Life on the mission field is commendable work and, for many, a calling worth giving their lives to. The life and work of a missionary, though, is challenging for untold reasons, a fact the apostle Paul knew all too well. In describing his work, he wrote, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). From families whose missionary zeal wanes because of sickness to marital difficulties brought on by a seemingly unending workload to the discouragement experienced after years of no visible gospel fruit, not to mention exposure to deep depression, anxiety, and persecution, the challenges and potential afflictions for missionaries are many. And, too often, the result is a mission field vacated, left to lie fallow.
These are some of the real examples being highlighted by studies indicating an alarming pattern of attrition in global missions. For example, a recent three-year study conducted by Missio Nexus showed that upward of two-thirds of missionaries left the field for potentially preventable reasons, equating financially to around 40 million dollars lost every three years. From a stewardship perspective, this is problematic. But, equally important, the stories behind these numbers are tragic. Years of potential gospel ministry are being squandered, oftentimes for reasons which better pre-field assessment, equipping, and care may have prevented.
So, how can our churches better prepare their missionaries to avoid these pitfalls, so many of which could be preventable? Below I discuss two biblical principles for minimizing missionary attrition.
Two missionary principles
After Jesus commissioned his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18), a pattern began to develop as the message of the gospel advanced, a pattern that continues to this day. The Lord saves people from their sin and, upon being baptized into the Triune name of God, these new believers are joined to a local assembly—a church. It’s at the emergence of this pattern, after the establishment of the local church first encountered in the book of Acts, that we see in the church at Antioch the first Christian missionaries identified and sent:
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2).
We may ask: was this a random, purely reactive response by the church to send out missionaries simply because Barnabas and Saul felt “called” to go? Furthermore, beyond being prompted by the Holy Spirit, how did they know Barnabas and Saul were qualified and ready for this difficult work? These questions lead to the first principle.
- Take the time to have missionary candidates tested within the church
In Acts 11:26, we read that Barnabas, who had been sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch, sought out Saul, bringing him to Antioch where they labored together among the churches for at least a year before being sent out. If we fast-forward to Acts 16, where Scripture details Paul’s recruitment of Timothy, describing him as a man spoken highly of by “the brothers and sisters at Lystra and Iconium” (v. 2), we encounter a similar idea. In both stories, we are introduced to characters who had been vetted by the churches where they belonged and identified as men qualified for the work of missions.
In other words, these were not quick assessments by the churches in Antioch, Lystra, or Iconium. These men were not qualified based on some sort of subjective whim, but were men from among the church who had proven themselves as qualified because of their time-tested faithfulness to the gospel. Thus, it is here, where we learn our most foundational missionary principle: the local church is the proving ground by which potential missionaries are assessed and equipped over time for the work of ministry abroad. Therefore, churches should take ample time to know their missionary candidates.
- Take the time and resources to care for those you send and partner with in missions
As Paul labored in his mission of proclaiming the gospel, establishing churches and elders, and encouraging the churches he helped plant, he himself was cared for by the church. In Philippians 4, Paul seems to view the financial partnership of the church as more than simply bankrolling the mission, but as a kindness to share (to have fellowship) in his trouble (Phil. 4:14). He highlights his need for the local church’s prayers, and he outlines the encouragement he draws from them (Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1). And he writes of the importance of the church to remember his difficulties (Col. 4:18).
Furthermore, we see the encouragement he receives in Timothy’s report that the church in Thessalonica remembers and longs for them, causing them to be comforted even in the difficulties of field life (1 Thess. 3:6-9). And after being stoned in Lystra, where does Paul go for a time of reprieve and encouragement, but to the church in Antioch (Acts 14:24-28)?
In reading the book of Acts and Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the principle of resourcing, caring for, and partnering with missionaries on the field is undeniable. And it is a principle rooted in the supernatural love found only in the people united to Christ in a local church, a love which transcends surface-level pleasantries and affects the soul. The local church, therefore, is the primary means by which biblical soul care and tangible care are given to its missionaries.
How we can get better at sending
So, how are we doing at sending? In our heart for missions, are we so eager to flood the fields with workers that we neglect our responsibility to prepare those we’re sending? Are we unknowingly sacrificing the sustainability of brothers and sisters in the field at the altar of convenience and speed?
There are untold churches laboring well to assess, equip, and care for those in their congregations who desire to go to difficult places for the gospel. Yet there are many churches who desire this but who may not be well-equipped to provide adequate attention, time, and resources to faithfully steward this responsibility. Either way, our ultimate hope and assurance is founded in the fact that God will be glorified whether we do it well or not; it is his mission to complete.
Yet, this is exactly the reason and fuel for why we must continue to press in and wisely steward the roles he has given us as members and participants within his flock. Our love and desire for God’s glory among the nations must not drive us to neglect the means by which he accomplishes this, which is the local church. The clear pattern in Scripture is that the local church assesses, equips, and cares for his flock, even as it sends its members to ends of the Earth.
So, what are some practical ways the church can more fully embrace this responsibility of assessment, equipping, and care of those desiring to go and those sent?
- Slow down the assessment process to ensure that missionary candidates are qualified to go.
- Prayerfully consider ways you can encourage and care for those that you send. Some ideas include pastoral trips, offering biblical soul care, sending teams to serve the staff in tangible ways, and equipping members of your church to care for those you send.
- Grow a zeal for missions as you teach your congregation about missions and their role in caring for missionaries as it comes up in Scripture, and by praying corporately for brothers and sisters around the world.
Though we do have an enemy, and much opposition and difficulty in this world (Acts 14:22), let us not grow weary in our pursuit of sending spiritually mature missionaries and caring biblically for them on and off the field. And let us do this so that these precious missionaries and the nations whom they serve might more clearly see the glory of the one true and living God.