Five Challenges for Missionaries from The Life and Diary of David Brainerd

by Erik Odegard June 26, 2019

While reading the missions classic The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, I was struck by David Brainerd’s perseverance through great hardships. He endured them all to accomplish one transcendent cause: to lead Native Americans to Christ. His short life (1718–1747) was devoted entirely to the establishment of a church among the natives of America’s Northeastern region. Early on, he boasted that God supported him in his difficulties so he “never entertained any thought of quitting.”

Yet, only a matter of months later his tone changed: “I was ready to look upon myself as a burden to the Honourable Society that employed and supported me in this business, and began to entertain serious thoughts of giving up my mission . . . .” If David Brainerd was moved by his difficulties, so will be missionaries in our time. Brainerd’s life and writing warn us of five inevitable challenges awaiting today’s missionaries in their work and testifies that the costs are worth paying.

1. Tick of the Clock

Brainerd was possibly too fixed on time’s passing. He wrote honestly about “how guilty it makes me feel when I think I have trifled away and misimproved [time].” This theme was consistent through many diary entries and journals of his ministry. He obsessed over not wasting his days.

Modern missionaries experience a similar perplexity, and for good reason. Missionaries are keenly aware of the shortness of life. They recognize that eternity is pressing hard against the walls of temporality. It is not uncommon for missionaries to be familiar with the rate of deaths per minute among their people. Their work always deals in terms of life and death. The emotional challenge this presents is often missed. Missionaries must learn to live with the tension between working hard and resting.

2. Lack of Colleagues

The lack of a colleague to provide assistance in the work was perhaps the greatest hardship of all for Brainerd. He rejoiced in the simple gift of Christian conversation. He was delighted by the fellowship of other Christians. However, much of his ministry was marked by loneliness. He had to leave his own community in order to penetrate a distant community alone. Sadly, he wasn’t alone for lack of attempts to find a partner. The salary to support the missionary was ready, but the “person qualified and disposed for this good work” was never found.

It is rare today to find solo missionaries on the mission field, and rightly so. Most missionary organizations will point to stories like Brainerd’s as a case in point to prove the usefulness of a team approach. While today’s missionaries work in teams, they still experience this challenge. Let’s face it, even the apostle Paul struggled to gain consistent support. He was abandoned by teammates. Churches failed to meet his financial needs. Our missionaries today endure similar deficits in terms of finances, friendships, and sufficient laborers for the harvest. Yet, they persevere.

3. Barriers to Communication

Language barriers were massive between Brainerd and the native peoples, especially because of the large number of tribes he encountered, each speaking a distinct tongue. Brainerd had to bear with an unbelieving interpreter who was difficult to trust and did not communicate with appropriate conviction and compassion. To make matters worse, the peoples with whom he engaged could not read. They were entirely dependent upon God to send an outside messenger to help them understand Scripture.

Modern missionaries are regularly discouraged by similar language barriers, especially when explaining God’s Word. They spend time and energy learning a second or even a third language to be able to share the gospel for the sake of those who will hear it. Additionally, many people groups learn best through oral communication. Missionaries must learn and utilize oral strategies to reach peoples who do not read.

4. Loss of Comforts

When Brainerd moved in among the Native Americans, he made significant changes to his standard of living. Physical discomforts abounded. Early in his journals, he lamented that the food available to him was poor sustenance. He was able to procure improved lodging when he built a small cabin for himself among them. At first, however, he slept on the ground in a tent-like shelter. While traveling, he regularly had to sleep outside exposed to the elements. And on a few occasions, he had to traverse treacherous forests on foot.

The groups of people still unengaged by gospel workers live in hard places. As Brainerd was forced to leave the comforts and conveniences of his home behind, so today’s missionaries must live in some of the hottest, most rural, difficult, and dangerous places on the planet. Settling in among these people is not an easy task. It requires a conscious decision to forgo the entitlements and privileges associated with home.

5. Lack of Apparent Success

Upon all his other stressors was piled the regular discouragement of seeing no progress made in the mission to “to establish a church . . . among them and hand down true religion to their posterity.” Instead of conversions, Brainerd was met with rejection and opposition by natives and onlookers and nearly concluded that “God seemed to frown upon the design of their saving conversion.”

The battle was not only waging outside him. His prayers were, at times, centered upon the vile motives he uncovered in his own heart. About the pursuit of self-glory, he wrote, “Pride excited me to think of writing, preaching, or converting heathens, or performing some other great work, that my name might live when I should be dead.” This wicked desire was another source of deep discouragement for him because it revealed the ground left to cover in his own sanctification.

From my observation, missionaries tend to become some of the most unassuming human beings on the planet. My suspicion is that a perceived lack of success buffets their souls day by day. The conversion of those dead in sin can only be accomplished by supernatural intervention. Similarly, personal transformation ultimately depends on the gracious work of God.

Whether it’s the pursuit of gaining ground in enemy territory among an unreached place or in the recesses of one’s own heart, the missionary should be regularly dragged down to his knees in desperate dependence upon the intervention of God.

A Worthy Cause

Brainerd’s story reminds us that the missionary task is replete with significant challenges, yet it is being accomplished by those walking in the footsteps of David Brainerd who heed his warnings, count the cost, and conclude, “He is worth it!”

Even better, the same One who was behind Brainerd’s success is behind ours: “I saw that this cause is God’s, that He has an infinitely greater regard and concern for it than I could possibly have; that if I have any true love to this blessed interest, it is only a drop derived from that ocean… Well, if God’s cause be so dear and precious to Him, He will promote it.”

Editor's Note: This originally published at IMB.