Are missionaries still needed in the world today? Since I was converted in a Chinese church in Singapore during my two years of national service in the army, I have always had an interest in cross-cultural evangelism.
As a new Christian, I started witnessing by giving out Chinese tracts in Chinatown at the back of the Cathay Cinema in Singapore. From here I graduated to playing the piano accordion at open-air meetings aimed at Tamil Indians down at the harbour.
My first few months as a Christian, I was greatly helped by a Chinese evangelist and he gave me my first preaching opportunity in a Chinese Brethren assembly. Here I was to give the message at an after-church rally. I lasted all of nine-and-a-half minutes and then had to have three closing hymns to spin out the time!
Things have moved on since then, and over the past 40 years I have been privileged to visit missionaries in most continents and have learned to appreciate something of what it means to serve God in another country, climate, culture and language.
Culture and climate
A different culture is the first hurdle for a missionary to overcome. For all the cross-cultural lectures that you may have listened to at Bible school, the missionary books you read or the missionary films you watch, nothing fully prepares you for the culture shock.
You will not necessarily adapt quickly and it will take time as you see how things are done in your newly adopted country. It could be an even bigger shock going to serve in a West European country just across the Channel!
And then there is the climate! In many tropical countries it is a searing heat from early morning until early evening, at least. Everything you put on, speedily becomes clammy wet.
Showering, if possible, means two or three times a day, except when there is no water or it is rationed. Boiling or filtering all drinking water is a necessity in many parts of the world — you just can’t turn on the tap! Power, if there is any available, is often unreliable and, if diesel-generator produced, is only available for limited hours each day.
If you don’t manage to snatch a brief siesta after lunch, and often it is not possible, then by early evening you feel totally exhausted. Clothes in the tropic quickly get dirty in the heat and dusty conditions, or covered with mud in the rainy season. And that means a lot of washing.
Transport and food
You may have a car, but it might be well past its sell-by date. Using public transport can be a great adventure. Being on the back of a motorcycle in downtown Bombay and weaving in and out of the traffic was a never-forgotten experience for me, and thankfully never repeated.
On the other hand, it might be a bush taxi in Africa that hurtled along the road (of a sort) at a frightening speed — ‘taxi’ being a highly exaggerated description of the said vehicle. All this is a far cry from a quick trip on the London tube from Shepherds Bush. Packed buses in some parts of the world can be difficult to get on — and even harder to get off!
And then there is the local food. Although in some urban areas there are some supermarkets that stock most of the food we are familiar with in the West, the prices may put many commodities out of the range of missionary spending.
Supermarkets are invariably supplemented down the road in the local market, with its bustle and noise. Shopping is not just a question of half-an-hour’s trip to Sainsbury’s.
Adjusting to local food can be a battle for some. Rice and more rice can be a little bland after a while. Birds’ bowels or chicken giblets, as we would call them, can be difficult to get down. Suddenly being confronted by a chicken’s foot in the pot can be a little disturbing!
Monkey or porcupine for dinner some nights was not easy to cope with, even if it was a local delicacy and swallowed down with a liberal helping of roasted white ants. In two weeks in rural India, I once ate 46 hardboiled eggs, with thankfully no damage to my cholesterol.
If you are now going to immerse yourself in the culture, it is no good thinking of roast beef and three veg for Sunday lunch, or going down to the local Chinese takeaway for sweet and sour pork.
If you work in some remote part of the world, such as in a tribal village in Papua New Guinea, then you might be dependent on the sterling services of MAF to fly in essential food and maybe even fuel for cooking. All of this can dig a hole in your finances.
If you have children, then what about their education? Many missionaries are already married with young children when they go to serve God in other countries. All of this means that, early in their missionary careers, the education of children looms large on the horizon.
But usually there is no easy solution. A number of missionary societies have some facility for children’s education, but this may mean a boarding school many miles from where their parents are working. Such a situation may be quite traumatic for some children and parents, although on the other hand many find it a positive experience.
Some missionary mums educate small children at home, but this can be very time-consuming and often wearisome. Such children can sometimes miss out on relating with their cultural peer group.
Mum, with such demands made on her time, may then find it difficult to get involved at any depth in the local church or outreach evangelism. This could be the right choice and it has been done successfully, but careful attention to the drawbacks, before opting for this method, is wise.
Other possibilities include enrolling in national schools, with a suitable qualified teacher responsible for a small group of children near home, or even using an itinerant educationalist.
The missionary society’s pastoral and educational advisor and the home church must do all they can to help, but always recognising that the final decision has to be made by the parents, before God.
What if you are single? Where would the mission fields of the world be without dedicated single women?
One major mission working in South East Asia has over 400 single lady missionaries. Some may feel that singleness in some of our UK churches is a problem, but it can be compounded on the mission field.
Opportunities to meet a possible marriage partner on the field can be well nigh impossible. Coming back to England on home assignment can be equally difficult as you chase around taking meetings.
I will never forget what one single lady missionary said, when questioned as to how she handled being single. Her reply was really very powerful, for she said, ‘God has only called me to be single today’.
So you want to be a missionary? Good, but do weigh up what it might mean for you. Don’t put your hand to the plough and then turn back. If God has called you, and that is the all-important thing, then obey him, and by his grace, you’ll make it.