In 1999, I had the privilege of accompanying a missionary on his survey trip to Tanzania. I had been overseas before, but never for this kind of missions trip. It was incredible. It was life-changing. Since then, I’ve traveled many times to foreign fields, and I’d like to offer a series of brief posts as encouragement to do the same for any current and future pastors.
My reasons won’t be offered according to rank or importance, simply because it’s hard to decide which is most important (and they overlap with each other some). So, while it might not be my top reason for visiting the mission field, here is my first: It is an incredible learning opportunity! Most of us can be great missionary theoreticians, but until we get out into the field with the practitioners, we will be lacking an important ingredient for missions leadership in the local church.
That means we go to the field to listen and to learn. Don’t go with a bag full of pat answers. Go with a heart to really understand what that field is like, what the challenges of gospel ministry there are like, and how your church can better pray and help the missionaries. Pastors are almost always in the position of leadership and teaching, but deliberately go to the field to follow the lead of the missionary and learn from him. Of course, you’ll be ministering too, but don’t get so caught up telling that you aren’t asking!
When you get back, make sure you remember that one visit to the mission field makes you as close to a missiologist as learning the Greek alphabet makes you a Greek scholar! I’ve been to East Africa many times and still feel as if I am swimming in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to understanding ministry there. It takes time to figure out what we don’t know and then look for the answers, and I would imagine few things are more frustrating for missionaries than a pastor who, after spending one week on the field, talks like an expert on missions. Go back to the same field several times to see the progress in the field (and your growing knowledge of it). Go to several different fields and ask questions about working there, then think about the commonalities and dissimilarities between fields.
I know that it takes money and time to visit the field, but it is really easier than many (most?) people think. Go as a learner, and your life and ministry will be changed!
I am not naturally wired for world travel, but visiting mission fields has been a life-changing experience for me. Every time I’ve traveled and every field I’ve visited has opened rich opportunities for learning. I enjoy returning to my trip journals to see how I expressed there what God was teaching me as I worked to think through the practical ramifications of His Word. There are vivid memories of long conversations and late-night reflections on incredible days of ministry. I truly can’t explain how much I’ve learned from visiting God’s work around the globe.
My second reason for encouraging pastors (current and future) to visit the mission field grows right out of the work God does in your own soul through these trips. Visiting the mission field stirs your zeal for missions and increases your ability to challenge the congregation about missions. Seeing the gospel at work to change lives and plant churches on the field lights a fire in your soul. It is easy to get so absorbed in the details of our own church ministries that we lose sight of God’s global work of calling out a people for His name.
I’ve been on fields that seem to be experiencing incredible times of harvest. It makes my heart long to see that in our land and in our church. I’ve been to places where the work of evangelism seems extraordinarily hard and involves significant risk, and I’ve been humbled to think of the privileges I freely enjoy. More than once, I’ve sat on planes heading back home with tears in my eyes and a heart that burns fresh with a desire to see God glorified around the globe.
There’s a difference in my preaching because of seeing these things. There’s especially a difference in my preaching about missions because of seeing these things. Instead of talking in general terms, I can use real examples and experiences to communicate truth. Not only is there more zeal, there is more credibility.
God has used visits to the mission field to strengthen my ability to lead our congregation more fully into Great Commission ministry. He uses it to get an ever-tightening grip on my heart so that I lift up my eyes to the fields of the world and call our congregation to serious missions commitment. Others may be different, but my heart for missions was radically altered by stepping on the mission field. I think yours will be too.