by William K. Ogden
A man wanted to be a traffic controller so badly, the story goes, that he took a night job as a janitor just to be around the control tower.
Well, one night the one controller on duty had to leave the room for a few minutes. The controller told the janitor not to touch anything, but to call if any planes approached.
In less than a minute, the radio crackled, “This is Delta 190 to Tower. We are 17 miles to the east and request clearance for landing.”
The janitor hesitated only a moment: “Delta 190, we’ve got you on the screen and you’re cleared to come straight on in on the east-west runway.”
He was still smiling at his competence when he heard, “Tower, this is United 743, 16 miles to the west, requesting landing instruction.”
“Gotcha, United. Just put it down on the west-east runway.”
The janitor congratulating himself on being a natural for the job, settled back into the controller’s chair.
“Tower, this is Delta 190. Didn’t you just give United the same runway assigned to us?”
A long, silent pause was finally broken by the janitor’s squeaky voice, “Y’all be careful now, heah?”
We all expect high standards of air traffic controllers, because they are in a very concrete sense “tampering” with people’s lives. One mistake can cause a tragedy affecting hundreds of families. But for a job like a missionary, we ironically lower those standards. All too often we assume that anyone who is sincere can be a missionary . . . despite the fact that missionaries not only “tamper” with people’s lives, but their eternal destiny.
Certainly, no one would speak against sincerity, but that is only the starting point. A missionary’s challenge as a representative of God demands rigorous standards. What are they? As a recruiter of missionary personnel, let me share with you the qualities that I look for.
Spirituality: It can conjure up vague images of other worldliness. Some may think of a missionary as a person twice as spiritual and half as bright as the not average Christian. What exactly is spirituality? How could we recognize a spiritual person if we saw one? Or, more important, what kind of spirituality is demanded on the mission field?
I believe that spirituality, like salvation, is intricately linked to self acceptance. Until each individual acknowledges that he is a sinner, worthy of banishment from the presence of God, he is hopelessly lost. But by acknowledging his sinfulness and need for a free salvation, he opens up the door not only to meaningful self-acceptance, but acceptance by God.
Yet many of us who agree with the need for self-acceptance do not live practically. We are still trying to find significance and security by impressing others and God with what we have done. That attitude won’t hold up in the face of pressures on the mission field. Would you still be willing to be a missionary if all your dreams of winning others did not come true? Will you be satisfied if no one back home understands what you have done? Can you adjust and trust God if your health won’t allow you to stay on the field?
If we are ever to know the peace of God we must accept ourselves AS WE ARE – sinners who have already been accepted and are being sanctified as unique children of God.
That’s a heavy sentence; take time to read it again. The joy and humility in that truth can free you to concentrate on serving others. And that’s a major key to effective missionary service.
Beyond obedience to the general will of God, the prospective missionary must be committed to the specific will of God for him. He needs to be able to say that “God has led me here and entrusted this ministry to me.”
In Good News is for Sharing Leighton Ford tells the story of a French missionary who labored among Muslims for ten years with only two or three converts. When someone asked why he stayed, he answered with some surprise, “Why do I stay here? Jesus Christ put me here. That’s why.”
Does that mean that the missionary needs some special “missionary call” that separates him from “normal Christians?” Or that short-term missionary service is not the will of God?
Not at all! I do not believe that the “missionary call” as commonly understood is a mandatory experience. But missions should not be approached as something you’ll try to see if you’ll like it.
Mission organizations are looking for that particularly Christian attitude, “God has led me to do this.” We think all Christians should have this attitude, whether they be missionaries, plumbers, businessmen, or engineers. This is not a missions concept. It is a Christian concept. It only appears to be a missions concept because the world does not ask prospective employees about a sense of God’s leading.
It is impossible to exhaust all the dimensions of spirituality that are desirable in a missionary candidate, but one final issue continually crops up: The need for a consistent and sustaining devotional life.
Perhaps it is a particularly American trait that we seek spiritual independence – not only from other Christians, but from God Himself. But the message of Romans 7 and 8 is precisely that we cannot do it alone, even as newborn saints. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit with Him though prayer, Bible study, and communion with saints.
When Jesus returned from the Mount of Transfiguration to find his disciples helpless before a demon, He told them their problem was a lack of faith. Mark records that He also told them, ” This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” The implication was not so much demonstrated in their inability before the demon as in their lack of prayer on a day-to-day basis.
