The Winsome Missionary

Originally published at SI April 28, 2008. Some details have been updated.Handshake

What makes some missionaries such attractive candidates for support?

In the ten years I’ve served as a pastor, our church has met and heard presentations by many missionaries. Accounts of how God led them to faith in Christ and stirred their interest in missions have been a highlight of church life for us. Judging by the lobby chatter afterwards, our congregation has been repeatedly amazed to discover God’s power at work in places where we had no idea anything was happening.

But missionaries who have come through our church seeking support have left widely differing impressions on us. Some left us eager to support them (as best we could) and keenly interested in finding a way to do so. Others left us with a sense of unease about them and their future.

No doubt some of this difference can be explained by personality factors. Not everyone is blessed with electrifying charisma, and not everyone has the kind of plainspoken friendliness that resonates with our congregation’s sensibilities. But it hasn’t always been the talented speakers or gregarious conversationalists who have ignited us; nor has it always been the missionaries with the most dramatic results to report.

Rather, several other factors have consistently made some support-seeking missionaries an exciting prospect in our eyes.

1. Cultural Awareness

At Grace, attractive missionary prospects tend to be those who show an awareness of, interest in, and fondness for the culture of their field. Sadly, we have encountered more than a few who exhibited attitudes ranging from total indifference to borderline contempt.

The support prospects of these missionaries are not good. Many who hear these laborers’ presentations wonder why they are headed for fields that hold no special interest for them. Since people need the gospel everywhere, shouldn’t a missionary feel drawn to some of what makes the people of his field unique?

The culturally indifferent missionary is also less likely to endure on the field. Experienced missionaries tell me that adjustment to a new culture tends to happen in three phases. First, the charmed and delighted phase: “Isn’t it cute how they believe you should never pass a plate of food with your left hand?!” The second phase is annoyance and frustration: “These people with their strange ways are driving me nuts!” For those who make it through phase two, the adjustment phase follows: “I see good and bad in this culture. I’ll enjoy the good and live with the bad.”

When a missionary who has not even spent his first full term on a field shows indifference or contempt for the culture, you have to wonder what will happen when he reaches phase two.

2. A Positive Faith Attitude

“Positive faith attitude” is an expression I owe to a college professor of mine, Dr. Walter Fremont (now with the Lord). He didn’t just say it frequently (at least twice a class period, as I recall); he lived it. The term referred to an attitude of strong faith in, and focus on, what God is capable of doing.

This attitude is not presumption (“I know God will enable us to start four churches on our next term”) but rather anticipation (“God is going to work in lives. He could raise up four churches or more in our next term!”). The attitude is “positive” because of its focus. It is “faith” because of its content.

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (NKJV, Eph. 3:20-21)

I recall one missionary who came to Grace to present his vision several years ago. His focus was on the deplorable condition of the church in general and on what he saw as the declining quality of the Lord’s work around the world. He elaborated at length on the shrinking numbers of missionaries on the field and on the “lack of people on fire” in America. He was angry. Worse, he seemed to see the situation as dismal beyond remedy.

His lament was on target on several points. Surely we shouldn’t gloss over the weaknesses of today’s churches or the manpower shortage in foreign missions. But Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Where was this young missionary’s faith in an Almighty who is not restrained “from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6)?

I cannot speak for other churches, but the missionaries who have attracted our kinship at Grace have been those with eyes to see the good things God is doing through the churches. Like the apostle Paul, these “positive faith” missionaries have had praise and thanksgiving they were eager to express. They have also been full of anticipation for what God might do in their place of service.

3. Interest in Partnership

The most winsome missionaries to come through our church have also shown an interest in partnership. And well they should. Paul of Tarsus constantly spoke and wrote of partnership.

Just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:7-8)

Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again. (vv. 24-26).

To Paul, the Philippian church was more a supporting church than a mission church (see 4:10-16), yet he showed an acute interest not only in seeing them thrive but also in being in their company.

Similarly, the missionaries our church has found most attractive have been those keenly interested in us. Some have been almost as interested in Grace as in their own field. They asked about our struggles and triumphs, our philosophy of ministry, our perspective on the future. They wanted to know about our families and interests. They seemed to understand that we were prospective partners with them and that a good partnership requires some compatibility and some good old-fashioned friendship.

