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Overall missionary attrition may not be sky rocketing, but it sure seems like it. Every time I turn around, there is someone else packing up and going home.
Some attrition is normal as people enter different stages of life, and family or ministry circumstances / callings change.
But some attrition is unfortunate and preventable.
Although it is sometimes the missionaries themselves who have issues, other times it is their mission agency and/or supporting church(es) who have failed them. And in the messiness of real life, sometimes it is a combination of both missionary and agency, of uncontrollable and controllable factors.
In the past, I have written some positive posts about language study, the importance of friends, pre-field training, etc. But in the current post, I want to approach missionary attrition a bit more negatively, in hopes that a bit of cynicism might help us consider how to prevent attrition. So, without any further ado, here are 10 ways that mission agencies, churches, and others (including missionaries themselves) can speed up unanticipated departures from the mission field.
Forrest McPhail, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings”, 2014, 148 pages.
I don’t read a whole lot of missions and church planting books, partly because I have read a lot in the past, and partly because many do a poor job of combining a high view of Scripture and church, with a practical understanding of the realities of church planting on the mission field. Forrest McPhail’s book, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” is different.
In this short book (150 pages), McPhail is thinking biblically and theologically, but also very practically. Some church planting books are theologically sound, but don’t do anything to address non-Western contexts or pioneer mission fields. Other church planting books focus on majority world contexts, but seem to have forgotten that there is more to theology than telling people to mine the book of Acts for methodical insights. McPhail is able to straddle the great divide and apply Scriptural truths to a distinctively non-Western church planting context, in his case rural Cambodia.
In this book review, I want to briefly summarize the basic contents of the book, together with some of my own commentary, so that potential readers can decide whether they want to read it. And I hope that people do read it because this is a great little book about missionary church planting.
For many missionaries, the road to the mission field is a long one. From the time that they first decide to go, to the time that they actually go, it can be many years. There have been applications, candidate courses, church visits, theological studies, support raising, and a thousand other things to be done before they can finally leave.
But that day does come. And it is fantastic. You are finally there! After so much preparation and waiting, it is time to begin the ministry that you’ve been dreaming of.
First comes language study. After all the hurdles that it has taken to get to the mission field, it feels like once you get there, it is time to begin what you’ve always wanted to do. But you can’t. Alas, there is more waiting to do before you get good enough in the local language to say the things that you’ve so desperately wanted to say to the people that you’ve come to serve. But for the moment, you are in no condition to serve anyone because you don’t even know where to pay your electric bill or ask for simple items at the store. But that’s okay, because as you buckle down into language study, your ability to fend for yourself grows by leaps and bounds each day. Everything you are learning is immediately applicable to daily life. Numbers. Colors. Weather. Food. Directions. Months of the year. Past, present, and future tense. You are barely a few months into language study and you can do so much already. Okay, so you can’t share the Gospel yet but, you just wait! At this rate, I’ll be preaching in the streets a year from now.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fluency.
When I sit down to write a prayer letter, I often feel like I need to come up with something new and exciting to tell my supporters. After all, they are giving lots of money and praying for us, so I should have something significant to report, thereby justifying my existence. But I often have trouble figuring out what to write. Most of the work we are involved is in the category of “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” and not in the category of “awesome-ground-breaking-pioneer-ministry-look-what-we’ve-done-now!” Thankfully, the vast majority of our supporters seem to understand that fruitfulness in ministry is a long-term, Holy Spirit wrought endeavor, not just a list of man-driven activities. Nonetheless, I would feel bad just writing, “Same as last month. Keep praying. Thanks” and then sign off. So I need to write something. It needs to be accurate, informative, interesting, and not overstate the what we are really doing. On slow months, when not much new is happening, that last one is difficult.
From time to time, future missionaries who are preparing to come out to Thailand ask me for advice about Thai language study options. In this post, I want to give an overview of what is out there, together with links that will with help you do further research about where to study.
If you are looking for a formal Thai language school, you will most likely need to go to either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. You can find someone to try to tutor you privately anywhere in the country, but the quality will varying widely and you may not get the type of teaching you are looking for. To get a solid foundation in Thai, you need to learn the tonal and pronunciation system, as well as the writing system, all of which need concerted time and effort. Thai is not like some European languages that you can pick up as you go.
I often get emails or Facebook messages from people who want to know how to become a missionary. They sense God’s call but don’t know where to start. Who should I go with? How do I prepare? Can I support myself? Do I need shots?Actually, I should probably step back a moment. Apparently, they do know where to start: Google. That’s how they end up on my website, sending me an email asking where to start.Since I get email inquiries like this somewhat frequently, I thought it would be helpful to do a post on how to move from “I want to be a missionary” to actually going to the field. There is no precise formula but here are some practical steps that should get potential missionaries going in the right direction.
