Three Types of Missionary Candidates

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It was first the Holy Spirit’s idea for Paul and Barnabas to serve as missionaries: “Set them apart for the work I have for them” (Acts 13:2). We know how the story goes: they accepted this divine plan and their church did, too. After a while, Paul and Barnabas were sent away on their first missionary journey.

Today, churches attempt to repeat this process. The Holy Spirit may be less explicitly involved, but it still goes something like this. A pastor preaches and introduces the idea of becoming a missionary, usually through some kind of sermon application. He’ll say something like, ”Maybe God wants you to be a missionary!” Most people just listen, unchanged. But the thought grips someone and that moment jumpstarts a process that involves everything from contemplation to wrestling to rationalizing to trying the idea on for size to swallowing her anxiety to embracing the growing excitement. Finally, she accepts the idea of cross-cultural ministry for herself, even with all its unknowns.

What does this potential missionary need at this point? More than anything, she needs her church. Before now, she’s done all the thinking and questioning and planning on her own. She’s gone through some kind of internal, subjective screening process and has arrived at a conclusion—as tentative as it may be. This is still only her idea. In other words, no one else has evaluated whether or not she would be a good fit for cross-cultural gospel work. That’s why she needs her church, the community of Christians who know her well and are therefore in a good position to evaluate her fitness for this work. What’s more, God has given her pastors whose job it is to train her and help her grow. By working together with her church, her future ministry can move from being simply her individual idea to being their corporate idea—and this makes all the difference.

I’ve been on both sides of these relationships—as a missionary and also as someone helping others think about whether or not they should be a missionary. Here are three types of missionary candidates I’ve regularly encountered.

Green-light candidates

Green-light candidates are already serving in your church in obvious ways. Maybe they have a title—like deacon or elder. Maybe they don’t. But they have been serving as one.

Faithful servants will have a track record of their strengths and weaknesses. They will have completed some kind of evaluation process—whether formal or informal—to do what they’ve already been doing. Often, this means they meet the qualifications Paul lays out for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Their good character and gifts are known and affirmed.

Put simply, green-light candidates are ready! They might only be a few months from living overseas.

Yellow-light candidates

Yellow-light candidates are active church members who for one reason or another are not yet serving as deacons or elders (again, with or without the title). Perhaps they’ve not had enough time at your church. Perhaps they don’t yet meet all the biblical qualifications. Perhaps they need to grow in some area of character or in their understanding of Christian doctrine.

But you see potential in yellow-light candidates. With a little time, they will soon be ready to serve cross-culturally. So be patient. They might be a few years from living overseas.

Red-light candidates

Red-light candidates come in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes, you just don’t know enough about them so you can’t give an informed assessment. They’re not even members of your church! Other times, they are members of your church and you do know enough about them to give them an informed assessment. And that assessment is “no”—at least for now.

Red-light candidates may be eager, sincere, and likable, but they are not ready for overseas service. Give them time and hopefully they’ll become model church members.

Two factors automatically move any candidate into the red-light category. First, if a significant sin pattern comes to light. Christians struggling with significant sin will not likely find the support they need when they’re overseas and often isolated. Second, if a candidate resists the church’s role in the affirming and sending process. You don’t want to send missionaries who are skeptical of the church; they will export that DNA wherever they go and are therefore not ready to engage in biblical, church-centered missions.

Realistically, red-light candidates need significant preparation. This process might take several years, if it even happens at all. In my experience, many folks who start out as red-light candidates never follow through and live cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel.

Getting from “Me” to “We”

The key to reviewing missionary candidates is to use the same processes your church uses to evaluate Christians for ministry. No individual Christian should prepare alone. They need their church’s evaluation and, yes, even their acceptance. They need their church to mobilize, own, and invest in their future ministry.

Ken Caruthers

For over twenty years, Ken has served as a missionary leader and trainer. He has helped large mission organizations, churches, missionaries, and indigenous church leaders with their missions strategy. He served as an Associate VP for the IMB and lived 12 years in Central Asia. Ken earned his Ph.D. in applied theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is passionate about serving local churches. He and his wife have 2 children and reside in Virginia.

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