It Takes Time to Become an Effective Missionary

Fads in Missions

My brother Patrick is a high-school teacher. A few years ago, his administration introduced new methods for teaching mathematics to children: the “new math,” they called it. The phrase struck me because I remember, back when we were children, teachers were also introducing a “new math.” Presumably, in the years since then, more than a few “new maths” have come and gone. Today’s is newer than yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s will be newer still. There has always been a new, cutting-edge way of teaching mathematics to children.

This push toward newness, of course, shows up in many disciplines— parenting, psychology, technology, the list goes on. Fads come and go, and each arrives with the thunderous certainty of absolute truth.

As we talked about this, Patrick said something that caught my attention. He said, “After ten years of teaching, I finally feel like I’m starting to become a good math teacher.” Ten years! It took that much time for him to excel in his profession. Why? Because teaching math is complicated. It requires imparting complex information. But it also requires holding students’ attention. And a good teacher must know how to motivate and how to discipline, when and how to involve parents, how to help when children have issues at home that keep them from focusing in school, how to deal with self-esteem and relationship issues, and how to value the awkward but precious teenage souls that are given into his care.

No Shortcut to Success

Matt Rhodes

In No Shortcut to Success, author and missionary Matt Rhodes encourages Christians to stop chasing silver-bullet strategies for missions and embrace long-term methods grounded on theological education, clear communication, and a devotion to ministry excellence.

I’m a missionary, and I’ve been one long enough to realize that fads come and go in missions too. Insider movements, business as mission, the Camel Method, CPM, DMM, T4T: I’ve seen them all roll over us. I’ve read the stories and statistics. I’ve heard the proponents of each new methodology claim that it’s the solution we’ve been looking for! I’ve seen these methodologies presented as the only true way back to the New Testament pattern.

But there’s a difference between the “new math” and the “new missions.” People don’t uproot their families in order to teach the “new math” to the uneducated. Teachers don’t die on the mathematics field. Fads in missions—if they are just fads—are more dangerous than fads in math teaching because what missionaries teach is more important than math. We can learn from these fads, of course. Each has unique strengths. But I’m becoming more and more certain that it may be impossible to become a “good missionary”—just as it is impossible to become a “good math teacher”—without the slow acquisition of professional skills. After all, like good math teachers, we’re trying to impart information.

We also do so in a complex world of relationships, self-esteem issues, and family problems. And because we work cross-culturally, we struggle to understand the complexities of that world. Perhaps it will take more than ten years to become a good missionary?

Missionary Skills

It may bother people to suggest that we need professional skills to be good missionaries. We don’t mind saying that someone is a good math teacher based on whether he or she knows how to teach well. But we struggle with the idea that missionaries—after all they have given up—might still be fundamentally ineffective if they don’t master the ropes of their job. We think to ourselves, Even if missionaries don’t learn languages well, even if they’re unfamiliar with the cultures they work in, even if they have no more theological insight than most believers, surely they’ll be okay. After all, teaching the message of Jesus must be different than teaching math! Won’t Jesus’s message be obvious in missionaries’ joyful, loving lives, even if they can’t communicate that message in ordinary language to the people they’re ministering to?

I suppose this can happen. God works in mysterious ways, and we should never set limits on him. All the same, depending on God to work in unlikely ways just because he can do so is unwise. My mother met my father at a Bible study when they were in high school. She remembers thinking that he was handsome, and after he said something that she thought was wise, she went home and scrawled in her journal that she was going to marry him. They eventually started dating and were married a few years later. Today, they have a vibrant and happy marriage and are living proof that God can use love at first sight to point us in the direction of a good marriage partner. But the fact that this can happen doesn’t mean we should expect it! In the same way, simply being a loving Christian can win people to Christ, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough to make someone a capable missionary.

This is hard for us to grasp because we think of missions as fundamentally different than secular vocations. But it’s not. We all work “unto the Lord.” Christian doctors, Christian firefighters, and Christian math teachers all have to master a set of professional skills before they can expect God to bless others through their work. It is no different for missionaries. The Spirit works in unique ways in each vocation, but—and this is critically important—he does not bypass our humanity when he works through us. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). And just as God worked through Jesus’s ordinary human presence, Jesus’s ordinary human touch, Jesus’s ordinary human words, so God works through our humanity. When the Spirit works in New Testament missionaries, he does not bypass ordinary patterns of human communication, relationships, or reasoning. Instead, he works through them.

The Spirit works in unique ways in each vocation, but—and this is critically important—he does not bypass our humanity when he works through us.

Take Paul, for example. People are convinced of Christ as Paul and other missionaries engage in ordinary, human processes of discussion and debate (Acts 17:2–3; 18:4, 28; 26:28). Discipleship occurs in the trusting, human relationships (2 Cor. 11:29; 12:14; 1 Thess. 2:11–12) that Paul builds over time. Discipleship depends on human processes of learning and teaching (Acts 20:20). In the following chapters, we’ll examine the Scriptures in detail to see how these processes work in the ministries of Paul and other New Testament missionaries.

For now, I simply want to suggest that missionaries, like math teachers, have a set of very human skills they need to learn. The most difficult of these skills have to do with communication, since most missionaries work in foreign cultures and languages. While basic linguistic and cultural competency can be achieved within a year or two, it takes considerably longer to reach the fluency we need to navigate or even partake in spiritual conversations marked by high emotions, nuanced concepts, and fast, colloquial speech. Simply put, missionaries need to master the languages and cultures we are working in to a level that few missionaries today even imagine is possible. Fortunately—as missionaries of past generations knew well—this level of mastery is entirely possible. But amid all our other tasks, we’re going to reach it only if we believe it’s an indispensable part of being a “good missionary.”

This work, of course, is difficult. Perhaps we tell ourselves that bypassing these efforts saves time. This is particularly tempting today when missions agencies sprint around the globe, touting newfangled methods that dangle the carrot of easy, explosive movements of thousands or even millions of new believers. Such stories tend to be hyperanecdotal and impossible to verify. They’re rarely, if ever, what they seem; in fact, as I will explain, these methods tend to make long-term success less likely.

So we need to rethink our easy acceptance of these new, silver-bullet methods. We’ve too quickly abandoned the painstaking, time-honored path to professionalism that William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others pursued. They spent years studying Scripture, acquiring a new language, and understanding the culture of those to whom they ministered. They discipled people slowly and patiently. The Spirit multiplied their efforts and gave their work success.

I can’t promise results—those are still in God’s hands. I can’t offer shortcuts or magical formulas—there are none. But while there’s no one-size-fits-all road map to success, there are key guideposts along the way. In this book, I will describe a scriptural path for missionaries to follow. I will show how it wove through the ministries of great missionaries of the past, and I will describe what it means for missionaries today.

It can be painful for missionaries who have invested so much to question their approach to their work. But it will be worthwhile if it sharpens them in their efforts to reach the lost.

This article is adapted from No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions by Matt Rhodes.

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