OMF worker Karl Dahlfred reflects on some of the unexpected challenges of missionary life
There are lots challenges in missionary life and some of them are more tangible and easy to send out as a prayer request.
- Pray that our visas will be approved.
- Pray for us to get over this sickness.
- Pray for our language study.
- Pray we’ll know what to say at the funeral of a new believer.
- Pray God will help us find a place to meet for worship.
- Pray for increased financial support.
Then there are less tangible or more sensitive challenges that are less likely to make regular appearances in a prayer letter.
- Family Issues
- Tensions with Co-workers
Amidst all of these challenges, I think one of the most difficult to pin down and to overcome is discouragement. When there is little to no progress in your ministry efforts, what should you do? What do you write in a prayer letter to prayer partners and financial supporters?
Anyone who does a job wants to see results. A salesman wants people to buy things. A carpenter wants to finish building a cabinet. A fisherman wants to catch fish. A missionary wants to see people come to Christ, grow as disciples, and churches established. But whereas making a sale, building a piece of furniture, or catching a fish have a definite end point and can come to fruition in matter of hours, days, weeks, or months, seeing people come to faith and a church established can take years. In some places in the world today, this can happen quite quickly.
But in a lot of places, missionaries (and local pastors / evangelists) put in a lot of work to spread the Gospel, build relationships, develop training materials, etc. but the returns come very slowly and there are many setbacks. There are many days (and weeks and months) when the missionary is working but not much seems to be happening. It is just one day after another of trying to do something for the kingdom of God but the kingdom of God seems to be stuck in idle. You’re hitting the gas pedal but going nowhere. Nothing exciting is happening and things are just dragging on and on. Discouragement and defeatism set in. Have I missed my calling? Should I really even be here at all? Maybe I should have stuck with my secular job back home.
But missionaries aren’t the only ones who’ve ever had to wait on God to work. Pastors have similar experiences, which is part of the reason many leave the ministry every year. In Scripture too, the calling of God’s people was to stay the course day in and day out, waiting for God to work. Abraham, for example, had to wait patiently for 25 years for God to fulfill his promise of a son. At one point, he and Sarah weren’t so patient so he and Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promise for Him. They sought success through an innovative method of their own design. Sarah gave her maidservant to Abraham as a wife to produce a son (see Genesis 12-21, Hebrews 6 & 11). But seeking success in something other than waiting for God to produce an heir in His time and in His way turned out to be a disaster. They got results but not the ones that God had in mind. The same thing happens when we try to force fruit in missionary work instead to working faithfully and waiting for God’s fruit in God’s time. Sure, we may be busy and have lots of activity to report in our prayer letters, but is it what God would have us doing? Sometimes, it may not be. It may be just us filling time in order to feel like we are accomplishing something since nobody is professing faith in Christ or the church we are working with isn’t going anywhere fast.
The surprising fruit of discouragement
During the course of my doctoral research on the impact of theological modernism on the American Presbyterian Mission in Thailand, I ran into a fascinating example of discouragement leading missionaries to get involved in work that was less evangelistic and church-focused than they had originally intended to do. In the decades preceding World War II, conflict between so-called fundamentalism and modernism was producing a widening gulf between those who advocated evangelistic ministries and those who focused on educational and medical work. Among the American Presbyterians in Thailand, the focus was shifting heavily towards mission schools and hospitals such that by the 1930s, there were few full time missionary evangelists. Into the middle of this situation came Donald Grey Barnhouse, a fundamentalist-minded American Presbyterian preacher and radio show host. In 1934-35, Barnhouse made a world tour of American Presbyterian mission stations to find out if the social gospel and modernism were displacing evangelism and conservative theology among American Presbyterian missionaries, as had been rumored. In a conversation with Lucy Starling, head teacher of the girls school in Lampang province, Barnhouse noted Starling’s perspective on the real problem affecting the Siam (Thailand) Mission. According to Starling, It wasn’t conflict over theology but rather defeatism. As she saw it, discouragement over lack of evangelistic results was the main reason that the missionaries in Siam focused on schools and hospitals, not because of liberal theology or social gospel per se. Though there are surely more factors at play than mere discouragement in the decision of missionaries to shift their ministry focus, Starling’s answer helpfully illustrates one of the persistent challenges for missionaries in places where spiritual conversion and growth is slow to materialize. Barnhouse wrote,
‘The primary trouble in Siam, said Miss Starling, except in one or two cases, is not a difficulty of theology but a sort of defeatism.
The missionaries come out with a desire to spread Christianity. There is the first barrier of the language, the difference in the modes of living. Most of the missionaries came out to preach Christ, but there was so little response that the first fervor was soon spent.
The missionaries then turned to something they could see, tangible school building, hospital bricks, etc. I thought this rather a keen observation of the situation. In other words, the missionaries did not have the sufficient knowledge of vital regeneration and full surrender to the plan of God to stand in the place of loneliness and witness. They therefore turned to Christianizing the social order instead of keeping at the evangelization of the individual.’
(Excerpt from Donald Grey Barnhouse “Travel Notes”, January 11, 1935, RG480, Box 9, Folder 18, Barnhouse Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Penn.)
As highlighted in Lucy Starling’s observations (and Barnhouse’s comments on them), one of the most challenging aspects of missionary work is keeping going when nothing much seems to be happening. Obviously missionaries shouldn’t be sitting around and doing nothing, but the methodologically-driven, results-oriented nature of modern Western evangelicalism tempts missionaries to excessive introspection, often wondering if they are doing something wrong when they don’t see the results that they want in the timeframe they want. They hear about the great results that the same methods have produced elsewhere and wonder why they don’t see the same results.
There are surely many joys in missionary work, but sometimes the everyday ordinary of the missionary life can seem like drudgery. Certainly there is a place for reflection on whether or not we should be doing something differently, or re-evaluating an approach that doesn’t seem to be working. But sometimes, the answer to a lack of results in evangelism or discipleship isn’t changing anything we are doing, but turning (once again) in faith to God and asking Him to act. Like the Psalmist, we cry out, “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13). As Barnhouse indicated, missionaries need to understand God’s plan as revealed in Scripture and continually throw themselves upon Christ as their only hope personally and their only hope for the establishment of the kingdom of God. Sometimes innovation is good. But sometimes, as in the case of Abraham, innovation is bad and the right answer is to wait patiently and to keep doing what the Bible says God wants us to do, day in and day out. To borrow from Eugene Peterson, the missionary life is a long obedience in the same direction.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’
This blog post originally appeared on Karl’s excellent blog ‘The Gleanings of the Field’ and is shared here with permission.