Saturday, January 31, 2009

Advice for missionaries

I had been thinking of writing a missionary post anyway, and then missionary-blogs posted a writing assignment, so I decided to participate. In a few days (after Feb. 1st), their site should have some other entries listed, so that you can read about some different perspectives.

As a missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia, I’m writing this from the perspective of living in another culture. I’ve skipped the decision-making/preparation phases and moved right into how to behave after you've arrived. However, these tips could be used when choosing a mission to partner with, as it's important to find like-minded teammates. I also don’t have much experience with “unreached” people groups, so some of this only applies in cases where a local church is already established.

Here are just a few thoughts that immediately spring to mind:

1- Learning the language is a given in contemporary missiology, but there should be guidelines. Use discernment as to what situations are good for language practice and what situations are better for using an interpreter. If you do have to use an interpreter, try to listen to both languages and compare, using it as a learning experience. And above all, pray for the Holy Spirit to equip you. I was amazed in the early days when I would come home from a meeting and think to myself, "How did I just communicate with someone all day in Russian?"

2- Humble thyself in a way that builds other people up. If you are just being a stupid American (Norwegian, etc.), you may lose some of your pride, but you are not building up others. If you are trying out a few words in the local language just to be cute and make people laugh, that’s also kind of a stretch. But if you are putting to death your sinful pride and making a genuine attempt, it will help you build relationships. At the same time, letting the people you are ministering to communicate in their own language means that they will be more at ease. This applies to many aspects of cultural exchange, not just language. Wear the local costumes, eat the local food, etc., but don't draw attention to yourself in the process. You are not a hero. If you genuinely like something, pay a compliment, but don't act as though you are in a zoo looking at some exotic animals. If you have to make a cultural comparison, do so in a way that doesn't make others feel inferior.

3- Ask for advice. Sometimes it strikes me how ironic it is that we sit and discuss missions strategies endlessly and try to devise ways to reach a certain culture, when we could just ask a native person. When writing something in another language, ask someone to proofread it. When generating ideas for ministry, ask for opinions. Ask “how am I doing?” Or “is there anything I’m doing that’s inappropriate?” Proverbs 15:22 says, Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (NIV).

4- Don’t make assumptions about intellect or spiritual maturity. The person/people you are serving may be more educated than you. This is another reason to learn the language. I once had a calculus professor who was not a US native. He spoke English with an accent, and students assumed he was “not all there” and played jokes on him. Yet he likely had a Ph D and was an intellectual giant in his homeland. That’s an extreme case, but my point is that factors like accents and mannerisms can be misleading. Also, if you are in a Christianized nation, someone might know the Bible better than you or even have more missionary experience. He or she might know better what it’s like to be persecuted. So don’t assume that what you are preaching is new information and that you are providing enlightenment.

5- Constantly evaluate your devotion to Christ. Test your heart, and ask God to test you. Think about whether you are acting on your emotions or on the Holy Spirit. Think about whether you are acting out of love for people or love for Christ. Both are good, but love for Christ is more important.

6- Be observant in order to more effectively deal with awkward situations. It is impossible to memorize all the rules immediately. If you look around, you will see that there is a certain way of doing things. Yet, even among members of the same culture, uncomfortable situations arise. What if you really can’t swallow what is put in front of you? What if you suddenly need to use the bathroom? What if you feel embarrassed because you were late? These are all facts of life, and you shouldn’t feel traumatized if you face a similar situation. Watch what other people do, and if you can’t figure it out, discretely ask someone whom you know. If you are prone to worrying about it, always have an emergency plan. Regardless, don’t worry about being human. After some practice you will learn how to quickly look around and by observation do as everyone else does. And if you still find yourself making mistakes, learn how to make heartfelt apologies.

7- Pay attention to what is valued, and try to adapt accordingly. Maybe they are very careful to keep things clean, or say thank you. Maybe children are highly venerated, maybe the elderly. Maybe New Year’s is a big holiday, or it could be Christmas instead. Or it could be some obscure holiday that you didn't know existed until you wake up and everyone is home from work and congratulating each other and you are confused. You will notice differences and think to yourself, “I wonder why they are paying so much attention to __________ and neglecting ___________.” There is often no logical explanation, just like in your own culture there is none. Accept it and try to adapt as best you can.

