(Note: Being sensitive to missions’ anonymity concerns, I received the author’s permission for this public review).
Great books have a way of stirring the heart and imagination, and moving the pendulum on how we think and where we need to go. David Joannes’s, The Mind of a Missionary, succeeds in all these ways.
You might be saying: Sounds good, but I am no missionary. Well, I’m not one either. Think for a moment on what his title “The Mind of,” suggests. This year during the PGA Championship, I could not resist reading the post: “What Makes Elite Golfers Different from the Rest of Us.” It was a piece about Rickie Fowler’s first hole, and how one slightly errant shot led to another, culminating in a double bogie. But the article wasn’t about the double bogie; it was about what Fowler did afterwards that captured the eye and pen of this writer. Amid enormous pressure, the ability of top-level golfers to quickly move on and stay poised and focused is extraordinary. You could say, elite golfers win the game of their minds so they can compete at the highest levels. Thus, when you open Joannes’s book about the missionary mind, understand that he is going after what can make any Christian exceptional. Even if we do not venture to the wider world, this book can make you world-class!
Granted, the subject matter is God’s global enterprise, and I know that topic does not top the “felt needs” list of many believers. Yet in an age of rampant self-absorption, of triviality pursuits, of low bar service expectations of church members, if ever there was a time in history when Christians needed to come to terms with something stemming from the heart of God that is far bigger and greater than themselves, it’s now. And I honestly do not know if there is a better book to achieve this end.
From a reading perspective, this book has all the elements that you would want … it is well-conceived and researched, beautifully written, provocative in thought, innovative in leaning, and inspiring. Books of this caliber are not easy to review because there is a wealth of content on every page. I will not spoil any of that for you, but I will give you four takeaways that I believe make this book rich, and I will offer my two cents in a few places.
#1. GREAT STORY-TELLING ABOUT COURAGEOUS CHRISTIANS
Did you know missions has a backstory? Whatever you may think about the term: “missionary,” this book tells the missions’ story, and Joannes does story-telling as well as anyone in his genre. Detailing the scenarios of unlikely human vessels, he reaches backward and probes inward, using research to bring to life the callings of God’s trail-blazers. Prepare to become more educated, to have your pulse ratcheted up in spots, and you might have to grab a hanky, too. But one thing you will come away with from The Mind of a Missionary: What Global Workers Tell Us About Thriving on Mission Today is awareness. The coverage of stories creates a similar impact to taking a “Perspectives” course at a school or church, and yet, in my opinion, his treatment is a far more integrated presentation about missions.
The author organizes the book around themes essential to the mindset of the missionary, such as:
In three chapters per, he addresses what God’s missionary activity involves. The believers’ motivations are of utmost paramount. Again, the stories of missionary figures who have pioneered God’s movement are microcosms of us. You will learn what occurred in the minds of these individuals who dreamed big for God, why their lives mattered then, and matter today.
Many famous names are featured, and there are others you may not have heard of, and some who bridge into the modern era, names like: Jim Elliott and the Ecuador 5, Hudson Taylor, Jackie Pullinger, Don Richardson, The Cambridge 7, Nik Ripken, William Carey, Amy Carmichael. There’s more.
#2. INTIMATE FIELD KNOWLEDGE FROM A PRACTITIONER
The fact David Joannes is a career missionary, and the director of Within Reach Global carries weight. I realize this may be a bit of a pet-peeve of mine, but we have too many people out there writing about missiological subjects: evangelism, church planting, community outreach, missions—who claim to be experts, but in terms of their experience are not well positioned to give us the insight we need. This point is exacerbated in the mission realm, because we often don’t see critical distinctions until we bump up against it. It’s “Oh, block, now I see.”
As one such example, working as a missionary first in China and now in Thailand, Joannes is attune to how difficult it is to seed the gospel in soils where national and religious ideologies have strongholds. I found myself literally jumping for joy over his description of indigenous Christians sharing the essential gospel in entirely unconventional ways to Thai people with minds shaped by Buddhism. They use a “metaphorical approach,” he notes. But because they tap into terms and concepts familiar to the hearer, they are seeing increases in conversions.
