14 things your missionaries might like to tell you, but feel inhibited

NOTE: Many thousands have read this little article, thanks so much! May I invite you to share it with your mission board; your friends; sign up for my blog, at right; to read an article about missionary letters;  a recent article on Acts 1:8; and our missionary website where we describe our works as theological educators in Costa Rica.

Let me put on my missionary hat!

When Paul and Barnabas returned home from their journey, they “gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Your church’s missionaries periodically pay you a brief visit. They will tell you about their successes and failures, and thank you for your support.

 There are things your visiting missionaries might wish to tell you but feel they cannot:

 When we’re visiting you, we haven’t actually “come home.” We live elsewhere, and are temporarily visiting the place where we used to live. Especially for missionary kids, “home” is far from here. We are usually keen to get back to where we belong. Some missionaries are now using the term “my passport country.”

Don’t assume that we are up to date on all the latest U.S. culture.

“So, where was I? Anyway, on DWTS, that was so sad when Billie Dee got hurt. And, AND!…I think that Meryl and Maks might have a little romance going…Well of course, I wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Chelsea…”

We are aware that we look older-heavier-greyer-balder than the last time we passed through town. Everyone at your church does, too, but it’s courteous not to mention it!

Don’t spend 100% of our short time together telling me about friends who have taken vacations in our country of service. Like you, we just want to be listened to, and we hope you’ll ask us about how we minister in our country.

Please remember to bless our children. Missionary Kids (MKs) have given up their culture, language, pets, friends, relatives to go to the field. If you give them some treat while we’re visiting your church, even a simple one, your thoughtfulness will be remembered for years to come.

Our children are probably not sullen; they’re shell-shocked. They travel hundreds of miles and visit dozens of groups. They think and they dream in two languages. Yes, they are taller than when you last saw them. No, they don’t remember who you are. Still, they’ll probably be approachable so long as you smile and make no sudden moves.

We may be able to host a short-term team from your church. Maybe. Hosting a team takes months of planning. Imagine if a dozen foreign teenagers dropped by your home in America; they can’t speak the local language and they are as excited about going to Six Flags than they are about the mission. If you want to arrange a trip, have a clear goal, defined tasks, and sound financing and you’ll be welcomed and welcomed back.

Missionaries believe in missions, in fact, many of us support other missionaries. You might suppose that since we have already “given all”, we feel no obligation to donate to missions or the local church. In fact, the missionaries I’ve asked report that they support other missionaries as part of their contribution to God’s work.

Don’t try to convert us to Multi-level Marketing (MLM). We’ve already heard the tale of the new missionary who stood outside a factory gate and within an hour raised 100% of his support by recruiting people to Amway. And while some of us are “tent-makers,” using our work in another country as an entry for the gospel, that is not feasible for others of us.

We have worked hard to calculate the minimum necessary we need to live on the field. In many countries, the cost of living is much higher than in the US. We are also concerned that you wouldn’t understand the decisions we have made with our mission agency.

Don’t tell us we should re-negotiate the percentage that our missionary agency charges us, because you think they charge too much. If we pay 13% to our board, it’s because of a slate of services that they render. If you make the generous offer to manage our affairs for nothing, please don’t be offended if we turn you down. The truth is, you could not possibly handle the business, insurance, retirement plan, communication, promotion, mobilization – let along evacuation in the case of earthquake or revolution, or knowing what to do if we’re kidnapped – that the professionals can, nor do it decade after decade.

No, we DON’T think the US church faces a relatively high degree of persecution. 

Working in a new language is really, really hard. Yes, you picked up some Spanish from your vacation and can say, Por favor, ¿dónde está el baño? But could you say: The doctrine of justification by faith alone, a hallmark of the Reformation, runs counter to your notion that attendance at Mass is a channel for divine grace? And contrary to a popular myth, an adult can’t pick up a new language just like children do. There are scientific reasons for this: a child is hardwired to learn grammar, but past age 6 or 7, you can no longer learn a language so naturally. If we’re studying, for example, Arabic or Turkish, we will need years to become even reasonably conversant.

