How to Be A Good Missionary

By David J. Lu April, 2011. David Lu is Professor emeritus of History and Japanese Studies at Bucknell University.

 His training includes attendance at Westminster Seminary in 1950-52.

  I dreamed one night that I was asked to advise theology students who were about to embark on their long-term missionary work. My son Stephen asked me to put that down in writing. This is an embellished version of that dream,  

Congratulations. You have just answered the great commission. What must you do to prepare for it?  

Step 1: Be humble. You are going to represent the servant Messiah who washed the feet of his disciples. 

Hubris is always with us, and humility is hard to come by. One of the cardinal sins that missionaries commit is their sense of self-importance. Home church members simply adore you. Their support has been generous. Arriving at the host country, you find yourselves supplied with living standards much higher than those of their typical middle class families. Wow, “I must be very important!”  

Be truthful with yourselves. Many missionary families have fallen into this trap. Haven’t you heard that some of them really hated to return home for their sabbaticals? They would say that the mission needed them, but truthfully they missed the lifestyle they left behind in the host country. In countries where the dollar remains strong, domestic help is easy to come by. Sooner or later you begin to feel that you are superior to those people you have come to serve. You may not realize then, but you, the servant, have been behaving like a master! 

 Let us step back for a moment. Let us see the events which are about to unfold from the perspectives of those people whom you are about to visit. Have you ever thought of how they feel about you? They did not ask you to come. You just came to them. You may be an unwelcome guest.  If you act or feel superior to them, it doesn’t take a genius to smell it instantly.  

I have been in this country over 60 years and have been able to observe how missionaries are sent from this end. However, I was born and raised in Taiwan and finished college there. So I can tell you first hand how the receiving end feels. Before I go any further, let me state that I am grateful to the many wonderful missionaries from Canada and Scotland. Without their tireless work my family would have never known Christ. My mother spent the last days of her life at MacKay Memorial Hospital. It was the hospital established in memory of a pioneering missionary Dr. George Leslie Mackay who not only preached the Word but also brought modern medicine to the island.  

Now that my appreciation is made clear, let me share with you an incident that a Taiwanese Ph.D. student at one of our major universities had experienced. After coming to this country, he read the Bible from cover to cover twice in order to prove that Christian belief was wrong. Instead, he accepted Christ and was baptized .There was a well-known American missionary returning from Taiwan to the United States. This young man was excited. “I am going to the railway station to greet him to thank him for bringing the Gospel to my native land.” He did as he planned, but the meeting did not go well. “What happened?” I asked. “He did not ask my name. He put down his two huge pieces of luggage, told me to pick them up, and walked ahead of me. He was not interested in talking to me at all.” Seeing a Taiwanese face, the missionary probably was under the illusion that he was still in Taiwan. There he always had eager students doing his bidding. Without fail, they always carried his luggage, or shall we say his burden. 

Whenever I think of this incident, it saddens me. I feel sorry especially for the missionary. He missed a chance of listening to one of the most heartwarming conversion stories, Worse yet, he forgot what the scripture taught us, that we esteem others as higher than ourselves, and that we bear one another’s burden. 

Step 2: Be respectful of the people you are going to serve. 

Dr. and Mrs. James Curtis Hepburn gave a sharp contrasting story. They were the first U. S. Presbyterian missionaries to Japan arriving there in 1859. The Japan of 1859 was a dangerous place for foreigners. Commodore Perry’s black ships kicked open the door to Japan in 1853. Until then the country remained in splendid isolation without interruption since l639. Perry’s arrival caused terrible domestic upheavals. The country became divided into two camps: one supporting imperial restoration and expulsion of barbarians, and the other supporting continuation of the Bakufu rule and opening the country. For our purpose let us just note that some samurai felt assassinating a foreigner was their sacred duty. It was a sure fire way of embarrassing and weakening the Bakufu. 

Not long after their arrival, Dr. Hepburn faced an assassin, but was spared, Mrs. Hepburn was less fortunate. She was attacked from behind by an unknown assailant with a crowbar. They kept these secret, for fear that these happenings could be made into major international incidents. Patiently Dr. Hepburn began practicing medicine, and Mrs. Hepburn started teaching English and other mundane matters to reach as many Japanese people as possible. They had been in China before as missionaries. They knew the importance of knowing the host country’s language and culture. Diligently they pursued the study of the Japanese language. 