1. Talk to Your Church
Talk to your church leaders. It is amazing how many people start researching and contacting missions agencies without first bringing their church in on their plans. Missionaries are sent out from, and are responsible to their local church. You need to be a member in good standing in a church, and have the support and endorsement of your church in order to go forward. Talk to the pastor and elders of your church (but not 5 minutes before the Sunday worship service begins). Tell them your desire to be a missionary and get their thoughts. If you’ve been a member of that church for a decent period of time, and been involved there, then your church leaders should have a good sense as to whether you are ready to go out to the mission field, and they may have some advice and/or requirements for you. Please listen to their advice and guidance, even if they don't think you're ready yet or have some things they'd like you to do first (like formal Bible school training, for example) before you go to the field. Not all churches know what to do with someone who volunteers for missionary service but hopefully, if you are in a decent Gospel preaching church then your church leaders are concerned for your spiritual growth and service in God's kingdom. They are on your side. If you are going to go the mission field, you will need their support and partnership. It is never too soon to start that conversation and get them involved in the process.
2. Talk to Your Family
If you are young and single, it is highly advisable to talk this through with your parents, whether they are Christians or not. Some people find that their parents are initially opposed but warm up to the idea over time as they learn more information, as you pray for them, and talk with them.
If you are married, both you and your spouse need to be sold on the idea of being missionaries, otherwise this plane will never get off the ground. Or it will get off the ground and be a very short trip. Men, make sure your wife really wants to be a missionary too, and is not just going along with you in order to be submissive. It will not work. Many couples are not initially both on board with the idea of being missionaries, but you can embark upon a discernment process together, praying and talking about your developing thoughts on the matter over a period of time. If God wants you as a couple, and as a family, to go to the mission field then eventually He will bring both spouses to that conviction. Don’t rush this.
3. Talk with Those You Trust
Talk with those whom you know and trust, and ask them, “Knowing what you do about me, could you see me being a missionary?” If you have a close friend who can be brutally honest with you, that would be great. If the Lord’s people say to you, “Yeah, I could see you doing that” then it is a good sign. If they are not sure, don’t take that as a “stop” sign but rather a call to more carefully re-evaluate and see if there are some things that need changing before you are ready for such a move. Also, if you want to be a missionary but are not sure if you can do it, other people may be able to give you that confidence boost that you need to move forward. Sometimes other people know us better and see more potential in us than we do ourselves.
4. Take the Perspectives Course
Offered all over the United States (and in some other countries, I think), the Perspective Course on the World Christian Movement has a lot of really good info about missions, from the standpoint of the Bible, history, culture, and strategy. Not everyone will agree with every part of the course material as it runs the gamut as far as evangelical missions goes. But overall, I think that it is really worthwhile to orient you to what is going on in missions today, and it will help you think about the options out there as your discern your next steps. See http://www.perspectives.org for more info and to find a class in your area. Alternatively, you could take a missions course at a local bible college or seminary, or online.
5. Research Opportunities to Serve
If you get some positive encouragement towards full time missions when you pray with your family/spouse, and talk with church leadership, then start investigating opportunities to serve. Get suggestions for agencies from your church leadership. If your church is part of a denomination, then your denominational missions agency should probably be your first stop in checking out opportunities to serve. You also might ask what organizations the missionaries supported by your church serve with? Write to them and see if they like their organizations. Missions organizations can look very similar on the surface, but if you dig a little you’ll find that they all have distinctives that will make them either a good fit or a bad fit for you. Types of ministry, location, theology, and many other variables determine which group you should serve with.After looking at websites, send some emails and make some phone calls to organizations that look like they might be a good fit. Not everything available is on the website, especially for missionary service in countries that don’t give missionary visas. If you actually talk with a living, breathing person at a missions organization, they might have some ideas and advice that you wouldn't have run into just by doing an online search.
After doing some data collection and talking to people, you could go for a short-term trip initially to survey the options. Or you could go out for 1-3 years initially to get some more experience, and then if God confirms that that is the place for you, then you could go longer term. Or you could just go long-term directly. Getting some Bible school / seminary classes in preparation for long term service is highly recommended. Increasingly, some Bible college and seminary courses can be done online so you might even be able to serve on the mission field while doing formal Bible training at the same time. Either way, don’t sell yourself short in preparation just because you want to get out to the mission field right away.Hopefully the above five tips will get you started in the right direction. Now you know where to start, so get out there and find your calling!
