The simple answer to that question: for the most part, we expect our missionaries to feed themselves!
One of our goals throughout the pre-field preparation process in SEND International is to help our new missionaries become adept at feeding themselves spiritually. We emphasize the importance of a personal daily “Quiet Time. We encourage them to be like Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus, rather than becoming distracted by a multitude of opportunities to serve Jesus, like her sister Martha (Luke 10:38-42). We practice various spiritual disciplines right during the training. We provide structure and some accountability for implementing what they are learning. In our last Member Orientation Program, we distributed to each new missionary appointee a copy of the Life Journal and practiced the S.O.A.P. method of journaling on several mornings. Then near the end of the two weeks of training, everyone spends a whole day alone with God, a day with no classes, when each person goes off to spend a whole day talking to God. This Day Alone with God has been a regular part of the SEND pre-field training for many years.
Why is it so important that our missionaries learn to feed themselves spiritually? In conversations with many new missionaries, I am realizing that well over half of them struggle with any type of consistency in their daily Bible reading and prayer. They are probably better than average. Wayne Cordeiro, the pastor/author who popularized the SOAP method of journaling points out that studies show that 80% of those who call themselves Christians in America read the Bibles only once a week, usually at church.
Cordeiro goes on to observe:
In a recent edition of the American Journal of Medicine, doctors published a highly revealing conclusion: The health of 21st century America will no longer be determined by what people can get the doctors to do for them. The health of America today will be determined by what the doctors can get people to do for themselves. Do you see how this prescription applies equally to the church? If we eat only once a week, then it’s no wonder that the church is weak and struggling. But fresh bread can change all of that. Regularly dining on fresh bread makes for a stalwart, strong, developed army-the only kind of force that will ever make a difference in this world.
The Divine Mentor by Wayne Cordeiro, p. 213-14
New Hope Christian Fellowship, the church he pastors has intentionally built a culture that emphasizes that each staff person and church member must become a self-feeder.
A similar conclusion was reached by Bill Hybels and his staff at Willow Creek Community Church after the 2004 Reveal study of whether the people at Willow Creek were actually maturing spiritually or not. Hybels confesses:
We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become “self feeders.” We should have taught people how to read their Bibles between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own. Because what is happening to these people the older they get, the more they are expecting the church to feed them when in fact, the more mature a Christian becomes, the more a Christian should become more of a self-feeder.
How does this apply to missionaries? Well, if New Hope and Willow Creek want their people to be self-feeders, even though they provide solid Biblical teaching through the various ministries of the church, how much more important is this for cross-cultural missionaries! Before they left for the field, these missionaries would have been spiritually supported by good preaching, small groups and a host of Christian friends, all in their own heart language. But once they arrive on their field of service, there may not be any good Bible-believing churches for them to attend. After all, they are going to the unreached.
If there is solid Biblical teaching available in a local church, it will likely not be in the first language of the missionary. Then, as many missionaries have discovered, even once they understand the language, the differences in culture, ways of thinking and family situations of the local people mean that more often than not, sermons and Bible lessons do not address the questions and issues these missionaries are facing. The missionary team may provide some Bible teaching during team meetings, but often these are only once a month, and any focus on the Word must compete with all the administrative and personnel questions the team must address during those meetings.
So missionaries must learn to feed themselves if they are to remain strong spiritually. They are on the front lines of a spiritual battle, dealing with stress and loneliness in ways that they never encountered back home. To remain vibrant Christians, reflecting the truth of the Gospel in their daily lives, they must have spiritual nourishment on a regular basis.
Psalm 1:2–3 (NIV) tells us that the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night – that person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.
A study on missionary attrition (Too Valuable to Lose) has identified various reasons why missionaries leave the field. Although mission agencies ranked “immature spiritual life” as only the twelfth most common reason for long-term missionaries leaving the field, many of the other reasons given such as inadequate commitment, lack of call, problems with peers, marriage and family conflict and immorality are also closely related to one’s spiritual resilience. When all these related factors are added up, fully a third of the causes of preventable missionary attrition are directly or indirectly to poor spiritual health.
I would suggest that the ongoing spiritual health of missionaries is not so much determined by the strength of the Bible teaching in their home churches or the quality of their theological education, but by how well those missionaries are able to feed themselves spiritually from the Word once they get to the field. Would you agree?
Next post: Is self-feeding a biblical concept – or just another example of Western individualism?