Three Reasons You Should Not be a Missionary… At Least Not Yet

Over the last several years of my life, I have had the privilege to meet many missionaries, both on the field and headed to the field. When I was a missionary, I trained with a large group of people who all felt called to go live overseas. As a pastor now, our church is blessed to have a dozen couples and singles on the field with dozens more in the pipeline. And of course, I work in the missions center at a seminary that prepares hundreds to go overseas.

By God’s grace, I get to watch this process happen over and over again.

Because of that, I have some cautions for you. If you are thinking about going overseas, you need to consider a few things in discerning your call. Pastor, if you have people who want to go (and you should), you need to be looking for these things in their hearts. We need many more people to serve overseas as missionaries, but the truth is, not everyone should. Not everyone is ready, and not everyone has the right motivation.

Piper’s famous line about missions rings true, “Missions exists because worship does not.” Let that sink in. That’s the reason we go. There are many reasons we could go, and none of them are as important as Piper’s. The end goal of missions is to make the name of Christ known where it once was not, to have worshippers where there were none. Multiplying worshippers is an intrinsically others-oriented goal. It is concerned with the desires of God and the salvation of the lost. It is least concerned with self. But, it is surprisingly easy to let other motivations ground your going.

The following are three reasons for doing missions that fall short but often disguise themselves as Christ-centered.

Don’t go if you’re just looking for an adventure.

This one is perhaps the easiest to spot in your own heart, but it is a deceptive reason. Romanticizing the call to overseas missions is an easy thing to do. We often, perhaps too often, put missionaries up on pedestals in the Christian vernacular. And the stories of their work sound daring, and the places they go sound exotic. Alongside this, there is a real wanderlust in the younger ranks of our churches today. With the rise of short-term missions (a good thing, by the way), a potential downside is whisking people away to some foreign place for just long enough to think it is exciting.

Truth is, if you are looking for an adventure, be a tourist. Do not be a missionary. No matter how exotic your field of service may seem in the beginning, it will eventually become the new normal. Trust me, I used to live in a hut in a village in the jungle. Sound exciting? It was, for about a month. After that, it was just my house.

More problematic is the fact that adventure-seekers have a bigger motivation than multiplying worshippers. Sure, that might accidentally happen, but their goal is centered on self. A word of advice, if the real reason you want to go is excitement, then do not ask organizations or churches to pay for your travels.

Don’t go if you’re not sharing the gospel here.

If you are not willing to share the gospel here, then you will not do it there. Every missionary candidate at my church hears me make that statement. In fact, I inform them that we will not be comfortable sending them unless we see them regularly sharing here first.

Transformation by aviation is not a thing. You do not magically become an evangelist or church planter by transporting yourself through the air into a Muslim country. However, I see this one a lot. People know that they should share the gospel, and they just do not do it here. So, the logic is that moving to the mission field will make them one. Unfortunately, this is bad logic. If anything, it is harder to share the gospel where there are language and culture barriers, especially if it is also potentially illegal.

Don’t go if you’re dealing with sin issues you want to escape.

This one is the rarest, I believe, but it does occur. Periodically, I will see someone who is struggling with certain sin or character issues in their life and they think the “medicine” they need to overcome it is moving to the mission field. Let me be clear on this point, if you think that moving to India or Africa will help you overcome pornography, you are wrong. I pick on pornography because it is such a common struggle, but this is true of a number of regular sin issues. There is often this mistaken idea when it comes to sin, that you can just start over somewhere new and the problems will stay in the old place. We talk about needing a change of scenery, but sin resides in the heart, not your bedroom.

In fact, persistent sin issues will always follow you to the field. They are harder to deal with there, because the stress you experience is higher. Missionaries find that their weaknesses at home are only bigger on the field.

 

All three of these reasons point to one overarching issue: character. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus saying, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1). Yes, we need more missionaries. And yes, you need to search your heart and determine if you are one. But Godly character must come before the plane ticket.

 

8 Comments

  1. “Unfortunately, this is bad logic. If anything, it is harder to share the gospel where there are language and culture barriers, especially if it is also potentially illegal.”

    As a long-time worker and in Muslim areas, I have to disagree with this statement. I had a tough time sharing the gospel while in my home country, although I did do it a little bit. But then when I moved to a Muslim country and got started fumbling around in a new language and culture, I became a different person! I started eagerly sharing the gospel all over the place constantly. I found myself engaging whole restaurants full of people, and packs of students, pouring out the good news. If I had stayed back in my home country until I would have figured out how to be a great evangelist, I would have never left. (And 100s of people probably would have never heard)

    Before I left, I actually had someone close to me tell me I shouldn’t go down this path, because they could clearly see that I wasn’t gifted with evangelism. But I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t shake the burning desire to go and tell others.

    1. When we get into a really dark, unreached place, God is eager to reveal himself. So evangelism becomes a lot easier. It’s kind of like God blowing on one tiny coal in the midst of a pile of dead wood.

