I can’t conclude this series without mentioning the support system a missionary needs back home.
If you ask almost any missionary what he or she mostly needs from the churches and individuals who support them, the first response would be “Prayer.” David Hosaflook, missionary to Albania, writes in Gospel Meditations For Missions, “The ‘Gospel-destitute areas’ see us as criminal combatants, not friends (Colossians 4:2-4). We’re up against reigning principalities, religious powers, radical politicians, and recurring persecution. We get attacked from the front, from the rear, from the sides, and, yes, even from within (2 Corinthians 7:5).” He continues, “Sure, pray for our safety (Romans 15:30-31, 2 Thessalonians 3:2), but please don’t exert all your time there. Jesus made it clear that mission work is exceedingly unsafe, so we’re already past that hump. We’d love to avoid pain, but not at the expense of boldness; Christ must be lifted up at any cost (Philippians 1:20-21). So pore over our prayer letters (and reply once in a while). And when you pray, pray the prayer that Paul requested: that the word of the Lord would spread quickly and be glorified (2 Thessalonians 3:1). That’s the crux of the matter. That’s the reason we came.”
When you read missionary biographies, you come across numerous instances of a definite answer to prayer at a certain time that someone was praying. Here are just a few examples:
In Goforth of China, Rosalind Goforth tells how her husband Jonathan had a terrific struggle with the language, though he put in many hours studying. When he preached, the Chinese would point to his colleague, Mr. Donald McGillivray, and ask him to preach because they couldn’t understand Goforth. Things came to a crisis one day. Jonathan told his wife, “If the Lord does not work a miracle for me with this language, I fear I may be an utter failure as a missionary!” Rosalind writes that he looked heartbroken, then picked up his Bible and started off to the chapel.
Two hours later he returned, saying, “Oh, Rose! It was just wonderful! When I began to speak, those phrases and idioms that would always elude me came readily. The men actually asked me to go on though Donald had risen to speak. I know the backbone of the language is broken! Praise the Lord!”
Rosalind goes on to write, “About two months later, a letter came from Mr. Talling (his former roommate, still in Knox College), saying that on a certain evening after supper, a number of students decided to meet in one of the classrooms for prayer, ‘just for Goforth.’ The letter stated that the presence and power of God was so clearly felt by all at that meeting, they were convinced Goforth must surely have been helped in some way. On looking in his diary, Mr. Goforth found the students’ prayer meeting coincided with the experience recorded above.”
Another time when Mr. Goforth was on furlough in London, “he was taken to see an invalid lady. She told Mr. Goforth that when she heard of his proposed meetings in Manchuria, she felt a great burden laid upon her to pray for him. She then asked him to look at her notebook, in which was recorded three dates when a special sense of power in prayer had come upon her for him. A feeling akin to awe came upon Goforth as he recalled those dates as being the very days when he had witnessed the mightiest movements in Manchuria.”
Isobel Kuhn wrote once of a difficult situation in one of their churches in China that could have caused great division, but worked out better that expected. Some months later they learned that someone was specifically burdened to pray for them at that time.
Sometimes it is daunting to begin to pray for a whole list of the missionaries your church supports without using generalities, and there are certainly things you can pray for them as a group (like Colossians 1:9-14 or Philippians 1:9-11). But you could also pray more particularly for one missionary a day (one friend’s family used to keep a stack of missionary prayer cards and rotate them them as they prayed for one missionary a day during family devotions) or choose just one or two that you want to keep up with and pray for and write to. Some churches have an “adopt a missionary” program for that purpose. My own tendency is to stop and pray for someone right when I receive their prayer letter or an e-mail request so I don’t forget later on.
Besides prayer, there are a number of thing one can do to help and be a blessing to missionaries. Some years ago I attended a Bible conference in which a man named Ronald Van Hee preached a message called “The Doctrine of Escorting” from III John 5-8: “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of they charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellow-helpers to the truth.” He said the words “bring forward” in Greek mean: “to escort, to conduct, to send forth, to accompany, to bring on one’s journey, to aid in travel, fitting him out with requisites” and can be found in other passages (Genesis 18:16; Acts 15:3, 21:5-6; I Corinthians 16:5-6; II Corinthians 1:16; Romans 15:24; and Titus 3:13) using the phrase “being brought on their way.” It has the idea of providing what they need to enable them in their travels. It might include having them in your home while they are on furlough or deputation, providing a meal, loaning a car, giving gift bags of travel-friendly toys to the children or gift cards to the family to a restaurant or store, etc. I knew of one church that paid for an eye exam and new glasses for a missionary who particularly needed it, and of mechanics in the church doing some needed repairs to a missionary’s car. Some churches have a missions closet ministry for their missionaries to stop in when they visit: I wrote the details of a one of our former church’s missions closet ministries here. They are kind of falling out of fashion now, giving way to a W-Mart gift card, which may be just as well. But they can be fun. It was such a blessing to see a missionary pick up something I had bought at random for the closet and hear them say, “We were just needing this!” What a blessing it is to know that however we can help a missionary along the way, “we might be fellow-helpers to the truth.”
