Let’s Quit Kidding Ourselves About the Missionary

Let’s Quit Kidding Ourselves
About the Missionary
By James K. Webber

There are several areas about which it is very easy for the general public in our churches to be, putting it tactfully, misinformed about missionaries, and often this is definitely in spite of all the missionary himself has said or written. In recent years we have all read or heard stories about the funny impressions many people have of missionaries. In fact, almost every missionary conference I attend will have some spot on the program for some humor, and inevitably the spotlight focuses on the out-of-style clothing or old-fashioned hairdo of the missionary. In fact, so much attention has been given to these aspects that most missionaries today are probably more fashion conscious than the average church member, and, as a result, they probably are tempted to spend more on clothing and hairstyles than their incomes can afford. In a country such as Japan today, the missionary generally dresses in styles and fashions much the same as those in the United States, so this is not such a drastic problem for him. The missionary from some of the third world countries, however, will still find that when he returns to his native land he has again fallen behind, for example, in styles and fashions. His unawareness of this, or his seeming unconcern, should make it evident to the thinking Christian that the missionary has been taken up with more important things – things related to eternity. He has been involved with the souls of men, seeking to translate the Scriptures into their language, seeking to turn men and women with little or no clothing to the One who can clothe them with robes of righteousness, and somehow the latest fashion notes from Paris have escaped his attention. But do not be too harsh to the missionary home on furlough, for before he is in the home church very long he will awaken to the importance of “getting in style.” His values will soon be readjusted, and, if he is given an even chance, it will soon be difficult to tell which one is the missionary. Perhaps that is the way it should be – or should it?

Because the missionary comes home wearing the same suit he had when he left for the field, some suppose that he could not afford a new one, while others assume he has failed to keep abreast of the latest in fashions. Some react with sympathy, others with contempt, and both are guilty of kidding themselves about the missionary.

Then there are those within our churches who constantly write to the missionary, telling him how much they appreciate his sacrificial spirit. “How wonderful that you are willing to leave everything and go away to a foreign land and suffer so for Jesus!” On the other hand, there are those in the same church who just know that the missionary could never get that kind of salary “if he had to come home and work for a living!” And here again we have people kidding themselves about missionaries.

My wife and I have often said that if we had our lives to live over again, we would choose to “leave all” anytime when we could have the opportunity of raising our family in a foreign land where they could have the advantages of experiencing a different culture, learning a second language, and sharing in the thrill of seeing people come under the sound of the gospel for the first time. If you really believe that the missionary “leaves all” when he goes out to serve the Lord in a distant part of the world, you are indeed kidding yourself about the missionary.

Yes, it is true that the missionary does leave his homeland and his parents. He must leave certain aspects of his culture, his home church, his home town, but this business of “leaving all” is a misnomer to say the least. It has been our experience that we gained far more than we left. In the first place, besides the advantages of living and learning in a different culture, as mentioned above, just in the preparation for going overseas we gained a host of committed friends – co-workers, or prayer partners, as they are called – that we might never have had otherwise. We have broken out of the 6 percent vision to the point where we at least have gained a little experience about some of the other 94 percent. We have had the experience of being able to rethink some of the scriptural teachings in the Word while living in an admitted non-Christian environment, and, at the same time, we have never lacked for anything. But more than this, we have had the utmost thrill that we believe can come to anyone. We have had the joy of hearing a dying woman whisper, “Thank you for coming. If you had not come, I never would have known about Jesus. I am going to meet Him now!” “Leave everything?” Don’t you believe it! Granted, the missionary salary may leave something to be desired from the economic standpoint, but the earned income is out of this world!

Much of the erroneous thinking pertaining to missionaries is the fault of the missionary himself, but, on the other hand, much of it is in spite of all the missionary can say or do. The fact remains, if the average Christian in the average local church would take the time to get some factual information about the missionary, we could stop kidding ourselves, and if we stop kidding ourselves about the missionary, we will find ourselves in a position from which we can help do something about the shortage of laborers.