 This eventually led to Hepburn’s creating the first Japanese-English Dictionary. The system of Romanization used in this dictionary became known as the Hepburn system of Romanization. With his newly acquired skills in the Japanese language, he became the principal translator of the Old and New Testaments into Japanese, with capable assistance from Japanese scholars and other missionaries. 

Hepburn’s legacy in Japan endures. His farewell address, given in Japanese in the year 1892, shows us the secret of his success. .With humility, he declared that his skills were no longer needed. It was time for his “fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard” to continue the work. The new pastor, many members of the faculty of the Christian academy which he helped found, and many in the congregation were all his former students. Nurtured under the Confucian tradition, the Japanese people were used to the notion that one was indebted more to one’s teacher than to one’s own parents in their upbringing. So when Hepburn called them his fellow workers who would do work greater than he himself was able to, they knew he loved them, trusted them and respected them. They became his worthy successors. They harvested the seeds sown by him, and in turn sowed more seeds for those who would follow them. Meiji Gakuin, which could trace one of its beginnings to Mrs. Hepburn’s modest Hepburn school, is now a full-fledged university. Shiloh Church, which with the 8,000 dollar contribution from the U. S. Mission Board, Dr. Hepburn built and bequeathed to the Japanese congregation, is now one of Yokohama’s largest, and remains a staunchly Bible-centered church in the Hepburn tradition. 

Step 3: Establish points of contact. 

Even among nonbelievers, there are seeds of religion that make them look God-ward. When you enter a mission field, the first thing you want to do it is to discover these seeds of religion among the people you intend to serve. That will establish firm points of contact for you 

We are all shocked by the earthquake-tsunami of March 2011 that devastated the northeastern shore of Japan. The same shore was hit by tsunami and earthquake measuring magnitude 8 or more in 1896, 1793, 1677 and 1611. It was at one of these earlier times that a remarkable story of rescue was recorded. A village elder had just completed building a new house and a new barn on top of a hill. One day overlooking the village where people were making their merriment, he saw a tsunami forming in the distance. Quickly he lit fire on everything he had just built. Villagers thought that their former village head had lost his mind, and quickly ran up the hill. At that very moment the tsunami struck the village. That selfless act of love is also what the scripture demands of us. Who can say that this village elder did not possess the seed of becoming a good Christian? 

The Jesuits were diligent in search of seeds of religion in people wherever they went. Father Matteo Ricci arrived at Macao, the Portuguese enclave on the coast of the South China Sea, in 1582 to start mission work in China. He was not allowed to enter Beijing until 1601, but once there he established good contact with high ranking officials in the imperial court. Ricci described his missionary method as one of: “learning the language, literature and etiquette of the Chinese, and winning their hearts.”[1] His efforts enabled other Jesuits to enter Beijing. They became so well established that when the Ming Dynasty was replaced by the Qing Dynasty in 1644, they were asked to remain to serve in the same capacity as astronomers, court scientists etc. By then their acculturation to China was complete. They wrote books about Christianity and sciences in Chinese, and some even became well-recognized Chinese painters. 

Once they became able to think and act like Chinese scholars, it was not difficult for them to find many points of contact. Did not Confucius say: “Do not do unto others that which you wish others not to do unto you”? Was it not akin to the Western golden rule? Then there was a passage in the Great Learning: “When the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world.”[2]  These words could be read with benefit alongside I Timothy 3:6, dealing with qualifications for bishops. “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” 

The Jesuits understood the hierarchical nature of Chinese society, and concentrated their conversion efforts on high-ranking officials. Once they were converted, those under them would follow suit, they reasoned. This trickle-down approach had some success. However, once the gospel reached the lower echelon of society, their practice of ancestor worship became problematic.  

To the Jesuits, Confucius was almost a saintly figure. His moral precepts contained many elements of Christian virtues. He stressed one’s debts to ancestors. Did not the Ten Commandments instruct us to honor our father and mother? Was not ancestor worship an extension of this commandment? The rite performed in honor of Confucius and ancestors, when it was done by the scholar-gentry class, was elegant, often accompanied by soft music, and the Jesuits could be at home in that atmosphere. They did not see any problem in Christian converts performing these rites. 

