I used to say, “You can tell how long a missionary family has been on the field by the color of their Tupperware.” But the face of missions is changing rapidly and the ways churches can help missionaries has changed with it.
- Monthly missionary meetings have stopped in many churches.
- Today many women work at paid jobs outside the home, making it hard for women to attend missionary meetings.
- The missions projects of yesteryear—rolling bandages, sewing quilts from scraps to save money, cutting and pasting bookmarks and prizes out of old greeting cards—are seldom helpful on the mission field today.
- The rising cost of postage and shipping has made treasures from missionary closets impractical to transfer to the field for many missionaries.
A recent comment from my website asked a question many churches are asking today.
What can our church do to encourage missionaries on a regular basis?
This is an excellent question. It doesn’t have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer, but I’m going to suggest some things to think about when you want to encourage your missionaries.
Treat them as individuals.
What do missionaries need today? First of all, missionaries are just people. Some struggle in their marriages. Some have children who hate being MK’s. Some have complicated health issues or manage difficult diets. Some are introverts in a world where people expect missionaries to be extroverts. Some don’t have kids and the ones that do educate their kids in a variety of ways. Some collect turkey feathers, sew quilts, run marathons, write books, ski, or refinish antiques.
The needs of their fields also vary widely. You can minister to them in a much more effective way if you understand who they are. Figuring this out will often suggest ways you can encourage or help them.
2. Correspond to show you care.
What does that mean? Send birthday and anniversary cards? Write personal letters asking lots of questions? Sharing lots of details about your life?
I’m going to guess that some missionaries love birthday cards and some don’t care much. But if every supporting church sent cards on every holiday, with a long list of names signed, it would have about the same effect as when 147 Facebook friends write posts telling you, “Happy birthday!!!” Some churches make it their special ministry to hand-make beautiful cards and it can be a good way to show your missionaries that you are thinking of them in a personal way. If it becomes, however, a troublesome task which eats up too much postage, you might want to consider another way to do the same thing.
Personally, I’d rather have a personal, warm email than a card with a list of names signed. When you mention something specific from my last prayer letter or recall a personal memory, I know you’ve seen me and you are thinking of me, not just ticking something off your to-do list.
Whatever you do, make it easy to respond. If I get a card in the mail, I love it when an email address is included. Then I can easily write a few lines of reply and finish my response without having to remember to do it later. Find out what method of correspondence is best for your missionary and use that when possible. Sometimes it’s great just to say you’ve written to encourage them and don’t expect a response.
How early should you send cards? I’m sure every field is different and times vary within the same country. Sometimes we get cards from the US in about a week. Other times it might take much longer. I may receive cards a month or more before the date or a month or so after. Too early is always better than too late. I don’t open cards until the occasion has arrived. Usually, however, missionaries are thankful for the thought and don’t worry if the timing is off.
Lists of questions can take a lot of time to answer. Don’t ask questions about a country if you can find them on the internet. If you ask questions, make sure you use them well. Assure the missionary that she can use something she’s already written for other churches if appropriate.
Share your own personal details in correlation to the relationship you have with the missionary. If she doesn’t even know you by name, a few details are appropriate. If you know her well, you may want to share more. It’s appropriate to share a few personal prayer requests, but avoid sending heart-wrenching details that may burden the missionary more than encourage.
Consider a phone call or Skype. Sometimes this can be cheaper than postage. Check their time zone on the internet to make sure you aren’t calling them in the middle of the night or at a bad time. You could even email ahead and set up a time to talk. You could be quite an encouragement in this way. Even most pastors never call their missionaries on the field. We’ve been missionaries since 1978 and I know this for a fact.
What can you say in a letter or phone call to show you care? Tell them you’re praying for a specific request of theirs. This tells them you read their prayer letters and care enough to remember and pray specifically. Affirm something specific about their ministry. Say something personal. Don’t expect them to share private matters if they aren’t ready to do this.
Look for special needs.
I feel kind of sad when people ask what special projects they make or do for us and I don’t have a good answer. You need to realize that sometimes missionaries don’t have special little “projects” that can be made by a ladies’ group. Sometimes they may not even have a specific, small financial need that you can even give toward. But when you treat missionaries as individuals, you may find special needs that come up.
