I never learned to play an instrument. I tried—I practiced piano, guitar, and of course, recorder. But I never lasted more than a year or two before giving up. There were lots of different circumstances that contributed to that. But the main issue was this: I hated playing badly. So I gave up, frustrated my chords weren’t clean and my melodies weren’t harmonious. Because it wasn’t right, it was wrong. And I wasn’t willing to be wrong for the time it would take to learn to do it right.
I’ve seen many young, new missionaries who are a lot like me. They come with strong convictions. They’ve been taught to trust the Bible and obey it radically. They’ve learned that Christ’s ways are good and His instructions are just. They believe in their bones that God’s Word provides the direction and foundation for the mission, and that it should be obeyed at all costs.
Then they actually arrive on the field.
Real-life doesn’t match the way it’s supposed to be, so one of two things happens. Tension slowly builds between this new missionary and their partners on the field, until something breaks, and they go back, disillusioned and disappointed, with little to show other than relational wreckage. Or they stay and slowly trade in their principles for pragmatic innovation. They stop treating Scripture as sufficient and start looking at doctrinal conviction with suspicion.
There are, of course, many faithful missionaries who don’t fall into those two categories. But there are a lot who do. And neither category is good for the long-term work.
In light of that, the one piece of advice I would give to a new missionary is this: build your convictional pain-tolerance. Let me illustrate what I mean by identifying two common challenges.
Challenge 1: Problematic Situations
The real world is undoubtedly messy. Most missionaries have ministries full of problematic situations. For example, it may take years for you to see people become willing to break from their family’s religion and call themselves a Christian. But they may want to keep studying the Bible or talking religion with you during that time, all while being critical of Islam or Hinduism or Catholicism or whatever.
You may find yourself knowing a network of professing Christians who are unwilling to meet together because they don’t trust each other.
It may be years before you know the language well enough to teach, and the only believer who is literate (and therefore able to preach) is a woman.
You may meet non-Christians willing to not only study but lead Bible studies, and, alternatively, you may know believers who are afraid of owning their own Bible.
You may have a new convert who wants to be baptized, but the existing church will not baptize him into membership because of his politics, family history, or grating personality.
You may find racist divisions splitting the already small Christian body, and churches led by pastors unwilling to address the issue.
You may find that your fellow missionaries are skeptical as to whether a church should even be planted.
You may find a community of missionaries who are unwilling to define the gospel or conversion; who are embarrassed about the doctrine of hell; who are opposed to ever correcting the teaching of local pastors.
You may find teammates who are clear on the importance of doctrine in conversation, but are weary of striving to stay true to their convictions in practice.
Let me be clear. Each of these scenarios is bad. Each one is also a real-life example—and for each one, the road to a healthy situation is long.
Challenge 2: Ambiguous Situations
There are also many scenarios that can look like they belong in the list of bad ones. And given that your leaders on the field have lived in that ambiguity for longer than you, the established response will sometimes look … ambiguous. It will be easy for you to assume that your team leader’s decision to not give a Bible to the guy who shows up at your door asking for one is a decision of cowardice and unfaithfulness; but you don’t know that that guy has asked every foreigner in the city for a Bible and reported them all to the authorities as illegal proselytizers, just for a quick buck. You may perceive the decision not to meet with local believers as an act of dividing the body of Christ according to ethnicity; but it may be driven by a desire to preserve local believers from the scrutiny to which all foreigners in the city are subjected.
Such ambiguities are ripe grounds for producing conflict between team members and local believers, especially when the established practices seem to be disregarding and dishonoring Scripture. Wisdom and humility are necessary––attributes we often lack when the right course seems clear to us and not to others.
Ministry is not just hard on your emotions. It’s also hard on your convictions. The challenges you will face will tempt you in different ways, depending on your disposition. But those temptations are fundamentally the same, whether your disposition is to give up or give in. It’s the temptation to believe that you are best suited to determine what really matters in cross-cultural discipleship, that you know best when God should move in a particular situation, that your imagined version of your life and ministry would be better for God’s purposes than the reality in which He’s placed you.
Jesus told us our commission is to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). Making disciples who observe all of Christ’s teaching takes time. Long-suffering patience is necessary for the walk from foolish and feeble to wise and faithful.
It takes patience to persevere in prayer for conversions, healthy churches, and godly church leaders. Be like the persistent widow (Luke 18:1–8). It takes patience to invest in one or two disciples when the larger church is swept up in false doctrine. Be like the Good Shepherd (John 10:1–18). It takes patience to have discussions and debates on doctrine and principles that last not days or weeks, but years. Be like God, who is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9).
Real life is always messy. But confidence in the Lord—that He will keep his promise that His Word will not return to him void (Isaiah 55:11), that he will complete the good work he begins in his people (Philippians 1:6)—such confidence means that when reality doesn’t match our convictions, we must not give up or give in. If our doctrinal convictions are not biblical, they weren’t worth holding in the first place. If they are biblical, they are never worth abandoning.
Pray for enduring, long-suffering patience. Build your convictional pain-tolerance so you can be humble in learning, charitable in correcting, and gracious in living.