Our church is no deep-coffered, zillion-programmed megachurch. But our smallness means personal interest from visiting missionaries is even more appropriate simply because it’s easier. A missionary visiting a small church like Grace can easily connect with fifty percent of the body in the time before and after two services. Some have made that kind of connection, and they are always remembered when the missions committee sits down to talk about new partners to support.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 16 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture


Good post, or good repost. I would add one additional element. We are drawn to the missionaries who demonstrate an ability to preach/teach God's Word. If they can do that for us, we assume they will do so on their field of service. If they show little ability to open God's Word to us, why should we think they will do so on their field? It only takes a 15 minute message to demonstrate a capacity for teaching. We usually ask missionaries to include a 10-15 minutes message with their presentation.

In the bonds of Christ,

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture


Great point. Some missionaries are not in preaching roles, but pretty much all of them are in teaching roles, so evidence of really strong Bible and doctrine skills is huge--whether counseling, kid's ministry, or just about any long term role.
I do think short-term missions--as in the medical/dental mission team idea we posted an article about recently, for example--is different and offers great opportunities for folks at all levels of skill and maturity to lend a hand in some way and be a part of things.

Don Johnson's picture

When I saw your title, I was cringing inwardly... Where is he going with this one? I thought.

I would have to agree with you in the points you make, although not all churches/pastors have your viewpoint. In my deputation experience, we seemed to 'click' in some churches but not in others. Can't really tell why, for sure. Some pastors liked us but not the churches. (One of them went to another church and immediately recruited us as their first new missionary in some time.)

So it all remains a mystery to me...

But I think young missionaries would do well to heed your advice.

And to those who might answer my subject line with some crack like, 'Look in a mirror...' be assured, I have, and it ain't a pretty sight!

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture


If I'd written something longer--or just been having a sharper day--I think I would have included the caveat somewhere that I don't want to minimize the sovereignty of God in the process--that is, His agenda to partner certain churches with certain missionaries. Of course, God uses secondary causes, and these are sometimes easy to identify. But other times, how it works out is more mysterious.

So sometimes a candidate and a congregation are just not meant for each other and there is nothing anybody can put a finger on as to why it doesn't work out.
And similarly, some candidates are called to have a long grueling experience in getting to the field while others are chosen for a rapid rise to "100%."

I don't believe that in every case, particular qualities and choices of the missionaries can be identified as the causes of either a fastrack to full support or a slower course. But, at the same time, we're all responsible for our choices and sometimes it's fairly clear why somebody isn't doing so well.

The piece is just meant to encourage some reflection by missionary candidates as to where their heart is and how they're interacting with the churches.

Andrew Comings's picture

Every new missionary on deputation (and many of us "veteran" missionaries on furlough) need to heed your words. I was especially appreciative of your first point. There is a tendency on the part of missionaries to paint their target culture in the bleakest possible terms. This is a tragic mistake, as these attitudes often carry over to the mission field.

The nationals are very quick to pick up on this, and interpret everything we do as a slap in the face to their culture. Do we home school our kids? It must be because we think their education system is lacking. Do we promote Ron Hamilton and Anglo/American hymns in the churches? Well, obviously it is because we think the national music is inferior.

I am reminded of an ex-missionary to Brazil who, in speaking to a group of young people who were going to visit us on the field, said that "Brazilians are a very immoral people".

Really? As compared to whom? What right does an American have to sit in judgment on a nation where abortion is illegal and where we are free to preach the gospel in public schools?

Note to new missionaries: when people ask you what you like about the country (region) to which you are called, you better be able to come up with something besides the food and the weather.

Missionary in Brazil, author of "The Astonishing Adventures of Missionary Max" Online at:

Aaron Blumer's picture


Really? As compared to whom? What right does an American have to sit in judgment on a nation where abortion is illegal and where we are free to preach the gospel in public schools?

hard to argue with that... much as I'd like to Wink

The vast majority of missionaries we've heard from at Grace have been solid on the cultural point. They've mostly ranged from very good to fantastic. Once in a while I encounter one who is completely ambivalent about his particular field, as though he drew it from a hat. While I can't rule out that God might lead someone to a place without the missionary feeling any special affection for it, but seems like that should pretty exceptional.

A. Carpenter's picture

Please allow me to add in agreement - and ask 1 question.

1. "Cultural Awareness" - I like to talk with missionaries who know what's going on in their target culture. Most missionaries on deputation can procure internet access pretty easily, and The Economist is available online. So, when I ask if they have any thoughts about a recent political situation or national controversy, I get a little uneasy when I'm met with blank stares. (I have spoken with at least one missions board rep. about this problem.) I am not a missionary, and so I may be completely off-base here, but I would think that I would want to stay on top of what was going on in my target country. Similarly, if the missionary knows little of the predominant religions of his/her target area, I start to lose confidence in them. If they're going to Italy, I don't want to hear that they are going to wait to get on the field before learning about Catholicism.

