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Considerations Before Setting Sail on Long-Term Missions

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It's not typical for a Christian to wake up one morning and, out of the blue, decide to pack his bags and plant his life on the other side of the world to tell people about Jesus. There's usually more involved in the decision-making process. So how should a person think through a commitment to spend his or her life engaging another culture for the spread of the gospel?

Not everyone's calling to long-term missions looks the same, of course, but for those who sense that God may be leading in that direction, what are some first steps to take? That's one of the questions I posed to Bob F., a former missionary to Japan who, as an elder at The Church at Brook Hills, now counsels church members who are considering long-term missions. While it would take more than a few paragraphs to outline the process thoroughly, here are a couple questions Bob answered to help us begin thinking about a long-term missions commitment:

1. If someone is starting to think about long-term missions, what are some practical steps you tell them to take?

If I am talking with someone who is not a member of The Church at Brook Hills (my home church), then I tell them that the first step is to talk with their church leadership. For Brook Hills members, we ask them to share their ambitions with their small group leader and then ask the group to pray with them.

Most people want to get right into issues like, Where? When? and especially, How? Instead, I try to get them to focus on the question, "What has God uniquely designed you to do?” I ask them to put aside the question of context and just ask themselves how they would spend their days serving God, his church, and the world if they were free to concentrate on any one ministry without being concerned about finances or other issues. Once they can articulate their ministry passion, then we can begin to consider various contexts in which that passion can be maximized for the sake of the kingdom.

Most people need help in identifying questions and issues that need to be addressed as they consider planting their lives in another context for the sake of the gospel. These questions include things like, Where should I go? What people group should I focus on? Should I go alone or with a team? How do I find a team? Should I go with a mission agency and, if so, how do I find a good one? What about schooling for my kids? How do I get needed finances? How do I know if this is God’s leading or an emotional response to a sermon?

There are many more questions like these. I try to help them identify the questions and then put them under the category of needing “Confirmation,” “Clarification,” or “Cultivation.” Some things seem to be clear, but they need the confirmation that comes from Scripture, godly counsel, and spiritual leaders. I talk with them about how to discern and confirm God’s will. Many issues are unclear. Perhaps they didn’t even know that these issues had to be addressed. I help them plan strategies to gather information for prayer and consideration. Finally, even if they are confident that God has called them to be a church planter among an unreached tribal group in India, they will need some training and equipping in order to effectively fulfill this calling. Here we provide some tools such as books, courses, and seminars to get the needed equipping.

2. What are some unexpected challenges that you've seen in long-term missions?

Many people aren’t aware that one of the greatest challenges and causes for premature attrition in missions is the inability to get along with other missionaries or co-workers. We make missionary candidates aware of this concern and then talk with them about team dynamics and how to maintain a Christ-like attitude in stressful circumstances.

Another major challenge to long-term cross-cultural workers is loneliness and feeling abandoned after the “honeymoon” of the first few months on the field. We address this by assisting them in developing and maintaining “Great Commission partnerships” with their church and individual Christians. These partners are not the same as “supporters.” Partners have a sense of call and are committed to the ministry just like those who go to the field. Although their roles differ from the workers on the field, they are equally committed to the work.

We use the book of Philippians, which describes the Great Commission partnership between the apostle Paul and the believers in Phillipi, to illustrate the elements of partnership. These elements include things like mutual prayer, mutual visits, and mutual sharing of resources. Finally, we help those going to the field to set up Advocacy Teams (A-Teams) that will serve as their main partners in ministry.

David Burnette serves as the Chief Editor for Radical. He lives with his wife and three kids in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves as an elder at Philadelphia Baptist Church. He received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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