There’s a lot of talk about missions these days, and awareness about the unreached is increasing. We have conferences, speakers, programs, and thousands of mobilizers, working around the clock to push people out onto the field.
And yet still, there are so few that actually end up going. Lots talk passionately about feeling called to go, but it seems only a handful actually pack their bags and make the move.
Of the few that go, a lot lose enthusiasm after the first 2-3 years. Many leave the field or get busy with other activities.
What’s holding these people back? What’s taking them out of the game so quickly?
Some would say that we need more training, more equipping, more education. They need more time in school, better theology, or a more complete professional skillset.
From my personal observation over a modest 10 years on the field, these things don’t seem to help. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lack of any of these things take someone out of the race.
So what is it that’s holding people back from going? What is it that makes them give up and do something else? Of course it’s super complicated, and not really something we can totally analyze or judge. But I do see three main issues that keep coming up again and again:
- Religious Activity
1. Desire for more Productivity / Man-Made Religious Activity
Pioneer missions work can make you feel and appear quite useless. After 2-3 years of working in an unreached place what can someone point to as their fruit and their accomplishment? A language learned? 1 or 2 people being strengthened in the faith? Team-mates being helped and encouraged? Countless bunches of people hearing the gospel and most of them rejecting it?
Some people take great joy and satisfaction in this. But for some people this is extremely hard. They want to be doing something, accomplishing something, setting up something. They get tired of learning a tricky language, relating to suspicious people, and feeling handicapped in a strange culture. This can be especially true for people who were busy doing good ministry back in their home countries.
And so, the initial fire to simply share the good news and make disciples starts to wane. At the 2-3 year mark, a lot of people either go home or get busy with other things.
Many who profess a desire to go to the unreached have a hard time imagining doing something so vague and “ineffective.” Instead, they might stay home doing other religious activities which can be more obviously productive. They might be unable to leave because they feel they need to keep doing the good ministry they’re involved with.
Others may be crushed and burnt out after a few years on the field because they were told or felt that they needed to work hard to execute a certain method or ministry plan. First, they’re given some blueprint for ministry success that came from religious teachers or missions strategists, but not from Jesus. Then, they run themselves dry trying to follow (and make others follow) this man-made plan. They get weighed down taking on goals and expectations that leaders and experts gave them. And they can feel like failures and go home when they can’t produce like they expected.
Potential workers who are exposed to this kind of thing are also turned off from missions in general. The flurry human plans and expectations doesn’t stir their hearts, and doesn’t sit well with their spirit. They don’t really feel good about going somewhere and just imposing different religious methods and activities on other believers. If this is all they see, they can tragically conclude that, “Well, I guess missions isn’t for me.”
2. Desire for Marriage / Sexual Issues
Single people can get lonely and discontent with their status. This is especially true when they’re getting ready to launch out into some scary, unknown new life overseas, or when they’re going through the initial 2-3 years of culture shock. In this vulnerable emotional state it’s easy to get eager to “find someone.” They can get romantically tied up with someone who doesn’t share the same ambition and calling, and then stay home or leave the field.
It’s even worse if someone gets physically involved with a boyfriend/girlfriend. A worker might know that they’re playing with fire and putting their apostolic calling at risk, but it’s extremely hard to leave a relationship once hormones are racing.
Once people fall in love, discernment often goes out the window, and tragically, the chance to serve Jesus among the unreached can go along with it. Marriage can be great if it’s truly God given with people united in heart and calling. But if it’s not, it can spell immediate death to an apostolic life.
Tragically, a lot of Christian guys are also stuck looking at porn. This can totally destroy them and cut all their strength away.
3. Concerns about Money, Career and the Future
Many people want to go, but then can’t leave home because they’re attached to their career. They’re tightly holding on to their plan to provide for themselves and their family. They can also end up stuck at home for years, looking for some way that they can use the profession they have invested so many years in acquiring.
Some do move overseas working full-time in their profession, but end up frustrated and leave because they were unable drop their career/source of income for a few years and focus on learning the language and spending time with the locals.
Others face a slow painful burnout as they work to serve their organization’s agenda, because that’s where their support checks come from. Many sending organizations require people to be doing something other than just private prayer, evangelism, and discipleship. They need to be working at some project, running some meeting, managing local believers, filling time sheets or executing some sort of measurable method.
This kind of lifestyle can be soul-crushing. It can cause people to go home, and discourage others from going in the first place. People may recognize that all this is wrong, but they still feel stuck in it. After all, they need to work for a group that can provide the paycheck.
What did Jesus say about these three things?
Jesus talked about these issues a lot in the Gospels. Of course it makes sense that he would emphasize these things that laborers for the harvest rise and fall on.
