From my experience growing up abroad and as a missionary, there are a few traits of missionary workers who have the biggest impact on others. My definition of a missionary: “Someone who lives and ministers in a culture very different from their own.”
Missionary Character Traits - Strong Faith
The first requirement to become a missionary is that you have a vibrant walk with the living Lord Jesus Christ. You are convinced of the truth and beauty of the Gospel and have a passion to go and make disciples in obedience to His call (Matthew 28:19-20).
Missionary Character Traits - Humility
When preparing to become a missionary, humility is an essential character trait. A humble person learns from past contributions and new ideas alike. They are not trying to fix the locals but embrace the idea that the local people have so much they can teach them. Locals have as much or more to teach us as we may have to share with them. I implore anyone considering missions to pray for humility earnestly and consistently. Embrace humility when it comes and foster an attitude of gratitude. Remember, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” (James 4:6).
Missionary Character Traits - the Attitude of a Learner
Along with humility, a missionary must have a learner’s attitude. When you first arrive in your new location, resist the urge to criticize how things are being done for at least one year. Ask questions with the desire to learn, not to find fault. After one year, continue to tread lightly when speaking with people who have been there much longer. When I first arrived on the field, I remember wondering why certain things were done the way they were. It just didn’t seem to make sense. Over time and with a lot of learning, it became clear why some things were done that way. I needed a complete understanding before I could suggest changes. When I first became a missionary, having an attitude of a learner was essential.
Missionary Character Traits - A sense of Humor
While an effective missionary will be able to laugh at themselves, they must also be able to laugh with their local friends. Your sense of humor will be very different from those of a different culture. I remember sitting around a campfire at night in southern Sudan with some Sudan brothers. Although I spoke some Arabic, many of their stories which resulted in their outrageous laughter totally escaped my understanding of humor. I was able to laugh, but I was laughing at their laughter, not so much what they were laughing at. That’s OK – the Bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice, I think a corollary to that is to laugh with those who laugh!
Missionary Character Traits - Patience and Adaptability
Difficult situations will arise as you work in cross-cultural ministry – no electricity, no running water, getting gas for your car may involve sitting in line for hours, preparing meals will take half a day, and running errands will be an exercise in futility, perhaps accomplishing less than half of what you had hoped. The most obvious example of that is driving, where laws and practices are very different from how we drive in the West. You must learn to laugh when a person passes you on the right and then makes a left turn in front of you. A challenge I encountered was when the electric company didn’t know who had paid their bills and who hadn’t. So, they would send a worker around to cut everyone’s electric lines, forcing them to go to the office and stand in line for hours to prove you had paid your bill. If you caught the worker shutting off the meter and showed them your receipts, they would relent. It was never fun when you didn’t catch him in time and had to take your receipt down to the office to stand in line and then pay to have your lines re-connected! Living and working in cross-cultural ministry overseas is full of surprises!
A few more that come to mind are: Flexibility - fun-loving - grateful - generous - wise - teamwork focused - courage - compassion - perseverance and a deep respect for ALL people!
Living and working in cross-cultural ministry is always going to be a huge challenge, but when the Gospel is involved and eternity is at stake, it is absolutely worth all the challenges. And it becomes a very fun and fulfilling experience! As someone once said, “If God has called you to become a missionary, don’t stoop to be a king.”
An Important Skill - Inductive Bible Study
An additional piece of advice, not a character trait, but an important skill when you become a missionary, is the ability to do an inductive Bible study. This is important for two reasons:
1) Many local pastors have little or no formal training, so the sermons are shallow and not always helpful for your spiritual growth. You must know how to feed yourself from God’s Word with the help of the Holy Spirit.
2) You must know how to train local believers to learn on their own and lead their own Bible study groups.
I believe knowing one’s calling, humility, being a learner, having a sense of humor, patience, adaptability and adding the skill of inductively studying God’s Word are the most critical traits for becoming a missionary. But there are many others.
Born and raised in Africa – about half the time in Sudan and half in Liberia. My wife and I then served for 13 years in Nigeria. I now help train and mentor new long-term missionary workers through their first term (2-4 years).