What Defines a True Missionary

What Defines a True Missionary

by Rebekah Scheiman

by Guest Writers | October 4, 2013

There is a prevalent tendency among Christians today to put an unofficial ranking on levels of Christian service. 

Bottom level: Being a churchgoer while you make your living like everyone else, working a normal job

Second level: Working in a Christian company or doing ministry on the side (Sunday school teacher, etc.) while you work a normal job 

Third level: Working in full-time ministry in the US (Pastor, youth worker, etc.)

Top level: Being a missionary on the foreign field. 

It is common, and even acceptable, to sigh as we look at our life and the opportunities God has given us. We say, “Oh how I wish I could make it to the mission field. THEN I would be doing something worthwhile.” We look at our small level of service and wish to do more. 

Wishing to do more is not a bad thing—we ought always to be pressing on to the endless frontier. But what is unhealthy is glamorizing mission work to a point that we are dissatisfied with everything else and unwilling to be content in the roles God has opened up for us. 

Greasing the Pans for God

When I was about 8 years old, I often went to the kitchen when my mom was making dinner, hoping to get a chance to stir something or dump ingredients in a bowl. “Can I help make dinner?” I asked. And the answer I almost always got was, “Sure! Would you please grease the pans?” Greasing the pans was my least favorite way to help. Why couldn’t I do some of the exciting work? So I would grease the pans with a disappointed attitude and hang around hopefully, waiting to see if there was something I could do with the “real” recipe creation, like dumping ingredients from the measuring cup to the bowl. It got to the point where I stopped coming so often to help with dinner, because I could predict what job I would be given, and I didn’t really want it. 

Later, when I had graduated from college and I was hoping to dedicate my life to full-time mission work on the foreign field, God kept giving me jobs that felt menial, useless, and boring. He kept the “exciting” doors shut fast, and kept opening doors for things like “Be there for your siblings,” “Serve your parents,” or “Be the church pianist.” My desires were to do “real” mission work, and God kept asking me to do these uninteresting tasks that did not feel fruitful or significant at advancing the Kingdom of God.

I struggled with this and kept asking the Lord why He didn’t allow me to get into the thick of the fight and be a real soldier of the cross. He reminded me of my childhood request to help in the kitchen. “When you were a little girl, and your mom gave you the job of greasing the pans, it was because you didn’t have the skills or the maturity to do the whole recipe. Greasing the pans was genuinely helpful to her, while dumping ingredients in the bowl would have only slowed her down. If I am asking you to ‘grease the pans’ in My kingdom, can you be faithful in that which is least and trust Me to bring along greater avenues of service in My time?”  

I had to surrender my ideas of ministry and service to the Lord, and as I did, He was faithful to open doors as He saw fit. He was building me, writing my ministry story, and training me for the day when I would finally enter what I thought of as “the real fight.” 

You see, I still had the idea firmly in place that I wasn’t truly useful to the Lord until I got on to the mission field. I felt like that was the highest way to serve the Lord properly, and everything else was just training. 

Discovering Two Key Truths About Missionaries

Eventually, the Lord was faithful to open doors for ministry overseas, and I went on short-term trips to the Dominican Republic, Morocco, and Spain. Finally! I was going to get a chance to meet real missionaries! 

Invariably, I was surprised and a little disappointed. My notions of missionaries as super-spiritual Christians started to crumble. “Wait a minute…” I thought. “These missionaries are no different than normal people I could have met at any church in the US. They just happen to live in another country. Where are the Hudson Taylors, Gladys Aylwards, and Amy Carmichaels of today?” 

There were two factors I didn’t realize. First, doing ministry in another country is just like doing ministry in the US, except for the fact that you have a mountain of additional challenges: the enemy’s violent opposition, a language barrier, cultural misunderstandings, having to learn new ways to do things (like shopping for vegetables outdoors or washing clothes by hand), and possibly doing without a lot of conveniences you are used to (for instance, a vehicle, air conditioning, or electricity). While I considered myself fully willing to give those things up and accept the extra suffering and obstacles, I had not yet proven myself able to do ministry faithfully and effectively where it was easy, so how could I expect to do it when opposition raged? 

Second, missionaries like Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, and Amy Carmichael appear to us like glowing examples of triumphant faith because we get to see the end of the story. We can read their whole life story in a little book. Authors don’t spend a proportional amount of time on the drudgery-to-glamour ratio in the lives of missionaries. They focus on all the interesting parts of a person’s life. Even as we read, we gloss over the boring parts that do appear. We quickly page through the fact that Hudson Taylor spent a number of “hidden years,” or spent months bedridden with illness. We fail to consider how it felt to him to live through that. We read about Gladys Aylward marching triumphantly over the mountains. “She rescued 100 children!” we exult. But how many years did she spend in China before that, faithfully doing boring things that no one took any notice of? We read Amy Carmichael’s writings and our hearts are thrilled and inspired with her mighty faith, but we forget that her day-to-day life probably looked to her like a mundane series of tasks. We appreciate her vivid quotes, but fail to understand the pain and suffering she had to go through in order to learn these things.

The Danger of Over-Glamorizing Mission Work

The danger of placing an unhealthy expectation on missionary work is that if God ever does call us to serve Him in another country, we will be unprepared for the challenges that we face and therefore be far less effective in the work. This was my experience when the Lord allowed me to go to a hard, dark place like Haiti. 

