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Three Common Misconceptions among Aspiring Missionaries

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My freshman year in college I heard a missions speaker that God used to challenge me to make all my life decisions through the grid of the Great Commission. Christ’s last words given to His followers to direct their lives was God’s impression on my heart as well. The grid included who I was to date, what I was to study, and what I would choose as my vocation for my life. I would always be a disciple maker who happened to be a salesman, translator, pastor, or even a missionary. I would, by the grace of God, find my life partner (committed to the same grid) and we would have the joy of raising a family while serving God among unreached peoples in Latin America, North Africa, and North America. In each location our joy was making disciples and seeing God’s church planted. 

From my college days, many wanted to be involved in missions and even aspired to serve full-time overseas, but over the years only a few made those steps. After reflecting on the realities of many aspiring but few attaining, I believe a few misconceptions may have stopped them mid-course. 

Misconception #1: Missions is more about an activity than living out Christ’s call on our life. Becoming a missionary is not primarily about a trip or a job but rather it is a leveraging of one’s life to cross cultural barriers for the sake of Christ’s name. The good news is always on their lips, their prayers are for those without hope, and their energy is given to sharing God’s love where it is not known. As their salvation is in Christ, so also their mission is in Christ, and through their surrendered identity and passions, Christ empowers their life.  

Misconception #2: Making disciples here is not relevant to our future service overseas. I once interviewed and trained missionaries going overseas. During the time I was directing missionary orientation, more than 1500 laborers came through the program. Many remarked that they had no recent growth in their personal walk with Christ (personal prayer/Bible study), nor had they been involved in regularly sharing their faith with the lost or been in relationships with new believers. They had been focused on theological preparation and routine church activity but had little time to give to their own walk with Christ and His charge to personally make disciples.  It has been said that it takes twenty-one days to develop a habit, so I challenged them to focus on the right spiritual habits starting today. If they were unable to live effectively on mission in their own culture and context, how would they expect to be an effective gospel witness in a new language and culture? 

Misconception #3: Caring for needs around the world is enough for a missionary call. Simply knowing and caring more about the needs and opportunities in the world is insufficient in terms of preparation for knowing one’s call. A need does not elicit a call. If that were so, many more people would be serving in this capacity.

First, believers should consider how to be faithful in their present location (Luke 16:10) and then, as they grow in Christ, God will show them how He has designed them for His purpose. Second, more important than researching information and amassing air miles is prayer. Paul notes that “. . . in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you” (2 Corinthians 9:14, NIV). Prayer is an important catalyst that moves the laborer into a life of service. 

Just as a babe in Christ needs to grow in Christ in order to know and use the gifts Christ has given him, so a disciple who aspires to serve in missions among the unreached must start with his or her own spiritual growth in community. Having the needed gifts without the needed maturity will lead to chaos and ineffectiveness, neither of which are God’s plan.   

Instead, go deeper where you are, serve and share Christ with your neighbors and community, and lastly, as you grow a heart for God’s world, be committed to take steps to grow into a laborer who goes the distance. Make prayer for the nations a pattern of life.  

Yesterday a missionary overseas shared with me that she had been sharing Christ ten to twelve hours a day in a specific location. While sharing, she mentioned under her breath that she felt she was doing what she was made for. However, she did not get there overnight, nor was she accepted the first time she applied, nor is she serving where she first thought she wanted to go.  God saw fit to move her through her obedience to Him to a place where she is sharing Christ with women who have never heard the gospel. This process of growth was God’s refining fire for her to now be used effectively for the kingdom. May all aspiring missionaries seize the day with this goal in mind!

Brian Harper, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife Laura, where he serves as Missions Pastor at Celebration. For the last 25 years they have served with the IMB in North Africa, NAMB in Seattle/NYC and in several churches as a missions and church planting pastor and/or consultant.
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