One Idea for Missionary Care in Local Churches

Two units on my team have recently had to come back to the US temporarily. These kind of unexpected returns to the home country are increasingly normal in this year of 2020, due to both the pandemic and the changing security situation in some parts of East Asia. Because of my team members’ return stateside, I have been thinking again these days about caring for missionaries upon reentry.

A few years ago I served as the missions pastor at what would become our own sending church. I inherited a practice there that I want to commend to others as a unique way to honor and care for missionaries who have just returned.

When missionaries returned during that season, we would set aside an entire evening for them to debrief with the whole team of our pastors and their wives. It was a big commitment to make given the number of folks we had overseas and the number of elders as well. But these gatherings always proved to be very sweet times. We’d arrange abundant snacks and beverages, childcare for the missionaries if needed, and then give them our undivided attention for several hours.

The goal was to give them an opportunity to share everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There wasn’t a set agenda for the time other than mingling for a bit, an extended time of listening and Q & A, and then prayer over the missionaries at the end. Yet it was amazing the kind of ground that could be covered in evenings like this. Tears and laughter were not uncommon. It was also a way to show particular honor to our friends who had embraced the costs of the mission field for the sake of the gospel and on behalf of the our church. I’ll never forget the scene of one of our single missionaries sharing her story of serving in SE Asia while all the pastors and wives listened with full attentiveness, seated in the living room and on the floor around her. What an honor, I thought, for this godly woman who may sometimes be overlooked because of her singleness.

When missionaries return to their home country, they are in need of a ministry of listening. Despite other kinds of honor and attention, it’s rare that they actually get to share in depth about their time overseas. Yet there is often a need to process what actually happened, to figure out what the high points and low points were, and to begin the path toward healing after the scars of the previous ministry season. This comes most often through verbal processing with trusted counselors.

There is also the need to be reminded of who they are in Christ and that there is a body of leaders behind them who know them and vouch for them. Many missionaries have such hard seasons on the field that they come back questioning their calling and their fit in the task. These types of conversations with pastors can be key to preventing missionaries from being swayed too much by the attacks and trials that they have experienced. As they pour out their hearts to their shepherds, this can be the beginning of their passion and confidence in their calling being restored.

As a missions pastor, there were other benefits as well. This kind of gathering helped to keep missions front and center for all of our church’s elders. It also provided a rare opportunity for us to actually get together with all the other pastors and their wives for a time centered around our missionary friends. In a fast-paced and time-oriented culture, it was an evening where we got to be event-oriented together, letting our missionaries share as long as they needed to (After all, most missionaries become more event-oriented the longer they are on the field). Also, missions pastors tend to have certain kinds of gifts and not others, so I was always helped by the wise questions and different kinds of insights that came when all the diverse pastors and wives were interacting with our sent ones. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 24:6).

My encouragement to my teammates heading back home was to request this kind of a time with pastors, mentors, or friends soon after they get back. If asked how the church can serve you, it’s not selfish or silly to ask for an evening where you can share everything you need to, unfiltered, with those who have sent you out. This kind of time can be the beginning of processing the victories and losses of your previous term in a healthy way. Getting to share so fully in a setting like this also helps when the relatives or fellow church members don’t really take an interest in the details or stories of our time overseas. Even one chance to get it all out there and be prayed over can be very restorative.

My encouragement to any pastors out there reading this is that you also consider how to implement some kind of expression of this time. The actual format and details of this suggestion are not as important as the principle: Local churches can serve their returning missionaries by providing a context where they can share their heart, in depth and at length, with trusted leaders. The applications of this could be as varied as the unique makeup and contexts of local churches. But any church that pursues this kind of ministry of listening in order to serve their missionaries will be caring for them well, even in a manner worthy of God (3rd John 6).

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

The Upside of Reverse Culture Shock

This past week I was fielding questions from a colleague about to reenter the US for the first time after spending a significant amount of time overseas. I found my answers echoing those of the doctors when my wife was pregnant and wondering about certain symptoms. “Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s alllll normal.” Reentry can bring with it a surprising range and intensity of emotion and thinking. The proverbial weeping in the cereal aisle really does happen. A prepared person will expect the unexpected and therefore have a place to mentally put that unusual fatigue, skepticism, or anxiety.

