Great Commission

Entry: An Essential Part of the Missionary Task

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Conversations about missions often focus on evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. These are essential elements of the missionary task, but it takes time and hard work to do them competently. Serving as a cross-cultural missionary mid-term (2 months–3 years) or long-term (3+ years) requires significant time and effort spent on entry. Entry is more than just getting a visa, a plane ticket, and a place to stay. It is a challenging but essential part of the missionary task.

The most important part of entry is approaching the task as a learner.

Entry Explained

Entry is essentially everything that you do before and after arriving on the field to prepare yourself to carry out the missionary task. The International Mission Board’s (IMB) Foundations document includes four elements of entry: research, presence, identity, and communication ability. These categories are broad because entry is impacted by contextual considerations and the specific role that a missionary is carrying out. Missionaries are also frequently affected by dynamics far outside of their control, such as geopolitics and government policies. However, there are several very practical actions you can take before you go and after you arrive on the field.

The most important part of entry is approaching the task as a learner. From the moment you know where you are going and what people group(s) you are going to, begin learning as much as you possibly can. Even when you think you know something, always assume there is more to learn. Three areas on which to focus your learning in the entry stage are: culture and language, geography, and history.

Culture and Language

Culture and language are intrinsically connected in such a way that they cannot be separated for missionaries working on entry. Language is simultaneously a product of culture and one way that culture is revealed. One anthropological view suggests that language shapes how people think and understand the world around them. [1] The goal here is not necessarily to simply become an expert on the culture and language as an anthropologist but to work diligently to understand the culture and language towards the goal of proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, planting churches, and developing leaders. A missionary entering a culture might be tempted to be satisfied with knowing what is done or said in certain situations, but digging deeper and asking why certain phrases are used or certain actions are done can help you in the missionary task.

It is also helpful to know what not to say or do as you share the gospel. For example, certain hand gestures that are innocent in the United States are deeply offensive or hostile in other cultures. Another example might be when sharing the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) with Hindus, the detail about the father killing the “fattened calf” can create an unnecessary barrier to them hearing the main point of the story—the father’s love for the wayward son. It might be better to say that the father prepared a great feast and revisit that detail at a later time.


Cross-cultural missionary life involves living in a new place. Knowledge about the neighborhood, city, and country serves the practical purpose of helping the missionary navigate the area, but it also has a more significant missiological purpose. Knowing what locations are important to the culture such as important centers of activity or boundaries between one area and another can help in developing evangelism and church planting strategies. The most effective way of discovering geography is by mapping and observing. Mapping will communicate what is there, and observing will begin to reveal why various areas are important. [2]


History and Folk Tales

The history of a people group or country and the folk tales are essential to the entry phase of the missionary task. Learn about the stories (whether true or fictional) that the people consider important. For example, the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree is not true, but the story reveals that Americans place a high value on honesty even at the risk of personal consequences. National history, local history, and folk tales—either in print or shared orally—are important sources of cultural information.

Entry is a challenge, but leaning into Christ and embracing the hardship of entering a new cultural context is worth the effort.

Entry Endured

Entry establishes the foundation for the rest of the missionary task, but it is also one of the hardest phases. Most missionaries spend at least their entire first term in the entry phase. The length of the entry phase is one of the unexpected challenges. At six months, entry seems much more bearable than it is at the 2–3-year mark. Lottie Moon observed the hardship of entry in an article from July 1887 when she remarks how often “new missionaries break down or die under the overwhelming burdens, the weight of which is largely due to their inexperience & ignorance of the language & the ways of the people.” [3] Entry is a challenge regardless of the mission context. There may be enjoyable moments or even seasons of blessed work that defies natural explanation. However, the normal experience for many missionaries is a period of physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship that can only be endured by abiding in Christ.

Entry is a challenge, but leaning into Christ and embracing the hardship of entering a new cultural context is worth the effort. The joy of sharing the gospel with someone who has never heard the good news in their own language before is indescribable. Leading someone to faith in Christ and beginning discipleship with them and developing a vision for planting a church, and then seeing that church multiply to reach an entire district is exciting and invigorating. Finding one person who desires to share the true gospel and make disciples in a place where there are a lot of false teachings makes the effort worth it. Endurance is required to run the race, and successful entry will set you up to finish the race well.


[1] This is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 51–52.

[2] For more information on mapping see Matthew Hirt, Peoples and Places (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2022) and Caleb Crider, “Mapping” in Tradecraft for the Church on Mission (Portland, OR: Urban Loft, 2013).

[3] Lottie Moon, “The Breaking Down of Missionaries,” in Keith Harper, Send the Light (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002), 220.

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Matthew Hirt

Matthew has missions experience on three continents culminating in over a decade of commitment to making disciples in both frontier and legacy church contexts. He earned his Ph.D. in International Missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC) in December 2020. He currently serves as a theological education catalyst with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he teaches missions at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Heather have served as international missionaries together in Nepal and Nigeria as well as training and equipping US churches to engage their communities in effective evangelism and disciple-making.

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