This kind of ministry, as well as any other, needs to be conducted sensitively and prayerfully. You might wonder, for instance, if the missionaries you invited to stay with you would rather stay home and rest or go out and sight-see. It just depends – on their personalities, on what else they’ve had going on, etc. If in doubt, just ask, or present options: “Would you all like to rest this afternoon, or would you enjoy doing….?” Some friends who are Indian missionaries to India said that when they are in the States, many people like to take them to Indian restaurants, when they’d really love to eat American food while here. In Rosalind Goforth’s book Climbing, she tells of many well-meaning people trying to help them while on furlough who put her in awkward positions (she wasn’t trying to complain: she was asked to relate these stories, and they are really eye-opening). In that day missionaries were much longer than four years between visits back home, and there was no Internet to keep up with what was going on in the rest of the world and no Western stores to buy clothes in before they came home, so the styles might have changed drastically since they last came. One lady offered to outfit Rosalind for their time on furlough, and everything she bought was what she apparently thought was a very proper black. Someone told Rosalind she looked like she was in mourning, but she didn’t want to hurt the woman’s feelings. Another lady bought her a hat that caused another friend to exclaim, “Rosalind! Why are you wearing that thing!” The situation is a little different these days, but we need to be gracious in what a missionary has on and wise and sensitive in what we offer them. We also need to be careful that we don’t embarrass them: one friend told me a ladies’ group “honored” her by having her stand holding an offering plate while they filed by and put offerings in. While she appreciated the thought and the willingness, that was such an awkward way to conduct a love offering.
The high cost of postage has made it difficult to send things to missionaries on the field. Churches we have been in have had various methods of sending things to their missionaries: one focused on a couple of missionaries a month, another sent Christmas packages, both after asking ahead of time what they might need, what things they can’t get on their field, etc. (I remember at the time they couldn’t get chocolate chips or construction paper in South Africa, so we always sent those items to those ministering there. I don’t know if they can get them now.) But when the Post Office did away with the lower mailing rate that went by ship and went to air mail only overseas, sending a simple box of kitchen items began to cost much more than the contents were worth, so we had to resort to sending money instead. But there still might be little things that could be sent that aren’t so expensive. Always check with your missionary or their mission board and the Post Office before sending any kind of package: some have to pay customs rates on their end, making any kind of package expensive to receive, and every country prohibits certain items being sent in the mail.
Another big encouragement to missionaries is just to read their prayer letters and be aware of what is going on with them, not only so you know how to pray, but also when you talk to them or write to them, you can ask intelligent questions that let them know you’re truly interested and aware of their work. Many missionaries have web sites or Facebook pages or send their prayer letters out by e-mail, making it easier than ever both to keep up with them and to jot them a note.
Of course, missionaries need financial support as well, both for everyday living and for special projects and needs, and as I mentioned yesterday, sometimes a short-term mission trip can be a help and encouragement. Such a trip needs a lot of information-gathering and prayer beforehand to make sure that the time you are coming and what you want to do is actually a help and not a problem for the missionary. While they love to receive visitors, they have busy times as well: you wouldn’t want to arrive to work on a building project right in the midst of their VBS or camp week, for example.
I hope this gives you some ideas and encouragement about how to pray for and bless your missionaries.
I’ve had the second stanza of this poem in my files for ages and have used it many times, but I just discovered yesterday that it is part of a larger poem. It’s a little old-fashioned, but it does convey how much our prayers support those in the ministry.
A Missionary Appeal
Oh, dark is the land where the Evil One reigns,
And strong is his citadel there!
Oh, deep are his dungeons, and heavy the chains
That his long enthralled prisoners wear!
What can brace up the arm and confirm the weak knee,
The Strong One to meet and o’ercome
Like the message of cheer wafted over the sea:
“There’s somebody praying at home!”
There are times when the enemy seems to prevail,
And faintness creeps over the heart:
When courage and confidence quiver and quail
At the glance of his fiery dart.
There are times when, exhausted, we can but stand still,
When the sword-arm hangs nerveless and numb,
Ah, then to the soul comes a whisper so chill;
“Are they weary of praying back home?”
Oh, brothers, ye toil in the twilight, perchance:
Remember, we wrestle in night:
Cry unto the Lord, would ye have us advance
And claim for us heavenly might.
Then, back to the arm will its vigor be given,
And lips, that in anguish were dumb,
Shall shout, as the foe from his stronghold is driven:
“‘Tis because they are praying at home!”
Then away to the mountain top! Lift up your hands!
Let the strong breath of prayer never cease!
Only thus, as ye follow our Captain’s commands,
His kingdom shall grow and increase.
If ye, while we fight, “strive together by prayer,”
The hour of vict’ry will come,
When we in the vanguard our gladness will share
With those who are praying back home
~ Author Unknown
(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here. Since I didn’t start this series until Oct. 2, I have one more post tomorrow to wrap up.)