The most common reason missionaries go home is not due to lack of money, illness, terrorism, homesickness, or even a lack of fruit or response to the gospel.
Regretfully, the number one reason is due to conflict with other missionaries.
Yes, you read that correctly.
From my own personal experience on the field and after five years training, equipping, and sending missionaries, I have witnessed this truth firsthand. In all my travels around the world, I’ve spent countless days with missionary teams of all types, sizes, and makeups and one reality remains true: none of them are perfect.
In fact, toward the end of the 20th century the World Evangelical Alliance released a significant study that found “conflict with peers” as the top reason North American missionaries leave the mission field.
In light of the seemingly inevitable conflict with other missionaries, many may wonder why we emphasize teams. The simple answer is that this is the example and model we see in the Bible. Team is the predominant model we see for mission work in the New Testament. Jesus and his disciples lived together and did ministry together. Paul and Barnabas—set apart by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch—went out together on the first missionary journey.
We see further evidence of teams on mission in Paul’s “apostolic band.” One scholar notes that in the New Testament, at least 55 men and 17 women were associated with Paul on his missionary journeys. All this to say, there are biblical, practical, and pastoral reasons why we encourage the formation and sending of missionary teams.
Five Challenges for Missionary Teams
Conflict within missionary teams is inevitable in a fallen world. Here are five challenges that threaten all missionaries and missionary teams.
1. Unmet expectations
Whether we realize it or not, we all arrive on the mission field with certain expectations. These expectations are shaped and formed by our previous experiences. Unmet expectations related to missionary teams are a real problem, especially for young missionaries with an idealistic perspective of the mission field.
2. Conflict equation
Sinful people + work with other sinful people + those people trying to witness to and reach other sinful people = lots of sinful people and potential for conflict.
Conflict within missionary teams is inevitable in a fallen world.
When you join a team on the mission field, you are stepping into this conflict equation and you must acknowledge that reality.
3. Missionary life is stressful
Missionary life is filled with stress and pressure, and much of it is subconscious. Things that seemed so simple—like driving, grocery shopping, paying bills, or sleeping—suddenly become very challenging and stressful. It’s not always easy to articulate and identify, but subconscious stress is a reality for many missionaries and missionary teams around the world.
4. Jealousy can thrive
We’re creatures who naturally like to compare ourselves with others. Teams often live life together and are around each other often, so there is a great tendency for envy to creep in. If we aren’t careful, we can compare, become jealous, and in the process destroy a team with our own pride.
5. Sin remains a constant reality
The bottom line is that we’re sinful people. We’re selfish, we’re prideful, and when put in stressful situations, we’re often poor teammates and partners in the Great Commission.
What’s the Solution?
So, in light of these challenges, what are missionaries and missionary teams supposed to do?
1. Missionaries need to have a realistic perspective of team.
Missionary teams are not perfect and are made up of sinful people. Therefore, beware of going to the mission field with an idealistic and utopian perspective of team.
2. Missionaries must strive to be flexible and adaptable.
Nobody likes teaming with high maintenance people. Most missionaries are entering a culture where they have little control over most things that happen and, as a result, flexibility and adaptability are critical.
3. Missionaries ought to prepare spiritually, physically, and emotionally before going to the field.
As Mack Stiles once wrote, “There is no such thing as transformation by aviation.” Missionaries must intentionally pursue intimacy with Christ and learn to abide in him long before they ever cross geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
Missionaries must intentionally pursue intimacy with Christ and learn to abide in him long before they ever cross geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
In the end, being a good teammate is not just a matter of effort, though that’s important; it’s a matter of grace and mercy. We need God’s grace and mercy on a moment-by-moment basis. We need the gospel to change us from the inside out. We need the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, wills, desires, and affection—and in the process make us more like Jesus.
That is the only way we can be the kind of teammates who honor God and help fuel the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Paul Akin is the senior aide to IMB President David Platt. He can be found on Twitter @pakin33.