8- Make friends. Surround yourself with people who will protect your weaknesses and affirm your strengths. Pursue fellowship with other missionaries who will understand your struggles but not constantly distract you with thoughts of home. Foster relationships in a church body, in whatever format seems appropriate to your situation. Meet regularly with people who will hold you accountable. Learn to confess sin and weakness, to at least a few trusted people. It will help you once you have moved beyond the honeymoon period and are in need of counsel. If you didn't do this from the very beginning, it's not too late to start. Proverbs has some good advice about seeking the right kind of companions and friends.

9- Don’t be ashamed. This is similar to #6 where I advise you not to fear awkward situations. There is a difference between being humble and being ashamed and cowardly. God didn't make a mistake when He made you. He made you to be born in one country and possibly to serve in another; to have this gift and not that one. You have a message to share, whether it is a sermon or a simple word of encouragement. He lets you experience weakness in order to bring Himself glory. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

10- Your turn! Do you have anything to add?


  1. К сожалению, не многие миссионеры соответствуют этим требованиям. Я очень рад, что знаю одну девушку, которая очень продвинулась в реализации этих положений ;)
    Лиза, мы очень ценим твой труд!

  2. Спасибо, я только учусь. :) Это не требования, а просто замечания.

  3. Good post. In the point #2 you have mentioned about eating the local food. When I was still working in Russia as an interpreter, the foreigners' reaction (mostly Americans') to the native Russian food was the most difficult for me to digest (no pun intended). Granted, the food there is not all that great and some of it can look rather repulsive to outsiders and not a whole lot of them can enjoy and appreciate pelmenie, borshch, raw marinaded fish, marinated mushrooms, marinaded cabbage, small pirogie... How are you handling the Russian food, Liz? Have you tried most of what would be considered typical Russian food?

  4. Thanks, Vitali. I like Russian food. Most of it is the same ingredients we have, but in different combinations. I mean, pelmeni is just meat and dough, who could say no to that? :) Some of the food is really different, but I'm used to it now.

    When I first went to Russia I was a picky teenager and ate almost nothing. Actually, I notice that a lot of (American) adults don't eat much their first time. People always told us, "You MUST eat everything on your plate!" but it is hard to force yourself. Many people (including me) get an upset stomach in response to anxiety, and sometimes there is just not anything you can do about it. I also think that it is very difficult to eat seafood if you've spent your whole life not eating it. Now I get hungry at camp so I eat everything. When I ate for the first time in a Russian home, I loved it. There are real psychological elements to appetite and the atmosphere can play a role. Nowadays I am just thankful for a hot meal.

    When I moved to Russia, I was obsessed with pleasing people and I was too scared to speak up and say that I was too full or felt sick. That's why I mentioned in #6 about dealing with awkward situations. If you have allergies or something, you should speak up. Otherwise you will get sick and that will make your hosts feel even more terrible.

    What did you think of American food when you first arrived? I mean home-cooked food, not fast food.

  5. I think I have my limits too. The other day I was watching on TV some Chinese guys enjoying eating miniature live octopuses. As they were shoving them into their mouths the tentacles kept moving. Everyone had so much fun! I don't think I could have eaten those.

    As far as American home-made food. I like pretty much everything. A pumpkin pie would be the only thing I still do not enjoy. (I have to put a lot of whip cream on it to overpower the actual taste of it) I can't think of anything else.

  6. I like pumpkin pie, but my family is divided on the issue. However, good point about the whip cream. One way to avoid a social fiasco is to load up your plate with whipped cream (chocolate sauce, sour cream, mayonnaise, ketchup, whatever tastes good), and then you will not have to worry about the yucky new food that is scaring you.

  7. "I like pumpkin pie, but my family is divided on the issue."

    Aha! I am not alone!

  8. Elizabeth, I really like this article - it shows a lot of insight that many missonaries never have.

    Anytime you want an assignment in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a call;-)

  9. I usually don't comment on blogs, but I just had to say that enjoyed reading yours. I found your blog through a link from Boundless. I am going to St. Petersburg in October. And this is my first time out of the country. I enjoy reading about other cultures. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

  10. Thanks for commenting! I think if you choose Name/URL you don't have to be anonymous, but I'm not sure since I'm a Blogger user.

    Maybe I'll see you in St. Pete!


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