For Further Reading
How God Called Me to Be a MissionaryHow to Prepare for Missionary ServiceYour Wife Must Be a Missionary TooHudson Taylor on Essential Missionary QualitiesDo You Need a Bible Degree to Be a Long-Term Missionary?Where Do Missionaries Get Their Money?Four Reasons Missionaries Fail to Learn the LanguageENTER YOUR EMAIL TO GET NEW POSTS IN YOUR INBOX Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz
When Adoniram and Ann Judson set sail for India in 1812, they had no idea of the hardship that lay ahead of them. After being denied access to India, they sailed to Burma. On the way there, their first child was born on the ship. He was stillborn and buried at sea. Their second child, Roger, was born in Burma. He died before his second birthday. Their third child, Maria, was born while Adoniram was being held in a Burmese death prison under suspicion of being a British spy. After he was released to interpret between the British and the Burmese, his wife Ann died, and two months later baby Maria followed her to the grave. Adoniram poured himself into his translation work to drown the pain, but eventually fled to the jungle to live as a recluse, contemplating death. But he did not go over the brink. God returned him to useful service in Bible translation and itinerant evangelism, keeping him faithful to the end. What kept Adoniram and Ann going in the midst of such hardship and repeated devastating loss? Why did they not go crazy under the pressure and grief like Dorothy Carey did?
Sometimes there are situations where a man feels called to the mission field, but his wife doesn't, but they go anyhow because the wife wants to be submissive to her husband. While this is admirable, it is unwise. Moving overseas is a huge commitment, and a huge lifestyle change for the whole family. It is totally unlike staying in your home country where family life might look similar regardless of whether the husband is a pastor or businessman or plumber. It is unwise for a couple to go to the mission field thinking that only the husband is the missionary. Both husband and wife must think of themselves as missionaries, and be committed to the calling that God has placed on their lives together. In cases where the wife merely follows on the husband’s coat tails, these couples don't last long on the mission field. The wife often ends up resentful of having to do something she really didn't want to do to begin with. Unless you are convinced that God has called you to the mission field, the stress from living in another language and culture (FAR from family back home) is too much to endure. Men, if you want to be a missionary, make sure you take the necessary time, together with your wife, to pray and talk about it and discern together if God is calling you as a family to go. And if your wife is not on board 100%, don’t go.
In my first post, I gave a number of reasons why doing long-term ministry through translation is a bad idea. Most missionaries would agree with me in principle, but in reality some of them have a low proficiency in the local language after years of being on the field. Why does this happen?
Sometimes there is the temptation to over-spiritualize God’s ability to work in spite of weakness. Many will say, “My language isn’t very good, but God will use me anyhow.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement, and I would encourage new missionaries and short-termers do their best with what they’ve got, and to trust the results to God. But if you are saying that same thing after being on the field for 10 years, there may be a problem.
God does work supernaturally in many ways and on many occasions, but the fact of the matter is that God usually uses natural means to accomplish his will. We can’t count on Pentecost happening everyday. God is sovereign but He still expects us to use the means and resources that he’s given us in order to carry out His Sovereign Will. That means many long hours and years of language study, both formal and informal.
Contest is now over. The two winners have been notified via email. Thank you to everyone who participated!
I love getting good resources into the hands of people who can use them so I am running a missions books giveaway for three quality missions books. I will select two winners from everyone who enters and each person will receive a set of these three books.“Help, My Halo is Slipping” by Larry DinkinsExtremely readable little book (about 100 pages) about Larry Dinkins and his family’s life as new missionaries in Thailand in the 1980s. Things in Thailand have changed somewhat in the thirty years since this was written, but it still gives a very good picture of life on the mission field, especially in Thailand. (Larry has written a number of guest posts on my blog, which you can see here)
It is sometimes tempting to think that God is hiding his will from us. We are tempted to think God is mean and doesn’t want us to find out. For some reason, He wants to make it hard, and wants us to be confused. But does this sound like our heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us? “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)Our heavenly Father is good! He wants us to know him and wants to give us good things! I don’t mean that He promises good health, abundant wealth, or no problems. Actually, he promises suffering for those who follow him (2 Tim 3:12). In the midst of challenge and difficulty, He leads us and guides us. Do we trust that He is good enough and sovereign enough to lead us to where He wants us to go?
W. Austin Garder and Tony Howeth, “The Deputation Manual for Missionaries,” BCWE Publisher, Inc., 2006. Kindle Edition- reviewed by Karl Dahlfred“How do you get so many supporting churches?!” This was my question to a missionary friend who kept posting Facebook and Twitter updates about all his new supporters and new supporting churches from around the U.S. Five new churches here, four new supporters there, and more than a thousand people following his Facebook page... and he hasn’t even been to the field yet. Since my wife and I were at the end of our home assignment and needing to get our financial support back up, I wanted to know how he was doing it. He sent me the link to this book: “The Deputation Manual for Missionaries” by Austin Gardner and Tony Howeth.Our own support seemed to be slow in coming in, so I was open to suggestions. And since it was a Kindle book for only $0.99, I downloaded it right away and dove in.