Prayer is probably the most difficult area of the Christian life for the vast majority of us. Missionaries are no exception. The importance of prayer is a truth that we all acknowledge, but our lack or prayer suggests that we do not really believe (lack of faith) that the battle is spiritual.
In the last ten years, the focus has shifted from a missionary’s personal qualifications to what might be called “missionary technology.” By doing surveys and keeping careful records some mission agencies have discovered, for example, the vast majority of young African animists that come to the city to study will convert to either Christian or Islam within the first year. Missions are using such information to allocate their resources to the ministries most likely to produce results. Increasingly missionaries are studying subjects such as anthropology, sociology and techniques of social research. The development of these tools is one of the most significant events in the fulfilling of the great commission for our generation.
I am really excited about these technical advances, but I do think that we need to remind ourselves that just as sharper tools demand a better craftsman, improved methods demand purer motives. As we seek better technical training, we must not forget the crying need in missions today is for spiritual men.
Albert Einstein once said, “Few things so characterize our day as perfection of means and confusion of goals.” If missionary technology increases our ability to reach our goals, it becomes that much more important that we be able to recognize our deviances from the will of God. This kind of wisdom comes not through technology, but through spiritual men.
Spirituality is undoubtedly the most difficult thing for a mission board to judge. That puts the burden on you and those who know you. Get to know yourself and let those close to you know you too. Seek their counsel about your state of spiritual growth and possible missionary service. When it comes to spirituality there is little profit in fooling anyone.
Personality will be closely related to the topic of spirituality. While there may be no Christian personality, the personality of each Christian is drastically affected by his spiritual rebirth.
Perhaps the most important personality trait grows out of self-acceptance. Only a person whose sense of significance and security is rooted in the character of his Heavenly Father is truly free to work with others.
Sometimes people are chosen for ministry because of their outgoing, dominant personalities. Yet many outgoing people are still primarily self-centered. Whether a person is bold or shy makes little difference if that person’s energies are being consumed, enhancing or protecting his own self image. Can he be the butt of a joke as he’s learning the language? Will he react bitterly to criticism?
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “We were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel, but also our own lives . . . “I think it is safe to say that the first and essential personality trait in a prospective missionary is that he know that he is secure and significant. He does not need to protect himself. He can be busy giving himself to others.
A second personality trait in a good missionary is a high tolerance for ambiguity. People see and do things differently. As a missionary, you will have to stop thinking about the way you would prefer to do it , and help in the way it is being done. Beyond that, you will learn totally new cultural values and apply those values while you are in your new culture. That kind of an adaptation will help you to choose a course of action more similar to one that people in the culture would choose. It will also free you from exhausting frustration of either trying to change things or trying to suppress your own ideas.
Not only will people have different personal and cultural values, they will also hold different doctrinal positions. You will be faced with the tensions of deciding between what you believe to be correct doctrine and the unity of the body.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies… if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” It’s ironic that we who are most insistent about infallibility for Jesus words fail to even greet our own brothers, let alone love our enemies. As a prospective missionary, you not only need to learn to accept yourself, you need to be determined to accept others.
A fourth desirable trait is to be a self-starter. I am not talking about one who is able to do things in his own strength. I’m saying that a missionary cannot be one who always needs to be pushed. All too often there is no one there to push.
If you are going to the mission field because of the constant encouragement of those around you, you had better ask yourself, “Will I continue to function when there is no one there to encourage me?” If all your past ministry has been doing a job that someone “plugged you into,” you had better ask yourself, “Am I heading to a place where they will plug me in or will I need to create my own opportunity? If so, can I?”
Finally, we come full circle to humility. (By now, you are probably thinking,”I’m suppose to be all this and humble too?”)
The day of the missionary as “Governor, Policeman, Head Educator and Worker of Medical Miracles” is over. Any respect and status that he has in the community he will have to earn. It will not be conferred by the virtue of his missionary office.
Even in the church, he will not necessarily be the number one figure. As God raises up gifted men in the third world, He will supply men who should rightly provide leadership even to the missionaries.
Over the years we have developed a concept of helping the church which translates into dominating the third world church. If that concept was ever valid, it certainly is not today. Increasingly, the missionary will be invited, assigned and directed by the third world church. In that setting, humility is a must.
John Haggai of the Haggai Institute asks,”Do we have the humility to support that which we can not dominate?” That’s a disturbing question the missionary needs to ask every day.
