The Character of a Missionary: Childlikeness
What does it take to be a missionary? Books have been written, sermons have been preached, and evaluation tools have been created. All are oriented towards assessing a new missionary’s capacity to meet a minimum level of proficiency to do the work of one who is sent by God. Missing from those prerequisites is a character trait generally considered a negative: childlikeness.
To be considered childlike speaks of one’s naivety mingled with a perception of charm.
Labeling one as a child is frequently used to indicate immaturity and inexperience. Yet, childlikeness includes aspects that should be considered positive, required to participate in society, especially in cross-cultural ministry.
The first feature of childlikeness is curiosity. Children, lacking knowledge and understanding, are naturally curious. It is a trait suppressed as children age because parents are frustrated with constantly answering, ‘Why?’ Yet, curiosity is not only a pious attitude of a Christian, but an aide to the missionary lifestyle. The curious missionary will seek to understand his/her host culture. Not being satisfied by his/her own frustration with cultural differences, the curious missionary will acknowledge differences and then pursue a cultural perspective.
Additionally, a childlike missionary also is one who has the capacity to learn. Biologically, we understand that a person’s ability to learn diminishes over time. A younger person has energy to learn and an increased ability of retention. While certainly those may wane with age, what does not have to abate is one’s desire and ambition to learn. Notice how curiosity and aspiration to learn go hand in hand. One who has childlike curiosity will seek to learn about the culture that is hosting him/her as a missionary.
As a missionary, the characteristic of childlikeness is essential to one’s success because the missionary seeks to understands those around him/her, forcing the missionary to explore the host culture. The result of increased understanding is that the missionary can identify with, empathize with, and assimilate into the culture. Our family lives in a culture of lines. As an example, in order to get some of our visa paperwork done, it required that we wait in line in order to complete the paperwork, and upon completion, we were sent to another building to go pay the fees required before returning back with the receipt to prove payment. We not only questioned the process but became increasingly aggravated by it because something that would have taken an hour in our home culture took eight hours in our host culture. However, this was also an opportunity to learn about the culture and simply ask, “Why?” Specifically, we began asking “Why is it that we have to wait in so many lines? Why do we have to constantly pick up a bill in on place, pay it in another, and return to show the receipt (or even show it somewhere else)? The answer to that question was corruption. These are put into place in order to guard from corrupt individuals and their propensity to take the money while not reporting the debt or payments of the debt. While the amount of time spent standing in line is still difficult, at least it provided a level of understanding and alleviated the frustration. It allowed us to more readily adapt.
A curious missionary will seek to know those that he or she is ministering to. Asking questions about language, cultural mannerisms, and mentalities the missionary will do more than infiltrate the culture but acclimate to it (without compromising biblical principles) for the sake of God’s kingdom.