Many American churches take time once or twice a year to recognize and honor veterans for their service to the country. Most of these churches also recognize law enforcement officers at the local level. We lift up the heroes among us, men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way for the good of their neighbor.
This kind of practice can be fruitful for a local congregation. It is good to point out clear examples of self-sacrifice. After all, the Scriptures tell us to give honor to whom honor is due.
But what puzzles me about some of these churches is the lack of public honor given to people who have served as missionaries. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a church service where the pastor asked all those who have served at some point as a missionary to stand and be recognized. Why recognize warriors for the country and not for the kingdom?
Why We Overlook Missionaries
There are several reasons why we might overlook our missionaries:
1. In one sense, every Christian is called to be on mission. The Great Commission is given to all believers, not just to an elite few. In recent years, evangelicals have come to realize that we should all be missionaries. All Christians should be consciously on mission, witnesses for Christ wherever God puts us. Some church leaders may fear that if we were to honor our foreign missionaries or full-time missionaries publicly, we might send the signal that missions is something that happens somewhere else and not here at home.
2. Another reason might be a flawed understanding of foreign missions. Decades ago, people who answered the call to missions typically left their homes and moved to a foreign country for the rest of their lives. Missionaries who returned home early (especially before retirement age) were sometimes viewed as being unable to handle the pressures of missionary service. Having all those with previous missions experience stand and be recognized might, for some people, lead to the question “If they are called to be missionaries, what are they doing back here? Why aren’t they still on the field?” The first question a furloughing missionary is usually asked “When are you going back?” This mentality is fading (mercifully!), but it still exists among some Christians.
3. A third reason is – to put it bluntly – we just don’t value missionaries as much as our military and law enforcement officers. I hope this isn’t the case, but I fear it might be. In some denominations, mission service is celebrated. In others, it is seen as a detriment. I’ve met church leaders who see foreign mission work as a crutch for people who weren’t gifted enough to handle ministry at home. They weren’t good enough to do ministry here, so they had to go to the mission field. In other words, mission work is actually taken less seriously than ministry in one’s native country. When the missionary returns home and seeks a ministry position, some churches are likely to skip over the person’s extensive missions experience and think, That’s nice and everything, but it doesn’t really count when it comes to climbing the ladder of ministry success. They don’t have enough experience at home. It’s no wonder that we overlook our missionaries when some of our churches actually think that mission work is a hindrance to home ministry rather than a help.
Because of these reasons, we don’t publicly honor our missionaries. We’re more likely to salute our veterans and thank our public safety officers than we are to show appreciation for the missionaries who have left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields because of Christ’s name.
A Better Way
We should fix this. Here are several suggestions for how we can honor our missionaries.
1. Set aside at least one Sunday a year for missionary appreciation.
The music can be oriented around missions and the Great Commission. The service can feature an inspirational missions video or a testimony from a missionary in the congregation. The pastor’s message can focus on the Christian’s calling to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. Churches can plan major events where missionaries are celebrated and ministered to by the whole body. Small groups can “adopt” a missionary and spoil them all weekend long with meals, interaction, and gifts.
2. Publicly recognize the missionaries in the congregation.
“But we don’t have any former missionaries in our congregation!” you might think. Don’t bemoan your lack of missionaries. Rather, celebrate whatever missionaries you do have! Even if you have to invite them from other churches, do so. Start somewhere. What you celebrate shows what you value. Missionaries are often undervalued and under-appreciated. Rectify this by recognizing them publicly.
3. Recognize different types of missionary service.
Veterans are often recognized based on the branch of military service they were in: air force, navy, marines, army, etc. With missionaries, you can do the same thing and thus educate your congregation as to the types of mission work that are there. Consider saying this:
- All who have served in a full-time capacity as a missionary to a foreign country, please stand.
- All who have served on a short-term mission trip in the previous 12 months to a foreign country, please stand.
- All who have served in a full-time capacity as a missionary or church planter here in the United States, please stand.
- All who have served on a short-term mission trip in the previous 12 months here in the United States, please stand.
- All who have served in a disaster relief capacity, please stand.
Break down the different ways that mission work takes place. It’s true that all Christians are called to be missionaries, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give honor to those who set aside special times (whether weeks or years) to fulfilling this calling.
Missionaries should be recognized, welcomed, and appreciated by our churches. Most of our churches could do a better job at this. Ed Stetzer has said, “What you celebrate, you become.” If we only celebrate our victories at home, we will be a local church for the local community, with little to no impact worldwide. But if we celebrate missionary service in all its forms, we will become a missionary force that pushes back the gates of hell as the Lord uses us to draw more people to Himself.