“I never expected it to be this hard.”
Have you ever let those words slip off your tongue? What about this?
“I never expected it to be like this.”
I could continue on for pages of such quotes that real-life missionaries, myself included, have been heard to say concerning ministry. Maybe you’ve said a few yourself.
There are so many reasons that solid, Christian believers either leave the field early or don’t make it to the airplane, but misplaced expectations may top the list. That’s why we need to talk about it a bit today.
Some expectations relate to how we picture mission life.
All that I knew about missionaries came from my upbringing in a local Baptist church. I’d heard them speak, read books about them, and studied their lives in mission classes. I gathered from this second-hand experience that most people went to a country and lived and served there the rest of their life.
In some ways, this was true. In the early decades of the modern missionary movement, a majority of workers did serve for fifteen, twenty, or even up to forty years. Travel was much different then, and terms were longer. Depending on funding, some went to the field and stayed, never returning home. By the time we left the field in 2009, the average term of service was four years.
There is no one-size-fits-all guarantee to the length of service. You may go, expecting to spend the rest of your life in a country, only to find that you can’t even get in. Don’t tie God’s plan to your expectation.
However you imagine the work, it will look completely different in reality.
As westerners, we are performance-centered creatures. This tendency sneaks into our desire to serve in ministry and can hinder God’s plan for us. We obey the call, expecting God to do great things, while unconsciously tying the results to our own efforts. Disappointment comes when we find ourselves unable to communicate even the simplest of truths because of a new language or when we prepare for hours to teach a Bible study and two people show up…an hour and a half late.
Instead of expecting to do great things for God, we need to offer our pitiful morsel of lunch and pray he chooses to use it to his glory, whether we see the results or not.
Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us.1 Corinthians 4:7 CSB
Expectations can hinder us before we go but also while we’re on the field.
Having clear expectations prior to departure can help us relax in the daily uncertainty of each new day. Whether it’s the shock from language learning, culture, or homesickness, preparing our minds ahead of time, will lessen the blows. We can also fall prey to building expectations while in different stages of service. Many, while in the throes of learning a language, expect everything to be better once fluency arrives. This can lead to disappointment when it’s still not easy to get your message across or when you find yourself unwelcomed by a local family or congregation.
Use expectation lists to help you work through this challenge.
Make a list of your expectations for this time of service. Include those for yourself, your family, your home church, your host country, and whatever else comes to mind.
Now, go back through that list and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal expectations that may hinder you if they are not realized.
Go over the list one more time and circle the self-centered expectations and star those that are Christ-centered.
In the end, after much prayer, ask yourself which expectations need to be left behind and which need to be written in your journal to reflect on this time next year or in five years.
There is one expectation that is good to have. Thank God for what you are expecting him to do.
Grace and Peace
Read When Doors Close: Changing Course in Missions Without Losing Your Way for more on checking expectations.