I had the perfect picture of the missionary painted in my head. Growing up in Sunday school, I saw their slide shows, read about their heroism, and listened to their stories. They told me of their great adventures, showed me their cool cultural artifacts, allowed me to play dress-up with their native clothes, and even let me taste their food.
The ones I read about in books inspired movements, sacrificed greatly, and were the perfect picture of service—giving their very lives for the mission. There were offerings and church buildings named after them. The ones who were still alive would come and speak to us in person. They were the nicest people I had ever met. They were Superman, Indiana Jones, Inspector Gadget, a Good Samaritan, and Grandma all wrapped into one. They were out saving the day, venturing into unknown lands, always prepared, incredibly generous, overly hospitable, and always ready to be a friend. I wanted to be like them.
Spiritually, they could do no wrong. They read their Bibles, depended on God, and showed love to everyone. They were kind, committed, always knew what to say, and showed no fear. They were deeply devoted followers of Christ. They were perfect and blameless in my sight.
Then I moved overseas.
Completely Normal People
I found those deeply devoted followers of Christ full of adventure and hospitality. They were passionately pursuing Christ just as I had expected. They found joy in service and worked hard to share the gospel with everyone around them.
But as I got to know my missionary teammates, my perspective shifted. I realized it wasn’t their perfection that enamored me, but the working out of grace in their lives. It wasn’t their heroism, but their tenacity to press forward in the toughest situations and their faith that God would provide. It wasn’t their sense of adventure, but their willingness to try anything for the sake of getting the gospel to unreached peoples. It wasn’t their natural tendency to be nice, but it was the fruit of the Spirit on display. It was not their strength, but his.
I found completely normal people.
These were people subjected to the sins of the world, part of fallen humanity. There were moments when they made mistakes, struggled, doubted, spoke harshly, and wronged other people. They were tempted to sin in every conceivable way. But, being committed and disciplined people of the Word, they understood confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Watching them work out their salvation, I learned the significance of the gospel in each of our lives. I saw a picture of faith and grace.
A Life of Obedience
To my surprise, they didn’t have linguistic superpowers or the ability to immediately adapt to every situation. They worked tirelessly to sound out words in a foreign tongue, spending days confused and unsure of the cultural traditions around them. But I realized that their desire to understand and communicate created a strong work ethic and I watched them labor in love.
I was shocked when I realized they didn’t have the entire Bible memorized. But because they had experienced God’s faithfulness over and over again, they sought to know him more. This disciplined faithfulness taught me to abide in the Word and to follow him with my whole life.
Amazingly, I witnessed missionaries joking, laughing, and having fun. They watched movies, had friendly competitions, took vacations, and wanted cool stuff. It was in these moments of joy and laughter around real people that I understood what it meant to live in a loving community and to be a part of the family of God.
I’m Not a Superhero, but I am a Missionary
I don’t know why I thought I could move overseas to live among superheroes when I was not one myself, but I had high aspirations to earn my cape and join the ranks. I quickly learned that there were no accolades, no recognition, and no statuses to achieve. The missionary life is a daily journey to obediently follow Christ and sacrifice for the sake of others experiencing his faithfulness.
The missionary life is a daily journey to obediently follow Christ and sacrifice for the sake of others experiencing his faithfulness.
It’s not an easy life, but it’s a joyful life. It’s a life for normal people. There are no heroes among them. Missionaries are pretty ordinary people, but they are doing extraordinary things by God’s Spirit. Those completely normal missionaries I know are living life to the fullest. It’s not what I expected, but I still want to be like them.
Stefani Varner serves on the church initiatives team at IMB. She previously served as a missionary in South Asia and is passionate about discipling people toward global engagement.