This post is my own response to an article in “Askamissionary.com”
“What do Missionaries wish they had known before they first went?”
“I wish I had known how difficult missions really is.”
What my take on this is the following. First of all, missions is really nothing different (or shouldn’t be anything different) than what the regular ministry is in the United States. The only difference between church work in the US and on a foreign field is simply location. Having said that, there exists missionaries from other countries which go to foreign countries (to them), and some of these even go to the US. Again, church work is the same all over. What is different is the adjustments to culture and language that one has to contend with when going to a foreign place he is not used to. Missionary Kids (MKs) grow up on the foreign field, and they are automatically adjusted from birth, and make great missionaries.
The rub comes in at the point that ANY CHURCH WORK ANYWHERE is difficult. You should not underestimate the problems you will encounter as a missionary. I will put down some thoughts here. Most of these things any pastor in the US will understand. A few will be unique to the adjusting to a foreign church situation.
For all church work
Church work is hard. You should not think missions will be any easier. It takes dedication and patience to do the Lord’s work anywhere or with any people.
For foreign church work
Language difficulties. The first problem that a foreign missionary has to contend with is simply the language. In the US, between two people (pastor-church member) communication isn’t always perfect. Things are worse if the language you listen in, you respond to, and you preach and teach and counsel in isn’t your native languge. This is a tremendous problem because of the sensitive nature of counseling (you cannot have other members of your church to be present and translate), and because of the time critical nature, i.e. in the pulpit, nobody can help you with a word you don’t know without distracting and sidetracking the entire sermon. My experience (being now fluent in Spanish) is this. If you were not good in understanding and mastering English grammar, you will flub doubly or triply in a foreign language. If you try something other than formal language school, you can double that again. If you are so proud or difficult to be corrected, you will probably be cryptic to your people.
Culture Shock. This is like on a cold winter’s morning, to jump into a very cold pool. Nasty! You regret it before you jump, and you regret it more after you jump in, and you continue to regret it after that. Culture shock is simply you way of thinking and doing things isn’t the right way, and it is not the way of the rest of the world, and here we don’t do things that way. Your problem is to adjust, adapt, copy, and endure. Some elements of a culture is denounced by Bible believing Christians, like drunkenness, sexual looseness, etc. You are helped on those things because you have a biblical warrant to not adapt nor change to accept those things. But most of the culture shock things are just difficult to handle, if you can ever master them. Here in Mexico, the culture came from a latrine culture, and in that culture, used toilet paper is put in a waste can beside the toilet, and never in the toilet bowl. Having worked construction, I understand that toilet paper when wet dissolves and moves through the drain system without problems, but the culture is something different.
Culture Weardown. Besides the “initial splash” of differences when you first arrive, which you get over with time, there is the gradual weardown of culture differences that grind on your constantly, and never lets up. One of the great problems that grinds on me and my Mexican wife is that of the unthinking in Mexican culture. People here never consider the impact or consequences of their actions on their neighbors. We had a neighbor, reasonable fellow, that had a 30 year anniversary, so he rented a tent and put it up in the street in front of his and our house (without notifying me, much less asking permission, which is what SHOULD BE DONE EVEN IN THIS CULTURE). The people who set up the tent for him put a 3 foot steel stake about 3 inches in diameter in the asphlat in my driveway. My car was locked in for Saturday night through Sunday afternoon, and we had to take a taxi to church. The put the music on loudest and had dancing until about 4:30AM. This having happened before, I knew never to call the police to complain, and you cannot reason with people who have been drinking for 6 hours, so talking to him was out also. If you call the police they come, complain, and the party people give them a case of beer, and they leave happy. Nothing else happens. This kind of stuff is not something that you can do much about. We have had 4 different street parties which had competing PA systems full blast, and going until dawn. (Typical at Christmas and end of the school year). You just have to put up with it. It quite frankly drives you crazy. This stress makes you careless with your spiritual life, answering, griping, and doing other things that are “out of character” normally for you as a Christian.