“What exactly did David do in South Africa?” I asked my mom.
“He built radio towers so the Bible could be broadcasted into remote areas,” she answered.
“So did he preach to the locals or lead any other ministries?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “He did work with some locals, but that was in construction and engineering. I don’t think he was trying to evangelize to them.”
This conversation, which occurred regrettably recently, reveals how my mind has been influenced by many missionary stories. At the beginning of this semester, I had many suppositions of what a missionary life looked like: huts, preaching, bugs, conversions, and translation. Many published works on missionaries’ work had mediated that “reality” to me. Through taking a course in Christian missions this semester, I have seen that missionary stories can mediate a certain reality of missionary life to Christians, one that may or may not be true.
Some missionary biographies mainly include the triumphs and extraordinary moments of missionaries’ lives, painting a portrait of seemingly perfect and exciting ministry and success. Also, in some missions’ newsletters, attention is predominantly given to the number conversions (or the stories of the most sensational ones), the amount of literature delivered, the translations completed, or the persecution faced.
Many missionary biographies, however, focus on the stories of ordinary missionaries in sometimes mundane ministries exhibiting very human tendencies. For example, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, a selection of short missionary biographies written by Ruth A. Tucker, records accurately–sometimes painfully–missionaries’ lives and work. An example occurs in Tucker’s account of William Carey’s life. She notes that, although Carey translated the Bible three times, his translations were initially exceedingly low in quality (Tucker 118). Furthermore, she acknowledges that many missionaries, such as Hudson Taylor, struggled intensely with depression and sin.
Portraying this whole reality, not only the sensational portions of missionaries’ stories, assures men and women who are missionaries or who are preparing to be missionaries that God can use them even if their ministry seems ordinary and they struggle with sin or anxiety or depression or loneliness. Their hope can grow as the read that God clearly used the ministries of many struggling and sometimes failing missionaries for His glory.
Although some publishing houses and mission boards mainly release the extraordinary, many others have done well in releasing the ordinary as well. By this accurate, moderate, and humble approach they have encouraged, strengthened, and instructed many believers.