What would you say to a budding missionary candidate? I have a close friend who is a veteran pastor, missionary, and now a member care director in the city in which I serve. He says there has been a surge of young adults in recent years who have landed on the field, enthusiastic to redeem the city and bring justice to the oppressed. But they do not stay longer than two years due to exhaustion, dejection, and even loss of faith. The member care workers call this the “radical effect”—young adults, with bleeding hearts, seeking to do something radical for Jesus and the world, who do not follow through with their initial impulse. Often the prospects of formal theological training prior to going to the field seem irrelevant and demotivating.
In light of this challenge and my experience, I recently thought of these two key points of advice that I would give every missionary candidate.
1. Doctrine Matters
Little did I suspect that some of the greatest battles for biblical truth would not only be with Muslims, atheists, and Buddhists, but with others who claimed to be serving Christ alongside me. In my experience of many years overseas, the battle lines have been drawn on issues such as the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the extent and the intent of God’s special revelation, the nature and mission of the church, the message and the means of gospel proclamation, the biblical qualifications of elders, the sovereignty of God and the lordship of Christ, and the nature of the unregenerate and regenerate heart. I began to observe an unspoken a-theological ethos in the missions world; indeed, in many cases, theological minimalism reigns. Mobilization efforts of would-be missionaries often focus on the prospects of exciting cultures, idealistic passions, immediate needs, and creative platforms; whole mission teams commonly unite around such emphases.
The doctrine of choice is often pragmatism: “If it works, then it must be true.” Doctrinal distinctives are usually the least common denominator. In our urgency, there is impatience with the slow work of sowing seed and for the even slower work of training up biblically qualified, indigenous elders. The need-for-speed and result-driven methods commonly shortcut the tiresome labor of training local pastors to be mighty in the Scriptures. Yet our missionary methodology always reveals our theology, or lack thereof. For instance, a deficient view of Scripture leaves the Bible unused and/or misused in evangelism and discipleship. Defective views of depravity and regeneration employ methods of “reaching” people that do not command repentance and submission to Christ’s kingship. Errant ecclesiology leads to teaching hopeful converts that they neither have to leave their native religious structures nor forsake their religious texts.
In his book Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods (InterVarsity, 2008), Eckhard Schnabel helpfully explains:
Missionaries, evangelists, and teachers who have understood both the scandal of the cross and the irreplaceable and foundational significance of the news of Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah and Savior will not rely on strategies, models, methods, or techniques. They rely on the presence of God when they proclaim Jesus Christ, and on the effective power of the Holy Spirit. This dependence on God rather than on methods liberates them from following every new fad, from using only one particular method, from using always the same techniques, and from copying methods and techniques from others whose ministry is deemed successful.
We must heed the appeal “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). One of the enemy’s oldest tricks is to coax us to let our guard down and assume the gospel. When the hard edges of gospel doctrine are assumed, they are quickly forgotten; the mission, then, is aborted.
2. Pain Is Part of the Plan
I grew up with a health disability that would have prevented me from ever going to college, obtaining a job, or living a long, normal life. Before God mercifully delivered me from it, he graciously delivered me through it. Many days and nights I laid in the darkness of my room in much pain and nausea, praying in the silence that God would give me the sustaining grace to preach the gospel to the nations. I started pre-seminary at the age of 5 when God sent me my wisest and most influential teacher: affliction. Through his loving discipline, God taught me about his sovereign goodness and inscrutable wisdom.
Having grown up facing much affliction, and having learned well the theology of suffering under a sovereign God, I was still naïve to how unrelenting and inexplicable are the trials of the missionary life. If not for the doctrine of God’s wise sovereignty in suffering, I would never have made it. Long-term missions can indeed be a place of excitement and adventure; however, it is also inescapably a place of adversity and barrenness. It is moreover the land of self-emptying and learning to laugh at yourself; learning to think, feel, dream, and reason in a foreign language; learning to enjoy the adopted family of Christ in light of distant relationships back home; learning to keep silent in the face of stiff criticism from those who once supported you; learning to eat the Word of God as your daily food; learning to pray for your wife and children because their lives literally depend upon it; and learning to navigate wisely on the path of self-denial amid a global culture immersed in self-indulgence, self-promotion, and self-preservation.
I would soberly admonish any missionary candidate that the mission field is not all romance and radical adventure; it is also mingled with heartbreak, loss, and self-denial. But therein we discover God’s boundless love and wise providence. C. S. Lewis said in in his poem As the Ruin Falls, “The pains You give me are more precious than all other gains.”
Perhaps D. A. Carson says it best in his excellent book on suffering, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil: The more the leaders are afflicted with weakness, suffering, perplexity, and persecution, the more it is evident that their vitality is nothing other than the life of Jesus. This has enormously positive spiritual effects on the rest of the church. The leaders’ death means the church’s life. This is why the best Christian leadership cannot simply be appointed. It is forged by God himself in the fires of suffering, taught in the school of tears. There are no shortcuts.
God loves his servants so much that he allows them to suffer, so that his grace will sustain them in order to make his glory known. Our weakness is the God-ordained instrument through which the Holy Spirit fills us with the power of Christ.
Evan Burns and his wife, Kristie, have served as long-term missionaries in the Middle East, East Asia, and now in Southeast Asia. He also serves as assistant professor of spirituality and missiology and director of online education at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary in Thailand.