Misperceptions about Missionaries Part 1

On behalf of my missionary brothers and sisters, I plead with you to read today’s and tomorrow’s posts.    

In the last two weeks, I’ve posted “Misperceptions Laity Have about Pastors” and “Misperceptions Pastors Have about Laity.” A missionary friend encouraged me to write a post about misperceptions about missionaries, so I did some research among missionaries. Today and tomorrow, I will post their thoughts about the misperceptions others hold about them.

  1. “We are saints.” They’re not, they told me. They’re regular people answering God’s call to do work across cultures. They struggle with sin. Their families have arguments. Their kids drive them crazy some days. Missionaries don’t want to be heroes (though they often appreciate the affirmation they get).    
  2. “We all live in a hut in Africa.” Missionaries live all over the world, many in megacities where millions of people live.
  3. “When we come to America, we’re coming home.” Home for missionaries is where they live. The place they reside, and the people they’re seeking to reach, become part of them. Coming to the United States can, in fact, be stressful. I’ll always remember one missionary who called me from Walmart, completely stressed because the vast numbers of cereal options overwhelmed him.
  4. “We understand U.S. culture.” This misperception relates to #3 above. Missionaries come back to churches that are often more elaborate, supermarkets that are much more “super,” and missionary homes that are much bigger than what they have where they live. Often, they don’t know the newest praise choruses or recognize the latest sermon illustrations. Reverse culture shock is real for them. 
  5. “Your short-term mission trip is a great blessing to us.” It can be, but not always. If your team doesn’t work with the missionary from the beginning – or if you ignore the missionary on the ground to form your own plans – you can make the missionary’s task much harder. Ask how you can help the missionaries rather than telling them what you plan to do. 
  6. “Our life is just a longer short-term mission trip.” One missionary put it this way: “On a short-term mission trip, you basically do ministry from sun up to sun down. You don’t negotiate with a landlord, struggle with buying groceries and cooking food, homeschool your kids, or stand in long lines to pay a $2.00 bill. Living overseas requires a lot of effort just to live.
  7. “We’re all natural language learners.” That’s not the case. Language learning is difficult, and even those who know the language well might still struggle. Some long-term missionaries never fully master their language – but they press on because they want to share the gospel with their people group. Language learners need our prayers.
  8. “Evangelism is easy for us.” Not only is it hard to move a conversation to the gospel, but missionaries must also do that in a second language. Even those believers who go to the ends of the earth still wrestle with engaging somebody with the gospel.
  9. “All of us took a vow of poverty.” Not so. They’re serving God, but we need to treat them as worthy of their hire. In fact, some missionaries live in places where the cost of living is quite high.
  10. “We’re all living in a revival.” Many are still waiting for someone among their people group to follow Jesus. Some are themselves struggling to find daily joy. Missionary living is not always on the mountaintop.  

Return tomorrow for the next ten misperceptions about missionaries. In the meantime, pray for missionaries today.

68 Comments

  • Ray says:

    An 11th “great misconception about missionaries” is that they are not missionaries unless they are living in “Africa” or similar foreign place. Not so. Many of them live right here in the United States where the need is the greatest worldwide, ministering in their “Jerusalem”, and struggling to reach their communities (in partnership with their churches) with the Gospel. Often times missionary evangelists are the last to be considered to preach in evangelistic outreaches – even if they have been called to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. They are, in a strong sense, “spiritually underemployed” by the church. This is a foundational reason for the strong growth of the “parachurch” in the last 20 years.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Ray. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s list…..  

    • Mila Karmacharya says:

      Thanks Mr. Chur for this post, my understanding is each believer is a missionary in the place where he/she is. None of us belong here, our home is in heaven and this earth is a mission field, each believer is a missionary. The definition of missionary “one who leaves their country and be in a foreign land for God” applies to each believer as no one of us belongs here.

  • carla talley says:

    My hubby and I are missionaries in Trinidad, West Indies. So, thankfully, we don’t have to struggle with #7. Yay! However while in the US recently we had a lady ask us if we, “get to lay out in the sun and go to the beach all the time.” Lol! That was good for a chuckle! So it’s good to remember that missionaries aren’t on a 24/7 vacation. 😉

  • krazymomkat says:

    Truth. Every word. Thank you for affirming the work that all these folks to to reach the ends of the earth.

  • They are saints… all of God’s children are.

  • Jan says:

    We’ve been missionaries in the U.S. and and now in Haiti. #5 is spot on. We’ve experienced this in both places. When asked “What do you need?” It’s important to listen. Too many times we want to do what we want to do, not what the ministry truly needs.