Just exactly what kind of critter is this missionary? I remember one of our missionary ladies who, while on furlough some years ago, was visiting in a home on Sunday. While the mother was busy getting dinner ready, she suggested that the missionary lady just relax in the living room and play with the little girl in the home. Out came the dolls and dresses, and the little girl and the missionary lady played for quite some time. All of a sudden, however, the little girl jumped up and ran into the kitchen. My friend overheard the little girl say to her mother, “Mommy, she’s just like one of us!” Now perhaps you smile at that, but that little girl got an insight into the missionary that many far more mature Christians still lack. The missionary is just like us! Just exactly like us! Flesh and bones and hands and feet, likes and dislikes, feelings, and reactions, emotions, prejudices, opinions, hunger, desires, and so on. He was born just as you were – in sin – and he was sought after by the same Savior who sought after you. Yes, believe it or not, that missionary has the same sinful nature you have and thus the same temptations, the same frustrations, the same battles, the same desperate need to use 1 John 1:9 continually. When a young person completes his schooling and finally stands before the group that commissions missionaries for the missionary task, he may receive a new assignment, a new title, a new passport and eventually a new language – but the old nature still remains. Now I know that many of you are saying. “Well, so what? We know all that. You haven’t told us anything new”

But do you really know it? Are you sure that you have not been kidding yourself about the Missionary? Don’t you really believe that the missionary is different? Don’t you really believe that he is somehow endowed with a bit more holy nature than you or the average Christian in your church? Come on now, be honest with me! Listen, if you hear that a certain missionary couple on the field is having marital problems, wouldn’t that shock you? If you heard that a mission board had to drop a missionary because of outright dishonesty on the part of that missionary, wouldn’t you be a bit surprised? If word got to you that drugs, smoking, and drinking were problems with which the board of directors of a certain missionary-children’s school had to deal, wouldn’t it cause you to raise your eyebrows just a little? If you heard about a shotgun wedding for two missionary children, would that simply slip by you as just another indication of the moral decay of our day and age? Well, to adapt an expression frequently heard on radio and TV., “The stories you have just heard are true – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.” Does this surprise you? Then you have been kidding yourself about the missionary.

Now before you put this book down and rush to the telephone, let me hasten to add that these things are not the norm among missionaries anymore than they are the norm in your local church. In fact, what I am saying is that the missionary is simply the extension of your local church overseas, and what can and does happen to those left at home can and possibly will happen among your missionaries overseas. If you do not realize this, you are not being the co-laborer your missionary wants and needs. If you do not fully understand this basic fact, you are going to help the enemy set that missionary up for a terrific fall. That missionary needs your constant prayer support, for in some ways he is going to face far more difficult temptations out there than you face at home. That missionary needs the restraining influences of fellow missionaries and mission boards to help him guard against the same natural tendencies you might face in the business or social world here at home. Would you deposit your money in a bank that has no governing rules or regulations, no audits, and no reporting mechanisms – even if all the bank workers were born-again Christians? Are you willing to give your offerings to a local church where the pastor runs the entire show, handles all the money, and makes no reports to anybody? Even if he is a fine preacher? Even if he has two earned Ph.Ds? Well, then how can you handle your missionary giving in that way? You can, but only if you have been kidding yourself about the missionary and his frailties.

