The Real Poop
This is definitely one gig you're going to want to give a lot of thought and probably some serious meditation and prayer, too.
There are a lot of things to consider before becoming a missionary (How will you pay for it? Where will you go? How long will you stay?), and we'’re going to get to those in a second. But let's talk really quickly about the reasons why you want to do missionary work. Actually less why, more how much.
Honestly, why you want to become a missionary is something only you can answer, informed perhaps by the guidance of your personal faith and whatever form of God you worship. Our Spirituality-O-Meter is still in beta-testing, so we can't advise you here. We can tell you, however, that missionaries generally know exactly where they stand with regards to their religious faith, and they have a very, very clear idea of how missionary work will deepen that belief. You're not choosing the movie you want to stream from Netflix. This is a big commitment to make if you're unsure.
So you get that you're making some sort of deep commitment to your religion, religious community, and spiritual leaders. But what kind of commitment? What do missionaries really do? Though missionaries are often associated with various Christian denominations, some variation of missionizing can be found in most religions from Islam to Buddhism. All religions can only really function if people are hearing their message. If you don't know about a certain idea, in spiritual and worldly matters alike, it's hard to become a follower of that idea. Missionaries help bridge that gap. They're super committed, deeply religious folk who try to get the word out to people who might otherwise miss it.
The average missionary is also afflicted with an acute case of wanderlust. It's hard to imagine someone who hates to travel and who hates living abroad becoming a successful foreign missionary. It's basically in the job description. Most missionaries travel either alone or with their family to developing countries. A minority go to developed countries, and work with already established congregations. But no matter where they go, missionaries have the same basic work ahead of them: sharing their faith. If you're interested in contributing to your religion, but don't like to travel, there are other ways to do that.
So that's the general idea behind missionary work. But just as many spiritually minded individuals might say about the world itself, there's more going on here than meets the eye. Here's what missionary work is emphatically not. It is not about "changing the world." Scrap that idea right this instant. Missionaries work in small communities, and whatever religious message they're peddling reaches only the very smallest circle of people. Most missionaries will talk and talk and talk until their tongues are dry and their heads are spinning, and the community won't be any step closer to embracing the religion that he or she loves so much. It can be demoralizing.
That was the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that you'll show up in whatever village where you've promised your church you'll live for the next three years, and the people living there will hate your guts. Maybe they had a bad experience with a previous missionary, or maybe they just don't like the idea of missionaries full stop. Either way, you need to be prepared for the very real possibility that your would-be converts might end up totally resenting you. Instead of changing the world, aim for opening the mind of one person. Maybe. Fingers crossed.
That's one. Two, depending on where you're located, be prepared to kiss all your modern amenities goodbye. No biggie, you think. You're (pretty) sure you still know how to write freehand; you don't need your iPad. Um, think bigger. You're giving up your entire way of life. Goodbye French toast, and hello sliced mango and groundnut paste smeared on a biscuit. Goodbye local pharmacy, and hello bush clinic. Think you can make that sacrifice? Great, but you also need to stop thinking about it as a "sacrifice." As a missionary, your standard of living might be a "sacrifice" compared to how you were living at home in the States, but in your new life, no one gives a crap how much slower your WiFi is now. You're still the wealthiest person in your village. Which means you don'’t even get to feel good about all the "sacrifices" you've made to pursue your life's calling.
Alright, alright. You get it. Missionary work takes a lot of effort and time and perseverance from the missionary with very, very little payoff. No one cares about you, and you might not care much about what you're doing either. Which brings us back to our very, very first point. The only people who should become missionaries are the people with a strong enough conviction and faith to make the difficult times seem worthwhile. Besides this unshakeable faith, missionaries tend to be fantastic listeners. Day in and day out, they listen to people, and make an effort to really understand how they think and where they're coming from. They are humble and thoughtful beyond all measure. They don't expect miracles. In fact, they're living abroad as much to learn as to teach.
And they're totally cool with bucket baths.
So let's stipulate that you're a gifted listener with a deep commitment to your religious faith, a total willingness to give up all modern conveniences, and only the humblest of expectations for the change you'll effect in the world. How do you actually get this gig? Technically speaking, there's nothing stopping you from booking a one-way ticket to the destination of your choice, and talking about your religious beliefs to whoever will listen. Most missionaries, however, aren't simply living off the kindness of strangers. And they are rarely self-funded. Instead, they receive the financial support and backing of a specific church or organization. This might be a denominational mission board, like the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But most often, missionaries are sponsored through generous donations from either their churches or individual donors.
What all missionaries have in common, though, is a go-getter attitude. These types of opportunities don't just drop into laps. Missionaries have to arrange for their own funding, whether through lifelong savings, formal applications, or informal blank checks from friends in high places. Which means if you decide now that you want to become a missionary, it might be years and years and years before you actually set foot in another country. The best thing you can do right this moment is to be as tight as possible with your church's congregation, and take any opportunity that comes your way to do a short-term, couple-weeks-long mission or two.
And of course, if you're really serious about becoming a salesman for your religion, don't forget to confer with the man (or woman or amorphous deity) upstairs (or downstairs or all around and everywhere), who might be able to send you a sign or two. As much as it pains us to say, there are a few things in these sorts of matters that we can't answer for you.