2. "Positive Faith Attitude" - This one's important, but wouldn't you agree that there is a difference between this and naiveté? This might have something to do with ministry experience and, as you mentioned, the difference between presumption and anticipation. The young couple fresh out of college come across very differently from the man and wife who have served in the pastorate for 5 years. It's one thing to have a PFA when you honestly consider the difficulties as best you can; it's quite another when you haven't stopped to imagine what some of those difficulties might be. One recent missionary visitor told us of how they planned to show the natives a better (American) way of doing things, confident that the Lord would use this to open a door to share the Gospel.

3. "Interest in Partnership" - I know that I am more motivated to support and pray for the missionaries that are interested in our church. I know that not everyone is outgoing and charismatic, but sitting on the front pew during the 15 minutes before the service starts is not the best. And if you've got kids - put 'em to good use! One friend of mine raised support very quickly, and though I know the Lord blessed him specially, he also had his 3 yr. old son passing out prayer cards before each church service.

(4.) "Preaching" - I don't know how other pastors feel about this, but I don't really need to hear a mission sermon from a missionary. I mean, preach what the Holy Spirit leads, but if the pastor isn't leading the church to be more missions-minded, it's doubtful that one sermon by a guest missionary is going to get the job done. If I actually ask the missionary to preach, I want to know that he can expound the Word of God. (Maybe I'm wrong, but if I've asked him to preach, I've tried to establish already that he can do this.) It's got to be tough being a missionary on deputation - some churches are looking for topical messages that stray far from the text, and others are looking for solid exposition.

Here's the question:

Is it misguided for a church to predetermine where to channel its missions support? For example, I would like to see us supporting more missionaries to the 10/40 window and other unreached peoples, but so many of the missionaries on deputation are headed to countries where American missionaries have been planting churches for generations. Maybe this is better discussed under a thread devoted to missions philosophy, but for me, the "winsome missionary" is the one that can help provide a rationale for sending another American missionary to his chosen field.

Faith is obeying when you can't even imagine how things might turn out right.

Aaron Blumer's picture


2. "Positive Faith Attitude" - This one's important, but wouldn't you agree that there is a difference between this and naiveté?

Yes. You pretty much answered this one yourself but... impossible to be naive about what God can do. Very possible to be naive about what He will do.

Is it misguided for a church to predetermine where to channel its missions support? ... for me, the "winsome missionary" is the one that can help provide a rationale for sending another American missionary to his chosen field.

I don't think it's misguided. But that's just my opinion. Personally, I would not be closed minded about a missions effort to a place that already has "alot" from our point of view, but I would expect a missionary headed there to have given that a good bit of thought and be able to articulate a good answer to that question. It's not a bad question.
But I may not be a good one to ask because I'm not convinced that God's plan for evangelizing people is anything like any strategy we would come up with. It's perfectly logical to focus resources on the 10/40 window, but has God ever directed His servants in ways that did not seem logical? Pretty sure I can think of a few times (how about founding the church using 12 guys and only training them for 3.5 years in the midst of a turbulent environment where powerful people want to kill their Leader? Strategically speaking, it would have made more "sense" for Jesus to stick around for another 30 years and organize a university).

But I'm kind of rambling. I'm all for strategy. We just have to not worship it.

Becky Petersen's picture

I know that I'm not alone because we've talked with other missionaries about this, but maybe you can explain why sometimes everything seems to have a wonderful time at the church and had the feeling that the church did too--and nothing--no support, no contact, etc. Other times, you feel like the service went flat and certainly they wouldn't take you on for support and wow, they decide to support you.

Too many times it is politics. The missionary who doesn't play politics is almost dead in the water.

Using the three year old to pass out prayer cards is fine, but it certainly has little to do with being a great missionary, but everything to do with cute appeal--like the presidential candidate who shakes hands and hugs babies.

IMO, too much of missions money goes to the effective fund raiser and too often has little to do with spirit led decisions from the churches.

We just pray for wisdom from the churches. A man may be a pure professional in the pulpit, winsome and expert at raising money and can little appeal and work with people who are poor, etc.

Aaron Blumer's picture


but maybe you can explain why sometimes everything seems to click...

