Fresh-faced missionaries are confronted with a host of discouragements that are different from what they’ve experienced before. The social isolation of the pandemic these past couple years has only exacerbated the isolation that comes from being in a new place and new time zone and new language. Lockdowns, masks, and social distancing are disorienting enough in the comfort of your own home. Much more so when you don’t yet know how you fit in your neighborhood, what your job exactly is, or even which building is your home! In the last 8 months, I’ve heard five different families say almost verbatim: “If we’re just going to be stuck in our house, we’d rather do that back in America.”
If you’ve moved to a new country for the sake of gospel witness and are discouraged by all the things that lie in front of you that seem to keep you from doing anything, let alone anything for the kingdom, I want to encourage you. If you’re asking yourself why you should bother trying to stick it out, I want to give you four reminders and one practical application to help you keep going.
1. Remember Why You Came
You may have been stuck in your apartment, not able to meet your neighbors, but they are still there. They still need the gospel, just as much as when you first ‘deployed’ with so much zeal and passion in your heart.
Remember what Paul said: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)
When you are in the midst of the hard slog of learning a language, of trying to navigate visa and rental paperwork, of accidentally offending people, all those things will feel more and more massive to you. But they need to be put in their proper place.
Before you left your home to move here, what was crystal clear to you was the gospel-need of the nations. You’ve learned a lot of other things since then. You’re facing many of the practical difficulties of life in another country. You’re enduring things that feel less like a daily sacrifice and more like daily irritation. But the reality that people are dead in their sin and destined for damnation apart from the gospel is still true.
Remember that for all the difficulties and inconveniences that vie for your attention, the reason you came is still true.
2. Remember That God’s Purposes Take Time to See
We are so impatient to see the results of our work. I find it useful when I’m discouraged by the lack of evident fruit to reflect on the length of the Old Testament. Thousands of years passed with God’s people waiting for the promised Messiah. Only now can we see how the different events, hardships, and tragedies the Old Testament saints lived through were all preparing and building up to Jesus Christ.
How might God use your example of humbly working to grow in language to commend what you believe to those around you? How might God knit you together with your neighbors simply because you went through the pandemic stuck in your own homes next to theirs? The challenges of caring for a family, or staying in touch with your family from across the globe, feel only like obstacles to us at the moment. Yet these are precisely the kinds of situations in which Christian character and Christian hope are made clear to a watching world. Do not presume that just because you feel like you’re wasting time that God is wasting it.
3. Remember to Address Hardship Before It Becomes a Crisis
Because missionaries have self-consciously signed up for a life of sacrifice, they often feel like they should just absorb certain hardships as part of the cost. In particular, I’ve seen newer missionaries assume that they should expect nothing other than spiritual loneliness and that Christian friendship is a selfish thing to invest in. They make decisions that isolate them from fellow Christians who might encourage or help them, thereby depriving themselves of meaningful Christian fellowship and worship all in the name of sacrificing for the mission.
There are hardships the Lord will call you to endure. And he is faithful to preserve us through all of them. But that doesn’t mean you should be blithe about the cost.
Part of what I’ve seen in the pandemic season is new missionaries who find life challenging at first, but they act like doing anything to make it less hard—in terms of their own spiritual well-being—is cheating. So they push off the difficulty until it escalates to the point of crisis.
And when you’ve only been in a country for a year or two, what do you do in a crisis? You go to a place that still feels like home. So you leave.
Don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate crises where a missionary needs to return to their home country. But over and over, I’ve seen people push off loneliness and spiritual malnourishment to tomorrow … until it becomes a crisis. And over and over, my response in the sadness is to think: it didn’t have to be this way. Many missionaries will be lonely. But not as many need to be lonely as they are. Just like in medicine, preventative care is a better strategy than waiting for emergency surgery.
4. Remember Local Believers are Spiritual Family, Not Projects or Obstacles
One reason why missionaries are so discouraged and lonely is that they blind themselves to the many sources of spiritual encouragement around them. Maybe it’s because you’ve never experienced an intentional Christian community before. But more often, there’s a sort of assumption that local believers cannot be sources of encouragement, since they’re the project. Or, they’re an obstacle to you spending more time with unbelievers. Either way, you can treat brothers and sisters in Christ as hindrances to ministry, or only the subject of ministry. Such a mindset will prevent you from benefiting from the Christians around you, whether they’re indigenous believers or your ‘team.’ But Christ intended for Christians to mutually encourage (Ephesians 4:1–16). There’s no geographic limitation to where that truth ought to be applied.
Viewing local believers as brothers and sisters in Christ will help remove the mental blinders that can prevent you from seeking out the kind of Christian fellowship every Christian needs. It can also guard against needless discouragement when local believers fall short of your expectation like every human tends to do.
5. Application: Invest in the Church
Let me give you one practical step with which you can apply all four of these reminders at once: invest in the local church. The church is Jesus’ appointed means for accomplishing the Great Commission—not just because it’s made up of believers but because believers covenanted together strengthen each other to faithfully endure in making disciples of all nations.
When you are new on the field, you need a long-term perspective, but you have very little experience. You need to humbly seek out and listen to saints who do have a long-term perspective. When you can’t see God’s purposes now, you need to be reminded that God’s purposes may take time to see, but they are reliable. When you feel most isolated and discouraged, you need fellow Christians whom you intentionally invite to speak into your life, encouraging and course-correcting you where needed. When you’re tempted to view other believers as obstacles or projects, you need to be reminded that they are part of the blood-bought bride of Christ, part of the same body as you.
Where can you find such believers who will commit to sharing, showing, and teaching you in these ways? Where can you be reminded of your primary relationship with fellow Christians? A local church. This is Jesus’ idea for not only completing his Great Commission but also for preserving his followers in faithfulness to him for their entire lives.
Can you think of a better idea?