What Does Today’s Missionary Look Like? with Dr. Mary Ho

May 9, 2024


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In this episode, we take a look at what today’s missionary looks like and explore some of the similarities and differences to missionaries in the past. We’re joined by Dr. Mary Ho, the executive director of All Nations. Mary gives us a behind-the-scenes look at All Nations missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed a few years ago on mission and whose story was feature in a Disney Plus documentary.

What does it mean to be a missionary today? How do different cultures view our calling? And how can missionaries care for themselves and be cared for by their senders in ways that are healthy and sustainable?





Ways to Connect With Mary Ho


Last Week’s Episode

The Overwhelmed Missionary & the Role the Body Plays with Dr. Margaret Nagib (Encore Episode)

Transcript From the Episode

Dr. Mary Ho is the international executive leader of All Nations International, which is a global missions training and sending organization that is sending Christians as missionaries from all over to all over.

Mary was born in Taiwan and raised on four continents, which is amazing. So she’s lived, uh, yes, in Taiwan, also in the Philippines, the kingdom of Eswatini, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and the U. S. And All Nations has more than 450 cross culture workers spread out over 45 countries. And one of those workers was John Chow, an American missionary.

You may have read about him in the news a few years ago. He was killed while attempting to make contact with an indigenous group of the Andaman Islands, the North Sentinelese. So we will touch on that today. We’ll look at the Disney Plus documentary, The Mission, where his story was featured. The impact that’s had on missionaries.

And we’re going to talk about the way the world views missionaries today and how that affects us. How do they see us differently versus in the past? And how does the way our culture view us really impact us spiritually, mentally, Emotionally, you know, at Modern Day, while the majority of our missionaries are originally from the U.S., we also have a large and growing number of missionaries who are from other countries as well. So when we talk about culture today, we’re gonna look at American Western culture for sure, but we’ll also consider the perspective of other cultures. You know, um, Mary, what I love about today too, is you’ve spoken on this topic in a few other places, but today we’re talking directly to missionaries.

That’s who our listeners are. They are missionaries themselves. So we’re going to obviously be looking at John’s story and this topic, uh, from a unique perspective as the people who are missionaries. on the field. So thanks for being willing to share with our listeners today. 

[00:02:12] Mary: I’m delighted to be here with you. Yeah.

[00:02:16] Stephanie: Yeah, Mary, and I appreciate your perspective on this for several reasons.

First, you’ve lived in countries all over the world. Second, at all nations, you have five hubs in five different nations, sending and training missionaries. So you really do see the world through the eyes of American culture, but through other cultures as well. So, um, let’s begin by talking about the movie a little bit.

For those of you who have not seen it. The mission is about John Chow, uh, his desire and journey to prepare to reach the North Sentinelese and how he lost his life when he finally made contact. Um, and probably most, if not all missionaries are familiar with the story of John, Jim Elliot. Probably most, if not all missionaries are familiar with the story of Jim Elliot and the four other missionaries who died while trying to make contact with the tribe in Ecuador.

And I think there are some similarities between John’s story and Jim’s. But while Jim and his fellow missionaries were featured in a very sympathetic leading story in Life Magazine, John’s story has been treated differently by today’s American media. 

Mary, how have you seen that play out?

[00:03:22] Mary: Yeah. So I knew John personally. And, um, of course I, uh, I probably have read every book. about Jim Elliot, um, or written by Elizabeth Elliot, uh, because, uh, they, they were really big when I was a college student. I would say one similarity is you’re talking about two men who really feel called by God, you know, they were without reserve in their heart.

that they were called by God to bring the love and the hope of Jesus Christ to the people group. And, um, so like, for example, for John Chow, he felt specifically called to the North Sentinelese since he was 18 and he spent nine years preparing. He was a very, very well prepared young man. And so you’re, you’re talking about two men in two different times, but with the same focus and dedication and just totally unwavering, making all their life choices, uh, around what they feel like God has called them to do.

I feel that’s a big similarity. Yeah. And, uh, probably a big difference, as you said, is, um, The media response, the response from the Christian community, um, about their tragic death, um, maybe that is a difference. I, I, I did not live in the time when, um, Jim Elliott lost his life, so I didn’t personally witness a response.

