I have been a long-term missionary since the 1960’s. I have served in both Mexico for a few years, and Papua New Guinea for many years, translating the Bible. I only left Papua New Guinea in 2005, and so I have more than 40 years of long-term overseas missionary experience.
I won’t pretend to understand what kind of computer equipment you will need, or what type of cell phone service a given country might have. I’ll leave the technological marvels to the younger missionaries. But no matter how many gadgets you have, no matter how much technology you bring with you onto the mission field, you will always need to know how to live there.
I’m not talking about whether the water is safe to drink, or if you need vaccinations. Nor am I going to advise you about whether the streets are safe at night where you’re going, or if the government is friendly to Christian missionaries.
I’m talking about what you need to do – regardless of gadgets and gewgaws, laws and visas – to remain strong in your faith, and to reach the people you went there to reach in the first place. Even if you’re an engineer building schools or wells, or a teacher educating the children of other missionaries, I have some good advice for you.
My top ten tips for new missionaries, in no particular order;
- Learn the language. Challenge yourself, your spouse and your children to learn as much of the native language as you can. Do the hard work that it takes to learn the language because language will open the door to understanding their world view and their culture. If you don’t learn their language well, you might not understand how they think. You might ask them questions they have never thought of before, or fail to ask them the questions they need you to ask.
- Learn their love language. During my early time with the Nabak I would do small jobs for them. I would mend, wash, take care of their wounds. In my eyes, this was a way of showing love, but for the Nabak women, they had a different perspective. After a day working, they would sit around in a group and talk and gossip. Although to my New York-born eyes this was wasted time, to the Nabak women, it was how they showed care and love.
- Invest in your home. I don’t mean your physical residence, although that might need some investment as well. No, I mean you must make a concerted effort to guard your marriage, to nurture your children. Don’t become so involved in your mission work that you loose your family base. Remember, that base was given to you by God, and it’s what you stand on in the mission field.
- Keep anchored in the word of God. Don’t neglect time with the Lord. Remember, He’s the reason why you’re a missionary in the first place. Otherwise, you’d just be with the Peace Corps! Philippians 2:16. Remember that Scripture does not yield its treasures to the lazy.
- Wives should have a ministry beside their family. This ministry might be quite different than the husband’s ministry, or it could be the same one, but having a horizon beyond the front door is vital. In my experience, wives are much happier if they have their own interests. And, if you happen to be a missionary couple where the husband is the primary caregiver, and the wife the primary missionary, the same rules would apply for him. You need to be able to focus beyond today’s problems.
- Read good books. OK, I’ll admit that I’m a book lover, so this might be just slightly biased. But I truly feel it is critical to sharpen your mind, and to broaden your world. There are many ideas in books that you can emulate in unexpected ways, and reading just keeps your mind active. Don’t ever think you’ve arrived. Keep learning.
- Guard your health. Take your vitamins, eat well and exercise. If your body suffers, your ministry will suffer as well. Mental health is also a big part of this, and you shouldn’t separate the two. Your mind and body are the tools you have to do God’s will: Don’t let them deteriorate. III John 2
- Guard your prayer life. Your prayer life will latch you on to a higher power than yourself, and it’s much easier to climb a hill if someone’s pulling you. You probably know who C. T. Studd is. But did you know that his father prayed Habakkuk 2:14 every day. No wonder that C. T. Studd become such an amazing missionary.
- Find a cultural mentor and spiritual mentor. This should not just be someone who’s going to teach you the language, but someone who will take you aside and say. “This is what you must do in this complicated cross-cultural situation.” They can help you to understand the nuances of the culture you are in, and can help you avoid pitfalls. Remember, you didn’t grow up in your mission culture, so you are ignorant of all the little nuances that even their children know. This person must be someone who is very aware of their own culture, and how it might be different than your culture. They need to anticipate what you won’t know. In my time in Papua New Guinea, Kondo was that mentor. A spiritual mentor might be the same person, or someone different, but they would need to advise when they saw you going spiritually wrong or making a mistake. You might call them an accountability partner, someone who is willing to call you out on any spiritual matters where you need guidance.
- Journal. Keep a record of what happens to you, along with dates and details. Keep copies of letters sent and received. This would include emails and “social media” today. This was invaluable to me while writing Outrageous Grace. Over the long haul, you might find out that the man who visited you way back there is different now because of you. The memory is unreliable, and a journal helps you remember details. And sometimes you just need to know, for some legal or financial reason, that a certain obligation or other event happened.
So take your new computer, your satellite uplink, your fancy translation software. Make sure your shots are up to date, and your visa is approved. But please, keep these ten points in mind. The longer you’re immersed in a different culture, the more important these points become, and the better you will be able to do the job God sent you for in the first place!
God’s richest blessings on your ministry!