We asked Steve Sherman, missionary to Tanzania, what it takes to be a missionary, as a topic for yet another post in our Vision 2023 Series. We are grateful for his response and hope you take the time to read what he shares with us below:
I think that any answer should start with spiritual preparation. Ultimately missionaries cross cultural, linguistic, and political barriers in order to share Christ, His salvation and blessings, with those who do not know Him. As such, it is obvious that the missionary must also be in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But spiritual preparation is more than just salvation. I believe that missionaries should be mature Christians (admittedly subjective) who have a deeper relationship with Christ and have learned to walk with Christ in obedience and faith.
This would include being involved in ministry in their local church before they ever go to be a missionary on a foreign field. Some people think that becoming a missionary will automatically give them the desire to serve and do ministry. This is not true. If a person does not serve in their local church already, they will not wake up on the mission field with a stronger desire to serve. A heart for missions will be evident in those who serve wherever they find themselves, even when not on a foreign field.
Spiritual preparation will also include Biblical knowledge. Even if a missionary is not going to a foreign field to be a Bible teacher they must still be well versed in the scriptures and know what they believe. The fact is that both new believers on the mission field and sending agencies will expect all missionaries to be able to answer deeper questions of the faith, whether the missionary is a pilot, a builder, or a preacher. Personal Bible study together with attending a local church with a strong teaching/discipleship ministry can be sufficient. But since all missionaries function as spiritual leaders it can only help to seek out additional training as well. This could mean attending a Bible College but there are many other avenues as well. Many schools offer training through distance learning programs (both for credit and non-credit) that allow students to keep their day jobs and get their training at a slower pace.
Another aspect of preparation is vocational training. Every missionary goes to the mission field to do something as their day job. The possibilities are countless. They can include such varied ministries as farming, sports, teaching, building, mechanics, business development, well drilling, orphan care, medicine, and others, in addition to the traditional roles of evangelism, church planting, Bible translation and Bible teaching. Missionaries should be professionals at what they do. Not only does it take a lot of resources to get missionaries to the field and keep them there, they also go as representatives of the Church and God Himself. That is to say missionaries should be professionals because they need to be good stewards of God’s resources and be as effective as they can be. But also they need to represent God in the best manner possible as well. This can mean years of training depending on what a missionary goes to do. Some get that training and then go immediately to the mission field. Others enter the job market at home for five to even thirty years before being called to the mission field. The latter gain a lot of on the job experience which equips them to be effective missionaries.
The last thing that I want to talk about is faith and determination or courage to follow God’s calling. Whether you believe in a general call or a specific call to a particular field and a particular people it takes a lot of faith and determination to get to the mission field. In my own case it took eight years from the moment that I made the decision to become a missionary until I actually arrived on the mission field as a full-time missionary. I had already finished two years of college in accounting and needed three more years to finish as I switched my degree to theology and missions. I then spent a year working to pay the bills while my wife finished her last year of nursing school. We then needed to both work full-time jobs and tighten our belts so that we could pay off all of our school debts in a year. After this I went back to seminary to get a master’s degree in New Testament theology. This was followed by the grueling task of working to feed the family while at the same time visiting churches and missionary conferences for more than a year in order to raise the necessary support.
I had fellow college students who decided to become missionaries about the same time that I did. Some of them never made it to the missionary field. Whether it was because of the person they married, the house that they bought, the job that they got, or the time that it took to pay off debts, or ???, somewhere along the line they lost focus and their determination to follow the call faded away.
There are many other things that could be listed in answer to the question, “What does it take to become a missionary?” but I would like to close with this thought. It was not easy to become a missionary, nor do I think that it should be. But after twenty-two years of serving as a missionary I would not go back and trade it for anything else.