Don't put missionaries on pedestals

January 1, 0001

What happens when we read a missionary biography? or see a missionary in church? Are we inspired? scared off from any idea of being a missionary? repelled (“God, please don’t send me to Africa”)? Does their story equip us to take the next step in mission service? In this respect, some missionary biographies may do a disservice to recruitment. Even worse can be the “headlines” about missionary pioneers that we share, repost and tweet. Famous sayings (“He is no fool…” or “God’s work done in God’s way…") can make people seem to have continuous heart attitudes we can barely aspire to on our best days. We tout these “missionary saints” as somehow having a higher level of commitment than the current slacker generation. This is hardly inspiring. If you feel that tug in your heart toward the idea of missionary service, let me suggest: **Read and repeat fewer inspiring quotes. **I share quotes just as much as the next person (there’s usually 10 in the Friday roundup). But–pithy sayings don’t capture the reality of field life: day-in-and-out stresses, moments-of-peace, fears, braveries, victories, defeats. If you are going to repeat quotes, try to find some that aren’t commonly shared. **Look for biographies of less-known missionaries. **Check out the “Legacy” and “My Pilgrimage” articles that have appeared in most (each?) issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research over the decades; for example, “The Legacy of Frank Arthur Keller.” Or, read the numerous short biographies on the Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Or, the many in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Grab a copy of Tucker’s “Guardians of the Great Commission” and read the stories of really less-known women missionaries. If you’re going to read a bio of a “missionary saint,” be sure it’s a detailed biography.

  • Marti Wade suggests “Hudson Taylor and Maria” by John Pollack, who “does a nice job of getting around the CIM mandate that Taylor should always be spoken of as a dignified figure.”
  • Or, consider this biography of Lottie Moon.
  • Shane Bennett recommends Unbelievable (story of Graham Bee). Also “As soon as I fell: a memoir"–the description on Amazon sounds harrowing, and full of tears, and yet something worth reading.
  • Edgar van de Hoeve sent me the link for a bio of “America’s first missionary,” George Liele–an African American who went in 1782 to start a church in Kingston, Jamaica.
  • Andy Herbek suggests “Mission Legacies: Biographical studies of leaders of the modern missionary movement” (an ASM title, edited by Anderson, Coote, Horner, Phillips). See also Anderson’s “Biographical dictionary of Christian missions” (articles on 2,400 missionaries arranged alphabetically, exploring from the NT era to 1998).
  • Mark Burnard & David Joannes both recommend “Mountain Rain” by Eileen Crossner: about James O. Fraser, missionary to the Lisu of China.

**Ultimately, talk to real missionaries. 

**Sit down over a cup of coffee, and ask them to speak more about their lives and field experiences. Assure them of whatever level of confidentiality they need to feel comfortable, then ask them to share challenges, failures, and how they overcame them. Most of all, don’t put existing missionaries on pedestals, either. We are all too aware of how many cracks are in our “jars of clay.” Be wary of missionaries–or any one–who seeks fame and celebrity, for any reason. Telling the real stories of missionaries is an important way to enable those who feel a stirring to figure out what the next step is. Let’s not do candidates the disservice of telling glossed-over heroic tales that, while entertaining, neither educate nor equip.