May I use a personal illustration? Years ago when we started a new camp ministry in northern Japan, I found myself having to handle the finances for the project. Actually, I had what I considered to be a foolproof method of accounting. I had one large sheet of paper with two columns, an income column and an outgo column. I could subtract the smaller from the larger at any time and know just exactly where I was financially. This presented no problem whatsoever with the budget, simply because we did not have a budget! There was no need, in the very early stages of our camp ministry, to differentiate between building money and camp-store money, or equipment money and salaries. There was no such need for two reasons. First, we did not have a building, or a store, or equipment, or hired workers, and, second, we did not have that kind of money. But the lord gave us a vision for a year-round ministry with real estate, buildings, equipment, and paid staff, and little by little He began to send in the necessary finances. All of a sudden I found that my two columns were getting longer and longer. I could still balance them and still tell quite quickly if I were in the red or the black, but for some reason one of my missionary co-workers, who happened to be our field treasurer, began to give me the impression that he was not sold on my method of bookkeeping. The fact that he had worked in a bank possibly had something to do with his thinking, I don’t know, but he kept telling me about credits and debits and balance sheets, and before long he had me so confused that I didn’t know what to do. We were just starting to handle money into the thousands of dollars and, quite frankly, I did not know how to do it properly. Then, in an unguarded moment my dear wife let it slip that she had taken bookkeeping in school, and she seemed to understand all the talk about credits and debits and stuff. Well, guess who became the bookkeeper? The point is that as a missionary I was doing the best I could. I was trying to be strictly honest, but sincerity and honesty were not sufficient. We were handling thousands of dollars of the Lord’s money and our relationship to an organization required us to follow accepted methods of good stewardship.

But another area about which we can fool ourselves is that of the missionary’s responsibilities. The modern missionary, even the one serving in the third world countries, is facing responsibilities often far different from those the missionary of thirty, forty, or fifty years ago faced. If he is not engaged in training leadership in the local national church, he is engaged in working with the leadership that is already present, and this means that he needs the very best in training and preparation. In one sense I doubt that this is any different from the way it was in the days of the early church, for it is clear in the Scriptures that when the Holy Spirit told the church to set aside some men for some missionary endeavors, He chose the best men the church had. If the church today feels that anything less than the best will do in our day, we are still guilty of kidding ourselves about the missionary. If ever the missionary challenge facing the church demanded the best the church could give in the way of workers, that demand should be seen and recognized today. Missions need men and women who are capable of adjusting to a new and different culture, men and women who are keen enough to face the challenge of putting an unknown language into writing, men and women who are keen enough to train leadership for churches in highly educated countries. The mission field demands and must have the very best. I know of missionaries who washed out on the mission field and returned to the States to have a very successful pastoral ministry, but I have yet to meet the man who washed out as a pastor in the homeland but proved to be successful on the mission field.

Now I hardly expect to encounter any vocal opposition on this point, even among those at home who are not basically interested in missions. But I have been very much aware for years of those who are definitely kidding themselves about the missionary at this very point – and this type of thinking is to be found at all levels of our Christian society. Missions? Great. We are all for missions. Why we even have a missionary barrel in our church, and we keep it filled with things for the missionary. The missionary deserves the best – the best old coats and dresses we have. Why, some people are even willing to spend hours sewing up those old clothes so the missionary can use them. You have no doubt heard the story of the lady who took the time and effort to dry out two dozen tea bags to send to a missionary in India. Now that dear lady, I am sure, would not put forth that kind of time and effort for just anybody, but she did for the missionary. And in the box she enclosed a letter in which she explained that the tea bags had been used only once and were still good for two or three more cups of tea each. The fact that she herself had got the best cup of tea out of each bag first never seemed to register. She was for missions and the missionary! Missions were first – after herself. Perhaps you are asking, “Well, would it have been better had she not sent any tea bags at all?” No, I am sure that the missionary who received the package would appreciate the effort and the love expressed. And if tea were hard to come by in India, the missionary would also appreciate even the secondhand tea bags, but that is not the point. The point is that in too many cases the average Christian has been fooled into believing that when it comes to missions, anything will do – our leftovers, our castouts, our pennies (after all the needs and wants have been met in the home church first!).

