9 Pitfalls to Avoid on the Mission Field

By Mike Pettengill, Sep 20, 2016

Missionaries have a hard job. Often their biggest fight isn’t with their supporters or those they serve. Typically, missionaries are their own worst enemies. Since the items on this list are often blind spots, I also commend the reading to the missionary’s family, supporters, and co-workers. Try to protect your favorite missionaries from these common on-the-field mistates.

1. Lone Ranger
The sin of pride causes too many missionaries to refuse help from others. Don’t be a prideful recipient. God gave resources and abilities to others so they could use them for His glory. Don’t prevent others from serving God by refusing their service. The “No, I’ve got this” mentality is me-centered and sinful. God intended missions to be a team sport. Don’t rob God of His glory by trying to hog all the attention for yourself. You may think you are being honorable and pious, but by refusing additional workers, finances or help you are being prideful.

2. Too connected to home culture
Communication with supporters and family is good. Checking the sports scores of your hometown team or keeping up with friends on social media is fine. But a missionary needs to strike a balance between the two cultures. Too many visits “home” for reasons other than health or training is dangerous. You will never be 100 percent here if you are still 50 percent there. Find local foods and events you enjoy. Invest in friendships with people from your adopted culture. Don’t spend your time longing for your “home.”

3. Too immersed in adopted culture
This is just as bad as the inverse. Becoming more focused on your adopted culture than you are the gospel is never good. Immersing yourself in cultural experiences should never become so important they interfere with your ministry. Don’t become that missionary who leaves home for a few years and learns to hate His own culture. Never forget, all cultures are manmade and therefore sinful and inferior to heaven.

4. Do nothing
Sometimes there is just so much to do you don’t know where to start. If that is the case, start by doing something—anything. Other times you are frozen by the fear of failing. You believe your job is so big you’d rather do nothing than do something wrong. If you are doing nothing you are focused on yourself and how you are perceived. Never forget, missions is not about you. Missions is about God. He can do everything in your ministry without you. Try, fail, learn, improve, but glorify God in your actions.

5. Do everything
One of the fastest paths to burnout and short-lived missions experiences is the missionary who can’t say no. If you can’t say no, you don’t comprehend the grace given to you by God. Are you are so performance driven you refuse to say no to those you serve, supporting churches, or fellow missionaries? Do you try to “earn” the support of your financial partners by working 16-hour days, seven days a week? Every missionary wants to be a good investment, but working yourself sick or crazy is bad for everyone. Do the few things you do well. Stop thinking God can’t do it without you.

6. Not enough resources
Too often missionaries work with insufficient help, resources, and finances. They are too proud to ask for help, and don’t want to be perceived as beggars. Their biggest problem is they forgot who supplies the resources. God controls everything. He wants you to ask so He can be glorified. Don’t skimp, do without, or do a poor job because you don’t have the proper tools. Ask your supporters and those around you for help and watch the amazing things God does through them.

7. No time off
Nobody goes to the mission field for an all-expenses paid vacation. It is just not realistic. God rested and created the Sabbath for His elect. It is imperative for your mental health and that of your spouse and kids that you take time away. Get in the habit of unplugging one hour a day, one day a week, one weekend a month, and one week a year. Turn off your phone and computer and enjoy God’s creation. Remember your spiritual health and schedule some occasional down time. Your longevity on the mission field depends on you caring for yourself and those you love.

8. Poor language skills
Few things are harder on a missionary than not being able to communicate. Missionaries who were intelligent, gregarious, and articulate back at home become frustrated by being reduced to the communication level of an uneducated infant. Your language skills have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your ministry. No missionary has ever felt like they wasted their time by taking more language training before arriving on the field.

9. Bad health
Missionary, care for yourself. Eat right, exercise, get rest, and feed your soul. If you are sick and can’t get the medical attention you need, go someplace you can. The story of the missionary martyr is really cool and God-honoring, but the story of the missionary who died because he was too proud to care for himself is just stupid. If you live a longer and healthier life, you get to serve God longer.

Avoid these pitfalls to help yourself and those you care for serve longer and more efficiently when fulfilling God’s Great Commission. Increase God’s glory by serving with joy.

Mike Pettengill has served with MTW in Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. He is now the director of MTW’s West Coast office.

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