If you gave me a million dollars and told me I could use it toward anything related to global missions, I would probably invest it into creating a system for determining which missionary candidates will thrive overseas and which will crash and burn. As a missions leader, there is nothing that brings more joy than seeing someone thriving overseas who was sent from your church. Conversely, there is little that is more discouraging than seeing a Sent One not thriving overseas and possibly even needing to come home.
The need for laborers to go cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel is overwhelming, and more often than not, the response in our churches to the need for laborers is low. So, as a missions leader, whenever someone with a pulse shows interest in being sent long-term, our gut reaction is to say, “Yes!” Considering the great need, why wouldn’t we just say yes to anyone who wants to go?
While this kind of optimism and excitement is great, we need a reality check: Not every believer is supposed to go overseas to do vocational cross-cultural missions. Ooo . . . did someone in the missions world really just say that? I admit that it’s a little hard to write. But the reality is that the “nations or bust” training we’ve often received in missions classes or conferences can unnecessarily suggest that everyone should go. Phrases like “Aim to go unless God calls you to stay” are a helpful challenge to our complacent membership, but they should not override the use of our intellect and the leading of the Holy Spirit in helping our members discern if they are truly being called to go.
Not every believer is supposed to go overseas to do vocational cross-cultural missions.
Sending agencies are extremely helpful in discerning who should and shouldn’t go overseas. They are great resources to lean on if you have questions about a potential Sent One’s gifting and capacity for thriving overseas. However, agencies will always lack the history and proximity that local church leadership has in the life of the Sent One. They also do not bear the responsibility that the local church has (based on passages like Acts 13:1–3) to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit alongside potential Sent Ones. As church leaders, we have a responsibility to help our potential Sent Ones count the cost of moving to a different culture, raising support, transitioning their family, etc., and we also have a responsibility to steward the financial resources of our people towards effective missions.
What if 100% of the people we gave the green light to for missions cleared the missions agency process because we helped them discern their calling and grow into the person they needed to be to thrive overseas? How incredible would that be for the cause of missions around the world? Fewer resources would be wasted, missionary teams would be healthier, and our members would not go through the deep heartache of being rejected or pulled from the field by a missions organization.
What if 100% of the people we gave the green light to for missions cleared the missions agency process?
I have the privilege of being at a church where there is a lot of interest in going overseas. I’ve had a lot of experience saying yes and a lot of experience saying no. There are times that I’ve said yes when I should have said no, but, by God’s grace, more often than not, those we have sent have thrived. There are lessons, sometimes hard lessons, I’ve learned regarding who does well overseas and who does not that I want to share to help you assess the readiness of your potential Sent Ones. Hopefully these can help you as a sending church more successfully discern and determine who should and should not go overseas.
To begin with, what are you looking for in those who should go overseas? When I’m looking at a potential Sent One, I look through the lens of five areas of health: spiritual, emotional, relational, ministry, and personal. We often highlight this resource, but I want to draw your attention once again to the Health Assessment & Church Interview Guide. This guide contains questions on each of these five areas of health. It can serve as an initial application for potential goers as well as an interview guide for church leaders. Feel free to modify this document to meet your church’s needs.
In this part we are going to look at how to know if someone should be a “green light” for going overseas. Here are some qualities in each of the areas of health that display readiness:
Spiritual and Moral Health - A relationship with God that is flourishing and on an upward trajectory. You’re looking for integrity, life with God, purity, humility, fruits of the Spirit, a repentant trajectory, flexibility, grit, self-drive, an ability to suffer, and faithfulness.
Emotional Health - The self-awareness to name one’s feelings, process them with one’s personal history in mind, and make decisions with the right motivations that flow from logic AND rightly processed emotions. Examine heart motivations, their past, responses to stress, criticism and suffering, security in Christ, self-awareness, and living in limits.
Relational Health - Relational warmth that makes you a great teammate and ambassador of the Gospel. Assess health of relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers.
Ministry Health - The clarity of calling from within and the affirmation from others that moving overseas is a good stewardship of your life and the resources to get you there. Look for clarity of calling, broadly sowing the gospel, intentionality in discipleship, cross-cultural fluency, discernment of personal spiritual gifts, and faithfulness.
Personal Health - Habits of moderation in regard to your physical body. The ability to prioritize and execute tasks. Personal financial stability. Getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthy. Basic organizational skills.
As you read this list, you probably notice that a great deal of these characteristics should be goals for all Christians. Let me highlight a few that are especially important for those serving overseas:
Internal and External Calling - Sent Ones need a clear understanding of why they are going overseas and their unique role in doing so. This understanding should not only be internal but should also be confirmed externally by the church. From Acts 13 we see the church providing affirmation to the calling of Paul and Barnabas. When the internal calling of a Sent One is affirmed by the church that calling is strengthened. It is something the Sent One can lean on when life is hard and take courage in.
Faithfulness to Ministry - While they do not have to be fruitful—overseas ministry is often unfruitful—they do need to be faithful. Has the candidate proven faithful to ministry even when it’s hard and unfruitful? Do they continue to welcome internationals, do evangelism, and make disciples even when it’s hard? Have they displayed this pattern in the life of your local church? If not, then the church may need to provide some opportunities for them to grow in faithfulness.
Self-Awareness - There’s not much that is more frustrating than working with someone who is trying to prove themselves or become something they are not. A healthy understanding of sin patterns and a secure viewpoint regarding their personality and gifts are helpful for thriving personally and relationally.
Ability to Suffer - Sent Ones need to learn not only how to go through major life difficulties but also how to walk through day-to-day suffering with peace and joy in the Lord. The difficulties of overseas life can wear on a person, so the ability to handle suffering in all circumstances is a wonderful quality to look for in an overseas candidate. When this quality exists in anyone in our church, it is often an indication to me that I should be proactive in encouraging that person to consider overseas ministry.
Grit, Self-Driven - Overseas life provides a lot of freedom—too much for some. The ability to take direction and implement it is a must. The determination to keep going when there is no clear direction is a rare quality. If these exist in a person, then they would be well-prepared for a life overseas where there is often little direction and many insurmountable tasks to accomplish. If, instead, you notice that they make excuses or blame-shift when they fail at an objective, then they probably do not (yet) have the self-drive necessary to thrive overseas.
When you see these qualities in the life of a potential Sent One, you can confidently encourage them to continue their pursuit of overseas missions. No one is going to bat 1000 in each of these areas, but if there is an upward trajectory in the five areas of health and they have a growing measure of the characteristics listed above, then they will likely thrive in overseas ministry.
In part 2 of this series, we are going to look at qualities that might cause us to give yellow or red lights to those looking to go overseas.
Mike Ironside is Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. He has served on staff with Cornerstone since 2006 in varying roles–from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for two years. Mike is the Director of Cohorts and Content for the Upstream Collective. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for Campus to Campus, a missions organization dedicated to getting US college students connected to church-planting movements among college students worldwide.