We are Christians, not super-Christians. We do not have a special hot-line to God. We sometimes doubt our calling, and wrestle with questions of significance. In terms of basic emotional and spiritual needs, missionaries are like everyone else. The majority of missionaries do not return after their first year of service; so at any given moment, some of us are considering coming back from the field. We might welcome a chance to share in confidence what’s really going on with us.

PS – It took me a year to get this article in the shape I wanted, and I still hoped it would not sound harsh. By far this is the most read article I’ve written in 25 years. I got maybe three negative responses to it; they had to do with my making missionaries sounding oversensitive, or my assessment that Americans do not suffer to the degree that Christians do elsewhere. I might add that Christians suffer relatively little here in Costa Rica; there there is full constitutional freedom of religion. I sometimes do work in a “persecuted” country but have not had any problems with that government; still, every single Christian in that country suffers more for his or her faith than any case I have ever heard of in the US. My perception is that Americans, most of us not having spent time in dangerous areas abroad, exaggerate the degree of suffering we undergo. This is a topic I have written about before on this blog, and in a much sharper tone.

I also would like to pen an article on “things that American Christians wish they could tell their missionaries.” If you have some thoughts, send them along, and speak frankly and anonymously!

Related article by another author: “You see that happy missionary family smiling out of that postcard on your fridge? Their marriage is probably hanging by a thread”

“14 things your visiting missionaries probably won’t tell you,” by Gary Shogren, Ph.D, missionary and Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica. Visit us at http://shogrens.com

45 thoughts on “14 things your missionaries might like to tell you, but feel inhibited

  1. I hate to say this, but it’s probably very good missionaries don’t share their feelings on these items–It would make them look like people with very bad attitudes. I think this is a very negative portrayal, if, indeed, missionaries are actually and often feeling this way. It makes them appear to bite the hand that feeds them. It also gives the impression that they are resentful of God’s call on their lives, holier than thou and judgmental. There are many people in the U.S. whose businesses have been ruined and have gone to jail due to standing for the Gospel. Yes, the U.S. has it easy in many areas, but I don’t think comparisons of degrees of suffering in the church necessarily make for edification of those who appear to have it better than others.

    1. Dear Beth, thanks for your input. It took me over a year to write this article, smoothing it down so that it didn’t sound negative. What resulted was an honest, and I think, lighthearted look at the topic. I still wasn’t entirely happy with publishing it, but decided I would speak out because it seemed that it would be of service to all missionaries.

      The main thing that concerns me is that anyone would deduce from the article that I resented God’s call on my life. Not at all, I am grateful beyond words, as anyone who works with me can testify. I invite you to read our missionary blog at shogrens.com

      I got I think 3 responses that had to do with my assessment that Americans do not suffer to the degree that Christians do elsewhere (not here in Costa Rica, btw, Where they uphold full, constitutional freedom of religion). I certainly am not under persecution. I do believe, however, that we Americans, most of us not having spent time in dangerous areas abroad, exaggerate the degree of suffering we undergo. This is a topic I have written about before on this blog, and in a much sharper tone.

      You mention people losing their businesses and going to jail because of their faith. I don’t know of any instances, whether first- or second-hand of this in the US. Can you provide us with some links to some concrete examples?

      Again, blessings, will be happy to hear from you any time.

  2. Erm: La doctrina de la justificación solo por fe, uno de los puntos distintivos de la Reforma protestante, es contrario a la idea de que ir a misa es un canal para la gracia divina.

    But then, I am a translator. 😉

    Although I’m not a missionary, having lived abroad for a while, I understand many of your cultural comments from my first-hand experience.

  3. Reblogged this on Living By Faith and commented:
    An article worth reading. I’ve heard some of these before, and others are new to me. Language struggles and reverse culture shock are real, and I’ve personally experienced both. Please be knowledgeable and considerate.

  4. As usual you bring out the truth clearly and thoroughly. I’m thrilled to see others recognizing this!
    My family has been involved in missions since ’52 and what you say is so true. I used to think my aunt and uncle must be thrilled to be back in the States until I experienced my own furlough. The trip couldn’t be over soon enough for me- except for missing family.
    Love how you help people remember missionaries are people too. It would sure be nice if you could somehow assume super powers on traveling to another country, but that’s not an option!
    God bless. 🙂

        1. Yeah, I call it the Missionary Salad Dressing test. Walk down the Salad Dressing aisle of a large supermarket, and after seeing the thousand permutations, you will come out the other end confused and agoraphobic.

