Welcome to Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and Missions. This is episode 114 of Missions on Point. We're toward the end of a series on contemporary issues in missions. In this particular episode we're going to be talking about long-term commitment.
Just a generation or so, this issue would not have been a contemporary issue because the idea was that once missionaries committed to go to the field, did all the things they needed to do for preparation, raised their support, that basically they were going to serve the rest of their lifelong career on the mission field. Most of that generation of missionaries have already retired from the field and come back home. Their definition of long-term when they started was as long as they were able. For most of them, unless there were unpreventable reasons, they stayed on the field for 20 plus years. So it's not unusual in that generation to hear of missionaries who've stayed on the field for 20, 25, 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. That's a long term.
Of course, in normal missionary life, missionaries will return home for what used to be called furlough and now almost universally is called home assignment. They come home to visit their family, their friends, they're supporting churches, they're sending church. They may be refreshed, have health issues to deal with or some other issues that may keep them home for anywhere from two to three months to actually as long as a couple years. The standard when we went to the field was four years on and one year off. And during that one year, a lot of effort was made to reconnect with supporters, develop additional support as needed and retool, perhaps take classes and then go back to the field.
Those long-term missionaries of the previous generation have other issues to fight with regard to retirement and where they're going to settle and who's going to take care of them in their old age. Most of them without the help of a loving sending church, have problems reorienting themselves to American culture. Their home culture has changed and morphed a lot since they first left for the field and they have to get used to the technology, the speed of transportation and so many things about the systems that we use in government and medicine that it can be a daunting task to get reintegrated back into life in the states.
But today we're looking at sort of the other side. The definition of long term has changed a lot. Most missionaries coming into the mission organization already want to know upfront, what kind of HR policies do you have? What kind of medical insurance, retirement policies? What is the salary going to be even if I have to raise the funds? What is the access of my children to proper kinds of education? And the definition of proper has a very broad definition depending on who you ask.
It seems that many missionaries coming to mission agencies in these days have a commitment for one term and not necessarily that long-term lifetime kind of career in mind. Perhaps wisely, they want to check it out and see how it goes and what it's like to work with those other hard-headed missionaries on the field.
The general term we need to wrap our hands around is attrition. What is attrition? Attrition is missionaries leaving the field for whatever reason. Now, preventable attrition we're going to talk about, but every missionary may encounter unpreventable attrition that is out of the scope of their control, things happen, which cause them to have to leave the field. It could be some very significant medical issue in their family. It could be perhaps a child that needs special care, special needs child. It could be that their parents back home need somebody to take care of them and they're the only child or the responsible child to take care of elderly parents in those last declining years. It could be a failure of having enough support. It could be security and political conditions in the place where they are. There is a coup, there is an uprising, there is an antagonism against Christians that puts their life at risk. It could be something as simple and universal as a worldwide pandemic.
The thing that is of most concern in this episode is the preventable attrition issues. This is a contemporary issue in missions. Number one, the missionary ought to be going with a long view in mind. Most of the unreached people groups in the world are people that are difficult to reach. That's why they're still unreached. Going to those places is going to require some stress either in physical living conditions, geographically, politically, socially, amongst the people that they're working in.
So the challenge in order to attain long-term commitment is to prepare well and mitigate against those stresses as much as reasonable. In places around the world where there is a dominant adversarial kind of religion against Christianity, missionaries tend to stay less than five years. In fact, 75% of missionaries that go out intending to have long-term career service in those places stay less than five years. Worldwide, the statistic is something like one in eight missionaries leave the field for preventable reasons every six years or so. And if you multiply that out over time, that means that there's a very significant percentage of missionaries that are leaving the field well before they reach a status of becoming what we would call a career missionary on the field for long term.
There are several really significant ramifications to a missionary who initially goes out thinking and telling everybody that they're going to stay long-term in career service on the field and then coming back after just a handful or less of years.
First of all, the church and supporters are disillusioned by that level of commitment. They may not understand all the things that went into the individual missionary's decision to leave the field. They may never really know and uncover that. But the second thing is that the missionary themselves are really disillusioned with whatever the whole process is. Realized they believed that they were going to the field for long term. They thought they were going to do it. They told everyone they were going to do it, and now they look like they're reneging on that kind of commitment. It devastates a person's self-image and self-worth. They don't know how to carry themselves. They don't know how to fit back in after they've left. They are in serious need of people around them to love them, accept them, pray for them, counsel them, help them over this speed bump in their life to get to the other side of being used of God in their passion and giftedness for the Lord's work even overseas. Not that they necessarily will return overseas, but that they can be used in the process because of their experience to help others maybe to make it even longer term.
