by Paul Borthwick
Local church leaders can help missionaries in the time they spend at our churches in at least three ways.
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, "they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27). Perhaps it was this report that stimulated the missionary interest of John Mark; it definitely stirred the early church in its world vision and provided the foundation for others to be sent out.
Visits from missionaries provide a great resource for cultivating a missions mindset in the local congregation. Hearing reports, seeing pictures, and getting to meet missionaries in person can stir their sending church to pray, to give, and to get involved.
Maximum effectiveness is achieved, however, when local church leaders work in partnership with visiting missionaries to help them do their best. Without oversight and advice from the hosting church, missionary reports can be irrelevant, insensitive, or totally dependent on the charisma (or lack thereof) of the visitor.
With a desire to help our visiting missionaries do their best, both in presenting themselves and their work and in stirring the world vision of our congregations, we must start by understanding the tensions our missionaries are under during furlough. Beyond this, local church leaders can help them in the time they spend at our churches in at least three ways: with their appearance, their presentations, and their rapport with people.
When we think about physical appearance, we are prone to quote from 1 Samuel 16:7 – God’s selection of David as Saul’s successor: "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
Both parts of this verse are true. People look at the outward appearance; God looks at the heart. Our goal is to bring people to the place where they too can judge others by their heart, their motivation, and their godliness, but realistically, there are quite a few persons in the average church pew that are still looking at the outward appearance.
Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse describes his youthful judgment of missionaries by their outer appearance:
"Until (a trip overseas), my understanding of missions was only what I observed when missionaries came home on furlough: if narrow lapels were in style, they had wide lapels; if narrow ties were in style, they had wide lapels; if narrow ties; were in style, they had wide ties; if they told jokes, they were always jokes that had been told four years earlier. That was my impression of missionaries- people who were always out of style."
Obviously, Franklin Graham overstates his point, but it is a point worth considering. Some of the people hearing missionary reports never hear the message because they are preoccupied by the reporter’s appearance.
How can the church help? Several practical steps that our church is trying to take:
1. A clothing allowance for furloughing missionaries assists missionaries in looking their best. An allocation should be made to enable missionaries to get clothing that will help them to blend in with the people of the church (without being ostentatious). Such an allowance should include children as well as parents.
2. Accompanying #1, some missionaries appreciate a shopping escort, a man or woman who helps the missionary shop for clothes. When our missionaries return from some parts of Africa, Asia, or Latin America, they are often overwhelmed by the choices of clothes and accessories at the mall or a department store. A shopping escort (often a member from the missions committee) can help them find bargains; the clothing allowance might buy several outfits at a factory outlet, but only one at the more expensive stores.
3. Hospitality is an important ingredient in the appearance of our missionaries. A comfortable place to sleep enables them to be rested and ready for church meetings. Providing a place to wash and iron clothes assists them in looking their best. Balanced meals help them to be alert, so we need to limit the number of starchy pot-luck suppers that we subject them to.
4. A briefing also helps, either in verbal or printed form. At Grace Chapel, we produce a two-page memo entitled, "How To Do Your Best at Grace Chapel." (Copies are available from Grace Chapel, 59 Worthen Rd., Lexington, Mass. 02173.) This explains something about our people, their socio-economic background, and the culture of our church. We hope that we can help our missionaries look their best as they present their ministries to people who are just starting to learn about world missions. (These missionaries will read hundreds of pages in an effort to prepare for effective ministry in another culture; we think that two pages about us will help to increase their effectiveness.)
Although many missionaries receive superb training from their mission agencies on how to report back to supporting churches, I am amazed at how few churches consider it likewise their responsibility to assist missionaries in their presentations. As a result, missionary reports might be excellent, but they somehow just don’t fit the congregation.
Local church leaders can come alongside reporting missionaries to help them do their best:
1. Advise them on the time. When a pastor says, "Take as long as you’d like" to a missionary from a country where services last three or more hours, he is not helping that missionary adjust to the culture of many American local churches.
At our church, where people are overly concerned with time, I try to be specific with our missionaries and tell them when we should be singing the closing hymn. It is better for parishioners to walk away saying, "I wish she had spoken longer; it was so interesting," than mumbling, "I thought he would never stop; the roast is probably burned to a crisp." The latter experience builds a resistance in the congregation to future missionary speakers.
