If you read missionary literature or listen to talks on the missionary call, there are lots of qualities that come up as essential to being a missionary: a commitment to God and the Great Commission, a love for the lost, flexibility, ability to learn language and work as a team, and so forth. Together with a good grasp of doctrine and the fruit of the Spirit, these are all really important for both becoming a missionary and remaining a missionary. I specifically say “remaining” a missionary because the qualities that lead a person and their church to think they are ready to become a missionary are not all that’s needed to survive and thrive in cross-cultural ministry over the long-haul.
In that vein, I’d like to “fill out” the above list of missionary qualities with some rarely mentioned but equally essential qualities that all cross-cultural missionary should have. Or if they don’t have them, they need to develop them. Otherwise their overseas ministry will be a short one.
1. A Sense of Adventure
I almost hesitate to use the word “adventure” here because the last thing needed on the mission field is a bunch of thrill-seekers looking for exotic experiences and cool selfies. Missionary work is not about being Indiana Jones. But it does require a willingness to embrace all sorts of new experiences and step into the unknown, not knowing how everything will turn out. This is true not only in the initial stages of language and culture learning as a new missionary, but also once someone has been on the field for years. There are always new people you encounter and new places to visit, and you’re not sure what is going to happen. All sorts of people respond to the Gospel in a variety of ways, not always positive. Government policies change and even renewing a visa or re-entering the country can be an adventure because it is not a sure thing that you’ll get that visa or be allowed back in. The house you are renting can be sold out from under you and you need to make a quick move. Teammates or national co-workers can turn on you. The political situation or your own health can go south. A local Christian invites you to travel out to some location that you’ve never heard of or even understand where it is or what he hopes you will do there. But sometimes you go anyhow and see what will happen. Sometimes you need to eat something which you are not really sure what it is but you do it anyhow… because politeness! There are all sorts of exciting adventures in cross-cultural missions work, together with some mystery and drama. If you can’t embrace that and trust God with whatever happens, the result will be more anxiety and frustration that you can handle.
2. A Sense of Humor
It has been said that we should take God seriously but not ourselves. If it is true anywhere, it is certainly true in cross-cultural missions work. You’ll make too many mistakes and see too many odd things that don’t make sense to not laugh. You’ll mess up, your teammates will mess up, and you’ll just have to laugh. Perhaps like me you are tall and you will hit your head on doorframes, arches, signs, and other everyday architectural items designed for people with a shorter average height than your home country. And people will laugh at you! Can you be okay with that or will you get angry at them? Language bloopers are hilarious when they happen to other people, but what about when they happen to you? If something is genuinely funny, even if it happens to you, it is important to be able to laugh at yourself. A number of years ago, I started a sermon at my mission organization’s annual conference by giving a dramatic retelling of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18:9-14. As I reached the dramatic final sentence of the parable, I lifted my hands up and said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exhausted.” After a split second of silence the entire room of people broke out into uproarious laughter. I put my head on the pulpit and had a bit of chuckle too. If I was listening to me, I’d have to laugh too. Being able to laugh at yourself and the odd things happening around you is medicine for the soul and can greatly enhance your enjoyment of life in a context where even everyday life can have a lot of challenges.
3. A Willingness to Look Like an Idiot
This point is directly connect to the previous one. The nature of living cross-culturally and trying to do ministry in a foreign context means that sometimes you will look like an idiot and an ignoramus. Literally EVERYONE around you knows the protocol for this or that and you are the odd man out who does something completely bizarre and unexpected that highlights your ignorance. A senior missionary colleague once shared the story of his first time in Thailand taking a bath, while staying as a guest in a Thai home. In the bathroom, aside from the toilet and sink, was a large rectangular stone basin filled with water. Not being sure exactly how to take a bath (or shower?), he undressed and got into the stone basin like you would a bathtub and washed himself down. Only after the fact, when talking to his hosts, did he discover that he was supposed to scoop water out of the basin and pour it over himself while standing on the floor, not get into the basin. Instead, he had compromised their entire basin of clean water by getting soap in it. He felt foolish as well as guilty for forcing his hosts to drain their basin and get new water. But we live and learn, right? And part of learning is accepting the fact that as we attempt great things for God, sometimes we look like idiots because we don’t know what we are doing.
4. A High Tolerance for Ambiguity
If I had a 5 baht coin for every time I wasn’t sure what was going on around me on the mission field, I’d be a rich man. This is certainly true in language learning because communicating in a foreign language always involves a certain bit of guess work, although admittedly much less after you’ve been there for 10 years as opposed to 10 days. But even if you can understand the local language to a very high level, there will still be some words or expressions that you don’t know despite having been there for many years. And some languages just have a built-in ambiguity to them which can be helpful or frustrating depending on what you want to accomplish. Add to that cultures that practice indirect communication and have a loose understanding of “on time”, and there is all sorts of ambiguity going on. Although I have had to learn to think in a more nuanced and open-handed kind of way, I am by nature a black-and-white kind of person, and I want clear answers to all my questions. However, such answers are not always available. When I was teaching English at a government college in central Thailand, I attended with other teachers the funeral of a faculty member whom I didn’t know. I wanted to show participation and support, though since it was a Buddhist funeral, I knew that as a Christian, I didn’t want to participate in all parts of the ceremony. But when I asked a Thai teacher I was with about the Buddhist or spiritual meaning of this or that, I only got answers like “I don’t know” or “It’s fine” or “don’t worry about it.” Those answers didn’t help me very much in knowing how to appropriately participate in a Buddhist funeral as a Christian. But in life, especially life and ministry in a cross-cultural setting, we often have to make decisions and act without having all the information we wish we had. Are you okay with ambiguity? I am not. But I am learning to live with it and be okay with not knowing or understanding sometimes. As I mentioned in my first point, we often need to go with what is happening and trust God, even as we seek to learn more and to be as faithful to God as we can given the circumstances.
In summary, mission work in a cross-cultural setting can be fantastic but it comes with a whole host of challenges that need to be embraced rather than avoided. If you are a missionary, you may not always be sure what is happening around you, what you are doing (or should be doing), or what will happen as a result. But that’s okay. Life with God, and life on the mission field, is all about getting back up after you fall, learning from mistakes, and trying again. You may not be sure what you are doing, but go for it anyhow and don’t be afraid to have a laugh at yourself if something funny happens or plans don’t work out anything like you thought they might. God is faithful and His plans are sure.