We spoke with our friends in Japan, who shared some challenges commonly faced by missionaries. They have been there for about a year, and as expected for most newcomers, the adjustment is a steep climb uphill.
First and foremost got to be the language barrier. We experienced a little of that ourselves when we went to Taiwan for our first mission trip. Although we are ethnic Chinese, we were born and raised in Hong Kong in the 1950s’, and spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. So whenever we approach the local folks, they assumed by our looks that we speak fluent Mandarin, and would talk at such a speed (to them: normal, to us: way too fast) that we could hardly understand what they are saying! It’s only when we ask them in our broken Mandarin “Can you repeat that please?” that they realized they have to slow down.
Typically there are two routes to deal with this challenge. The hard way is to spend several years to acquire the language, so that they can function in the native tongue to evangelize, disciple, train leaders, and plant churches. This is tough depending on the complexity of the language, but opens more doors if you want to serve large segments of society, especially the working class. The other way, without knowing the language well, is for missionaries to feel more comfortable staying among English-speaking expatriates, and teach English as the means to do outreach. This takes less learning time, but limits their exposure to only those who want to learn English.
The second hurdle is culture. Some ethnic groups are by nature more friendly and open to foreigners. Others, such as the Japanese, are more reserved towards strangers. They are polite, but not warm in welcoming aliens in their midst. In fact, the more eager the missionaries are in getting to know their neighbors, the more guarded the neighbors become, assuming there must be some ulterior motives in the missionaries’ friendliness. One more factor peculiar to Asian missionaries. During WW II the Japanese fought against the Chinese and the Koreans, and some have not put this animosity behind them, which adds another barrier.
A third obstacle is isolation and loneliness. Unless your ministry is reaching out to foreigners who emigrate to your country, cross-cultural ministry means leaving your family and friends to move overseas for the sake of the gospel. That means cutting ties with relatives, friends, home church, classmates etc. Even though technology made it so much easier to maintain contact now, the fact remains that most of your support network is gone, and you feel like walking on a tightrope without a safety net. You love to have your buddy there to talk things over when you are encountering difficulties, but you can’t. To be sure, you can still Skype or WhatsApp with them, but they can’t be there physically like when you were still in your hometown. It’s just not the same anymore. Loneliness and sometimes helplessness sets in, even depression. You got to build a network of friends and advisors to de-stress and bounce off ideas, otherwise you and your ministry would suffer, sometimes irrevocably.
The fourth is children, especially teenagers. Every missionary with children is concerned with how they will be educated, how well they adjust. For themselves, they already counted the cost when they responded to God’s call to go to the mission field. They know about spiritual warfare, culture shock, getting out of the comfort zone etc., and are prepared to pay the price. But the children? They did not choose to sever ties with their friends. The decision was made for them. Some adjust well, others not so well. The parents are prepared to suffer for the cause of Christ, but it hurts to see their children in pain when they can’t adapt to the new environment.
These are just a few of the challenges faced by missionaries going overseas. I hope we can learn to appreciate and support them more. Some go abroad right out of bible school or seminary. Others have had successful careers before giving up everything to follow where Christ leads them. Pray for them. Don’t assume because they are outside the four walls of your church they are less important. They are fighting on the front lines for the Lord, to extend His Kingdom. Support them in whatever way you can. They are worth it.