Missionary closets were a great help to me in the past. I’m not sure I’ve ever purchased one Tupperware item, but I own many. They tend to be apple green or yellow or orange, which tells you how old I am. But now I’ve set up housekeeping. Posting, shipping, or bringing an extra suitcase on a flight often costs more than buying the items new. Many missionaries face this problem. Perhaps missionary closets are still helpful to missionary appointees who plan to send a large crate to the field or to home missionaries. But if you find missionaries aren’t taking much from your closet, you may rather buy specific items for specific missionaries.
Encourage their college kids. The hardest thing for a missionary family may be sending their children back to their home country for college and university. The MK may seldom or never go home for holidays during these years and may be far from any family. The missionary mother might long to send care packages, but the postage may make it unreasonable. Churches can greatly encourage college kids by sending baked treats, coins for laundry, offers to sew, shampoo or panty hose, or things like that. If you know an MK well enough, you might be in a position to help them shop for clothes as they re-enter their home country or invite them to your home for a holiday.
Ask your missionaries if they need items that you could purchase and sent to them. Ask them to pick out an item from Amazon or an on-line store and have it shipped directly to them. For missionary readers, ask for a wish list to read on their e-reader. Send a gift of money through their mission board to use to go out to eat or use on vacation.
If you have someone with special skills who wants to help, your church could offer their services. This could be making puppets, sewing, web design, woodworking, or even servicing their car. Don’t be offended, however, if they don’t have a particular need in those areas.
If a missionary family with young children comes to your church, provide opportunities for them to move around, play at a playground, play with children from the church, or go someplace special when they come to your church. Instead of expecting them to be missionary kids, just expect them to be kids.
Be a friend.
You might be surprised to know how many missionaries have no really close friends apart from their spouse.
They may have close friends and family when they first leave for the field, but after 20, 30, or 40 years away from those friends and family, developing very different interests and experiences, they usually find time makes for distance in many of their relationships.
Many missionaries have close missionary friends on the field, but others don’t work in close contact with other missionaries. Depending on language, culture, and other factors, they may make close national friends, but even here, they have to have boundaries. Missionaries often feel they are giving out in friendship, but do far more giving than receiving.
You can’t be a close friend to all your missionaries, but you can ask the Lord to lead you to becomea better friend to some missionary. You might find someone who shares similar interests or skills and relate to her in a personal way. When missionaries are home on furlough, offer to include them in an excursion to a local place of interest. Think of a question, other than the top five questions everyone asks missionaries, and ask about that. Let them know you see them as people, not just missionaries.
Discover their love language and show them you care. A small gift, when appropriate, can be meaningful to people who love gifts. Avoid gifts that are big and impractical. Some missionaries don’t have a regular furlough home and sending something to the field may not be practical. This eliminates many gifts. You might provide a service, like providing car maintenance or offering extended housing. Some might like a good hug. For me, it would be much more meaningful just to give a few words of affirmation.
When missionaries are going through rough times or times when they see very few visible results, they need to know that you stand behind them. Let them know (when it’s true) that you appreciate their hard work and faithfulness.
Pray specifically and faithfully.
This one may be obvious, but I’ve saved the most important for last. We need effective and fervent prayer like we read about in James 5:16. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can’t know how to pray very specifically for missionaries. I believe, however, that the most effective, fervent prayer happens when a person makes the effort to find out specific needs and prays faithfully for them. If that weren’t true we could just ask God to “bless all the missionaries around the world real good,” cross prayer off our list, and move on.
When we get to heaven, I’m convinced we’ll find results from our labor that we never saw on earth. I’m also convinced that we will understand, somehow, how much more could have been done with effective prayer support.
You may have even been placed in a situation where you are limited in how you can function, but you have more time than usual. Time is a wonderful gift, and time in prayer is a great support and encouragement for missionaries. Or you may struggle to find time to pray like most of us, but making time for meaningful prayer accomplishes more than we will even know on earth.
You can use these 5 ways to encourage your missionaries. Sometimes it’s easier to organize a craft and do it than to really see your missionaries and try to meet their needs. But if you are prayerfully looking for ways to meet the needs of your missionaries, these 5 ways can allow you to be a great blessing.