Sending missionaries from your church is exciting, but caring for your sent ones long term is often very difficult. Caring for them when they are serving in hard places presents an even greater challenge. Sending missionaries does not stop when they get on an airplane. Sending is an ongoing process that continues as long as sent ones are serving on the field, especially when they are serving in hard places.
Many sent ones are serving in places around the world that are hard for a variety of reasons. High-security contexts make it difficult for people to communicate openly and clearly to a lot of people. Many sent ones also serve in contexts where they are geographically isolated from teammates. Serving in hard places can leave sent ones feeling lonely, forgotten, and abandoned by their sending churches. This phenomenon is as old as the missionary task. Paul wrote several letters while imprisoned in a Roman jail, isolated from other believers and co-laborers. At the close of 2 Timothy, Paul laments the absence of fellow believers near him. He asks Timothy to send other people for fellowship. He also asks for personal items—a cloak, scrolls, and parchments that he had left with a mutual acquaintance (2 Timothy 4:13). Similarly, Paul concludes his letter to the Philippian church profusely thanking them for their ongoing prayer, support, and love for him (Philippians 4:10–14). While their financial gift was appreciated, knowing that the church had remembered him was the source of his joy.
Churches today still have an ongoing responsibility to care for their sent ones, especially those living in hard places.
Regular Planned and Personal Connection
The most basic commitment that each church needs to make to its sent ones is planned and personal connection on a regular basis. This might be in the form of messages on secure apps like Signal, email communication, or phone/video calls. First, the connection needs to be regular. Churches should make an effort to connect with their sent ones at least once per month. With all the activity that goes on in the church, it is easy for months to slip by without connecting. That leads to the second aspect. Connection needs to be intentionally planned. Rather than haphazardly sending a message or trying to schedule a call whenever the sent ones cross your mind, intentionally schedule times to connect, and then make those appointments a priority. Unless an emergency arises, the planned connecting times should be kept. Missionaries often have busy and unpredictable lives, so rescheduling those meetings can be a significant burden for them. Frequent rescheduling will also communicate to them that they are not a priority. Thirdly, the connection must be personal. Sharing a church newsletter or sending out a generic email to all of the missionaries in one shot can be a start, but it is one-way communication. Those forms of communication do not allow you to hear from your sent ones. It is helpful for them to stay connected to what is happening in the church, but the church also needs to know what is happening with their sent ones on the field.
The most basic commitment that each church needs to make to its sent ones is planned and personal connection on a regular basis.
Provide Care in Tangible Ways
Missionaries who go to hard places make considerable sacrifices regarding their physical comfort. Weather—heat and cold—can be relentless in some places, physically wearing people down. Illness is a frequent challenge for overseas workers, especially where good medical care is not available. The pressure of security concerns can be exhausting. Infrequent and irregular electricity can compound the other burdens and frustrations. Add to all of this the struggle of living immersed in another language and culture. Missionaries come to the field knowing that these challenges exist, but that doesn’t mean facing them will be easy. In the midst of these challenges, receiving a little piece of home can bring a significant amount of joy. If care packages can be sent by mail, find out what items particularly will be appreciated by your missionaries. Make an effort to visit your sent ones at least every one to two years. When you visit, dedicate luggage space to bring items that the missionaries need or want. Like Paul, they may say that they do not make the request out of need (Philippians 4:11), but they will “rejoice in the Lord greatly” as you demonstrate your care for them.
The Pastor Can’t Do It All
Some pastors may read the suggestions so far and wonder how they will fit caring for sent ones into their full schedules. It is great when a pastor can be involved in connecting with the church’s sent ones, but a better option might be to designate people or groups who commit to connecting with the missionary and serving as prayer advocates in the church. One alternative approach is encouraging and equipping church small groups to adopt the church’s missionaries. The small group leader would serve as the primary point of contact and also share prayer requests and updates with the wider church. The small group leaders will need some training as they connect with and care for your church’s sent ones. Training is available from Upstream Collective or various sending agencies.
Persevere in Prayer
While the main point of contact can be through a church small group, a church still should care for their sent ones in hard places by praying for them in the corporate gathering. This should, as a minimum, include a regular dedicated time of prayer for the church’s sent ones where prayer requests are shared with the entire church and intercessory prayer is offered. Commitment to pray for your church’s sent ones is a minimum level of partnership. In addition to serving current sent ones, the persistent focus on prayer for missionaries can also inspire other members to consider serving as sent ones to the nations.
While the main point of contact can be through a church small group, a church still should care for their sent ones in hard places by praying for them in the corporate gathering.
If your church sends missionaries, then your church also must commit to caring well for those that are sent, especially those who serve in hard places. Your sent ones desire to have a relationship with you. Serve them with your presence and your prayer. Allow them to rejoice each time your commitment to partner with them is renewed.
Matthew Hirt (PhD in International Missions from SEBTS) has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. He is also the author of Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.