  • Tim. says:

    From what I know rfrom Missionary friends in Bolivia….. this is pretty much spot on. I’d add “We don’t need encouragement or help from back home – we never get lonely.”

  • Sarah says:

    Excellent article. It really encouraged me to feel understood! Other than by my fellow missionaries here on the field. Even my family has a hard time understanding why my children who have never lived in the United States or even been in the United states for more than 2 weeks a year would undergo culture shock. I mean– aren’t they Americans, too? Traveling to America with 2 small children who speak mostly Spanish and eat mostly fresh tropical fruit is very stressful, actually.

  • M. says:

    Very good article! These are very true. I would add that not all missionaries are overseas. There are some missionaries who have given their lives to move from the South to the North (or West to the South or from a small town to the inner city) to work amongst a people who may speak English but are very different from “those back home.” We must still learn a different culture and returning “home” is not easy for us either.

  • Mike Smith says:

    Thanks Chuck. We are missionaries in France. We often get the strange look when we tell people where we are, or that it is called the missionaries grave yard and what it cost to live here. This helps break down some of what we go through.

  • Sue Post says:

    Thanks Chuck! On one of our furloughs our message was about the myths of missionaries. Another one I like to add is ‘Missionaries are all excellent speakers and love speaking’. Funny thing is people in churches are often moved to support the ‘better’ speaker. This can be a hurdle for some of our missionaries to overcome. I work on the mobilization side now, guiding people through the support raising side. Appreciate your insights! Do you mind if I share them with missionary candidates?

  • Brent Hautle says:

    Thanks for this post. It’s spot on. We were overseas for nine years and faced many of these hurdles, especially #6 and #9, as we were living in a very expensive country. One of the questions we faced on furlough that we hated answering was “which country do you like better?” To us, that was like asking us to chose between our children.

  • rgdowney says:

    Thank you for this spot n post. I also like what Sue Post said above, I would like to add “You need to travel some place to be a missionary”. God calls us to “mission” where ever we are, even your home town.

  • Nicole says:

    I was in S.E.A. for eight months with my daughter. Returning to the US for a time was #3 and #6 for sure. It took me so long to be okay with going food shopping and to Walmart. I felt like I was in slow motion. And being in another country took me time to get used to lines and waiting days for a business to be open or for the bank to have money to withdraw from. It is a call from God and seeking Him for strength daily is all in a days work!! Yah…..and we DO NOT go to the beach every day!! Hear that all the time!! LOL

  • glenda says:

    Thank you so much for this..having been involved with ministry in mexico since 2005..I’m back in was.state since Aug..I can’t and won’t fight the desire to go back into the central part next fall–its been rough getting family to understand-they ask why I can’t just be happy here..I am happy here on furlough and can never promise them that I won’t go back..they donl like the long term..but sometimes that is Gods timing-they are at odds lots of times with me….and I do come back and forth and visit with them—most of the time they are too busy for me–anybody else with this problem?help.

  • Bill says:

    As we have embarked on our journey to Papua New Guinea, the 1st barrier the Lord worked on in my heart was #1. We grow up hearing the missionary stories and assume they are super-spiritual folks with perfect, God-fearing children who are always well behaved.

    Oh yea, they don’t have hobbies besides Bible study.

    Then He brought along several missionary families for us to meet. One of whom loved sports cars & motor bikes. Another had 3 kids who bounced off the walls! (Just like mine!) Slowly I was shown that we could be missionaries. Christ uses normal people doing what they do best, in my case computers, to further His gospel to all nations.

  • Thanks Chuck, I’m a missionary serving in Cameroon (Central Africa) for 2 and 1/2 years now, and no…I don’t live in a mud hut. I do, however, live on the fourth floor (or rather, the third floor since here the bottom floor is referred to as, well…the bottom floor) of a small apartment complex with no elevator, no air conditioning and intermittent water and power cuts. I would like to add “Every missionary learns the local language” to this list. I am located in French speaking Africa, however I teach at an English speaking school, and English is the second most widely spoken language here. I would also like to add that with the accent, even the English speaking nationals here might as well be speaking a foreign language to me. So no…I haven’t learned French fluently, I’m still trying to learn the English 🙂 -Holly

  • #9 – We are in an African country that is more expensive than living in affluent US areas…. People really struggle with believing our budget has to be so high. Since the people in our country live on $2 a day, why do missionaries need sooo much money, they ask.

    Also, we have be criticized for taking vacations during the support raising stage. How could we go on a vacation when we were asking people for money. At the time, my wife and I were both working full time + and support raising at the same time….. We needed a vacation!

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s article.

    Patrick

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Blessings, Patrick, on your work!

    • Julie Tate says:

      Yes! We are also in an African country where the people live on $2 a day. It’s difficult for us to be open with our own financial needs because of this! We had a visitor walk into our house one day and say sarcastically, “Wow. Well, this is suffering for Jesus.” Rather than strangle him with my bare hands, I smiled and said, “You should see the waterfall in our bedroom when it rains…” Sending 2 children to boarding school is also very expensive and actually takes us 1/4 or our income! We get very little time off, and almost never go on vacation…but oh how we need one! But that’s not something we can raise money for.

  • Ray Hubbard says:

    Thank you for this Chuck,
    I am a different Ray than the one above, but, I am a missionary in CA. I do fine in Walmart and in my home, and I don’t have any language difficulties. I love evangelism and do well in almost any environment. The items arguments and kids are very true. Finances are the biggest issue. I own a “tent-making” business. It is difficult to convince donors that the more that is donated, the more time can be invested in expanding ministry. Fund-raising letters are completely ignored. It is tremendously difficult to get pulpit time in churches. The Missions Conference and other opportunities to share the ministry barely exist. Churches give $50 to $200 per month, and yet when making individual contacts many reply that they just give to the church. At this rate it would take about 40 churches to support a missionary. Lack of funding is the biggest hindrance to ministry.

  • E says:

    Not all missionaries are church planters.

  • Jennifer Johnson says:

    Good article, bu I also want to add that while we all aren’t living in huts in Africa, most of us who are missionaries in Africa aren’t living in huts, either.

  • Jon says:

    Good thoughts. As an M.K. and former missionary, I can say you’re spot on. Looking forward to your next list! (PS. My dad was a Southeastern grad…I grew up running up and down West Ave. there in Wake Forest.)

  • SRB says:

    Yes this is very true. I don’t often comment on these articles because we are missionaries on a reservation in the US. We actually experience culture shock as if we are in another country, but many marginalize this since we are still “in the US”. We have the additional barrier of racial tension for crimes that have been done to our First Nation people. It takes a very long time to build up trust, so the short term mission issues definitely apply as well as our supporters being on an unrealistic timeline for what we should accomplish (at times). We are also without many of the conveniences and services that some may experience in a bigger city. It is so nice that you have taken the time to write this article and I am sure that many will find it very encouraging.

  • Jim Carter says:

    We’ve been serving in South America since 1981 and besides the culture shock of the superstores and being overwhelmed with cereal choices, every furlough has been full of new trends in what is acceptable in churches – clothes, music, vocabulary, tattoos, piercings, etc. I sometimes feel off balance with the new discussions of theological / ethical questions that are hot topics in the local churches but are not part of our world in S.A.

  • Lencxjo says:

    As a second-generation missionary (or my 2-year short-term missionary stint that turned into 9 years), I married a “non-missionary.” Yet we are both committed to serving our Lord Jesus. I have a different mindset than her, even though we currently live in the US. When the US sends ambassadors to other countries, they give more time to the learning of a foreign language that is vastly different from English than one that more closely resembles English. Each circumstance of isolation and inconvenience, as compared to normal home or US culture, depending on one’s country of origin—there are even missionaries to the US, or “tent-makers” in ministry both here and abroad, as well as bi-vocational pastors (I’ve met more than a few)—put a unique perspective on each missionary or home missionary, and the Lord gives each one the strength to face come what may, so that we may be able to bear it. You might say I have an ingrained “others” or global focus, the more foreign the better, while my wife has local vision. Each perspective has its pros and cons.

  • mdosborne2 says:

    Thank you for writing this. Just reading it, made me feel like I’m not the only one with these struggles. Thank you! We are missionaries in Romania and sometimes it hard to explain need and the cultural differences. God Bless you!

  • I like this list very much! May I translate it into Spanish and post it on my blog? I will credit you and link back to this page, of course. As one of those missionaries who lives in a big, modern city, I find that often the church family and people I’m working with here have misconceptions about missionaries, too. Many of them are on this list.

  • Many thanks, Chuck. I hope you don’t mind, I have translated the articles (Part 1 & 2) into Chinese (in the viewpoint of Taiwanese) for those who are not familiar with English and the American culture. http://hsengedi.postach.io/post/dui-xuan-jiao-shi-de-er-shi-xiang-wu-jie

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks. You may do that as long as you are certain to cite my website as the original source and direct people there. 

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