When I was six years old my parents accidentally forgot me at church. Both of them had driven that day, and they simply pulled away thinking I was in the other vehicle. Meanwhile, I sat happily on the front steps, waving goodbye to friends. At first the autonomy of it all was pretty cool. But when the last car left the parking lot, I began to feel six years old. We lived only two miles away, but less than five minutes alone was enough to convince me—it stinks to be forgotten.
Now multiply that by thousands of miles and several years. Perhaps you start to get a feel for what missionaries experience when their sending churches lose touch. They may not act like six year-olds, but the repercussions can be surprisingly similar. The loneliness and disappointment due to a lack of tangible support can lead not simply to disconnection, but downright dysfunction. No one responds to the missionary’s newsletter…so they stop sending them. No one ever comes to visit the missionary…so they stop giving invitations. No one invites the missionary onto the stage or into their home…so they spend entire furloughs with family in another state, or traveling to speak only at other churches.
What’s sad is that this may already be the relational norm for many churches and missionaries. Recently I met a missions leader who admitted just that, telling me her church was once so estranged from their missionaries that they were still sending support checks to one who had died. If sending was simply a model, then this wouldn’t be a big deal. Yet the Scriptures portray something much different. There, the relationships between senders and sent ones are rich enough to create longing for one another, and deep enough to span the separation. Barnabas and Saul seem eager to return to Antioch, where they report “all that God had done through them” and “stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:27-28). And the church there was eager to receive them, giving them public (and likely private) space to share their lives and ministry. It was the natural expression of a deep, inseparable bond.
Nevertheless, the kind of dysfunction we see today can happen among even the most loving, well-intentioned churches. How? The same way I ended up left behind by loving, well-intentioned parents: no one owned the responsibility. 3 John 1:5-8 helps us understand that the privilege of caring for those on mission belongs to all believers. Andy Horvath even argues that Jesus’ term “the least of these” from Matthew 25:40 refers to those he sent on mission to preach the gospel. If that’s true, then part of the outworking of our salvation is tied to how we receive and care for sent ones. Whoa.
But let’s be honest, we’re human—and busy ones at that. We forget. So just like we need pastors and friends to constantly remind us of the gospel, we need people to take the lead in holding the rope for sent ones, and to remind us that we can’t let go either. One of the best ways to do that is something my church calls “Advocate Teams”.
Advocate Teams (or Barnabas Teams, Missionary Care Groups, whatever you want to call them) are simply a model of missionary care that have been utilized by numerous churches. They are groups of 4-8 people with a designated leader who commit to providing ongoing support for a particular missionary. They meet regularly to pray for and communicate with the missionary, as well as plan things like sending care packages, providing logistical support, setting up visits, and anything else the missionary needs. They do not, however, care for the missionary so that no one else has to. One of their most important responsibilities is representing the missionary and their needs before the rest of the church. In other words, Advocate Teams make sure no one is forgotten.
Advocate Teams have been a proven way to maintain the kind of relationship that not only benefit senders and sent ones, but give evidence to the God who binds them together. By way of commending them to you, check out this free downloadable guide provided by The Upstream Collective.