The Missionary Life Cycle (in Five Stages)

by Jonathan Trotter on January 31, 2019

Like any really good assessment, these five categories are totally made up.

There are no peer-reviewed studies parsing these five stages of cross-cultural work. There is no quantified, objective data set; still, please feel free to say you’re in “Stage 3 – Wing 4.” That would make me happy. And remember, if you say anything with exactitude, we’ll all think you know what you’re talking about.

The lines of demarcation between these stages are blurred, and in some cases overlapping. Just roll with it. And remember, this isn’t the Rubicon, so feel free to cross back over to an earlier stage if you’d like.

Are you ready?

We’ll look at the two options within each stage, we’ll list some common statements you might hear from folks taking each option, and then we’ll look at some primary goals for each stage.

This is more Wiki than Webster’s, so please add your thoughts, explanations, arguments, additions, or funny jokes in the comment section.

Idealist/Ignorant – Pre-field

You know the idealist, right? If you’re on the field, you probably were one. Once.

We need the idealist. Often, the idealism of youth or new belief motivates people to the field in the first place; that’s not bad. In fact, idealism is a fantastic place to start; it’s just not a fantastic place to stay.

Idealism is not what’s dangerous; ignorance is.

The main difference here is that the ignorant person doesn’t know what it is that they don’t know. And it’s a lot. The idealist knows they don’t know everything, so they’re safer. The idealist is a day-dreamer, aware of the reality around them, while the ignorant is lost in a fantasy dream world at night, unaware that their sick child is vomiting in the bathroom down the hall and their wife has been up three times already and the dog just peed on the clean laundry. Yeah, ignorance is dangerous.

Things you might hear the idealist say: “This is all so amazing! God’s going to do amazing, new, prophetic things in this glorious season of fresh wind. He is calling the nations to himself and he’s calling me to the nations. Will you donate?”

Things you might hear the ignorant say: “I don’t need a sending church or org or agency. I read a book and I feel super called! Also, I served a person once on a short-term trip and now I’m going to save the world. Will you donate?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Don’t be ignorant.

  2. Protect your ideals, while purposefully listening to the reality of some who’ve gone before you. You’re not the first person God’s called across cultures, and you won’t be the last.

 

Learner/Survivor – Arrival to Year 2

Landing in a foreign land will sometimes feel like just trying to survive. That’s ok. But if the functional goal for your first term is just to survive your first term, you’re a survivor, not a learner.

A learner is an idealist who’s landed. They don’t know stuff, but they’re super excited to find out. They don’t know how to even ask for stuff, but they’re going to find out. They don’t know who’s who and what’s where and when’s good, but they know how to breathe, ask around, walk the street, and…learn.

The learner’s goal is to figure stuff out, to learn about a culture, a history, to meet new people, to make new memories.

The survivor’s goal is to not die.

Things you might hear the learner say: “I don’t know where to buy milk; let me find someone to ask.”

Things you might hear the survivor say: “I don’t know where to buy milk, but as soon as I find out, I’m buying 9 gallons so I don’t have to go back out on the street again for at least a week… SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT! Where do I buy a refrigerator?!”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Learn as much as you can (about language, culture, workers who’ve come before you, the state of the local church before your arrival, etc.)

  2. Recognize your need for mentors, and find some (expats and nationals).

 

Established/Workaholic (Year 2 to Year 7)

Getting established in a foreign field is quite an accomplishment. You know the language and you’re driven to finally start doing the work you’ve been called to do.

At this stage, folks start to realize that they can’t do as much as they thought they could. Folks start to get overwhelmed by the complexity of the culture, because now, they’re starting to really see much more of the culture. The established will face a crisis, and the risk is that they respond by turning into a workaholic, shouldering all the responsibility for all the souls all the time.

Things you might hear the established say: “There is so much work to be done, we should get involved in mobilizing local believers.”