Yet our conversation also brought to mind one of the very good fruits of reentry, a quiet upside to reverse culture shock. This upside is the ability to see your home culture with the eyes of an outsider for a limited window of time. When entering a new culture or a foreign country, we are immediately able to recognize differences and to pick up on contrasts. This makes the first few days or weeks in a new context important as we are able to feel the differences in a strong way. Unfortunately, this ability tends to fade quickly as our senses rapidly adapt to a new normal. Thankfully, these new lenses are not only present when moving into a foreign culture, but also return when reentering our native culture and land. It’s worth paying attention to what sticks out in this temporary period when we have slightly different eyes.

For those who have read the book Out of the Silent Planet, you might remember how Dr. Ransom gets to see humans for a brief moment as the alien residents of Malacandra do. His impression of them is quite humorous. He is fascinated by these ugly, stumpy creatures until he suddenly realizes that he is actually looking at members of his own species. It had just been a while.

It’s hard to predict what will stick out on a given trip back “home.” One trip I was struck by how simultaneously friendly and sloppy in dress Americans in airports were. So many approachable people in their pajamas! Another trip I remember marveling at the amount of money and quality control that goes into basic and boring infrastructure in the US – things like bathroom stall latches and highway guardrails. So much costly quality – these bathroom stalls will last for decades! This time around we’ve been struck by how abundantly green Kentucky is in the summer, more like a jungle full of massive oaks than we had remembered. So much wonderful green space for picnics! Why is no one picnicking?

I’ve come to think of this brief initial window as a potentially enjoyable time where making observations can really pay off. Any time that we have the opportunity to see around our own blind-spots we need to seize it. Whether that’s reading old books or authors who have the rare gift of seeing through a culture even while writing from within it (as C.S. Lewis did), or whether it is pursuing dinners with internationals in our churches to hear their take on things, we are helped by these opportunities. The typically unseen suddenly become visible.

Why is it so helpful to see our home culture through new eyes? For starters, it’s hard to think clearly about what you cannot see. Many aspects of our home culture are invisible to us because that is all we have ever known. We are the fish unaware of the water in our fishbowl. But once a given aspect of culture or context is seen it is able to be assessed and compared with other contexts – and more importantly, with biblical principles. Once I can actually see the lack of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables in the US (particularly in businesses which serve the poor), I can begin to ask why that is. Once I can see that the willingness to help strangers in trouble can be a common virtue (as it is in the US) then I can ask why it is that my Central Asian neighbors don’t share this value. What is biblical modesty? What is biblical masculinity? Should I get a dog? Many kinds of questions are helped by an exposure to diverse cultures and reentry provides a fresh opportunity to wrestle with them.

Those of us who live navigating between various human cultures have the particularly unavoidable challenge and opportunity of carving out our own unique personal culture, which tends to borrow certain emphases from the diverse cultures we have lived in while intentionally rejecting others. Like all believers, we live in the tension of pursuing a more biblical culture while we ourselves are enculturated beings, deeply affected by the unique times and contexts of our upbringing – with all their blind-spots, brokenness, and lingering glory.

When we reflect on the diversity of godly believers and faithful churches throughout the centuries, we come to find a rich tapestry of biblical cultures which have emerged from the same eternal and biblical DNA. Many tribes as it were, distinct in some ways and yet bearing an uncanny blood-resemblance. For those we are called to reach and steward, God has asked us to find our particular place in that tapestry so that we might in the right ways become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, we need to have eyes that clearly see culture – both foreign and our own.

Reverse culture shock certainly comes with challenges – Watch out for the cereal aisle. Yet it also provides a unique window, one in which we can find helpful or at least interesting clarity. But it is a short window. Let’s seize it while it’s open.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

A Few Reasons Why I Love Having Singles on Our Teams

We may have been a little odd, but alongside of the 1997 Star Wars Special Edition VHS set, my ten-year-old friends I loved watching the film, Gettysburg. This film is based off of the novel, The Killer Angels, itself heavily based on the historical events of the battle.

One of the contrasts drawn out in the film is the performance of the Union cavalry vs. the performance of the Confederate cavalry. The Union cavalry, led by John Buford, was ahead of the Yankee infantry as it pursued the Rebel army, as it should have been. The cavalry came into contact with the Confederate infantry columns at Gettysburg. Buford, recognizing the strategic terrain of the area, ordered his cavalry to dismount and to keep the Rebs engaged until the Union infantry could arrive. Buford’s men took heavy losses, but by going above and beyond their duty like this, they held the good ground and contributed to the eventual Yankee victory at Gettysburg.

