Some of history’s greatest missionaries started out when they were young. Hudson Taylor began preaching in China at 22; Adoniram Judson left for India at 23; Amy Carmichael arrived in Japan at 24.
However, the risk-taking vigor of youth often comes at the expense of wisdom and experience. Some of the most important missionary lessons only blossom after years of labor and suffering.
With that in mind, I asked seasoned gospel workers—those who’ve faithfully served for multiple decades—from various regions what they wish they’d known early in their ministries. Here are four words of wisdom they offer young missionaries today.
1. Focus your efforts.
Young missionaries arrive on the field with passion and energy. They also come with eyes open to all that’s possible. Endless opportunities and needs often pull missionaries in a million directions.
In such an environment, Jim Sexton, a missionary to South America, encourages young missionaries to focus their efforts. “The investment in and discipleship of a few people can yield great rewards. Not that programs, ministries, evangelistic plans, and strategies aren’t important. They are. Yet a few well-grounded people, sent with affirmation, can accomplish the long-term ideals.”
The investment in and discipleship of a few people can yield great rewards.
As a former missionary to the Middle East, Peter Pikkert agrees that priorities are key. “The missionary enterprise is meant to be a very focused affair: evangelism, making disciples, church planting. It’s not mission Dei (i.e., getting involved in every good and worthwhile thing God might be doing).”
Missionaries can’t—and shouldn’t—do everything. But they can take hope in what God will do when they invest in deep discipleship with a faithful few.
2. Recognize the challenges.
Of course, that doesn’t mean ministry will be simple. As I heard from multiple veteran missionaries, the challenges of spiritual warfare and the reality of demonic forces caught them off guard in their early years.
Reflecting on his ministry in South America, Ron Roy says the significance of spiritual warfare is the first lesson he had to learn. “My reality was that as a young pastor serving in Michigan prior to going to the field, I had very little teaching—and less training—in spiritual warfare. This area was where my national coworkers perhaps helped the most to prepare and equip me.”
But the challenges for missionaries reach beyond the spiritual realm. They often come in the form of emotional and educational difficulties. Cheryl Gibello, a missionary serving in remote Southeast Asia, talks about questions that families with children must face. “How do you educate them? Homeschooling works very well in the elementary years, but isolation in the village becomes a problem in the teen years. Should you send them back home to a family member or to boarding school? This situation caused a lot of heartache in our family as we navigated these issues.”
3. Pace yourself.
If significant difficulties and ministry opportunities abound, it’s easy for missionaries to be overwhelmed. When you factor in the urgency of the unreached, it’s also common for missionaries to try to do too much too quickly.
After decades in Eastern and Southern Africa, Jon Sapp would change his initial approach. “I went too fast and too far with my attempt to start new churches,” he says. Whenever he discovered new villages that needed and wanted a church, he would hop in his pickup with some local pastors to make it happen. However, without consistent follow-up, those churches didn’t ultimately survive.
Cheryl Winget, a worker in Central and Eastern Europe, also mentions pacing is important for young missionaries. “I wish I would have relaxed in our work earlier in the ministry. That’s not to say that I would have been lazy. (Never! Not in my DNA!) However, I worried over too many things that didn’t matter in the long run.”
4. Be humble; stay faithful.
Most people who move halfway around the world—often to dangerous and difficult locations—don’t struggle with laziness or a lack of motivation. However, that inner drive can often work against missionaries. Not only do they need to pace themselves, but they also must fight pride and the desire for success.
According to Denise Ramsey, a worker in Western Europe, young missionaries need to learn the values of contentment and patience. “Don’t compete with or compare yourself to your colleagues or fellow missionaries. Work and pray together as a team toward kingdom growth! Planting seed and being a link in the chain toward people receiving the gospel is our job. As much as we’d love to report big numbers of new Christ-followers, it’s God who changes hearts! Be faithful in planting seed.”
Don’t compete with or compare yourself with your colleagues or fellow missionaries.
John Mehn, reflecting on his early years in East Asia, sounds a similar note. For him, it’s not ultimately about knowing more information. “What I wish I had ‘known’ are my heart motivations and my desire for ambition, reputation, and the approval of others. I wish I had learned more humility, my need for more of God’s grace, and Christ’s redemptive power over my heart’s idols.”
When looking back on their ministries, missionaries consistently shared with me the pleasure God brought through their decades of faithful service. The personal reflections of Mike Norfleet, who has significant experience in both East Asia and Eastern Europe, represent well the various testimonies I heard from veteran missionaries about what brought them joy:
The memories of seeing your family grow and experience serving the Lord. Memories of seeing God’s Spirit cross language and cultural barriers to make himself known. Memories of coworkers that became more than family to you. Memories of sacrifice that brought the joy of God’s providence. Memories that stay with you, and the joy of sharing those memories with others.
Young gospel workers who stay the course, endure hardships, humbly serve, and faithfully invest in discipling others have the hope of blessing and reward that make all the sacrifices worth it.