Discerning God’s Call (unpacking the spiritual factors that affect the decision to leave the field)

by Andrea Sears

The mission field is a place of tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. We learn to depend on the Lord so much more when we have our normal comforts and culture stripped away. We see God doing amazing things in the lives of others, even miracles, that strengthen our faith. We see Him working in our own lives to make Himself more real than ever to us.

The mission field can also be a place of tremendous spiritual challenge. Traumatic things happen, leaving us wondering about God’s goodness and presence with us. We often see pain and suffering on a new scale that gives us doubts about God’s sovereign plan. Unusual isolation, stressors, and temptations may present themselves, and a lack of accountability can lead to moral failure. Satan desires to take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy not only our work and our families, but even our faith itself.

In a 2017 survey on missionary attrition, we measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be spiritual factors. The table summarizes the results for each question by providing:

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field.
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor that said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect.
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision.

The spiritual factors that reached significant levels of strength of influence were issues of call: (1) feeling called back home, (2) feeling unsure about the continued call, (3) feeling no longer called to that location, and (4) working oneself out of a job (another way of feeling that the call has ended).

These are all healthy reasons for transition. There are seasons in life, and God often makes it clear to His cross-cultural workers when it is time to move on to the next thing. This can be because of a new sense of call to something back home or other factors (such as family, health, or team struggles).

God sometimes uses these very circumstances to convince us that it is time to go. We must all pay attention to the seasons of our cross-cultural work and where we can be most strategically effective at different times.

It is also noteworthy that nearly one-half of missionaries felt at some time:

  • a disconnection in their relationship with the Lord (47%),
  • unable to connect with a local church (47%),
  • that spiritual leaders and sending churches back home had forgotten about them (46%), and/or
  • overwhelmed by spiritual oppression (41%).

These results should disabuse us of the notion of the super-spiritual Christian missionary who never has hard moments in their spiritual life because of their dedicated service to the Lord. Even (and especially) those who have sacrificed much to carry out the Great Commission can have dry periods or dark nights of the soul, often indeed brought on by the situations they face overseas.

Yet there is often a church and missions culture that discourages missionaries from sharing these experiences with others. It makes people uncomfortable if missionaries come down off the pedestal and share their struggles. This dynamic layers isolation onto the spiritual struggles themselves, exacerbating the vulnerability even further.

Missionaries are often confronted with harsh circumstances, spiritual attack, ambiguity in discerning their call, and doubts about their own competency and/or God’s plans in the place where they serve. Some will even reach the point of questioning their own faith.

To a degree, the spiritual health of a missionary is their responsibility. They are accountable for their devotional and prayer life, congregating habits, and practice of spiritual disciplines. However, these things are not simple formulas that automatically produce intimacy with God and spiritual invulnerability.

There are also things beyond the missionary’s control, including the inscrutable ways of God Himself, invisible powers and principalities that seek to destroy our soul, and interactions between circumstances and body/mind that affect our spiritual condition. We cannot dismiss spiritual distress with a simple “Well, he/she is obviously just not walking closely enough with the Lord.”

Finally, more than 1 in 3 missionaries (38%) no longer felt sure that their methods of sharing the gospel were effective. For those who experienced this, it was a factor in their departure about half (52%) of the time. Eighty-eight survey participants shared why they questioned the effectiveness of the methods, and most concerns fell into three categories: (1) the style of evangelization used (often mass evangelization without follow-up for discipleship), (2) the lack of cultural contextualization in the message and tools used to present the Gospel, and (3) the proper role of foreign missionaries in balance with local leadership.

There were also secondary concerns regarding Christian witness being undermined by poor testimony and methods being driven by the desires of foreign donors rather than what was actually needed locally.

In light of these results, here are some questions to consider:

  • Would your sending churches be shocked to see these statistics?
  • If so, what can we do to help sending churches de-lionize their missionaries and understand them as sinners vulnerable to spiritual discouragement and questions just like everyone else?
  • What can we do to modernize our missions methods and contextualize the Gospel better for the cultures we serve?
  • How do the roles of foreign missionaries need to change as the Gospel takes root in a culture or community?
  • How can we better guide our donors to understand the best use of funds, instead of letting their desires drive our methods?

These are not easy questions with simple answers, but they are important ones that global workers will continue to face as we try to stay relevant in our execution of the Great Commission.

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Andrea Sears and her husband, Seth, spent 13 years working in the largest immigrant squatter settlement in Central America (in Costa Rica) and founded the Christian community development ministry giveDIGNITY. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Johnson University. She currently lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, directs the ministry’s local team from afar, and enjoys living near family and being a new grandmother.

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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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