Ten imperatives for Christian missionaries

"If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task." -- 1 Timothy 3:1

A Biblical model for missions

article on leadership qualities by Richard Zanner, former Africa regional director for the Church of theNazarene

  1. Understand one's role as a servant
  2. Learn the culture
  3. Learn to speak the language
  4. Keep a sweet and honest spirit
  5. Adjust to a new environment
  6. Identify with the people
  7. Affirm a call to serve
  8. Focus on the assignment
  9. Be accountable for decisions and actions
  10. Live close to the Lord

1. Understand one's role as a servant

Keyword: Humble

When a missionary arrives at his place of service, he must learn to understand his role as someone who has been "called by God and sent by the church" to achieve, to work toward, and to accomplish certain objectives.

We can best be a humble servant leader if we:

  1. Don't get carried away with eagerness
  2. Develop a low-key, but genuine, rapport
  3. Are encouragers and true shepherds
  4. Are positive, helpful, and supportive without being bombastic

A Christian leader has to understand that he is an ambassador for Christ. So, to study the life of Jesus Christ will be a most helpful devotional exercise.

2. Learn the culture

Keyword: Sensitive

Culture, in this instance, is loosely defined as "the way things are done by a group of people," whether an ethnic group or a local church or district situation. A Christian leader is to demonstrate that his interest cannot be primarily directed to his own family, their comfort and security. A missionary must recognize that there are already enough differences between him or her and the constituency. No extra differences or barrier are needed. [ more on cross-cultural understanding ]

As much as possible, we should strive to fit in with the local Christians while remaining mature Christian models, examples, and teachers. We must ask for God's wisdom in knowing what to accept as culturally neutral (and therefore not inherently sinful or wrong) and what to challenge as anti-Christian.

3. Learn to speak the language

Keyword: Determined

If one wants to understand the "soul" of a people, one must be able to speak their language or at least understand it.

Learning a language is not easy. Anyone who has attempted this will remember that he or she initially undergoes an outward personality change (someone speaking a language brokenly has great difficulties projecting his or her true personality when speaking to people).

Learning a language can be a humbling experience. Yet, it is necessary because unless we a people's language, we will never understand completely their mind-set, their thinking patterns, and their emotions. Without mastery of the language, we shall be prevented from getting beyond surface masks of courtesy and politeness. [ more on language learning ]

4. Keep a sweet and honest spirit

Keyword: Sincere

This becomes important after you have been in a given area for a while and after the first disillusionments have jerked you into facing reality. Unless you can be accepting of ways which are as different from yours as night is from day, you will have problems in your relationships.

It is a subtle temptation for the long-term missionary at this stage to become somewhat cynical. This can manifest itself in snide remarks or jokes about the local people and will eventually negatively shape attitudes when dealing with them. Thus, it becomes necessary to keep a sweet, open, accepting spirit to prevent attitudes from sabotaging our effectiveness as leaders.

5. Adjust to a new environment

Keyword: Adapt

The best advice here is to be noncontroversial. Some years ago I went to visit a missionary. I did not find him at home. When I asked where he might be, I was told that I would find him at his home country's Embassy library. Everybody knew that the brother was there twice a week. This made me curious, so I went there. Sure enough, there he sat, watching sports on television.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in doing that except that in his case it typified his lack of adaptation. I asked that particular missionary how many times he had watched an African soccer game in the maize fields. He did not know what I was talking about. He had never been to one.

It is quite acceptable to maintain your own personality and mother culture within reasonable bounds, but it is also wise to build bridges by developing interest in local enthusiasms as well.

6. Identify with the people

Keyword: Adopt

Make conscious efforts not to speak about "back home" or "over there" even if you need to make comparisons.

In the same vein, when we talk about "our" president, we need to mean the one of the country in which we reside. When we talk about "our country" and "our law," we again talk about our place of residence.

Once we adopt the people and the nation in which we live as our own, new horizons will open up. We too shall be adopted.

7. Affirm a call to serve

Keyword: Minister

Do not expect others to do what you are not prepared to do yourself. One of the most subtle excuses can be that "they are used to it."

Nothing is so demeaning to people as to be given a task by a leader because that leader is not prepared to accept that task for himself.

8. Focus on the assignment

Keyword: Vision

Know your direction. Be clear about what is expected of you. Know what the church requires from you as a "partner in ministry." Have a clear picture of your assignment. Let everybody see that you have a plan and that you have set out to accomplish a certain task within a certain time.

Let everyone see that you enjoy your challenge and that you work with enthusiasm. Think big, and get your fellow laborers to think with you.

9. Be accountable for decisions and actions

Keyword: Conscientious

Be transparent in your dealings, whatever they are. Be ready to give a rationale for what you do and why you do it "this way." Always make sure that there is a report-back system. If people see that you are amenable to someone for what you do, they will find it easier to develop accountability as well.

10. Live close to the Lord

Keyword: Spiritual

Become known as a person who seeks God's blessings and His guidance. Do not neglect prayer, public or private. Do not yield to the temptation to think that a problem could be too big for you. Believe within your own soul that solutions exist for all problems. Even personality conflicts can be solved when people meet at the cross. Give credit to others and glory to God.

Originally published in Trans-African. Adapted and used by permission

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