I guess I will be a bit controversial here… not by saying people are wrong, but rather by asking questions of things that are often unquestioned.
1. Is it true that strong and successful missionaries are highly pietistic? First, I should explain what this means. It is often believed that missionaries need to have a strong, healthy relationship with God. I think that is a pretty good point and is generally true. However, it is hard to prove, because it is frankly very hard to measure. Yet many do seek to measure it. I hope I don’t have to dump out a lot of references here to support my point, but most don’t say that one needs to have a healthy relationship with God, but say rather that one needs to have a high level of pietistic disciplines. They suggest that missionaries have to expend a lot of time in Bible study and prayer and meditation and (perhaps) fasting, and such.
Now I do believe we need to have a healthy relationship with God. And I do believe that Bible study, prayer, corporate worship, and meditation (I am pretty doubtful about dietary fasting) are part of a healthy disciplined Christian life. But I do have two questions. First, should one define one’s relationship with God based on spiritual disciplines? I know certain groups can become guilty of connecting spiritual depth with spiritual gifts. This appears to be highly flawed. But many Evangelicals see a direct relationship between spiritual disciplines and spiritual depth. This appears to me to be a Pietistic error. IF (and this is a BIG IF) there is a way to externally measure internal spiritual maturity, it would be through Spiritual fruit.
But, in the end, it all comes back to the first question. Is it actually true that strong and successful missionaries are highly pietistic? Do they pray more, study more, meditate, more, worship more, fast more, etc. than those who are less strong, less successful missionaries? Has this been tested (if one could find a real way of testing this)? Is it, perhaps, just believed to be true based on anecdotal evidence? Or, even with less support, is it something that we believe should be true, and thus is taught as true? I don’t know… maybe someone else does. From my limited experience, good missionaries are willing, flexible, loving, and dedicated. They don’t evidence a lot of spiritual piety. If they are big on spiritual disciplines, they keep that area of their lives private.
2. Is it true that good, durable missionaries have a strong sense of divine calling? This is a bit of unquestioned truth to many. Maybe it is true. I don’t know. I do have a problem with it because of the poor Biblical basis for the missionary call. Many have said that missionaries without a strong sense of divine call will fall away. That may be true. I really don’t know. I find it uncomfortable, personally, to think that some missionaries serve in their role primarily because they feel “trapped” (theologically speaking) in their role.
Garry Friesen in “Decision-making and the Will of God” talked about the difficulty he had getting ordained as a minister of the gospel in his denomination (being called to ministry by the church) because many in that denomination felt that calling was meant to be a mystical and unchanging experience in the individual. I really have trouble with the idea that a church would consider withholding its calling because of such a doubtful theological issue. In Dr. Friesen’s case, either he is correct theologically (and his ordaining board wrong) or, at worst, it is a matter of personal liberty (since the issue is poorly set out in the Bible). A lot of what people call “missionary calling” seems to be little more than adding theological force to a generally emotional interest in missions. And if that was all it was, I can definitely say that I was called. However, my idea of calling is more like a path. To be called means to follow Christ. If Christ says to follow Him into the mission field, that is where I go. If He later says follow me into politics, or into buying a restaurant or something else, that is also keeping with my calling. Therefore, this understanding of calling (which seems to me to be more Biblical anyway) would hardly keep someone in the mission field. Additionally, the closest thing I see in the Bible to a missionary calling is the calling of missionaries by the church. God leads churches to call individuals, families, and teams to service. As such, calling will change depending on the leading of the church.
In the end, however, different theological understandings of calling is not really the point. Is it a fact that missionaries who feel they have a “calling until death” to a specific missional role (whether or not they are correct in this view) are really more dedicated than those who don’t. It might be true. I can actually imagine that it is true. I don’t have that viewpoint, but have served for 10 years and counting. Yet, if a new opportunity opened, I would consider that possibility of a divine opportunity without presuming that I am rejecting God’s call for me. Does such potential “fickleness” prove the point above regarding missional calling? Or does it evidence a greater reliance on Christ as a guide? I don’t know.
3. Is it true that people who are highly evangelistic at home are more effective missionaries in the field? Some argue that those who are not highly evangelistic in their home country will not be effective as missionaries in a foreign country.
Truthfully, I have seen no evidence of this. But I think it makes a lot of sense if one makes a major assumption. If you assume that a “real” missionary is a pioneer missionary and churchplanter, it probably IS true that one’s behavior in the home country regarding evangelism would a strong indicator of their viability/effectiveness in the field. However, that is a really narrow understanding of missions. Missions should not be seen merely as where the church IS NOT, but also HAS NOT, and CANNOT. As such, missionaries are involved in theological education, strategic coordination, discipleship, social justice, medical ministry, publishing and media, counseling, orphanages, and so forth. Some disrespect these roles (based on an narrow “apocalyptic view” of missions) but they are valid roles as well nonetheless. If a potential missionary is to be involved in spreading God’s love primarily through helps ministries, it could be equally argued that if he didn’t serve in helps ministries back home, he probably wouldn’t be good at it in the field.
In this third question, I feel I do have an answer. One’s behavior at home does flow over into one’s behavior in the field. However, since there are different types of missionaries, it seems doubtful that one particular ministry activity could be used to judge viability of future mission work of an individual. Additionally, a missionary learns and grows. What I do now in missions has little connection to what I did before missions. Faithfulness, willingness, and flexibility in service at home may be the best indication of viability of a potential missionary then any specific type of ministry. Again, I am not sure.