Have you ever heard the comment, “With all his abilities and talents – what a shame to waste all that out on the mission field?” Perhaps you have never said it, but have you ever thought it? Years ago I knew of a promising young fellow who was interested in the possibility of serving the Lord overseas. He was a gifted teacher and his services were desired by a fine evangelical seminary in the States. Now I do not pretend to know what the Lord desired in the way of service from that young man, but I shall never forget the feeling I had when the statement was made that his abilities and talents could be so much more effective at home. That particular story came to mind again just recently when I read this statement by Michael C. Griffiths in “Give Up Your Small Ambitions” (Chicago: Moody, 1970):

One of the tragedies of evangelical missionary work has been that so often they have been satisfied with lower-level Bible schools instead of crowning these by providing theological teaching on the highest level. One mason has been the lack of sufficiently well-qualified missionaries. Out of some 1,500 evangelical missionaries in Japan recently, not one could be found who was competent enough in both languages to check a new Japanese translation against the original Hebrew. Liberals and Roman Catholics could have done it, but not Evangelicals. This suggests that a certain number of the finest theological brains ought to be prepared to give their services overseas [p. 47, italics added].

Again I quote the same author:

If it takes a good mind to lecture in theology at home, it takes a better one elsewhere in another language and another culture [n 47].

Griffiths served for some years on the field in Japan, and I am sure he is writing from that background when he refers to lower-level Bible schools instead of theological teaching on the highest level. This very problem has plagued the church-planting efforts of my own mission group in Japan for years, and we are still not over the top. I cannot help but feel that part of the reason for this is that some are still kidding themselves about the importance of sending the very best.

But, again, lest there be a misunderstanding, let me hasten to add that I do not necessarily feel that the best always means seminary-level training. Certainly it would seem to mean that, and possibly more, when we are thinking of professional teachers for the mission field. We cannot train seminary teachers in Japan with men who only have college degrees, that is obvious. But just as some seminary professors would never be able to function effectively in a pastorate, so some seminary graduates could never make it through the first term on a foreign mission field. When I speak of the best, I am not limiting that to scholastic training, important as that may be. Some missionary projects might prove to be far more successful with fewer scholars and more workers who have first proved themselves in the homeland. For instance, in a church-planting ministry on a foreign field it is very possible that the degreeless missionary who had started one or two churches in his own country would be far more effective than the seminary graduate who has yet to get his feet wet in church planting. The successful missionary who lacks scholastic training will in most cases seek opportunities to further his training either during furlough or by organized personal study, but when I speak of the best, I am referring to the quality of the worker and not necessarily to his polishing.
I could wish that mission boards and churches would give more consideration to the actual experience the missionary candidate has had and, if necessary, let up a bit on the scholastic requirements. As stated earlier, a scholastic deficiency can always be made up during a furlough after the young missionary has learned from experience where his deficiencies are, but sending out the inexperienced is, in effect, gambling with the Lord’s money. Does it not seem a bit strange that many churches in the homeland refuse to consider a prospective pastor who has not had a number of years of experience, yet, at the same time, they will send a young seminary graduate with no experience whatsoever off to a foreign land to face the challenge of a new language, a new culture, and, quite possibly, a church-planting ministry in an area far greater in size and population than that of the home church? To me it is yet another proof that we are still kidding ourselves about the missionary, about his task, and about our responsibility to them both.

Still another area of concern is the failure of the church at home to face up to the missionary and his opportunities. Never before in the history of the Christian church have the opportunities been greater. While the enemy and his forces are talking of moratoriums on sending missionaries and some people seem to be mesmerized by the closed doors, the fact remains that the laborers are few. There simply are not enough workers, not enough senders, not enough finances even to begin to realize the opportunities the church of Jesus Christ has around the world today. This in no way should be construed as meaning that Jesus is failing or even that He is falling behind in His program. As I tried to point out in an earlier chapter, Jesus said He was going to do the building, and that is exactly what He is doing. But He is still looking for men and women who want to get in on the action, men and women who want to do some heavy investing in eternal stocks and bonds, and He has lots of job opportunities for all interested parties. The church of Jesus Christ has been assigned a task by her Commander in Chief, and the church is not putting full effort into that task. We are guilty of partial obedience at best. God so loved the world that He gave His own Son – and He desires that the entire world know about it. We are told in the Word that our enemy is cunning, that he is a deceiver; and he has been deceiving the church of Jesus Christ in our day and age as
never before. We are instructed in the Word to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” (1 John 2:15), but vast numbers of God’s people are basically motivated by love for things of the world. Granted, some of those “things” may even be good things – things like beautiful church buildings, Christian organizations, and church-related programs. But even these, when they divert us from the number one task assigned by our Commander, are no better than the “things” people of the world seek after.

