What They Don't Tell You About Missions in Seminary1
My heart grieved the other day when I received a lengthy email from one of my former students telling me that he was being relieved of his post on the mission field. It wasn’t the first time that I had been hit with news like this.
No, there was no immorality or impropriety on the part of this man or any of the members of his family. They had gone to the field nearly a year earlier, having left behind everything that was familiar, believing that the Lord had led them to take the Gospel to a third-world people several time zones away. There had, of course, been the expected first-year struggles of getting acclimated to the people with whom they would work and adjusting to their customs, but nothing out of the ordinary that would have served as a warning that all was not moving along as planned.
Then came the call to report for a meeting with leaders from the mission-sending agency, who in just a few minutes would render null and void the work of the past ten months, not to mention the dreams of the past several years. In their words, the couple was simply “not suited” for work in that culture. Why that had not been detected earlier--during the candidate-process, for example--remains a mystery. As I write this, the family is packing, planning to leave the field as quickly as possible. At this point, no one can predict the long-term effects of this devastating blow.
The call to missions is a sacred one. Every listening Christian is challenged to remain open to that call...“wherever...whenever...and to whomever” the Lord may lead. God is still planting the vision of global outreach among His people, and thankfully some are responding. Were we honest, we would have to admit that there is a “romanticized” vision of missions, even among the most hard-to-reach people and most-difficult places. “To go boldly where no man has gone before,” or as Paul expressed it, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Such is the motivation for volunteering to be among the front-line soldiers in taking the Gospel to the unreached. I have never met a missionary on his way to the field who did not embrace the call and set his sights on getting to the field as quickly and as well-prepared as possible. Their enthusiasm is, in fact, unbridled.
I applaud that. In fact, I greatly admire those who are willing to sacrifice all for the cause of Christ. Can there be a more noble purpose than to totally invest the rest of one’s life in the sole purpose of introducing Christ to those who otherwise may never hear of Him. Praise God for such people...truly, praise God!
But what happens when dreams fade and the stars in one’s eyes turn to dust? Sadly, it happens all too often. Consider the following examples, which are compilations from actual mission experiences, but not the accounts of specific individuals:
-- A family believes that the Lord is leading them to serve Him in an African country. Their call appears to be confirmed after several short-term trips to that land. They apply with a mission board and are accepted as candidates. Following several weeks of orientation and language training, they are sent out on deputation. After eighteen months they are unable to raise at least eighty-percent of their needed support, and they are advised by the mission board that they will no longer be considered as mission candidates. They abandon their dream and instead apply to serve on a church staff in the States.
-- A single woman in her late-30s feels called to the Far East nation where she had taken graduate studies some years earlier. Burdened for the people in that land, she returns to visit. While there she senses that the Lord is leading to prepare for a mission among students. Working with a mission sending agency, she raises support quickly and begins what she believes will become a permanent career. She works long and hard hours and sees fruit being brought forth from her labor. Over time, however, she becomes increasing susceptible to intense feelings of loneliness. When a man shows interest in her, she yields to temptation. The mission board learns of it, calls her home from the field, counsels her, and asks for her resignation.
-- A retired couple want to invest their senior years by taking the Gospel to a European nation, once steeped in Reformation theology but now where less than one- percent of the population are evangelized. Bidding farewell to family and friends, they set off excitedly to begin this new phase of life. Knowing the work will be slow, they faithfully persevere. A small Bible study is begun with a handful of participants professing allegiance to Christ. Annual reports are filed with their mission board, and after the third year the couple is called home. They will be replaced by a younger couple who may be able to secure “better results.”
Were any of these tragic endings preventable? Absolutely. A large measure of culpability lies at the feet of the mission boards and sending agencies for not adequately preparing missionary candidates for the potential pitfalls they may likely face. Granted, not every obstacle can be foreseen, but with decades of mission experiences to draw from, surely many of these lessons could be learned...and taught. In short, mission agencies need to do a better job both vetting their candidates and equipping them for the actual dangers they may encounter.
Bible colleges and seminaries must also shoulder some of the blame. Most schools do a reasonably good job communicating orthodoxy, but few get passing grades in providing opportunities for orthopraxy. More lengthy “field experiences” should be required of all students, especially those preparing for cross-cultural ministry at home and abroad. I do not say this flippantly, but martyrdom and physical persecution are not necessarily the most imminent dangers facing missionaries, even in the most hostile environments.
And let’s not forget the responsibility of the local church. Pastors must preach the whole counsel of God, which alone is able to provide the foundation upon which every successful mission career will be built. Sending churches must also step up to the plate financially to support those who the Lord raises up from their midst. But support doesn’t end with dollars and cents. Prayer, email exchanges, Skype conversations, and other reminders that “the folks back home” haven’t forgotten about them is essential to their ongoing spiritual and emotional health.
Years ago, missionaries truly “counted the cost” and often embarked on one-way journeys to faraway places. Their only purpose was to proclaim the Gospel among “the heathen.” They would pack their belongings in a coffin, believing they would never come home. And few did.
History testifies that “doing missions” was hard in that day, but we seem to have made it harder in ours. Mission boards, seminaries, and churches--if they are to be effective players in the fulfillment of the Great Commission--must do a better job of preventive shepherding by identifying potential mission “fallout” and “dropout” before correction is necessary. At the same time, they must also be careful to neither quench the Spirit in His great work nor break the spirits of those who truly desire to reach the unreached for Christ’s glory.
Jesus is still worth every sacrifice we can make for the sake of His name. Humanly speaking, however, I can’t help but wonder how many potential missionaries are dissuaded from taking the Gospel to the nations because today’s process of getting to the field--and staying there--sometimes is not.
Perhaps the time has come for a new reformation in world missions.
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