Often, there seems to be a disconnect between missionaries and the churches which sponsor them. It is difficult for congregations to relate to them when so much of their daily lives are unknown and unfamiliar. In this post, Jim Ramsay shares some helpful ways churches can begin to understand and relate to the missionaries they support.
The relationship between missionaries and their supporting churches has a long history, all the way back to the sending of Paul and Barnabas from Antioch (Acts 13). Over recent decades, that relationship had developed assumptions and expectations, some of which may need to be questioned or simply relinquished due to changes in technology, travel, globalization, and new understandings of mission.
Here I suggest five facts that challenge dominant assumptions about the relationship between missionaries and their supporting churches. Understanding these areas are crucial to maintaining positive relationships.
1) Missionaries are not super-spiritual.
Having served as a missionary for 10 years and now working with many missionaries from our organization and others, I can confidently state that missionaries should not be placed at the top of the spiritual pyramid! Spiritual hierarchy is related to an unfortunate development that separates the sacred from the secular, as if God only operates in one sphere.
Cross-cultural missionaries are simply ordinary people who have responded to a prompting from God to serve in some sort of cross-cultural context for the sake of reaching people for Christ. We all are called to be witnesses; the only difference is the context of where that is being lived out. Sometimes I’ve been introduced to churches as such a spiritual giant that I was watching for the lightning bolt from God!
2) Short-term mission experiences are very different from long-term missions.
Short-term mission experiences do not give a person a deep understanding of what it is like to live cross-culturally long term. This statement is not made for the purpose of evaluating the value for short-term mission trips; that is for a different article. But, simply stated, the conditions surrounding a short-term experience in another culture are vastly different than living there.
Short-term trips are high in intensity for the duration; everything (food, lodging, transport) is usually organized for the participants; things are new and exciting; and the team leaves before those things become routine and mundane. This means that while it is a valid and interesting experience, most short-term, work-focused trips do not give participants an accurate sense of what it is like to live there for their long-term missionaries.
3) One of the best gifts you can give a missionary is listening.
Living in a culture quite different from your own creates all kinds of unique experiences, cultural disorientation, and identity crises. Often, when missionaries return to their passport country, they long for someone who will just spend time with them and listen. An attention span of more than five minutes is a gift that cannot be overstated, especially if the listener can just hold off on telling about recent local events and projects.
One of the least helpful ways to listen is to interject with experiences had during a short visit outside the West. There can be a time for that, but especially not when the missionary is sharing deeply from his or her experience. Resist the urge to connect with the person from one’s own experience—it is sufficient just to listen and ask good questions.
4) Please try to avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.
Especially with technology as it is now, there are creative ways to connect with missionaries even while they are far away, except in some of the most sensitive parts of the world. Missionaries love to hear from supporting churches with encouraging notes, news, requests for prayer, care packages, etc.
When possible, consider a visit. This does not need to mean a team of 20, which guarantees the missionary tons of work in preparation and guiding and very little one-on-one time. There is a place for that. But consider two-to-three people paying a visit to pray for, encourage, and baby-sit. One of the most precious gifts our family had was when a young woman friend from our church came and spent 10 days with us. She just experienced our life, loved on our kids, got to know our friends. It endeared her to our family in a way that continues now, 15 years later.
5) Being a missionary is not a vow of poverty.
Granted, one would hope people don’t enter this career as a means of getting rich, but most mission agencies want to be sure their people are paid wages that will enable them to provide for their family, have adequate health care, have some education options, take vacations, and eventually be able to retire. This means support accounts include not just the bare salary needed to survive where they are serving, but also pension, health, social security, and such benefits that most ordinary employees who attend the church receive.
Sometimes supporting churches get “sticker shock” at what a missionary family must raise, but if you consider what two adult incomes plus all the employer-provided benefits cost, you quickly see that it is very modest. When hearing the total a missionary has to raise, do not compare that with a single, employed individual’s “net salary.”