We once stayed on the coast of the Black Sea on the return journey to our corner of Central Asia. After a stormy night, I ventured out for a late morning prayer walk once the rain had stopped. The downpour may have ceased, but the wind and the waves crashed in relentlessly toward the land.
This constant and steady shove of the sea winds led to me walking tilted to one side. But I didn’t really notice this until I passed one of the enclosed bus stops that periodically lined the road. As soon as I stepped behind the shelter of the bus stop, the pressure disappeared and I almost lost my footing and tumbled into the benches. I regained my posture, laughed at myself, and continued on out into the wind again. I paid attention to see if this would happen at the next bus stop. It did, I recovered slightly better this time, and I began to enjoy this unexpected pattern of this particular walk. Walk, lean, lean, stumble and correct, lean again. It was quite surprising how disorienting it was to step out of the wind and into the safety of the shelter.
This little seaside walk reminded me of what it’s like to step out of a high-stress missions environment – or really any high-stress environment. When the pressure is constant, you adjust and gradually cease to notice it. Then you step out – take a vacation, go on furlough, etc. – and boom, you find yourself quickly reeling as the pressure is removed.
“I feel like I’ve been sleeping for weeks and weeks,” one friend told me after leaving a particularly dangerous part of Central Asia. “We didn’t really realize how much stress we had until we got out,” another recently said. Others might feel numb after stepping out of their context, or they might get sick. Feelings of calling and spiritual affections might go strangely haywire. We sometimes get headaches that seem connected to the collapse of the stress and the schedule. Or, after a hard year and a 16-hour flight with small children we might simply feel like chucking it all and going to live like hermits in the woods somewhere.
What’s important to notice is that this sudden disorientation is normal. Though it doesn’t always happen, it happens enough to represent a real pattern. Missionaries stepping out of their context of service will likely face some kind of a disorienting and reorienting period, often due to the removal of the pressures of said context and the effects of reverse culture shock.
It’s important that the missionaries themselves don’t get freaked out by this. And that those receiving them keep the possibility of this kind of adjustment period on their radar as well. Right after return to the home country might not be the best time for a debrief – or at least not the main debrief. It also might not be the best time for lots of scheduled ministry engagements.
Time to get one’s bearings is important, time to let more the temporary feelings dissipate and to let the deeper affections rise again to the surface. Quick decisions about the future should probably be avoided. Instead, what is needed is sleep, steady friendship, time to reconnect with Jesus, and some plain old time to think (preferably while sipping on some good tea or coffee). If coming from high-communication cultures, colleagues may need to cover for their teammates who need to go dark for a while.
We are currently in the midst of a week like this ourselves. After a busy couple weeks of traveling (eight different beds in twenty one days), yesterday I was feeling pretty pessimistic about lots of things. Today? Things are seeming a lot more grounded and good. Nothing really about our circumstances has changed. We just got some extra sleep, some restful time in nature, and some good time to pray. A few more days of this, and we might be ready to step back into the wind, as it were.
If you step out of a high-pressure ministry context, prepare for a bit of a jolt. This is normal. And it is itself an important part of realizing how to live sustainably and sacrificially in that particular context.
A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.
“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”
I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.
We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.
Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.
Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?
As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.
So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.
I’ve said it. I’ve felt it. I’ve heard it said by others. It’s the kind of statement a cross-cultural missionary can say with a deep inner sense of fiery rightness. Yes, we did ultimately come here for the lost locals, and not for the other missionaries. Or did we? This statement alludes to the danger of getting sucked into the attractive expat bubble – where they speak my language, feel my culture, and let me be my own cultural self. This expat bubble – full of birthday parties, meetings, and game nights – has claimed many a victim, lured so deep in that there no longer exists any compelling inner response to the lurking question, What am I doing here? Not to mention what it does to actual culture and language acquisition. It’s wise to be aware of this danger of too many hours with other expats.
