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The Kind of Missionaries the Global Church Wants

Recently, a colleague and I made a two-week trip across the Middle East and North Africa to visit national pastors and mission teams. Since we lead a missions organization based in the U.S., we were asking this question: “What would it look like to send new missionaries to join you in your work?”

In one church, we met with some national pastors were hesitant to answer such a question. But a few hours into our conversation, after a level of trust was built, they began to share painful stories of missionaries who made great promises but failed to follow through. They told us of Western missionaries being in their city for years who never learned the language. These missionaries refused to play a meaningful role in the local church because it’d distract from their personal ministry. And they kept national believers at a distance so they could remain comfortable within their own expat culture.

I could see in their faces and body language the wounds left by missionaries who failed to see the national church and national Christians as genuine friends and colaborers. Eventually I asked, “You’ve been burned so many times; why work with missionaries at all?” And then they told me about Andrew.

Right Kind of Missionary

Andrew was a missionary from America who made many of the same promises others had. He wanted to bring his family, learn the language and culture, and make Jesus known. But there was a difference. Andrew and his family rooted their life alongside other national Christians. They played a meaningful role in the church’s life. They stayed through the hard times and treated locals as equal partners in the work.

These national pastors said they still desire to work with missionaries—but they’re looking for the right kind of missionary. They’re tired of babysitting warm bodies who lack the skills to add value or the grit to stay for the long haul.

I felt a knot in my stomach. I knew they were right. In an effort to reach the unreached—and with the best intentions—the American church has often sent unqualified and ill-equipped missionaries. These seasoned national pastors were telling me to stop sending people we’d never invite to lead ministries in our own churches. Instead, we should send people proven and well-equipped for ministry in hard places.

In an effort to reach the unreached—and with the best of intentions—the American church has often sent unqualified and ill-equipped missionaries.

Vital Missionary Traits

In our conversations traveling around the region, I asked national church leaders for specific characteristics they thought were important for those we send. Here’s a short list of what they told us.

1. Proven and Well-Equipped

We heard repeatedly from pastors and missions leaders how essential it is for people to be faithful followers of Jesus, well trained in theology and missiology, and proven in their local churches. Why in the world would we send people to do ministry in a different language and culture that they weren’t doing in their home contexts?

These pastors weren’t saying everyone needed a seminary degree. They were simply urging us to send people who knew God’s Word, were actively sharing their faith and making disciples, were proven to be mature, and were leading and serving in their local church.

2. Socially and Relationally Adept

I was amazed how many times this point came up. National pastors and missions leaders told us they wanted to receive missionaries who enjoyed people and possessed relational maturity. We heard several stories of missionaries who moved overseas, learned the language, and then struggled to develop meaningful relationships—or even to leave their apartment. They’d loved the idea of missions, but being with people was difficult.

These pastors are looking for missionaries who pursue others, can navigate relational dynamics, and have a genuine love for their teammates, national Christians, and their unbelieving neighbors. Whether they’re extroverts or introverts, missionaries need to have the capacity for healthy and meaningful relationships.

3. Gritty and Persevering

Missionaries need more than a willingness to go; they need the maturity and determination to stay. Why? Because it’ll be hard. This can be especially challenging for many young Americans who’ve lived in relative comfort and ease. But these pastors urged us to send people who’ve already done hard things and who have a history of enduring suffering.

4. Moderate and Frugal

The lead pastor made a point to tell us how important it is to send people willing to lower their economic status. He recounted stories of missionaries who moved to his city and, because of the lower cost of living, were able to live in nicer homes and make financial choices that created a level of relational separation from those in the church. Though not sinful, those financial choices put up a barrier that made ministry among the local population harder.

This pastor wasn’t urging missionaries toward poverty but toward lifestyle moderation so they could be more accessible to people. If they’d chosen to live at a lower level, their ministry could’ve flourished even more.

5. Humble and Teachable

On this trip and through a decade of mentoring missionaries, I’ve come to recognize that cultivating humility and remaining teachable are essential for flourishing in cross-cultural ministry. In several of our conversations, national pastors and ministry leaders celebrated the missionaries who came, took on the posture of a learner, were team players, and served alongside the national church over the long haul. Those we visited highly valued the humility it takes to be a learner—and stay a learner.

Missionaries need more than a willingness to go; they need the maturity and determination to stay.

As my colleague and I wrapped up our trip, it was clear to us that Western missionaries have made significant mistakes over the years, leaving real wounds. But the national church in North Africa and the Middle East can still benefit from Western missionaries, and they still desire to receive them.

We should do the hard work of investing in, raising up, sending out, and supporting these kind of missionaries. We should send the missionaries the global church wants and needs.

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