The Dominicans and Franciscans, who arrived in China later than the Jesuits, saw the matter differently and sought a ban on its practice. They appealed to Rome, and in 1645 the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith sided with them. It must be noted that the rite of ancestor worship performed by the peasantry showed little resemblance to that of the scholar-gentry. They worshiped anthropomorphic deities, good and evil spirits etc. as dictated by the mixture of religious Daoism and folk religions. Their ancestor worship had every element of pagan rituals. The Dominicans had a point. An unfettered acceptance of “ancestor worship” should not be tolerated. Yet based on a brief submitted by the Jesuits, the same Congregation reversed itself in 1656. The debates continued and became known as the Chinese rites controversy.  It involved eight popes as well as Emperor Kangxi. Near the end of the 17th Century, as they became better acculturated to the Chinese civilization, some Dominicans and Franciscans began to support the views held by the Jesuits. However, Rome went the opposite direction. In his papal bull of 1715, Clement XI banned the rites totally, and with it put an end to the promising missionary works of several centuries. 

Here my sympathy is totally with the Jesuits. Qing emperors governed China as Confucian sovereigns, and as such they stressed the importance of observing Confucian rituals. Attendance in these rituals was de rigueur for officials in the emperor’s court. What Clement offered was a threat of excommunication, if they continued to perform their official duties. 

Let us place this in the contemporary context. In 1996, I was at a meeting of missionaries in Vientiane, Laos. There were twenty or so assembled, representing a number of nationalities and almost as many number of denominations. Some of their converts were required to attend Communist Party rallies as part of their official duties. None of those who assembled there would condemn them or discourage them from attending, as long as their hearts were in the right place. 

In today’s world, you may serve in a country which is hostile to the United States and to Christianity. Do not look at the appearances but look to the hearts of people whom you want to get to know and convert. Do not be discouraged, and continue to seek points of contact. If other missionaries seek an approach different from what you think is right, be patient with them and try to learn from them. The Chinese rites controversy was caused in part by the jealousy of the Dominicans and Franciscans against the Jesuits. They even brought up the issue of how to call our father in heaven in Chinese. Was the term tian-zhu (天主, Lord of Heaven[3]) appropriate or not? Here we need not dwell on their theological bickering. In any event, if you find some of the practices permitted by other missionaries difficult to swallow, read I Corinthians Chapter 8 for consolation and inspiration. 

This is an aside, but an important one. Most likely, you will be accompanied by your children. They are quick learners, they will master the native language before you, and they will make friends faster than you. Let your children lead the way from time to time. 

Step 4: Step out of the box from time to time. 

I am sure all of you are well trained, by that I mean you have had good courses on missions in your seminaries. Here my advice to you is this, no matter how good your professor has been, he has not visited all 190 or so countries. You will be serving in a place he has never visited. Precepts which work in Country A may not apply to Country Z. So step out of the thinking box of your seminary days from time to time. 

Let us turn again to the Jesuits and Franciscans, and this time about their activities in Japan. Their mission began in 1549 with the arrival of St Francis Xavier. It was an auspicious beginning to Japan’s Christian century which, however, ended in bloodshed, martyrdom and disaster.  

In Nagasaki, there is a monument commemorating the martyrdom of twenty-six people who were executed at that very spot on February 5, 1597. The 26, cannonized in 1862, included 20 Japanese believers and six foreign priests (four Spaniards, one Mexican and one Indian) .The question I would like to ask is this: “Did these 26 have to die, even for the glory of God?” Before you give an answer to this question, I would like you to read the following passages from an edict on limiting the propagation of Christianity, issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587.[4]  

            1. Whether one desires to become a follower of the padre is up to that person’s conscience.

        4. Anyone whose fief is over 200 chō and who can expect two to three thousand kan of rice harvest each year must receive permission from the authorities before becoming a follower of the padre.

8. If a daimyō who has a fief over a province, a district, or a village, forces his retainers to become followers of the padre, he is committing a crime worse than the followers of Honganji who assembled in their temple [to engage in the Ikko riot]. This will have an adverse effect on [the welfare of] the nation. Anyone who cannot use good judgment in this matter will be punished. 

The war-torn Japan was unified in 1568 by Oda Nobunaga, a charismatic warrior who was also known for his short-temper. He sought knowledge from every corner of the world and welcomed the presence of foreign missionaries in his court. Alessandro Valignano, supervisor of Jesuit missions in Asia, was one of those who benefited from Nobunaga’s patronage, and the mission prospered. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi took over in 1582 following Nobunaga’s assassination, the benign policy toward the Christian missionaries was continued. Friendship with missionaries facilitated trade relations with the West. Churches were built in Kyoto and Osaka, in port cities, and in provincial towns.  