The Confederate cavalry, by contrast, was off doing its own thing. Led by J.E.B. Stuart, the cavalry was not in close enough proximity nor communication with the infantry. They effectively left their army blind, which became engaged in battle on ground the enemy had chosen. By the time the Confederate cavalry arrived late on the second day of the battle, it was too late.

What does the cavalry and infantry of the American Civil War have to do with singles on missionary teams? Well, I am no military expert, but a good army needed both cavalry and infantry. Cavalry provided speed and flexibility and powerful short-term attacks, in addition to crucial reconnaissance. The infantry provided the stable fighting force, slow, yes, but also mighty. Both existed in a complementary relationship and both needed each other. It can be like this with the families and singles on our teams.

I served as a single on the mission field for one year. Since then I’ve been a part of two teams that were a mix of singles and married families. I have come to greatly appreciate the dynamic of these mixed teams which are able to draw on the strengths of singles as well as families. Every believer has individual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. But in addition to these gifts, there are general gifts or freedoms that often hold true to certain seasons of life or callings. Speaking in broad brushes, if I had to summarize one of main gifts of singleness, it would be flexibility. Pivoting to families, I recognize the gift of stability. Every team needs both.

Families, free as they are to invest in their marriage and in their children, are often less free to invest in locals in the same way that singles can. Singles can work hard and then crash hard, staying up until 3 a.m. sharing the gospel with their friends and catching up on rest over the next couple days. Families have to maintain a higher degree of schedule stability since the kids will lose their minds if they’re that sleep deprived and the parents will not be able to take a two hour nap the next day – because, again, the kids are losing their minds. In addition to schedule, relational capacity is different. Busy homeschooling moms can have a hard time making new local friends, while a single might be overwhelmed at the sheer number of friends she has. In these ways, families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility in relationships.

As a single on the mission field, I was always taking trips to this city or to that friend’s village. Singles often have greater freedom to travel and research. For our family of five, every night where we are somewhere new brings with it a whole bunch of complications. While we still love travel and research, our ability to actually do it has decreased significantly. It just takes a lot to plan an overnight these days. But the singles on our team can fill the gap for us in this area, and they do, driving off into mountain villages on the regular. Families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility for travel and research.

Married folks with kids are just plain busy, and this makes spiritual friendship hard to come by. In addition to the ways in which we have found complementary effectiveness in ministry with singles, I have greatly valued the friendships that God has given me and my wife with singles on our teams. It has been very good for our souls to have these friends who are in a different station of life or who have a different long-term calling. We were kept sane during difficult seasons of ministry in part through the game, Settlers of Cataan, as the two single guys on our team came over regularly to simply have fun together after our toddlers were asleep. I benefited from their availability to sit and have long conversations over chai and coffee and they in turn benefited greatly from my wife’s baking skills. Simple as these things seem, the gift of friendship that singles have to offer to tired ministry families is a mighty one.

Families, for their part, can also meet crucial needs for the singles on their teams. Because families are gifted with stability, we can help provide more of that for busy ministry singles who might need more structured community. One single in our organization shared with me how her team leader’s family had her come every every single Thursday night for dinner and to do whatever she needed to do. If she wanted to hang out, read like an introvert, or sleep, she was to feel free to do so. This invitation gave her a stable appointment every week so that if her Central Asian friends were pushing her to hang out, she could honestly say she had a previous commitment.

The need for family and community is a mutual need, but often singles on the field feel the lack of this keenly. Families can play a crucial role by inviting singles into family times, meals, holidays, and trips. Loneliness on the field can be quite dark and intense. Families on missionary teams can help provide community and family for the singles serving alongside them. It’s not enough to just be respectful coworkers. To truly flourish as a team, families and singles will need to become spiritual friends, and even spiritual family.

Like a good infantry and cavalry, families and singles on the field can do better work when they are working closely together. I like the imagery of infantry and cavalry because it also speaks to equality within diversity. Too often, singles are not valued as equal workers in the missionary task. In the age of Protestant missions, we have swung a little too far in that we have a hard time understanding Paul’s preference that believers stay single like he was. In previous ages of church history, the emphasis was reversed. You couldn’t be in ministry if you were married with kids, but had to be a celibate monk. How much better then to value both singleness and marriage as strategic components of the missionary team? Why not make Paul and Timothy alongside of Aquila and Priscilla our default? When we recognize that we need each other and that we have complementary gifts, this kind of equal footing is more likely to emerge.

