When I attended seminary in North Carolina, I was part of a church that sent out many of its members as missionaries overseas. Over the years, I said "see you later" to many of my closest friends as they obeyed God's call to take the gospel to the nations.
It was bittersweet. Goodbyes are kind of the worst. But at the same time, there is joy in knowing that your friends are taking the best news to people who may never hear it otherwise.
Since they have been gone, I have read their emails, prayed for them, video chatted, texted, and tried to catch up with many of them while they were stateside. It has been a joy to watch their families grow, keep up with their work, pray for them as they learn language, navigate culture shock, share the gospel, and learn about how the global church is growing. My own awareness of missions has grown simply by being friends with these sent ones.
"Friendship is not bound by proximity, especially when the gospel is the foundation of that friendship."
I'm convinced that everyone should be friends with a missionary—or at least have some kind of contact with a sent one, whether it's a close personal friendship, subscribing to their newsletters, or serving on an advocacy team. Here's why:
Sent ones need a support system back home.
Before leaving for India in the late 1700s, missionary William Carey told his friend, Andrew Fuller, “I will go down into the pit, if you will hold the ropes.” Carey knew that his work in India depended on the faithful prayers and support from those "back home."
Likewise, sent ones today need this same kind of support. Living overseas is fraught with challenges—simple tasks like going to the grocery store can be taxing, but then there's the distance from family and friends, culture shock, spiritual warfare, and the often discouraging task of living among lost people and sharing the gospel without necessarily seeing the fruit of that work.
If Andrew Fuller could "hold the ropes" for William Carey when communication between different continents was near impossible, then it should be no problem for us today. We have an overabundance of communication tools at our disposal. We have the ability to receive regular updates in order to know how our sent ones are doing, how the gospel is spreading in their area, and how to specifically pray for them. And sending churches are increasingly realizing the importance of missionary care, which means there is increasing opportunity to serve on advocacy teams for sent ones.
Friendship is not bound by proximity, especially when the gospel is the foundation of that friendship. We support our sent ones and their work through prayer, giving, visiting, sending care packages, encouraging them, and simply being faithful friends despite the distance.
We grow in our understanding of the world and God's mission.
It is hard to be indifferent to global missions when you have friends that are taking the gospel to the nations. By simply staying in touch with friends around the world, I have learned more about what God is doing through missionaries and in local churches in various countries around the world.
Even though I have not spent much time overseas myself, my friendship with those who are living in other countries creates a more personal connection to what is going on around the world. Over the last few years, I've had a personal connection to someone affected by many major world events (this is vague on purpose to protect the security of friends who are serving in those places).
And because I love my friends, I deeply care about and am invested in what is going on around them. I am prompted to pray for them and for national believers who are spreading the hope of the gospel in their neighborhoods, cities, and country.
We are encouraged to join their work when we see what they're doing.
It can be easy to think that sent ones are a special kind of Christian, that there is something specific about them that enables them to live and work overseas better than the rest of us.
"It is hard to be indifferent to global missions when you have friends that are taking the gospel to the nations."
But, when we're friends with sent ones, we should know that the above statement isn't true. If we've been in community with them, then we should know each others' struggles, doubts, fears, and sins. We know that they aren't superheroes, they are simply trying to be obedient to the Great Commission in the location to which God has called them.
And when we recognize that the same Holy Spirit that equips them equips us, then we can be encouraged to join them in their work. This should challenge us to consider whether God is calling us, too, to serve him abroad. If God called and equipped our friends to serve him overseas, then that should help us be open to the fact that he may do the same for us. We should not dismiss the idea that God may call us to give up proximity to family, our local church, the comforts of our home country, and much more to move to a vastly unreached country.
But, regardless of where we live, all Christians are called to obey the Great Commission. When we see our friends sharing the gospel faithfully where they live, we should be encouraged and spurred on to do the same.
While I think having a friendship with a missionary is important for all the reasons stated above, of course it's not as easy as "just go make friends." There are some caveats.
First, if you already have relationships with sent ones, you know that communication—though much easier than it was three hundred years ago—is still a challenge. Different time zones alone make communicating difficult, but add on work, family, church, and local friends and it's easy to go months without talking with one another.
That shouldn't deter you from praying for them and checking in on them. If a text goes unanswered, don't take it personally and try again later. While maintaining those relationships is a two-way street, I think the onus of responsibility is on those of us "at home" to make sure our friends know they're not forgotten.
Second, keep in mind that sent ones are real people who may not have the capacity to be best friends with everyone from their sending church, especially if they're being sent out of your church in the very near future. If the circumstances allow, it's great to try to develop that friendship before they leave. But don't be weird about it and don't force a friendship just for the sake of having a token missionary friend.
In this case, you can still make an effort to know these sent ones from a distance. Most have an open newsletter they send out to anyone who desires to receive it. You might have the opportunity to join their advocacy team. You can go on a short-term trip to visit and encourage them. While you may not have a close personal friendship, you can still pray for them and keep up with the work they're doing.
Long distance friendships are hard. I miss my friends who are living on the other side of the world. But it's more than worth the effort to remain in touch and connected with those who are serving the Lord around the world. Hearing or reading my friends' stories and observing what God is doing through them brings me joy and encourages me to be obedient to the Lord's Great Commission.
Meredith is the content manager for the Upstream Collective. She has an M.Div in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Keelan, have two children and live in Houston, Texas. Connect with her on Twitter.