What does it take to be a missionary?
Before we look at what it takes to be a missionary, maybe we should define that person. With the increase around the world in bi-vocational missions and business for transformation (B4T), along with other expressions of kingdom work, the lines are sometimes blurred as to just who are cross-cultural kingdom workers (CCKWs).
Here is a working definition for this post:
A “missionary” is a person who leaves their home culture to live in a different culture and focus on kingdom growth as a product, or byproduct, of their ministry, work, and/or life.
Looking at it another way, it’s doing in another culture what you are now doing for the kingdom in your home culture. Now, that doesn’t sound too hard, but in reality, it is! Are you cut out for it??
The following are characteristics found in effective CCKWs. This is not a complete list and, for sure, no one has it going on in all areas.
Missionaries aren’t perfect superheroes – They’re ordinary, weak people who serve a great Father. Keep in mind that kingdom work is a God enterprise, and he has told us that “in our weakness his perfect power is shown!” (2 Cor 12:9).
Missionaries must be certain that God wants them to follow him to another culture. You have to be so certain that you are willing to ask others to be financial partners in the effort, in most cases! Kingdom work is needed in all cultures, even your home culture, but crossing cultures requires a “calling” that goes beyond what most believers experience. In asking Moses to go back to Egypt and face almost certain death, God went to great lengths to give him certainty… burning bush, staff to snake… you remember the story! Raising support is kind of like “almost certain death!” (just kidding!!)
Most CCKWs are self-starters, though at varying levels. Kingdom work doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to go after it. You may have a refugee family in your neighborhood who needs to receive Jesus’ love and you may want that to happen but at some point you are going to have to take a first step and introduce yourself. The need for initiative is the same for kingdom work in all cultures!
Rarely do great results happen on the first attempt at anything. Most successful people will tell you that the road to success is found through failure. Kingdom work is no exception. If you think working for the kingdom is hard in your own culture, doing it cross-culturally is harder. Language and cultural differences force you to think and work outside any “box” that you have developed. Finding your cross-cultural “sweet spot” takes persistence!
There is nothing more humbling than feeling like you can only communicate at a two-year-old level, even after being in the new culture for some time. You just want to shout, “I’m an adult! I have a Masters in Education!” Language is only the beginning. One worker left a team event meant to welcome her in tears because her new teammates seemed to do nothing except tease her about being single. What she learned later was that teasing was a form of endearment in that culture. They were trying to tell her that they loved and accepted her for who she was. She certainly did not receive that message! You have to succeed in getting over yourself if you are to succeed as a CCKW.
If things have to be a certain way for you to succeed in life, maybe you should not consider cross-cultural work. One thing that seems to be present in most CCKWs is the ability to go with the flow. No one comes to a new country with this skill perfected, and it applies in transitioning to both developing cultures and “first world” cultures. Adapting to a different culture requires flexibility. Things that are not flexible eventually break!
6. Passion for the Kingdom
What gets you through the difficult things is a passion for people and seeing the kingdom grow. You don’t have to be in “front line” work for this to be important. Maybe the skill you are bringing relates to caring for CCKWs as a counselor, so the majority of your work relates to people from your own culture who are struggling. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a passion for the kingdom. It means you know that kingdom growth happens best through healthy workers and your commitment is to do your best to see that they are.
7. Lifelong Learning
An attitude of being a learner is helpful in all areas of life and in all cultures, but it is critical when you are trying to live and work in a culture different from the one in which you were raised. No matter how long you live in that new culture, there will be new things to learn about it and its people. This is a little bit like marriage. You can live your lifetime with one person and still not know all there is to know about them. Learn to be a lifelong learner!
Related to persistence, resilience is the ability to recover from and adapt to change, and usually change that brings hurt with it. Persistence relates to keeping at a project despite failure; it’s something external. Resilience relates to inner strength and confidence. A different culture is going to batter you emotionally. You will face the need to change on all sides. To survive and – in time – thrive in a new culture you have to be able to bounce back emotionally from the impact of change.