Twenty years ago, if you had asked me what I pictured when I heard the word missionary, I would have described a modern-day John the Baptist. In my mind, missionaries were hairy and dirty, wore clothes that were outdated and odd, ate things that made my stomach turn, and lived a life so holy and different that I couldn’t possibly relate.
Fast-forward twenty years, and here I am, a missionary. And when I compare myself to the stereotypical missionary I pictured when I was a kid, I don’t come close to filling the part—thankfully, honestly. Come to think of it, none of my missionary friends do.
There are many things people believe about missionaries that simply aren’t true, at least not fully. Let’s take a look at five of them.
1. Missionaries are all the same, and I’m not like them.
Before I moved to the field, I was worried I wouldn’t fit in. I went to public schools, I shop at H&M, I don’t exclusively listen to Christian music, and I have tattoos. None were traits I pictured missionaries having. About three minutes after I arrived at my initial training, I realized I was wrong. Missionaries are a diverse crowd. Some are older, some were football stars in high school, and some are hipsters. They are as diverse as the countries to which God sends them.
God loves diversity, and he created each of us to be different. Of course he’s going to send assorted people to reach this ever-changing world he created.
2. Missionaries have to homeschool their kids.
God has blessed me with certain talents and skills that I am proud to use for his glory, but he did not bless me with the patience or the ability to homeschool my children. My kids attend a public school in the country we live in, and they love it. And I love the education they’re receiving. Some missionary kids attend international schools, others have teachers come to their homes, and some moms teach their children in their homes. Every family is different.
“God loves diversity, and he created each of us to be different. Of course he’s going to send assorted people to reach this ever-changing world he created.”
One thing is true: the missionary kid that I grew up stereotyping does not necessarily reflect reality. No matter how they are schooled, many missionary kids’ life experiences and the things they’ve seen God do have molded them into culturally-relevant, well-grounded, faith-confident people. They aren’t the sheltered, unrelateable kids I so wrongly imagined.
3. Missionaries mourn the life they had in America.
America is great. Hot dogs and hamburgers are just not the same outside of the States, and the Stars and Stripes hold a dear place in our hearts. But many missionaries are perfectly satisfied with the lives they lead outside of their home country.
You may be thinking, “Sure, maybe the missionaries in Europe or tropical islands.” But I mean all missionaries. Although it may be incredibly difficult, by the power of the Spirit, it’s also a joy to be where God wants you. God graciously changes your heart so that you love what he loves and want what he wants. No matter where they may be, you’d be hard-pressed to drag most missionaries away from the people God has rooted in their hearts.
That said, it’s true that all missionaries go through hard times. We all spend days missing our family and friends or some of the conveniences of home. Even so, many missionaries feel more at home where God has placed them than they do in America.
4. Missionaries all live in huts.
God wants the world to know him. The world includes the villages in Africa and Mongolia and mountains in places I’ve never heard of. But it also includes the big cities in France, Greece, and England. Huts are a reality for some missionaries, but others live in apartments, houses, or even on boats.
Unfortunately, some people treat missionaries like they shouldn’t have any comforts at all. In fact, one missionary friend of mine received a Facebook message that scolded her for posting pictures of her family enjoying time together. What?! Missionaries should have fun too.
“Let’s be clear, missionaries are normal Christians . . . Missionaries are just like you.”
God doesn’t call us to things in order make our lives terrible. Instead, he wants to do something only he can do by way of our obedience. He’s a kind and loving Father. He wants to use us for his glory, not punish us for our obedience.
5. Missionaries are spiritual heroes.
I’ve heard so many people say, “Missionaries are my heroes.” But let’s be clear, missionaries are normal Christians. They struggle, they forget to spend daily time with God, they get irritated, and they aren’t always nice. Missionaries are just like you. Sure, crossing cultures is incredibly difficult for missionaries, and it changes who they are, but all Christians who follow God’s direction are changed. Missionaries have simply followed his direction to a different locale.
Decisions that change the trajectory of our lives are difficult to make for all believers, “missionary” or not. Obedience brings aches and moments of panic, whether you’re moving to another country, starting a new Bible study, or fostering a child—whatever it is that God has asked you to do. People who choose to obey in spite of those difficulties, whether at home or around the globe, are not superheroes, they’re simply followers of Christ.
I’m thankful to have banished the missionary stereotypes I held. And I’m so glad that I’m not confined to the imaginary missionary-mandate I created. Let’s ignore the lies we’ve believed about missionaries and start believing that God can use us all to accomplish his purposes.