If you are going on short-term mission trip for the first time, it can be overwhelming to think about the amount of money that you need to raise. How do you go about asking people for money?…. oh, and prayer too, of course! The purpose of this post is to provide a quick start guide to writing prayer / support letters for those going on short-term (or not so short-term) missions trips.
First, we need to remember that don’t write prayer letters just because we need money. Even if we were independently wealthy and could pay our own way five times over, we would still want to write prayer letters to people because a mission trip is a spiritual endeavor. A prayer letter is an opportunity for you to invite people who know you to be involved in what you are doing and in what God is doing in another part of the world.
As my wife explained to a long-time friend how we need to get our support back up before returning to Thailand, a puzzled look came over her face. “Don’t they pay you a salary?” Actually, they don’t! The idea that missionaries get paid a salary just like an employee at any other company is one of the biggest misconceptions about missionary support that I’ve run into. And I know that my wife and I are not the only ones who’ve encountered it.
Unlike NGOs who apply for grants to fund their operations and pay salaries, missionary organizations generally don’t have those funding sources available to them. So where do missionaries get their money? In this post, I want to briefly explain the three major ways that missionaries are funded. I hope that this will be a help for those interested in becoming missionaries, for those who wonder how missionaries get their money, and for missionaries who want to help their friends and supporters understand their circumstances.
There are some missionaries who don’t need any external financial support from churches or individuals. Some of these self-funded missionaries go to the field when they are older and have retirement savings to live on. Others may have served in the military for twenty and have a government pension to live on. Others are bivocational missionaries who have regular secular employment in the country where they serve. The school where they teach or the business they run provide ample income for them to live and minister. Within this category, we might add those missionaries who are partially self-funded. They have an internal source of income that contributes to, but does not provide fully, for all of their needs. So, they still need traditional missionary support in addition to whatever pension or local salary they draw from.
There are some church denominations who fully fund all missionaries who are accepted to work under their denominational mission board. The biggest of these is the Southern Baptist Convention, although the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church use the same type of pooling system. On the plus side, missionaries who get their money this way don’t have to be concerned about raising or maintaining a certain level of financial support. On the down side, there is sometimes less personal connection and commitment between local churches and individual missionaries. And, more significantly, if the denominational mission board needs to make budget cuts, they may eliminate funding for your position, or for your entire field of service. Under this system, there is still occasion for missionaries to need funding for exceptional needs above and beyond what is in their normal budget. However, regular living and ministry expenses are covered by the denomination.
Individual & Church Funded Missionaries
The majority of missionaries rely upon the generous donations of individuals and churches to make up their budget for living and ministry costs. Whether they are working under their denominational mission board or an independent or inter-denominational mission organization, it is up the missionaries themselves to find their own support. This generally involves contacting individuals, families, and churches to see if they want to partner with them in prayer and finances. In the American context, some missionaries are quite forward and will solicit money directly, asking you to consider a gift of $50, $100, or more on a monthly basis. Others merely present their ministry, ask for prayer, make their needs known, and leave it up to the individual/church and God. The best, or most biblical way to go about support raising is a huge topic in itself but it will suffice for now to note that the majority of missionaries cannot do what they do without the voluntary financial support of local churches and individual believers.
Transparency in Finances
The question of missionary finances can be mystifying at times, for all involved. Churches want to know, “Does this missionary really need money? How much? How will the money be used? Are they doing a ministry that we want to support? How do we ask this missionary about finances without seeming too nosy?” Missionaries want to know, “How interested is this church in supporting with us? Is there any rhyme or reason behind how much they give or don’t give? How can I be upfront with my financial needs without seeming like a mercenary?” Supporters (and potential supporters) want to know, “Does this missionary need my support? Will my contribution really make a difference? Or will it just go into some organizational blackhole somewhere?” Not everybody has the same questions about missionary finances but regardless of where someone stands, missionaries and those who support them should be brave enough to ask good questions and openly communicate about finances as needed. Personally, I do not like to seem like a salesman. But at the same time I know there are people who are interested in what my family and I need as missionaries and want to help us if they are able. But they are not going to know unless I tell them. The most helpful guideline that I’ve heard regarding communicating about money is, “Share about finances commensurate with interest.”