So, singles, we need you. This Great Commission work can’t be done by families alone. We need the cavalry.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

A Philly Diner and the New Jerusalem

In spite of the late March date, there was a blizzard in Philadelphia. My brothers and I, seeing one another and our families for the first time in two years, had rented an Airbnb together and were spending a few days catching up. On this late morning, it was just the three of us brothers, walking through the snow together to a local diner.

“Three of youz guyz? Right this way, tuhts,” the older waitress said in a classic Philly dialect.

We took our seats in a booth and settled into sipping diner coffee and enjoying breakfast for lunch. Since my family serves in a Muslim country, I of course ordered extra bacon.

I didn’t expect the conversation to take the turn that it did. We ended up talking about home, that elusive concept that haunts missionary kids and others who have grown up in a lifestyle of transition. G.K. Chesterton once said, “After I became a Christian, I understood why I’ve been homesick at home.” MKs are particularly aware of that homesickness, though it’s more often that they’ve been homesick in spite of never being able to define what home is.

One brother had recently bought a house, the first to do so in our family, and discussed the rootlessness of our upbringing, the absence of a settled place, and how even in his thirties, he was still coming to terms with it. His desire was to move toward greater rootedness. As he spoke, I felt that same desire – for roots, for a house, for land, for community and memory – flicker in my soul.

I of course had embraced the nomadic missions lifestyle of our parents and was coming toward the end of my family’s first term on the field in Central Asia. Exciting things were afoot, a church plant that had just begun, friends coming to faith, new potential leaders being trained. As I shared about our experiences my brothers felt that old desire awakened in their souls also, perhaps even some guilt about not being overseas themselves.

I realized afresh in that conversation that my brothers (also believers) and I need each other. Because I have been called to the unsettled life of a missionary, I need them to “hold the ropes” for me in a particular, settled way. And I’m not just talking about having a place to crash when we’re in the US or being present to care for aging grandparents – important though these things are. I’m talking about having a place to channel that desire for rootedness. I can find some level of satisfaction to that desire by praying for my brothers and supporting them in the rooted lifestyle that God has given them – buying houses, investing in a neighborhood, serving at one local church, knowing which Philly diner we should go to in a blizzard. My brothers, in turn, can channel that desire to be overseas into their prayers and support for my family as we live and serve in Central Asia. Their kids can FaceTime with mine and they can even come for visits. We can, in a way, live vicariously through one another, since we must choose one calling or the other. In this way, we can practically fight for contentment as we lean on one another, as we grapple with our lingering sense of homesickness and wonder if we are being faithful.

I really do believe these are different ministry callings – toward rootedness or toward rootlessness. Consider Paul’s exhortation to the believers in Ephesus to pray that they might live “a peaceful and quiet life, dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2 ESV). Then consider that Paul did not live this way at all, but instead, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… like the scum of the world (1 Cor 4:11,13).”

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess 4:11-12).” But Paul was often dependent on the generosity and households of others. Yet he also honored those who risked their necks (and their stable life) for the sake of the gospel, like Prisca and Aquila and Epaphroditus (Rom 16:11, Phil 3:25).

So which is it, Paul? Are believers called to a radical apostolic lifestyle or to a more ordinary, pastoral lifestyle? A pastor friend recently pointed out to me that some, like Philip the evangelist, may be called to both in different seasons. After Philip’s early itinerant ministry, at some point he settled down, got a house and had a bunch of daughters (Acts 21:8-9).

It seems that most of us will be called primarily to one of these callings instead of the other – some to rootlessness for the sake of the gospel, others to rootedness for the same cause. This harmony of the so-called radical and the so-called ordinary shows up all over the New Testament and throughout church history. William Carey could have never done what he did without Andrew Fuller and the support of the English Baptists. The Judsons were utterly dependent on the ministry of Luther Rice back in the US, mobilizing the rooted churches. For every one family like us on the mission field, we need at least a dozen families who decide to stay home, work, pray, give, welcome us back when we are burnt out, and disciple their own kids and neighbors to themselves go to the nations.

