Over the last several years of my life, I have had the privilege to meet many missionaries, both on the field and headed to the field. When I was a missionary, I trained with a large group of people who all felt called to go live overseas. When I was a pastor, our church was blessed to send dozens of couples and singles with dozens more in the pipeline. I worked in the missions center at a seminary that prepares hundreds to go overseas. Now, I work with the largest Baptist association in the United States, with hundreds of churches working together to fulfill the Great Commission.
By God’s grace, I get to watch this process happen over and over again.
And because of that, I have some cautions for you. If you are thinking about going overseas, you need to consider a few things in discerning your call. Pastor, if you have people who want to go (and you should), you need to be looking for these things in their hearts. We need many more people to serve overseas as missionaries, but the truth is, not everyone should. Not everyone is ready, and not everyone has the right motivation.
Piper’s famous line about missions rings true, “Missions exists because worship does not.” Let that sink in. That’s the reason we go. There are many reasons we could go, but none of them are as important as Piper’s. The end goal of missions is to make the name of Christ known where it once was not, to have worshippers where there were none. Multiplying worshippers is an intrinsically others-oriented goal. It is concerned with the desires of God and the salvation of the lost. It is least concerned with self. But, it is surprisingly easy to let other motivations ground your going.
The following are three reasons for doing missions that fall short but often disguise themselves as Christ-centered.
Don’t go if you’re just looking for an adventure.
This one is perhaps the easiest to spot in your own heart, but it is a deceptive reason. Romanticizing the call to overseas missions is an easy thing to do. We often, perhaps too often, put missionaries up on pedestals in the Christian vernacular. And the stories of their work sound daring, and the places they go sound exotic. Alongside this, there is a real wanderlust in the younger ranks of our churches today. With the rise of short-term missions (which is a good thing), a potential downside is whisking people away to some foreign place for just long enough to think it is exciting.
Truth is, if you are looking for an adventure, be a tourist. Do not be a missionary. No matter how exotic your field of service may seem in the beginning, it will eventually become the new normal. Trust me, I used to live in a hut in a village in the jungle. Sound exciting? It was, for about a month. After that, it was just my house.
More problematic is the fact that adventure-seekers have a bigger motivation than multiplying worshippers. Sure, that might accidentally happen, but their goal is centered on self. A word of advice: if the real reason you want to go is excitement, then do not ask organizations or churches to pay for your travels.
Don’t go if you’re not sharing the gospel here.
If you are not willing to share the gospel here, then you will not do it there. Every missionary candidate at my church hears me make that statement. In fact, I inform them that we will not be comfortable sending them unless we see them regularly sharing here first.
Transformation by aviation is not a thing. You do not magically become an evangelist or church planter by transporting yourself through the air into a Muslim country. However, I see this one a lot. People know that they should share the gospel, and they do not do it here. So, the logic is that moving to the mission field will make them a missionary. Unfortunately, this is bad logic. If anything, it is harder to share the gospel where there are language and culture barriers, especially if it is also potentially illegal.
Don’t go if you’re dealing with sin issues you want to escape.
This one is the rarest, I believe, but it does occur. Periodically, I will see someone who is struggling with certain sin or character issues in their life and they think the “medicine” they need to overcome it is moving to the mission field. Let me be clear on this point, if you think that moving to India or Africa will help you overcome pornography, you are wrong. I pick on pornography because it is such a common struggle, but this is true of a number of regular sin issues.
There is often this mistaken idea when it comes to sin, that you can just start over somewhere new and the problems will stay in the old place. We talk about needing a change of scenery, but sin resides in the heart, not your bedroom.
In fact, persistent sin issues will always follow you to the field. They are harder to deal with there because the stress you experience is higher. Missionaries find that their weaknesses at home are only bigger on the field.
All three of these reasons point to one overarching issue: character. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus saying, “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1). Yes, we need more missionaries. And yes, you need to search your heart and determine if you are one. But Godly character must come before the plane ticket.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.