Expectations vs. Expectancy: The Fine Line of Missionary Attrition

At least a thousand times, my two-year-old has woken up before dawn to watch her beloved Nature Cat, a cartoon produced by the Public Broadcasting Station. At least half of those times I have nodded my way through the same episode entitled, “Gardens of Gold.” Therein, the endearing cast treks their way from the backyard to a legendary garden, which, according to the good common sense of a house cat, mouse, dog, and rabbit, is assumed to be ripe with literal gold.

Of course, they arrive at the garden horrified that their “sparkly gold as far as eyes can see, endless riches for you and me” is (spoiler alert) just a field of golden-hued flowers. The climactic disappointment is so thick that my early riser always observes with a puckered lip, “Daddy, they so sad.” It’s enough to make a grown man, well, stay awake.

I find this depiction of unmet expectations gets me thinking. More than that, sometimes my heart rate increases and my teeth grit. The sensation of a vivid memory bubbles up in me. I know this kind of story all too well.

It’s my own garden of gold. It was in Africa, a promised land. It too had riches to offer. I would experience God without inhibition. My struggles of soul would dissipate. I would suffer, but even that would be glorious and noteworthy. Adventures wouldn’t end, but normal life would. People would come to Christ, and that would fully satisfy. God would be proud, and I would never come home.

I’m referring to my expectations of serving as a missionary. It was what I longed for, enough to justify the long journey to get there. I had so much hope wrapped up in the ideal of going that I couldn’t even see its effect. The appeal of my expectations blinded me to the odds against literal gold growing in a garden. It was the perfect setup for fatal disappointment.

Expectations Kill Missionaries

I ended up having an amazing experience in Africa. It was far better than I could have asked for or imagined (Eph. 3:20). It was so much better, in fact, that I almost didn’t survive it.

When my expectations weren’t fulfilled, I was nearly too bereft to stay in Africa. It didn’t matter that my expectations were being surpassed. They were still missing my original target. My teammate was vastly different from me and often more effective. My supervisor wasn’t mentoring me through daily investment. My schedule was slow and unproductive. My sin struggles still roared. My participation in seeing people come to Christ didn’t fully satisfy my soul. God exposed my need for others, moving me beyond knowledge-based discipleship, teaching me to be still and weak, and reminding me that only he satisfies. But I didn’t care.

I had defined what life and ministry had to look like during my time in Africa. And in so doing, I had somehow demanded God’s subservience to me. Reality, albeit a better a one, was crushing. Thus I faced the daily drama of the missionary: bend to a new reality or go home.

Expectancy Creates Missionaries

Expectations are defined as “prospects of future good or profit.” We cannot help but mentally notate what something might be like. We often do it subconsciously, not knowing what our expectations are until they are met or, more likely, unmet. When we find ourselves disappointed, surprised, critical, or confused, the scenario likely involves confounded expectations.

This is why I often feel like an idiot for counseling missionary candidates with, “Don’t have any expectations.” For one, that’s like telling someone, “Don’t have any dreams” (i.e. don’t allow yourself any normal cognitive processing that might lead to subconscious nighttime mental imagery). But more than that, there is an aspect of expectations that is absolutely critical to the missionary. I believe it is represented in the neighboring (yet vastly different) word, expectancy.

“There is an aspect of expectations that is absolutely critical to the missionary. I believe it is represented in the neighboring (yet vastly different) word, expectancy.”

Expectancy is defined as “anticipatory belief or desire.” Think expectations without definition nor demand. It’s a joyful yet sober-minded eagerness, a hunger without a specific craving. It was what made me lay awake at night thinking about God’s kingdom coming in places where it seemed it hadn’t yet. Expectancy was probably what made James the apostle delighted to be in the inner circle of Jesus (Mark 9:2), John Mark ready to be sent out with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:5), and James the brother of Jesus confident enough to still write “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1 NIV). The mystery of following Christ had to be irresistible.

Our Encouragement from Scripture

But imagine if James the apostle had allowed his expectancy to grow into expectations, demanding a thunderous life and ministry to match his personality. How would he have reconciled his preparation in the inner circle of Jesus with being beheaded after only a few years (Acts 12:2)?

Now consider John Mark. If he would not have died to the expectations that likely ruined him on his first missionary journey, do you think he would have signed up for a second try (Acts 15:37–38)?

And James penned such definitive words on the matter:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that,” (James 4:13–15 NIV).

The garden of gold for the missionary cannot be place or position or product. Such specific demands may boast of “endless riches for you and me,” but they will betray us. Rather, God delights to fill the open hands of expectant missionaries, to fill them with the mystery of Christ himself, in whom is hidden all treasure (Col. 2:2–3).


Zach Bradley is the lead pastor of Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky and director of content at The Upstream Collective. He also authored The Sending Church Defined and blogs at brokenmissiology.com. You can find him on Twitter @ZachsBradley.