What to Know Before Your First Long-Term Mission Trip - Radical

What to Know Before Your First Long-Term Mission Trip

“If you had known everything that would happen this term, would you still have come?” I often ask this question to people after their first term of two to four years serving overseas. Most of the time, they reply with, “Probably not.” Wide-eyed, expectant missionaries launch out to new homes expecting God to work, believing he will use them to reach the nations. But then they realize that living long-term overseas is not the same as the short-term trips they took beforehand.

With that in mind, how can those preparing to go brace themselves for all the tumult that will likely come? A few mindset shifts will help steady newcomers for the first few years of overseas missions.

Life will be different than you expect.

There is no way for new missionaries to prepare for all of the changes that will come in our first term overseas. It is good to realize that things will not work out like you planned.

Your beloved supervisor may not be your boss by the end of your term, or they may not be as great as you thought. Your job, city, or focus language may change. For most, gone are the days of staying in one country for life. Most long-term missionaries I know average a major move at least every five years. 

Most long-term missionaries I know average a major move at least every five years. 

Those who recruit new personnel often tell only the most exciting stories of life on the field. As a result, those arriving on the field come expecting God to move quickly and often. Unfortunately, Jesus described the work of the kingdom as often mundane and slow: like a seed growing or yeast moving through bread (Mark 4:26–32).

Even if you have participated in a longer trip, the pace is different than what you’ve probably experienced. In many situations, you’re left to fend for yourself in navigating culture and language. Just living life overseas takes more time and energy than staying in your passport country. Expect God to move, but expect that it may be slower than you planned.

Life will be harder than you expect.

When Paul asked Timothy to join him in frontline missions, he said, “Share in suffering” (2 Timothy 2:3). Paul’s call included Jesus showing him how much he would suffer for Jesus’s name (Acts 9:16). When you look at the list of things he endured, it’s amazing he accepted the job (2 Corinthians 11:23–28). Missionaries today will also suffer for Jesus as they serve overseas.

A new culture, new team, and less support than at home will stretch and test new missionaries. I remember the day I realized that I was still as sinful and in need of God’s grace as I was before I left home. The hardest thing about living overseas has not been the sin in the cultures where I’ve served, but the sin that still resides in me.

The hardest thing about living overseas has not been the sin in the cultures where I’ve served, but the sin that still resides in me.

In addition, spiritual warfare affects you differently overseas. My kids have consistently experienced demonic dreams on the night of major ministry events. Other teammates have fallen prey to psychotic breaks leading to hospitalization. Many times, thoughts have come to mind that I knew were from the evil one, but I felt powerless to stop them. The enemy works powerfully to damage, discourage, and disqualify those sent to the nations. Coupled with normal temptations and desires, exacerbated by loneliness and the culture shock of a new place, spiritual attacks can overwhelm missionaries

Often, this warfare takes less nefarious-looking forms. The temptations to bitterness or discouragement are stronger. The tiny splinter of discontent or disagreement with a teammate takes root and starts to grow. We begin to doubt the goodness of God for us. This is a job that we cannot forget has serious spiritual opposition. We would be foolish to think any of us serving in missionary contexts are immunity from crafty attacks. Many throw up a white flag rather than stay the course. 

Rest is more important than you think.

Avoiding the biblical rhythm of the Sabbath nearly cost me my ministry overseas. In almost twenty years overseas, our family has never used all the vacation days allotted to us for a year. We have often fallen victim to the lie that the work is far too urgent and we are far too important to stop and rest. 

As new missionaries, you must rip this lie from your minds early on. Restorative vacations and time off with friends will nourish your soul and body in a way that can lead to longevity on the field. Rest restores us and reminds us of our dependence on Christ.

You need more training than you expect.

Many well-meaning new missionaries think, “I’m already making disciples in my home context. I’m ready to move overseas.” As important as it is to do what you’re going to do overseas before you move, it’s not enough. You need training.

After his conversion, even Paul waited around ten years before his first long-term missionary journey. This hero of the faith, who considered himself more advanced than most in the Judaism of his youth, saw the need to grow and prepare before launching into the work he knew God set him apart to do.

Most of us have never learned another language fluently. Many times, new missionaries haven’t learned to contextualize the gospel. Many have never lived in a city close to the size of where they end up landing overseas. Going with a trusted organization or through a training program like the Radical Training Center can help aspiring missionaries better prepare for these and a host of other challenges. 

Grace comes in more ways than you anticipate

As difficult as living overseas is for new missionaries, God’s grace is greater. He will use suffering to make you look more like Jesus. He will use local brothers and sisters to encourage you and help you see God in new ways. In time, you’ll see the language start to click. You’ll find him meeting you with affirmations, reassuring you in your work for the Kingdom.

Most importantly, you will see Jesus fulfill his word: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–31).

Despite unforeseen suffering and challenges, God has met me in ways I could never have expected while serving overseas. I have learned that the cost of the cross is worth a life in and for Christ as each disciple works to have Christ’s name known and glorified among all nations. 

Ken and his family have served on a church planting team in Asia for the last 17 years.


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