One answer is in post #5... the ultimate one.
But there can be lots of reasons why the scenario you've described would happen. For one, the missionary's impression of "how it went" is simply not the same has his/her real impact on the people. I see this all the time in preaching. Sometimes I feel like a message was a flop only to hear someone refer to it in a meaningful way weeks or months later. Leaves me scratching my head.
But this can happen on the positive side as well. Everything "clicks" but nothing comes of it. Why? Well in the case of our church, there are more really good missionaries we'd love to support than we have resources to support them with. By a large margin!

Too many times it is politics. The missionary who doesn't play politics is almost dead in the water.

I wouldn't know. I've never been involved anywhere where politics (I assume you mean internal church politics or fundamentalist movement politics?) was a factor at all.

IMO, too much of missions money goes to the effective fund raiser and too often has little to do with spirit led decisions from the churches.

This is possible, I suppose, but again, has not been my experience unless "effective fund raisers" means people of the sort I've described in the article. I'm not sure what would distinguish an effective fund raiser from a missionary who is passionate, well informed and energetic about forming connections with the local churches.

On the three year old... it actually does have something to do with it I think. Or could, at least. It suggests several things a) creative energy in accomplishing ministry goals, b) a serious intention to involve his entire family in the work, c) closely related to b: a little bit more likelihood that they're in this for the long haul (imagine what an important role that 3 yr old might have on the team when he's 13!), d) a real desire to be remembered by the local church.

About "Spirit led decisions": sometimes folks get to thinking that decisions are either based on reasons or they are led by Spirit. I don't believe this is how the Spirit normally works. All the calls to wisdom are still in the Bible. So when we're Spirit led, we can usually still point to solid reasons for the decision.

A. Carpenter's picture

I'd agree with Aaron's answer about perception. I'd also add that you don't know who's praying for you. I realize that from a practical standpoint, you're out there to raise financial support. But I actually believe the missionaries who tell me that prayer support is far more important to them. (Maybe I shouldn't, but I hate to be that cynical.) We try to make every missionary feel welcome and to show an interest in their work. Honestly, there are people who would show an interest if you were planting a church in Atlanta, and there are others who wouldn't stick around at the display table if you were going to Gliese 581g. So, I hope every missionary that visits us feel like things "clicked." But we don't support every missionary that visits us, though we try to give them a generous love offering to help them on their way.

Anyway, missionaries today are sending their prayer letters by email to anyone who signs up, and I pray for more missionaries than we support. I may not write to them or send them a check (perhaps I should), but I am remembering them before the throne.

(We're an independent Baptist church - politics has nothing to do with anything. Smile )

Faith is obeying when you can't even imagine how things might turn out right.

Becky Petersen's picture

I wouldn't know. I've never been involved anywhere where politics (I assume you mean internal church politics or fundamentalist movement politics?) was a factor at all.

I'm glad to hear it. What I'm talking about is a sort of "good ole' boy system" but in churches. It's there--it exists. (It doesn't just exist among the "old fundamentalists" either. It tends to be where pastors are friends with each other--it is more or less a normal phenomenon.) When a man who has been a pastor and has a lot of friends can raise support in 4 hours on the phone (like the notorious Bob Gray did, as I heard it,) I'm a little skeptical that that was spirit-led missions giving.

I'm glad if friends of friends, etc. have nothing to do with your church's missions giving, Aaron, and that you evaluate each missionary candidate/couple on their own basis.

Actually the person who first verbalized that often missionaries are chosen by how they look and how spiffy their presentations was a pastor challenging his people to seriously consider who the Lord would have them support.

As to using the missionary kids--I have no problem with doing it. But it would be pretty easy to do it for the wrong reasons--using a 3-year-old to pass out prayer cards is, well, suspicious to me. Wink Doing it to make an impression on the churches is the wrong reason, IMO. Using your 8-10 year-old to do it, well, that is great training.

(Would you expect a man who is candidating for a pastorate to have his 3-year-old doing such a thing?)

Our kids have done the whole gamut. We've sung, we've met with different age groups, we've mingled, etc. You do feel like you're a salesman trying to sell yourself. It does get wearisome. Mostly, I pray that churches will actively seek the Lord's will and not simply look for an impressive young couple.

I know I maybe sound like I'm anti-good presentation. Hardly. I've been amazed at how "bad" some are that I've seen (one in particular sticks in my mind when during the missions conference the young man got up and said that none of his pictures came out from his trip to the target country so he had nothing to show! My husband and I decided that if that had happened to us, we would have done some photographing of some encyclopedia pages, written friends for slides as this was in the day before digital photography, etc.--he never did make it to the mission field and we weren't surprised as he came across as totally without a real burden for the country).