Things you might hear the workaholic say: “There is so much work to be done, and if we don’t do it all, who will?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. See the task for the S I Z E that it is, without succumbing to depression or despondency.

  2. Disciple others into the roles to which God’s calling them, remembering the axiom that the “resources are in the harvest.”

 

Experienced/Pessimistic (Year 7 to Year Infinity)

(What? You know you’ve met missionaries who’ve been on the field f o r e v e r…)

The experienced are those folks who’ve got tons of knowledge. They’ve been around the block and they’ve seen a lot of folks come and go. They’ve probably had ministry initiatives succeed and they’ve probably had more fail. But they stayed. And they’re relatively happy. Their words are nuanced and balanced, and the people themselves are fairly enjoyable to be around.

To the pessimist, however, everything new is bad, and everything old is bad, because everything is bad. These folks are a little harder to be around, unless you are them. Then they’re easy to gripe – I mean chill – with.

Things you might hear the experienced say: “Well, that could work, but the few times we tried it that way it didn’t work. Want to talk about some alternatives?”

Things you might hear the pessimist say: “$#@!@#(*!!! [or “gosh darnit” if they’re Baptists] Sure, try that. It won’t work, just like what we tried didn’t work. Because nothing will work. This ground is rocky and hard and I want to leave but I’m too worried about what people will say about me, and I haven’t saved enough to retire.”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Nurture the idealists.

  2. Mentor the learners.

  3. Caution the workaholics.

  4. Avoid the pessimists.

 

Learner/Know-it-all

If you’re in this stage, you knew we’d come back to this. If you’ve been around long enough, you knew the earlier discussion about being a learner was too perfunctory. Congrats.

You know a lot more now that when you started. But if you’re healthy, you also know how much you don’t know. And so, you’ll still be a learner.

Someone who’s been on the field a loooong time without being a learner is dangerous. They have a LOT of experience, but it’s dated. Some of it will of course still be accurate, but it won’t be tinted with the wisdom that combines age-old knowledge with present-tense reality.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2012 someone told us that you couldn’t get fresh milk in-county. So, for the first month we drank UHT milk, which is an abomination.

I’ll never forget the day, a few months in, when I went to the grocery store and saw rows and rows and rows of fresh, refrigerated, amazing milk. Skim, whole, 2%, and chocolate!

Even if you do know everything today, you won’t tomorrow. (And you don’t know everything today.)

Goals for this stage:

  1. Be willing to ask questions, even of the younger people, and even if you’ve been on the field for longer than they’ve been alive.

  2. Share your wisdom and experience with those who will listen. There will be some who will listen. Find them and offer yourself.

  3. Don’t be a jerk.

  4. Guest posting

Conclusion

Whatever stage you’re in, welcome! And might I offer a few pieces of advice that I think would help this whole cross-cultural life and ministry thing to be more enjoyable and more effective?

  1. We need to nurture the Idealists while cautioning the ignorant. Don’t treat them as the same, because they’re not.

  2. We need to mentor the Learners, helping them to find milk and refrigerators. It’s not their fault they don’t know stuff. (Help the survivor too, but add a little encouragement that survival is possible, and thriving is possible too.)

  3. We need to encourage the Established. They’ve been on the field long enough to know the size of the job, but they might not have been around long enough to see the resources at their disposal, which might include you (whether you’ve been on site longer than they have or less than they have).

  4. We need to listen to the Experienced. As the saying goes, Get experience as cheaply as you can, for many people have paid a high price for it and will gladly give it away for free.”

  5. And lastly, we need to keep Learning. All of us, all the time. If this comes naturally to you, awesome. Please help others. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, you might want to do some pondering on the phrase “growth mindset.”

This missionary life of serving others and sharing the Gospel is too hard, too good, and too important to forget these things.

May the Father of all light continue to lead us all out of the darkness, into the dawn, and straight to his heart.

 

All for ONE,

Jonathan T.

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of eighteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years and as an inner-city ER/trauma nurse for three years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41

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