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20 Hurtful Misperceptions About Missionaries

On behalf of my missionary brothers and sisters, I plead with you to read today’s and tomorrow’s posts.

In the last two weeks, I’ve posted “Misperceptions Laity Have About Pastors” and “Misperceptions Pastors Have About Laity.” A missionary friend encouraged me to write a post about misperceptions about missionaries, so I did some research among missionaries. Today and tomorrow, I will post their thoughts about the misperceptions others hold about them.

1. “We are saints.” They’re not, they told me. They’re regular people answering God’s call to do work across cultures. They struggle with sin. Their families have arguments. Their kids drive them crazy some days. Missionaries don’t want to be heroes (though they often appreciate the affirmation they get).

2. “We all live in a hut in Africa.” Missionaries live all over the world, many in megacities where millions of people live.

3. “When we come to America, we’re coming home.” Home for missionaries is where they live. The place they reside, and the people they’re seeking to reach, become part of them. Coming to the United States can, in fact, be stressful. I’ll always remember one missionary who called me from Walmart, completely stressed because the vast numbers of cereal options overwhelmed him.

4. “We understand U.S. culture.” This misperception relates to #3 above. Missionaries come back to churches that are often more elaborate, supermarkets that are much more “super” and missionary homes that are much bigger than what they have where they live. Often, they don’t know the newest praise choruses or recognize the latest sermon illustrations. Reverse culture shock is real for them.

5. “Your short-term mission trip is a great blessing to us.” It can be, but not always. If your team doesn’t work with the missionary from the beginning—or if you ignore the missionary on the ground to form your own plans—you can make the missionary’s task much harder. Ask how you can help the missionaries rather than telling them what you plan to do.

6. “Our life is just a longer short-term mission trip.” One missionary put it this way: “On a short-term mission trip, you basically do ministry from sun up to sun down. You don’t negotiate with a landlord, struggle with buying groceries and cooking food, homeschool your kids, or stand in long lines to pay a $2.00 bill. Living overseas requires a lot of effort just to live.

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Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on Twitter @Clawlessjr and on at facebook.com/CLawless.