The Freedom in Following

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?”

9 Comments

  1. Michelle S March 20, 2017

    I appreciate your words, Lauren! I think there’s a lot of wisdom here.

  2. Monica F March 20, 2017

    Such words of wisdom here Laura. I really resonated with your intro to this- especially since the area we worked in overseas was also referred to as a ‘graveyard’. We are in the midst of transitioning ‘back home’ after 17 years overseas and I’m so thankful for not just one, but several Bodies of people who have welcomed us, cared for us, listened and supported us during this interesting time. I say ‘interesting’ because the transition back holds a lot of emotions and unknowns- so having that support of those who sent us all those years ago, means so very much.

    1. Lauren Pinkston March 21, 2017

      First of all, 17 years – wow! You are truly seasoned, and your affirmation means so much to readers, I’m positive. Prayers for your transition back, and that the body of Believers will truly surround you during this season!

  3. MaDonna March 21, 2017

    This was good Lauren. My husband and I come from different countries. Actually, he is a MK and doesn’t have a “home” church. He only lived in his passport country a total of 6 years. He felt connected to his youth group and we reconnected with some of them and the church this summer. I think that was good for him.
    I have a “home” church and though they have supported me/us. It was this summer (yes, we were able to travel to 2 countries…crazy) that the church body connected with us. I’m not sure why this summer, but we feel more supported then we had in the past.
    Because of the work we do in country, we have also found support from a few local churches.
    I think that without having support and accountability it would be difficult and possibly even dangerous. Glad you shared this today.

    1. Lauren Pinkston March 21, 2017

      MaDonna,

      So cool to hear this part of your story. It’s exciting that you were able to connect with churches in TWO countries and know you have their support, in addition to the local body! What a blessing. Grateful for your comments and sharing in this space!

  4. tez brooks March 24, 2017

    Words of wisdom. Thanks for this article. However, you can also be sent by a parachurch organization which usually asks for a referral from your local pastor. In this case, it’s the organization that ends up determining the call of God and then sending the missionary. Which can be encouraging if the church isnt that supportive or they’re indifferent. Many people in the Bible were called to serve without another human giving the “thumbs up.” So while I agree that having community is important when trying to determine the call of God on your life…it’s doesn’t always have to work that way. One missionary had several leaders and pastors in his life confirm the call of God. But his last pastor (the one he was under just before leaving the states) said he didnt think he was “called.” Had this missionary listened to this last pastor he would not have gone. But thankfully he went anyway and has been making a difference for 15 years. Thanks again for this much needed article. Im sharing it.

    1. Lauren Pinkston March 25, 2017

      Thanks for your thoughts, Tez. Conversations around “calling” can get sticky, can’t they? I don’t mean at all to discount the value of parachurch organizations, or the validity of being sent out by one. They are wonderful training and sending agencies!

      The book I referenced above (Mission Smart) speaks a lot to the confusion that can occur when these orgs drop the ball on member care or repatriation, as the M who has returned home will likely land in church home and be looking for support from that specific body, not his/her parachurch org. It’s an quick and interesting read, and has many things to ponder. I highly recommend it!

      So glad the person you spoke of above found a supportive way to be launched overseas. May the Lord of the Harvest raise up even more workers in His harvest fields!

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