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The Five Love Languages of Missionary Care

A monkey was sitting in a tree during a typhoon. From the safety of his perch he noticed a fish that was struggling tremendously in the river below. Being a compassionate monkey, he scurried down with great risk to himself, snatched the fish out of the river, and laid it tenderly on the ground. The fish was at first so excited that it leapt with joy. Then after a time, to the monkey’s delight, the fish settled into a restful sleep.

What’s the moral of this Eastern parable? Well, for the purposes of this article, it’s that we should pay attention to what’s actually loving to others. The monkey was certainly well-intended, but his love was of no benefit to the poor fish! Likewise, in the realm of missionary care, we as members of the sending church should want our expressions of love to be beneficial to Sent Ones. If our care seems loving to us, but it isn’t received as actually loving to them, then we’ve become quite the oblivious monkey.

Let me give you an example. When I was serving in Africa, a member of my home church sent me a box of ink pens with his name and business listed on them. First of all, handing out free ink pens to poor children is more than a stereotype of what Western missionaries do—and it’s just generally unhelpful. But that’s another story. What made this supremely unhelpful was that his last name was the same word for something . . . awkward . . . in the local language. Even though it made for endless laughter, I ultimately chose not to hand out the anatomy pens. I knew the man was trying to love and support me, and I could appreciate that, but I didn’t feel very practically loved or supported.

If we are going to extend missionary care that does more than make us feel loving, then how do we go about it? Well, there may be an interesting parallel with Dr. Gary Chapman’s famous The 5 Love Languages. Dr. Chapman lists five different categories of receiving and expressing love:

  1. Words of affirmation

  2. Quality time

  3. Receiving gifts

  4. Acts of service

  5. Physical touch

Finding out and acting on how a Sent One feels loved—rather than simply how you feel loved—may hold the key to maximizing your missionary care.

Even though each form of love is meaningful to everyone on some level, individuals usually experience one of the languages as more loving than the others. Finding out and acting on how a Sent One feels loved—rather than simply how you feel loved—may hold the key to maximizing your missionary care. Let me give some examples.

Words of Affirmation

This love language is expressed through verbal or written communication that builds people up. All believers are called to the practice of “speaking the truth in love . . . that [which] is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Eph 4:15, 29); however, the person with this love language especially desires and needs such words. This means thoughtful encouragement, compliments, affirmation, and appreciation that is affectionately and genuinely expressed. Although it’s best in person, such communication is also beneficial through text messages, videos, emails, letters, and calls.

Quality Time

Having the love language of quality time means having the deep desire for others to give meaningful, undivided attention. The person may apply the quality time simply to conversation or to a particular activity, but at the heart of it all is relational presence. If we read between the lines in the Gospels, we can easily see that Jesus often loved people by offering them his undivided presence. With his help, we can do the same through eye contact, active listening, asking thoughtful questions, and putting our phones away. Of course, this is more challenging from a distance, but with some creativity (and thanks to technology), it is possible.

Receiving Gifts

The love language of receiving gifts is wrapped up (no pun intended) in things that remind people they are known and loved. But this is more than simply opening a present—the gift is a visual symbol of love. It represents careful reflection and deliberate choosing. God is an expert giver of good gifts (James 1:17), and with some intentionality, we can be like him for the sake of Sent Ones with this love language. Keep in mind, however, that care packages can be experienced as a kind gesture but still not tap into symbolic love (remember the pens?). Take the time to find out what they like, then fill the package with that. Send them a digital version of the newest book from their favorite author. Drop some money in their account to splurge on a beloved activity. It will be well received.

With some intentionality, we can be like God for the sake of Sent Ones.

Acts of Service

Acts of service embody the idiom “actions speak louder than words.” It’s a love language that finds meaning in others doing things for them—often very practical, and often things they don’t enjoy doing themselves. Now, before we assume this is just petty, we need to remember the prominence of the New Testament command to simply serve one another (Luke 22:27; John 13:14; Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 4:10). One of the most impactful short-term mission teams I’ve ever observed was comprised of tradesmen who made plumbing and electrical repairs to the missionary’s house. Show up to do things like that—or even just to cook meals and do the laundry—and the missionary with this love language will be delighted. Even if you can’t visit, there are plenty of tangible ways to serve them or their extended family (helping with storage, taxes, mail, etc.). And don’t forget to apply this to their children!

Physical Touch

Ok, this love language may seem a little strange at first, but it’s not limited to romantic touch. Some people experience love most meaningfully through appropriate forms of physical contact. This can be contact made in passing or given with full attention: shaking hands, hugging, patting on the back, arms around shoulders, walking together, squeezing onto a crowded bus, etc. Of course, this should be approached with great sensitivity, never forced, and, in most instances, only extended male to male and female to female. Because you can only express this love language when you are physically present, it may be extra important to make visits as often as possible if you know a missionary feels loved in this way.

Seek to love them in ways that make them feel loved.

If you’ve found this interesting enough to read to the end, then you might be asking the rather critical question, “How do I find out a Sent One’s love language?” One way is simply to ask which one he or she thinks it is. Further questions might include:

  • What do others do or fail to do that most hurts you?

  • What do you most often ask of others?

  • How do you often express love or appreciation for others? (How we express love often flows from how we desire to receive it.)

If all else fails, then ask them to take Dr. Chapman’s basic online quiz.

And if this all feels a bit awkward, especially after my pens story, then throw out the terminology and keep the principle: seek to love them in ways that make them feel loved.


Bradley is a missiologist, pastor, and trainer. He has been at Upstream since 2014, producing blog and social media content, authoring The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning "Home" and How Churches Can Help, and serving as a board member. He is also the lead pastor at Antioch Church. As a former global Sent One, Bradley reflects on missions and formation at Broken Missiology.

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