We Cannot Afford to Lose Our Missionary Heroes

Three missionary friends I greatly respect, who do not know each other, recently shared Amy Peterson’s “Farewell to the Missionary Hero”, published in Christianity Today on September 14th, 2015. I encourage you to read it. She has some great thoughts such as this one:

We need to hear stories about the real struggles and joys of missions work. These kinds of stories have the power to improve our missiology; unless we are honest about the challenges missionaries face, we won’t find realistic solutions. But if we are forthright about what the job requires, we’ll stand a better chance of attracting the right people and preparing them adequately for long-term service, rather than sending them home early, disillusioned and depressed.

In the article the author praises writings such as the following saying, “In unedited and unmediated forms, missionaries can tell their stories directly to a wider audience than ever before.” I hope to provide an alternative perspective than the one Peterson offers concerning missionary heroes.


The “Mighty Mo” (USS Missouri) dominates Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. I had never been on a battle ship before, and the feeling of standing next to the chains alone that secure the ship to the wharf makes one feel small. Very, very small. This is an historic ship. It was commissioned in June of 1944, and on September 2, 1945, the Japanese forces formally surrendered aboard the Mighty Mo. She was decommissioned in 1955 only to be commissioned a second time in 1986. She carried men into battle, carried president Truman and his family on two occasions, fought in the 2nd world war, provided support in the Korean war and the First Persian Gulf war, and was finally decommissioned for the second and final time in 1992, where she sits in Pearl Harbor today, a heroic reminder of the cost of war, and the bravery of the sailors who manned her station.
But she is not without her scars. Not without her casualties. A charred burn pattern plainly visible from the main deck has survived these 60 years, left from kamikaze pilot who flew his plane into the side of the boat. But she did not go under.

(photo found at ussmissouri.org)

I know of no heroic figure without their scars or failures. In fact, it seems to me that without some sense of scarring, one can scarcely be called a hero. For what is a hero, but someone who has stood up to insurmountable odds when others would faint away? One who has sacrificed much for the sake of others? I take issue with the key idea that Peterson presents.

I write because I believe one spiritual battle at stake with missions is one of ideas. The internet is filled with personal ideas, those worth listening to and those worth throwing out. The reader can decide what to do with this author’s. But the overwhelming majority of voices coming out of the mission field are ones like those heard by Peterson. I wish to propose several things, and one of them is that those who shout the loudest are heard the most. If you have a contingent, however large or small, of missionary individuals crying out louder than others, their voice is given credence as speaking for many. The same thing has happened in politics with the gay rights movement these last several years, and in the case of the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker back in 2012: crowds of angry citizens called for the end of Walker’s career, but in the end he was re-elected by more votes than he had back in 2010 when he was then elected into office! But the media attention was centered on the voices of the few, because they yelled louder than those who didn’t feel like yelling. The battle is one of ideas, and there are those who are comfortable and confident in missions, who look to missionaries who have lasted decades on the field and finished well as a visible picture of God’s faithfulness, will not be those to speak up because they’ve seen others make it through, and their hope is in the promises of God. Meanwhile in the American church we’re calling for the destructuralization of missions. I write for the church, who cannot afford to lose the heroes of faith we’ve found in overseas missionaries. Because when we’re all equal, and no one is great, what then are we to do other than be lost in our own mediocrity? I wish to propose two ideas in defense of the missionary hero. First, that it is short term missions which have created false expectations for many today—not missionary biographies, and second that a life filled with heartache, struggles, failure, and conflict doesn’t detract from heroics in Christianity.

Romanticizing Missions: Where does it come from?

For most Christians living in the United States, the missions experience is a romanticized one. But I would propose that Short Term Missions (STMs) trips, not missionary biographies, have re-defined the very essence of what missions means and what it means to be a missionary. One acquaintance asked us, “You’re long term missionaries? So how many trips do you take a year?” She was visibly shocked when we explained that we live in Costa Rica all year round. We met a woman at the mall here in San Jose—“it’s so good to hear English! I miss hearing English SO much! By the way, why are you here in Costa Rica?” “We’re missionaries here.” “Oh great! I am too! We’re here for eight days to pass out tracts in the park!” An eight day missionary, passing out tracts (in English-to Spanish speakers). Something has been missed. Or imagine our shock when a friend shared with us that they’re going into long term missions… for 12-15 months. I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether STMs are effective or not. Regardless, people who go on STMs trips actually never feel culture shock, because they never leave the honeymoon stage. 

