Earl Edwards has served as a professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University (Henderson, Tennessee) for more than twenty years. Not only is he an accomplished Bible scholar, he has long been dedicated to mission work, serving as a missionary in Italy for sixteen years, and having led mission groups to some eight other nations. In this article, he discusses some of the important principles that underlie the prudent selection of those who enter the mission field.
Before investing funds and effort in sending an evangelist to any field, the elders of the supporting congregation should certainly ask themselves what probabilities exist that the person supported will do effective work in the field where he is to be sent. The results of such an inquiry should be weighed very carefully before making a final decision in each case. These matters should be considered even more thoroughly when the field requires the learning of many new customs and another language. Though it is not a pleasant admission to have to make, most seasoned workers, especially in foreign fields, would be in agreement that some workers who have been sent have done more harm to the work than good. This unfortunate situation can be, in a large measure, avoided by a more careful selection of those who are to be sent.
In order to give the thoughts in this presentation a more concrete application, I will approach the subject from the standpoint of what qualifications are most necessary in the Italian field where I gained personal experience (from 1960 to 1976). I will, for the most part, leave to the reader the task of adapting my remarks to other fields of his or her particular interest. In addition, though I think some other workers (for example, nurses in a missions hospital who give a great deal of time to personal evangelism) might in some sense be called “missionaries,” I will focus my remarks on the missionary who is also an evangelist or preacher.
The Qualifications of an Evangelist
Clearly one should have the qualifications of an evangelist; else how can he be expected to evangelize? Paul enumerates several of these in 1 Timothy 4:12 (cf. The New American Standard Version) when he says the evangelist should be an example in:
Speech or word – This includes daily conversation as well as his preaching. In this latter he is to speak according to that “standard of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). This undoubtedly includes doctrinal soundness.
Conduct, love, faith, and purity – If he is an example in these areas he will have a certain spiritual maturity which will naturally influence other people.
One thing which will need to be taken into account in checking out his qualifications as an evangelist is his formal education. Many Protestant people require at least four years of seminary work and others up to seven (Lindsell, pp. 87ff). In a biblical approach it must be recognized that there may be some people who are qualified without any college degree because of personal study of the Bible, but the amount of college work will need to be closely evaluated since it is one of the most efficient ways of preparing for missionary activity. It is strongly recommended here that in most cases it would be well to have at least one year of specialized training in “mission principles” in addition to a four-year degree. This will prove itself useful many times in the life of the missionary.
Though it is understood that we should not prohibit any person from risking even his life for his Lord (cf. Rev. 2:10), yet it seems wise to at least evaluate the health status of any prospective missionary before sending him. And the more primitive the society where he is to be sent, the more vital this evaluation becomes. In order to do this, it is recommended that the person be subjected to a complete battery of tests and examinations both physical and psychological and that the results of these tests be made available to the elders for study before the final decision to send the particular person.
What Character Traits Are Necessary
If a selection is to be made, it must be determined what traits should be considered essential to the successful missionary. More specifically, one must determine what characteristics are necessary in order to achieve a reasonable measure of success as a missionary in the Italian field. Of course, most of the traits herein suggested are essential to effective mission work in any country, but, as we have already said, this list has been made with Italy in mind.
Even though a person may have studied the language and customs before coming, he will have to spend an “internship” of several trying months on the field before he can become an effective worker in Italy. In the States he may have been one of the most influential persons in a congregation of five or six hundred persons, but here he will have to take a back seat and follow for a while before he will know how to lead. This takes humility. Further, at home he may have preached in meetings with attendances of five hundred or even six hundred per evening, but in Italy, though we have had a few meetings with big attendance figures, he is more likely to have fifty present than five hundred. Further, if he is to be an effective worker in Italy he will have to be willing to re-evaluate certain things. The Scriptures, of course, are always the same, but there are some questions of judgment that may be resolved in one way in one country and in a different manner in another. For example, the Scriptures do not tell whether or not to sing an “invitation song” after each sermon. In America we have judged it wise to do so; in Italy, because of the emotional make-up of the Italian people, this custom has not been followed. After several years on the field he may want to evaluate this matter for himself, but during the first few months, if he has that necessary amount of humility, he will recognize that he knows so little about this new society that he could not possibly give a valid judgment. Instead, if he is unwilling to re-evaluate such things, he will probably cause a great deal of unrest and trouble among the workers on the field. In these matters, as complicated as they may be in some cases, if one will serve the Lord “with all humility” (Acts 20:19) as did Paul, he will avoid difficulty.
A Willingness to Adapt
Upon entering Italy as a missionary one should remember that the average Italian already has a somewhat distorted picture of the “riches” of the American people. If he is not careful to adapt himself to certain customs and ways of thinking, which to him will seem peculiar, he might compromise his possibilities of doing an effective work. The American missionary serving in Italy, though he generally receives less than his stateside counterpart, still receives a salary that is somewhat higher than even the Italian evangelists who are supported by stateside congregations. The Italian’s salary is generally established nearer the level of the average Italian’s salary. This has sometimes caused jealousy on the part of the Italians, which at times has been indicative of a lack of Christian principle on the part of the Italian, but on other occasions it has probably been caused by a lack of adaptation on the part of some American workers. That is, the trouble is not so much the difference in salary itself as the rather careless and “showy” manner in which the American spends his money. Every country has a bit different concept of what it takes to make a “spendthrift,” and, therefore, when in Italy, one must take into account the Italian idea. For example, even a poor Italian might well spend more than the average American for a nice chandelier for his living room, but if one pays $50 for a coat in a store near his home when he could have purchased the same coat for $45 in a store across town, he is apt to be judged as a spendthrift. To the American it may seem wiser to pay $5 more than to waste two hours driving across town, but the Italian does not generally think in this manner, and this must be taken into account. On given occasions one may decide to go ahead and pay more for such an item rather than waste time, but he will be wise not to say what he has paid for it. Some of these ideas seem strange and even mistaken to the American, but he must remember that his primary objective is not to change customs (unless they are contrary to Christian principles) but rather to save souls for his Lord. Thus he must do as Paul who to the Jews “became as a Jew” (1 Cor. 9:20).
