When people say yes to becoming a missionary, to what exactly are they saying yes? I had not thought of that much until my wife and I joined 38 other new missionaries for a month of training in Colorado, where veteran missionaries attempted to talk us out of becoming missionaries before we had even left America. The first half of the training focuses on phonetics and language learning, and the second half tackles acculturation. Our family called it missionary boot camp.
Here is a taste of the lessons: English only has 44 phonetic sounds; and chances are, the language you will have to learn will use different ones. While your brain is rewiring itself to learn a language, likely for the first time since you were a toddler, you will need much more sleep. You will also hit several plateaus toward fluency where you will feel like an abject failure. Acculturation is a period of long-term, unmanaged, unrelenting stress that lasts for over a year, so you will likely also be sick and irritable for much of it. As you resettle in your new country you must first cross a bridge of chaos, where your own identity will be called into question as you learn to cope with feeling not just incompetent but also downright useless. Whatever capacity you had in your culture of origin, prepare for it to plummet during acculturation only to slowly rise—but never reach its former heights. I could go on.
As I spent hour upon hour last summer counting the rising costs of cross-cultural missions, I was not talked out of becoming a missionary. I arrived in Brazil on November 16. One day later John Chau died on the other side of the world and sparked a global conversation about who or what talks anyone into becoming a missionary.
Strangely, this was a question I had not asked myself for some time, especially the two-plus years I spent fundraising, downsizing, moving, training, and saying goodbye to become a missionary. Why did I decide to do this?
As a child, I saw myself becoming a missionary, which was not some random aspiration. The church that formed me focused much on youth and missions. The short-term mission storm hadn’t reached our church yet, so the focus was on career missionaries, usually church-planting ones. Even today I can think of several missionaries sent by our church who are serving in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. As missions and missionaries were emphasized by our church culture, it is possible that it sometimes spilled over into romanticism.
Some of my romantic perceptions changed when I met my wife, a missionary kid whose parents have now been missionaries for over 40 years in Kenya. I suddenly heard stories about missionaries who got overwhelmed upon reaching the field. One person discovered how to have groceries delivered to her door and never left home for months. Some missionaries were mavericks who did not heed advice from their elders and languished for years preaching every week to audiences of their own family and no one else before they finally returned to the States years later. Another missionary family deemed Sundays to be their family day of the week, so they never attended a local church. My father-in-law says, “most missionaries will know within their first two years whether they can make it or not, but they will stay ten years just to save face.” I have not yet made it two years, so I suppose the jury is still out on me.
Although I cannot deny that youthful romance to be a missionary first led me to Bible college at the age of eighteen, it did not bring me to the mission field more than twenty years later. Rather, it was a two-sentence posting on the internet that held a concrete opportunity to serve the church. These openings for service are what some theologians call “spiritual gifts.” A gift is when a church or network of churches has a need, and the Holy Spirit summons you to answer it—whether it plays to your strengths or not.
My opportunity was to teach at a seminary in southern Brazil. The listed qualifications and requirements were advanced degrees in theology and pastoral experience, which are some of my strengths. The unlisted qualifications included having this call to Brazil confirmed by conference leaders and then raising funds from friends, family, churches, and strangers before going through the chaos that is transition. Those are pretty much nobody’s strengths.
I wonder who else saw this listing and passed on it before God summoned me to it one day. It had been up at our conference’s website for about two full years before then. And now it has been another two years since that day. By the time I reach fluency and acculturation it might be another two years. My youth pastor used to joke about wanting passionate kids who would try to “charge hell with a squirt gun,” but my journey to Brazil has gone at a much slower pace.
That is not to say it is without precedent. In Exodus, God heard the cries of his people and began an 80-year plan to free them. Although it seemed that nothing much was happening at the 40 or even the 80-year mark, God was grooming Moses first as a spoiled prince and later as an immigrant shepherd.
I am not Moses, but God has been grooming me the past twenty years. I had a zeal for missions in my youth, which became a zeal for theology and pastoring and teaching and raising a family and so on. When I was summoned to go to Brazil, a much different person answered that call in 2018 than who would have in 2000, the year I graduated from Bible college.
One thing that attracted me to this opportunity was that it clearly defined my roles. I teach at an established seminary that is sponsored by and ran by Brazilian Baptists. Their churches provide for the administration and staff as well as all the students. The seminary leaders saw the ongoing need for help in the form of a formally-trained and experienced theologian and asked their brothers and sisters in North America to provide it. It is a beautiful network of partnership, reciprocity, and gift. For we in North America have much to receive and learn from our Brazilian brothers and sisters as well—for where they are strong, we are weak.
Our conference has evolved its mission strategy over the years. We now typically look for ways we can partner with established churches around the world by strengthening them in ways they cannot do themselves. We no longer send missionaries to plant churches because Brazilians can do that. Perhaps one day I will happily be out of work here when a homegrown theologian takes my place in training the next generations of church planters and leaders in Bible, church history, and theology. Until then, I will have to muddle through somehow.
Is this the only way to do missions? No. Is it safe? Kind of. Is it too safe? Maybe. There are pros and cons to all strategies. Our agency would never send a John Chau, but it might not send Paul and Barnabas either.
When I reflect on why I became a missionary, I think of the scene in Revelation when a multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation stands before the lamb. That vision requires plenty of God’s people to remain right where they grew up. But it also requires others to leave their father’s house and country and go to a place God where shows them. And at the end of the age, perhaps we will discover it also required the efforts of people like John Chau.