He didn’t talk so much about having good theology, getting fully-funded, getting professional skills, or finding someone to marry. In fact he seemed to encourage people to forget all that stuff and follow him!
Jesus taught his followers:
To work humbly for the Father, and not to work for human approval. He even often avoided obviously “effective” opportunities. He showed them that he could only do what he saw the Father was doing, and often rejected what others expected or pushed him to do. He taught them not to worry about man’s opinion and even to flee from lots of different religious activity, supposed leaders, and examples.
To live absolutely sexually pure. He never forbid marriage, but he did hold up singleness as a good and honorable choice for the kingdom of God, and he lived out this example himself. He chose single guys to follow him, and we don’t have any record of him pushing them to find someone to marry.
To let go of professions, sources of income, and investments. He taught them not to worry about money for tomorrow, and warned them that they can’t serve both God and money.
Jesus taught and strengthened his followers in these three areas (and more!), and then he sent them off into the world.
Are we following Jesus?
How much of our training in Bible schools, training courses or in mentoring from is really strengthening people in these areas? How much are we following the teachings of Jesus? These are tough questions that we need to ask.
I am thankful for a lot of good encouragement and strengthening that I received from examples around me. But at the same time, I remember that in the Bible school that I went to:
All the staff and professors had solid paychecks. The students took out massive loans to help pay for them. We were conditioned to think that “being in ministry” meant serving in a position that provided a salary. Then after graduation the students were kind of forced to pursue a “ministry job” to pay back those student loans. That did not help with #3. (Learning not to serve money)
In front of us students some teachers laughed and joked about making out with their boyfriends/girlfriends while they were in school. Many students lived a really sexually intense dating lifestyle and I can’t remember if anyone warned us about the dangers of this kind of immorality. That did not help with #2!! (Learning purity/freedom from sexual issues)
Students were given ministry “praticums” and taught to do things that could be monitored, reported, and evaluated. Everyone I knew was busy running church activities, or serving in other types of programs. Aside from a few forays to meet homeless people I can’t remember any examples of people getting out and trying to meet and share with lost people where they were. That might not have been recognized as viable “practicum activity,” because it would be very difficult to monitor and evaluate, and wouldn’t lead to any paid ministry position. This may not have helped with #1. (Learning to give up religious activity/Learning freedom from appearing productive)
Sadly, a lot of training/mentoring often does just the opposite of strengthening people in these three areas:
It gets people used to a heavy pace of religious activity: preaching in churches, running programs, and swimming in public attention. This might not be wrong in itself, but it can be quite tempting, and is it very helpful? It gets them used to doing lots of things that are visible and measurable and maybe conditions them to seek out high positions. It teaches workers how they can execute the latest missions methods, created by experts and marketed with impressive numbers. These methods can tie people to expectations of performance and goals that do not come from Jesus, but from man. They can also pull workers away from things like simple evangelism and real, natural discipleship.
It encourages people to seek out romance and fool around with dating. It pushes them to run after crushes and not to worry too much about compromising the call for a chance to get married. Marriage is often exalted above everything else and workers are made to feel that they really should try to find someone to marry, soon!
It teaches people to be “responsible” with their finances, to be concerned and save up for the future, and to always depend on a regular wage for ministry. It often encourages them not to give up their careers, and emphasizes how crucial these professions and skills are. Whether explicitly or implicitly, people are trained to put money first.
This kind of “training” does not help people go, and it does not help them persevere.
And it’s not just the missionaries that are affected by this. Tragically, when this same type of “training” gets passed on to budding local believers, it holds them back as well. They also get crippled by weakness and bad advice in these three areas. I see fiery apostles and evangelists who burning to take the gospel to their own people get smothered by our “equipping” and examples. And this breaks my heart.
We need to follow Jesus, really.
We need need real, loving, godly examples of people following Jesus in these areas. New and potential workers need the strength of their friendship, and the leadership of their personal example.
We need people to really know and trust Jesus personally so that:
- They’ll be strengthened and affirmed to humbly serve God and stick to doing what he called them to, without needing to appear effective or please anyone.
- Their hearts will be full of Jesus’ love, and they won’t want to trade that for any kind of lust or inappropriate romance.
- They’ll know that the Father is actively taking care of them, and they’ll feel freedom to not worry about money and the future.
This kind of training and strengthening comes directly from following Jesus and caring for people around you. You can’t make an institution out of this. You can’t charge tuition for it. You can’t make a method out of it. You can’t hire people to do it. You can’t even measure or supervise it. It can only be fueled by real obedience and trust, coming freely from a burning love for Jesus.
As we keep Jesus’ words and strengthen ourselves by abiding in him, we’ll find freedom in our own lives and bring freedom to others. Then, as we pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers, we’ll see people strengthened to go, and persevere!