Similarly, Joannes knows the issues affecting today’s missions. Feel the book’s realism from the Risk Section headings: Physical Challenges, Emotional Struggles, and Spiritual Hurdles. He has seen the congregational yawns firsthand when missionaries come to speak in the church. In his writing, he pulls from savvy voices, like Amy Peterson, who’s crying out for more honesty about missions. Yes, honesty. He is forthright in discussing the issue of “attrition,”—7,000 missionaries leave the mission field every year. The book shines not only in Joannes story-telling ability, but his desire to shift the current course.
#3. THE CHOICE OF GOING DEEPER IN YOUR TRUST OF GOD
Most believers want a deeper more exciting experience of God. This book will bring you headlong into the God who wants to reach this world, who is actively working, who does the impossible, and who wants to use ordinary folks to do extraordinary feats. It is this God who blesses the faithful work of his servants in the darkest of places.
We learn David had the experience of being turned back from entering Communist China with suite-cases of illegal contraband (Bibles) four times in one day. What? Is that not insane to think about? It is for me. Why did he keep going back again and again? Well, there was only one answer. He did so because God kept prompting him to go back. Out on a limb in faith, trying to smuggle Bibles into a closed country, he didn’t know anything other than to follow God’s voice. Ever been there? Ever been out on that kind of limb? Well, this book gets you thinking about that kind of thing, and that kind of faith.
Joannes is in tune with the supernatural workings of God in missions today. The stories, and his own story, reveal a dynamic God working in ways that are beyond us, even causing an addicted crime boss to suddenly speak in tongues in the crime-infested corridors of the Hong Kong (Jackie Pullinger). The supernatural God of the Bible, and the New Testament gospel expansion, is the God of missions. When we get out there in faithful surrender, the LORD shows us what he can do! It’s exciting stuff.
#4. A REFLECTIVE VIEW OF MISSIONS
Adding to its educational scope, what I like most about this book is how provocative it is. Joannes does not only want us to grasp the past, he wants us to process the present. Our lives. Our character. The Church. God’s calling. The Great Commission. Whether we are heading into missions or not, do we have the mental make-up that God uses and blesses in great ways. I found myself introspecting, and also pondering his statements and presuppositions.
Is the answer to reawakening a missionary movement in today’s church found in looking back at its founders, to recapture their spirit, so to speak? Certainly, education is part of the answer, and who can argue against how the Spirit and prayer drive the missions’ impetus. Still, how can we see more in today’s attractional church environments lit with the vision for what God wants to do in this world? This book opens those questions—ones we need to think more deeply about! You will find yourself thinking, as I did, about how far the world has changed from some of these centuries-old stories to the post-Christian era of North America today, and yet much of the broader world is still primarily pre-Christian and unreached.
I can’t help but think that breaking down barriers to entering God’s world enterprise could do wonders. Towards this aim, Joannes gives concerted effort to squash idyllic perceptions of missionaries. Thank God for this! Every time he leans that direction I am cheering. How many Christians today wouldn’t even consider that God would call them or use them in these types of significant kingdom endeavors, because they know they have their issues. Joannes makes headway in demystifying the missions’ super-hero into the available, weak, human being that God chooses to use. Yes, chooses!
The trick he pulls off is that he does so without losing sight of the greatness that often accompanies the person who obeys God’s call, and finds themselves neck deep into a work where they encounter truths that transcend their lives. Such as Amy Charmicheal’s words: “But looking back, I know I would not have chosen any other if I could have known…what it would mean of His companionship, and also of the power to enter into griefs of others. It was all worthwhile, ten thousand times worthwhile.” Or Jim’s Elliott weighting his life against eternal reward: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Foretaste the vision-casting passion from Joannes’s pen: “In this day and age, we are in desperate need of pioneers: daring missional Christians who step beyond cultural convenience and comfort zones to open new horizons. We need trailblazers who hack new passageways in the wilderness: who do not go where the path may lead, but go instead where there is no path to leave a trail.”
As a capping thought, based upon the insights and inspiration from this read, it is my hope and prayer that this work: The Mind of a Missionary, becomes standard text in Christian schools and churches everywhere. It is that good!