Have you ever just paused and considered the immense challenge of global missions? I mean, have you really tried to wrap your head around and understand the overarching purpose and end goal of global missions?
When you do consider all that goes into this monumental task, you realize that, in many ways, global missions is some of the most difficult work on the planet. Allow me to briefly explain five challenges missionaries often face.
Global mission requires an inescapable element of sacrifice for the sender and for those sent. In the book of Acts, the church in Antioch, under the Spirit’s guidance, sent the first missionaries (Acts 13:1–4). One can only imagine the sense of sacrifice felt by the elders in Antioch as they fasted, prayed, and laid hands on Saul and Barnabas before sending them off on that inaugural missionary journey.
“Global missions is some of the most difficult work on the planet.”
Moreover, the reality is the same—perhaps even more acute—for those who are sent out today as missionaries. Leaving behind family, friends, vocational identity, familiar environment, and, in some cases, modern conveniences to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers can be extremely challenging.
Thus, the sense of sacrifice for both the sender and the sent one is noteworthy and extraordinary.
2. Foreign Context
As if leaving family, friends, and familiar surroundings weren’t challenging enough, missionaries are most often sent into a completely foreign and unfamiliar context and culture. Here’s a brief list of some of the common themes that immediately surface as missionaries enter a new place.
- You’re directionally lost (you struggle to find your way around!).
- You’re mentally exhausted trying to navigate life in a new context (nothing is familiar and simple).
- You’re bombarded with new tastes, sounds, and smells.
- You’re vulnerable as an outsider and struggle to know whom to trust.
- You lack meaningful friendships and struggle with where you belong.
The above examples capture just a few of the many challenges associated with living in a cross-cultural context. The sense of loss from leaving a familiar setting compounded with entering into a foreign context cannot be understated. Feeling lost, confused, and unsettled are real emotions for missionaries as they move to a foreign context.
3. Language Learning
Many of us in America take for granted our ability to communicate in a common language. In most contexts around the world, missionaries are unable to communicate upon their arrival. Imagine the challenge of not being able to express your thoughts or ideas in a verbal manner to those around you?
Furthermore, language is far more than mere verbal expression. Language also encapsulates cultural ideals and practices. Therefore, those who lack fluency in the language miss cultural cues and struggle to adequately understand all of the nonverbal communication that is going on around them.
“Feeling lost, confused, and unsettled are real emotions for missionaries as they move to a foreign context.”
Language learning takes very intentional time and practice. In some contexts, full-time language learning is necessary for two to three years before one is really able to communicate well in a new setting.
Let that reality sink in for a moment. Competent and intelligent people often spend several years just trying to learn how to speak and communicate in a new context. Language learning is often a formidable obstacle.
4. Worldview Clash (Spiritual and Physical Realities)
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of all in global mission is the inevitable worldview clash that takes places every time missionaries try to share the gospel of Christ.
The apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Ephesus that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12 CSB). Every time the gospel of Christ is presented in an Asian marketplace, or an African desert, or a European café there’s a clash of worldviews taking place. The missionary—the one sent out from a local church—as an ambassador of Christ presents the timeless truth that inevitably collides with the myths, lies, and the predominant worldview of those in the host culture.
The worldview clash manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes, hearers’ hearts and ears are closed to the truth. Other times, people will become agitated and angry about the truth shared by the missionary. But sometimes, people’s hearts are softened, and the Holy Spirit is moving and working in a unique way as the gospel narrative unfolds. In all of it, one must remember there’s a real spiritual battle taking place every time the gospel is proclaimed. In the end, the goal of this worldview clash is a fundamental change in thinking and living.
To acknowledge belief in the gospel in many parts of the world signifies a rejection of what has been believed and practiced in some contexts for thousands of years. Embracing the gospel is often perceived by the surrounding community as an acceptance of a foreign religion (often with historical baggage) and a line of thinking that doesn’t mesh or makes sense with their particular worldview. The worldview clash presents a variety of significant challenges and obstacles to mission work.
5. Environmental Challenges
In addition to the many severe challenges already mentioned are the ever present challenges of health, climate, and geography.
Many missionaries battle serious health issues that negatively impact and hinder their work. In some cases, illnesses and health challenges can be so bad that missionaries are forced to return home.
“There are myriad of challenges and hardships related to carrying out the missionary task, but those hardships can be met with an enduring hope.”
Some missionaries struggle to live and minister in contexts of intense climate and in places that present unique geographical challenges. Deserts, jungles, mountains, and islands all possess inherent climate and geographical obstacles to the missionary endeavor.
Extreme Hardships with an Enduring Hope
Suffice to say, global missions is perhaps some of the most difficult work on the planet. There are myriad challenges and hardships related to carrying out the missionary task, but those hardships can be met with an enduring hope.
In the face of all of the difficulty and hardships mentioned above, missionaries are reminded that the only hope they have is found in Christ and in his providential and sovereign work in the world. The missionary task, for all the reasons mentioned above, is impossible from a human perspective.
The good news is that our God doesn’t operate and work within human limitations. He’s all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present. He has the power and ability to change hearts, change minds, and transform lives. That recognition and reality changes everything and gives missionaries and sending churches an enduring hope that enables them to persist and persevere as they give their time, energy, and lives to the most difficult work on the planet.
Paul Akin is the team leader of assessment and deployment at the IMB. He can be found on Twitter @PAkin33.