This is a post that I have wanted to write for about a year now, but wanted to wait until my family had returned from life overseas and been back for at least a year. Call it my own pride, but this was mostly so that people wouldn't feel sorry for us or think that we expected these things from them. As much as possible my family wanted relationships to normalize. Last month marked one year exactly since we returned from catalyzing church plants in S. Asia and it was a year full of transitions, disappointment, unmet expectations, blessings, and the favor of God.
Leaving the country in some ways I put life in the U.S. on pause and expected it to be vaguely similar upon return, but I was ever so wrong. Our church had experienced exponential growth, which resulted in us being unsure of our place that we once had owned in leadership roles. I like to use the analogy of a large ship that went out to sea and we were sent on a special mission from that ship to go and reach an unreached people group. A couple of years later that shipped is scheduled to pass by us and it is time for us to get back on, only when the ship arrives it has five more levels and doesn't resemble the ship we left at all. We get on and don't know the people, the culture, or even how we are supposed to act anymore.
It felt like many of our friends had either replaced us with new friends or just moved on from the friendship altogether. This is always difficult to experience, but this past year God has provided us with so many new friendships, many of these with people who do not follow Jesus, which is actually how I prefer it. I love seeing a tight knit small group experience community, but so many of these groups become so inwardly focus that they lose sight of mission. I want people who want to be on mission 24/7 with each other and are strategic in their relationships with those around them.
One of the many benefits of being a sent out one with an apostolic gifting is that you get to meet and form relationships with many others that are wired in similar ways. The only people who will truly ever understand you are those that have also been sent out and experienced what you have gone through. This has led me to list 5 ways to help returning missionaries.
1. Just Listen.
I know that I annoyed people to death with stories from India, but true friends just listened and seemed interested even if they weren't. I honestly tried not to make my identity the guy that used to live in India, but it was difficult for me not to express what we had experienced. Many of my analogies in sermons were from India, many of my stories were from India, and when I saw an Indian person I had to go and talk to them as a way to experience a glimpse of my life there, which never lives up to what I hope it will.
2. Help meet their physical needs.
Most missionaries that move overseas leave everything behind, including selling most of their material possessions. My family returned with no jobs, very little money, no furniture, house to live in, and one car (we kept one) to drive. Meeting physical needs is a huge way to help returning missionaries. To offset some of this initially we stayed with my parents as we waited for things to fall into place. Truthfully many people asked how they could help us, but very few actually did anything to help meet these needs. I started studying Acts 2 and asking myself, "why are we so different than the early church?"
The strange thing that we experienced is that once our needs started being met it was by people in the family of God that we had never even met. Helping meet these physical needs is a way that you can participate in loving and serving others from within the body of Christ and also a way to show that you appreciate sent out ones putting their "yes" on the table and being obedient to go!
3. Be a genuine friend.
I already mentioned in the top part of this posts that many friendships had moved on or felt like they were replaced with others. This was probably one of the more unexpected parts that we dealt with and it can be tough emotionally. Now, if you are reading this and you are a friend please do not read this and think that we are not friends and this is about you because many of our longtime friendships picked right back up where we left off and are stronger than ever, which is a true sign of friendship.
But the need for genuine friendships still existed. One of my newest friendships that formed since I returned to Raleigh is with one of the elders from my church that I only knew in name when leaving the country. He had also been a sent out one and knew what I needed to hear, how to listen, and how to be a friend. We still meet regularly and have formed a friendship that I appreciate.
4. Have them speak at your church and/or special events.
Returning missionaries are some of the best missions mobilizers as they have just returned from living the life that most of us study in books. They return and are ready to implement here what they were doing over there and the thing that slows them down is most likely the "Western model" of doing church. Thankfully my family had the opportunity to speak at numerous churches and missions events this last year, which helped us not lose our passion and also helped to connect others further to what God is doing in the nations. Just last month we spoke at an all Spanish speaking church and three people responded to commit to taking the next steps of overseas missions.
5. Give them opportunities and ways to serve.
Churches sometimes do a great job of sending people out, but not as good of a job receiving them back. It is easy for the returning missionary to fall by the wayside in the life of the local church, not because they do not desire to serve and be part of the mission but because they were used to doing it without the help of a large congregation. Sent out ones are apostolic in nature for a reason and they will just as easily return and go start something new, not as a way to separate themselves from the local church, but because they may not see the opportunities for them at the local church. It is hard to send one out to start new gospel movements and then expect them to return to life in the local church with its many level of existing systems and programs.
Check back Wednesday for part 2, but in the meantime, if you are or have been a sent out one, what are some ways to help returning missionaries that you would add to the list?