But it’s not only in relation to this world that these callings work together, it’s also in relation to the next. I believe every Christian is meant to foreshadow the new heavens and new earth by the way they live now. For most, it will be a foreshadowing of degree. “Our family has lived in this house for forty years, in this city for eighty. Those trees were planted by my grandfather. But these seemingly stable roots, this place of home, cannot be compared to the true home and the true stability that is coming. Is this wonderful? Yes, and temporary, even if it endures for a thousand years. Let the lesser joy be a path to hoping in the greater. This country is good, but the country of the king will be even better.”

For others, it will be a foreshadowing of contrast. “You know how we have lived in fourteen houses in the last eight years. You know how we do not own, but only rent. Transition is our constant reality. We live like nomadic pastoralists, like Abraham, because a promised land is also coming for us. In the resurrection, each of us will have his own vine and his own fig tree and will find rest because he will have found his place. Here we have no country… but we will find our true home in the country of the King.”

We should feel no superiority to others if we are called primarily to a foreshadowing of degree or a foreshadowing of contrast. Both callings reflect the coming resurrection. Both can become idols or sources of bitterness when divorced from their good and temporary roles as previews of the coming Zion. Both are dependent on one another in this age. The senders are encouraged in their difficult jobs because they know have a vital part in the spread of the gospel to the nations. The goers are encouraged in their difficult roles because they know their work is also an investment in the sending church and its rooted impact in its neighborhood.

Acknowledging the goodness of both lifestyles can free us from false guilt as well. Are you a tired missionary, worn down by the cost of transition and longing for a stable home? It’s OK, the resurrection is coming. Lament and rejoice. Are you a tired church member or pastor worn down by the tedium and heartbreak of a rooted life, where the growth seems ever so slow? It’s OK, the life of the New World is upon us, it’s just around the corner. Lament and rejoice. Everyone is grappling with spiritual homesickness to one degree or another.

Your calling, whichever it is, is a good one. You get to point others toward our eternal hope, life forever in the presence of the King. Toward Home.

Photo by Lee Cartledge on Unsplash

A Breakthrough In Ministry Identity

I remember well the feelings of frustration and disappointment. After moving to Louisville, Kentucky, to finish school and work with Muslim refugees, four different work opportunities with ministry organizations had unexpectedly fallen through. Friends and mentors had encouraged me that these opportunities were a really good fit and surely would work out. Yet there I was, freshly back from the Middle East, jobless in a new city, and almost completely broke.

I knew the need. The Middle Eastern refugee population was woefully under-engaged by the thriving Christian community in Louisville. I knew what I had been called to, reaching Muslims with the good news of Jesus Christ. So why weren’t the pieces lining up like I had been told they would? If I were to be effective while a full-time student, I’d need the time to engage refugees that a paid ministry role provided. I wouldn’t have the opportunity I needed to go deep into the Middle Eastern community if I had to divide my week between my classes and a “normal” job.

I remember pacing and praying in the upstairs apartment I’d moved into with some friends. I was alone that afternoon in the heat of a sticky Kentucky summer. “God, you have been so clear with me about my calling, and the need is real… why aren’t you allowing this to work?”

I kept pacing, praying, and thinking. My heart did not want to reenter the secular workforce. I had a deep, inner resistance to this idea and a lot of thought-out reasons why I shouldn’t just go get a job “like a normal person would”. I had a calling. God had been very clear about that. It had been demonstrated as being truly from the Lord through a year of testing it in the dust and wonder of the Middle East. So many had affirmed this and pledged willingness to support me financially.

And yet, there I was. There was no organization that would take me on and let me raise support through them to do Muslim ministry in Louisville. I was too new and unknown. Refugee ministry was not on most’s radars. And I was at a dead end. God was silent and I was basically penniless. Why had I made this move based on assurances and not based on an actual position offered?

It was then that this conversation started happening in my head:

“If you went to prison for Jesus in the Middle East, wouldn’t you accept that as from the Lord?”

“Well, yes, of course. That would be clear.”

“Even solitary confinement?”

“…Yes.”

“So being put in solitary confinement with no access to anyone, no one you could share the gospel with or disciple, that would still be enough?”

“Well, yes, because I would still have Jesus, and that would be enough.”

