“Go!” That’s what Jesus commanded of his followers—to share the good news of the gospel with any and all from every tribe, people, and nation. Toward the end of more disciples who selflessly proclaim the hope of eternal life with those who have not heard, that’s the prayer.
But in all this eagerness and zeal, sometimes we’re confronted with an unwelcome question: Why do so many people try yet don’t make it to the overseas mission field? And why do some missionaries prematurely leave the mission field?
There are a number of reasons, but having worked with missionaries for thirty-two years, I’ll explore the ones I’ve observed most. Rather than dampening zeal for missions, I want many more to consider the cost and soberly consider the following points.
1. Excitement without Calling
Great excitement or interest in cross-cultural missions doesn’t necessarily result in the heartfelt motivation or calling it takes to tackle overseas life.
God prepares and equips individuals for overseas service. He gives them a sense of dissatisfaction with life until they pursue that calling and are willing to meet just about any requirement or expectation to see that come to fruition. There are many aspects to calling, and there is certainly a key role the local church plays in helping people discern their calling (cf. Acts 13:1–3).
Since we’re asking for a commitment to the missionary life for the entire family, there must be a sense of this calling present in both husband and wife. Considering all it takes to move one’s family overseas to what are often quite challenging situations, it’s just not worth the effort without a strong sense that this is what the Lord has for both spouses to do.
“Why do so many people try but don’t make it to the overseas mission field? Why do some missionaries prematurely leave the mission field?”
Once on the field, some missionaries leave because of unmet expectations. They struggle with the challenges of the work, the hardship of life in difficult places, or they cannot adjust to life in a culture so different from their own. Failing to achieve a working fluency in the local language reduces one’s personal sense of connection with and effectiveness in the host culture. Possibly they haven’t truly counted the cost of taking the gospel to the lost (Matt. 8:18–28).
2. Spiritual Immaturity
Missionary service requires spiritual depth and maturity. One needs strong personal spiritual disciplines that can maintain their spiritual health without all of the supporting structures of the American church.
This is especially true in pioneer areas where the missionary is starting new work and, therefore, works with a relatively small team of missionaries and national partners. Candidates not serious about personal spiritual disciplines demonstrate they don’t have the spiritual depth to maintain their spiritual health overseas.
Mission organizations depend heavily on recommendations from the sending church to verify the spiritual readiness of a candidate. When weakness is surfaced in the assessment process, the response is usually “not now,” giving the candidate time to mature before looking toward an overseas assignment.
3. Poor Health
In many cases, one’s physical health can be a limiting factor. Pressures of overseas living can make what seem to be minor ailments become major health issues over time. Additionally, many parts of the world don’t have the facilities to treat some chronic conditions.
A medical condition in a member of the family may require a missionary family on the field to return to the United States. Care isn’t always available overseas, and even when it may be available, some conditions require ongoing care or treatment that might not be practical for the missionary team to manage.
4. Children’s Needs
These must be considered as some treatment and intervention requirements for development and educational needs aren’t available in the context of many assignments. Taking the time to carefully assess children’s developmental and educational needs often pays great dividends in helping families toward fruitful service.
Educational needs of children can also result in a necessity to return home, as special education resources and specialized interventions such as speech therapy are just not available or are cost prohibitive in many parts of the world.
Unforeseen family circumstances can impact a missionary’s ability to remain overseas. Responsibilities for the care needs of an aging parent or adult child may fall on the shoulders of a missionary requiring them to leave the field. Following the leadership of the Lord, they must make a priority to care of the needs of their family and return to the United States to provide what is necessary. A challenge to the sending church is to investigate how they might come alongside the parents of missionaries to provide care and assistance that might allow a missionary to continue service.
5. Sexual Sin
Popular American culture provides a backdrop where clear lines of right and wrong have become blurred. Many live private lives they have managed to keep separate from others. The primary avenue for this sin is the use of pornography, but there are increasing numbers of those involved in sex outside of marriage and who experiment with homosexual relationships.
“Moral failure is a rare occurrence, but when it happens the work can be negatively impacted for years to come.”
Moral failure is a rare occurrence, but when it happens the work can be negatively impacted for years to come. Moral failure on the field unfortunately too often results in broken marriages and families if issues can’t be adequately resolved.
What can the church do to support missionaries going and staying on the field? There isn’t one single solution, but there are many opportunities for agencies and local churches to work together, whether in identifying and preparing future missionaries or keeping the ones we already have.
Churches, student leaders, and missions leaders must accept a measure of responsibility to prepare the next generation of missionaries. Preparation starts with discipleship in the local church, mentoring, and careful examination of the Lord’s direction in one’s life. It requires discipling and accountability toward living a life committed to biblical values instead of the values of the culture.
Church leaders can challenge prospective missionaries in their church to engage in local cross-cultural ministries as a part of their preparation for future service. This is best done in community and not in isolation. For those on the field, leaders must be reminded to encourage and monitor spiritual health among field missionaries. Leaders can give training in resolving interpersonal conflict and teaming in addition to training in evangelism and church planting methods.
Let’s all take our place in the task of global missions.
Carlton Vandagriff is a thirty-two-year missions veteran. He has served as a church planter, field leader, and administrator, and has processed hundreds of missionary candidates for overseas service. He now consults with agencies and partners around the world in enhancing their missions sending capacity.