  5. Gary, would I have your permission to share this as a post on the Free Methodist World Missions website? I would include a link to your blog.

  6. Thank you for this article, Gary. Our mission posted a link to it today on our Facebook page (I am with Action International Ministries.)

    At the top of this page you mention a blog post about missionary letters, but when I click on the link I don’t get to that article. Can you check the link and fix if necessary? I would like to read that.

    Thanks and God bless,

    Brian Stewart

  7. you know, being in the field is for the most part a blur! We’re so busy most of the time that we don’t recognize what is going on. Thank you for quantifying the struggles that people just don’t get. NOw I want you to write an article of how to raise a board……one of the hardest things to deal with after a while……people who come and talk a big storm and then leave to be never heard from again! I’m not bitter, just disappointed in people.

  8. Excellent post, Gary. Could I repost it on SEND International’s blog, themissionaryblog.org? I would include a link back to your blog for our readers to explore further.

  9. We have served as home missionaries for many years, and are now getting ready to go overseas. This is really eye opening. Fortunately, our kids are grown and one daughter is committed to missions as well. We will share the article with her. Thanks for helping us realize that we are not alone when we consider giving up. Blessings!

  10. A fantastic article! Most mono-cultural brothers and sisters have any earthly idea about the challenges of the work, expectations, child raising, etc, etc, etc!


    1. Thanks Phil! It’s our duty to be kind, loving, and accepting of all brothers and sisters. It’s a struggle not to regard others’ struggles and life to be trivial – they’re not, not when Christ is involved.

  11. 4 years of intense language study and I STILL can’t say that!
    These are some lovely reminders to those who support missionaries and all are valid for our missionary family. Except that my kids actually are a bit sullen. Just like every stateside family has children who were born with personalities (some strong, some crazy, some funny, some timid) so were mine. I choose to respect their personalities in spite of the fact that they must be “on” all the time.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing! Absolutely, about the kids. Our four are all different personalities, which is just fine! They were ages 4-10 when we first went on deputation, sometimes speaking in 2-3 churches a week for a year and a half. They are now adults, living in the US, and Mom keeps in pretty much daily touch with them by Skype…blessed be Skype.

  12. And also the statement: “Why don’t you go with the [denomination] where they don’t have to raise support?
    “Stay here; there is enough work to do in the US. Why do you think you need to go overseas?”

    Everyone should go where GOD calls … here or abroad. Your neighbors here or abroad.

    Trust that the missionary(ies) are being obedient and willing to go and do wherever GOD calls. Trust them that if they were called by God to stay here, they would; and with whatever [organization] GOD calls them to go. “Interrogation”, even “in love” can cause undo stress.

    1. “There’s so much work to do in the US!” Good comment. And it’s true, but not well contextualized. In my case, as a professor, I know how incredibly difficult it is for new PhDs to get teaching positions. Seminaries are following the national trend of whittling down the full-time faculty and depending on adjunct teachers. Tough when you struggled to get a PhD, went into debt, and now are only qualified for part-time jobs. Yet in the Two-Thirds World, we could deploy all kinds of American professors and not reduce the level of theological education in America by a whit.

      Yes, interrogation. One of the hardest thing for me, when we accepted a missionary call, was knowing that anyone who wanted to would know my salary, etc. It’s living in a glass house.

  13. excellent article. being a missionary kid who was born and grew up in Nigeria many of these points resonate with me — especially the first point. i went back to Africa after 30 years and, even though it wasn’t the same country, i had an overwhelming feeling of being home when i stepped off the plane.

    thanks for this!


  14. Great Gary. Need more of this. Sometimes we American Christians are so obviously American centric.



    PS what thing about Rob Bell and Brian McLaren?

    Sent from my iPad


  15. Good thoughts, Gary. Might use some of them for our upcoming home assignment. One exception: I believe that the mission’s policy is to not negotiate with kidnappers.

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