Preparing for Missionary Service
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!”
Young people considering serving their Lord as foreign missionaries frequently ask how they can best prepare themselves for that work. Others, who have put on a few more years, often comment (with a slight tinge of regret), “Oh, if only I had known, I could have been better prepared.”
Perhaps the best place to begin is to make sure we understand what the missionary enterprise is and why we undertake it. To borrow a working definition from a lifelong missionary:
Missions is the work of the triune God, through his church, of sending ambassadors of Christ's covenant to all nations to proclaim his whole Word, for the salvation of lost men, the establishment of indigenous churches, and the coming of God's kingdom, all for the glory of God.
In other words, missions has its source in God himself and is a work undertaken through his church by those of his own choosing, the goal of which is nothing less than the worldwide advancement of his cause for his glory. Its motive is the love of God and its aim is the glory of God.
Search your heart
And so now is a good time to ask yourself: Why do I want to be a missionary? Is it for the excitement? The broadened horizons? The accolades of the folks in the church back home? My parents? Do I just want to do something good with my life?
Let me be very clear: unless the single greatest desire in your life is to have God for God's sake – not merely for what he can give you, but for who he is (which is reflected in what he has done) – flee from the thought of missionary service; some day, when the Evil One assaults you in the black of the night in a foreign land, you'll crumble.
Can you say with your whole heart, “God is good”? Are you content with whatever lot he assigns to you in this life? Is your primary aim in life to see his name glorified above all else? Is your greatest joy to be used by him – as he deems best – to bring glory to himself? If so, please do seek the face of your Lord as to whether he might be leading you into his corps as a foreign missionary.
Most of us go through our time on this earth grasping tightly onto our lives and our piles of stuff. But our Lord told his disciples:
“Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
He went on to say, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it.”
Ask yourself: Am I really willing to lose everything for the sake of the gospel? Can I part with those twentieth-century modern conveniences to live in third-world filth? And, most basically, am I ready to die for Jesus – today? (I'm not suggesting a reckless disregard for your life, but you need to consider how you're going to respond when you're face-to-face with one who hates your King and is apparently bent upon the violent destruction of his servants.) These are not easy questions for any of us. In our own strength, we fail miserably. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, there is no part of the Lord's perfect decree that will not be accomplished. Lord, please help me to cry out alongside the father of the possessed boy, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
Prepare for your task
Keep in mind the goal of missions – the salvation of lost men, the establishment of indigenous churches, and the coming of God's kingdom, all for the glory of God. Then, as a potential future missionary, answer this question: how are the benefits of what Christ accomplished communicated to his people? Our Larger Catechism is very helpful, for there we see that it is especially the preaching of his Word which the Holy Spirit uses to bring about the required repentance and faith. So, who are these ambassadors of Christ's covenant who are sent to the nations to proclaim his whole Word? First and foremost, they are preachers – “How shall they hear without a preacher?” It is the ministry of the Word – preaching – that is paramount in missions. Everything else in the mission has a supplemental and supporting role. And as the church plans how to use the resources entrusted to her by her Lord, she must always remember her first love, and exercise her stewardship accordingly.
So, to qualified men seeking advice on preparing themselves to go to the mission field, the advice is simple: do whatever is necessary, working with your session and your presbytery, to prepare yourself for the ministry of the Word. For many, if not most, this will include studies at an appropriate theological institution. If you are young, and particularly if you are not yet encumbered with family responsibilities, take advantage of this period in your life to prepare yourself for service in the Lord's fields. Do it!
For the rest, who also desire to serve the Lord in overseas missionary service (but not as preachers), remember that your work in the mission – whatever it may be – must always be in a supplemental and supporting role to the ministry of the Word. The tithes and offerings of God's people that are applied to the support of missions work are generally concentrated on the preachers of the Word (reflecting the primacy of the ministry of the Word). This means that you will usually need to provide for your own support.
You should consider securing the appropriate education or training to qualify you for vocations that will enable you to support yourself while on the field. In God's providence, in this last decade of the twentieth century, there is a huge demand in many parts of the world for instructors of conversational English. Such instructors need only have English as their native language (which most of you have) and a certificate (or a degree) in teaching English as a second or foreign language. Those with the appropriate academic credentials can often find a position at a foreign college or university. A number of godly missionary doctors, nurses, and midwives are also needed, and those so inclined should include a consideration of the needs of practicing medicine in the third world during their course of studies.
For all, it is strongly recommended that you read as many good missionary biographies as you can get your hands on. I have especially appreciated Arnold A. Dallimore's two-volume work on George Whitefield, John G. Paton's autobiography, Clarence Duff's book on our work in Eritrea, God's Higher Ways, and Bruce F. Hunt's For a Testimony.
Of course, it goes without saying that you must become lifelong students of the Bible and be devoted to prayer. Regularly read through the entire Bible and, in preparation for those times of trial, commit portions to memory (as you may not have a Bible in your jail cell). Memorize the Shorter Catechism and master the system of doctrine contained in it.
You might also consider studying a foreign language, either for a particular field that interests you, or just to acquire skills (and confidence) in foreign language acquisition that will be beneficial wherever the Lord ends up placing you.
Approach your time on the field as an adventure in God's grace. Your God will astound, amaze, and at times render you absolutely speechless at his goodness and power. Be prepared to gladly spend yourself and be expended for the precious ones for whom your Savior died. Suffer and do not be ashamed, and let your heart rejoice and declare with full assurance, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.”