"What can we do to help? Can we send you a short-term team?"
As a missionary on furlough, I have often been asked these questions by supporters, home churches, and missions committees. Understandably, some supporters want to be as hands-on as possible in helping their missionaries. Sending a short-term team may look like an attractive option. But even when these offers stem from sincere motives, sending a short-term team may not always be the most helpful way to support missionaries. In fact, sometimes missionaries feel pressure to accept short-term teams even if they do not actually need them—especially if the request comes from a major supporting church. Furthermore, some missionaries are drained by hosting short-term teams. The planning often requires them to deflect significant amounts of time and attention away from ministering to locals. This is especially true if short-term team members have not been properly trained or informed prior to the trip, are not culturally adaptable, lack overall maturity, or do not speak the local dialect.
That said, overseas missions would be impossible without the committed, consistent support of well-informed people and churches back at home. Here are six alternative ways to support missionaries and take part in God's mission to the world.
1. Pray for your missionaries regularly. Then tell the missionary you're praying for specific prayer requests.
One missionary shared recently that he ran some statistics on his outgoing prayer emails. He discovered that a large portion of his prayer emails—possibly more than half—weren't even opened by the recipients, the people he was counting on as his prayer warriors. This is disconcerting. Writing quick emails to your missionary to tell them you're praying for specific requests assures them that, no matter how isolated they might be, their ministry is being covered in prayer. Being specific about your prayers will help them know you are looking over their requests carefully. If your address or contact information changes, be sure to let your missionaries know; this applies to missions committees as well as individual supporters. Nothing is more discouraging to a missionary than returned prayer letters and unanswered phone calls to supporting churches.
In the busyness of life, it can be difficult to pray diligently and regularly for missions work. The task can be aided by organizing a prayer group for your missionary; if you do this, be sure to let your missionaries know so they can be encouraged and maybe even Skype in during one of the prayer meetings.
2. Commit to regular financial support.
One-time donations are welcome, but regular support shows missionaries that you are committed to their ministry in the long haul. It also provides missionaries with a more consistent source of income, so they do not have to be overly concerned about whether they will be able to maintain their support level year to year. Most missionaries dread the prospect of being sent home to raise funds if their supporting churches or individual supporters drop them or forget to give.
Missionaries have a lot to worry about already—cultural and linguistic adaptation, running ministries with limited resources, resistance, persecution, harsh living environments, and more. Though support-raising might be a necessary reality, you can make the process easier for overseas Christian laborers by being consistent in your support. It's a shame that many people avoid going to the missions field, as the Great Commission mandates, because they fear support raising.
In Philippians 4:15-19, Paul commends a church that supported him financially when he was overseas:
When I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Financially supporting missionaries not only blesses them—it also blesses you.
3. Help combat homesickness.
A simple care package can communicate a great deal. Ask your missionaries if there is anything they particularly miss from home—books, worship or sermon CDs, foods, spices, toys, games, or TV shows. If receiving mail is not possible for them but using the internet is, offer online goods like downloadable music credit, magazine subscriptions, or e-books.
4. Help missionaries during their "furloughs."
The term furlough can be deceiving because it suggests the missionary is taking time off or enjoying a long holiday. For this reason, some mission agencies such as ours dub this time as a "home assignment." Don't assume that "furloughs" are entirely restful for the missionary. In fact, many missionaries return home with a dose of reluctance, not because they don't love their home churches, but because of the cultural transitions and logistical hassles that "furloughs" entail.
We know that war-torn soldiers who return from tours of duty need special support. Recent statistics about the high suicide rate among U.S. troops remind us of this reality. Like returning soldiers, missionaries on "furlough" often return home similarly confused. Some might detect a widening emotional gap with friends back at home because they've traversed entire seasons of life apart. Some have suffered the death of relatives while they were overseas, resulting in a loss of intimacy in their family networks. Some have endured trauma overseas and might need counseling but cannot afford it at regular rates.
You can assist your missionaries during their "furloughs" in many tangible ways. You can help them acclimate by greeting them at the airport or by asking them intelligent questions about their life and ministry. You can volunteer to help them with housing or setting up a mobile phone. You can let them borrow vehicles or furniture. Since visiting home churches often requires a fair amount of travel, you can offer to help with childcare or donate your frequent flier miles. If you are a counselor or physician, consider offering your services free of charge. Finally, you can help spread the word of their return to others and keep up with what they might need throughout their "furlough." Befriend them; encourage your children to get to know theirs.
5. If you do want to visit the missionary overseas, be mindful of their point of view.
Sometimes, short-term missions trips are not as helpful to missionaries as vision trips, where people go overseas to acquaint themselves with an area they are committed to pray for and otherwise support long-term. People who visit the field with this mindset can then spread their passion for missions with churches at home and serve as long-term advocates for missionaries.
If you would like to go overseas to visit a missionary or lead a short-term team, be sure to dialogue with the missionary beforehand and try not to bring to the table any preconceived notions about what you think would be helpful. Ask for the missionary's honest opinion about what would be best for them. Go with a clear mindset of serving and learning. Missionaries who have worked to build up a ministry over a period of years may not want advice from short-term visitors who are only in the country for a couple of days or weeks. Similarly, if a Chinese Christian visiting the United States for the first time immediately confronted a pastor about how the entire American church should be run, that person—no matter how well-meaning—would probably be disregarded.
Even so, visits from supporters and church representatives can be helpful. Once, when we were on the field, a pastor from our home church came to visit us. We wanted to show him our different ministries, but due to typhoons, we had to cancel most of our events. Still, the pastor remained flexible and even volunteered to help my husband mop up an area of our new gospel center that had flooded because of the torrential rain. One night, a local woman came to our house to chat, and it became evident that we would soon enjoy significant gospel conversation. My husband and the visiting pastor went upstairs and started to pray for us. The woman received Christ that night and became our first convert.
The pastor's visit encouraged us because he came with the goal to pray, watch, and learn. Throughout his stay he expressed compassion and concern for us, and he did not jump to making rash conclusions about anything he observed. The whole experience helped him better understand what our lives were like overseas.
6. Send a "medium-term" missionary to help be part of a long-term vision.
People willing to commit one to two years to the missions field usually have enough time to learn the local language and contribute to the ministry in a significant way. "Medium-term" missionaries can build meaningful relationships with locals and support long-term missionaries in a way that can help sustain a ministry in the long run.
For instance, one young woman came to Taiwan specifically to help a long-term missionary couple with the education of their special-needs son. Perhaps many people in the church have the ability to teach missionary kids, which could free up more missionaries to minister in completely unreached areas of the world that lack missionary schools. Other people might have the capacity to teach English overseas. Still others work well with children, are gifted in evangelism, or have professional skills that can be employed in a particular project.
If you know someone interested in "medium-term" missions, ask the missionaries you support about what kinds of opportunities might be available.
Little Act, Big Effect
I remember one point in the early stages of our ministry when we wanted to let local children play with American board games during our outreach events. After sending out a quick email to our supporters, many of them immediately offered to send us games. Having these supporter gifts on hand eventually helped us launch several children's ministries that led families to seek Christ.
"How did you get these games over here?" one curious local asked while watching her children play with the games.
"They're from Christians around the world who believe in the Good News so much that they sent us here to share it," I replied.
She smiled. "That's really moving."
Sometimes, little acts of support and commitment can go a long way.