I don’t know whether there were background stories that we didn’t know about. But I do know that, um, you know, in the case of, uh, losing John Chao, um, yeah, there was a international uproar, um, both from the secular press, but also from the Christian community. But having said that, um, many people, um, from the Christian community came forth.

uh, very supportive. And so, um, I would say we gained new friends, new partners, um, and they, who are still dear to this day.

[00:05:50] Stephanie: Yeah, you know, I think about when I was growing up here in the U. S. and the stories that I heard about missionaries were always these hero stories, and I think they’re still being told today. But the hero stories were not just told in Christian community. I think that, Um, even kind of just in the general community, when someone said, I’m a missionary, I think people looked at you with a little bit of awe and respect.

And it’s interesting, uh, today, of course, you still do see that I think in, in Christian community, but in the general culture, uh, the word missionary has become a word that carries with it, um, I don’t want to say baggage, that’s not the right word, but, uh, a negative connotation. Like, I remember. When I would come back for visits and people would ask me what I did, I was very careful about it.

It’s, and it’s similar with the word pastor too. I mean, there’s just, when we use those words, at least here in the United States, people don’t have the same reaction. And I’m curious for you having that global perspective, is that something that’s unique to American culture or how is the missionary being seen around the world?

[00:07:09] Mary: Yeah, so first of all, I do want to say that, at least in general, in America, I think there is still Um, I think a general sense of honoring missionaries. I don’t feel like missionaries are being put down. I think people do still receive missionaries well and respect them. Now the flip side of that is sometimes we put missionaries on a pedestal.

And that’s not healthy, right? It creates undue expectation on missionaries where they cannot share, let’s say, in their newsletters, struggles, and if they’re burned out, if they’re discouraged. And so, I think that, um, I do see a general honoring of missionaries, which is, which is wonderful, but I also would encourage churches to not put missionaries on unhealthy pedals still, but to really treat them not only with honor, but with care.

You know, how are you really doing? Um, you know, um, how, how are things going with the culture? Um, what are the struggles you have? How can we care for your children? How can we care for your teenagers? Um, yeah, how is marriage going? Do you have a supportive community around you? So I think it’s to both honor and care.

The other thing is, uh, right now in the global setting, there are more non Western missionaries than there are Western missionaries. You know, God, we’re really living in a time where God is literally mobilizing his workers from everywhere to everywhere. And I think it’s an exciting time to be. And so I actually get very offended at the pushback and missionaries saying that missionaries are colonialists, or they’re pushing a Western religion.

Um, yeah, or it’s colonialism, because I just want to say, um, you know, the Christian faith is my faith, and I don’t have a Western faith. Jesus is mine. And I get offended when people say Christianity is a Western religion. No, it was always actually an Asian religion, right? And, and now the, um, About 65%, two thirds of the global churches in the non Western world.

So it’s such a beautiful time to believe in Jesus because we just have brothers and sisters who are from everywhere, all colors and shades. And that’s really exciting. So when we talk about missions, we are not pushing a Western religion. We’re pushing the love of Jesus Christ to transform, to set people free, um, to renew communities, to bring hope, to set people free from oppression.

And um, I come from Taiwan where the first missionaries, they brought literacy, they brought, um, They brought brought hospital and medical care to this day. They brought school and education they established schools and that is why Taiwan is now a modern society. So for me, I’m I’m just so grateful for the missionaries that have come and missionaries all over the world.

Um, yes, we’ve made mistakes, but we, um, missionaries, wherever they’ve gone, they’ve empowered women, established schools, brought literacy, health care, the love and the hope of Jesus Christ. I, I think, uh, they are to be greatly honored.

[00:11:36] Stephanie: Thank you for bringing that perspective because I think you’re right. I think it can be discouraging sometimes as a missionary from wherever, when you talk to people who hear things like that, like the colonialism and the imposing of imperialist views. And there certainly was that in the past. There, we cannot deny that that’s a part of the history.

But to your point, there is a rich history of so much more as well. And with everybody going from everywhere to everywhere, it’s not, it’s not Western. So what you’re saying is important because I think missionaries can use this in conversations that they have with people. If we’re talking to people outside of the church, which hopefully we are, hopefully we’re not only talking to people, uh, within the church.

How do you see American or Western culture relating to missionaries compared to 20, 30, 50 years ago? Is that something that you being living in so many different continents, is that something that you’ve been able to see or been exposed to?

