Too often, missionaries are depicted as Super Christians. That’s unfortunate—not only for missionaries but for those who are considering becoming one.* Having served as a missionary and having been around missionaries all my life, I have a fairly realistic view of who they are and are not. I love missionaries. Not one of them is a Super Christian, nor would they claim to be.
The question of who can be a missionary is an important one, however. As part of my work with IMB, I get asked it all the time—literally every single day. Our sending churches and people who support global missions around the world want to know what it takes to do effective missionary work. Aspiring missionaries also want to know what it takes to be a faithful missionary.
The way I’ve learned to best approach this vital question is to examine it through the lens of three primary categories: characteristics, competencies, and commitments.
Characteristics of a Faithful IMB Missionary
- Humility – The apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11, described this key requirement for servant leaders as personified by Christ himself—the ultimate missionary. Christ set aside the manifestation of his glory, took on the form of a servant, and continually put the interests of others before his own. Selfless humility is critical to being a faithful missionary.
- Courage – Moving to a foreign land, learning a foreign language, and sharing the gospel with resistant people is not for the faint of heart. Being an ambassador for Christ among the nations requires courage and boldness.
- Diligence – Sinful hearts do not change overnight. The missionary task is challenging and exhausting. Mission work requires hard and faithful work over a lengthy period of time.
- Flexibility – Life on the mission field is constantly changing and is filled with unexpected developments and transitions. The changing dynamics and nature of missionary life requires missionaries to be flexible and adaptable.
- Resilience – Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. And missionary work is fraught with difficulties. Mental and physical toughness are necessary for missionaries to be faithful and endure in their work.
Competencies of a Faithful IMB Missionary
- Able to Teach – As those who have been sent by Christ and his church, missionaries need to be able to teach God’s Word. That doesn’t mean you have to be an eloquent orator. However, missionaries need to be able to rightly interpret the Bible and share the truths of Scripture with others in a cross-cultural setting so that they understand the message clearly.
- Evangelism Experience – Missionaries are sent to proclaim the message of hope to a lost and dying world. As ambassadors of Christ, missionaries must be able to persuasively present the gospel. Personal experience sharing the gospel and calling people to repentance and faith is vital to the missionary task.
- Discipleship Experience – In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commanded his followers to “make disciples.” Discipleship is primary in the missionary task. Missionaries need to be able to teach and model what it means to follow Christ.
- Interpersonal Skills – Missionaries need to cultivate and prioritize the ability to relate well and interact with those around them. Missionaries are in the people business. So they need to be able to connect well on a personal level with all kinds of people. Strong interpersonal skills are essential for missionary life and work.
- Analytical Thinking – Analytical thinking and the ability to solve problems is integral to Great Commission work. Missionaries frequently face a host of unique challenges that require analytical thinking and creative, innovative solutions.
Commitments of a Faithful IMB Missionary
- The Local Church – God primarily uses the local church to accomplish the Great Commission. A missionary who is sent out by a local church to plant new local churches must prioritize the role of the local church in his or her engagement in the missionary task. A commitment to the local church entails active local membership in one’s place of service, a commitment to strengthening existing churches, and intentional effort to establish new churches.
- Baptist Distinctives – In addition to believing everything taught in The Baptist Faith and Message, a faithful IMB missionary will be committed to Baptist distinctives such as regenerate church membership, the priesthood of the believer, believer’s baptism by immersion, the autonomy of the local church, and freedom of conscience.
- The Primacy of Evangelism – The greatest need of the nations is salvation from sin that is only available to those who repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faithful IMB missionaries prioritize the primacy of evangelism in Great Commission work.
- Teaming Approach – Not only is teaming the biblical approach to missionary work as depicted in the New Testament, there are also pastoral and practical reasons for the necessity of teaming on the mission field. More has been written about this elsewhere (see link above). The condensed version is that IMB’s experience shows it is both wise and biblical for missionaries to serve together in teams.
- Partnership with Nationals – Related to the teaming commitment noted above, missionaries are committed to teaming and partnering with national believers. Missionaries understand that they have much to learn from their national brothers and sisters around the world. They regard nationals as vital partners, peers, and co-laborers in the missionary task.
You Cannot Do This
These are the core essentials of a missionary profile. The list is not exhaustive, but it’s what IMB looks for in missionary candidates. With that said, some may examine this list and immediately feel inadequate and incapable of ever serving as a missionary. After all, this description above seems a little like the description of a Super Christian.
Left to ourselves, none of us can meet the standards listed above. Each of us, regardless of age, gender, background, heritage, or vocation, falls short of this missionary profile by nature of our sin and rebellion against God. Only by God’s kind, saving, and sanctifying grace can anyone attain the characteristics, competencies, and commitments of a faithful missionary.
So as you look again at the profile above, be sure to look in light of the sanctifying power of Christ. After all, being a “faithful missionary” starts by acknowledging one’s weaknesses before the Lord and imploring God to do his transforming work in our lives.
I’m convinced that those who begin from that humble posture can be used by the Lord to do great and mighty things for his glory among the nations!
Dr. Paul Akin is the team leader of assessment and deployment at the IMB. He can be found on Twitter @Pakin33.
*NOTE: My use of the word missionary is based on IMB’s definition of missionary: “a disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church, and affirmed by the IMB to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers as part of a missionary team focused on making disciples and multiplying churches among unreached peoples and places.” For more on this, see Zane Pratt’s article, What Is an IMB Missionary?