by Gene Daniels
Missionaries’ relationships with their home churches have changed over the past few decades.
Missionaries’ relationships with their home churches have changed over the past few decades. In years past, the locus of Christian life for many missionaries was seminary or Bible school. They likely participated in a local church at some time, but their real anchor was the preparatory institution and/or a missions board. For some, this proved to be a detached, perhaps impersonal environment for developing their ministry. Even in the best of such cases, it was unlikely for the missionaries to relate to those who sent them in a deeply personal way, in the kind of relationship that is a normal part of the local church.
But times have changed. Many of today’s missionaries, and a growing percentage of those preparing to go to the field, are much more closely connected to the extended families we call the local church. Many local churches, independent and denominational alike, are choosing to take an aggressive role in sending missionaries—a rarity in the past. Conversely, many missionaries find this an appealing idea. This new relationship produces missionaries who may not be seminary trained, and who may not be sent by a large missions board. However, these missionaries share a deeper, more intimate connection to their local church than was common in the past.
I believe this is an encouraging development in world missions. My observations are grounded in my family’s experience of being sent as missionaries from a local congregation that we have been part of for more than twelve years. For the first six years, I was bivocational as a pastor/elder, mainly serving the youth in our small, independent church. Six years ago, we transitioned to Central Asia as an extension of that same church and an expression of its vision for an unreached people group.
Our relationship to our home church as a sending body has been a wonderful experience of colaboring in the gospel. For the most part, it has been a beautiful example of different members each doing their part. However, like all relationships, ours has changed over the years, and at times these changes have produced stress unique to cross-cultural missions. As more local churches become intimately involved in the sending process, more church-missionary relationships face these issues. Furthermore, because these particular stresses are uncommon in the normal life of a local church, many are unprepared.
If unresolved, this stress has potential to undermine even the best church-missionary relationships. After two furloughs, my family has seen that this relational stress becomes acute, even overwhelming, when missionaries return home. At an already stressful life period, one of the missionary’s most vital relationships can become the source of much tension and emotional drain. Therefore, it is vital that we address this issue in an open and honest manner.
DISTANCE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER
When missionaries are on the field, their relationship to the sending church becomes distant, which is largely unavoidable. They lose touch with the day-to-day concerns at home, and the sending church has a hard time even picturing their new world. Yet, over the years, the two sides come to a comfortable balance. Each church-missionary relationship is unique, but all successful ones eventually come to a workable rhythm on issues such as communication and support.
In addition, the person who is now a missionary may have past conflicts with others in the sending church. Rather than resolving these conflicts, everything was conviently swept under the rug because the missionary was preparing to leave. But this avoidance can be a ticking time bomb, especially if the conflict was with those in the sending church’s leadership. If issues have not been resolved in a godly manner, and to the satisfaction of all, they could explode on furlough.
The comfortable rhythm of relationship is suddenly turned upside down when the missionary returns home. Once the excitement dies down and all the stories are told, how does a missionary relate to the sending church for this brief period? How does the sending church deal with these strangely different people that used to be a part of the body? Moreover, what happens to any emotional baggage that was not dealt with before?
Missionaries fall back on a “default mode” which manifests itself in two different ways. First, the missionary may relate to the sending church leadership as if they were a board of directors to whom the missionary reports. This detachment comes naturally as it developed over the years and miles when it was the only option. Although not inherently bad, it is hardly the way to relate to those who are supposed to shepherd your soul. Additionally, this emotional barrier makes it comfortable for everyone to avoid previously unresolved issues.
Second, the missionary’s default mode is manifested in how he or she approaches individuals in the sending church. The missionary may easily treat them like those in any other supporting church, primarily as a source of prayer and financial support. In this default mode, the missionary ceases acting like part of the church family, and starts behaving more like a detached visitor.
Sending churches also seem to have a default mode. Many at home find it easier to keep the missionary at arm’s length than become close again, knowing that furlough will be a short, intense affair. I think many fear a sense of loss if they open their hearts and get close for this brief period. In this default mode, the sending church is content for the missionary to attend service on Sunday and Wednesday nights, and then return home like everyone else. Soon he or she will be leaving again for the field anyway.
The dynamics I have described are common; some might say they are natural. I propose that these default modes do not make for the healthiest relationship for missionaries and their sending churches. I believe this situation is nothing more than a holdover from the times when missions boards and denominations, not churches, were missionaries’ primary stateside connection. Furthermore, I think this detached relationship is unsuitable for the more intimate, “family” ethos that results when a local church sends out its own. Just as this new model entails a different sort of sending, it also requires a different sort of relationship when a missionary returns for furlough.
A NEW MODEL
Today many churches, regardless of denominational affiliation, are trying to find models in the early church’s example of the sender-sent one relationship. The book of Acts contains principles that can show us how to begin building a “new” model.
26From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27On arriving there, 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. 28And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 14:26-15:2)
This passage describes the events that occurred when Paul and Barnabas returned for the first time to their sending church in Antioch. We’ll focus on two issues arising from this passage that provide windows for viewing the relationship between sender and sent in the earliest organized missions effort.
As with many aspects of the New Testament era church, these verses do not provide a clear set of prescriptive guidelines. Nevertheless, they contain insights which serve as a healthy starting place for both the missionary and sending church, leaving freedom for them to fill in the details.
Verse 28 says: “And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” Paul and Barnabas spent a significant amount of furlough time with their sending church. This differs greatly from the normal practice of today’s missionaries. We tend to appear as if out of nowhere, give hugs, speak once or twice and then quickly disappear on the road so we can churn the support base. We may pop in and out regularly for those few months, but few returning missionaries I know spend much time trying to reintegrate into the bodies that sent them out.
