Lord, Prepare Me to be a Missionary

I’m a native New Yorker. Not long ago, a good friend excitedly told me he was considering a pastoral assignment in Brooklyn. Ordinarily news like this would be met with happiness. I always enjoy the possibility of sharing the things I love about NYC with my friends. But I felt oddly unsettled. This friend had often visited New York before. And invariably he would end each visit listing off things he disliked about The City. I would frequently roll my eyes at his complaints – which were abundant. That’s why I was so surprised that moving to New York was even an option he was considering. “Why would you move there?” I inquired, “You always say how much you hate it.” His answer: “it’s a great mission field! There are so many opportunities for ministry!” What he said was not untrue. But I found it unnerving. At the time, I couldn’t fully formulate why. But a few weeks ago it became clear.

Unless you’ve been in a literal silo, you have undoubtedly heard about the missionary, John Chau, who attempted to contact the Sentinelese tribe on the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. He travelled close to the shore to make contact with the “world’s most isolated tribe”. He was carrying a Bible in one hand and football in the other while he yelled “Jesus loves you and so do I” in a language unknown to them. He lost his life when island natives attacked him with spears. Dozens of Christian pieces were written praising his selflessness. How noble he was! He was willing to give his life for them just to bring the Gospel!

At this point, I could write about many of the problematic parts of various articles I read. For instance, there’s the blatant hypocrisy in the justifications of western countries’ defense of their borders while simultaneously calling the Sentinelese “hostile” for defending theirs. I could also discuss how odd it is that people are willing to blithely disregard the tribe’s understandable desire to remain isolated. Disease is a real thing they are susceptible to. Other tribes around the world have been decimated after contact with missionaries. And quite specifically, their nearest neighbors on other Andaman islands can testify of the devastation that contact has wrought to their culture. Much like the Waorani tribes evangelized by John Elliot, their subsequent struggles are glossed over. Elliot, another missionary killed by a tribe, left behind a widow, Elisabeth. During her life, she attempted to shed light on the other side of her husband’s last missionary effort that is so often extolled: “Deadly diseases, the struggle against deculturalization, and the ongoing loss of their land go largely unmentioned, as indigenous voices are often excluded from the stories we tell.”

Now I’m not against missionary efforts. In the past I’ve been gone on a number of missions myself. Missionaries have done and continue to do much good around the world. Medical missionaries have saved many lives by sharing health breakthroughs and information to help prevent disease. All great things. But we cannot have a real analysis of missions unless we examine the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might run local textile producers out of business by flooding their markets with clothing donations. We can put builders out of business when we go on construction missions. Or, in a best-case scenario, our unskilled labor is so bad that the people we helped have to hire workers to correct our errors after we leave. But worse than all this, mission work often comes with a paternalistic bent. Despite God allowing us freedom of choice, even when our choices may go against the Divine Plan, we are reluctant to give that option to others. We know what’s best. So we don’t take “no” for an answer. Well, it depends on who we’re talking to. Even if you believed your neighbors really needed to know Christ, would you continue to stalk them even after they told you they were uninterested? Would you sneak onto their property, not once, but multiple times after they told you in no uncertain terms to go away? Of course not! We’d acknowledge their right to refuse consent. We’d never do this to people whose agency we respect.

And this is the crux of the matter. In order to truly reach people the way Christ did, it requires respect and love. Love is not merely patronizing compassion towards someone you pity. It is genuine care for people as friends and equals. This is why friendship evangelism is the best method for long term meaningful retention. Just getting people wet in the waters of baptism is easy. Making true disciples is more complex. It takes longer. It requires more investment. It doesn’t yield numbers that are quite as high. It’s a slow and steady process. But most of all, it necessitates a type of love that recognizes people as more than projects.

The “inconvenience” of giving money, traveling across the sea, relocating your life, or even becoming a martyr, may all appear to be solid evidence of “love”. But love of what? Love of adventure? Love of recognition? Love of pride? None of those things is hard and fast proof of love for the people being reached.

Whether the mission field is in India or Manhattan, there is a real temptation to proselytize because of self-love. How will it make me feel? How much of an impact can I make? I’m not saying one should derive no satisfaction from service. It should feel good to help others. But if that is the primary motivation, we’d be better off doing everyone else a favor and stay home.

No one will know the internal motivations of John Chau besides the Lord. But all missionaries – long term, short term, foreign travelers, or home based missionaries – would do well to examine our rationale for selecting the populations we seek to reach. If there are hints of pity, disdain, or condescension for the people or the place, maybe a different mission is in order. If there is superiority or paternalism involved, maybe going would result in more harm than good. As Elisabeth Elliot testified about her husband, sometimes motivations come from a desire for: “‘the immediate and unqualified fulfillment of scriptural promises.’ But as he matured, he began to realize that his own love of excitement and desire to do ‘great’ things could get in the way of what God had planned.” As we retell and teach these stories of “brave” missionaries, this lesson needs to be taught as well. And perhaps we can be more introspective about our attitudes towards the people of “the mission field”.

