In class this morning, we discussed some of the challenges facing missionaries as they seek to plant churches in cross-cultural settings. There are many factors that make this difficult, but I want to share one factor that seems most relevant to those of us “at home,” whether because we are not overseas missionaries or because we haven’t left for the mission field yet. This factor is simple: unrealistic expectations.
I have no idea what comes to your mind when you think of missionaries, but I’d venture to say that most Christians have unrealistic expectations regarding missionaries. Paul Hiebert, a missiologist and long-time missionary to India, speaks to potential missionaries about these expectations:
“The public’s image of a missionary is a hardy pioneer who suffers great deprivations; a saint who never sins; an outstanding preacher, doctor, or personal worker who overcomes all obstacles—in short, a person who is creative, brave, sensitive, and always triumphant. When we are young, we almost believe that we can become such persons when we cross the ocean.” (Paul G. Hiebert. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985. Pg. 73)
Is that an accurate description of how you view the missionaries your church supports? Do you tend to see them as slightly super-human? These are the truly spiritual ones. They’ve figured life out, they’re willing to give up their dreams for the sake of Christ, they’re tough and brave and untouchable.
I’m guilty of often thinking of missionaries in these terms. To be clear, I do think that missionaries are extraordinary people. But that’s the thing—they’re still people. They’re obedient people, they are models of faith that we ought to follow, but they’re still human beings. So when we expect our missionaries to be idealized cowboys, we’re forgetting that they encounter the same struggles in life that the rest of us face. Not only that, but they face struggles most of us cannot begin to imagine as they seek to live and minister in a foreign culture.
So when we place these expectations upon them, or when they place the expectations upon themselves, it can have a big impact:
“It is not surprising, then, that we face depression, often severe, when we discover that we are still very human. Going abroad has neither changed our weak and sinful natures nor given us new talents.”
One of my students pointed out that it’s almost like we expect some magical transformation to happen on the airplane. But of course, missionaries arrive at their new mission field as human as ever, but with new fears, stress-inducers, and frustrations.
For those of us living “at home,” this is a good reminder that our missionaries are human. They need our prayers. They need support. They need us to be realistic about the real trials they face. They need us to be compassionate when they make mistakes or need extra help or fail to meet goals and deadlines. These missionaries are still part of the body of Christ, and we need to graciously share in their hard labor as much as we can.
And for those of us who hope to one day serve in a cross-cultural setting, it’s important that we get our expectations in order. Jesus is the only Savior, the only perfect human being, the only perfect missionary. He calls us to play an important role in his mission to redeem and restore, but accepting that calling does not necessitate perfection or superhuman capabilities. Be sure to remember that as you follow him to the ends of the earth.