[00:12:37] Mary: I think in general, we are far more aware of culture. So I don’t know about 50 years ago, because I wasn’t, you know, back then. Um, but, um, you know, I think now we are so aware. of culture. A lot of research has been done on how to go cross culturally, how to share Jesus in a way that’s culturally appropriate and contextualized.

So I do think that our missionaries today are far better equipped than the ones 50 years ago who first went out and The first missionaries that went out, they did go with colonial explorers, you know, it was part of, uh, colonial expansion and, um, but I think we’re living in a different day where, first of all, most of us grow up in neighborhoods and schools where there are other cultures, right?

We’re exposed to other cultures, even growing up, and we are living in a global century where we are affected by that. Aware of news and trends and people from other cultures and most mission organizations do cultural trainings now before we send people out, how to adapt our message in a way that honors the host culture and also because God is now sending from everywhere to everywhere.

We no longer have monocultural teams that go to the nations, you know, so for example, I just came back from Germany where we have a team working among the Muslim diaspora and our core team has eight different nationalities. you know, yeah, they are Americans, they’re from Africa, they’re from Asia, Middle East, from Europe, and so you’re talking about more and more multicultural teams who just among themselves are getting to know and understand and honor each other’s cultures.

and they are sharing the love of Jesus to the wider community as multicultural teams who understand culture and, um, and are already learning to honor each other. So I think we’re living in a different time.

[00:15:11] Stephanie: Absolutely. And it’s, it’s such a good reminder with what you’re talking about with teams. Let’s say that I am serving in a particular country in the world. It’s good for me to remember that I am not there as the only missionary from my country to this region, or it’s not just our country to this region, but very, very, very, very likely there are other people from other countries called to that same region.

So how I. Might we be able to come together and share our experiences coming from totally different cultures, going to a totally new culture and see how we could, uh, enrich each other in terms of our, our lives as missionaries, in terms of the people that we’re serving. Yeah. The idea that. There was just one culture going to one culture.

Doesn’t really, it doesn’t really exist anymore. And what a beautiful thing. I think it’s such the kingdom of heaven. I love reading the verses in Revelation where it just talks about all people from all nations worshiping God. And that’s an experience that now has come into the missions world as well.

Along with that, what are some of the things that you see working really well then among missionaries? Working together in other cultures. And what are some of the things that you’d love to see change?

[00:16:24] Mary: Yeah. So I think that, um, you know, I was just without team in, in Germany and I, I said to them, it seems you guys really like each other. And they said, we don’t just like each other. We love each other. And that, and they all just, I wasn’t trying to get it out of them, but like someone who. Is, um, you know, from a Middle East background said that we are like family.

Another guy who is from Africa, he says, you know, there’s no competition between us. And I think one of the keys is taking the time to really know each other. So I think we cannot, um, we cannot do a microwave style team. you know, where we microwave and get it resolved. But this team has been journeying together.

They come from different nations and so they all had to learn German together. Um, they took the time to know each other’s families, to know each other’s children. They pray together, they worship together, they do outreach together. So I think that taking the time Um, to seek Jesus together and to get to know each other, uh, to build relationship.

You just cannot condense that, you know, um, you have to take the time to do it. Another thing is, um, I think that we are living in a time of humble, And you see, a hundred years ago, missions was primarily coming from the West to the rest of the world. It was primarily coming from very well financed, developed countries to the rest of the world.

But really not anymore. Many of our missionaries are coming from Let’s say third world countries or less, um, less wealthy countries. And so what you find, for example, when you have, uh, missionaries from Africa going to other nations, they come in the posture of humility. You know, um, they come, um, with a posture to serve.

So I think more and more missions does not have that imperialistic, colonialist, uh, attitude that sometimes we’re accused of more and more because we are being flavored by the global church. There is. A flavor of humility and service that our Asian, African, Latino, Middle Eastern brothers and sisters are bringing in.

And I think, I think it’s a beautiful, it’s a beautiful potpourri of fragrances, uh, coming from the mission community. It’s more complex, you know, so like, um, back in January, uh, we actually invited two outside experts and trainers to train some of our people on cross-cultural conflict management and relationships.

Right? Because by being cross-cultural, there’s added complexity. So how do we do cross-cultural team and resolve conflict well? So, uh, those are some of the new skills we have to learn.