And yet it’s a statement that only acknowledges one deadly cliff off the side of a ridge. There’s another one, it’s evil twin as it were. This inverse danger has to do with the absence of biblical love toward the other missionaries. Like it or not, the other foreign Christians in our contexts are a part of our witness toward the locals we are trying to reach. In pioneer contexts, they may be the only other brothers and sisters in the faith around. So these teammates, partners, and fellow expats we awkwardly run into in the grocery store have an important part to play in what we communicate about the kingdom and household of God.
Like our own children, our local friends are always watching. They are wonderful observers. They are sometimes terrible interpreters, but they see far more than we might initially think. Do we really think that local believers won’t pick up on the inconsistency if we are exhorting them to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12:10) when we ourselves ignore and keep a distrustful posture toward the other missionaries, our siblings in the faith? Sure, we might not be actively working against them, but is respectful distance really enough to count as biblical love? Our actions, our modeling, must match the words we use in our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. When our words match our lives, that is when we are living a compelling witness. To model love, we must be open to healthy relationships with the other believing foreigners.
Jesus makes some pretty incredible promises related to these things. He says that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). He prays that we would be one so that the world may believe that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). The love of believers for one another proves we are true followers of Jesus. Our unity proves the Incarnation – no small thing for those like us working among Muslims! Notice the absence of a qualification that says these dynamics are important only between missionaries and their local disciples. Sadly, many of us have drawn an arbitrary line where we justify our cold treatment of other foreigners because we are pouring ourselves out in love for the locals. Yet notice what’s happened here. Love for one group of people has become an excuse to not show love to another group. Is this OK? Maybe we should run that one by the Sunday School children and see what they have to say about it.
We will reap what we sow. God is not mocked (Gal 6:7). Geography and calling doesn’t nullify the one-anothers of the New Testament. If we conduct ourselves like pagans toward the other foreigners and only act like Christians toward the locals, this will catch up to us. It will undermine our work again and again, as countless missionary teams have learned over the years. The number one reason missionaries are said to leave the field is because of team conflict. I believe this is because we missionaries are so strongly tempted to live a double life of love toward the locals and pettiness toward our fellow expats.
It would not be so common if it were not so easy to justify. But oh, can we justify this double standard. Think of the number of lost going to hell every day! What is a birthday party compared to that? Think of the scandal of there being no witness in this huge language group! Why should I invest hours every week trying to get along with my teammates whose personalities are so different from mine? Can’t we just merely tolerate each other so I can get back to pouring into the ones I’m really here for?
But just as the body can’t ignore any of its physical members without experiencing eventual pain and harm, so missionaries who are part of the same body of Christ must not pretend they live in a vacuum separated from their fellow members of God’s household. We are intertwined by the blood of Christ. We need one another. Spiritually, we are already one with one another through the work that Christ has done. To live otherwise is to live out of touch with true reality.
If we missionaries live in a context where there are other foreign believers, then we must broaden our sense of calling. Have we been given a specific secondary call to reach a certain people group or city? Great! But we have first been given a deeper primary calling to love the bride of Christ, every part of her. We have to mature to the point where we can see that loving the other foreign believers well is an integral part of reaching the locals. Often, sacrificing some ministry time with locals for the sake of healthy team or partner relationships will be the right call. Pressing as the needs of the work are, we can’t afford to tourniquet these members of the same body merely because they are expats like us.
God sent us here for the locals – but yes, for the other foreigners too. The sooner we embrace this broadening of our calling, the healthier models we will be of a mature and compelling faith. There is danger in spending too much time with other expats, especially if we are doing this to retreat from the culture. But there is also great danger in failing to love the other foreigners in a manner worthy of Christ. Let us strive to walk that proverbial ridge without falling down the cliffs on either side.