It may sound simplistic, but in order to follow the early church’s example, missionaries must be willing to spend time reconnecting with their sending church. My choice of the word “spend” is deliberate; furlough is precious time for most missionaries. We usually have a long list of important things to accomplish.
Nonetheless, if we want to build strong relationships with our churches, we missionaries must invest the time needed to keep these important relationships in good health. Even in individualistic North America, solid friendships are critically important and require time to cultivate.
However, this relationship is two-sided. The sending church must be willing to receive this temporary resident back into its collective life. Missionaries may not be a present part of the body for long, but they still need intimate friendships. They need to feel connected to the church body that claims them as their own.
The sending church must remember that returning missionaries are not the same as when they left; they are now bicultural. They have been pulled and stretched in ways that are impossible to explain to those who have not experienced the ordeal. This new identity may be an uncomfortable reality for many in the sending church. They are unsure how to relate to the person they once knew.
Yet, often the home church may have also changed, this being more likely the longer the overseas assignment has been. Faces in the congregation have probably changed; church leadership may have changed as well. At the very least, the church has moved on with its life, and missionaries on furlough often feel they have been left behind.
For missionaries to reintegrate, even temporarily, into their sending churches, both parties must be willing to accept each other for who they are, not who they were in the past. In rare cases, when the changes have been extreme, one party or both may not be able to live with the new relational dynamic. If all involved are prepared for the inevitability of these changes, the relationship should be able to survive. Can we missionaries and our sending churches look at each other and believe that God has been working in our lives while apart, changing each of us more into the image of his Son?
In Acts 15:2, we draw a second important lesson about missionaries who return to the church that sent them. “So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”
The church’s question concerned the reception of Gentiles into the faith. As a multiethnic congregation, the church at Antioch realized the great importance of the issue. Furthermore, it was not strictly a mission question, but a practical one for the church’s daily life. Yet, the visiting missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, play a major part in resolving this issue. Even as missionaries on “furlough,” Paul and Barnabas were still considered part of the authoritative voice of the Antioch church.
This raises one of the most difficult issues facing missionaries and their sending churches. What role, if any, do furloughing missionaries play in the church’s leadership? If missionaries spend a significant amount of furlough time with their sending church, the answer has far-reaching implications.
Often, missionaries on furlough are relegated to a difficult position. Unlike the model in Acts, they return to find that they only have recognized authority on the field. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, their roles likely changed significantly, but they were still accorded a place at the leadership table. A couple of possible explanations account for this. The other leaders in Antioch may have believed that the cross-cultural experiences of the missionaries would prove especially valuable in the deliberations concerning Gentile converts. Or perhaps time and distance had not changed the leadership status of Paul and Barnabas in their local church.
For various reasons, churches often block returning missionaries from ministry responsibilities and other expressions of leadership while on home assignment. Regardless of the rationale behind such moves, this sends a mixed signal to missionaries about their relationship to the church and their value to it.
Sending churches must realize that returning missionaries have usually carried great responsibility on the field. In fact, they may have carried a degree of authority far greater than what they had in their home church. This is especially true if the missionary lived in a less established “frontier field” that lacked many formal church structures. One would hope that the missionary had a supervising authority while on the field, but he or she has mostly functioned as a pioneer, and carried the accompanying burden. When such people return home and are relegated to positions of secondary leadership, or none at all, this sends a message of disrespect, the direct opposite of the sending church’s intentions.
Returning missionaries, for their part, must handle this issue carefully. They may believe that their field experience gives them unique insights, which is often true. But they are mistaken if they assume that the sending church wants or needs their bicultural perspective. Even if the home church is willing to allow returning missionaries a role in the church’s leadership, they may not be willing to accept the missionaries’ new worldview. Missionaries must remember that a local church, especially one in a monocultural setting, may not need the lessons learned from another culture to effectively fulfill its local functions.
Furthermore, the leaders at home may find a returning missionary’s uncommon point of view irritating, threatening or even arrogant. Thus, the very thing that made that missionary effective on the field—the ability to think biculturally—can destroy his or her relationship with the sending church unless it is mixed generously with wisdom and diplomacy.
To resolve this dilemma, both sending church and missionary must consider a couple of key points. The sending church must understand that missionaries on furlough need the respect of continuing to be included in the church’s leadership. They cannot transition from high leadership to zero in the time it takes to fly home. They need balance between needed rest from responsibility and the respect of leadership that they have earned.
Missionaries, for their part, need to understand that their unique insights may not be called for at home. Even when their views are desired, somehow they must be filtered through the lens of the missionary’s home culture—a culture with which the missionary has likely lost some connection. After spending years away, missionaries must remember that, as bicultural people, it is their responsibility to weigh carefully everything they say. Even when back home, the missionary is still the odd man out, and must strive to be, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “all things to all men.”
The foundation of a family is its relationships. In the same way, the local church family that extends itself to another part of the world is also primarily about relationships—in this case, the relationships between senders and sent ones. All families face times of stress and change. Even in the best families there are times for difficult conversations, perhaps even counseling with outsiders. The relationships between missionaries and their sending churches often experience these same seasons. However, if all involved desire to colabor fruitfully in the gospel, they must work to forge a biblically sound relationship, especially during the crucial, transitional periods we call furlough.
Gene Daniels (a pseudonym) and his family have been serving among an unreached Muslim people group in Central Asia since 1997.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 174-178. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.