So far we have talked primarily about what you are. But what about your preparation? Let me just say,” Prepare. Don’t ever think of stopping!” You will never be prepared in the past tense of the word. But do commit yourself to being prepared in the sense of continually studying, questioning, learning.
While there is no standard preparation for the field, let me suggest a few areas that you should consider.
Undoubtedly, the most important is a thorough training in the Word of God. Most training relates to the means; this has to do with message. If the message is not properly understood no method will be ultimately effective.
There are many ways to become competent in the Word of God (and different assignments will demand different levels of competence) but a good Bible college or seminary is probably most practical for most people. Christian liberal arts colleges provide the alternative of a degree in a secular field with Bible training. For those who already have a secular degree, many Bible colleges offer a special one-year intensive Bible course. Whatever course you choose, be careful to learn the use of the Word in real life situations, not just classroom theories about it.
Some training in the area of communication is important. Linguistics, of course, is important. But we also need help in forming ideas, transforming them into messages and sending them to others who then extract their own meaning from our message. Ask yourself, “How can I express myself so that people of another culture will perceive as closely as possible my meaning?”
(It is probably best to postpone preparation in language learning until you are close to departure. If you do study, concentrate on courses that teach you how to learn the language, rather than those that attempt to teach you a language.)
Related to communication is the study of anthropology and sociology. Get as many of these courses as you can. A good background in this area will help you ask the right questions so that you can discover cultural values and the dynamics of the society. Deliberately or not, you will introduce change just by your very presence in a non-western society. Anthropology and sociology will help you soften the harshness of your presence, be more tolerant of the things you don’t understand, and express your message in terms that are meaningful to your listeners.
You may think that I should have included creativity under personality. We like to refer to creative people as “gifted” and some people may have a head start, but you can learn to be creative. Creativity is an inquisitive, interested, searching state of mind that is developed by hard mental work.
Practice approaching things creatively now by asking yourself the following questions: What is the goal I want to accomplish or the problem I want to solve? (Be sure to answer precisely.) What are my resources? Is there some way that I can increase my resources? (Think in terms of knowledge, people, available media, etc. as well as money.) What kind of solutions have others found in similar solutions? How can I modify these solutions to make them better? What new combinations of resources might provide a totally new solution?
In many countries a technical sideline is useful. But unless you have a specific skill that you have already developed, wait for some guidance from the mission board you choose. Employment regulations may prohibit you from doing anything other than “missionary work.” In any case, the mission can help you choose a sideline that will be most helpful in the area assigned.
All of these things are great, but the best preparation is in the practice. Prospective missionaries should be people who have already begun doing something. How do you expect God to use you on the mission field? Seek those (and other) kinds of ministries right now.
Again and again when Paul wrote to the young churches he reminded them that his credentials were the kind of ministry that he had among them. Education is neither the ultimate credential nor the ultimate preparation. A vital part of preparation is a vital ministry. I hope that you have read this far and not thrown up your hands in despair.
As I have read over what I have written to you, I was reminded of a letter written by Adoniram Judson in 1816. How well it describes my own feelings.
“In encouraging other young men to come out as missionaries, do use a word of caution. One wrong-headed, conscientiously-obstinate fellow would ruin us. Humble, quiet, persevering men; men of sound, sterling talents (though, perhaps, not brilliant), of decent accomplishments, and some natural aptitude to acquire a language; men of an amiable temper, willing to take the lowest place, to be the least of all and the servants of all; men who enjoy closet religion, who live near to God, and are willing to suffer all things for Christ’s sake, without being proud of it, these are the men. But O, how unlike to this description is the writer of it.”
The temptation in the face of impossibly high standards is to disregard them. Perhaps it would be better to look at this as a list of goals. Some of them you have already met. Some you will meet with difficulty. Others you may never meet.
But don’t disregard them. Ultimately, your suitability for missionary service will be determined more by the depth of your commitment to the pursuit of your Christian excellence than your satisfying the individual standards.
The power is not ours. It is God’s. There is no area in which He is in need of our excellence. He just deserves it.
Is your spiritual life characterized by self-acceptance, commitment to His will and a prayer-saturated devotional life?
Is your personality one that shows tolerance for ambiguity? Shows compatibility with those different from you? Is able to see what needs to be done and do it? And can be humble through it all?
Is your preparation continuing? Is your Bible study fresh and new? Can you communicate to different kinds of people? Can you be creative in solving problems? Are you practicing what you are learning?