What do missionaries wish they had known before they first went?

“I wish I’d known how amazing it was going to be!”

I would have wanted to know how exciting, rewarding, challenging, and amazing it was going to be!

Being 51 with three kids (two adolescents and a six-year old), making a decision to sell everything and move to Peru was a decision that didn’t come quickly or without struggles. The Lord called, we obeyed, and he showed us that all this was possible. 

If you are in a season of questioning missions, I can tell you to GO and go quickly. Do not waste another minute. The harvest is plenty and the workers are few!! He goes before us and lays out our path, so be obedient and follow!!

Answer from Scott in Peru, who has served with iProjects in Cuba and Peru for five years.

“I wish I had known how difficult missions really is.”

.I would have gotten more cross-cultural training, especially focused on the culture to which I was going. I would have taken more time in language learning. But most of all, I needed realistic expectations. Working in a foreign field is the same as being in a war. I know. I’ve fought in both and the similarities are striking.

There is not much glorious about warfare. It may look exciting on TV or in the movies, but in the trenches it’s a lot of hard work. And the enemy has ambushes everywhere. Often you can’t tell the enemy from the friendly. And your friends get injured and killed. It hurts.

The culture won’t make a bit of sense and you’ll even resent the people sometimes, or think how they do things is ridiculous. But you will learn how to live there. You’ll learn new cultural cues. You’ll begin to see how they do make sense in your new culture. And in the learning, you’ll grow to love the people. So learn to laugh at yourself!

Don’t give up! When you go, determine that you’re going to stay. It’s like God meant marriage to be. It won’t always be easy, but make it work! Don’t expect the other person to change. Change as you need to. And there’s probably no better environment to promote change in us than working in another culture.

Answer from Tim, who has served for twenty-five years with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Cameroon and the United States

“I wish I had had more realistic expectations.”

Many girls and young women have unrealistic ideas of romantic bliss in marriage, without seeing the problems or day-to-day efforts needed to make a marriage work. Missions is no different. In most missionary presentations, we hear only about the victories and great things the Lord is doing. 

I think that is for two reasons. First, missionaries are trying to recruit people into the work, so they strongly emphasize the positive side. Second, most people, and maybe especially missionaries, don’t want to be vulnerable and reveal that they have problems.

This is not helped by the fact that church people want to put missionaries on a super-spiritual pedestal for being willing to sacrifice and live under harsh conditions. So, it’s important to talk with missionaries one-to-one to hear their struggles as well as their victories.

Another common fallacy is that the lost are crying out for someone to tell them the gospel. There may be the rare exception (in Papua New Guinea, one tribe did build a church in anticipation of the missionaries coming to tell them the good news), but in general, the lost are blinded just as the Jews are. They are not searching for God and are living deceived in the darkness of their blinded condition. We will most commonly find indifference to the message, and at worst, we’ll experience downright opposition. 

Missionaries who think they’re going overseas to do a great work for Jesus amuse me. We merely participate in the work God is already doing. Of course, all our friends at home will tell us what a great and wonderful thing we’re doing. Then WHAM! We come face-to-face overseas with all our inadequacies and weaknesses.

We realize how much we’re actually going to have to depend on God to see something accomplished. Many missionaries, when confronted with the reality of living in a foreign culture and the time needed to influence people, simply become discouraged, turn around, and come home. Only when we realize our total dependence on God, wait on him, and work with him, do we finally see some beautiful fruit.

Answer from Mike, who served ten years in West Africa and North Africa on a Bible translation team with WEC International.

“I wish I had known more about myself and being patient.”

The following are some things nobody told me, but I’m telling you:

Boredom is real. I heard that before I left my home country. But now I have long periods of down time that I used to fill so easily at home. The first two months or so in a new place are the hardest, since you’re establishing new friendships and a new pattern of life.

Knowing yourself is very important. I have been stretched a phenomenal amount, especially in the first months of my assignment. If you have any hidden personal issues, God will bring them to light. Be willing to deal with them as they come up; don’t push them away. God needs to break you in order to use you. 

Be teachable, and be a lifelong learner. It’s easy to depend only on your ability to figure it out once you get there, since firsthand knowledge may seem more dependable than book knowledge and theories. It’s not true. Know before you go.

It takes time to ease into the structure. At home, I had lots of energy to fill my day from early morning to late at night. But overseas, I tire so quickly. Realize that being stretched physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well as facing a new culture, language, and living situation wears you out. It’s okay to slow down.

Being a missionary is not about being superhuman and accomplishing a long list each day. Some days all you’ll accomplish is a trip to the grocery store or a government office. It’s about trust, obedience, and hearing the Master’s voice.

Answer from Bethany, who is serving in the Middle East with the Assemblies of God.

“I wish I’d realized the importance of pre-field training.”