STMs has promoted, I would argue, a romanticized view of missions far greater than any missionary biography. And if we lose our missionary heroes, who will we have left to point us to something greater, something longer, something requiring more endurance? Do we want to change the way that that we talk about missions, as Peterson says, reflecting Charmicael’s vision? I’m on board- but we should not start with dismissing those missionaries who are our heroes, rather with the way that we educate our brothers and sisters about missions. 

Every time someone gets on a plane for a week, or a month, or a year (yes, a year is still short term), they learn something about missions, be it true or not. Once we as a church have lived our own romanticized version of STMs, which is catered to the needs and life change of the goers, rather than the serving and building up of the national church, why then are we long term missionaries surprised that we must, as Michael Oh so aptly describes, "try to put on a good face, try to make a great powerpoint, tell great stories—those are our marching orders when we walk into your church—‘impress us or we might drop you!’”

STMs can give us a vacating mindset. Now it is common to hear someone who is going to ABC location, to accomplish a set task, “for three years”. It is easy to come and go. It is hard to stay when leaving is so easy. The attrition rate among missionaries is abysmal.  In my organization, “long-term” is considered two years or more. Two years. Two. One has to learn the language, the cultural dynamics, and more. What can we expect to actually accomplish in two years? We tend to spend at least that raising support to get to the field! One thing we should have learned from missionary biographies is that time is one sacrifice involved with the many others. Why are we so surprised that it seems like nothing is done in two, three, or four years? 

My parents have ministered among the Quichua (not Quechua. The reader will forgive the personal importance—in Ecuador, there are no Quechua; the Quichua do not have that ‘e’ sound in their dialect, and it is important to distinguish between the languages, and therefore people groups) in the Ecuadorian highlands for twenty-one years and running. And they’ll attest that it took at least ten of those to really begin to learn the culture. Most who have spent a decade or more with a people group  will say they are still learning. And yet, we have fields flooded with people expecting to arrive, accomplish a task, and leave, thinking that they’ll have the language and culture down sixth months to a year, or worse, that they don’t need those two things to accomplish that task. Anyone who has worked in a Latin, African, or Asian culture could attest to the negative impact that this in-and-out attitude has in the culture. This pressing need to see what missionary work can accomplish, I would argue, comes more from STMs today than missionary stories from fifty years ago. My heroes are people who started fifty years ago and who have pushed through these barriers for their love of God and love of the people they’d come to serve, and who laid down their lives for them, perhaps not in martyrdom, but in a lifetime of ministry to one people group. People like Bub and Bobby Borman who spent decades translating the Bible into Kofan, a people group of only several thousand, or Duane and Lois Holmes, who spent a lifetime in area of the jungle not accessible by bus or boat. Or Frank and Marie Drown whose mission to then prominent headhunters in Ecuador put their safety on the line day in and day out. All of these I personally met and whose lives are a great encouragement to me. Why do we rob others of this encouragement?

Scars Don’t Disqualify Heroes

Over the last couple years I’ve noticed the increasing trend of blogs and articles like, “10 Things a Missionary Will Never Tell You”. Increasingly, missionaries journal on their blogs sharing their hardships and struggles. I appreciate this, because many of these shared struggles are real in my life as well. It’s almost as if there’s one desperate voice calling out from the field to churches back ‘home’. It is a voice that the US church needs to hear, legitimize, and respond to in love. A call for transparency as we want people to try and understand what’s happening in our lives. But I wonder if sometimes we’ve taken it too far. Unless you’ve lived abroad, you just won’t understand. Period. Anyone who has lived abroad, on their own, for any significant period of time will agree. Before our deployment to Costa Rica, I had coffee with a gentleman who had lived in Western Europe for several years working for his business. “It’s a full time job just living,” he warned me, “Just to get through day to day life, and you haven’t even factored in the actual job yet.”
But why are we more focused on toppling pedestals because we feel guilty and humble rather than spurring on others in faith? In the post Peterson references by Rachel Pieh Jones, Jones writes:

One of the problems with saying ‘it is no sacrifice’ is that it leads people to put international workers on pedestals. Have you ever had someone say something like:
“You are so holy because you don’t care when your hair falls out from the brackish water and searing heat.”
“You are so much more spiritual because you don’t struggle when you aren’t able to attend your grandfather’s funeral.”
“I could never do what you are doing because I couldn’t send my kids to boarding school.”

No and NO! We are not all so different, we simply live in different time zones. I cry when I see handfuls of hair in the drain and when I watched my grandfather’s funeral three months later on a DVD and I weep with a physical pain in my chest over the miles between here and my kids at school. I am not more holy or spiritual or stronger than anyone, I feel the sacrifice.

Yes Ms. Jones, acknowledge it’s a sacrifice, but don’t shy away from the opportunity to share that you follow in obedience; and that is the essence of faith! Everyone needs an example, someone to look up to in something, and every person they look up to, apart from Christ, is going to be a sinner; is going to be someone who struggles; is going to be someone who fails today and will fail tomorrow. 

I lead an international youth group. One of the biggest burdens I carry is having a crowd of teenagers look up to me. How can I use that to challenge their walk with God? How can that influence be used to speak truth into their lives? Of course I’m not perfect, and I fight with my wife, and I yell at my kids, and there are stores I cannot go into because the way they function makes me furious at the culture and I’m afraid of what I’ll say if I frequent them again. But this honesty, these mess-ups, my scars don’t disqualify my students from looking up to other things in my life. 

People see that there is a step of faith that a missionary takes when they raise support and move abroad that they’re afraid they couldn’t take. It disrupts family, shocks church communities, it breaks apart friendships. If you’re on the receiving end of these well-intentioned comments about how much holier you are then they, it’s your primary job to point them to Christ. It’s not about the pedestal. If you can do it, they can do it. If Christ can do it in you, He can do it in them. That’s what draws us to heroes. If they can do it, maybe I can do it too. If they can have the courage to step out in faith and treasure Christ over life itself, maybe I can one day too. If God supplied for them, maybe he’ll supply for me. What Jim Elliot said, ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’ takes on another dimension because he lived this. Sure he fought with Betty, sure he struggled with cultural disappointment and I guarantee there was mission stress. But do those things take away from the example he set? 

It strikes me how the book of Judges is filled with failures. People who did great things for God, like Samson and Gideon, but then had so much of their own failures to contend with. And many people today are quick to point out that these weren’t godly people. That they’re not the heroes we pretended they were in Sunday school. But I was struck last night when I turned to Hebrews chapter 11, and sure enough, there they are. Heroes because of their faith. The list in Hebrews 11 is astonishing. We remember the failures of Moses, Noah, Rahab and all of these people. But they are commended for their faith nonetheless.

Scars do not disqualify our heroes. They defined them. Because walking in faith seems to inevitably leave scars. Amy Carmichael understood this better than most. She wrote:

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And piercèd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?

I do not wish this to come across as an attack on Ms. Peterson. I would never do that. I have not even met her. I greatly respect Taylor University, and I have friends who teach English in Southeast Asia. I can tell from her writing that she has a love for truth and a love for missions. While I encourage the dialogue of taking short term missions off a pedestal and replacing it with reality, I believe that if we topple the proven heroes of the church in found visibly in missions, we will find ourselves in a despondent state with fewer, if not void of examples or inspiration. And we just cannot afford to do that.


  1. Excellent article Jon! Really enjoyed reading it. I think you did a great job describing how stms are the real cause of this misunderstood view of missions. Anyways, keep up the good articles.

    1. Woops, I guess my name wasn't shown:) its me, Sean


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