The mission prospered, mass conversions were reported, and some prominent daimyō

(fief holders with large territories) joined the rank. Some of the daimyō might have found  in conversion a means of obtaining trade privileges and access to much sought after gun powder, but Lord Arima, Otomo, and Takayama were known for their fierce loyalty to their newly found faith. The port of Nagasaki was commended to the church by the first two lords. They were willing to obey the church’s teaching, including the tithe of their wealth and their land. The Jesuits believed that their church ought to be built among the residence of samurai, in the center of a castle town. Their demands were met willingly, even from some non-believing daimyō.The Jesuits could always justify their demands because it had been an established practice of the church since the time of Charlemagne As the emperor conquered pagan princes and forced their conversion, priests followed him to administer baptism, and collected from the unsuspecting converts their tithe. 

It was this unfettered desire for land that placed the Jesuit mission at odd with the emerging central power of Japan. The country was in transition, shedding its feudal past to enter the modern age. The system of land tenure was one of its chief building blocks in this transition. Unknowingly by their land grab the Jesuits placed themselves on the wrong side of history. They should have stepped outside of their box, the established practices of tithe and other offerings, and thought about their unintended consequences. But they did not. 

The proscription of 1587 was not intended to destroy propagation of Christianity. The freedom of religion for common people was left intact. It contained an equally strong condemnation of Buddhist orders. Two major forces, both Buddhist monasteries with well-disciplined monk soldiers, stood in the way of Nobunaga’s quest for unification. Mt. Hiei was eliminated in 1576, and the Ikko sect in 1580, but the fierceness of the two battles were never forgotten. Their monk soldiers did not fear death, they were bound together by their faith in their Buddha. Hideyoshi feared resurgence of a power that combined faith with territorial wealth. The Buddhists were by then well contained, but the Christians were showing a sign of becoming a threat to his supremacy. This edict was an attempt to prevent it from happening. It was, however, not strictly enforced, and Christianity continued to prosper. Ten years after the promulgation of this edict, nothing seemed to have changed. Hideyoshi’s patience was exhausted. He captured 25 men and one youth from among those who were preaching the gospel in Kyoto, sent them off to Nagasaki, to have them executed. Nagasaki was chosen, because there were far more Christians living there. On the hill overlooking the port, he wanted to demonstrate the severe penalty awaiting followers of the padre. But those whom he wanted to persuade to leave the faith remained resilient.  

As a historian, I am trained to look for unintended consequences. In seeking choice real estate, the Jesuits probably thought they were doing it for the glory of God. Had they not done that, Hideyoshi would not have bothered to prohibit their activities. A cunning strategic thinker, he would not have done anything to jeopardize his trade relations with the West. Death of the 26 martyrs was an unintended consequence and an unnecessary sacrifice. After the execution of the 26, the situation turned worse for all Christians. Ruling powers began to fear the spread of Christianity. They began to believe that Christianity was the vanguard of aggression by the Spaniards and Portuguese. The Tokugawa family was in power from 1600. Their Bakufu (governing organization) in 1633 started issuing edict to close the country from the outside world and in 1639 completed the process. To be a Christian was a capital offense. There was a peasant rebellion in Shimabara, lasting from 1637 to 38. It was conducted in the name of Christ, and the peasants, warriors and family members alike, willingly died for their faith. In this Hideyoshi’s worst nightmare was realized.  

Step 5: Beware of your action’s unintended consequences 

I do not think it is necessary to explain why this caution is needed after hearing the stories of the 26 martyrs and the Shimabara rebellion. 

In today’s world, you must also act and speak cautiously. If you are a newcomer in a foreign mission, or a partner in a short-term mission trip, you may not always understand why those who are already in the vineyard are so reticent. Before you raise a voice to criticize them, and act and speak contrary to what they do, stop and think and try to learn from them. Their silence and inaction may have come from years of experience. You may be in a country that does not welcome foreign missionaries for ideological reasons. You may get away with your own careless action, but it may cost the visa of a great disseminator of truth who has toiled in that country for many years. Remember the unintended consequences. 

