MR #10: Qualities of Effective Missionaries
In effective missionary churches written policies almost always guide missions decision-making. One section of these guidelines typically outlines the qualities of effective missionaries, thus defining the type of missionaries that the church is willing to support. Although policies may differ in their description of the missionaries they wish to support, the following five qualities are essential.
First, missionaries must have emotional stability. Missionary work is hard! Those ministering cross-culturally, if they are to be effective, must learn to speak other languages, learn new cultures, and speak God’s eternal message in changing earthly contexts. Interpersonal relationships with teammates, themselves going through cultural stress and work anxiety, amplify tension. Only the emotionally stable should make the commitment for long-term, cross-cultural missions.
Emotional stability of missionary candidates can be most effectively ascertained through psychological testing done by Christian psychologists who have an understanding of missions. In addition, emotional stability should be evaluated through personal contact with the sending church before departure for the field. Missions leaders should expect the future missionaries to work with their congregation in specific ministry for approximately six months before departure for the field.
Second, missionaries must have spiritual maturity. They cannot effectively preach the gospel by their own initiative and power. They are mere “jars of clay”, who demonstrate that the “all-surpassing power” employed in Christian ministry is “from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). They join God in His work rather than God joining us in our work. Missions is thus a “supernatural work” done by the power of God. Therefore, missionaries must be people who are on their knees before God in prayer, whose worship acknowledges Jehovah as God and who study the Bible not only to prepare sermons and lessons but also to reflect upon God’s will in their own lives. Missionaries must have an intimate relationship with God, which influences who they are and how they relate to others. They are increasingly transformed into God’s likeness as they look upon Him (2 Cor. 3:18).
During the missionary selection process, congregational missions leaders should evaluate the spiritual maturity of prospective missionaries by interviewing teachers, mentors, converts, and friends. The sending church should also observe the prayer habits of the prospective missionaries during the congregational involvement period before departure.
Third, missionaries must be effective teachers of the Word of God. Teaching a Christian worldview as revealed by God in scripture is integral to the missionary task. We should, therefore, send missionaries to foreign mission fields who have taught the gospel to unbelievers in their own culture and have empathetically nurtured new disciples to Christian maturity.
Missions leaders should interview teachers who have trained the prospective missionaries asking them to evaluate the candidates’ teaching ability. Prospective missionaries should also teach in various evangelistic and church contexts during the time that they are interviewing with the church.
Four, missionaries must have effective interpersonal communication skills. After reviewing this list of missionary qualities, Winfred Wright, elder of the College church in Searcy, Arkansas, and past missionary to France, said, “Of all these characteristics, interpersonal skills are the most important and intangible. Many desiring to be missionaries lack these skills.” These interpersonal abilities are largely formed through parental, sibling, and other relational influences as we are growing up. They are difficult to learn as adults. Cultural personalities also vary from continent to continent and from country to country. A dominant extrovert may be more effective in a machismo culture in Latin America or Southern Europe while an introvert may work best in the respectful, reserved cultures of Asia. Despite personality fit, however, all missionaries must have the ability to empathetically enter into the culture where they will minister.
Interpersonal skills are perhaps the hardest quality to measure objectively. Probably the best evaluators of these skills are again the past teachers of the missionary candidates. Missions leaders should also observe the candidates’ interpersonal skills while they engage in ministry with the congregation before they leave.
Five, missionaries must have the aptitude and training to effectively plant churches, nurture new Christians to maturity, and equip national church leaders for Christian service. These are the essential tasks of missions. While other tasks may amplify these central ones, a strong movement of God cannot come into being without their accomplishment. Too often missions is understood as performing specific ministries (youth, music, children) among Christians of other lands much like full-time ministers do in the United States. National Christians of these lands, however, can almost always perform these tasks more effectively than missionaries once they are nurtured to Christian maturity. The primary tasks of missionaries, then, are establishing beachheads of the gospel in unreached areas and providing focused equipping to local Christians to carry on ministry within their own cultures. Missionaries should always be “working themselves out of a job.”
Missionaries must be thoroughly trained to enter new cultures and lay the foundations of the gospel. The task is not a simple one. Before leaving for the field they should either study the language of the country into which they are going or have taken a linguistics course equipping them to learn a new language on the field. They should study anthropology in order to develop a process for learning a new culture and deciphering its worldview. They must also develop methodologies and strategies to plant and nurture new churches and to equip developing national church leaders within these churches. Although still novices at these tasks, they have prepared themselves with diligence for long-term missionary service.
Too frequently the need for training for these specialized cross-cultural tasks is negated. David Hesselgrave, professor emeritus of Missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and long-term missionary in Japan, tells of a conversation with a Japanese monk training missionaries of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect numbering ten million worldwide. The monk asked, “Why do you send unprepared missionaries to Japan who have little understanding of our language, culture, and religion?” Dr. Hesselgrave explained the Christian understanding of the “priesthood of all believers”—the belief that the average person should be able to share the Christian message of salvation. The Buddhist monk was shocked and retorted, “We send out trained professionals, who will have a much greater impact upon the world than your lay priests!”
Focused training in missions and Bible at our Christian schools is a must before missionaries are sent to the field. Missions leaders of local churches should require such training of otherwise qualified personnel.
Understanding these five qualities is essential to the important task of selecting long-term field missionaries. Missions leaders of local churches must comprehend and carefully employ these criteria to ensure the quality of the missionaries they support. No missionary task in the local church is more important than this one. Without qualified missionaries there can be no effective missions on the field.