Last week I wrote a post on the upsides of local houses. Well, there are downsides as well. The quality of the construction materials and infrastructure here in Central Asia means that things are regularly and unexpectedly breaking. “It takes forever just to get to zero here” is how one partner used to put it. In other words, by the time you’ve got your electricity working again, water back in your tanks, the squatty potty unblocked, and the cockroaches squashed, your energy and motivation to go out and invest in locals has taken a big hit. You’ve worn yourself out just getting to zero – and you haven’t actually done any “work” yet. Because of this, we’ve learned that part of living wisely in a place where things regularly break means having backups. And backups of those backups.
When a system we rely on breaks, that can throw a wrench in other very important plans. It can turn a day focused on good proactive work into a day consumed by reactive scrambling. It can also lead to a rush of stress and anxiety as we strive to fix said system ASAP while the children scream and the parents’ other tasks start piling on top of themselves. This kind of thing can be weathered occasionally, but no, it’s not sustainable. One of the reasons I’ve come to be a believer in backups (and backups of those) is because they simply allow my family to keep on humming along, even whenwe’ve somehow run out of water – again. Backups also crucially give me a bit more margin to fit in that repair or replacement without nuking my entire schedule. And I also find that I’m practically able to go about the logistics of the fix with a bit more patience, respect, and intentionality – in short, more like a Christian. Which is good, since I am a missionary, after all.
Two nights ago we got back from a Sabbath day excursion to the mountains. The real winter weather had finally arrived in our semi-desert city and I had left some small electric heaters on low so that the house would retain some of its heat while we were gone. The cement houses here quickly turn into iceboxes if their residents don’t vigilantly fight to maintain a low and steady heat inside. Well, we got back to see that our whole street had electricity, but our house alone was dark, as if we had tripped our power again. “Well,”I sighed to myself, “Here we go again!”
Our local electricity situation is quite complex. There is the dirt cheap national electricity which is very inconsistent, but almost unlimited in amount when it’s available. When it’s on, residents tend to binge use all their appliances at once. “Quick! Turn everything on before it goes away again!” When national electricity is off, each neighborhood uses its own private generator. Residents choose how many expensive amps they’d like to buy and can use only that amount of electricity when they’re running on neighborhood power. We buy just enough amps to be able to use one AC/Heat unit, plus a fridge and lights.
However, this neighborhood system still doesn’t equal 24-hour electricity. That’s led us to set up a battery-inverter system to run a few small things during the regular blackouts – things like internet, some light bulbs, and a sound machine for the kids. Beyond this, we have propane stoves and heaters, plus flashlights and candles. A family can actually hold out on battery and flame-powered devices for quite a while. This is what we end up doing when the neighborhood generator breaks down because of extreme temperatures or when the national electricity transformer at the end of our street gets fried by a very unlucky cat (true story). The longest we’ve gone without electricity here is about three days – not bad compared to the Melanesian village I lived in as child. But then again, there are no winters in Melanesia. Nor summers with 120 degree desert heat. In fact, the mountain valley I grew up in was known to have one of the most ideal climates in the world. But I digress.
When we got home from our mountain excursion we saw right away that we had no electricity. I first checked to see if we had tripped a breaker in our courtyard in a power surge. This sometimes happens when national electricity turns on. And it sometimes leads to 2 a.m. electrical fires (once again, true story). Nope, no tripped breaker evidencing a surge. Then I checked to see whether we were on the backup neighborhood generator. An indicator light told me that yes, we were supposed to be on neighborhood power. So I went out to another breaker we have up on a pole across the street to see if we had somehow tripped that one. Negative. Neighborhood power, our backup, wasn’t working for some reason. So I went inside and flipped the switch to the battery lights, our trusty backup of the backup, expecting the battery-wired bulbs to immediately flicker on. Still nothing. Here I started to get a bit concerned. The backup of the backup wasn’t working either. I remembered that a friend had just warned me that it was coming time to replace the huge battery we had bought four years ago for our inverter system. The aging battery must have run out of juice after running for several hours. Now it was completely dead.
