As a missionary, I often wonder as to how people perceive me and the work that I do. I am fully aware that throughout the history of Christian Missions, missionaries have been perceived in a myriad different ways –some positive and some negative; some accurate and some way off from reality. At one point (or could it still be the case today?), missionaries were stereotyped as people who use used tea bags! And yet others have thought of missionaries as great heroes who lead impeccable Christian lives and accomplish tremendous feats. And the list goes on!
Why am I interested in this topic? I believe this discussion is crucial because in order for the missionary enterprise to flourish beyond what we have known it, those who partner with missionaries need to understand the true character and content of a missionary’s life. This is why I am very thankful for the opportunities that missionaries have to visit partnering churches and to mingle closely with the very people who pray and support them generously and often times sacrificially. These occasions afford missionaries a rare opportunity to share their stories with and to appreciate their partners directly. It also enables partners to appreciate the difference that their support makes in the lives and ministries of people all over the world. Furthermore, partners get to be enlightened more as to how to fine tune the way they offer support to missionaries. For sure, there are many other channels through which these kinds of interactions take place and I am equally thankful for them.
This is why I am writing on this subject today. To add to all existing efforts designed to help supporters of missions understand better the character and content of missionary life so that they can become better partners to missionaries. One fact that must be stated is that there is no homogenous character or content of missionary life. Missionaries live and serve in so many different contexts that it would be bizarre to imagine all missionaries everywhere living and serving in the same way. Even the mere fact that missionaries are humans with different personalities, gifts and backgrounds points to the conclusion that different missionaries experience different realities. All this just to say that the few points that I share below reflect only my own experience as a missionary and my understanding of some features of the lives of other missionaries that I have known personally or read about over the years. My thoughts are brief and far from exhaustive.
Firstly, a missionary’s life is characterized by a sense of obligation that comes from a strong call of God upon their lives. It is as Paul testifies in Romans 1:14-15 “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Of course, this is coming from a missionary par excellence! It was this sense of obligation that kept Paul’s head straight in the midst of all kinds of hardship and discouragement. And this is the same for missionaries today. Many reading this will know of the life of Sam Vinton Sr. He was commonly known as Baba V. Father to Dr. Sam Vinton Jr., Baba V gave his all to serve the Grace Churches in Congo in the midst of all sorts of dangers. As I contemplate his life, I cannot help but think that he had a great sense of obligation both to the LORD and to the people he had been sent to. My own life carries this great sense of obligation and I couldn’t shake it off even if I wanted to!
Secondly, a missionary’s life is characterized by many pressures. There is first of all the pressure that comes from a missionary’s sense of obligation to do what they have been called to do. And then there is the pressure of taking good care of family, and imagine the many things that this calls for. There is also the pressure of raising funds, accompanied by the privilege of cultivating relationships with partners. Furthermore, missionary agencies also have their own expectations from missionaries. Extended family members too need their missionary siblings or children or whatever the relationship may be. And just to end the long list here, missionaries also come under the great pressure of learning foreign languages and some even of furthering their education in order to serve better.
Thirdly, a missionary’s life is characterized by many great opportunities. This is my favorite to talk about! The chances that a missionary has to make a difference in the lives of individuals and peoples can be enormous, and sometimes even overwhelming. This is so for several reasons. People are usually more receptive of the gospel in spite of the many cases of hostility that have been recorded. Also, the power of Satan is usually more active in mission fields and missionaries have the opportunity to roll back Satan’s power and influence through spiritual warfare. In the same vein, the social action that is an inseparable part of the Gospel is usually a great blessing for people with extremely challenging socio-economic and political circumstances. The list continues.
Finally, a missionary’s life is characterized by failures and successes. Yes, failures! Since missionaries are as human and fallen as every other person, they fail. Some experience little failures in the midst of great success stories but, as hard as it is to say, some missionaries do fail altogether at being missionaries. This is so because it simply is hard to live and work in a totally different culture from one’s own. One particularly significant area where missionaries fail or succeed is in their own spiritual lives. Missionaries face temptations too and like every other Christian could resist or give in. There exists the temptation to control people simply because one is the main channel for ministry resources. There exists the temptation to compete with other missionaries. There exists the temptation to exaggerate on reality just to obtain a certain effect. Etc. Day by day missionaries decide whether to crucify the flesh or to let it triumph.
As stated, these are just a few windows into the life of a missionary. In keeping with the purpose of this article, I need to ask the question: how does all of this help you in being a better partner to missionaries? You may want to write down a few points or you may even want to discuss this with a dear friend in the LORD.
May God richly bless you during this special season!
Joseph and Emmanuela arrived in Malawi in June 2012 and worked with others to establish the first Bible School with the Grace Churches in Malawi. Theological education and leadership training has been their primary focus, but they are involved in other ministries, such as preaching and teaching in Lilongwe, as well as in other Grace Churches scattered all over Malawi. To learn more about them, their ministry, and GMI visit http://www.gracem.org/web/?page_id=2117