What is there in the life and program of the average evangelical church today which gives any indication that we do not belong to this world’s system? What is there about your church which speaks to the fact that we are pilgrims and strangers here? It is my conviction that the same materialistic philosophy that motivates the secular world is very much alive and well in the church of Jesus Christ today, and the tragedy is that many within the church are not even aware of it. Some preachers who can hold forth from their pulpits against greed and covetousness, doing a masterful job of exegeting the scriptural passages dealing with the subject, are themselves manifesting those very qualities as they strive for bigger congregations, larger church buildings, greater places of importance, bigger followings, I can almost hear the apostle Paul saying:

Therefore thou art inexcusable, 0 man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judges another, thou condomnest thyself: for thou that judgest doest the same things [Rom. 2:1].
When I was a young boy in Tucson we had a number of smaller churches in our town that had been started under the ministry of our pastor. One of those churches was pastored by a godly man who worked with the church until it grew fairly large, and then he left. I did not know at the time where he went, but years later I renewed contact with him and have followed his ministry with interest ever since. His was a unique ministry in that he always seemed to accept calls from smaller, struggling churches whenever he felt a change was in order. How strange. In a day when God almost always “leads” to bigger and bigger pastorates, how strange that this fellow went the other way. No, it isn’t a bit strange, for this brother was motivated by a simple desire to serve His Lord. He had no ambition for bigger and better things for himself, just a burning desire to serve the Lord and a burden for lost souls. He did not push a missionary program in his churches, his entire life and ministry was a missionary program, and that is just as it should be.

And ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth [Acts 1:8, italics added}.

As a result I look upon this brother as being one of the more “well-to-do” among us. He may be living on his social security funds presently, but he really has it laid away in heaven. He must have most of his rewards still coming, for he hasn’t received too many of them down here. He didn’t even get an honorary degree from any school, but I am rather confident that the Lord has a different system of giving honorary degrees – and a different reason for giving them.

Before you come to some conclusions of your own, let me confess something. I have been involved in missions for twenty-five years, and I am prejudiced. I am prejudiced to the point where I believe that churches that have a missionary program are simply not true New Testament churches. The New Testament church did not have a missionary program. She was a missionary program. She existed for one primary purpose, and that was to be a witness to the world – the entire world. The New Testament church felt out of place in her world and was eager for her lord to come and get her. In her eagerness she was busy – busy getting the message out by every means possible. Certainly she did not neglect those in need of her message right there in Jerusalem, but the basic thrust of the one book in the Bible which gives us the history of that early church is that of how she reached out into the then-known world to spread the good news. And any thinking person who reads that early record of the church cannot help but notice the dissimilarities between then and now. Somehow the drive-in church service doesn’t seem to fit the picture. And neither do a lot of other things that are more popular in evangelical churches than drive-in services. But first and foremost we must confess that the most glaring difference is in the area of dedication to the task assigned to the church by her Master. Whereas the primary ministry of that early church was to reach ever farther out to a lost and dying world with the message of life and light, our primary ministry today has been to “hold the fort.” Yes, now and then we send out little squads to do some probing here and there. We go to a bit of expense to equip a few fellow soldiers and send them out to do battle against innumerable odds. A few are even faithful to pray regularly for those who are sent out, and many who remain in the fort really do hold those “brave, sacrificial’ ones in high esteem. They roll out the red carpet for them every time they return to the fort for a visit. But let’s face it – where is the primary interest and effort being put forth? In moving out to conquer more land or in building a bigger and better and more comfortable fort? “Hold the Fort” may be a beautiful hymn, but the theology for it never came from the lips of our Commander in Chief Beloved, let’s quit kidding ourselves. Let’s quit kidding ourselves about the task before us, the task in which Jesus Christ wants all of us to be involved full-time. There is a new city being prepared for us, there is fire and destruction stored up for this world and all that is in it. Time is running out, and banking hours will soon be over. If you and I are going to take advantage of our God-given opportunities to do any eternal investing, we had better get with it. How much of that in which you are involved or how much of that in which your local church is involved is going to pay off in eternal dividends? Are you focused in on the untold millions that are still untold, or are you primarily focused on the 6 percent at home? The 6 percent are indeed important, but what about the other 94 percent? Are you aware of the opportunities, or have you been kidding yourself?

