You’ve come to Christ through a campus ministry. You’re excited about your faith. You’ve read Radical or Don’t Waste Your Life or Let the Nations Be Glad. After some discipleship, you feel a called to serve long-term in a culture not your own. What should you do next?
My primary aim in this article is to offer guidance to college students considering missions, and to those discipling them. Yet these things could be applied to anyone desiring to serve in cross-cultural ministry.
Here are seven steps to going from student to missionary.
1. Practice Faithfulness
When I used to regularly disciple high school students, I’d tell them God’s will is crystal clear: They needed to honor their mom and dad. Student ministries often use phrases like “Do something big for Jesus” or “God has huge plans for you if you’ll follow him.” Truth is, you don’t have to do something “big” for Jesus; you just need to be faithful where you are.
Don’t worry about tomorrow without first worrying about today. You’re not going to magically know the Bible well enough to teach it. Spiritual disciplines don’t spring out of nowhere. Sexual temptation isn’t overcome in a second. So sit alone or with others to pray and read Scripture. Share your faith with people you know. Stop spending more money than you have. Don’t become an entertainment junkie. Love your siblings. And yes, honor your mom and dad.
The list goes on. Start today. Be faithful with what the Lord has given you to do right now.
2. Get Involved in a Local Church
The majority of missionaries I’ve met have almost no connection to a local church. This is true of them both in the country they’re from and the country they’re living in. It’s been one of the most shocking things I’ve learned. Yet it isn’t new. Even William Carey, the so-called founder of the modern missions movement, had a tough time working with churches in England. He felt they were too slow and held him back. He, as well as Hudson Taylor, spent most of his time recruiting on university campuses.
But it’s the local church that commissions and sends. If you want to be sent, you need a local body—who knows and loves you—to confirm your call. So talk to your elders now. Submit to their oversight and care. Think of ways you can serve. Start talking to people who might support you with prayer and money. Let the elders map out a short-term and long-term plan to get you where you want to serve.
3. Talk to Your Family
In my experience, one of the greatest hurdles to serving overseas is Christian parents, especially if you have children. Whether your parents are believers or not, broach the topic with them early and often. If they attend a church that knows you well, ask your pastor to help you talk to them. Please don’t skip this step. Honor your parents by sharing your desire to serve the Lord in a place far away from them. If they’re Christians, ask them to let you go, like an arrow off the bow they’ve pulled back.
4. Look for Ways to Minister Cross-Culturally
Cross-cultural experience isn’t required. The United Arab Emirates was opened by a Canadian woman who’d never been out of her country. Many of the heroes of the modern missions movement never ventured outside their country before they went; the rigors of travel back then made it nearly impossible. But today we live in a globalized world. I write this article one mile from the most diverse neighborhood in the country. If I felt the Lord had called me to serve refugees in Greece or Turkey, I’d start by plugging myself into a refugee ministry here in Minneapolis. If I were committed to Muslim evangelism, I’d spend time with Muslims from the region I plan to go to. The ability to serve cross-culturally close to where you live is a new phenomena. Take advantage of it now.
5. Connect with a Missionary
Find a missionary who will tell you the truth about the hardships, heartbreaks, and loneliness—as well as the joys—of serving as a missionary. Learn about support raising, transitioning to a new culture, culture shock, and reverse culture shock. Learn about how to make friendships in other cultures. Learn about what’s going on beneath the surface understanding that can be gained on a short-term trip.
If possible, consider serving alongside a missionary for one to three months near the location you wish to serve. The convenience of airplanes allows you to test it out. It allows you to get both experience and the missionary to confirm (or disconfirm) your calling.
6. Talk to a Mission Organization
Don’t put off this step. Many people approach mission organizations thinking they’ve thought through what’s needed and are ready to go. Mission organizations have people committed to mobilization, and they can help answer all your questions and guide you through the process. They’re going to want to interview you a few times, see you in action, and hopefully talk to your church. That process could take six months to a year. From there you have to raise support, which takes on average 18 months. You also need to interview the mission organization to see if you feel comfortable with their theological convictions and practices. Some organizations serve as clearinghouses, allowing you to serve however you want. Others will put you on teams that decide day-to-day practices. Still others will want to provide a lot of guidance from back home. Choose carefully and wisely.
7. Get Trained
Know from the start that formal degrees from trusted theological schools will open doors non-formal training can’t. So fortify your understanding of Scripture by taking theological courses. Take classes in anthropology to understand the world better, or economics to understand the effects of charitable donations, or whatever else it takes to serve in the way you desire.
I’ll note two things that might sound contradictory. I’ve met many missionaries—doctors, pilots, social workers, and more—who regret not getting an MA in theology or MDiv before going overseas. Having a strong theological foundation would’ve equipped them to better understand the issues they’ve encountered in the field. On the flip side, it’s easier to get into some of the most “closed” countries with a degree from a secular institution than with a Bible degree from a Christian school.
I cannot overstress the importance of a local church in preparing you for cross-cultural work. They will eventually confirm your call, help you prepare and raise support, pray and care for you.
Learn to love the local church so that you can serve the global church.
Editors’ note: Are you a student interested in global missions? Consider attending CROSS Conference in Indianapolis, December 27 to 30, 2016. Speakers include John Piper, David Platt, J. D. Greear, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trip Lee, Conrad Mbewe, and others. Find more information and register here.