What is the best gift for a missionary? I’m thinking particularly of a missionary who is called to proclaim the gospel and to win converts among the unconverted?
Every missionary would love to be gifted in the many ways as the apostle Paul, who proclaimed the gospel boldly, did signs and wonders and miracles, and turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). But when we come back down to earth, we realize that we won’t be like the apostle Paul, even though the Lord may use us in dramatic ways.
How, then, should we think about our gifts as missionaries? I will suggest that the gift we need most of all isn’t the first one that comes to our minds when we think of gifting for ministry.
Evangelism and Teaching
Two of the most coveted gifts among missionaries are evangelism and teaching.
It’s hard to vote against evangelism (Eph. 4:11) since those who have such a gift are particularly gifted to proclaim the good news of Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. Philip is identified as an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and Paul’s words to Timothy function as a good reminder to all missionaries: “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).
“The gift we need most of all isn’t the first one that comes to our minds when we think of spiritual gifts.”
While pride of place should be given to evangelism for missionaries who are laboring to win the lost, the gift of teaching plays a crucial role as well. The gift of teaching, which means that one explains and unpacks the words of Scripture, receives prominent attention among spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; 14:6, 19, 26; Eph. 4:11; cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). Any missionary who has a gift for evangelism will be especially well-suited for the work if the gift of teaching is also present. Those who are converted desperately need clear and faithful teaching which helps new believers grasp the good news they’ve embraced.
The Most Important Gift of All
What a blessing for a missionary to have the gift of evangelism or the gift of teaching, but Paul reminds us that there is an even “better way” (1 Cor. 12:31). The most important quality for a missionary is love. If missionaries don’t have love, all their evangelism and teaching is “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Perhaps their knowledge of apologetics and of theology is deep and profound, but without love, they are “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Yes, there is even deep sacrifice which is not accompanied by love (1 Cor. 13:3).
Missionaries are ordinary humans like the rest of us; what they need most is to “be filled by the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16), to be “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:18), to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25), and to “sow to the Spirit” (Gal. 6:8). Only in this way will they produce “the fruit of the Spirit,” which is “love” (Gal. 5:22). Missionaries need supernatural power and divine strength, enabling them from on high to carry out their ministries.
Even those who are gifted as missionaries face many discouragements: (1) adjusting to a new a culture that may be significantly different from one’s own, (2) financial pressures, (3) health challenges, and (4) struggles with children.
Also, discouragement may set in when the work isn’t going as one hoped, when there aren’t as many converts as one anticipated, or when some of those converted fall back into sin or when they mature slowly. What is perhaps most surprising to some missionaries are the tensions that can erupt with other missionaries on the field. They anticipated a happy band, a united team effort. But life on the ground turns out to be quite different.
“The best spiritual gift for any missionary—and for any Christian for that matter—is to be like Jesus.”
What the missionary needs most, as we saw in Scripture, is the power of the Spirit. And the power of the Spirit leads to a life of love, and “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4), recognizing that our schedule and our timetable aren’t the same as the Lord’s. Love isn’t “irritable” with fellow missionaries, and it doesn’t keep a list of the wrongs they have done (1 Cor. 13:5). Such love doesn’t mean that decisions should be avoided.
Sometimes missionary teams need to go separate ways if their philosophy of ministry is radically different, but in every situation, the Lord calls us to spiritual maturity, to kindness (1 Cor. 13:4). We’re to beware of being envious or boastful as if we’re always in the right (1 Cor. 13:4).
So, what do missionaries need most?
Yes, they need spiritual gifts and abilities to serve. But the best gift for any missionary—and for any Christian for that matter—is to be like Jesus, since Jesus is the paradigm of love (John 15:12–13). God is working all things for our good so that we will “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). We’re most like Jesus when we live sacrificially as he did and when we pour out our lives for the sake of others.
Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean for Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s most recently the author of Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter. You can follow him on Twitter.