I went upstairs to check yet another set of breakers (all fine) and then turned a propane heater in our central room on high. At least we would have some heat. Then I came down and started pulling out all our neglected flashlights and putting fresh batteries in them. With the aid of the flashlights, my ninja wife was able to get our campfire-scented children bathed. We praised God that hot water was left over in the boiler from earlier in the day. We had hot water, some propane left, batteries for the flashlights, and some candles. Not bad, actually. The backups of the backup of the backup were saving the evening. With these things my wife was able to move the kids toward bed (somewhat) as usual. And I was able to start problem-solving the situation, knowing my family wasn’t going to bed in a house that was completely cold and dark.
I quickly called up our neighborhood generator man. Someone else picked up and told me that the man I needed was actually asleep. However, they had another guy to send who promptly gave me a call. I asked him if he knew the house where the only Americans in the neighborhood lived. “Of course I know where your house is, it’s me, Muhammad!” Which Muhammad? I thought to myself. Most first-born males in our city are given that name, meaning the name alone doesn’t do much to call up a certain face. So we end up tagging them in our phones with some other descriptive – Security Muhammad, Baker Muhammad, Taxi Muhammad, Crazy Muhammad, etc. So with “Electrician Muhammad’s” help I learned that some kind of national power surge had indeed burned up the conductor unit next to our courtyard breaker switches. And this was preventing our neighborhood amps from getting through. Alas, that conductor had lasted a whole three months since we had installed it to replace the previous one – which had burned up after only three weeks.
With some skillful screwdriver work by Muhammad and only a couple quick runs down to the neighborhood bazaar, we had everything we needed. To my great satisfaction, after only an hour and $20, we were back up and running on neighborhood electricity. We were also good to go if national electricity decided to come back on, and our battery-inverter system was also getting recharged again (Which I actually had to use during a blackout as I wrote this post). Systems restored.
We then went on to finish a quiet Sabbath evening.
If anyone has made it this far, I’m impressed that you slogged through all of these details. What is my purpose in writing about all of this? Likely, the misadventures of our backups of backups might strike only a few as oddly interesting. But truth be told, over here we actually spend quite a lot of time thinking about, talking about, and fixing these kinds of issues. We don’t write home about them very much, but they are the day in and day out stuff of real life in this corner of the mission field.
“What did you do yesterday?”
“I spent all day recovering from an electrical fire. You?”
“Ran out of water again. Good times.”
For churches and supporters of missionaries, if you know workers on the field, it’s worth asking them if there’s any kind of backup system that they don’t have that could really serve them. Maybe something solar or battery-powered. Maybe a well or a generator. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re supposed to spend money on things like this, even though we know there might be great practical payoff.
For any future missionaries out there, you may want to seriously consider investing in some basic handyman skills. And also know that it’s not overkill to spend some cash on good backup systems – and on backups of those backups. There may be those days where being able to fall back on that backup will enable you or your family to keep humming along, hopefully at a pace and posture more conducive to spontaneous ministry and steady faithfulness.
After all, when you’re hosting a local and getting close to sharing the gospel, and the power or water or something else goes, it’s wonderfully practical to simply fall back on the backup system, knowing that you can fix the other stuff tomorrow. Turn on the the battery lights. Fire up the propane heater. Bring in some water from that extra tank to flush the toilet. Make a good-natured joke about things falling apart. And then keep on sharing the gospel as if you never missed a beat.
I wrote this letter to our group of fellow missionary candidates shortly before we left for training. Six years later, these conversations and structures are still valuable to consider for any who are hoping to be sent out as missionaries from their church. However, I would recommend talking with your church about these things much earlier, perhaps a year in advance of your departure. The sending church relationship really matters! Consider how you these suggestions might help your church better send in a manner worthy of God.
