Joe & Josephine Missionary may not let on, but they are struggling with discouragement. The people they’ve served among for years aren’t showing much interest in the Gospel. A few in their community have turned to Christ for salvation, but now many of them have quit coming out for fellowship and Bible study. Some have slipped back into sinful lifestyles.
Why? The Missionaries aren’t sure, but can think of several possible reasons.
Joe & Josephine knew from the start that neither they nor the Gospel may be readily accepted because Christianity is perceived as “white man’s” religion. Unjust government policies, church-run residential schools remembered for abuse and suppressing Native cultures — as a result the “white” Missionaries may receive a cold welcome from some. And they’ve seen anti-Christian feelings make it just as difficult for Native missionaries.
The Missionaries have sometimes also felt resistance from mainline churches (established in just about every northern community). Joe and his wife would be happy to see people saved and living for the Lord regardless of affiliation, but it seems like Christian nominalism has served as an “inoculation” — like a small dose of something creating resistance to the real thing.
North American Aboriginal people are traditionally animists, believing that natural objects and animals have spirits, and that fate (success, health, safety) can be controlled by ritual. This worldview is at odds with Scripture, and deep-rooted. Those desiring salvation may just be “adding” the Gospel, not really trusting Christ alone for salvation and daily living.
There are also social reasons why Indigenous peoples may not accept the Gospel. Most are group-oriented, less likely to step out to make an individual decision. There are many broken and dysfunctional families. It’s difficult for those who’ve been neglected and abused to trust. There is a disproportionate number of Native people with substance addictions. Along with the underlying causes, the addictions themselves make living for Christ difficult.
The Missionaries have also faced the challenge of establishing a fellowship group where family clans don’t get along. Disunity is particularly damaging to church growth in a small community.
And besides all these reasons (and there are more) which Joe & Josephine have no control over, there are also their own mistakes and shortcomings. Should they be doing things differently? Are they doing enough? Could the lack of results be because they aren’t praying hard enough, or praying right?
Really, Joe & Josephine Missionary’s hopes and challenges represent NCEM’s. Despite all the reasons — and despite global mission analysts saying we face bigger challenges than perhaps anywhere else in the world — as a Mission we still believe the Lord wants to save Canada’s First Peoples and build His Church among them. Please don’t misunderstand: we’re grateful for what the Lord has already done. But we need to be honest and say that slowness and setbacks can lead us to discouragement.
So how do we handle this discouragement? I put that very question to our workers. There were unique responses like: “Mope around feeling sorry for myself”; “Eat something, then talk to God about it.” Only one responded with, “Our ministries are not disheartening.” The rest had in common these ways of dealing with discouragement in the work:
More than any other response, our missionaries mentioned turning to Scripture: “Read my Bible” … “Keeping in the Word and spending time on our knees is the best solution” … “I read Scripture, pray and focus on refreshing myself in the Lord” … “We claim God’s promises; sometimes we feel that’s all we have” … “I look for Scriptures that will be an encouragement to me.”
Which Scriptures? “Particularly Psalms and Isaiah” … “We read the Psalms and start thanking God for what He has done and is now doing, and that always lifts our spirits” … “The battle is not ours but God’s” (1 Sam. 17, etc.) … “Our task is to sow and water; God gives the increase!” (1 Cor. 3) … “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil. 1) … “He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1). 1 Cor. 15:58 was mentioned by several: “…you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
It’s not just our church-planting missionaries who get discouraged. One of our department leaders told of the deep disappointment he felt as staff moved on. “I go back to God’s Word and apply it to myself,” he wrote. “Just the day before I had preached on how David was able to take out Goliath.”
Along with Scripture, our workers told how prayer helps in times of discouragement: “We, of course, get on our knees and call out to God” … “I cried out to God to encourage me” … “I talk with God about it … especially [to] help me focus on ‘Him,’ not the discouragement.”
“We ask God what we could be doing differently to get people interested in living for Him,” replied another. “And when He shows us, we get into action.”
A few years ago a discouraged NCEMer told how he realized that perhaps God hadn’t been working because he hadn’t been thanking Him in faith for the results. He confessed his unthankfulness, and said, “I sensed a blessed release and assurance … worry and anxiety were replaced by faith and hope. It wasn’t long after that that God allowed His invisible workings to become evident.”
Yes, prayer puts things into perspective. Sometimes discouragement is brought on by pressure to look successful. Sometimes it’s brought on by “tunnel vision.” One missionary remarked, “I try to look at the bigger picture — not just my community, or even NCEM — but what God is doing world-wide.”
Several shared thoughts like these: “I remind myself that it is not my responsibility to produce results … [it] is simply to be a servant, a faithful steward … then trust Him for the results” … “I remember that throughout history there have been many times that people have not wanted to accept the Truth” … “I remember it is Jesus, not us or anyone else, who is building His church” … “The church is His, not ours. When believers do well, He gets the glory, not us. And when they fail, we don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility either.”