Step 6: Be patient, and keep a journal 

Love is patient. When I become impatient, I think of how patient our Heavenly Father is toward us. Yes he does love us. 

In your post, you may get frustrated. There are so many things you want to accomplish, but nothing goes right. Be humble, patient, and take one step back. If you think that this kind of failure should not have happened to a person as well trained as you, you are in big trouble. You will look upon everything with disdain. Instead, concentrate on the fact that there are so many things you do not know. Then you can take everything in stride. Be thankful for the opportunity God has given you to serve. God’s hand is at work in everything. He is giving you a learning experience. Take it with a joyful heart. “Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks.” Life is not bad after all, once realizing this you will sleep better tonight. 

Again, here is a helpful aside. Keep a journal. Your first impression of your new post will become a jewel of memento to be cherished later. You can keep a quiet conversation with yourself. Later it may enlighten others. I had a student who wrote a term paper on daily life in Tokyo in the twenties and thirties, based on her grandfather’s missionary journal. She learned more from it than anything I could offer in my class. She got an A plus, and the paper drew her ever closer to her grandfather. 

To be patient also means not to rush to judgment, and not to expect a quick result.  

Ferdinand Magellan, we all know him as a great circumnavigator, but little is known of him as a missionary, and it was in that capacity that he met his untimely death. In March, 1521 his armada reached the shores of the present-day Philippines. He staked a claim for his Christian Majesty, the King of Spain. Datu Humabon, ruler of the Cebu Island was baptized along with his followers. Magellan staged an Easter mass that dazzled them. He even succeeded in a miracle of faith healing that made the Filipinos passionate believers. Magellan was exuberant and decided to tarry there to engage in the task of more conversion. To show his host the might of soldiers backed by the cross, he proposed to annihilate Humabon’s enemy in the neighboring island without any help from the later. His own captains pointed out the plan’s folly, but Magellan was feeling invincible and was burning with a missionary zeal. The plan was an utter failure. Soon thereafter Humabon backslid and expelled his remaining visitors. As a navigator, Magellan was patient and deliberate, as an evangelist he was neither, hence his failure. 

From today’s perspective, we can see clearly that Magellan was combining his evangelical zeal with colonial imperialism. As a man of the 16th century, he found no contradiction in pursuing both goals simultaneously. The crucifix, the flag and trade went side by side. When the Jesuits arrived, many contemporary Japanese perceived of them in those terms. That notion persists, even today, as seen in many of their historians’ writings.  

You do not have to subscribe to their judgment. But there is a cautionary note. There are many countries today which are hostile toward the United States. When you arrive in these places, they may term you as a “running dog” of American imperialism. Be prepared.  

Step 7: Be willing to answer tough questions. 

You do not have all the answers, but be happy that people ask you questions. With a thankful heart, accept hostile questions. Allow yourself time to study and answer them truthfully when you can. The process will become an edifying experience.  

Let me give you a sample of a hostile question. “You Americans condemn jihad by the Moslems. You are dishonest. Don’t you Christians practice jihad too? 

I am sure the questioner will cite the Crusades (1095-1291). Did not Urban II promise remission of all their sins, if people joined the crusade to attack Jerusalem? Was this different from the Moslem jihad of today? 

Ponder for a moment, how you would answer. As for me, I would say that many wars were fought in the name of God, and that was wrong. As for jihad, I would answer to them. 

“Oh we had a jihadist par excellence named Saul from Tarsus. ‘Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.’[5] After stoning Stephen to death, on the way to Damascus he was met by the transforming grace of Christ to become His apostle.” 

We pray that someday, those who aspire for jihad against Christianity may also meet the transforming love of Christ.

Now go forward. May the blessings of our Lord be with you always. 

[1]  Ricci adopted the habit of Chinese scholars. The issue of learning language and dressing like people in the community also became one of the founding principles of OMF International (then the China Inland Mission) founded by James Hudson Taylor in 1865. The idea is called "incarnational ministry".    

[2]Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton University Press, l963) pp. 86-87

[3] Using this term, today in China Catholicism is called tian-zhu-jiao 天主教.  To avoid using the same term, Protestants call our God as Father in Heaven, or tian-fu天父.

[4] David J. Lu,  Japan: A Documentary History (M. E. Sharpe, 1997) p. 196


[5] Philippians 3:5-6. All quotations are from the King James Version.