Q: What do missionaries wish they had known before they first went?
A: I wish I had had more realistic expectations.
Another common fallacy is that the "heathen" are crying out for someone to tell them the gospel. There may be the rare exception (in Papua New Guinea, one tribe did build a church in anticipation of the missionaries coming to tell them the Good News), but in general, the "heathen" are blinded just like the Jews. They are not searching for God and are living deceived in the darkness of their blinded condition. One will most commonly find indifference to the message, and at worst, there will be downright opposition.
I am often amused by missionaries who have the idea they are going overseas to do a great work for Jesus. First of all, we are participating in the work that God is already doing. This is well-explained in the workbook Experiencing God. Of course, all your friends here will tell you what a great and wonderful thing you are doing. Then WHAM! You come face to face overseas with all your inadequacies and weaknesses. You realize how much you are actually going to have to depend on God to see something accomplished. Many missionaries when confronted with the reality of living in a foreign culture and the time needed to impact the people simply become discouraged, turn around and come home. It is only when we realize that we are totally dependent on God and wait on Him and work with Him that we finally see some beautiful fruit.
A: I wish I had known how difficult missions really is.
The culture won't make a bit of sense and you'll even resent the people sometimes, or think how ridiculous they do things. But you will learn how to live there. You'll learn new cultural cues and you'll begin to see how they do make sense in your new culture. And in the learning, you'll grow to love the people. So learn to laugh at yourself!
Don't give up! When you go, determine that you're going to stay. It's like God meant marriage to be. It won't always be easy, but make it work! Don't expect the other person to change. Change as you need to. And there's probably no better environment to promote change in us than working in another culture.
A: I wish I had known language learning & missy relationships.
Most adults do not know how to handle the humiliation of learning a new language, of having people give them confused stares, just outright laughing at them, or becoming angry because you are in their country and can't speak the language. Many people in my language school suffered from loss of identity and inferiority. These were well-educated people who had been successful in their occupations back home. Now they were learning language full-time and couldn't understand why they were having such a hard time when they did so well in their home occupations. They didn't understand that learning a language is a completely different animal than making good grades in history or nursing. Being "smart" does not guarantee that you will automatically find learning language easy.
Never assume that you and your colleagues are going to be one big happy family. Generally you cannot choose who you are going to work with and no one is going to hit it off with everybody. So you may find that your colleagues have different interests and backgrounds that you cannot relate to well. You may find that they do things that are quite irritating to you. You may find some of your colleagues to be quite carnal, having major problems with anger, critical spirit, gossiping, etc. Good relationships take a lot of time and effort. I would say that it is just as important, if not more so, to spend time "bonding" with your colleagues as well as bonding with the nationals.
A: I wish I had learned about spiritual warfare.
We all have much to learn in this life, and much of what God has to teach you, you'll only learn by going where He leads. So do some good thorough preparation, and then GO. Don't ever think you've got to be totally prepared before you go, or you'll never go.
Editor's Note: in addition to Neil Anderson's book, also see the book Spiritual Warfare by Dean Sherman.
A: I wish I had known how difficult long-term fruit really is.
If you want to see people saved, you need to spend time with non-Christians. But we were amazed at how much of our time was tied up in fellowship with other missionaries, people in the church, other national pastors, and friends who visited. We started to ask, "When was the last time we saw a non-Christian?" Then God led us to make contact with a pre-Christian every day. As part of this we invited families over for dinner once a week. Though few outsiders would come to a church meeting, no one turned down a dinner invitation!
Missions is sometimes a huge challenge. During our darkest days I would read Hebrews 11 aloud twice a day and pray for the faith to keep going. One day I continued into the next chapter and read Hebrews 12:11 "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful." I wondered if the Lord was disciplining me. Had I been disobedient? Then I read Hebrews 12:7 "Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons." Then I saw it. The hardship is something that God brought into my life. Then I reread verse 11 and exchanged the word discipline for hardship. "No hardship seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Like a good marriage, effective missions takes work. But it's worth every bit of it, too.
A: I wish I had known more about myself and being patient.
A: I wish I had known how nationals view the economic status of missionaries.
Also, one encounters the common idea that it is the duty of those with more money to distribute it to help others. So the nationals will never look at someone who has more money than them and lives at a higher level than them, and drives a car, as someone who is making a sacrifice. Donít expect to be congratulated or thanked for the sacrifices you made to come. Americans in particular (and I speak as one) seem to have the idea that we must be constantly affirmed. Better get over that before heading overseas.
Another fallacy is that nationals should applaud that you have "sacrificed all" to bring them good news about Jesus. The reality is that they probably won't give a hoot! Many missionaries go with the idea that they should be "appreciated" by the nationals for the sacrifices they have made. And of course we cannot serve God if we are not appreciated! Pray to be humbled now, before going out and being humbled overseas. Of course, depending on your job (doctor, nurse, well-digger), you might be better received than just a general evangelist. Or if you come to work a specific job by the church, they will be more appreciative than non-Christians. But I guarantee there will always come a time when you will feel that you are not "appreciated" (whether by the church, the heathen, or even your own colleagues).
A: How My Mission Agency Dealt With Conflict
Just like my former wife and several bosses, I fell in love too fast, accentuated my and their positive points, and didnít ask the critical question "How do they fight through a problem?" Neglect to do this and you will get seriously hurt.
When you know how a spouse, boss, friend, co-worker, pastor, or mission agency resolves conflict you will know your chances of being able to have a long term relationship with them. Nice Christians who resort to threats, gossip, slander, law suites, giving the silent treatment, bullying etc. donít tell you up front this is how they deal with conflict. You have to know them well before you commit to a long term relationship. So find out how they fight before you sign up.
Ken Sandeís ministry has an abundance of information how to deal with conflict biblically. Reform your own conflict resolution methods first, then look for other peacemakers you can work with.