Let’s be realistic. There are some legitimate reasons that missionaries struggle to have deep, abiding relationships with local churches. Here are a few:
Missionaries haven’t always been sent by local churches in the first place.
For years some churches (not all) have chosen to “support” rather than “send” missionaries. By “support” I mean they committed to things like finances, prayer, and affirmation, but ultimately outsourced the central role of sending to missions agencies. Missionaries discerned calling, endured assessment, pursued development, experienced commissioning, and forged community more in the halls of the agency and institution than in the homes of their pastors and church members. Thus churches turned over their right and responsibility to be ongoing under-shepherds of the missionary candidates (1 Peter 5:1-4). It’s no wonder, then, that the local church has taken a less significant place in the missionary’s heart and mind.
Missionaries are easily neglected by local churches.
One of my fears in addressing this topic is that I’ll appear to be ignoring the deep hurts of some missionaries who have been forgotten and forsaken by churches. It only takes a few conversations with missionaries to hear a horror story or two: a church who cut their support without reason or warning; a church who made lots of promises they didn’t keep; a church who split or dissolved while the missionary was overseas; a church who sent a missions team that culturally sabotaged the work; a church who over-publicized the missionary and got them kicked out of their country; a church who gave the missionary no time or place to report back; a church who wasn’t a safe place for the missionary to be honest because they were put on too high a pedestal. In biblical terms, many churches have fallen far short of sending their people in “a manner worthy of God” (3 John 1:6).
Missionaries are already overwhelmed with the mission, let alone staying connected to local churches.
Asking missionaries to invest back into their sending churches is a great idea. But anyone who’s served overseas may wisely rebut, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Missionaries are people relentless enough to push through all the reasons not to go, so it’s uniquely difficult for them to root deeply in a church for a prolonged season instead of just taking off. When they do finally arrive on the field, they face the pythonic squeeze of succumbing to a new culture and language. And all this is on top of maintaining their marriage, children, health, and sanity during an identity flush sometimes as violent as the airplane’s toilet. Investing their limited time and energy back into churches—and more than that, initiating it all, seems too much of a distraction from life and ministry’s demands. I have sat with missionaries who essentially challenge me to convince them why it’s important to keep reaching out—writing newsletters that go unanswered, sharing struggles though people can’t relate, pursuing friendships when others have moved on, asking for help when no one comes through, receiving short-term trips despite the risk and exhaustion, mentoring mid-term volunteers even if the investment may not give much return. It makes sense that missionaries hesitate to add this weight to the great burdens they already bear.
Missionaries recognize it shouldn’t be their job to lead in relationships with local churches.
If indeed the church is the means by which God will fulfill his mission, and if local churches are his hubs in which Christians are sent into the neighborhoods and on to the nations, then local churches should joyfully and jealously initiate in relationships with their sent ones. Though the task is daunting, they should allow themselves to be compelled by the word and Spirit to send and to shepherd those who “have gone out for the sake of the name” (3 John 1:7). Missionaries may not have traditionally assumed those exact terms (especially in light of agency focus), but they have had a nagging sense that churches ought to be more on board with the mission. That explains missionaries’ disappointment with churches, ranging from hopeful longing to embittered disdain. In some ways they might justifiably say, “It's not my fault,” and carry on without giving the church a second thought.
In light of all these reasons, expecting missionaries to initiate toward local churches, or even hinting at a chink in their armor, feels audacious. Keep in mind, as a former missionary who dreams of returning overseas, I’m throwing rotten tomatoes at my own house here. Yet what I'm putting on the table here comes not from new trends, but old truths.
Loving the Bride of Christ
For all that Paul embodies as one changed by God and obedient in mission—a model we like to describe as second only to Christ—he also showcases appropriate missionary posture toward the church in word and deed. Was he so driven in his relationship with local churches because he was a highly gifted apostle? Was it merely his responsibility as one who established many of those churches? Did he initiate only because he had the authority to do so? Theologian George W. Peters says no way:
Paul did not exercise such authority in missionary partnership. Here he was a humble brother and energetic leader among fellow laborers, and a dynamic and exemplary force in the churches in evangelism and church expansion (236).
No doubt Paul’s frontier dreams were “slowed down” so to speak due to his inconvenient devotion to local churches. He too experienced neglect and discouragement from churches (Philippians 4:10-15, Galatians 1:4, Acts 21:13, 2 Corinthians 2:1-4). He too carried an overwhelming ministry load (2 Corinthians 11:28). He too could have chosen to operate exclusively within a mobile missionary dream team.
But he didn’t.
Despite every failure and hindrance, Paul loved the church (Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:8). He knew that ditching the bride meant insulting the groom. He knew the church, with all her warts, was not merely a hindrance nor side note to the mission of God. So he never left her behind.
Though there are many honest reasons missionaries might not pursue deep, abiding relationships with local churches, I think these old truths soundly trump them.
This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective.