Using the Coronavirus for Missionary Training

Using the Coronavirus for Missionary Training March 30, 2020

Many have talked about how stressful life has become since the coronavirus hit America. Schedules and routines are upended. People feel on edge. For me, however, the past week or so has felt strangely familiar, almost like putting on an old well-worn sweatshirt.

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Upon reflection, I realize why. There’s so much about our current circumstances that resemble the experience of living cross-culturally. So, this post suggests 7 ways you can use the coronavirus quarantine for missions training.

Even if you have no plans on moving cross-culturally, your ability to understand the missionary life will increase your empathy and equip you to maintain a more missional lifestyle.

1. Inconvenience

Unless you move from the States to Canada, you can expect to find yourself on a steep learning curve when you first transition cultures. One will not be surprised to hear missionaries in China say things like: “I don’t know why I’m so tired. I barely did anything today. I just went shopping and figured out how to fix the light bulbs in the living room.”

The most basic tasks are exhausting. You might not know the language. Procedures and stores don’t work the way you expect. You need a form signed by a government office but only one person can give you the official stamp; he happens to be out today. Too bad for you.

2. Interruption

Across the world, lives have been interrupted indefinitely. This is the new normal. For missionaries, interruption is the norm. Americans (and Westerners in general) like schedules and making plans.

In non-Western cultures, people trump plans. Local friends might drop by and expect you to drop everything to chat and catch up on 100 things about which you have not special interest.

In another scenario, an important government official might come to town. Guess what? You can expect an interruption of certain events and means of transportation.

3. Intimacy

Many Christians in America have mixed feelings about churches canceling services. Some people bemoan streaming worship services. Others wonder if not gathering is a breach of Hebrews’ exhortation not to forsake meeting together.

For countless missionaries in the States, meeting at home brings the comfort of familiarity. House church is the norm in much of the world. In China, the translation for “house church” is “family church” (家庭教会). There is an opportunity for intimacy and connection that escapes the average congregant in a large group setting. Parents have a unique chance to lead their families to understand the Scripture, in prayer, and in reflecting on how to apply God’s word.

For those who complain about the impersonal nature of large group worship services, carpe diem … Seize the day!

4. Isolation

While introverts feel like quarantine is their own personal Disneyland, extroverts are going stir-crazy. In truth, both need people. Everyone will feel the pain of isolation at some point. Yet, missionaries must quickly learn to shift their expectations. They either accept (and grieve) the loss of relationships and the cyclical feelings of isolation or else they won’t last long on the mission field.

The pain is most acute early in one’s missionary service, but it may never go away completely. After all, the missionary at best hopes to become an “acceptable outsider” in their second resident culture. Even with millions of people around you, a person can feel isolated.

5. Ingenuity

In light of these various factors above, problems can become bigger than they otherwise “should.” One is often left with fewer resources to solve simple problems. You might like tools, expertise, language, and the social network to get things done.

This is when we must apply old-fashioned creativity. Westerners frequently have the financial means that they can afford not to creative problem solve. A missionary rarely has a lot of money. So, they need to observe the people around them, seeking to understand ways that locals tackle a problem. Chinese are resourceful; they will use whatever tool or material they have to make something work.

During this quarantine, think like a missionary. Adjust your expectations. Use some ingenuity. Boundaries are the seedbed for creativity. (For a great Tedtalk on this point, see below.)

6. Interdependence

An independent spirit is a luxury of affluence. The go-it-alone attitude of many Westerners is an anomaly of human civilization. The majority of world cultures grasp the point that people need each other. When we recognize that survival is at stake, we set aside our individual agenda.

As Richard Nisbett points out, individualism and collectivism are closely correlated with the economies of a culture. For instance, ancient China was a major producer of rice. Rice-farming is labor-intensive and requires mass cooperation. In that context, people discern their mutual dependence. Conformity is a matter of survival. (Might this be a lesson for Westerners during this pandemic?)

Cross-cultural living abruptly removes the illusion, held by some missionaries, that they can thrive on their own, without the help of others. Some workers seemingly have the mentality that they will save the world (though never admitting it in that way). Those people don’t last.

The sooner we embrace interdependence, the quicker the church will enjoy its blessings. We are a body (cf. Rom 12). We will get a foretaste of what it means for us to belong to the human family.

7. Insight

Finally, this pandemic gives us insight that is critical for long-term faithfulness. For many missionaries, they know that their work will put them and their family at risk. The dangers include more than kidnapping and terrorism. Harm could come to a person simply because they don’t have access to the medical care that many Westerners take for granted. This is precisely what happened with Nik Ripkin, whose son died during their years in Africa because they could not get him the care he needed in a timely way.

We need to harness the perspective offered by Psalm 90:12,

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom


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