The most common reason missionaries go home isn’t due to lack of money, illness, terrorism, homesickness, or even a lack of fruit or response to the gospel.
Regretfully, the number one reason is conflict with other missionaries.
Yes, you read that correctly.
From my own experience on the field and after five years of training, equipping, and sending missionaries, I have witnessed this truth firsthand. In all my travels around the world, I’ve spent countless days with missionary teams of all types, sizes, and makeups, and one reality remains true: All of them are deeply flawed.
Toward the end of the 20th century the World Evangelical Alliance released a significant study that found “conflict with peers” the top reason North American missionaries leave the mission field.
In light of the seemingly inevitable conflict with other missionaries, why emphasize teams at all? The simple answer is that it’s the example and model we see in the New Testament. Jesus and his disciples lived and did ministry together. Paul and Barnabas—set apart by the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch—went out together on the first missionary journey.
Conflict within missionary teams is inevitable in a fallen world.
We see further evidence of teams on mission in Paul’s “apostolic band.” One scholar notes that in the New Testament, at least 55 men and 17 women were associated with Paul on his missionary journeys. All this to say, there are biblical, practical, and pastoral reasons why we encourage the formation and sending of missionary teams.
Yet conflict within missionary teams is inevitable in a fallen world. Here are five challenges that threaten all missionaries and missionary teams.
1. Unmet expectations
Whether we realize it or not, we all arrive on the mission field with certain expectations. Unmet expectations related to missionary teams are a real problem, especially for young missionaries with an idealistic perspective of the mission field.
2. Conflict equation
Sinful people + sinful colleagues + sinful people they are trying to reach = lots of sinful people and potential for conflict.
When you join a team on the mission field, you are stepping into this conflict equation, and you must acknowledge that reality.
3. Stressful life
Missionary life is filled with stress and pressure, and much of it’s subconscious. Things that seemed so simple—driving, grocery shopping, paying bills, or sleeping—suddenly become challenging and stressful. It’s not always easy to articulate and identify, but subconscious stress is a reality for many missionaries and missionary teams around the world.
4. Comparison and jealousy
We’re creatures who naturally and effortlessly compare ourselves with others. Since teams often live life together and are around each other often, there’s great tendency for comparison to creep in. If we aren’t careful, we can compare, become jealous, and in the process destroy a team with our pride.
5. Persistent sin
The bottom line is that we’re sinners. We’re selfish, we’re prideful, and when put in stressful situations, we’re often poor teammates and partners in the Great Commission.
What’s the Solution?
So, in light of these challenges, what are missionaries and missionary teams supposed to do? Here are three things.
1. Maintain a realistic perspective of team
Composed of only sinners, missionary teams are far from perfect. So beware of going to the field with an idealistic and utopian perspective of team.
2. Be flexible and adaptable
Nobody likes teaming with high-maintenance people. Most missionaries are entering a culture where they have little control over most things that happen; as a result, flexibility and adaptability are crucial.
Missionaries must intentionally pursue intimacy with Christ and learn to abide in him long before they ever cross geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
3. Prepare spiritually, physically, and emotionally
As Mack Stiles has written, “There is no such thing as transformation by aviation.” Missionaries must intentionally pursue intimacy with Christ and learn to abide in him long before they ever cross geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
In the end, being a good teammate isn’t just a matter of effort, though that’s important. It’s a matter of mercy and grace. We need God’s mercy and grace on a moment-by-moment basis. We need the gospel to change us from the inside out. We need the Spirit to rewire our hearts, wills, desires, and affection—and in the process make us more like the Son.
That’s the only way we can be the kind of teammates who honor God and help fuel the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at the International Mission Board (IMB) website.
- How to Have an Effective ‘Missionary Encounter’ with Culture (Tim Keller)
- Don’t Go Until You’re Sent (Mack Stiles)
- Our Missional Amnesia (Josh Baylor)