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‘You’re a what?!’ – Missionary identity part one

Simple questions like ‘where are you from?’ or even ‘what do you do?’ can be difficult for missionaries to answer. When you have lived overseas for several years, that can feel like ‘home’. Or people may not know what missionaries do. Missionaries’ identity can also become wrapped up in their Christian service rather than in Christ. Or in the place they serve in. The bottom line is, missionaries can struggle with the question of their identity.

So how can supporters help them? In the first of a three part series on missionary identity, Wendy Marshall, an OMF Australia worker in Japan, shares a little of missionaries’ struggle and how supporters can pray for them. In this first post, she looks at how missionaries struggle to explain what they do to those back ‘home’.

You’re a what?!

The day after our boys started school in Australia I visited our local gym.

‘I’d like to join,’ I said to the trainer at the front desk.

‘Okay, your name?’

‘Wendy Marshall. I’ve been a member of Curves in Japan for the last four years.’

‘Oh, Japan?’ she looked at me oddly.

‘Yes, we’re missionaries there.’

‘Um, you’re a what?’

We’d only been back in Australia for a few weeks. It was our second home assignment, but I’d forgotten that ‘missionary’ is a word that can be difficult for the average Aussie. Many people don’t know what a missionary is, and it’s a difficult way to start a conversation with a stranger.

Another time in Brisbane I was talking with another mum while we watched our boys train at a wrestling club. This time I managed to keep the ‘M’ word out of the conversation for some time. Japan came in early, because she wanted to know how our boys had first become interested in this unusual (for Australia) sport. Initially it’s easy to describe my life in Japan without using the M word because my husband teaches at an international school.

However, she continued to probe.

‘What’s your husband doing in Australia this year?’

‘Ah, yes . . . well that’s a bit tricky. Actually, we’re missionaries. Some people here give money so that we can work in Japan. We’re here for a year visiting them to thank them and tell them what we’ve been doing.’

The role of missionary is more encompassing than a job like teacher or engineer. It means huge lifestyle changes. There are similarities to the military. An army engineer can say, ‘I’m an engineer,’ and people get some of the picture. But, ‘I’m an engineer in the army,’ is a more complex story. One that intrigues some people, but for others it is simply too difficult to comprehend and conversation falters.

Any missionary could tell you variations of the above stories. It’s a challenge we regularly face when we meet new people.

Pray for OMF workers:

  • Pray for supportive people when they’re on home assignment who seek to truly understand the missionary’s unusual life.
  • Pray for wisdom in all conversations: when to give a short explanation, when to go more in depth, and even how to use our unusual lifestyle to spread the gospel when we’re in our passport countries.
  • For missionaries as they relate to family members who don’t understand what we’re doing and why.


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