[00:20:08] Stephanie: Absolutely. And along with what you’re saying with missionaries coming from non Western countries or countries with less means, I think you also see a difference in the younger people being sent out today because many of them are grew up in a more global culture. They, and again, that’s not everywhere, but even just, you think about media, maybe somebody who is still living with people who look like them in their country, but their media is exposing them to people from other countries.

So it’s not this crazy thing to be with people from other cultures. And so, like you said, that imperialistic, uh, my country is the best country. let’s change you into us. You don’t see that in the same way anymore. So youth, I think has been a really beautiful thing to flavor the culture as you say, or flavor, uh, the missions of work.

Uh, I love that analogy of flavor. I’m a, I’m a foodie. I’m a food person. So you speak in my language, Mary.

[00:20:59] Mary: That’s great. That’s great.

[00:21:15] Stephanie: So speaking about young people and going back to the story of John Chow for just a second, Mary, what are some things that you wish people knew about John? Maybe things that they would not have learned from watching the documentary or reading an article about him. 

[00:20:40] Mary: He was such a kind, kind, loving young man, you know, for, for the big vision that was on his heart. He’s actually a very kind of laid back young man if you are in a crowd with him. He’s the ones that’s sitting there often very quiet with a sweet smile on his face. Kids loved running up to him. He will be the one if he sees, um, you know, a lady carrying something heavy, he’ll be the first to say, can I carry that for you? Can I help you? And that’s just who he is. Um, a colleague of mine shared one day they were, uh, he, he went with John on outreach just in the neighborhood and John saw this little boy playing basketball and so John goes up to the little boy and say, Hey, Do you want me to show you a few moves?

Do you want me to, uh, to teach you? Um, yeah, like how to, how to shoot. And that’s just who he is. He’s a very kind, loving young man. The other thing I would love people to know is he was so focused and well-trained. Like he went and got professional, uh, linguistics training that only Bible translators go and get.

He read just about every book on culture, cultural anthropology, so that he didn’t force any Western views on them. Um, he got a medical degree so that he would not introduce, um, You know, uh, sicknesses to, to the people and so that he can really bring, um, yeah. Holistic care to the people. So just a very thoughtful, well-prepared young man.

[00:23:24] Stephanie: Hmm. Yeah. Thank you for explaining that even a little bit more. You touched on that really briefly when I think when they interviewed you in the documentary, but you, what you shared was even more robust. The way that he prepared for it, because everybody who goes into missions, I think requires a different type of preparation and a different level of preparation, depending on what the mission is, the culture is, uh, the country is, what it demands of you. And with John, he recognized, like you said, that it was such a unique place. He was being called to that. He really, he didn’t just wake up one day and say, Hey, I think I’ll go, uh, meet some people who nobody’s ever really made successful contact with. He really put a lot into it.

[00:24:10] Mary: Yeah. And he also, uh, consulted a lot of the global experts who have done to, um. you know, unreached people groups. So for example, he struck up a friendship with Don Richardson, who wrote The Peace Child. Yeah. And really, uh, picked his brain and asked him for advice. And that’s just one relationship that John established, which is he really consulted those who have gone before him to similar places. And, um, Ask for advice, for strategy, what to do, what not to do.

[00:24:57] Stephanie: What beautiful lessons that we can learn from his life. And so for those who are preparing to go on the field, which I know we have missionaries who are thinking about, we’ll call them pre missionaries, they’re missionaries in their heart, but they’re getting ready to go. What a good reminder that there are things they can do to prepare.

What would be some of the top things that you would say that a person preparing for missions can do to get ready?

[00:25:21] Mary: I would say, um, and this may be surprising, but, um, one of our very, very first emphasis is to make sure the person has a really solid walk with Jesus and, um, is rooted in Jesus. can hear from him, can discern, um, because as, as you know, from being out there, there is incredible, uh, spiritual warfare, um, cultural adjustment, learning a different language, and unless you are so rooted in Jesus and abiding in him daily, um, it is going to be very, very hard to thrive.

And so that is one of the first things that we emphasize. And so, like in our training, we have daily abiding in Jesus Christ time. And, uh, we share daily about different spiritual disciplines or ways to pray that, Um, Yeah, our missionaries can use because when they’re out there, often they are more isolated.