In preparing to go to Haiti, I still retained some unhealthy, over-glamorized ideas of missions. I raised support, talking passionately about how God had called me to be an instrument to break through the darkness and oppression in that land. I prayed fervently as I prepared to go, confidently expecting to see Satan’s kingdom fall and people’s lives turned around for the glory of the King of Kings. I talked excitedly to my friends about the orphanage in Haiti where I was going to serve, and I kept a blog where I planned to share my stories of rescue and evangelism. 

Then I arrived in Haiti. I discovered that most of my “ministry” was menial work that felt unimpressive and a bit unsatisfying. The fall of Satan’s kingdom wasn’t happening as quickly as I had hoped, and I didn’t get to be involved much in the rescue side of the work. Rescuing an abandoned child feels glamorous—and takes about one day. Changing that child’s diapers, feeding him, and raising him to love Jesus is not so glamorous, and it takes a long time. I didn’t have much of a chance to do evangelism or outreach, because my Creole was not good enough yet, and the Haitians didn’t necessarily like me or appreciate what I was doing anyway. I slept on a sheet on a hard tile floor that I shared with rats and cockroaches, and I would lie on my back every evening drenched in sweat before I fell asleep. I spent an inordinate amount of time each day mopping, fighting to keep ants out of everything, and filling buckets with water just to have enough for showers, dishwashing, and laundry. My blog dried up because there were only so many ways to make these menial tasks sound glamorous, and I didn’t have enough electricity anyway to keep my computer battery charged for typing out long, inspirational blog posts. I saw how preposterous it was for anyone to idolize someone like me, when I was doing none of the grand things I had envisioned for myself. This brought a further and more frightening realization: deep down, in a certain measure, I wanted to be somewhere and do something that would allow me to idolize myself. 

Do you see the danger? 

Are you a daughter whose life seems to be stuck doing school work, practicing your instrument, and watching children in the nursery? Would it surprise you to know that much of mission work feels the same way to the missionary? Are you a mother whose life revolves around laundry, grocery store runs, and housework, and you long for a more fulfilling existence? Did you ever think that the missionary mother has to do the same exact tasks for her household? Perhaps it would shock you to realize that the overseas missionary sometimes idolizes YOU, longing for your life! (“If I could only get back there, then I could be more effective for God.”)

If your idea of missions is not firmly rooted in the truth, then real mission experience can quickly cause you to feel disoriented, disillusioned, and burned out. 

A Proper Perspective

In order to stop from idolizing missions to an unhealthy degree, you must ground your desire for overseas ministry in the truth of the Word of God. Perhaps God has placed a call on your life that is yet unfulfilled. While you are longing for that future door to open up, consider a few of the lessons God has taught me for a proper perspective on missions.

First, realize your destination: Jesus Christ. See Heb. 12:2. Your destination is not so much a geographical location; it is a Person. Whether you are a missionary, student, employee, or stay-at-home mom, your destination is the same. HE is your pursuit. HE is the direction you are headed—and you can go there now. Do not cast your eyes about, glancing overseas, wondering if it will be this or that city or country or people group. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on Him. Where He goes, you go. This simplifies things. You do not have to obsess over where you are headed or where God is calling you. God is calling you to pursue Jesus. 

Second, realize your occupation: Obedience. See Deut. 10:12-13. As long as you are obeying His command for you, you cannot possibly do anything more for the Kingdom of God. We often dislike what He has commanded us to do, so we invent something far more interesting and then expect Him to approve of it, without recognizing the presumption and pride of thinking that our plan is better than that of the Sovereign God. Your job is to follow, not lead, the Good Shepherd. Get very still before Him and learn to recognize His voice. Determine to only walk in obedience. If He has not given you light for the next step, do not take one on your own wisdom. Wait for Him to tell you. He is always trustworthy and faithful to lead, even when His guidance comes at the last minute. 

Third, recognize who missionaries are: Regular people just like you. When Cornelius fell down before Peter to worship him, Peter “took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.” (Acts 10:26). Unhealthy idolizing of a missionary is not good for you or the missionary. Jesus said, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10). John Hyde, the man of prayer in India? Regular guy. Anyone could have what he had. God’s promises and blessings are open to all His children. George Mueller, the man of faith who made his request to God alone for supporting the orphan work? Ordinary man. You could have the same from God if you set yourself to trust Him the way Mr. Mueller did. 

Fourth, realize what most of mission work is: Plain hard work. See 2 Cor. 1:8-9. The work God calls you to accomplish as a missionary will require just as much diligence, attention, and faithfulness as a job or a career. You will have to throw your whole energy into it to make it succeed. It will be hard. You must constantly fight for excellence. You may want to give up. It won’t be a glamorous, comfortable job where people idolize you. But God will be faithful to supply to you His all-sufficient grace.

Fifth, maintain the proper attitude for preparation: Trust God. See Philippians 1:6. If God has truly called you to serve on the mission field, you can trust Him to write your mission story just as just as much as you can trust Him to write your love story. Allow Him to build your skills in evangelism and prayer. Trust that if He calls you to some other field of practical preparation, whether it’s medicine or house cleaning, He has a purpose in it. Give yourself fully to serve cheerfully in the doors He does open up, and you will be able to say when He plants you in your particular niche of service, “All my life, God has been building me precisely for this position.”

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