Where Are the Missionaries?
Never have there been so many incredible opportunities for missionary work worldwide, yet there are tens of thousands of vacancies waiting to be filled on the mission field today. The harvest has never been so large—and the workers are frustratingly few.
Finding suitable missionary volunteers has never been easy—nor is it likely to get any easier. Missionary service demands dedication, determination and discipline—and these qualities are basically rejected by the television generation.
Every mission leader I know has had to grapple with an almost crippling shortage of staff and a serious shortage of long- term commitment. The increasing attrition rate of first-term mission volunteers leaving the field is destabilizing missionary endeavors worldwide.
Most church goers today are secular in their mindset and lifestyle. They have few convictions, more questions than answers. They are reluctant to make long-term commitments. Our society is existential (concerned primarily about my own personal experience, now!). This throw-away, disposable culture is short-sighted, cynical and short of faith and vision for the future. Our present generation has become selfish, sloppy, soft, spoiled and self-indulgent, unaccustomed to personal sacrifice, unwilling to endure hardship, and unlikely to exhibit loyalty to any mission, devotion to duty or courage in the face of danger.
Bill Bathman—a missionary who has devoted over 35 years to serving the persecuted churches in Eastern Europe—put it this way: "It’s not that Christians in the West aren’t willing to suffer persecution for Christ—they just don’t want to be inconvenienced!"
In this computer age our technological advantages over previous generations of missionaries is astounding. Instead of weeks of travel by boat and months by oxcart and on foot, today we can literally reach almost any location in the world within a few days by aircraft, trains and four-wheel-drive vehicles. The advent of radio, computers, desktop publishing, photocopiers and fax machines have made communications, Bible translations and literature production incredibly accessible to all.
Also medical advances now mean that missionaries to West and Central Africa are not being sent to almost certain death. Malaria once made Africa the missionaries’ graveyard—whole families perished planting the Gospel in this continent. The life expectancy of a missionary to Africa was 8 years and to West Africa was 2 years. Some died within 3 months after arriving. Missionary to Uganda, Alexander Macay, expressed the single-minded determination common to nineteenth-century volunteers:
I want to remind the committee that within six months they will probably hear that one of us is dead. But ... when that news comes, do not be cast down, but send someone else immediately to take the vacant place.
Within 3 months one was dead. Within a year two more had perished. Within 2 years Mackay was the only one of their missionaries left alive in Uganda. He actually survived 12 years. Rowland Bingham, a missionary to Nigeria vowed:
I will open Africa to the Gospel or die trying.
Yet such devotion to duty is extremely rare today. With all our technological advantages we still lag far behind the nineteenth-century missionaries in terms of actual effectiveness. It’s not that we lack the tools, but the tenacity. Inventions are a poor substitute for integrity, initiative and innovation. Computers cannot make up for a loss of character. We have lots of programs, but it is persistence and perseverance which fulfill the Great Commission.
Listen to these voices from the past, from missionaries who backed up their words with their lives:
Nate Saint, a missionary pilot who was killed by the Auca Indians to whom he was ministering in Ecuador, wrote:
The way I see it, we ought to be willing to die. In the military, we were taught that to obtain our objectives we had to be willing to be expendable. Missionaries must face that same expendability.
C. T. Studd, the famous cricketer turned pioneer missionary to China, India and the Congo, declared:
If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.
Another missionary put it this way:
Our God bids us first build a cemetery before we build a church or dwelling house, showing us that the resurrection of Africa must be effected by our own destruction.
Johan Krapf, missionary to East Africa, lost his wife and two children within months of arriving in Africa. He wrote:
Though many missionaries may fall in the fight, yet the survivors will pass over the slain into the trenches and take this great African fortress for the Lord.
Sadhu Sundar Singh, missionary to Tibet, declared:
I must obey my Master and preach His gospel, regardless of the threats or suffering.
Henry Martyn, missionary to India and Persia, wrote:
To all appearance the present year will be more perilous than any I have seen, but if I live to complete the Persian New Testament, my life after that will be of less importance.
Elizabeth Freeman, missionary to India, declared:
I hope you will be a missionary wherever your lot is cast ... it makes but little difference after all where we spend these few fleeting years, if they are only spent for the glory of God. Be assured there is nothing else worth living for.
