My husband and I live in a country we affectionately refer to as a graveyard for expats.
We can’t share openly about our faith, so as Christians we feel bridled. The social law is greater than the written law, so as Westerners we feel great tension in that. The single task of securing work visas seems impossible, so our passports are bulging with loads of tourist visas from all the necessary border crossings.
Add this to the outrageous heat and humidity, a tonal language, and intense spiritual warfare, and you’re looking at a country full of exhausted, discouraged, and unhealthy expats.
In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve watched people come and go for various reasons, just as you have in the fields where you serve. There are always circumstances that send people home for valid and good reasons, so the purpose of this post is not to shame those who have transitioned from serving abroad.
What I do want to talk about is early attrition from the field due to a lack of relationship between those who go and those who send.
The Gospel Coalition recently posted an article about the importance of being sent, or commissioned, by a local fellowship before deciding to jump into work abroad.
The entire article is a great read, but this quote from the article pretty much sums it up:
“Going to the nations without the support of a local [fellowship] is a little like baptizing yourself.”
I’m confident we could all jump into the comments below and share stories of how we’ve been misunderstood, misguided, or mistreated by local sending bodies. I’m sure we could air our grievances and make strong cases for the ways our senders “just don’t get it” or “can’t relate to us.”
Can I just say that I’ve been there? I’ve had hurtful things said about me. I’ve had unrealistic expectations placed on my work. I’ve had requests for ministerial metrics that absolutely make no sense.
But mixed up in the art of being sent by a local body is the push and pull of accountability that, albeit sometimes out of line, keeps us connected to those back home and to the Author of the Great Commission Himself. Just as baptism is performed and witnessed in the presence of community, so should be our launch into foreign fields of service.
If there was one book about this line of work I would recommend sticking in your back pocket, it’s Mission Smart by David Frazier.
In speaking about the role of the sending fellowship, Frazier writes:
When a battered and bruised [M] comes home, the final place of landing is usually the sending [body]. Here they try to rebuild their lives and find answers to what went so wrong. Often the sending [body] becomes their recovery center, so why not let it be their discovery center to ensure they are indeed right for the work they are pursuing? (p. 6)
Moreover, many have testified that the biggest factor in a successful re-entry back home after time overseas was the quality of the friendships they had maintained with those in their home body and local Christian community. (p.81)
Let me affirm you again: It is no easy task to maintain a good relationship with a sending fellowship. Miles separate, cultures divide, and experiences isolate. Misunderstandings are frequent and feelings are hurt.
And it’s not fun, you know? To keep coming back and pouring into a place that may or may not know how to truly support your desire to work overseas or in a difficult field.
Tim Keller says:
Modern people want spirituality without being a part of a [local body]. We don’t want to be accountable, to be a part of a group. We certainly want the experience, just not the institution. But the Bible knows nothing of this bifurcation, this splitting. It refuses to remove individual from the community.
There is a reason for the design of the Lord’s body, the church. And I stand with you in the beautiful and the hard parts of it. Ironically, sometimes the hard parts of commitment to a faith community turn into beautiful parts.
So before you up and move to a new country with new people speaking a new language to do a new work, check in. Speak with your shepherds. Allow others to test your judgment. And submit yourself to the fellowship that God designated as your community.
Easy? No. Fast? Absolutely not.
But the time and effort you put into your relationship with a sending body will propel you into a much more successful ministry abroad. And somehow, through following rather than leading, I believe you’ll find deep freedom as a minister of the Gospel.
How have you been able to foster your relationship with those who sent you? If the start of your service wasn’t the best, what could you do this week to invest or cultivate relationships your local body “back home?”