Fellow Missionary Candidates,
We have just under two months until training and during that time I wanted to send you a few ideas regarding your relationship with your sending church. For the past couple of years I have served as a missions pastor and also have been involved in broader conversations with other churches about healthy New Testament sending and supporting of missionaries. Our crew of candidates comes from a variety of churches. Some are experienced missions-minded churches who already have developed sending and care structures for their missionaries. Others, in sending you, will be sending out their first ever missionary. We know that it is the church that sends, not the organization (Acts 13). Our org will provide many structures for our care and support while we are on the field, but your relationship with your sending church is a vital lifeline that can be the difference between you staying on the field or coming home. In light of this, here are a few best practices that our church and other like-minded sending churches have implemented in order to care for our sent out ones. I commend these to you as one way that healthy sending can be fleshed out. There are many faithful variations of these, and every sending church still has room for growth. Still, my hope is that these will generate good conversations, ideas, and structures as you speak with your pastors about your sending and care.
Don’t be shy to approach your pastors to talk over these things. An already busy pastor might feel overwhelmed at the thought of one more commitment, but many of these structures can be led and implemented by volunteers as well. And many pastors would be excited to think through these things, simply having never been exposed to these ideas before. One more thing – your eagerness to do the legwork for mobilizing for these things can make all the difference in the eyes of busy church leadership. At the end of the day, faithful pastors and churches really desire to send and support their missionaries in a manner worthy of God.
1. A Sending Relationship. Ask for a clear sending relationship with your home church. As was suggested at our meetings, read through Acts 13 with your pastors and ask them if they will do for you what Antioch did for Paul and Barnabas. This means that your church claims you as their missionary and takes real responsibility for your sending and care long-term. They acknowledge that before God, they are accountable for you and will hold the ropes for you. Clarify expectations with your leadership. If they are going to be your sending church, what is expected of you while on the field and when on furlough? What is expected of the church towards you? Clarify your role and seek your church’s affirmation. How do your leaders think through your role as a missionary biblically? And do they affirm that you have the character qualifications for that role? If so, will they affirm and commission you publicly? Do you need to go through an assessment process in order for them to do this? At our church we seek to have most of the men we send out go through our elder/church planter assessment process. We want to affirm publicly that they are qualified according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to plant churches and disciple pastors (like a Paul). Other men and single ladies are sent out as church planting teammates (like Aquila and Priscilla), assessed by the deacon character qualifications in Titus 1. It’s a weighty and courage-strengthening thing knowing that your sending church has taken you through an affirmation process and has commissioned you. If there’s not time for you to do this in your next two months, consider approaching your pastors about doing something like this next time you’re stateside.
2. Prayer Rhythms. Ask your pastors if your church will commit to praying for you. If yes, ask for the when and where of how that will happen. A picture on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean you are being prayed for. At our church we have Sunday morning prayer meetings where we rotate weekly praying for one of our missionaries. This is a chance for updated requests to be lifted up in a timely fashion. We have seen dramatic answers to prayer in response to these times. Is there some kind of structure like this where the church will commit to corporately praying for you? If it’s happening corporately, more individuals will pray for you on their own as well.
3. Skype or Zoom Calls. We live in an age when communication between the missionary and the sending church is easier than ever. This is a very good thing for your care on the field! At our church we have a monthly group skype/zoom call that all of our missionaries are invited to participate in. It’s simply a time of encouragement from the word, discussion, and sharing of joys, trials, and prayer requests, led by one of us pastors or one of our missionaries. These times have been very sweet. In addition to this we are working to set up all our missionaries and spouses with a regular one on one call with a trusted friend or leader at our church. This is important for personal soul care, sound-boarding, accountability, and encouragement. We also make ourselves available for one-off calls as needed for counseling or discussion of issues on the field. Ask your pastors if they would be willing to set up a regular call with you.
4. Rope Holder Teams. Other sending churches call these Advocate Teams or Barnabas Teams, but the concept is the same. This is a small group of people within your church who commit to regular prayer, communication, care packages, and advocacy for you. This is particularly important if your church has many missionaries. This group can help provide the support you need on the field so that it doesn’t all fall on the pastors and staff. They are your go-to team for prayer needs, future trips, and other practical needs. They help keep you and your work visible in the life of the church. They also serve as a team of friends that tracks your ministry closely and stays in communication. It’s a good idea to invite close friends to commit to a Rope Holder Team – that way you’ve committed to staying connected. These teams are a great way to equip the church body to take part also in missionary care. Consider approaching 6 – 8 friends at your church to form this kind of a team for you.