I say there's two major categories of reasons why missionaries have preventable attrition, that is they leave the field for otherwise preventable reasons, and the first is unrealistic expectations. What do I mean by that? Well, proper preparation and even exposure to the kind of life that they're going to have on the field is very important. If they don't have the right kind of training down to linguistic training to learn the language better, the understanding of the circumstances of how they're going to live on the field and the people they're going to relate to, joining a team that's like-minded and in unity together and supporting each other on the field. If they don't have realistic expectations about the ministry, the purposes, the environment, the relationships, then they're going to hit a brick wall and that could do them in and they will be returning short term rather than long term.
So realistic expectations helps prevent the attrition of long-term commitment. It includes everything from being well grounded in the sovereignty of God, in biblical truths and doctrinal truths so that they can handle whatever comes to them on the field. Proper expectations is the first antidote to early attrition.
The second is a really sound sending church relationship. That is a sending church, as we have described in other episodes, that is very engaged, has a sense of ownership, not just of the person, but of the ministry and the ministry goal on the field. The local church leaders at least know this missionary well. They're able to put their hand around their shoulders and say, "We are going to be with you through the tough times." They communicate frequently enough and well enough to know the missionary's heart and minister to them. Even if the missionary is struggling in some area of sinful thoughts or behavior, they're able to enter in and encourage and help them get over that with the right kind of ministry to their heart.
Another little piece of that intimate knowledge and relationship is that the church does not easily allow the missionary to talk themselves into leaving the field. So many missionaries who leave the field do so without even including their sending church, it's kind of embarrassing to do so, and then they return and they give whatever kinds of answers to the questions of why you left the field, which may or may not be the true underlying cause. The sending church missions leaders need to penetrate that early before it ever happens so that as the missionary is considering or thinking about leaving the field, they're entering in and saying, "No, it's okay. You don't need to leave the field. You need to adjust. You need different resources. You need a break." You need whatever so that you can get through this period of doldrums or disappointment, discouragement and get onto the other side of just faithfully doing the task that God's called you to do and ultimately, seeing God bring fruit in it.
I remember a scene as a field leader when a particular younger missionary asked me to come over to his house and he told me me that he wanted to quit. He was informing his leader that he wanted to quit the field. I basically told him, "Thank you very much for telling me. It was wise and good of you to do so. But you have to take a number because there's too many people ahead of you that want to quit. You need to stick with it." Now, granted, my reply was a little bit facetious, but it was also true. Almost every missionary has moments when they feel like they want to quit. Things are not going the way they thought. It's harder than they thought. It's too long term. They're not seeing the fruit that they have. They maybe don't have harmony on the ministry team or the people they're working with and they feel like it's a frustrating thing. They don't want to stick with it. They're ready to quit. It's a great thing for loving Christians to come alongside them and say, "That's not the solution either, because even if you were to quit, you'd take yourself back to wherever you're going and you still have to deal with this stuff in yourself that maybe needs some adjustment." God may be using all of these things to refine you to be a more godly servant so that you can serve long term.
Now, there are unpreventable reasons why someone may come home, but most of the reasons that people come home are preventable by having proper preparation for realistic expectations and having a loving sending church come alongside them to put their arm around them and say, "It's okay. You're going to get through this. We're going to be here with you through it, and you can get to the other side."
Marriages and families have special stress, added stress when they're on the mission field. It's just a stressful situation. It's natural that husband and wife would need some extra counsel and prayer with regard to their marriage relationship so they can sort things out and stay on the same team together through it as they shepherd their own family and kids through the stresses of living on the field. Certainly, they need to be encouraged with a sense of hope and confidence in the sovereignty of God in it all. God is still there. He hasn't changed. He can and will help them through, if it's his will, for them to stay on the field long term.
Even if they don't stay for long term, say 20, 25 years, God is still sovereign and in control. And even in those details, he's going to use them and has a plan for using them for his glory. They need to take a look at that and raise their heads and see that instead of thinking that they are a failure.
So church leaders and friends, when you have someone you know that is wanting to go to the mission field, encourage them from the earliest days of their commitment to be long-term committed to the job on the field. Help prepare them, encourage them, love them in such a way that they are confident that they along with you and God's help, are going to make it long term on the field for his glory.
Thanks for joining us today on Missions on Point, the Propempo perspective on church and missions. I trust that you'll find more help and resources on the website, propempo.com. Please preferably consider supporting this ministry. Now to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.
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