The following is an excerpt from The Upstream Collective‘s ebook, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. Used with permission.
No one better than the missionary can bring the missionary vision to the home church. No one better than the missionary can inspire young people to a life of sacrifice and dedication to Jesus. No one better than the missionary can expand people’s outlook, broaden their thinking, and stimulate them to become part of the world church. The missionary represents in person the wider world, the field ready for harvest; he or she is the contact point. The missionary is able to bless, to edify, to inspire the home church. If you come across a church that has grown cold to missions, it may well be they haven’t hosted a “live missionary” in a long time. And remember, most people considering missions work finally offer themselves for service as the result of a face-to-face appeal from a missionary. Don’t let such an opportunity go to waste; don’t let such an obligation go unmet.
Thomas Hale, On Being A Missionary (487)
Perhaps the most forgotten way churches help returning missionaries is by helping themselves.
Helping themselves to what?
To the feast that is a returning sent one. When sent ones return home for furlough, transition, or retirement, they offer churches a smorgasbord of valuable information, input, and wisdom from experience. No, it’s not just because they have funny stories about eating gross food. By divine design, they have a specific role to fill in the body of Christ.
Consider Jesus, the Missionary of missionaries. We tend to emphasize what he did back then that still affects us today: he died and rose again, and so we have life. But what about his work right now? When he finished his missionary journey, he ascended to the right hand of the Father where he is currently interceding for us (Romans 8:34) and awaiting the time for his second coming (Acts 1:11). Jesus’ return home included not only a grand welcome, but a critical ministry. And because we know the rest of the story, we can say that the best fruit from his labor is still yet to come (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
Or, how about Paul? After his first missionary journey alongside Barnabas, we read that he returned to his sending church at Antioch and
stayed there a long time with the disciples. Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way…After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord, Acts 14:28-15:3, 33-34
As Paul slowly readjusted to life at Antioch, he reengaged in the mission of the church locally. And it wasn’t merely reporting his mission work. Due to his wisdom and experience in seeing the gospel spread among the Gentiles, Paul was leveraged by the church to help correct a massive theological debate in Jerusalem. Afterward, Paul returned to Antioch and resumed teaching and preaching. He would go on to become not only the most influential missionary in church history, but also the most prolific author of the New Testament. Thank God he understood his capacity to build up the church both locally and globally!
Alan Hirsch says that this particular kind of influence on the church comes from the gifts mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-13, especially that of the “apostle”. This gift kindles in certain people a natural passion and ability to
extend the gospel. As the sent ones, they ensure that the faith is transmitted from one context to another and from one generation to the next. They are always thinking about the future, bridging barriers, establishing the church in new contexts, developing leaders, networking trans-locally (Hirsch, Ibid.).
Of course, not every sent one is necessarily gifted in an apostolic way. But each one is gifted, and has an emboldening passion for those outside the body of Christ. These are people whom Christ has given to the church to keep her from settling into holy huddles. However, simply because they are gifted and passionate, and even if they have a healthy posture of affection toward the local church, it doesn’t always mean their home church will welcome their influence or utilize their ability.
Returning to their home church, in fact, can be deeply disappointing for sent ones. Ok, let’s use a more compelling verb: it can be downright constipating. Think about the short list of skills and experiences the sent one has probably acquired and sharpened during his or her preparation and service:
- church planting
- cultural exegesis
- global perspective
- community development
- family worship and mission
Imagine bursting at the seams with all that information and the spiritual formation that comes with it, and being given little more than five minutes to report at a Sunday morning church service. Ugh. That is a grievous rejection of God’s intended natural function for his family, the church.
What, then, does it practically look like to partner with your returning sent ones? First, always begin with healthy soul care. Eric Wright gives churches a weighty reminder in this regard: “The perception that a mission agency has the resources to completely care for a [returning] missionary is a chimera” (233). Resist relying on anyone else to provide the rich care that can come from the covenant church community. Fruit will flow from the returning sent one only to the extent that he or she is refreshed in Christ (John 15:5).
After giving long, patient attention to care (especially if there needs to be a restoration process), begin to harvest that fruit in some of the following ways:
- Gather the church corporately and allow the returning sent ones to report what God has done in and through them. Encourage them to share both victories and challenges. Make it a celebration. Provide cultural refreshments related to their country of service. Take some time for Q&A. Involve their children.
- Coordinate opportunities for them to report more intimately in small groups, Sunday School classes, youth and children’s ministries, etc.
- If they are rightly gifted and able, give them the opportunity to preach, and even more than just missions-related sermons.
- Invite them to your leadership/staff meetings, not as mere listeners, but contributors to directional decisions. Gary Strauss and Kathy Narramore say that their “missionaries are viewed as an extension of the church staff” (312).
- Give them opportunities to teach apart from the large worship gathering: small groups, Sunday School classes, evangelistic training, other discipleship environments.
- Enlist them to conduct ethnographic research in your church’s neighborhood and city. Use this to inform and stretch your local mission.
- Encourage them to research the local community for people from their country or people group of service. Consider making that group a focal point of your church’s outreach.
- If they are qualified, consider utilizing them as missions directors, deacons, or pastors.
- Invite them to know and speak into the local and global missions strategy of your church.
- When their negative responses to reentry culture shock have slowed down, seek their reproof and correction. Don’t wait for them to initiate. Find out how you may have let them down while they were overseas. Give them a trusted, open door for sharpening the church in love.
- Ask them to put together a missions conference or missions prayer gathering for your church.
- When they find jobs, seek to partner with them, especially if they are ministry or service-oriented positions, such as teaching ESL or starting a non-profit.
- Ask them how they envision using their gifts and experience to build up the church. Really listen, then pray together and try to make some of their ideas happen.
- Take every opportunity for them to rub shoulders with anyone interested in missions. According to Thomas Hale, “More missionary recruits are influenced by missionaries on home assignment than by pastors, teachers, or anyone else” (485).
- Whatever you choose from this list and whatever else you might add, put it into a document as a job description of sorts for your “Missionary in Residence”. Make it an official, yet temporary, position in your church.
Churches, help yourselves to this feast. Perhaps the most impactful ministry of sent ones is when they come home to you.