By David Frazier
David is a message bearer and has been serving among the unreached for over 20 years.
Better discipleship and proper testing at the local church level is key to reducing message bearers attrition and produces disciples who can sustain long-term effective cross-cultural ministry overseas.
In order for message bearers to sustain long term, effective cross-cultural ministry, local churches must work to see the needed character qualities developed, tested and proven in the lives of the men and women who are potential candidates prior to selection for service.
These qualities are fleshed out in basic discipleship and cross cultural experiences within the local church context. Research regarding message bearer attrition and retention identifies some important factors to consider.
About 75% of the reasons given for message bearer loss could be addressed and possibly corrected by more adequate and appropriate pre-field testing and training at the local church level (Taylor 1997).
As shown above, many of the problems stem from personal issues involving lack of spiritual maturity, commitment, understanding of calling, Christian character as well as poor language and cultural adaptation.
When message bearers are lacking in personal maturity and character and do not have either a proper understanding of or the skills for living and working in a cross-cultural environment, a variety of problems surface in relationships in the family, on the team and with nationals.
The Key Role of the Church
Few theological and message bearer training institutions have the time or personnel to focus on the practical development of personal character and cross-cultural skills. Mission organizations typically assume this foundational work has been done and do not have the time or tools to assess these issues.
If these qualities have not been established pre-field, field leaders and member-care staff must handle related problems and create avenues for growth.
Ultimately, the burden of responsibility falls on the local church. Local churches must look for men and women who display genuine humility in the areas of family, ministry and leadership.
Often the most effective message bearers are those who have already displayed a heart of servanthood in ministries in the local church and the multi-cultural community at home.
While short-term mission trips increase mission knowledge and interest, potential cross-cultural message bearers are those who have already shown themselves to be people who can persevere in crises, conflicts and difficult circumstances in their home and work situations.
The needs are enormous on the field; however, there’s no long term benefit in sending unfit or unproven message bearer families overseas. Among all the message bearer qualities, some veteran message bearers feel the most important and intangible quality is interpersonal skills (Van Rheenen 2000, 10).
Interpersonal Skills – The Critical Quality
Interpersonal skills are perhaps the hardest quality to measure objectively. Probably the best evaluators of these skills are the past teachers of the message bearer candidates. Mission leaders should observe the candidates’ interpersonal skills while they engage in ministry with the congregation before they leave (Van Rheenen 2000, 10).
While these character and ministry qualities are ultimately a work of God, local churches can develop ways to test the character of individuals, expose those areas of need, and give tools to see these biblical traits developed before considering them for message bearer service.
Those involved in the task of selecting or approving potential message bearers must interview the pastors, elders, teachers, mentors, converts, families and friends of candidates to determine if these men and women have emotional stability, sound character and ministry skills. Brief and simple phone interviews are insufficient.
Research suggests that “interviews alone will not predict successful cross-cultural adjustment” (Schubert 1999, 88). This is why past experience and present involvement are strong factors to consider in the assessment process. One mission executive says,
The biggest deficiency we encounter in missionary candidates today is the fact that they are not disciplemakers. We get people eminently qualified in technical areas (theology, computer sciences, and management). But we’re not getting people of the Word, who know how and are practicing personal evangelism and discipleship (Hulbert 1984).
People who have not learned to interact with humility, labor as servant leaders, and persevere in mentoring others over time within their local churches and communities should not expect to sustain long-term, effective cross-cultural ministry overseas.