We know that “just being faithful” can be an excuse — to be content with the way things are. It seemed from the responses, though, that “being faithful” meant not giving up, to care enough to keep on keeping on.
Several missionaries told how reflecting on what God has done in the past has lifted them out of their despondency: “I think on positive results in the past, knowing that those times will come again” … “I look at the lives of victorious believers and remind myself that there may be another one ‘right around the corner’ ” … “I look back in my diary.”
The leader who was discouraged about losing workers, wrote: “Several years ago, when three workers resigned in the space of a month, I could not see the way ahead, yet God provided.”
Besides looking back, one worker added this: “I also think of what the people we work with and we ourselves will look like [when] we have been transformed and stand brightly shining in the presence of God Almighty … that always gives me a boost!”
Besides the Word, prayer, and reflecting on God’s blessings, a number of our missionaries mentioned encouragement they receive from others. “I spend time with Christians who have been changed and encouraged by the ministry of NCEM,” wrote one.
Referring to co-workers, these responses: “We enjoy fellowship, and share prayer requests or praise items” … “It’s a blessing because we all … understand what each other is going through.” Others mentioned family: “Talking with my husband is always good because it seems that when one of us experiences discouragement, the other has an encouragement to share” … “I call my mother-in-law. She always helps me to refocus.”
Cheaper long distance phone rates make it easier for our missionaries to talk with Christian friends and supporters, a big help for one missionary who described Christian friends as “few and far between.” “Making phone calls often is a way we get encouraged, sometimes to a godly supporter or a fellow missionary,” wrote another. One mentioned “praying supporters and … people who will pray at a moment’s notice, not to mention … the NCEM Prayer Chain.” They added, “We have seen many answers to prayer.”
Here’s how much one worker values encouragement from others: “Years ago I started an ‘encouragement file’ so that when discouragements come, I could again read the notes and cards from people who had encouraged me.”
Our missionaries have been encouraged by God’s timing. One couple wrote, “Just recently we were beginning to feel a little discouraged and, out of the blue, we got this nice card and letter from a Native Christian who we taught in our Bible Club years ago.” These missionaries mentioned other believers, too, who have let them know how their ministry, many years before, was now bearing fruit.
In dealing with discouragement there’s value in another’s perspective. One worker was discouraged by poor attendance at their fellowship’s meetings. His director pointed out that it was about 30% more than the previous year. In his discouragement the missionary hadn’t noticed what God was doing.
Another worker shared: “I give close attention to what visiting Christians have to say about our outreach.” She said visitors notice things that a missionary overlooks. A visitor’s comment, “I’m really impressed with how the people in your church prayed,” was a big boost.
Sometimes discouragement is simply from exhaustion. One missionary couple replied, “In the village, when we get discouraged, we disconnect the phone, turn off the lights and just relax … When you live in a village, you are ‘on-call’ 24 hours. So you have to find a way to ‘get out’ and rest. This down-time is not long for us, 45 minutes to 2 hours, then we are ready to get back at it … usually.”
“Sing songs, go for a walk to clear my head,” someone wrote. “When I feel downcast,” answered another, “I will usually do something mindless such as blowing snow or mowing the lawn … it helps me to first clear my head of any negativity, and then move on to dealing with the matter from God’s perspective.” “Sometimes just taking a break,” added one, “and doing something that isn’t related to ministry helps.” Others mentioned how vacations, recreation, hobbies and other activities outside of ministry can help.
One mentioned getting out into nature. “God has made everything so amazingly beautiful,” he wrote. “Sometimes I need to take the time to look at it again. It’s an act of worship for me and God uses it to refresh my heart and clear my mind. And my horse is warm to the touch and brutally honest with me. God made him that way.”
Along with this list of what our missionaries found valuable when dealing with discouragement was one somewhat surprising — doing ministry! That’s right … spending time with the very people who we may think of as the cause our discouragement!
One couple replied, “We often go out visiting homes on the reserve and this brings encouragement almost every time. Just yesterday we spent a whole afternoon visiting with Christians and non-Christians on a reserve, and it was very encouraging.” Another wrote, “The children’s innocent smiles encourage me.”
Space limits more comments from our missionaries about dealing with discouragement. Reading good books, visiting Christian web sites were also listed. One particular missionary hasn’t let discouragement squeeze out humor. He wrote, “Being a life-long Maple Leafs fan, I may be more prepared for disappointment … than others!”
Of course this hockey fan had more to say: “However, I’m not immune to seeing hopes in ministry go unrealized, or grieve when those I minister to suffer setbacks in their walk with the Lord. One way I keep encouraged is to remind myself just how patient God has been with me. He’s still working on me, and still working in others, as well.
“I have not been in ministry as long as some, but long enough to see youth excited about the things of the Lord, then drift off and go their own way, later recognize the error of their ways, and call us up to ask how they might get their lives back on track again.
Yes, I’m a Maple Leafs fan. And even though the Leafs are considered the most valuable franchise in the NHL, they can’t come close to the returns I do and will receive in investing in God’s work of changing lives through Christ.”
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #502). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.