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Not Your Typical Missionary

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Your profession may allow you to influence lives in a country closed to traditional evangelism.

It still hangs on the wall of my childhood home. That picture was one of the easiest art assignments of my second-grade year: "Draw yourself dressed as what you want to be when you grow up." Eagerly opening my box of crayons, I started to work immediately.

It wasn't hard for me to know what to draw. When I was five years old, I had learned there were boys and girls in the world who had never heard of Jesus. Until that evening at church, I'd assumed every child had Jesus as a best friend, just like me. Hadn't I been taught to sing, "Jesus loves the little children of the world"? My heart felt like it would break until our teacher went on to suggest, "Boys and girls, maybe one day one of you will be willing to go and tell the children about Jesus." That was all I needed to hear. I stood up and declared, "Me, I'll go. I want to be a missionary!" From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Happily recalling that decision, I worked on my self-portrait for Mrs. Stephens’s class. First came a big round circle for the face, then brown hair and blue eyes, rosy red cheeks, and a Miss Piggy nose. Next I colored in a blue cape to go over my shoulders and a white cap for my head. Giving myself a starchy white dress, I emblazoned a bold red cross on its front. As the finishing touch, I added a large, family-sized Bible to my hand. I was so proud of that picture!

A few months later I contacted a missions agency and volunteered for immediate overseas service. Although their first response was to recommend that I finish elementary school first, they treated my sense of calling with great seriousness. Gently, they explained that each person allowed to live in a foreign land must have some skill or area of training that the country views as beneficial to its people. They urged me to discover my natural gifts and interests and then counseled me to develop them as fully as possible.

I’ve always been thankful for that early guidance. I well remember my search as I began to consider what I could do, what my chosen "profession" would be. In the intervening years (yes, I did finish elementary school), a variety of situations helped me discover my gift of teaching, and eventually I became a sixth-grade teacher in an inner-city school. This experience, in conjunction with my education, is what brought me to the point I had yearned for since childhood.

Overseas at Last

Finally, my somewhat modified missionary calling became reality. Instead of being a traditional missionary, I’ve been ministering in a different way by working as a teacher in another country. It is illegal there for a member of the majority population to convert to Christianity, and a missionary is viewed as a threat to society. My profession allows me to live freely among and have an influence in the lives of my students and coworkers.

I’ve had opportunities to relate to hundreds of children at nearly every grade level. As I put my arm around them in praise, encourage them never to give up, visit their homes, and establish relationships with their families, I'm constantly aware that they are living, breathing examples of the children I heard about so many years ago—those who would never know about Jesus unless someone was willing to go and tell.

They do not see me as a threat. To them, I'm simply their "Miss Joy"—someone who truly cares about them. Working with students offers me the opportunity to quietly live out my faith, knowing that I'll have the opportunity to respond to questions such as: "Miss Joy, why would you leave your family to come and help us? Why do you love us so much? What is your faith like? Why don't you pray five times a day like we do?"

What a contrast my position is to that of the few "official" missionaries who have been granted permission to minister to only a small portion of the population. A chance discussion at the home of a friend shed poignant insight on a national’s view of the more traditional missionary. Shyly, my friend’s husband related the difficulty of seeing a missionary as someone whom he and his friends could identify with and emulate.

Many nationals see a missionary, however mistakenly, as someone who doesn't have to work like them. All of their financial support comes from abroad. Therefore, a missionary can't possibly understand the pressures they face. My friend also said that it was hard not to suspect the missionary’s motives since, from their perspective, the missionary’s job would certainly be an easy way to earn a living. "After all," he remarked, "isn't the missionary only doing what he’s paid to do? Doesn't he get a car, a house, and salary for it?" Almost embarrassed, he related instances of a few nationals he’s known who had even become "born-again Christians" or declared themselves to be "called into full-time service" with the expectation that the same financial support would be passed on to them.

Shoulder-to-Shoulder Evangelism

For those like myself, who arrive by way of a work permit, evangelistic activity may look different. In contrast to the traditional missionary, the professional lives and works shoulder-to-shoulder with the national in a setting that naturally yields itself to one-on-one relationships.

While teaching I held a position equal to that of the other teachers. Any decision from the administration affected us all. Whenever orders were given that seemed unreasonable from a teacher’s point of view, I suffered right along with them.

Fishbowl living carried its own set of frustrations, but it quickly brought us to the heart of issues concerning conduct, personal integrity, and even servanthood. It wasn't necessary to gather discussion groups in a contrived setting. Instead, we were right there together, learning to deal with real issues as they arose, no matter how hard or uncomfortable.

These fellow teachers and students actually became my community. After school we'd visit each other, go on spring picnics, or spend long evenings sharing hopes and dreams. Whenever there were crises, it was natural to help each other. I still remember the surprise of one of my fellow teachers when I offered to help her family pick olives and prepare food for the workers. What a beautiful evening we had together after the picking was done! Her family shared how important their religion was to them. And, to my great surprise, they questioned me for hours about what my faith in Christ meant to me.

The opportunity to live out a lifestyle of evangelism in a country that considers itself completely closed to the gospel is an exciting prospect. However, there are challenges that should be taken into consideration before deciding to seek a professional position overseas.