They’re away from loved ones. They’re away from the ascending church and And they’re often in places that are hard, that are dark, that are risky. They really need to abide in Jesus to be able to discern, to know the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, yeah. So actually that’s the first one, because sometimes we get people who say, I am called to wherever, but in reality they don’t have the a walk, a spiritual walk that is rooted in Christ.

So that has actually is the first thing we do. Yeah. Mm-Hmm?

[00:27:23] Stephanie: Well, and you know, it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or how many degrees you hold. If you’re not walking daily with Jesus and having a sense of his love for you and yours for him, none of the rest of that is going to do you any good. So I think it’s actually a great reminder, Mary, and thinking about now our audience to have people who are on the field already, I was thinking of asking you, okay, what can they do?

And really that same one applies. I mean, we have to not just. Get on the field with that relationship with Jesus, but we have to sustain it and fuel it as we’re on the field as well.

[00:28:01] Mary: Yeah. Another thing we do emphasize, I mean, of course we do other things like. train people to make disciples, to plant churches, to share the gospel. But we also have things like we always have, um, sessions on inner healing, because when we are, When our workers are out there in the nations, they will encounter situations where maybe they get misunderstood, where people offend them, hurt them.

So how do we thrive on the field and be able to access the Father’s heart and healing for our hearts? You know, when maybe we’re in places we can’t easily see a counselor, we can’t easily see a pastor, but how do we access Jesus is healing for our hearts while we are on the field. I think that’s very important.

I think the long-term, well, uh, welfare of our people is very important. So I would also encourage, uh, missionaries, uh, regular intervals, um, to also get debriefed to find people trained debriefers to debrief them of. you know, the challenges, the crisis, the trauma that they encounter while they’re serving overseas.

I think that’s very important that they regularly have the, yeah, have ways to unpack some of the hard things they go through. I think that’s very important.

[00:29:41] Stephanie: That’s so good. I love that you used the word unpack. So Mary, when I was serving on the, on the field 10 years, I never heard the word debrief once. I didn’t know what that meant until I came back and it wasn’t used, I think, in the circles that we were in. And now that I know what it is, I’m like, yes, that’s a really big deal.

But to, to your point, and I’m just saying this, thinking of anybody who might wonder what a. A debrief is it is it’s an unpacking and it’s an unpacking maybe if you don’t know somebody who’s a professional in this, but somebody who is an amazing listening heart, who knows how to just ask you questions about your experience and sit with you and pray with you.

And that could be with a spiritual director. That could be with a pastor. It could be with a really great friend, or it could be with somebody who does formal debriefing. And I think all of those are extremely valuable. But yeah, having places, people who are able to hold space for you, and there’s not a lot, of them out there, but they can be found if we look for them. That’s so good. Mary, do you have any closing words you’d like to leave with our missionaries? Just some words of encouragement. What do you, what do you think missionaries need to hear right now?

[00:30:54] Mary: Yeah, that, that the Lord, uh, sees you, he knows you and he cares. And, um, I would encourage any missionaries if there are, um, any, any hurts or anything you’re struggling with to really try to reach out and, um, yeah, and get the support. Encouragement, the healing that’s needed. And, um, because I, I just want to say you are more important than the mission.

You are far more important than the mission. And I think that mission organizations and churches. Um, we as a missions community need to provide a safe place for our missionaries. Many missionaries feel like, um, because they are on support, you know, financial support, um, that they have supporters that they cannot share with their, with their donors, with their sending organization or churches that they are struggling.

Because it will seem like they’re failure. And part of it is because we put our missionaries on a pedestal, but I want to encourage missionaries that we all struggle. And, um, when things are hard, sometimes we just, we do need to reach out and we need to hit pause. Sometimes we need counseling. I’ve had to take time out to do counseling, you know, to get counseling.

Sometimes we need a debrief. Sometimes we just need a loving friend and to call them and say, Hey, do you have a couple of hours to listen to me? Um, I, I really need to share. I need prayer, uh, whatever it is, uh, that’s needed. I, I would encourage us to be authentic and transparent and not to fear, um, You know, that, um, that maybe we look like a failure because, um, it’s not true. That’s what I would encourage our, our workers in the nations to do, that the Father cares about you far more than the mission, so.

[00:33:27] Stephanie: Thank you, Mary. I think a takeaway I have from what you shared today is missionaries are not the superheroes that Christians make them out to be, and neither are they the villains that the world would tell us. They are regular humans called by God into a very unique and specific work.