5. Partnership Requests. Various needs arise when you are on the field. You might be in need of a short term team. You might need childcare workers for your regional meeting. There could be a health emergency. You are in need of housing and a vehicle when stateside. Are your pastors OK with you informing them of these needs? Who is the point person when these kinds of needs arise?
This may seem like a lot, but don’t feel like you have to implement all of these things at once. These are suggestions and ideas from one imperfect church trying to take care of the missionaries God has entrusted to us. At the same time, we have found all of these things very helpful. Consider prayerfully if you might need to talk with your pastors about any of the above care structures. As a TCK turned missions pastor turned missionary, I can say that any investment in your sending church relationship is well spent and will bear fruit in your health and effectiveness on the field.
Congratulations on being accepted and looking forward to seeing many of you again at training!
One big shift from our first term overseas to our second? We finally got serious about taking a weekly day of rest. When we were new as a family on the field, our initial experience was that the pace of life in Central Asia was much less frenetic than it was in the US. We didn’t feel the same need to protect a certain day for a sabbath rest. Life was more fluid, which meant our week felt naturally interspersed with pockets of life-giving and restful things. By the end of our first term, this had definitely changed. Language learning, team conflict, culture fatigue, online seminary classes, messy local relationships, security crises, and a newborn (number three) were all taking a toll. It took us several months to recover from the residual stress once we went stateside. And my wife still ended up spending a night in the ER five months in, with some kind of severe panic attack that had initially appeared to be something much worse.
We felt the Lord was being crystal clear with us. We needed to get serious about sabbath again, about building in a day of rest for our family, and about pursuing a concept we came to refer to as sustainable dying. Yes, we are called to die for the gospel, but perhaps it would better honor Jesus if we died more sustainably over forty years as opposed to four? We eagerly read the books Reset and Refresh by David and Shona Murray with wide eyes as we read about all these ministry folks burning out in their forties – while we had just entered our thirties and were experiencing all of the same symptoms. In this sense, I’m not sure we’re so very different from all of our millennial peers in ministry. We’re all hitting this point pretty early.
I remember being struck by the concept that God did not create us as disembodied spirits, but as embodied humans. This means we have God-given, good limitations to our work and our physical bodies. To pretend that these limits don’t exist is therefore not honoring to God, but is to live in rebellion to his good design in his creation. I had been living out of sync with the fabric of God’s creation, which has a good, but limited nature. I had been living this way for as long as I could remember, pretending that if I regularly pushed my body beyond what was wise, God would give grace and it wouldn’t matter for me – was it not for the sake of the ministry, after all?
We were also hit hard by the idea that we don’t rest because the work is done. We rest because the work is never done. This is particularly helpful for confronting the challenges of the fluid and never-ending work of the mission field. When you don’t have regular work hours and you are surrounded by a sea of lostness, it’s awfully tempting to let ministry come into every part of the day and the week. But this can mean that the missionary never actually rests from the work. There are always more pages of vocab to review, more calls to make, more invitations to respond to, more emails to send, more broken things to attempt to fix. But resting because the work is never done shifts rest from being something that we’ve earned to being something that is proactive. It becomes an acknowledgment even that though there’s so much more work to do, we can’t possible do it well if we don’t refresh our bodies and our souls.
We leaned into the biblical theology aspects of rest. We rest because God rested, and we want to be like him. We rest because he commanded Israel to rest and in that command we see his good designs for them. We rest because Jesus rested in the tomb after completing his atoning work on the cross. We rest because we’re not saved by our work, but by our souls resting in the work of Jesus. We rest because the new creation is coming, where rest will be perfected. And we want to be a preview of that day to our local friends and foreign colleagues.
