I’m no missionary, just a regular pastor. However, I did rub shoulders with a bunch of missionaries during my time at Southern Seminary, I’ve read a decent number of books about missiology, and I keep in touch with several on-the-field-missionaries. I think regular pastors can learn a lot about pastoral ministry from our friends who serve on the mission field. Consider the following:
- Missionaries must learn a language. This is often one of the hardest parts of overseas missionary work. Language school is tough, but language school is also essential. Missionaries must speak to people in their heart language. While most pastors won’t need to go to language school, they do need to learn how to communicate with people in a culturally appropriate way. This will look different in a university town, an urban city, a farming community, and a blue-collar neighborhood.
- Missionaries must study a culture. Missionaries have to embrace the place they live, even though that place isn’t “home.” They have to learn about the pace and rhythm of life. They have to eat the food and listen to the music. They have to study the culture of the people they want to reach with the gospel. The same thing is true for pastors, most of whom do not serve in their hometown. Pastors must study the culture of the people they are called to shepherd and lead.
- Missionaries must know a history. Any new missionary ought to devote time to understanding the history of the place and the people around them. They need to know the stories, the victories, and the defeats of those they are trying to reach with the gospel. This knowledge will reveal both barriers and bridges for the gospel. Pastors must do something similar, working to understand the unique history of the place they live and the people they are called to serve. This will reveal barriers and bridges.
- Missionaries must model humility. The worst kind of missionaries are the ones who get off the plane with big plans to “fix” a place or a people. These missionaries show up with all of the answers before they ask any questions. They are seen as pompous and their message is quickly rejected. Unfortunately, too many pastors show up in established churches or established communities with all the answers. Missionaries and pastors must model humility and be willing to listen.
- Missionaries must play the long game. Missionaries embrace a difficult task, that is, leaving home and family and familiar to take the gospel to people who are spiritually lost and who are not looking for Jesus. Thus, missionaries must play the long game, investing tremendous time in relationships and study. Pastors need to do the same thing. Rather than using a church as a springboard for ministry advancement, pastors must be willing to play the long game.
- Missionaries must make disciples. The missionary task is rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 where he commanded his disciples to go and make other disciples. The twelve were not sent out to make “decisions,” but disciples. Missionaries must invest in converts so that they become growing disciples of Jesus, and pastors must do the same thing. Pastoral ministry is more than preaching and decision making. Ultimately, it’s a call to make disciples in a local church setting.
- Missionaries must pray – a lot. Most of the missionaries I know are prayer warriors. They are committed to prayer, and they are willing to ask others to pray for them and their work. This is probably because the missionary task is entirely overwhelming, and it doesn’t take long for missionaries to come to the end of their abilities. The sooner this happens for a regular pastor, the better. The task of pastoral ministry is beyond our ability, which ought to make us people committed to praying – a lot.