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