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/courtney-ray

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9257
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Why not? Besides the Lord, only you can tell what motivated you to go on several mission trips yourself?

There was also the missionary team [Sunday keepers] a number of years ago that went to
an unentered tribe who lived along the Amazon. They flew over with gifts dropping. After
a time seemed “safe”. When they approached them were killed.
Later on the wife and small child of one of the men went back, eventually being able to
live WITH them, and was able to minister to the very people who killed her husband and
father of her child. [Jim and Elisabeth Elliot and friends]

Many of the “Bible Translators” go to unentered places where living is risky and very
primitive. Living conditions are not always promoting health. Many of these persons
doing this are women. But from the ones I have heard tell their stories, God was
calling them to His service, and they went. The GOING required a lot of training first.


Courtney, I understand your unnerving; in reacting to the expressed fervor of your good friend.

Self-described missionaries who focus solely on Matthew 24:14 (And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come) soon experience their idealism crushed when facing daily, immediate, needs that only action, not words, can resolve. At that point, hopefully, they will step back, and be able to separate from their Adventurer or World Traveler spirits, and take the time to acquire the tools necessary to respond to the critical needs of their chosen mission field.

Missionary (et al) Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) decided, at age 21, to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the suffering. The passage that appears to have directed his professional life describes Jesus exhorting his followers to: Heal the Sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give… (Matthew 10:8). Schweitzer thereby implemented his understanding of Matthew 24:14 by adjusting his study focus to provide the necessary educational (i.e. medical) tools in order to carry out his mission.

FYI… The John Elliot you cited is actually Philip James (Jim) Elliot (1927-1956). After his death, his wife, Elisabeth (1926-2015) continued working several more years with the Huaorani / Waorani / Waodani / Waos, in Ecuador.

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So much that we don’t know about this case. Had he done any medical training in preparation to minister to physical needs? Had he himself been inoculated against serious diseases he could have transmitted? He certainly hadn’t made any attempt to learn their language or a related language, a vital bridge for communication unless you are going to depend on God to work a miracle.
We could argue at length about whether he was presumptive or a man of true faith, foolish or courageous.
I’ve pioneered among cannibals in Papua New Guinea but it had to be done sensibly, using means adapted to their needs and finding a common language for communication. I didn’t walk into their territory and trespass on any sacred ground. They came to me when in medical need and then having gained their trust I gave them yams and salt and matches for timber from their forest in order to build a small school for their youngsters. It got to the stage where they were giving me gifts of cockroaches and beetles on a skewer, something they prized, which I accepted with smiles and later disposed of surreptitiously. As a sign of friendship one warrior gave me his stone club that he had used to kill. Today there are numbers baptized from their clan. I didn’t go into their forest shouting in a language that they may have interpreted as abusive.



Regarding your “good friend” and his desire to serve in Brooklyn, what became clear to you? His internal motivation? How about another piece from the perspective of a SDA young woman: “Lord, Prepare Me to be a Pastor”?

In 2002, a New Tribes American missionary couple was abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. The man was killed while his wife was wounded in the crossfire between captors and military rescuers. The publicity was quite a bit though not comparable to media coverage of the killing of the five young American men by Auca Indians in 1955.

Fast forward to 2018. John Chau. If his name happened to be John Wilson or John Elliot, what would have been the reaction of the Western media? Just a thought.


Truer words are rarely spoken or published. That is a critical lesson that many in the church need to learn.

Telling about your friend who took the pastoral position in Brooklyn because it was a great missionary opportunity struck a chord with me because when I first went into pastoral work I was willing to go anywhere else in North America BUT New York City. I don’t mind if you start laughing because, like Jonah trying not to go to Nineveh, that’s exactly where God wanted my wife and me. Those three years with the Medical Van Ministry were an intensive and never-ending experience in learning how to relate to people and direct their attention to God. They shaped my ministry outlook for all the years since and have given me the confidence to follow the guiding of the Holy Spirit as we seek to minister God’s love to others.

I appreciated your endorsement of friendship evangelism because I have seen more people join the church and stay when they were attracted by friends than I have ever seen stay after an evangelistic crusade and people won by friendship often become the most effective soul winners.

The most important factor in missions is not what you want to do, but knowing what God wants you doing. Years ago I knew a man who was translating the Bible into the language of a remote tribe where they were ministering. But while providing them the Bible in their own language was their primary focus, they actually spent more time doing friendship evangelism where they did things that improved the lives of the people they met. That’s the ministry method of Jesus.

If we’re going to be successful missionaries we need to forget about preaching because Jesus and the early church leaders NEVER used what is the modern concept of a sermon. Rather, they demonstrated the love of God through acts of kindness that made people ask about what motivated them to do what they were doing. We don’t need preachers, we need people who aren’t afraid to obey God and let Him work through them.

Your experience illustrates the ministry method of Jesus. I praise God that you were able to see positive results. Friendship evangelism teaches us the power God wants to give us to make us effective evangelists. When we realize how much power God wants to give us and the results He can create using us, maybe we’ll realize the folly of evangelistic crusades.

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