Last month, my husband and I watched through tear-clouded eyes as two of our U.S. church elders and one of their wives boarded the Air Niugini flight headed back “home.”
We squinted as we watched their small plane fade into the thick layer of clouds above. These friends had packed their refreshment and encouragement carefully inside biblical truth and godly counsel and they transported it over 8,484 miles. In our thirteen years serving in an arduous cross-cultural ministry, we have had over four such on-location care visits. As the plane disappeared, we reflected on a question we are often asked . . .
How do you find long-term joy and keep going in ministry?
Two factors continually come to mind—the faithfulness of God and sending churches that are fulfilling their long-term roles in helping us stay and finish well. The first factor, God’s faithfulness, is foundational, for without God’s sure promises we could never persevere in proclaiming the gospel to those who have never heard. However, it’s the second factor that I want to focus on. The ongoing involvement of sending churches is critical to the Great Commission. So what are the characteristics of a faithful sending church?
Five Characteristics of Faithful Sending Churches
Every missionary should be sent, and this sending role belongs primarily to the local church. But there’s more to it than seeing someone off at the airport. Based on Scripture’s teaching, here are five things that we as missionaries need from our local churches in order to survive and thrive in the ministry assignments God has given to us.
1. Confirm our call before sending us.
Meet with us and decide what the long-term goal is. Document it with us. We especially need these reminders when it is not well with our souls.
It was a hot and irritating day in our little patch of “jungle nowhere,” and I was F-I-N-I-S-H-E-D. Call the helicopter. This was a mistake. I can’t do it anymore. My husband had many response options in this particular situation. He wisely chose to remind me of two truths: (1) God is not an indecisive God who changes his mind when we aren’t happy with our ministry anymore. (2) God often builds Christ-like character through present hardships. My husband very wisely gave me time and space to re-align my heart with Scripture. God met me right there in the jungle that day, and, thankfully, the helicopter wasn’t called.
Findings on missionary attrition have shown that understanding God’s leading to the field is critical if missionaries are to persevere, particularly when times are difficult.
2. Count the cost with us before we go.
Jesus calls everyone who would follow him to first count the cost (Luke 14:25–33). Counting the cost is also necessary for a missionary assignment, particularly for cross-cultural church planters and their families who live in highly stressful environments. In order to remain faithful in their respective ministries, missionaries must count the cost, not simply once-and-for-all, but daily, hourly at times, and in every facet of their lives. Therefore, don’t send us to begin a work that we aren’t ready for or that you don’t know how to help us finish.
When interviewed about the responsibility of Western sending churches, Anton, a tribal church elder from our village in Papua New Guinea, added,
When you send a missionary to another country, they must go, ready to endure the hard things ahead. They need to know that in our places, there are no cars to drive around. They will need to learn to get out of their house and walk on trails with us. There are no stores nearby to buy the things they want. They must learn to live without some things. The way they live in their country is different and easy for them, but their new life will be hard. Their sending churches should help them think about this at home and then keep encouraging them to learn to lay their culture aside and live in ours. Missionaries who are able to do this—they “sit down with us” well and stay to finish the work they committed to do.
Have you, together with the missionaries you are sending out, counted the cost? Have you clearly communicated what the end goal and expectations of this ministry will be? Now, before the plane takes off, is the time to observe whether these men and women have and are putting into practice a theology of suffering that will see them through the coming trials. Do they walk through suffering and difficulty with hope in God’s promises, or do they consistently seek the path of least resistance?
3. Make sure we are qualified.
Walk closely with us and help us identify personal, family, or ministry issues. Provide us with accountability in these areas before we multiply ourselves cross-culturally. The apostle Paul spent more than ten years ministering in local contexts before he was officially sent out from Antioch on his first missionary journey. His testimony of faithfulness grew, so when the Holy Spirit said that he and Barnabas were to be set apart (Acts 13:2), the church was in full agreement. The church was able to confirm God’s call on Paul’s life by seeing the apostle’s track record of faithful ministry. He had been faithful at home; he would be faithful abroad.
Remember, a missionary often serves as the lone leader, or elder (if it is a male), of the new church (at least initially). It only makes sense, then, to study the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and then to ask, Does this individual meet these qualifications?
4. Help us find compatible agencies that can equip us for the task at hand.
Identify the best available resources for training missionaries. If you choose to go with a missions agency, then make sure you agree with their statement of faith, core values, overarching purposes, and ministry philosophy. A good agency should assist your church in the continued equipping of your missionaries. It should also provide the specific training and tools needed for planting a church in a cross-cultural context. Such training may include the following: the processes of culture and language acquisition, linguistics, literacy, translation, and curriculum development. They should also provide ongoing spiritual and ministerial accountability in the field.
Before we, the missionaries, leave home, contact the agency’s field leadership in the country and region where we are transitioning and begin the relationship. If a local (national) church exists, encourage your missionaries to attend and find accountability and community as soon as possible. The best scenario for completion of ministry goals will include a holistic team effort made up of the local church that is sending, the missions agency, and the national church that will provide ongoing oversight.
What about your church––have you positioned your missionaries for joyful, long-term ministry by sending them with the training and resources needed to see continued growth in their spiritual life and progress toward their ministry goals?
5. Pray for us and support us physically and spiritually.
Love on us, and sometimes that means tough love. Most churches do well with occasionally sending care packages and spoiling us while we are home (which we greatly appreciate!) But don’t forget to remind us that we are sinners who still need the gospel. Missionaries get into sin spirals. It can be tempting to deflect our sin onto others or onto a difficult situation in ministry.
“Confess your sins and be forgiven.” We need to hear that often. A missionary recently told me that when she seeks input on her own sin issues, it is difficult to get people from home to acknowledge her sin and hold her accountable. She laments, “They tend toward enabling and giving me excuses because of the stresses of our ministry.”
One of our favorite lines from Lauren Daigle’s song “I Am Yours” says, “He who kneels walks away healed.” Be brave. Remind us of our constant need for healing by offering to kneel with us. Then point us to God’s never-ending grace in the gospel. This is where we truly find the joy of the Lord and the strength to press on. Most of all, spend the time and finances to visit us and meet with our team. You might be surprised how many missionaries have never had a care visit from their sending church! Commit today not to let your missionaries fall into that statistic. Think of specific ways to pursue them and stay connected to the body, mind, and soul.
The elders who recently visited us got home safely, and the following week I received a picture of the bulletin with our names in the ongoing monthly slot, “Praying for Missionaries.” We are not forgotten. Ministry is hard. We have struggled. We have sinned. By God’s grace and for his glory, we press on with joy because of the strength he gives and because of the churches who faithfully serve as senders.
For more on the role of sending churches in equipping missionaries, see The Role of the Church in Equipping Missionaries.
This point is made poignantly in Mabel Williamson’s book, Have We No Rights?