In many cases our missionaries represent the best our churches have to offer and today’s missionary recruits have many advantages over previous generations. Younger candidates have much awareness of the world and experience crossing cultures. Second career candidates have rich life experiences, skills and expertise. But many also have much to overcome. Many have not grown up in the church. Some have grown up in churches where Scripture teaching has not been solid. Thus they may think and act more from a cultural than a biblical worldview.
Potential missionaries struggle with issues related to their family backgrounds, life experiences, relational issues, spiritual development, and expectations. Our culture heavily affects our churches and congregations, and our culture does not tend to produce the Godly qualities described in the New Testament.
From the beginning the Church in North America has been closely connected to the culture and we still cling to it as the culture deteriorates. We live pretty much at the level of our culture. For the majority this includes a relative level of wealth, ease, and physical comforts but it also includes accommodation to habits, attitudes, practices, sins and weaknesses that compete with spiritual development. In many churches people come to Christ with high expectations of personal benefits and little expectation of life transformation and change. People in the church look and act much like people outside. The moral looseness of our “Christian” society is an embarrassment to Christians around the world. Church leaders sometimes set the pace by identifying with the culture through edgy language, film clips, and dramatic sketches. Christians in general spend much time with the media and little time in the Bible, and consequently few are able to think and act consistently from a Christian worldview. Our spiritual arrogance and independence are not good models. Our freedoms to eat and drink and wear and say and do whatever we want are a hindrance and shame to many of the churches we want to help elsewhere in the world.
We are accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, a stark contrast to most people in the world. Habits and desires do not disappear when one decides to become a missionary. Those who have never lacked anything may struggle in living situations that are still upscale compared to the people to whom they minister. Such western missionaries are in an awkward position to teach others Scriptural attitudes toward money and sacrifice. As one missions pastor told me, “Our church has a good missionary candidate training program but we can’t teach them how to live a simple lifestyle.” Christians and potential missionaries from our culture may sometimes appear to have little to offer unbelievers.
Dysfunctional backgrounds must be overcome. Those who have struggled with abuse, addiction, broken families and relationship issues carry additional baggage that tends to surface under the pressures of cross-cultural conditions and spiritual challenges. Our large spaces and independent lifestyles allow us to avoid people with whom we have problems. Such issues are often not so easily resolved overseas.
Living in a world where Christianity is taken for granted does little to develop conditioning and toughness to withstand cultural and religious animosity and persecution. As one woman in the third world said incredulously, “If you haven’t suffered persecution how do you know what it means to be a Christian?”
In spite of these issues, many godly people, young and old, are moving into significant mission roles, for which we can be enthusiastic and grateful.
Note that younger generations have many natural cross-cultural relationships that facilitate working with people of other nationalities and languages. Provide opportunities and training for building relationships and witnessing across cultures locally.
Go against the current. Teach and practice the New Testament model of being set apart for Christ.
Challenge people to a self-denying, counter-cultural lifestyle. Be clear about sin, purity and holiness. Develop a culture of expectation of life transformation.
Develop accountability groups to help people live true to Christian convictions in both their personal and corporate lives.
Communicate broadly your hopes and dreams in missions. Observe your congregation members for spiritual maturity and the promise of cross-cultural gifts. Recruit individuals for involvement in your missions ministry and challenge them to cross-cultural missionary service.
Promote your strategic missions interests and point people toward them.
Carefully screen and nurture prospective missionaries. Use your God-given judgment to help guide them. Don’t be afraid to ask them to wait and grow when you see warning signs. Send your best.
Be sure that missionary candidates have thorough exposure to the church and life in another culture.