Out of Sight, Out of Mind
“Out of sight, out of mind.”
We all know that the proverb is often too true. Maintaining long-distance relationships usually takes time and effort. Yet, perhaps even more than financial support, what many missionaries most desperately need are meaningful relationships—particularly with sending and partner churches on whose behalf the missionary is supposed to be serving. And while, even today, it’s easy to picture missionaries as stoical heroes who can toil silently for the Lord, the New Testament paints a very different picture of the most famous missionary of all time: the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s New Testament epistles are deeply personal. The epistles simply brim with expressions of concern, sympathy, and even disappointment. For example, Paul frequently expresses a deep and genuine affection for his readers (e.g., 2 Cor. 7:13, Phil. 1:8, 1 Thess. 3:8, and 2 Tim. 1:2), an affection that bursts out in exclamations such as “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . . my beloved” (Phil. 4:1, ESV). In fact, Paul’s letters go far beyond the mere verbalization of love and sympathy. Paul frequently exhibits a familiar interest in the life of the churches he is addressing. Romans 16, for example, features a catalog of names in the Roman church, believers whom Paul variously addresses as “fellow workers” and “workers in the Lord.” One believer is even called “a mother to me as well” (16:13, ESV).
What all of this demonstrates is that Paul, as a missionary, formed and maintained deep interpersonal relationships with his churches. He stayed up-to-date with their lives, and for his part, he frequently wrote to them of his own personal struggles (e.g., Rom. 7:21-24, 1 Cor. 2:3, and Phil. 2:27). He seems to have really viewed them as family members. And hints scattered throughout his letters indicate that church members felt the same way about him (e.g., Phil. 4:10 and 1 Thess. 3:6).
This emotional bond wasn’t developed overnight. Paul had personally discipled and mentored many within these churches. In some cases, Paul had spent several years building the church in a particular city (Acts 20:31). So by the time Paul wrote many of these letters, he had already invested a lot, both spiritually and personally. And as the epistles show, these personal investments often seem to be part of what sustained him through his intense and frequently painful ministry.
If the Apostle Paul needed to forge and maintain strong relational connections with his supporting churches, then today’s missionaries, heroes though they may be, also need a personal touch. We were created as social beings, and although our highest purpose truly is to know God and enjoy Him forever, the Book of Revelation pictures that eternal purpose as being fulfilled within a human community, the New Jerusalem. New life in Christ does not pit us in a “spiritual” life against “earthly” or “human” community; it integrates us into the community of the Church.
So how can churches provide effective care for their missionaries? One of the simplest yet most effective means is by cultivating strong relationships. Here are a few specific ways that churches can work to foster this personal closeness:
Invest in strong discipleship and accountability relationships.
Sending churches in particular should invest in strong, discipleship-oriented relationships with missionaries—before sending them out. Living and ministering in a different culture is a spiritual crucible, and as much as possible, churches need to know that the missionaries they are sending are spiritually mature. The only way this can be achieved is through intentionally discipling prospective missionaries. This model is biblical (Acts 13:1-3), and it’s also very wise.
Churches who may have failed to establish such relationships with their sent missionaries don’t need to feel that the opportunity is completely wasted. Many missionaries would highly welcome the chance to forge strong spiritual connections with their home churches. These connections can be developed long-distance through platforms like Skype or in-person when on furlough. If a church hasn’t ensured that spiritual mentoring has occurred with one of its missionaries, the church ought to try offering it to a missionary. Chances are the missionary will leap at the chance.
Establish and communicate about a contact person for needs.
Life happens, and sometimes unexpected needs come up —whether financial, personal, or spiritual. Churches should have a contact person that missionaries can talk to about their needs. Churches should also ensure that their missionaries know who that contact person is. Having a missionary liaison is no good if missionaries don’t know how to get in contact with that person.
Do genuine listening.
Everyone wants to feel like someone else understands—or at least is willing to listen. This is often even more the case when we encounter a whole series of new experiences. Many missionaries just want someone they can tell their stories to.
Listening, however, can be difficult for home churches, since life in a second culture often seems to have little in common with life at home, and it can be hard for those in home churches to relate to stories of life abroad. Missionaries bursting with stories they want to tell can sometimes feel discouraged by those in home churches who seem uninterested in what they have to say. It may sound cliché, but one of the best services a church can provide a missionary is a willing ear.
If Paul needed strong interpersonal relationships with his churches, then modern missionaries need them too. Such relationships are one of the most effective means of support that churches can provide.
For a short video providing additional discussion of how churches can offer effective personal support to missionaries, click here.