The Challenges of Nontraditional Missions

No matter how important evangelism and discipleship are, you must put most of your energy into your job. Were I to use my job as a "front" for missionary activity, giving my teaching responsibilities little time and attention, I'm sure my coworkers would instinctively identify me as a fraud—even to the point of viewing with suspicion the very gospel message I had come to share. Consequently, any position of this kind may require long work hours (a number of countries even have six-day work weeks).

It’s important to be well trained in your field. Sharing techniques and methodologies with your colleagues not only enhances their effectiveness in the classroom but also directly contributes to the overall well-being of the students, their families, and even the community at large. It helps me to remember that God’s gifts are also given "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7). When carrying this perspective overseas, I often think of the mandate God gave Jeremiah to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you" (1 Cor. 29:7).

Life overseas also carries the stress of what some call "survival time." Many countries have few modern conveniences. Simple tasks such as shopping, food preparation, and home maintenance can absorb a great deal of one’s day. I’ve actually spent entire mornings on my day off just looking for a water truck to fill my empty water tank so that I could wash clothes and clean house.

One unexpected consideration for an unofficial missionary overseas is that it may take more effort than usual to build and maintain a strong support base from home. You may spend many hours just trying to keep up with people you see only once every three or four years. People have often said to me, "But we wrote you at Christmas! Why haven't you answered our letter?" They don't realize their letter may be in a file at secret police headquarters! Yet communication with home is essential. A missionary’s ministry overseas must be supported by the consistent prayers of those at home.

Although some positions overseas can be quite lucrative (thus attracting many secular applicants), others offer a salary much smaller than those set by Western standards. Even for those willing to live simply, the salary may not be sufficient to meet the costs of travel, insurance, correspondence, and housing, especially if the family has several children. (In a national family, it often takes a number of family members living together and pooling their salaries to cover the rent.) In such cases, some individuals may still want the professional position, but will also need some type of relationship with a missions agency through whom they can receive financial support to supplement salary, obtain benefits, etc.

Opportunities for Nontraditional Missions

Positions overseas come in all varieties. Engineers are needed to design dams, water systems, and airports. Highly trained agriculturists and veterinarians offer hope V for underdeveloped nations. Doctors and nurses with specialties in tuberculosis, diabetes, and even psychiatry are difficult to find in many Third-World countries. Communications experts, computer programmers, and systems analysts are often needed for the development of industrial technology, whether working directly for the national government or for a Western-based company. Teachers and linguistic specialists are in high demand. I’ve even met young women who found positions as nannies to the children of wealthy nationals, including royalty.

International jobs do exist and someone is going to fill them. And that someone will have an influence on the nationals with whom he or she works. For the handful of professionals who view service to Christ as the overriding reason for their presence overseas, these positions offer opportunities for sharing the gospel in situations that might not be readily available to someone in a more traditional missionary role.

Fulfilling God’s Purposes

Across the years my understanding of what it means to be a missionary has undergone major revision. Since I was very small, I’ve often heard a missionary described as someone who "gives up everything for Jesus." But my experience has left me with a very different impression. I don't feel that I’ve "given up" anything. It’s been just the opposite. Ephesians 2:10 says that "we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Now I can see that God equipped me with gifts and abilities such as teaching and music, then led me to develop them through helping with children, taking piano lessons, and getting a university education. Over the years, these gifts and abilities have merged with His calling on my life so that those good works He’s already planned might become a reality in the hearts and lives of those who have not heard of Jesus.

Among the Christians I’ve met working overseas, I’ve been amazed how frequently their gifts and training precisely fit a given need. In fact, it often seems there’s nothing a person has ever done, from their chosen profession to playing volleyball or having a particular hobby, that God doesn't blend in some special way with His purposes.

Exploring Nontraditional Missions

If you’ve thought about sharing the gospel overseas, but you're not sure how you could do it, I recommend you ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do I have a heart for those who have never heard the gospel?

2. Is it possible that God may be calling me (and my family) to live in another country, and am I willing to go?

3. What gifts, talents, and training do I have, professionally, interpersonally, spiritually? (Don't be shy about listing these.) How might these benefit another country or its people?

4. How might I obtain an overseas position using my profession or training? (This may take some research, but being a self-starter and taking initiative are essential ingredients for effective service overseas.)

a. Are there any Western companies, development agencies, or organizations offering positions overseas for someone with my qualifications?

b. Are there any professional or cultural exchange programs through which I may offer my services?

c. Are there any international job fairs I can attend to learn more about the positions that are available?

d. Do I know anyone who has lived or worked overseas? What information can I glean from them?

5. What mission agencies are working in areas that might relate to my gifts and training? What organizations have some type of presence in the areas of the world or with the people groups in whom I'm interested? What can they tell me about finding a position?

Almost daily, new alternatives to traditional missionary service open up across the globe. Yet one constant has never changed: A major portion of the world, boys and girls, men and women, have yet to know that Jesus loves them. That knowledge alone urges me to seek work overseas that will allow me to "live Christ" with my coworkers. And I continue to pray that others who seek to serve Christ through professional opportunities overseas will grow to be a large body of colaborers for the gospel.

Related Topics: Empower