These are the inspiring words of Christians whom God used in wonderful ways. Their positive impact upon their world was incalculable. They literally affected the course of history. Not because of what they said, but because they put feet to their faith. As William Shakespeare said: "action is eloquence." Our actions are, in fact, the best interpreters of our thoughts and priorities.
Where can we find such Christian volunteers today? Or more to the point—how can we produce such self-sacrificing disciples in our churches?
If the church at the end of the twentieth century truly wants to obey the Great Commission, we must produce tens of thousands of such disciples. To effectively evangelize the entire Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist populations in the final missionary frontier we will need an army of dedicated disciples. They will need to be like the missionary volunteers who made the nineteenth century the greatest time of missionary advance and revival in history. And the prayer support base that sends them out will need to be just as dedicated.
What Kind of Disciples Does the Mission Field Demand?
An effective missionary needs to be a person who diligently studies the Bible to discover God’s will and who is determined to obey it. Obedience is the best commentary on the Bible and as Martin Luther stated: "I had rather obey than work miracles!"
From this foundation of prayerful study of God’s Word needs to develop true Christian character. This cannot be hastily done. Steadfast Christian character is the product of years of prayer and Bible study and the cultivated habit of responding to God’s Word in repentance, faith and obedience. It involves a teachable heart and a willingness to accept rebuke and discipline. This is absolutely essential in missionary service because of the difficult tasks required, in the often harsh climates and inhospitable terrains, with the inevitable cross-cultural confusions and misunderstandings, mistakes and failures are inevitable. Resolving interpersonal disputes, overcoming obstacles and enduring criticisms are all part of our job description.
The measure of a person’s real character is how he works when no one is watching. Referring to temptation, C. H. Spurgeon advised: "Learn to say: "No’," It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin." If you choose an act, you create a habit, if you create a habit, you shape a character. If you shape a character, you determine a destiny. As D. L. Moody said: "If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself."
And one of the marks of Christian character is integrity—the unshakeable commitment to be true to one’s word. This is important because missions is built upon relationships of trust. We have a sacred trust to honor—with God, the churches and supporters who send us out and those to whom we are sent. There must never be any doubt that you as a Christian missionary will be true to your word, keep your promises and fulfill all your obligations.
There is no doubt in my mind that a missionary volunteer’s attitude is far more important than his abilities—or apparent lack of them. We all have preconceived notions of just what type of person will succeed in missions—yet time and again God surprises us and challenges us by using some of the most unlikely candidates in the most unexpected ways. The only common denominator is—a willing volunteer with a positive attitude! I have seen many talented, gifted, promising people—with impressive resumes«—fail and give up. And I know of many others—with far less apparent ability—persevere and overcome disappointments, delays, discomfort, defeats and difficulties to succeed!
There is a major difference in people; the big difference is whether their attitude is positive or negative! As Leo Tolstoy wrote: "We lost because we told ourselves we lost." Peter Daniels often challenges his audiences: "If you think you can or you can’t—you’re right!"
Pessimists will not make the most effective missionaries—certainly they wouldn’t be very happy in the uncertain and difficult situations which so often prevail in the field. Pessimists have a problem for every solution. A pessimist is one who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both. How we steadily and habitually think—that is what we tend to become. Negative people feel trapped by the past and helplessly look backwards at what might have been. Positive people feel inspired by the future and confidently look forward to what can be accomplished.
There are always many reasons why a certain task cannot be done. Those who succeed are those who are willing to learn, to work hard, to adapt, innovate and persevere to overcome all obstacles to complete their mission. This requires an inspiring vision of what God wants done and an optimistic attitude towards how God could use even me—in spite of myself—to accomplish his will (2 Cor. 3:5). The Bible-reading Christian must eventually become an optimist: "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).