    2. Many of these unreached people groups, in my experience, are super friendly and much more eager to talk about spiritual things, so sharing the gospel becomes a lot more natural.

    February 15, 2016
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    • Keelan Cook said:

      Thanks for the response and praise God for what he has done in your life. It’s always encouraging to hear when he works on people.

      I will say, blogs force you to speak in generalizations because of the length. I’m sure there are individuals that cut against the grain of my point here, although it still holds sound as a general rule. I also served in a Muslim area, and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve seen who did not have these character issues in place prior to going and got better at them by going. I’ve watched people bring a lot of pain on themselves and their families by not taking seriously these character issues and trying to dive off into ministry anyway.

      God sanctifies, and he is the one who shapes the heart. He can use circumstances to do that as he chooses, but the repeated refrain of Paul (and the other NT writers) is that these character and conduct issues are vital… and if a change occurs, it wasn’t because someone moved, it’s because God did a work in their heart.

      Again, thanks for chiming in! I’m encouraged to hear that you’ve served well.

      February 16, 2016
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  2. Eric W said:

    Thanks for these reminders!

    Totally agree with your point about “If you’re not sharing the gospel here…don’t go there”

    A different, yet related, question is about where people feel relationally comfortable. There are Americans who, for lack of a better term, can be “socially awkward” in regards to other Americans. But when you get them with people from other cultures…some of those subtle social cues that these “socially awkward” people struggle with or don’t pick up on are less of a relational barrier between themselves and the other person.

    Still fitting with your point, though, we encourage these people to pour themselves out with the internationals who are here. When we do that…we do often see them thrive in this context…where they may not thrive as much relating to other Americans. Then we’re more confident sending them.

    (side note though…occasionally, missions-minded people or internationals-minded people occasionally can get a reputation of “those people who can’t make it with Americans, go reach the nations” or the flip side “those who are good at reaching Americans shouldn’t go overseas because they’re good here”…that’s a much longer conversation though).

    Would love your thoughts or even another post in the future about issues related to this.

    Thanks!

    February 16, 2016
    Reply
    • Keelan Cook said:

      Great point here! Real glad you brought this one up, because it does relate to this post.

      You’re right that some people seem to have a knack in certain cultures when it comes to relating and evangelizing. I have a guy at my church who just struggles relating to Americans a lot of times. And, he often finds better relationships with internationals here in the states. That being said, I think it is important to draw a distinction between obedience and “success” on sharing the gospel. It needs to be clear when we talk about people needing to share here before they go that it is really obedience. This young man at our church regularly shares the gospel, even when it it is awkward for him, because that is obedience… And it’s big enough news he wants to share it!

      And I agree with you that we often have a stereotype develop about sending people who can’t cut it here to the nations. That’s silly, in my opinion, but it’s there.

      February 16, 2016
      Reply
  3. Aaron said:

    A lot of truth here as I’m sitting in Senegal reading this feeling convicted in some of these. Thanks for the post and sharing!

    February 16, 2016
    Reply
  4. Thanks for your excellent points. We’ve served in Italy for 30+ years, and have seen many, many missionaries come and go. We’ve seen precious people God has used, but also many “disasters”. I think your points, as generalities, are right on. My prayer is that churches will take to heart the vital importance of very actively helping prepare people, and of being very involved in the process of going. I would add that a person needs to have a solid walk with Christ, and if married, a solid marriage, before going to the field. One needs to clearly recognize his or her weaknesses, and be actively fighting against character sins.
    Sending the wrong people to the field, or, sending the right people before they are truly ready, can lead to both major damage in the lives of those who go, as well as damage for the ministry on the field.
    Another point: don’t send a man to plant churches and train the first elders, if you would not see him qualified to train and mentor elders at home. In a solid home church, there will hopefully be multiple godly, mature, wise men. On the field, in a young work, it can be the opposite. So, those sent in that role need to be proven. Those who are not should not be sent as “Pauls”, but rather, as “Timothys”, having a period of serving under a more proven, experiences, mature man. OR, spend more years in the States first, gaining that experience and being more proven.
    Just some thoughts for consideration, I greatly appreciate the gracious tone of this blog, and the comments. Thanks be to God!

    February 17, 2016
    Reply
    • Keelan Cook said:

      Thankful for the encouraging words, brother. I’m glad you point out that character issues affect more than the missionary and family. They also affect the team they work with and the people on the field they’re trying to reach. Overall, I also agree with your point concerning the need to send people prepared to do pastoral training. I’m a big proponent of learning how to do discipleship by doing discipleship, so I believe there is a balance to be struck where we can send people with less experience so that they can grow into the task. At the same time, I think it is critical to send someone who knows what they are actually going to do (plant churches and train leadership) and that there are no questions of character and conduct. Methods and experience come with time on the field, but a right philosophy and, above all, a right heart before the Lord must be prerequisite. Again, thanks for your comments and your long tenure on the field!

      February 17, 2016
      Reply

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