but the learning takes a will, a sense of humor and a determination to succeed. Exactly the same is true of new customs and the silent language of gestures and mannerisms, the art of being inoffensively a guest and a stranger in a culture.
Should you be a missionary? Should I? Should he? Should she? Let us examine first the gifts God has given us in terms of the needs as we can best understand them. And let us be open to God’s call, which is so important as an anchor in adversity and an abiding assurance when the skies cloud over. To be God’s choice as a missionary is a great and high privilege—but it is conferred by his sovereign will, and his will is not inconsistent with the gifts distributed by the Spirit.
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