I went to the field with a Bible college degree under my belt. Beyond the one intro class, I had not even taken any missions courses. I went out blissfully ignorant and I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

There were pre-field training opportunities back then, but there are so many more today, and every aspiring missionary should take advantage of them! Ten years after I had been on the field I had the chance to take such a course and I still learned a lot!

Mission agencies and their candidates give lip service to the importance of pre-field orientation, but few allot much time for it. It is often the last thing a new missionary does once their support is all in and before they rush off to the field. They are so consumed with packing and saying good-bye that they don’t always appreciate it. 

PLEASE make this a priority!!!

Answer from Jennifer, serving in Mali.

“I wish I had known about language learning and missionary relationships.”

Most adults do not know how to handle the humiliation of learning a new language, of having people give them confused stares, just outright laughing at them, or becoming angry because you’re in their country and can’t speak the language. Many people in my language school suffered from loss of identity and inferiority. These were well-educated people who had been successful in their occupations back home.

Now they were learning language full-time and couldn’t understand why they were having such a hard time. Being smart does not guarantee that you will find learning language easy. 

Never assume that you and your colleagues are going to be one big happy family. Generally you can’t choose who you’re going to work with, and no one is going to hit it off with everybody. So you may find that your colleagues have different interests and backgrounds that you can’t relate to well.

You may find that they do things that are quite irritating to you, or have major problems with anger, critical spirit, gossiping, etc. Good relationships take a lot of time and effort, but they are important.

Answer from Mike in West Africa, who is translating the Bible with WEC International.

“I wish I had learned about spiritual warfare.”

I wish I had known more about my relationship to God and about spiritual warfare. Victory Over the Darkness by Neil T. Anderson is one book every Christian should read. This book helps us understand and recognize spiritual warfare.

Wherever we’re living right now, we are in the middle of a battle. We need to understand the nature of that battle so that we can be victorious over our enemy. When we cross into another culture, where Satan has built strongholds for centuries and where cultural cues vary, the battle looks different. However, our victory over the powers of darkness is still in Christ.

Answer from Tim, who has served twenty-five years with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Cameroon and the United States.

Editor’s Note: In addition to Neil T. Anderson’s book, see also Spiritual Warfare for Every Christian by Dean Sherman.

“I wish I knew how to deal with conflict.”

When you want a job you usually put on your best for your prospective employer; it’s like a first date, you hide all the bad and accentuate the positive. Unfortunately, I discovered after two failed attempts to work with missions agencies, this not a good way to “get married” to a sending organization. 

I fell in love too fast, accentuated my and their positive points, and didn’t ask the critical question, “How do they fight through a problem?” Neglect to do this and you could get seriously hurt. 

When you know how a spouse, boss, friend, co-worker, pastor, or mission agency resolves conflict, you will know your chances of being able to have a long-term relationship with them.

Nice Christians who resort to threats, gossip, slander, lawsuits, giving the silent treatment, bullying etc. don’t tell you up front this is how they deal with conflict. You have to know them well before you commit to a long-term relationship. So find out how they fight before you sign up. 

Ken Sande’s ministry has an abundance of information how to deal with conflict biblically. Reform your own conflict resolution methods first, then look for other peacemakers you can work with.

Answer from Paul, who served in Uganda and Rwanda for two years.

“I wish I had known that we would be nearly forgotten by those who had been closest to us.”

I wish I had known that we would be accidentally forgotten by our closest friends and family. They don’t mean to forget, they just get busy with their family, jobs, activities, and just life back home.

The first few weeks or months the emails, Skype calls, and letters come frequently and are so encouraging and uplifting. As the months turn into years, they come less and less frequently. Eventually, some stop altogether. 

Don’t take it personally. Try to keep the lines of communication open. And realize you have less in common than you used to.

Answer from Sharon, who has served as an independent missionary in Thailand for four years.

“I’m glad I didn’t know beforehand what I would later find out.”

In a sense, it’s good that a missionary does not know too much goes about what his life will REALLY be like. If he did, he just might back out real quick-like! I can understand why knowing some things would perhaps make life easier and less of a challenge, since he would be expecting those things. But is that how it should be?? 

On the other hand, even though a veteran missionary may tell the new one all that he should expect in the new culture and country, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the newbie will go through those things or have the same reactions. 

Some of the reasons are obvious: 
1) Years or maybe decades have gone by and some things do change. 
2) Each person is different and will react differently to the same things. What may have been a shocking experience for one will be taken as par for the course by the other. And, vice versa, what is taken in stride by one may be a traumatic experience for the other. 

That’s not to say that nothing should be known beforehand. But I don’t think it’s really possible, anymore than it’s possible to know what it’s like to be married or have children (until it happens).

Answer from Rena, who has served with Baptist Mid-Missions in Brazil for 40 years.

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