Missionary Problems: “I wish I knew how to deal with conflict.”

“I wish I knew how to deal with conflict.”

This post is my own response to an article in “Askamissionary.com” “What do Missionaries wish they had known before they first went?

I have been in a lot of conflict as a missionary. Believe it or not, the principle point of these conflicts are usually mission boards. Mission boards are supposed to help us, but that is not the way things work out.

If you study the Bible, there is no intermediary between the Missionary and the churches that support him. There are no overarching directing organization or element except the Holy Spirit. When men try to interpose themselves into that position, it just doesn’t work. Why?

1.) God leads individual ministers into a specific ministry calling for them.

To be brutally blunt here, it is nearly an impossible task for a godly man to discern God’s leading in his own life and ministry. I remember Paul’s crew, wanting to go up into modern Russia, and God stopped them cold, and sent them due West into Greece, Macedonia, etc. God did this by the Holy Spirit working through cruel hardship (they just couldn’t physically go north, it would appear), and by working on Paul’s heart. If Paul was a modern missionary, he would have had to return home because he didn’t have the mission agency’s permission to change course mid-stream.

2.) God gives peace and rustles spirits to guide people, but only mid-stream

I sometimes get the opportunity to talk to young missionaries. They tell me something like “God has called me to street preach giving out the gospel with a P.A. system on the streets of China. First of all, you can’t do that there. Wish you could. But the Chinese will put you in jail within a short period of time, and God will change your ministry to a jail ministry! The issue here is that in order to actually get to some field as a missionary, you have to be hard-headed (“bull headed”) and just keep butting your head again the goal no matter how many things go wrong. That is not a good characteristic for a missionary, that is a highly essential characteristic, and if you don’t have it, and if you don’t have a lot of it, you will never serve on a foreign field as a missionary.

Having said that, you must learn to control, tone down, and “give up” also if you will work in God’s will. If you cannot pass over that hard-headedness when it is necessary, Satan will just turn you into a corner, and you will butt your head forever there, and most likely not ever get anything done as a missionary either.

If you look at Paul’s missionary life, you will see how he was persistent in so very much of his life and ministry, but at the same time, he was spiritual enough to know when God was changing his direction and ministry, and he rolled with that like a pro. The point here is to be sensitive to God’s direction, and once found, not vary from it, but also not presume that your discernment at a certain point is a final declaration forever in your life. God wanted Paul to enter Macedonia from Asia minor, not directly from Antioch through the Mediterranean. I don’t know why that approach was so important to God, but it was. Don’t question God’s ways of doing things. Maybe God had to try Paul on a less difficult course (north into Asia) first, to see if he was going to give up or not, and when Paul proved himself, then God could put him into where He really wanted him. We just don’t know what was in the mind of God, but we do know it was not to go into Russia. That was eternally the same. But God first called Paul into Russia to see how Paul would work out first, and then put him into his Macedonia/Aegean Sea work.

Paul left Antioch for parts north. That was God’s will when he went out. Paul got stopped, and redirected to the west. What happened? Was Paul wrong when he felt God’s first directing? No. God wanted him to go straight north into Asia, and then meet resistance, and then move in another direction. God doesn’t tell us everything we need to know from the beginning, just as God wants it. God reveals in steps, and we should go as far as we can into that path God leads, and when we are stopped, be extremely open to what God says from there.

Note the old saying. You cannot change the direction of a stopped car. It is too heavy, too impossible to move the car perpendicular. But it is very easy to move the steering wheel of a moving car.

As a missionary, God is not going to use you fully until you are moving for Him.

Inter-minister conflict

Again we look at Paul and his relationship with Barnabas and John Mark. This just resounds so missionary to me. You have to understand the “nature of the beast” before you can understand why missionary/minister conflicts happen. A person is no good as a missionary if he is not a self-starter. Nobody comes into your bedroom at 6AM to wake you up. Nobody comes and checks to see if you have prayed this week, gone soul winning, or done a good preparation of a sermon for Sunday. We are independents, and as such, a good missionary is always a self-starter. It is so easy for self-starters to be impatient people, and they as a habit take those people that are up to speed with them, and they go. Mark wasn’t up to speed with Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas had sympathy for Mark, and Paul had none. Normal. Perfectly normal.

What conflict there existed between Paul and Barnabas, was there because both were trying to pull the group forward, but each decided that the direction to go into was one way, the other another. While it is good to “just all get along together”, that rarely works in situations where money, opposition, and hardship assails the team work. Things have to be done, decisions made, and when people come up to the plate to bat, it is difficult when two want to take the leadership at the same time, and in different directions. Conflict happens.

What we can discern here is that Paul and Barnabas parted company. What we see is the Holy Spirit at work through personality conflict. I fully believe that Barnabas went into a parallel or duplicate ministry of what he and Paul were doing. Perhaps the issue was over going north or west. Maybe Barnabas went back to the crossroads, and God led him north. We don’t know. It wasn’t for our knowledge to know what Barnabas did in the end. I feel sure that he was still in the ministry.

The curious detail is that later on in Paul’s life, Mark appears as Paul’s teammate. This is fascinating, because most probably the issue of Mark was that he wasn’t mature enough, and Barnabas said he will grow into the need of the hour, and Paul said no. In the end, Barnabas went one way, we don’t know what happened to Mark really, but later on Mark is with Paul. Paul eventually accepted Mark, and Mark eventually ended up ministering beside Paul. Don’t take things too seriously when you have conflict. If both are men of God, things will work out in the end.

Pagan/Gospel Conflict

Another area of conflict that missionaries have to deal with is resistance from the pagan culture and people where they minister. This is extremely discouraging, and extremely hard. The only thing worse than resistance of pagans to the Gospel is the United States. Everybody is “Christian” even though they are not really saved (the majority), and you have one worse than the pagans, now you have to convince these people of their unsaved condition before you can work with them. Everybody is an expert on Christianity, and nobody is really saved.