But, I'm just trying to play the devil's advocate here...and that is that you seek the Lord's will in the matter and not just look for all the right points--a handsome young man, a beautiful young wife and more-spiritual-than-normal kids (and usually more talented, of course--as they can sing!). There are many times that a person says one thing during his presentation and reality is something quite different---even if he's done all his homework ahead of time.

IMO, the ideal missionary candidate is:
One who is spiritually-minded, flexible, creative (as that will probably be needed in outreach), has a servant's heart (humble), reasonably intelligent, hard-working and willing to be a learner.

Just to clarify....we have a great group of supporting churches! They are wonderful and I enjoy visiting them! I wish we could get back to visit them more often than we have...

Jennifer Wilson's picture

I remember a presentation from a missionary who didn't speak very well or come across as very eloquent or charismatic--and he admitted it, right off the bat. But he was the most earnest, humble man. I think he was raising support to work maintenance at a camp or something. He wasn't that "showstopper" of a missionary, but his heart was so evident!! I can't think of a missionary who's touched my heart more.

Susan R's picture


I get it, Becky- there are times when it seems that missionaries are required to have The Package- a good looking and multi-talented family. The perception is that the American Idol method has seeped into some churches- quite a few, in my experience. I saw a family not long ago whose kids who performed a song in ASL. "What's wrong with that?" you might ask. Well, it felt like it was for the Ooh-Aah factor, because not only was the signing all wrong, but the family wasn't ministering to the Deaf or Hard of Hearing, the kids didn't know any sign language except for the song itself, and had no intention of furthering their understanding of ASL. Perhaps the person who taught them to sign didn't do so correctly, but even so- why learn something for a performance when you aren't going to use it in your ministry? I can tell you this much- if any Deaf had been in the congregation and seen that performance and understood what was being done, they'd have been very, VERY offended.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Well, now I'm playing devil's advocate on my own article but... have to share that a couple of the missionaries our church supports did not make a very positive impression on me the first time we met (the church was already supporting them when we came).
But I've since come to see all them as excellent servants.

So... I don't want to sound like I'm for a "first impression is everything" kind of approach.

[Warning... topic drift ]
@Susan: -but sign-singing is so cool! It's a great excuse to move your body without "dancing in church"! (I'm mostly being ironic, but I do find it fascinating. We did one of those in VBS years ago--as opposed to just "motions"--and I'm pretty sure we botched the signs, too. But it was pretty, um, nifty. Note to self: find verse that says nifty is good in worship. Maybe try The Message version.)

Susan R's picture


Aaron Blumer wrote:
[Warning... topic drift ]
@Susan: -but sign-singing is so cool! It's a great excuse to move your body without "dancing in church"! (I'm mostly being ironic, but I do find it fascinating. We did one of those in VBS years ago--as opposed to just "motions"--and I'm pretty sure we botched the signs, too. But it was pretty, um, nifty. Note to self: find verse that says nifty is good in worship. Maybe try The Message version.)

As a volunteer interpreter, I sign-sing all the time, and it is WAY too much fun. I sign all the time- and annoy my husband terribly when I try to sign the songs I hear in the grocery store or the Mall. It's good practice though- and I'm still totally stumped as to how one would sign the song "Brick House".

The problem I had with this missionary presentation was the feeling that the sign-singing was for the Cute Factor, because the kids didn't understand what they were signing and there was not going to be any effort to continue to learn ASL. Their ministry was not to the Deaf, so the sing-signing seemed to be so disconnected from the rest of the presentation.

However, the ministry they presented would be one I felt very motivated to support, regardless of this one part of their presentation. I don't want to come across as being so critical of this one little thing that it would 'disqualify' them in my mind. However, since we are talking about the marketing or 'cuteness' aspect of missionary presentations, it seemed applicable.

I think it's great when we teach kids to sign-sing and also to help them memorize Scripture- but the primary reason to teach sign is so that we can communicate with the Deaf. We need to take into consideration that how we use sign language will greatly affect our ability to minister to the Deaf. The Deaf have a culture of their own, and consider ASL to be their native language- they would not have thought the aforementioned missionary presentation to be cute at all. If there had been Deaf visiting that night, we'd be lucky if they ever came back. How we use ASL can either reach the Deaf or alienate them completely. Word to the wise.

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