An essential aspect of a missionary’s job description is a willingness to endure opposition and criticism. In fact, it would be very helpful if missionaries were sensitive enough to hear the still, small voice of God’s guidance while learning to adapt to foreign cultures, and thick-skinned enough to be unaffected by either flattery or unjustified criticism (the latter is far more common)! A willingness to submit to authority and an openness to receive rebuke and criticism is essential. However, one also needs to discern between constructive and destructive criticism. As C. T. Studd said: "Had I cared for the comments of people, I should never have been a missionary." Of his time in China, Studd wrote: "For five years we never went outside our doors without a volley of curses from our neighbors." To cope with such hostility, a sense of humor is essential—as is seen in these examples. John Paton, missionary to New Hebrides, related the following:
Amongst many who sought to deter me, was one dear old Christian gentleman, whose crowning argument always was, ‘The Cannibals! you will be eaten by Cannibals! ‘At last I replied, ‘Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms’.
Robert Morrison, missionary to China, was confronted by a man who contemptuously chided him:
Now, Mr. Morrison, do you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatry of the Chinese empire?’ ‘No sir,’ responded Morrison, ‘but I expect that God will!
C. T. Studd, missionary to the Congo, presented this parable:
Remember the miller’s donkey ... the miller, his son and donkey went to the market. The miller rode the donkey all the way and people exclaimed, "Cruel man, riding himself and making his son walk." So he got down and his son rode; then people slanged, "What a lazy son for riding while his poor old father walks." Then both father and son rode, and people then said, "Cruelty to animals, poor donkey." So they got down and carried the donkey on a pole, but folks said, "Here are two asses carrying another ass." Then all three walked and people said, ‘What fools to have a donkey and not ride it.’ So let’s go ahead with our work for God and not care what folks say.
Of course, those who endeavor to submit to Bible college or theological training and apply to join a mission will be told by well-meaning relatives and friends that they are wasting their lives. Nate Saint’s response to this should be our own:
And people who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives ... and when the bubble has burst they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.
David Brainerd, the eigtheenth century missionary to North American Indians, declared:
As long as I see anything to be done for God, life is worth living; but O, how vain and unworthy it is to live for any lower end!
Many reading this article may feel inadequate to follow in the footsteps of such pioneers. It is worth remembering that none of them felt either worthy or capable in and of himself. However, he was willing to learn and trusted in God’s power, not his own. Gladys Aylward, missionary to China, expressed her view in this way:
I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China ... I don’t know who it was ... It must have been a man ... a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he wasn’t willing ... And God looked down ... and saw Gladys Aylward ... And God said—‘Well, she’s willing!’
Isobel Kuhn, missionary to China, issued the following challenge:
I believe that (in) each generation God has ‘called’ enough men and women to evangelize all the yet unreached tribes of the earth ... everywhere I go, I constantly meet with men and women who say to me, "When I was young I wanted to be a missionary, but I got married instead." Or, "My parents dissuaded me," or some such thing. No, it is not God who does not call. It is man who will not respond.
Which raises the point: Over 80% of all missionaries today are women. Where are all the men? What kind of army sends its women into the frontline of battle? Financial considerations, family responsibilities and career demands no doubt play a major role in preoccupying men, and their personal involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission seems to be "Mission Impossible"!
However, this need not be so. If our congregations would truly make missions a priority, then the financial constraints that hold back so many eager volunteers would be swept away. Less than 10% of evangelical churches have any mission programs at all. Less than 1% of total church income is spent on foreign missions! If churches would set aside at least 10% of their budget to support missionaries, and especially those sent out from their own congregation, then literally thousands more volunteers could be mobilized!
It is a sad commentary on the average congregation that more is spent on carpets, heaters and parking lots than allocated for fulfilling the Great Commission.
There are so very many ways to serve the Lord in missions today: Bible translations, radio broadcasts, medical work, church planting, literature evangelism, education, administration and so on.
We need teachers and technicians, preachers and printers, computer programmers and church planters, artists and artisans, Bible teachers and brick layers, and many more. You will not need to worry about "an opening"—there are thousands of kilometers of opening and you can take your choice as to where you will establish yourself.
But you may ask: What constitutes a call?
The harvest truly is plentiful but the laborers are few. (Matt 9:37)
Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
The Love of Christ:
The love of Christ constrains us, because .... One died for all ... (2 Cor. 5:14)
The Will of God:
The Lord ... is not willing that any should perish but that all could come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The Great Commission:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded. (Matt 28:18-20)
All Christians must pray, most can give, some can go. We must all serve God somewhere. Whether we are called to go across the street or across the world—our mission is the same—to make disciples ... teaching obedience.