“So Jesus could call you to lose your ministry and go to solitary and you would accept that because you’d still have him.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Don’t you see? Your primary calling has never been to Muslim ministry, your primary calling has always been to Jesus.”

I stopped pacing. My brow furrowed.

“If you lost your ministry because of a season in prison, you’d still have Jesus, and you would see that as from his hand. So, what if Jesus asks you to step away from ministry now? To go out and get a normal job? Why would you not also accept that as from him? Is he not your real calling?”

Once these words were formulated in my mind, there was no undoing them. The logic was sound and biblical. I had never been called to a particular ministry in some kind of fixed, immovable way. I had only ever served at the pleasure of my king. And he was free at any point to ask me to change my role.

I would always be called to him. Other secondary callings were not forever and unchanging as this primary calling was.

What followed was peace – and a clearer view of my identity issues. Turns out I am prone to putting my identity and my value too much in my ministry, in what I do for God, in being a missionary. This is what was underneath my emotional opposition to going out and getting hired to do a typical college student kind of job. There was pride there, confusion, and some fear.

God’s plan was better. I would go on to work some good, normal jobs. I would tutor, mow lawns, paint porches, deliver furniture, deliver sandwiches – and learn hard lessons just like many of my peers of how to share the gospel with unbelieving coworkers in the workplace. I would learn how to still somehow reach out to refugees, even when I was working multiple jobs and taking a full credit load. My best friend, a refugee himself, would come to faith in this season.

When God eventually opened up paid ministry opportunities for me again, I was able to approach those roles with a greater humility and appreciation. I was also able to step into those ministries with much greater freedom, because the pressure of my value and identity was not placed on them. I knew my primary calling was to Christ and I sought to submit to the twists and turns of how he wanted me to live that out – ministry role or not. Some have said, “If God calls you to be a missionary, do not stoop to be a king.” I have learned that it’s just as true that “If God calls to to be a furniture delivery man, do not stoop to be a missionary.”

Yet I do find these old struggles cropping up again these days. Here we are, unexpectedly stuck in the US on medical leave, unable to return to Central Asia while the Covid-19 cases rage in our adopted city and region overseas. So far we’ve been unable to get permission to return due to the high-risk factors our family’s health poses. Once again, the work that we know we have been called to has been temporarily taken away. But consider the needs! Are are we not called to plant healthy church among our Central Asian people group? Yes, but first we are called to Jesus. And he has asked us to stay put for now, to rest, to visit lots of doctors, to drink lots of iced coffee and eat lots of bacon (unavailable where we serve), and to write more than we have ever written before.

I don’t know exactly what God is doing in our extended season of transition. But I am comforted knowing that so many of us in the Church are wrestling with these very same identity issues at this time of global pandemic. I trust that God will help us to remember that our primary calling is to Jesus, and not to whatever ministry activities we may not be able to do right now.

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10 ESV)

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32 ESV)

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The Myriad Identity Issues of Missionaries

When asked what kinds of identity issues missionaries face, the proper response would be, “legion.” As with many other struggles, the mission field tends to amplify and multiply things that already existed in seed form in our hearts back in our passport countries.

Men who come to the mission field tend to be coming from backgrounds where they were highly effective in life and ministry. They might be used to pegging their sense of faithfulness to their productivity and ministry fruit. Then, all of a sudden they are the linguistic equivalent of a toddler, bumbling along in a culture where they do not know how to get things done, a culture that proves to be remarkably non-task-oriented even after the missionary learns the local processes – not to mention also being remarkably resistant to the gospel. For men who were driven high-achiever ministry types back home, this shift to seeming-incompetence can be disorienting and doubt-inducing. Men can also face the erasure of clean work/home boundaries, suddenly finding themselves needing to live family life and do ministry in an extremely integrated way. Where does work end and home life begin? How do I gauge whether or not I have committed enough hours to the work of the ministry this week if I had to spend all day searching the market in a distant town for a part to fix my generator?

Women on the field can face a rapid multiplication of roles. Whereas there was barely enough time back home to be a faithful wife, mom, church member, and part-time employee, now they are asked to also be full-time language learners, home-school teachers, evangelists, disciplers, relief and development workers, and mobilizers, while perhaps carrying other language or prayer-related roles for their team. It is impossible to succeed at all of these roles at any given time, so culture-shocking moms are often loaded down by an additional sense of continual failure. Then there is the constant nagging of the thought, “Am I doing enough for our kids or is our ministry lifestyle going to scar them for life?”

