4 questions every church should ask a missionary candidate
At one time or another, a pastor will likely be confronted by a church member curious about becoming a missionary. Some may be uncertain but still trying to discern their calling. Others may be more assured but want direction on a field of ministry. In these situations, it is the business of the church’s leadership to walk members through the first steps of confirming their calling and considering overseas ministry. If they are to be sent out, it should be with the clear direction and guidance of their home fellowship.
Churches are also inevitably faced with the question of which missionaries to support. Sometimes these are known individuals and families in the congregation. Other times they may be complete strangers. In either case, churches may need to evaluate these candidates on the basis of limited time with them. Such decisions shouldn’t ultimately be made on the quality of PowerPoint presentations or preaching skills.
For every missionary candidate, pastors and churches need to take the time to ask probing questions. The thoughtless inquiry, “Are you called?” is simply insufficient. Instead, churches should ask questions that evaluate a missionary’s character and expectations, questions that will direct them toward fruitful ministry, and questions that will give the church confidence in those they are sending and supporting.
1. Are you ready to leave?
Perhaps the greatest problem in modern missions is the fact that many missionaries never leave home. Through the proliferation of technology and social media, it is quite possible to physically live in Thailand or Timbuktu yet emotionally remain in America. There are messaging and photosharing with apps like Instagram and FaceTime that provide instant and constant access to family and friends. There are also platforms for online gaming, VPNs for streaming the latest television series, and even packages like NFL Sunday Ticket that allow you to maintain a lifestyle of the average American no matter where you live.
With the world at our fingertips, the incredible good of technology can be abused such that missionaries are merely travelers and not genuine expatriates. Prospective missionaries must be aware of this danger. They must be prepared to cut the cables and cords that tie them to America.
“With the world at our fingertips, the incredible good of technology can be abused such that missionaries are merely travelers and not genuine expatriates.”
And they must strive to make the new community their new home, meeting their emotional needs with face-to-face relationships. Is talking to grandma sinful? No, we reap fruit only as we sow seed, and fruit in cross-cultural ministry will always be commensurate with growth in language and culture acquisition in the context of personal relationships.
2. Are you committed to stay?
Transience is one of the characteristics of our generation. Most people do not stay at their place of work for more than five years. Pastors and missionaries are no different. But longevity is vital to healthy ministry, especially cross-cultural work. For many missionaries, it will take no less than their first term to become fluent in the local language. This means the beginnings of productive ministry can easily be five years from first arrival.
If people desire to be sent or supported from your church, they should perhaps consider making a minimum time commitment. Of course, that doesn’t mean extenuating circumstances won’t alter plans. It doesn’t mean missionaries cannot reevaluate ministry and calling. It also doesn’t mean short-term commitments are wrong. But it does recognize that sending an individual or family across the globe is a significant expenditure. And good stewardship requires us to make longevity a priority. Sadly, missionaries too often leave their country of service before even reaching the ability to be effective in ministry.
“Missionaries too often leave their country of service before even reaching the ability to be effective in ministry.”
3. With whom will you work?
The missionary’s country of service is not the first or most critical issue to resolve. It is more important to know with whom the missionary will be working. This involves both the sending agency and the specific team of ministry assignment. Churches committed to caring for their membership will want to see them through the process of finding both a like-minded organization and a healthy team.
Prospective missionaries need direction when it comes to selecting a sending agency. Therefore, churches need to know the organizations they are aligned with both theologically and methodologically. That means church leadership must do their homework, then keep abreast of often-changing trends and missiological practice espoused by various agencies. This knowledge will also help weed through the steady requests from missionaries seeking financial support.
When it comes to directing new workers to the field, churches can go one step further by developing organic relationships with missionaries from trusted organizations. Long-term partnerships with missionaries allow churches to provide meaningful support and accountability. It also gives known locations for dispatching new workers. This is critical because it’s at the local team level, not the organizational level, where specific methods of teaming, discipleship, and church planting are formulated and implemented.
4. To whom will you be accountable?
Missionaries need to be willing to leave home behind. But they should also maintain a healthy measure of connection to family, friends, and the sending church. This includes an expectation that they have regular contact with supporters, keeping them updated on ministry, and soliciting prayer. The home church, in return, should hold missionaries accountable for their work. Such accountability must not exclusively be the task of the sending agency.
Prospective missionaries should be able to articulate their plan for maintaining contact with the supporting church. They should also have a clear expectation of accountability structures on the field. Perhaps teammates will not be the best option based on geographical or relational factors. In such cases, they will need to find a way to have meaningful soul care through a local church, other expats, or in the least-desirable scenario, through a medium like Skype.
“Prospective missionaries should be able to articulate their plan for maintaining contact with the supporting church.”
For all sorts of reasons (financial, marital, spiritual) missionaries need personal accountability. They should never go out alone, and they should never stay alone—the role of the pastor and the local church is not just to send and support, but to shepherd all along the way.
Elliot Clark (M.Div., SBTS) has been living in Central Asia for six years where he serves as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children.