In my previous article, I addressed the what and why of missionary work in closed countries. In short, getting the gospel to the nations has always directed men and women to difficult places. Despite the difficulties, the Great Commission demands that we keep sending, caring, and praying for our sent ones.
As we send men and women from our churches, we are tasked with continuing to care and pray for our sent ones. When we continue the relationship of care and prayer we are stepping into a long line of “rope-holders” that are essential to missionary work. It was William Carey who famously requested of his good friend Andrew Fuller in 1814 to “hold the ropes.”
Prior to his departure to India, William Carey, whom many consider the Father of Modern Missions, told Fuller, “I will go down into the pit, if you will hold the ropes.” Fuller did exactly that for Carey. He did so by soliciting financial funds for Carey’s missionary work and preaching missions-themed sermons whenever he had the opportunity. Today, like Fuller, we are tasked with holding the ropes for those we send from our churches.
Communicating with Sent Ones
A critical way to keep caring for and praying for our sent ones is by communicating with them. While this sounds simple, it is at the point of communication that we often fall prey to the cliche, “out of sight, out of mind.” After a season of celebration, many missionaries feel disconnected from their sending churches and others once they land on the field. This feeling of disconnectedness can set in within a matter of weeks or months, but it is a common sentiment among those living and serving on the field. Certainly, communication is a two-way street, and some sent ones need to exert more energy in communicating regularly with their sending churches, but I believe that the responsibility of consistent communication rests primarily on you and me as senders.
"When we continue the relationship of care and prayer we are stepping into a long line of “rope-holders” that are essential to missionary work."
As rope holders here are three things to avoid along with practical helps to strengthen communication:
1. Avoid Inflammatory Language
If you communicate with a sent one in a closed country, then you have either received the email that specifies certain words NOT to use in communication or the confusing monthly update with several substitute words and strangely placed asterisks. Your sent ones do not employ these restrictions or substitutions to outsmart anyone or because they fancy themselves the main character in a spy novel, but only to avoid unneeded scrutiny in their emails and other communication. Always let your sent ones model how to communicate, dictating which words or phrases are off limits. Remember, many of our sent ones live and serve in countries that forbid or severely restrict official missionary activity. Using certain religious words and phrases are misunderstood in these closed contexts. Action Point: Do not be afraid to communicate with missionaries but let them lead the way in words or phrases that are not helpful. Initiate a fresh conversation with your sent ones about care and communication.
2. Avoid Identity Connection
There are three things in a sent one’s story that frame who they are: their vocation or job, their relationships, and their location. For our sent ones, they live in a closed or restrictive country, they are Christian, and they work as missionaries. Connecting all these points of identity can lead to unwarranted hardship and difficulty for them or those to whom they are ministering. In your communication, there is no need to connect all these points. It is always best to let someone else tell their own story.
Being an official missionary is either forbidden or unhelpful in many contexts around the world, so it is best to NOT refer to our sent ones as missionaries or to a sending organization, like the International Mission Board, in your communication. Further, it is a good practice to NOT ask them to share specifics about their team or ministry relationships or to mention other missionaries that you may know. Ultimately, there is no need to initiate specific details or questions about their job in our communication. Let the sent one initiate the types of details that are permissible to share.
One side note for you as the communicator as well as the missionary: There is never a need to apologize for or hide the fact of your Christian identity.
Action Point: In your communication do not share all the details of your sent one’s story. Let the sent one initiate the types of details that are permissible.
3. Avoid Irregular Communication
To borrow from another cliche, “Absence does not make the heart grow fonder.” In fact, it often leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication. You should communicate with sent ones often. Communication equals care and is the building block of any healthy relationship. As Quentin Schultze reminds us, “Nearly everything we do is communicative in nature, including making friends…” (22) The way to cultivate an enduring relationship and friendship with sent ones is to communicate.
"You should communicate with sent ones often. Communication equals care and is the building block of any healthy relationship."
There are a variety of ways to stay connected and cultivate regular communication. It only takes a matter of moments to send a quick note via email, a short text on Signal or another secure messaging app, and even small video snippets on something like Marco Polo. Proverbs 25:25 reminds us, “Good news from a distant land is like cold water to a parched throat.” Send good news and updates to your far flung sent ones regularly as well as keeping up-to-date on the good news they communicate with you.
Action Point: Communicate often and in all sorts of ways with your sent ones. Let them know they are not forgotten and that you are praying for and cheering them on.
Communication is not difficult, but it is often neglected when it comes to our sent ones. While things like closed countries and security can make communication daunting, do not let it stop you from staying in contact with those you send from your church. If this article reminds you that you have in fact let communication with a sent one slip recently, there is no better time than right now to send a quick note to someone serving around the world. To communicate, and communicate regularly, is a critical way to hold the ropes for our sent ones.
Greg Mathias is Director of the Global Missions Center at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Associate Professor of Global Missions. He and his family lived and served in the Middle East with the International Mission Board. Since that time, he has been involved in training and equipping through theological education and the local church.