Dependent on God’s Provision
There are pluses and minuses of each model of missionary support and many missionaries, at one time or another, wonder if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But what type of support is best for a given missionary (and his family) will depend upon one’s home church and sending organization. At the end of the day, however, all missionaries are dependent upon God to provide the resources that they need to do what God has called them to do. My wife and I are thankful for the many churches and individuals that provide our support and trust God to raise up new supporters at the right time when current supporters are no longer able to give or when needs increase.“God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply.” - J. Hudson Taylor
Many times it is assumed that theological education around the globe can be done basically the same way everywhere, namely the way it is done in the West. But in many cases, a cut-and-paste approach to theological education and pastoral training isn’t nearly as effective as some would like to think that it is.
To get some more insight into the nature and challenges of theological education in Asia (and Thailand in particular), I recently interviewed Daniel Kim, director of Chiang Mai Theological Seminary and a missionary church planter in Thailand with OMF International.KD: Could you share briefly about your background, and how you came to be involved in theological education in Thailand?
DK: Korea is my physical birth place. U.S.A. is my spiritual birth place. And Thailand is my missional place. My life has been an exciting journey like the life of Daniel in the OT. I am a trilingual and multicultural person.
In response to my recent post on "Do You Need a Bible Degree to be a Long Term Missionary?", I received the following testimony of a theological student who found his training to be surprisingly relevant on a trip to the Muslim world. For those who are considering doing missions in the Muslim World (or elsewhere), and wondering whether their Western course of theological studies will really help them, Chris' experience should be a helpful encouragement:
"In June 2009, after one year of academic study on the "Theology and World Mission Course" at Oak Hill Theological College, London, I jetted off to a Muslim-majority country for a summer of overseas gospel ministry. As I sat on the 13-hour flight, it was easy to imagine the potential payback of classes I'd taken on Mark's Gospel and the Pentateuch. But, what of the other subjects: abstract, academic and arduous? Would trinitarian theology, critical modern scholarship, Hebrew and Greek pull their weight as well? Or would they turn out to be no more than expensive excess baggage?
Because the need for people to hear the Gospel on the mission field is so urgent, it is sometimes claimed that doing a lot of Biblical studies or earning a degree in Bible is not necessary to be a long-term missionary. “People just need the basic Gospel, and you don’t need a degree for that”, it has been said. There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, once someone becomes a Christian, you need to disciple them. And you’ll need to help new believers form themselves into a church community. And to do that, a missionary is going to need to know a LOT more than just a basic Gospel outline.
A pastor friend recently emailed, asking “I was wondering if I could get some tips from a missionary on preparing a short term mission trip for about eight people this summer. Also, if I get a pool of people how what is the best way to choose who goes?” I am far from an expert on short-term missions but I have gone on, lead, and hosted enough short-term mission teams to have some thoughts on the subject. So, for the benefit of others who may find themselves in the same boat as my pastor friend, I include below some answers to his questions, together with links to articles about the nature and purpose of short-term missions (links are at the end of this post)
Having missionary teammates and local co-laborers in the Gospel can be great... if they are the right people. Having the wrong people on your team can cause great heartache and frustration. We know that life is hard and ministry is hard, and we’ll never agree 100% with anyone all of the time... nor they with us. Yet, as my wife and I think about some of the challenges that we have faced during this term, we have realized the absolute necessity of having like-minded co-workers in ministry. We are praying for like-minded teammates (Thai and missionary) and brainstorming about who we can recruit to come join us on a new church planting team in the future. A lot could be said about the type of co-workers we are looking for but the following quote from Hudson Taylor lays down the foundational qualities necessary for anyone who wants to be a missionary. These are the kind of people we need.“In encouraging other young men to come out as missionaries, do us the greatest concern. One strong-headed, contentious, obstinate man would ruin us. Humble men, of sound, sterling talents (though, perhaps not brilliant) quiet, persevering men, of decent accomplishments and some natural aptitude to acquire language; men of amiable yielding temper, willing to take the lowest place, to be least of all and the servant of all; men who enjoy much closet religion, who live near to GOD and are wiling to suffer all things for His sake, without being proud of it, these are the men.” - J. Hudson Taylor
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A number of years ago I sat in a missions class watching an animated video of jumbo jets plunging into the ground one after another while a voiceover told me, “Every year, such-and-such number of people die without ever hearing about Christ, which is the equivalent of so many jumbo jets full of passengers crashing each day, killing everyone aboard.” I forget what the exact numbers were that the narrator told us, but it was quite large. The point of the video was to drive home the gravity of the need to urgently send out missionaries to those who had never heard of Christ. The planes crashing were to help us get our mind around a very large number and to be a motivator to go be missionaries.