Singles on the field can face intense loneliness and sometimes deal with the sense that they are not viewed as the equals of their married colleagues. The assumption that they have all the time in the world can lead toward guilt when they take some down time or take a vacation. Having learned how to navigate the “Why aren’t you married yet?” question back home, now they must face it again coming in new ways from locals, some of these ways being painfully blunt.

Missionary kids don’t know which culture they belong to – their parents’ or their local friends’. This can lead to an over-identification with one culture and a despising of the other. It can also lead to plain confusion, as things which are appropriate to ask and say in one culture are not appropriate in another. They must carve out their own “third culture,” borrowing from both cultures while never fully belonging to either, hoping not to be embarrassed by missing some important cultural cue. Missionary kids can struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” And the idea of home becomes an elusive one which can haunt them for decades to come.

Living in a closed country introduces its own struggles, as missionaries struggle to live with a public identity as a business man, teacher, or NGO worker, while secretly conducting missionary work. This can lead to a nagging sense of uncertainty about how honestly relates to full identity disclosure. Workers on the field train one another to not say “missionary” or “missions,” but then after a day and a half of air travel must embrace these terms and the public identity of a missionary again in order to serve their supporting churches.

Finally, there is the always-present specter of ministry idolatry, where a missionary comes to define his worth primarily in his role as a cross-cultural worker. Other types of work and ministry come to be seen as less valuable than their own and the pedestal they are often placed on becomes too eagerly embraced.

What is to be done with missionaries’ legion of identity issues (Of which the above is a mere sampling)? One of the great secrets of missionary care is that we don’t need anything different than what other believers need. We need Christ. We need the gospel. And that is enough. Missionaries may have unique attacks on their identity, but the needed defense is the same – a relentless reminder of their identity in Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). We are in Christ and that is our primary identity, one which is eternally secure, no matter how productive I’ve been this week, no matter how poorly I speak the language, no matter how many roles I’ve failed in, no matter what. I have value in God’s eyes because of what Christ has done for me, not because I am a failed missionary or the next Adoniram Judson. I am a citizen of heaven (Phil 3:20), a member of God’s household (Eph 2:19) and those are truths that are fixed for all eternity, even if I wrestle mightily with a nagging sense of homelessness in this world.

Yes, missionaries have many struggles with identity. But there is one who can deal with the legion. As we look away from ourselves and remember that our primary identity is found in our calling to him, we will find the grace needed to walk faithfully in our secondary callings.

Missionaries, let us remind ourselves today of our identity in Christ, of our place in the new heavens and the new earth. Friends of missionaries, please remind us also of these things. Let us not forget who we are, for only then will we able to truly serve the nations for God’s glory.

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash

The Most Daunting Place For a Missionary Kid

There I stood at the counter, like a tree kangaroo in the headlights. The fast food worker in his visor and apron was clearly a little perturbed.

“Wait, I get to choose what bread I want? Um… what kinds do you have?” I did my best to make sense of the various options I was given, nodding as if I had actually heard of them before. “Um… Italian!”

“Cheese,” the worker then mumbled.

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, I have to choose the cheese too?” So I asked again, “Uh, sorry, what kinds of cheese are there?”

The worker sighed and rattled off, “American, cheddar, provolone, pepper jack.”

“…Cheddar, I guess.”

“Veggies?”

What was with this place? Didn’t they know that they, as the ones who work at the restaurant, are the ones responsible for making these decisions, expertly putting together delicious flavor combinations so that I could just pick the one that looks the most delicious from its picture? Why were they asking me to do their job for them?

“Sauces? Toasted?” This guy was relentless! And I was getting nervous. I noticed one of my new classmates nearby was clearly enjoying this exchange. Time to bring in an interpreter.

I whispered, “Laura! Is this normal? Help!” Laura composed herself, graciously intervened, and helped me navigate the rest of the unnecessarily-complicated sandwich process.

I, a missionary kid from Melanesia, had now ordered my first Subway sandwich ever. It was a decent sandwich, but I have to admit I was a bit rattled. It took me a while before I was ready to brave the Subway sandwich interrogation line again. Perhaps this even played into my working later for the competition, Jimmy Johns.