And practically, at this point, we also rest just so that we can stay out of the ER for a little bit longer. We’ve flirted enough with serious anxiety issues to realize that it’s serious business to guard against their going mutant and taking over.
We try to guard our Saturdays as our regular day of rest. It’s taken quite a while to find out what actually works for our family – and what actually works for Central Asia. The age of our kids affects this (8, 6, and 2), meaning that it’s important that plan some kind of outing or activities on our rest day so that they don’t go stir-crazy. We usually go out to eat somewhere and try to spend time at a park. My wife and I will often find quiet corners of the house to get in some reading. We’ll also do some different kinds of work, but only if the work feels refreshing because we don’t do it every day. Washing the dishes and listening to a language history podcast is in this category for me.
The issue with Central Asia is that the more you are known, the more you are called, texted, and visited (even unannounced) by your growing circle of friends and acquaintances. And this is a culture where there is little to no understanding of a “day off” from relationships and people. Locals get quickly offended if you don’t answer your phone right away. This makes a sabbath day a little tricky. But we discovered that there is always one acceptable excuse to not answering your phone and your gate. I’m so sorry, we were out of the city at that time. We began to see that the locals did have a method for regular rest, one connected to their all having ancestral ties to certain mountain villages. Everyone here has a village, even if they live in the city. The wealthy ones even build new picnic houses in mountain valleys in imitation of village life. Almost all city dwellers, rich and working class, get out of the city regularly, even once a week for some. This is a common practice all over Central Asia, as I’ve learned from speaking to colleagues in other countries.
A couple of years ago we started chewing on the idea of finding a picnic house that we and our team could rent and use regularly. After two years of praying, some of our partners secured one recently. It’s a small cement, plaster, and tile cabin with a green lawn area and a small fruit tree orchard. We split the rent with four other families so the cost is extremely reasonable. Now we aim to make the forty five minute drive into the mountains twice a month or so, and to spend our other days of rest at home as usual. So far, it’s been wonderful. The chance to be up in the mountains, in the cooler weather, the silence, the green, has been life-giving. Having grown up in Melanesia (as somewhat of a pyro) I’m also thrilled at the chance to build campfires with my kids. They’re not big enough yet for spending the night at the picnic house to be more restful than coming back home, but we’ll get there soon.
Previously, we and our colleagues had leaned very heavily on trips out of country for rest and vacation. But with regular security crises and the sheer cost of travel across international borders, we were already wrestling with the need to get better at local rest. Then 2020 happened. And suddenly the whole world was closed off to everyone, not just to those of us serving in this corner of Central Asia. We heard one refrain from so many of our believing friends back in the West: Yes, it’s been hard, but we are thankful for the chance we’ve had to slow down. Life was crazy before the lock-downs.
Figuring out rest for any of us Westerners, hard-wired workaholics as we are, is quite challenging. Figuring it out in a foreign culture and in a year like this one, well, let’s just say it’s only by the grace of God that we have been able to find some restful rhythms. And yet our creator did make us for this, so at some point I believe all of us will start to feel a day of rest becoming more natural – and we’ll wonder how we ever did without it. We are beginning to taste this reality ourselves. When our Saturday is necessarily claimed by something unavoidable, we feel sad about this and brainstorm about how we can compensate for it. Other weeks, like this one, we push hard and work with freedom, knowing that a day of rest is close at hand – and I’ll get to sit around a campfire in the mountains with my kids… which is mostly restful. If only we could get the two-year-old a little less enthusiastic about throwing things onto the fire.
Longevity in one place on the field. An elusive thing for our region of Central Asia. The contemporary missions effort in most of this region really began in earnest in the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union and other dynamics of globalization allowed sustained access for many foreign missionaries. They entered mostly not on religious visas, but as NGO workers, teachers, students, and businessmen. Creative access has indeed allowed some degree of access now for almost thirty years. This is worthy of celebration, even as that access looks increasingly threatened in many areas.