Dick Winchell, the General Director of The Evangelical Alliance Mission, asks his host before he speaks, "If all goes well, when will I be finished?" Every missionary is wise to ask the same question.
Some will respond, "But what about room for the Holy Spirit?" We advise our missionary speakers, "If God is leading you into overtime, please make sure he is leading all of us to go with you." We have had some excellent missions meetings that went 30 minutes over the prescribed limit, and God was definitely leading. We have had others, however, who used their "dependence on the Holy Spirit" as an excuse to come unprepared and to be insensitive to the audience.
2. Most missionaries welcome a critique of their presentations, if they are given in love with a genuine desire to help them improve. One missionary told a story of suffering that was so graphic people could not listen. We advised her to use this story only in a small group, question-and-answer session.
Another missionary’s manner of presentation was so harsh that he came across as scolding the people for their lack of missions commitment. Some responded positively, but most commented, "His guilt tactics turn me off." We advised him to soften his manner so that those who were open to missions but uninformed would not be turned away unnecessarily.
(A critique of the presentation presumes a relationship with the missionaries who do the presenting. We need to make sure they know our support and love before we critique their slides, their manner, or their message.)
3. Using a presentation that suits the missionary is another helpful way to assist in reporting. Not every missionary should preach. Some should be introduced, give a brief report, and answer questions. A few will prefer that their visual presentation (slides, video, or film) speak for them. Others respond well to an interview format in a church service, while others would prefer to interact with small groups only. Some can preach well, but superb preaching is not a prerequisite for missionary service, and it should not be assumed for every missionary report.
Again, the best way to insure effectiveness is to know our missionaries and play to their strengths when they visit the congregation.
4. Assisting missionaries with their audio-visuals provides more support. A quality slide projector (with an extra bulb), a VCR that is plugged in and ready to go, or a film projector that is in position can help a missionary to prepare in less time and be more comfortable about the program. Providing no assistance can leave a missionary running about in a dither minutes before a meeting starts.
5. Whether our missionaries are at our church or overseas, we support them by being excited about their work. A pastor who enthusiastically introduces a missionary family provides an effective bridge between the missionary and the congregation. On the other hand, if the missionary is interviewed by a church leader who starts by asking, "Now where do you work again?", both the missionary and the congregation are embarrassed.
6. While missionaries are on the mission field, we can assist them in their presentation of themselves and their ministries by offering feedback to their newsletters. Several years ago, we purchased a copy of How to Write Missionary Letters ($3.50, or less in bulk, from Media Associates International, Box 218, Bloomingdale, Ill. 60108.) for every member of our missions family. In addition, we try to affirm and critique newsletters in an effort to let our missionaries know that we are reading what they send us and that we are trying to support them by getting others to read their newsletters as well.
RAPPORT WITH PEOPLE
A third way that we can help our missionaries do their best is by assisting them with relationships at the church. In many churches, the missionaries will be known by the missions committee, perhaps the pastoral staff, and a few key supporting families. But what about the rest of the people? How can our missionaries broaden their base of support without being offensively aggressive? The answer lies with the church leaders. By seeing it as our responsibility to introduce our missionaries to others who can help them, we can help our churches become an integral part of the missionary’s ministry.
Again, some practical examples:
1. We can put them in touch with praying people. One of our missionary couples told me that they were looking for a few people who would pray for them every day. They had been away from our church for several years, and their network of contacts had diminished. I offered my support by introducing them to people who I knew would expand their prayer support team.
2. We can put them in touch with resourceful people. A missionary from Eastern Europe was looking for a word processor that could type in the Czech alphabet. A church leader put him in touch with a computer expert who helped him to locate the machine he needed.
Others have made specific financial needs known that we could not meet through our budget (such as educational expenses for children.) We have been able to help these missionaries make contacts at church which have provided the monies needed in miraculous ways.
3. We can put them in touch with willing people. One of our roles as leaders is to put our visiting missionaries in touch with those who are considering missionary service. By taking an aggressive approach in this direction, we can assist our missionaries as they recruit and advise potential new missionaries.
EXTRA HELP WELCOME
Although many mission agencies are training missionaries and preparing them more thoroughly for effective ministry with their supporting constituencies, the leaders of supporting churches must likewise do their part in helping missionaries. Most missionaries welcome this extra help because they want to do their best, not simply in reporting on past ministry, but also in recruiting extra prayer and new workers for their work that lies ahead.
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