The most daunting place for a missionary kid is their passport country, the country which is supposed to be their home. This is because Missionary kids (MKs, or Third-Culture Kids – TCKs) thrive in the role of the obvious outsider. They have grown up in countries and cultures where it’s clear that they are foreigners, and thus shouldn’t be expected to know the unwritten rules. Most cultures give a certain grace to outsiders, and MKs find themselves at ease in this kind of relationship. They are glad to play the respectful learner and guest. Many cultures also give a certain honor to those outsiders who have surprisingly assimilated, and MKs also thrive in playing this role. It’s just plain fun to be a foreign kid who is able to speak the local language, cook local food, and play local games.

But when MKs come back to their parents’ country, they are often expected to be cultural insiders. The fact is they are not cultural insiders. While their parents have passed on some aspects of their home culture, there are big gaps. MKs in their home culture can sense that there are unwritten rules functioning, things they’re expected to pick up on, but they’re not picking up on them. And no one has spelled them out. They can feel like they are in one of those dreams where it’s exam day, but somehow you showed up for the test without studying, and then you realize you’re not even wearing any pants. MKs are very adaptable, and might play it off like none of this is happening internally, but these dynamics are often present, especially from junior high through the college years. They aren’t as much of an issue for younger MKs, who are mostly free to enjoy the strange adventures of the motherland as a kinfolk-filled curiosity.

Why is it so hard for MKs to seamlessly pick up on the culture of their passport country? It probably has to do with the nature of culture itself, which is fluid and regularly changing, and with the way in which culture is typically learned – more by osmosis than by direct teaching. Learning culture just takes time, years of it. When I would share in my college years in the US that I grew up overseas, I would often get an “Oh, that makes sense!” response. It took quite a few years before the responses shifted to, “Oh, really? Wouldn’t have guessed it.” Over time, you assimilate, you “catch” things you were missing or someone just spells it out for you. “I was supposed to be tipping my barbers this whole time? Oh, no!”

If you get to spend time with MKs who are back in their home country on furlough/stateside or for school, there are ways you can help. You can offer to be a safe interpreter. Not all MKs are the same, of course, but for many it would be very kind and appropriate if you offered to field any and all questions they might have about their home country. Ask if there are things they find confusing or strange, or even difficult. Try to be observant of MKs in situations where they might be feeling out of place or unsure of what to do or say. Offer to go with them if they’re attempting something for the first time. If they get embarrassed, try to engage, ignore, or laugh with them as seems most kind for that particular person and situation. Like an employee in a retail store who asks if you need any help finding things, you might get rejected at first, but if you invite communication, you just may find your MK friend coming back to you later with some good questions.

We MKs and TCKs are a complicated bunch, but just like anyone else, we need good friends who will take the time to talk and listen and process… and occasionally help us order sandwiches.

Ten Questions Missionaries Love To Answer

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

A hospital worker apologized to us today after asking us about how we ended up living in Central Asia. “I’m sorry, maybe you get tired of telling your story,” she said. We eagerly assured her that no, we are not tired at all of sharing how God led us to live in our unexpected corner of the world. The fact is that most missionaries are actually surprised by how few questions they get asked when they return to their home countries. Or, after years of living overseas, full of misadventures and crises, the only question that comes is, “So, how was your trip?”

“Um…it was… good?”

If you get the chance to spend time with missionaries who are back from the field, here is a list of questions most would be delighted to answer. Because so few ask questions like these, when someone does ask them it does our souls good, and we are encouraged as we speak of and remember God’s faithfulness.

  1. What were some of the mighty things you saw God do in your time overseas?
  2. What were some of the harder things that you faced?
  3. How have your kids been doing growing up as third-culture kids?
  4. How have you changed since you went overseas?
  5. Tell me about the things you love about your focus people and culture.
  6. How have you grown in your understanding of the gospel as you have served cross-culturally?
  7. How did God call you to go overseas in the first place?
  8. What are things you wish you could say to believers in your home country?
  9. Do you have any funny stories that happened while on the mission field? Epic language mistakes?
  10. What are the things your family most desperately needs prayer for?

Missionaries are storytellers at heart. But we’re often not sure if friends and family really want to hear our stories of breakthrough, tragedy, miracles, misadventures, and those times when we made complete fools out of ourselves. By asking these and similar questions, you let us know that you really do want to hear about our lives. And just as we are encouraged by sharing these things, we hope that our stories will also encourage you.