Yet it has proved remarkably difficult for long-term workers to actually stay long-term. Present are all the usual reasons why missionaries leave: team conflict, moral failure, burnout, trauma, health problems, family issues, etc. Added to these would be the difficulty of obtaining steady visas, geopolitical instability, danger from war and terrorism, and the difficulty of doing missions work among hard to access people groups and hard to learn languages. Central Asia just seems to wear workers down, not usually through some catastrophic event (although this occasionally happens) but rather through successive years that all come to feel like one step forward, two steps back.
The work is slow work. The harvest is there, but much work is needed to just gain access to the field and then to remove the rocks. Movements? If you’re enamored with those you will end up moving to a different region. We don’t really have veteran workers who have stayed here for decades that we can lean on. Most got kicked out or left. The average length of a long-term worker here is six to eight years. Just long enough to get really proficient at a new language and culture. Just long enough to get truly disillusioned. I’ve read that six to eight years in is also a very common time period for marriages to fall apart. Perhaps there is a connection in these similar time frames.
It’s said sometimes that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, of those who have gone before us. But here we have no giants. They all got kicked out before they could reach that stature. As one of my friends and colleagues once put it, “It’s more like we stand on the shoulders of the hobbits who have gone before us!” Our forbears had access for a few years, set up a platform, reached basic proficiency in the language, saw some friends come to faith, saw a couple church plant attempts implode, then had to leave. A fresh crop of workers is brought in and the same thing happens on repeat.
Some respond to these realities by calling for a radical reimagination of the role of the missionary and the nature of cross cultural church planting. “We need a new paradigm!” And yet this hasn’t worked either. The new-paradigmers experience the same rate of turnover and disappointment as the rest of us. No, we don’t need some brand new model that hasn’t been present in 2,000 years of church history (though we probably need a great many tweaks). Rather, we need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the patience of Job, the endurance of Paul, longevity of John, the true rest found in Jesus. We need the spiritual power to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58). We need prayers for increased faith so that we will not grow discouraged at the hardness of the soil. We need partner churches and leaders who will celebrate the small victories that are to be had and who don’t move on to more high-impact partners.
I was once at a conference for a different region of the world. A missions pastor from a prominent church was presenting. Speaking of how excited he was to hear of the hundreds of churches being planted in this other region, he referenced my focus people group, which his church had adopted ten years previously. “You know, we adopted them, and you can’t really un-adopt someone… but, we are really excited about our partnership with this other group in this other region. It is a high-impact partnership! So many churches are being planted through this exciting methodology!” He didn’t know who I was or where I worked, but it was stunningly blunt and mercenary thing to say. In one sense he was right, my people group looks exciting and romantic in the beginning, but then turns out to be full of a thousand false starts.
In a generation wired for instant gratification, we workers in Central Asia (and our partners) are in need of the historic virtues of loyalty, courage, honor, persistence, and even duty. Our region has not had the hundreds of years of missionary presence that others have. Our Careys, Judsons, and Taylors have not yet emerged. We are many times the first missionaries in millennia to live in a certain city or town. In the mysterious providence of the Spirit, we are seeing slow and steady growth throughout the region – but not yet a true awakening (with the possible exception of Iran). Can we posture ourselves such that we are able to accept this reality of hardness while not letting go of holy ambition? We need to not despise the day of small things (Zech 4:20), yet at the same time have hearts that earnestly believe full-blown awakening is possible (2 Thess 3:1).
We need prayer for these things. Would you pray that if we must be hobbits, that we would be found to have been faithful hobbits? That somehow there would be a window by which some of us could even become giants, old wizened veterans who have lived here for decades on end? We know that the promises of scripture will come true. We trust in the power of the word, the spirit, and the people of God. And yet humanly speaking, unless the people of God are able to stay longer, we will not be able to see healthy churches planted here that last.
And that is our vision – healthy churches planting other healthy churches that last, until our people group and all those in our region are full of indigenous local churches, tenacious and glorious embassies of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1st Corinthians 15:58 ESV)
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).
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.
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.