NOTE: Many thousands have read this little article, thanks so much! May I invite you to share it with your mission board; your friends; sign up for my blog, at right; to read an article about missionary letters; a recent article on Acts 1:8; and our missionary website where we describe our works as theological educators in Costa Rica.
Let me put on my missionary hat!
When Paul and Barnabas returned home from their journey, they “gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Your church’s missionaries periodically pay you a brief visit. They will tell you about their successes and failures, and thank you for your support.
There are things your visiting missionaries might wish to tell you but feel they cannot:
When we’re visiting you, we haven’t actually “come home.” We live elsewhere, and are temporarily visiting the place where we used to live. Especially for missionary kids, “home” is far from here. We are usually keen to get back to where we belong. Some missionaries are now using the term “my passport country.”
Don’t assume that we are up to date on all the latest U.S. culture.
We are aware that we look older-heavier-greyer-balder than the last time we passed through town. Everyone at your church does, too, but it’s courteous not to mention it!
Don’t spend 100% of our short time together telling me about friends who have taken vacations in our country of service. Like you, we just want to be listened to, and we hope you’ll ask us about how we minister in our country.
Please remember to bless our children. Missionary Kids (MKs) have given up their culture, language, pets, friends, relatives to go to the field. If you give them some treat while we’re visiting your church, even a simple one, your thoughtfulness will be remembered for years to come.
Our children are probably not sullen; they’re shell-shocked. They travel hundreds of miles and visit dozens of groups. They think and they dream in two languages. Yes, they are taller than when you last saw them. No, they don’t remember who you are. Still, they’ll probably be approachable so long as you smile and make no sudden moves.
We may be able to host a short-term team from your church. Maybe. Hosting a team takes months of planning. Imagine if a dozen foreign teenagers dropped by your home in America; they can’t speak the local language and they are as excited about going to Six Flags than they are about the mission. If you want to arrange a trip, have a clear goal, defined tasks, and sound financing and you’ll be welcomed and welcomed back.
Missionaries believe in missions, in fact, many of us support other missionaries. You might suppose that since we have already “given all”, we feel no obligation to donate to missions or the local church. In fact, the missionaries I’ve asked report that they support other missionaries as part of their contribution to God’s work.
Don’t try to convert us to Multi-level Marketing (MLM). We’ve already heard the tale of the new missionary who stood outside a factory gate and within an hour raised 100% of his support by recruiting people to Amway. And while some of us are “tent-makers,” using our work in another country as an entry for the gospel, that is not feasible for others of us.
We have worked hard to calculate the minimum necessary we need to live on the field. In many countries, the cost of living is much higher than in the US. We are also concerned that you wouldn’t understand the decisions we have made with our mission agency.
Don’t tell us we should re-negotiate the percentage that our missionary agency charges us, because you think they charge too much. If we pay 13% to our board, it’s because of a slate of services that they render. If you make the generous offer to manage our affairs for nothing, please don’t be offended if we turn you down. The truth is, you could not possibly handle the business, insurance, retirement plan, communication, promotion, mobilization – let along evacuation in the case of earthquake or revolution, or knowing what to do if we’re kidnapped – that the professionals can, nor do it decade after decade.
No, we DON’T think the US church faces a relatively high degree of persecution.
Working in a new language is really, really hard. Yes, you picked up some Spanish from your vacation and can say, Por favor, ¿dónde está el baño? But could you say: The doctrine of justification by faith alone, a hallmark of the Reformation, runs counter to your notion that attendance at Mass is a channel for divine grace? And contrary to a popular myth, an adult can’t pick up a new language just like children do. There are scientific reasons for this: a child is hardwired to learn grammar, but past age 6 or 7, you can no longer learn a language so naturally. If we’re studying, for example, Arabic or Turkish, we will need years to become even reasonably conversant.
We are Christians, not super-Christians. We do not have a special hot-line to God. We sometimes doubt our calling, and wrestle with questions of significance. In terms of basic emotional and spiritual needs, missionaries are like everyone else. The majority of missionaries do not return after their first year of service; so at any given moment, some of us are considering coming back from the field. We might welcome a chance to share in confidence what’s really going on with us.
PS – It took me a year to get this article in the shape I wanted, and I still hoped it would not sound harsh. By far this is the most read article I’ve written in 25 years. I got maybe three negative responses to it; they had to do with my making missionaries sounding oversensitive, or my assessment that Americans do not suffer to the degree that Christians do elsewhere. I might add that Christians suffer relatively little here in Costa Rica; there there is full constitutional freedom of religion. I sometimes do work in a “persecuted” country but have not had any problems with that government; still, every single Christian in that country suffers more for his or her faith than any case I have ever heard of in the US. My perception is that Americans, most of us not having spent time in dangerous areas abroad, exaggerate the degree of suffering we undergo. This is a topic I have written about before on this blog, and in a much sharper tone.
I also would like to pen an article on “things that American Christians wish they could tell their missionaries.” If you have some thoughts, send them along, and speak frankly and anonymously!
Related article by another author: “You see that happy missionary family smiling out of that postcard on your fridge? Their marriage is probably hanging by a thread”
“14 things your visiting missionaries probably won’t tell you,” by Gary Shogren, Ph.D, missionary and Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica. Visit us at http://shogrens.com