What constitutes the ideal missionary candidate? It’s fitting to begin such a discussion by examining conventional wisdom on the subject. From C.T. Studd in the Congo during the 1920’s:
Send us people with initiative, who can carry themselves and others too; such as need to be carried hamper the work and weaken those who should be spending their strength for the heathen. Weaklings should be nursed at home! If any have jealousy, pride or talebearing traits lurking about them, do not send them nor any who are prone to criticize. Send only Pauls and Timothys; men who are full of zeal, holiness, and power. All others are hindrances. If you send us ten such men the work will be done. Quantity is nothing; quality is what matters.
His words are certainly bold and reflective of the times. Perhaps excessively so, though they carry certain helpful themes of initiative, endurance, focus, and unity in the face of a difficult setting. In somewhat contrasting tone, William Carey described those he aspired to work alongside in the mission:
Let us often look at Brainerd…in the woods of America pouring out his very soul before God for the people- Prayer, secret, fervent, expectant, lies at the root of all personal godliness. Competent knowledge of the languages where a missionary lives, mild and winning temper, and a heart given up to God—these are the attainments which more than all other gifts, will fit us to become God’s instruments in the great work of redemption.
Carey seems to give more attention to the inner person, the character expressed in affection for God and intercession for people. It’s also interesting and notable that he includes language acquisition dead center in that effective godliness. Now contrast it with a modern request for field workers:
Azerbaijan needs the kind of worker with a high capacity for relationship, those who are able or have learned to endure daily inconveniences or difficulties with grace and patience, those who can be purposeful and goal oriented without allowing last minute interruptions to get in the way, but instead to take advantage of these if possible. An effective worker in Azerbaijan needs to be able to learn language fluently and must demonstrate consistency and a bit of self-starting to achieve this.
Here we’re informed of several practical expectations for a fitting sent one. Based on the context of Azerbaijan, which is important to consider, the worker must be relational, goal-oriented, and motivated. Do you see some of the similarities between the three quotes?
Perhaps one of the most challenging expectations for a missionary candidate is the capacity to suffer. An arrogant deception that the North American church has embraced is the idea that ‘God loves me so much He would never ask me to do anything that is uncomfortable, let alone dangerous.’ But that flies in the face of Scripture, church history, and present day reality for most of the world.
In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis said, “Martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfecting of Christianity. This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers by Christ on Calvary.” Anyone who follows after this Christ, especially those who seek to be sent, must wrestle with this reality. Mission is always at least a thousand daily deaths to self, and perhaps much more.
Given that none of us is perfect and the fact that the body of Christ is made of up many different parts, each of which is important for the functioning of the body, here is a sketch of key qualities and capabilities that would seem desirable in a missionary. The goal is to send godly people who are both competent and effective in missionary service.
1. Christ-like character
The most crucial characteristic of a potential sent one is a healthy, abiding relationship with Christ. If that is in place, then certain other characteristics will be natural and noticeable. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) sums them up; but, for the sake of specificity, here are some key qualities for missionary service: love, holiness, humility, interpersonal relationship skills, the ability to forgive and ask for forgiveness, joy, steadfastness, compassion, faithfulness, responsibility, initiative, self-control, etc. These qualities would express themselves in such areas as stewardship of time, stewardship of money, family relationships, relationships with the opposite sex, thought life, etc., as well as the healthy desire for and practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, reading Scripture, meditating on Scripture, memorizing Scripture, hearing the Scriptures taught, worship, fasting, fellowship with the saints, witnessing, reflection, etc.
2. Bible knowledge
Every sent one must absolutely know the essentials of the gospel message and understand how Scripture fuels growth in a walk with Jesus. He or she should have a working knowledge of both biblical and systematic theology, though he must not necessarily be a seminarian. The standards here will vary depending on the anticipated ministry. Many traditional mission agencies have a requirement for some college and/or seminary courses. Your church should certainly consider the wisdom of other churches and agencies, but must ultimately decide the standards you will set for those you send under the leadership of the Spirit.
3. Ministry skills
A sent one should possess:
Capability, confidence, and joy in sharing the gospel
Ability to disciple a person into a closer walk with Jesus
Understanding of one’s own spiritual gifts and evidence of their use and growth in the local church
Application and eagerness in hospitality
4. Professional skills
We need to send people who are well prepared to do whatever job they are going to do on the field. Their preparation would involve completing the required academic training as well as sufficient on-the-job experience to make them a helpful contributor where they will be working.
5. Missions knowledge
The candidate should have a good knowledge of the biblical basis of missions, the general history of missions, current issues in missions strategy, and more than a passing acquaintance with the history of the intended target country, including missionary efforts there both past and present. The Perspectives course is a great way to get a strong foundation here. The aim is to produce well-prepared people who are willing and able to learn from the wisdom of those who’ve gone before them, and who have been applying their knowledge in the neighborhoods long before they head to the nations.
6. Emotional wholeness
One’s ego takes a beating on the mission field (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). Language learning and figuring out your ministry and how to do it effectively can take years. Before venturing into that storm, a person should have a healthy self-image and a clear understanding of who they are in Christ. Issues from the past should have been worked through so that they are no longer a consistent burden on the soul. There is not much extra energy available on the mission field to be carrying around a lot of emotional baggage.
7. Cross-cultural intelligence
Living and communicating effectively in another culture is a challenging task! Thankfully, there are ways to develop these skills, such as building relationships with internationals at home, as well as on international mission trips. The primary point here is not knowledge but adaptability on such things as thought process, food, language, and being able to live without all the creature comforts we’re used to.
8. Relational abilities/family life
One of the most important abilities a missionary must have is building and sustaining harmonious relationships with a variety of other people. Interpersonal conflict is one of the major causes of missionary attrition. Therefore, good candidates are people who are thoughtful of others rather than easily irritated, can resolve conflict in peaceable ways, and work to build up others in a spirit of unity.
Also, if single, there should be a contentment with that state in life, at least as long as God keeps one there, and relationships with the opposite sex should be appropriate. If married, your relationship with your spouse should be biblically healthy and vibrant. If there are children, you should be bringing them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
9. Local church connectedness
Finally, the candidate should have a deep bond with his/her local church, in areas both of fellowship and service. This would be exemplified through ministry involvement, how well they know the structure, ministries, and leadership of the church, and how well people in the church know them and their vision for ministry. There should be a wholehearted endorsement by the elders of the church of this person’s intention to serve as a sent one.