Five Pieces of Advice to a Potential International Missionary

By way of introduction, please note that the phrase “international missionary” is redundant. “International missionary” is like saying “unmarried bachelor”. A bachelor is by definition unmarried, and a missionary is by definition international, or at least cross-cultural.

If you are ministering the gospel to your own nation and those within your own culture, you are doing a very fine thing. But you are not a missionary. That term should be reserved for those that engage in cross-cultural evangelism. 

I’ve been asked a number of times to give counsel for prospective missionaries. Here’s how I would answer. 

1. Study and Savor the Doctrines of Grace

I like to tell people that the Doctrines of Grace didn’t get me to the mission field, but they’ve certainly kept me here. Let me explain. 

The Doctrines of Grace, sometimes known as Calvinism, teach that God is sovereign over all things, including salvation. These glorious doctrines teach that if God doesn’t choose to save a sinner, that sinner will never choose to be saved. The opposing view essentially teaches that God places a vote to save you, Satan places a vote to damn you, and you’re left with the final vote to break the tie. 

I came to the mission field holding to the latter view. Three things changed my mind. The first was Scripture. As I studied and taught through the word, there was no way around it. Acts 13:48 was in the Bible. So was John 6:37. And I had students who wanted a very simple explanation of what the verses meant. I couldn’t hide behind technical language. 

Second was the people. After several months on the mission field, I thought: “Where are all the happy faces wanting to learn about Jesus? Where are those running to the light?” There were few, because men love darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19). Only a merciful God granting the gift of faith could change such hardened hearts. 

Third was my own sanity. After so many many miles walking the trails, I couldn’t deal with the guilt knowing that if I had just preached a little better or followed with a more winsome illustration, the listeners may have been saved. I’ve been able to deal with many trials over the years because I know that  Jesus’ words in John 10:14 are true: “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Many, if not most, of the great missionaries in church history have loved these doctrines. If you learn to love them too, they may lead you across the globe. 

2. Read Great Missionary Biographies

The best books on missions are not books about missions. They are not books about the theory of missions. The best books on missions are missionary biographies. I’ve had 11 years of theological training. I’ve never taken a single class on missions. What ignited the flame in my heart for cross-cultural missions was Jim Elliot’s devotion in Shadow of the Almighty. It was Hudson Taylor’s walk of faith and Adoniram Judson’s perseverance amidst trials. It was Borden of Yale and A Chance to Die. 

Missionary biographies humble us, like the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. They inspire us, like the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. They educate us, like Paul’s journey in Acts 13. No single person or resource besides the Bible has had a greater impact upon my life as a missionary than missionary biographies. 

3. Marry your Best Friend and Have Lots of Kids

The mission field is the best place to raise a family. There are dangers and challenges for sure. But a happy wife and godly kids will be two wings that make your ministry fly. I was in our little African village for two years as a single man before I got married. Before marriage, the people viewed me as a kid with a temporary vision. After marriage, they viewed me as a man. After having a horde of children, they viewed me as permanent. 

Don’t let anyone tell you the mission field is too dangerous for raising a family. Consider this example. In the mid 1800’s, before John Paton left as a missionary to the South Seas, a contemporary pastor from Nova Scotia named John Geddie had first committed his life to the cannibals of those distant islands. His congregation begged him to stay, saying it was too dangerous for a family. He insisted. They told him to at least keep his kids back before he committed suicide. He refused. In God’s providence, two of his children died before the Geddie’s sailed. Then they left for the islands. 

They had more children while living among the cannibals. None were injured. On their first furlough after 15 years, their small son died on the ship heading home. Here was the lesson learned. Three children died while in “safety”. No children died while in “danger”. Man is immortal until his work on earth is done. 

4. Don’t Let Singleness Deter You From the Mission Field

This point is meant to balance the counsel above. Don’t think of a wife and children as fuel for the Missions car, as though missions won’t run without a family. Instead, think of family as 4×4 on your truck. It will help you do a lot of things in ministry and will get you out of a lot of scrapes, but it’s not mandatory. 

Trucks with 4×4 also have disadvantages. They can’t compete on a straight away with a two-door sports car. Singles can do a lot of things that married people can’t (1Cor. 7:32). Singles are like a Porsche and can be a lot more efficient than a Ford F-350. When I was single, I traveled on deputation and raised support in three months. I stayed up late memorizing vocabulary cards of the local language. I lived on the chief’s premises with no running water and rat problems. I couldn’t have done any of this single. 

Don’t waste your singleness. Get busy serving God. This was a major theme of Hudson Taylor’s ministry. He saw armies of godly women around the world that wanted to serve the Lord but didn’t know how. He provided a bridge for them to serve in China. God used those women to do extraordinary things among the Chinese. 

5. Serve Jesus 24/7 at Home, then Listen for Feedback

We have way too many unqualified missionaries on the field. Missions is one of the rare vocations where a large segment still thinks the only qualification necessary is willingness. But the Apostle Paul was more than just willing. In fact, you could say he wasn’t all that willing to go on his “first missionary journey”. But he was so gifted at preaching and teaching that word got around. He was busy with evangelistic work in his hometown of Tarsus when Barnabas traveled north to recruit him. After the church at Antioch took a year to observe Paul in action, it became obvious that he needed to be sent abroad. I can picture the elders at Antioch whispering to each other in the church offices: “I’ve never seen such an evangelist!”

How do you know if God is calling you into missions? Do these three steps. First, ask your pastor for a list of all the church ministries. Second, choose six of them and get busy. Third, keep your ears open to what people are saying. Call it holy eavesdropping. If people keep recruiting you for more inner city work, that’s a good sign. If the hosts on your short-term mission trip are begging you to come back, that’s a good sign. If you’re reluctant to tell sinners about Jesus in your own language and your own culture,that’s a bad sign. It will get twice as difficult on the mission field. 

Conclusion

If I could narrow down my advice to two words, it would be this: get busy. In the Word, get busy knowing who God is. In the church, get busy serving. In your social life, get busy finding a mate and having kids. But if that’s not in God’s plans, get busy and see your singleness as a gift.

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