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An A to Z of missionary life

OMF worker Dr. Larry Dinkins has worked in Thailand for over 40 years. Here he shares his ‘A to Z’ of missionary life. Larry writes:

In English we teach the ABCs as the foundation for instructing language to our children. The Hebrew version is “ABG’s” (Aleph, Bet, Gimel). The Jews used these first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet to help their children memorize Scripture.  Nine Psalms start with the letter Aleph and then work through all 22 letters. I’ve applied this ancient idea of using an acrostic to memorize scripture, attributes of God and the gospel songs I want to remember.

Recently I began to reflect on what I call “An A to Z of Missionary Life”. In this article I have sought to connect the alphabet to 26 fundamental traits that can contribute to a successful missionary career. I’d encourage every prospective missionary to become familiar with these characteristics and begin asking God to help them put them into practice before they reach their target group. 

A – Accountable

‘Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.’ (Romans 14:12)

One must learn to be responsible for one’s actions before God and to their spiritual leaders. Without set boundaries, many young workers end up accountable mainly to themselves rather than to their supporting church or mission agency.

B – Balanced

‘And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.’ (Luke 2:52)

From an early age Jesus showed a perfect balance in all areas of His life. A missionary needs to seek a similar balance by establishing a healthy ebb and flow of ministry and leisure.

C – Compassionate

‘As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’ (Colossians 3:12)

This verse admonishes us to clothe ourselves with compassion rather than simply feeling “pity” for others. This means becoming proactively involved in meeting human needs in a practical ways while still at home.

D – Disciplined

‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Self-discipline flowing out of a regular practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study is vital to long-term ministry success. Only strict discipline will protect new workers from the many distractions that pull one away from the primary task of learning culture and language.

E – Endurance

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The “missionary race” is not a sprint, but a marathon. Gaining proficiency in language and establishing churches is not for short-termers, but for those who are in it for the long haul.

F – Flexible

‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (1 Corinthians 9:22). 

One must adapt to a multitude of challenges: culture, customs, weather, foods, language, etc. Mission life will stretch you to the breaking point and thus the ability to flex cross-culturally is an indispensable trait.

G – Grateful

‘I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
    I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. (Psalm 9:1).

Life overseas will give you many opportunities to complain about all the “wrong” ways the locals do things. Instead, one must cultivate a deep sense of gratitude to God for the immeasurable privilege of sharing the good news to those who have never heard.

H – Holiness

‘But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”’ (1 Peter 1:15-16)

As ambassadors for a Holy God, we must strive for holiness in all our conduct and speech. Only a strong commitment to a holy life will be able to counter the numerous temptations one encounters on the field.

 I – Interceder

‘Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.’ (Romans 10:1).

If there is one spiritual discipline that is vital on the mission field, it is a commitment to intercessory prayer in all its dimensions: soft hearts, spiritual sight, wisdom in evangelism, clarity in communication, boldness … etc.

J – Joyful

‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’ (Galatians 5:22-23)

All nine virtues that Paul calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ should be cultivated. However, I’ve found that choosing to be joyful is key to long term success as a missionary, even in the face of many discouragements.

K – Kid-friendly

‘People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.’ (Mark. 10:13-16)

You will find that children are your best language teachers and often the most receptive to the gospel. They act as bridge builders into the lives of their parents and by investing in them you are investing in the future of your entire target group.  

L – Listener

‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19) 

Rather than entering a culture as a “teacher” or “salesman”, be a listener and learner. Learn to listen without comment to the person you seek to minister to as you ask God just how and when to respond.

M – Musical

See 1 Samuel 16:14-23.

Music is appreciated in all cultures and learning a musical instrument will open up many doors for ministry. Even without much language you can immediately connect with a local church and contribute to worship.  

N – Nurturing

‘Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well… you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12)

You will encounter many “tender plants” that need to be watered and fertilized in a sympathetic and caring way. The best way to do this is to developing a broad range of friendships and pray that they will result in discipleship opportunities.

O – Observant

‘As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”’ (Luke 21:1-4)

This is the ability to pay special attention to people and the nuances of their relationships, religion and cultural traits and then properly reflect and evaluate what you observed.

P – Pioneering

‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.’ (Romans 15:20)

An apostolic type person will be willing to start from scratch and take calculated risks to get his or her vision off the ground. Such a self-starter will be the first to volunteer for a difficult task, won’t accept the status quo and has the ability to rally others to their cause.

Q – Questioning

‘After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.’ (Luke 2:46)

Asking insightful questions is one of the best ways to gain new perspectives on a culture or people group and helps one understand and appreciate specific traits, rituals, ceremonies and nuances of language.

R – Resourceful

See 2 King 4:1-7.

A resourceful person is able to access tools or improvise their own in order to find creative and practical solutions to the inevitable problems which one encounters serving overseas.

S – Sense of Humor

A cheerful heart is good medicine,
    but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)

This trait is often overlooked but always rates high on the list of items one must pack up and take into ministry.  Yes, we should take our ministry and the gospel seriously, but ourselves not at all.

T – Teachable

‘Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;
    teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.’ (Proverbs 9:9)

A key quality in a cross-cultural worker is a willingness to value other’s opinions and humbly receive instruction from senior workers and national co-workers. Mistakes will invariably be made in a new culture and the teachable missionary will learn all they can from them when they occur.

U – Upbeat

‘Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.’ (2 Corinthians 4:1) 

One must learn how to keep a positive and optimistic attitude about oneself and the often challenging circumstances which you will encounter.  A pessimistic mental outlook is one of the chief reasons people leave the field early.

V – Visionary

‘Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:13-14)

Looking forward to the future with imagination and eyes of faith allows one to anticipate needs and plan ahead of time how to meet them. Focusing on the future with a clear purpose will help propel ministry forward in significant ways.

W – Well-read

‘At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.’ (Acts 26:24-26)

A well-read missionary can engage people intelligently and in an interesting way on many topics. However, many arrive on the field without reading basic books on mission life/ministry or having taken key courses like Perspectives or Kairos. Some preparation and background reading goes a long way.

X –  Xenial (Hospitable)

‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

Making your home a welcoming, friendly and inviting respite for others is a key way to “contribute to the needs of the saints” as well as build bridges into the lives of non-Christians.

Y – Yielding

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

Submitting to God’s will in each situation you face is a life-long willingness to surrender to our master, the Lord Jesus. This means saying no to self on a daily basis and putting others needs above our own.

Z – Zealous

‘His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”’ (John 2:17)

A white-hot passion for God and his kingdom expansion flows out of intense love for God and commitment to his Great Commission. Like the apostle Paul, we need to cultivate a fervent desire to see our target people won to Christ.

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