When going onto a mission field for the first or tenth time, we often have ideals of what a missionary is supposed to be, do, and look like. Some of it is impressed upon us by church culture, gathered from missionary books we’ve read, or created by ourselves.
As a young missionary I didn’t take my calling lightly, and I don’t believe you do either. Maybe you, like me, have put a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to the missionary standard. After all, we were commissioned to “go into all the world” by Jesus Himself at the end of Matthew.
I didn’t know any real live missionaries when I first went onto the field, but from what I gathered:
- A missionary is supposed to be empowered to help the people they serve without needing their help.
- A missionary is supposed to be protected from all harm, at all times, wherever they go, inside the will of God.
- A missionary is supposed to heal those who are sick with prayer or a simple touch.
- A missionary is supposed to be unhindered, and therefore it is more holy to go onto the field single.
- A missionary is supposed to live as simply and frugally as possible and should have no Western conveniences.
- A missionary is supposed to know what to say, where to go, and whom to help at all times.
- A missionary is supposed to focus on spiritual needs and leave physical needs for humanitarians.
- A missionary’s mere presence is supposed to make an instant impact on the community.
- People back home should be led to support the missionary without being bothered with a list of their needs.
I identified myself as a missionary. I wasn’t in my host country to sightsee or vacation. I had given up everything, all of my personal comforts and dreams, to be there, because I knew God wanted me to. Things went well for a while.
I lived up to my own missionary ideals in the beginning. I felt useful to the ministry I volunteered with. I was single and undistracted, pouring everything I had into the work.
As my boldness grew, I took on many roles that seemed important. It felt great to see a child on his deathbed start to walk and talk after I had spent months caring for him. The other short termers who were in and out looked up to me, and I got to be the one to answer their questions.
Then death came under my watch, and I began to question everything.
If all the things I knew about missions were true, why was I watching someone I loved slip away under my constant care?
My identity was so wrapped up in being that good missionary. The missionary that was undefeated. The missionary that my home church would be proud of and would want to support.
How would I tell the people back home that I had failed?
If I wasn’t making an impact like all those missionaries I had read about, then maybe I was a fake after all.
The idealistic missionary image I had built came crashing down. I was plunged into an identity crisis. I had to take a break from ministry and go home. When I left, I didn’t know if I would have the strength to come back.
On a month-long furlough to think over ministry, I evaluated my heart and motives to see if I had missed God, because in my mind, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.
During that time I came to realize that nearly everything I thought I knew about being a missionary was false. All the things I thought a missionary was supposed to be were just lies that I had believed.
As much as I would like to think I have left an impact on those I served, or that I am making an impact now, the outcomes are not mine to decide.
So . . .
Dear missionary who has believed those same lies and questioned whether you are really qualified to be on the field, let me tell you:
God never called you to determine the outcome of your serving. You were never meant to be anyone’s savior. Only Jesus can be that.
Missionaries are not a super-human species that never fail or lose a battle. In fact, more than bringing out your strengths, missions will reveal your weaknesses and neediness and bring you to a place of greater dependence on the Lord.
God doesn’t ask you to be a great missionary or to conjure up change. He only asks you to be obedient and go. With whatever little you have in your hands, just go. You may be called a missionary, but your true identity is simply “follower of Christ,” not “hero.”
Whether we follow Him to the bedside of the dying or to witness a miracle is not up to us to decide.
We could choose to walk away from the mission field. It might feel easier to stay where it is safe, to hide in our bedrooms and cover our ears to all the sadness in this world. We could be angry at the outcomes that we do not understand and question God for allowing them.
Or we can be obedient. We can lay down the lies that we have believed for so long. We can cry over injustice, and then we can get up and keep pouring ourselves out, knowing that God will use our weaknesses in the way that He chooses and that someday things will be “very good” again.
Rachel was preparing to go to Mexico in 2017 but through a series of events, ended up as a full time missionary in Haiti. She quickly found her calling as a cross-cultural worker and blogger. In 2020, after their marriage, she and her husband Nelson started Espwa Demen, a non-profit that assists impoverished children and families in rural Haiti. Because of the country’s security situation they were forced to relocate to the US at the beginning of 2023, but their ministry continues to grow in the hands of local volunteers and through frequent trips. You can follow Rachel on her personal blog or find her on Instagram.