There are many things here on the home front which disturb and confuse this missionary, and some of those things are the basis for this book – particularly for this chapter. One of those things is a letter I received some years ago from a Christian school training men and women for Christian service. The letter came asking for help in finding vacant pulpits for a new class of graduating seniors. Did I know of any openings? As you may well realize, of course, that letter was intended for former students who were serving in pastorates in the States, but somebody goofed and sent copies to some of us missionaries. Since I received the letter asking for help, I felt that I should do what I could, and I answered it. Certainly, I knew of a number of opportunities – in Japan, in Indonesia, in Brazil, in Africa, in South America, in ‘Taiwan – just to mention a few. Opportunities for men and women. Opportunities for translation work, for evangelism, for church planting. I even guaranteed that the people selected could have an entire city of sixty-five, seventy, or a hundred thousand all to themselves, with no churches on the other side of town sending their buses to take their neighborhood children away. There were opportunities for student work and literature work and camp work – all kinds of opportunities. In fact, I included in my response the fact that we were desperate for help! The original letter had disturbed me when it had arrived, but I was even more disturbed to find that there did not seem to be any interest in the information I sent in response to that letter. As a matter of fact, some people let it be known that the information in my letter of response was not appreciated.

There is another thing that disturbs me. Frequently when I am speaking to Bible school or seminary students about opportunities abroad, I hear someone say, “I could never go out and beg for my support.” Can you imagine? People who say that are closing the door to possible service abroad because they find it too difficult to go among the churches and ask for support – or so they say. In the first place, that smacks of [wilding a straw man, for missionaries do not have to beg for support, If they prefer, they do not have to speak of money at all. Does it not seem strange that the very ones who find it so distasteful to go to several chinches in search of support for missionary work have no difficulty at all in asking what a church is willing to pay before they can determine if the Lord is leading them to that particular pulpit? I am confused!

But there is something else that disturbs me even more, and that is when a young couple respond to the tremendous opportunities for taking the gospel out to some of the 94 percent out there, when they take the time and personally bear the expense of getting the required years of school, when they follow through on all the necessary red tape of missionary appointment – and then have to spend twelve, eighteen, or even twenty-four months waiting for the Lord’s people to come up with the necessary financial support. Somehow, if we could transport that young couple back to the early New Testament church, I have the feeling that some more houses and land would be sold by the believers to raise the necessary funds to get that couple out. But of course, those early believers did not have investment plans for their money, and, with persecution what it was, it was probably better for them to dispose of that property anyway. Nevertheless, I am confused. Where is that majoring in mission’s emphasis we hear so much about? Where are all those Christians who are so taken up with the question of the Lord’s return that they will actually split a church fellowship over the matter of the timing of His return and sometimes even refuse to fellowship with anyone who has a bit different understanding about the eschatological order of events? If they are that excited about the Lord’s return, certainly they should jump at the chance to make some quick transfer of deposits front banks here to the Bank of Heaven. If they really believe that the Lord’s return is imminent, certainly they would not be too interested in all the material things that will be left behind. Or am I confused here, too? Who is kidding whom?

Article excerpted from “Let’s Quit Kidding Ourselves About the Missions”. By James K. Webber.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”