by Jack W. Bruce, Jr.
Suggestions on providing your supporters with ample reason to trust you as a missionary worthy of their support once your furlough is complete.
Have you ever wondered how people at home view your missionary service once you've concluded your furlough year? Will they pray for you? Will they continue to provide you with enthusiastic financial support once you return to your field? Will they wait expectantly to hear what your ministry is accomplishing in the years to come? The answers may depend on how you are perceived during your few precious days of furlough.
Because of our partnership with a missionary denomination and our close proximity to a missionary aviation school, our church has regular contact with career missionaries. These contacts may be as brief as a weekend visit or as long as an extended home assignment or furlough in which the missionary resides in our community.
I have learned that a furloughing missionary often leaves a particular perception about his or her service on the field. What we senders observe can cause us to either rally in support of or, in some cases, doubt the effectiveness of the missionary.
Here are three suggestions on providing your supporters with ample reason to trust you as a missionary worthy of their support once your furlough is complete:
1. Show love for the local church. The members of a missionary family from Brazil wrote to us before coming home on furlough to see if they could serve as missionaries-in-residence in our church for the six months they would be living in our community. They wanted to be part of our church family. Though we were unable to provide financial support for their ministry, they willingly served the church and the community.
During their six months these missionaries led our missions committee, directed our world missions conference, guided a Sunday morning prayer meeting, assisted with a monthly ladies missions fellowship, and participated in leading our Sunday morning worship service. It wasn't just their church involvement that spoke loudly of their commitment to the Lord, but their obvious interest in the church.
This family had five children under age 9. They traveled 18 miles to attend our church services and functions. When not out of town, they were present for Sunday school, Sunday worship, midweek growth groups, and other regular church functions. They were present whether or not they were involved in the program. They lingered after services to get to know people. They prayed with church members. They were available and noticeably present.
I contrast this experience with other missionaries who have given the impression that the fellowship of the church family isn't that important. When a furloughing missionary only shows up at the church for one hour a week you get the idea that he's only attending out of a sense of duty. When she attends only when invited to speak she gives the impression that the church has nothing to offer her. When the missionary regularly schedules Sunday morning as "travel time" you wonder if he is purposefully avoiding the assembly of believers.
A missionary may be involved in church planting on the field, but if he fails to show love for the church at home, one wonders what truly motivates him in his missionary efforts. When missionaries show an interest in the local body of believers at home, they not only solidify ongoing support once they return to the field, they build trust among their partners at home.
2. Teach your children how to behave in public. As a pastor, I am aware that those in full-time ministry live in a fish bowl. My wife and I, and our four children, are continually being watched. I know that unreasonable demands can be put upon parents. My wife and I attempt to keep those demands in proper focus. We don't allow the expectations of our congregation to dictate what is right for our children.
However, our children's conduct in public often reveals our personal strengths or weaknesses. Paul told Timothy that the church overseer must keep "his children under control with all dignity." The reason was obvious: "If a man does not know how to mange his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?"
On any given day, our children can be anything but dignified. Yet, Paul is not speaking of normal childish exhibitions or the occasional temper tantrum in the church foyer. He is speaking of general behavior.
We at home do need to be sensitive to the transitions taking place in the life of the MK. For example, a child who grows up in an African village, where he is free to roam with very few spatial boundaries, may find it difficult to be "bound" by the limits of conduct in some North American contexts. A child who grows up in a culture where yelling is a normal part of play may get scolded in a setting which esteems more sedate behavior.
Regardless of the reasons for the behavior, or whether those at home are being sensitive to the needs of MKs in transition, the expectations to have reasonably well-behaved children are a reality. Just as a pastor is often judged by the conduct of his children, how missionary parents train their child to behave in public can affect how they are viewed.
I know of missionaries whose reputations have been damaged because they failed to supervise their children. When a missionary family enters the doors of our church and the children immediately run rampant through the aisles, climbing over and under the seating while screaming in delight, the parents' character is already called into question. If a member of our congregation entertains a missionary family in his or her home and the missionaries' children lack civility and courtesy, the missionaries' standing becomes tarnished.
As a missions-minded pastor I find this type of uncontrolled behavior unsettling. Not because it doesn't fit my expectations of good behavior, but because it works against the support for world missions which I strive to produce in my church. Chronically misbehaving children not only affect the credibility of the missionary family, but also the credibility of the mission agency. The congregation wonders what kind of agency sends these people out. Or they wonder if this is the kind of missionary the board sends around the world.
I know the struggles involved in building financial support for world missions. I work year-round to see our church increase its giving to world missions. A bad weekend with a missionary family with uncontrolled children can sap the will of potential financial supporters.
3. Show a desire for the ultimate glory of God. One of my favorite books on missions is Let the Nations Be Glad, by John Piper. The motivation for missions in this book is pure and refreshing. Piper writes that "Missions is not first and ultimate: God is." His premise is that our desire to glorify God should be what motivates us into missionary activity.
I once preached to my congregation that worship of God is to be the primary drive of our missionary (and evangelistic) activity. I was astonished to learn that this was a revolutionary thought to some people in our church. Equally astonishing is what I have heard in some presentations by missionaries and mission agencies. One wonders who is being praised, the mission board or Jesus Christ. We can get the impression that a particular missionary is serving because of his or her loyalty to a denomination or mission agency rather than a commitment to Jesus Christ.
A barrier to many in our churches (especially among Baby Boomers) is denominational or agency pride. Hearing a missionary or mission representative imply that his or her mission board is the best or is doing a work superior to that of all other mission agencies is a turn-off.
Though our church is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, we actively support three missionary organizations and have strong connections with missionaries serving with at least six other mission boards. To hear a missionary say, "Our missionaries are the best" just doesn't ring true. This attitude can quickly negate anything else the missionary might say or do in our congregation.
In our new members class I read a list of missionary agencies that the C&MA works with. This helps to reinforce the unity of the body of Christ and validate meaningful partnerships.
While we have the responsibility to build confidence in our supporters by providing them with substantial accounting of our stewardship, we must be careful not to underrate the effectiveness and ministry of a sister organization. It's a pity when we in the church resort to marketing strategies that promote ourselves and devalue others as we clamor for the limited dollars available.
These three suggestions might be as welcome to some as dengue fever. Certainly people at home are not climbing over each other to show a commitment to their local church. Nor are the parental skills in the families at home always exemplary. Furthermore, the home church may give the blazing appearance of existing for anything but the glory of God.
Yet, even with these realities, missionaries who sacrifice on the field to contextualize the gospel might find themselves needing to contextualize on the home front to enlist continued support.
Jack Bruce is the senior minister at the Elizabethton Alliance church (Elizabethton, Tenn.). He has a B.A. in missins from Crown College in Minnesota and an M.Div. from the Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, N.Y. He has served nine years on the Southern District Missions Committee of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
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