12 Axioms for Young Missionaries

by Warren Allan Johnson

Before God called my wife and me to the mission field, I spent more than 30 years in corporate business. During that time, I learned quite a few lessons the hard way. Many of these are now firmly planted in my mind as axioms – memorable sayings that express good advice.

It’s not surprising that we learn lessons the hard way. Dr. Kerr White observed that “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” One way to potentially circumvent the pain of this cycle is to seek wisdom, as the author of Proverbs counsels us. I’ve found that many of these axioms, or “business proverbs,” are surprisingly applicable to the mission field.

In addition, although these guidelines would be good for any missionary to follow, younger missionaries often do not have the same degree of life experience that older missionaries have, and they may not have received the same depth of cultural or team training that career missionaries have received. Therefore, here are a dozen principles to consider if you are young, called to mission service, and want to help, not hinder, what God is doing on the field:

1. Rinse, Lather, Repeat (saying Thank You). “Thank You” is one of the first phrases you should try to learn in the local language. Then you should use it frequently with the people you are called to serve, with your missionary colleagues, and especially with people who are serving you, such as household help, street vendors, and tradesmen doing repairs.

2. It’s not all about you. We have all heard this axiom, but do we live it out? For example, you likely have skills and enthusiasm that you want to use on the field. But those skills that you trained for might not be the ones God intends to use in your location. Hold your plans with a loose hand. A corollary here is, “Christ is the Savior, not you.”

3. Make your bed. Clean your room. This likely isn’t required by your mission agency, yet it will help order your life and priorities if you require it of yourself. A messy room or messy car is a sign of an unorganized, undisciplined life. A great book about this truth is Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life … and Maybe the World by Admiral William H. McRaven.

4.Don’t choose personal preferences over organizational effectiveness. Management consultant Mark Horstman shares this principle. Unfortunately, we see it all too frequently on the field. People make choices based on what’s easy or “best” for them, rather than on what is the right thing for ministry to be effective.

There are many corollaries to this principle, such as “don’t choose your convenience over the security of others.” For example, don’t be lackadaisical about closing the compound gate because you’ll be right back. Servanthood is inconvenient. You are called to be a servant.

5. Go talk to the other person. A common, “preventable” reason cited for missionaries leaving the field is conflict with other missionaries. There’s a reason for this. They’re all sinners, just like you. You can expect friction and disagreement on the field. So, while you likely cannot “prevent” conflict, you have a Christian responsibility to work to resolve it. Conflict will be a great opportunity for you to apply Matthew chapters 5 and 18 to your life. It will also take courage.

6. The negative screams at you, but the positive only whispers. This truth is from author Barbara L. Fredrickson. The application is that you must intentionally “turn up the volume” on the positive to overcome the negatives that you will inevitably encounter on the mission field. The Bible repeatedly speaks to the importance of thankfulness, especially in prayer. Consider a gratitude journal next to your bed in which you record at least three good things that happened each day.

7. Everything is an interview. When you apply for a job, your future employer is watching you, and not just when you’re sitting down across from them at their desk. They notice if you don’t send a hand-written thank you note. They notice how you treat the waitress when they take you out to lunch. They notice if your sentences are filled with lots of “I” statements. Likewise, what you do on the field impacts your reputation, the reputation of your agency, and potentially your ministry. Pray for wisdom and pursue humility.

8. Work is not done until it is reported done. If you’re working on a team, or supervising others, this can be a great principle to follow and teach others. Provide status updates and let people know when you’ve fulfilled your commitments. They may be waiting on you before they can take their next step, or they may be in a state of worry about the overall project. Your update can bring comfort. Your communication is an essential part of the job that you have agreed to handle.

9. Don’t forget the little guy. It is very possible that people you interact with on the field live on less than a few dollars a day. You can never fix this or bring it into “balance.” It is a tension you need to prayerfully navigate. Therefore, consider developing some personal guidelines about benevolence for things like school fees, holidays, beggars, and medical expenses.

For example, a medical crisis in the developing world often cascades into an economic crisis for the extended family. However, it can be wise to not give the whole amount needed, and to pay the hospital rather than the individual, if feasible. Two great books to read in this regard are African Friends and Money Matters by David E. Maranz and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

10. You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit. This is known as the preschool snack time rule. Don’t be the short-term missionary who complains about the color of the bed sheets provided to them. Even if you’re a male and the sheets are pink, you likely don’t fully appreciate the sacrifice behind what you’ve been provided. Smile and say thank you from your heart.

11. Nothing simple is ever easy. The “fix” in any particular situation may look simple, yet inevitably there are hidden complexities which may not be immediately evident to your untrained eye. It may be as simple as needing an (unavailable) imperial bolt rather than a metric one to fix the toilet seat. More often, there are cultural issues of honor, shame, hierarchy, or patronage in situations that otherwise seem like they would be “simple” to resolve. Find a trusted individual that can serve as your cultural helper. Then ask lots of questions.

12. Others are not your mother. Jesus put it this way, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” You are called to be a servant. Likewise, don’t ask others to do tasks that you’re unwilling to – or should – do yourself. It’s okay to ask for help, but remember axiom #1. Cat and Dog Theology by Bob Sjogren is a book that can help you reframe your attitudes and actions in this regard, so they best glorify God.

Finally, if you haven’t already, learn how to pray. Spiritual disciplines are essential for young missionaries, especially staying in the Word. Yet you need to talk to the Father as often as possible to see God glorified on the mission field. Prayer puts us in the proper posture before God, which is helpless and hopeless without his grace. That’s something we all need, regardless of age or experience.

More than 250 times in the Bible we are called to “remember.” These 12 axioms, as well as ones you learn through your own experiences, can be memory tools that God uses to guide your path on the mission field.

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Warren and Tami Johnson serve in West Africa with SIM. God opened the doors for them to begin second careers overseas after three decades in public relations and teaching respectively. They blame John Piper and his well-known story of wasting one’s life collecting seashells on the seashore for ruining their retirement plans.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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