An Optimistic Person Who Knows How to Work with Others
In the mission field God really needs people who can sing, “There is sunshine in my soul today,” and mean it (cf. Acts 16:25). The one who tends to be pessimistic anyway will be doubly so the farther he is from “home” and will scarcely be able to influence others to have a right attitude.
In addition, to be effective in Italy (or elsewhere), the missionary must know how to get along with his fellow workers and church members, both Italian and American. The one who is easily offended, whose feelings are on the surface, and whose mind is filled with grievances, will tear down more than he will build. He will be one who insists on his way; even where the decision is only a matter of opinion, he feels sure his opinion is the right one. This kind of person seldom lasts more than a year or so on the field; he causes trouble while there and a total loss of the funds used to prepare him and send him.
Willingness to Study
Though this is a necessary trait for any evangelist (as are many of those listed), the missionary in Italy will have special need of it. First of all, he will have to give many long hours to the language. Second, while his primary training and preparation has been in meeting false Protestant doctrines, he will now find-himself forced to make a serious study of the multiplicity of Catholic doctrines. The rather superficial knowledge which most new missionaries have in this area is not sufficient. Further, in Italy he will find more atheistic ideas to combat (because of Communism) than in the States. In addition, he will find that at least some knowledge of philosophy and the classics will be helpful. More emphasis is placed on these studies in Italian schools than in America; thus in home studies, he will quite frequently need to meet arguments that are based on Kant, Dante, etc. Other areas of study which are helpful include the culture and history of Italy. If one knows nothing of the history and background of the country in which he is living, his chances of influencing the more cultured person in religious matters may well be compromised. Then, of course, the Bible, which is always the basic text of the true evangelist, will need to be studied even more in order to ferret out new approaches that will better meet the needs of a people who are accustomed to a different way of thinking. All in all, it should be obvious that the missionary to Italy will have to be willing to give a great deal of time to study.
In the States the work of the evangelist consists primarily of public preaching and personal work, but in Italy he may well be called upon to accept numerous other responsibilities. If he is supported by several congregations, he may find himself “saddled” with a fairly heavy correspondence and bookkeeping load in order to keep his supporters informed, and they must be kept informed. Further, if he helps to start a new congregation, he may, at the beginning, find himself having to lead songs and even preside at the Lord’s Supper as well as preaching.
Though this quality is required in all evangelists, it is probably “more necessary” in the evangelist who works in a country such as Italy. In Italy, as in most European countries, (1) there exists a bureaucracy to which the American is not at all accustomed. In fact, because of inefficient office personnel and complicated office procedures, it once took me sixty days, six provisionary license tags, and literally dozens of trips, to different offices to get a permanent license tag for my car. Take an incident of this nature plus (2) a new language and “strange” customs to learn; add to the situation (3) an immature member of the Italian congregation who fails to appreciate the missionary’s purpose and may even criticize his family, and one is tempted to throw up his hands and run “home to the United States.” To overcome this temptation and accomplish the purpose for which a missionary goes in the first place takes perseverance. He must remember we are not to “lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9).
A Love for Lost Souls
To be successful as a missionary in Italy, or anywhere, one must really love the souls of men. In fact, this is undoubtedly the most important of all the requisites listed, for “love finds a way.” “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Love, in fact, is the foundation on which perseverance is built, the sentiment which will drive one to study when such is necessary to save souls, and the trait which will bring one to the practice of humility. A good “dose” of love will often help one to overcome the lack of one or more of the other requisites, but even more often it will help him to develop that lacking requisite because it is necessary to the salvation of the souls which he loves.
A Willing Wife
Not only should the missionary have the traits described above but in the case of the married man, the wife must share in his decision to go to the field and participate actively in his efforts on the field. She, too, will need humility, a willingness to adapt, a willingness to study (she too must learn the language if the family is to be happy), perseverance, and a love for lost souls. In fact, it should be remembered that often it is harder for the woman to adapt to new surroundings than it is for a man. Thus man and wife should consider these things prayerfully before deciding to do mission work in Italy. Some “missionary wives” have been a wonderful help while others have rendered the whole family unhappy by their refusal to adapt; in some cases they have forced an abrupt return to the United States. If there are older children, they too should share in the discussion of the proposed mission. Protestants generally refuse to send a family with more than two children, but this should not be a rule.
Obviously the above is an attempt to describe the ideal missionary for Italy. It is further obvious that no person will have 100% of all these traits. Therefore, it seems that the task of the conscientious eldership is to try to select and send those persons who are likely to have the greatest number of these traits to the fullest degree.