The Transformation of the Missionary

By Frank Decker

One day, while teaching a class of aspiring pastors in Africa I asked, “What would you do if someone in your church asks you a question to which you do not know the answer?” I expected a response such as “I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s find out together,’” or something like that. Instead, the consensus of the class was that you should make up an answer because, I suppose, it would be shameful for someone in authority to be seen as lacking knowledge. After all, missions is about Jesus, the answer. So, doesn’t it follow that those in mission should have, or at least appear to have, all of the answers?

I don’t think so. In fact, there is a sense in which missionaries who appear to “have it all together” may actually be less effective than those whose lives are transparent and exhibit continual growth. Or, as Dr. Craddock once said in my homiletics class, “Preaching is not the preparation of a sermon and delivering that, but the preparation of the preacher and delivering that.”

A transparency in one’s life that reflects enduring transformation, even in mature missionaries, can serve as a catalyst that enables a breakthrough in one’s ministry. One worker in eastern Europe had recently gone through a period of discouragement and feelings of being overwhelmed with her ministry of compassion among children-at-risk. “Finally, after a few weeks of struggling,” she said, “I received what seemed to be a pretty clear answer from the Lord about something He was unmistakably doing in my own life.” The message she sensed had to do with the need for repentance in her own life as well as in the local Christian community. When she asked the Lord how she should respond, “that’s when I felt Him lead me to seek a deeper level of repentance in my own life. By finally confessing some of the sin I’d been carrying around, it gave God room to move deeper, also bringing about some healing in our community in a manner that I had not been expecting.”

The very nature of the missional message is transformation in Christ. So it follows that the bearers of that message should be experiencing that transformation as well. Ruth Burgner, senior director of communications at The Mission Society, has said that this may be the very reason why God allows us to be involved in missions. “Why does the Lord recruit us to do his work while he could do it himself? It’s because of how he forms us in the ways that we can be formed only by doing these things.”

A missionary in South America relates how a quantum leap in his own family’s spiritual growth subsequently became manifested in their ministry. After a few years of a fruitless, frustrating search for an effective way to share the Bible with their hosts, these missionaries discovered an inductive approach to Bible study. “As we began to work through the Bible in this way, it brought insight and transformation to our own lives, opening the Word to us in ways that we had always felt existed but had never experienced before. We began to share this way of exploring God’s Word with others, and it began to have an impact in their lives, bringing change and joy to them as they experienced a new way of life in Jesus. The ministry that started in this way five years ago has now grown to over 4000 participants and is continuing to grow.” It is apparent that this breakthrough would not have occurred if these missionaries had gone to their field of service without a commitment to their own continued personal growth as they ministered to others.

The apostle Paul, who had been known by others as neither very good looking nor a naturally gifted speaker, understood that our continuous transformation as bearers of the message is essential. We are “earthen vessels,” who have the privilege of revealing “the surpassing greatness of the power of God,” which is “not from ourselves.”

A missionary couple who serve as foster parents in the former Soviet Union face a particular struggle in light of the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” and the disillusionment that can accompany it. “On one certain day when the kids were exhibiting normal teenage rebellion, our friend Sasha was visiting,” the missionary recalled. “A particular comment made me feel very unwanted as a mom and very offended. At my wits end, I announced (in English and then in Russian, so everyone in the room would hear), ‘I am ready to go back to America right now. This is driving me nuts!’ Then I asked for prayer. Sasha prayed, and we all started singing a praise song in Russian. The mood immediately got better—something about the sacrifice of praise. Later Sasha told us that he was so thankful to see us when things are not always so rosy and how we handle that. It showed a greater depth of our Christian witness that goes beyond the superficiality of the prosperity gospel.”

Transparency that reflects ongoing transformation in the life of the witness is an essential tool in enabling Christ-centered change in the lives of others. It’s a timeless lesson, one that is easy to forget and even cover up with our facades and titles. But the degree to which we “get real” with those whom we serve is the degree to which they will be impacted by Jesus rather than impressed by us.