This series of articles have been adapted from the Missions On Point podcast episodes addressing the same issues. You can find them starting with episode 73 here.
This is the second of five in our series using the theme, Help! My Family Member Is A Missionary. We're focusing primarily on the relatives and loved ones of those who go out to the field, but this also has application for those going out to the field and how they relate to people back home, especially their loved ones, and to those in the congregation and church leaders that are very concerned for the watch care and the support of the families and loved ones of those going out to the field.
So if you really know and love someone who is a missionary, this has at least some application for you. This particular episode, we're going to focus in on loving them across the miles. It has to do with distance, and some creative expression of care for the missionaries, and the missionaries reciprocal care for their friends and family back home.
It is a two-way street. You can't expect all of the love and concern to flow only in one direction, and not be reciprocated. And in the rare case where it is not reciprocated, perhaps there's opposition, it is still the right thing to do.
In the fourth segment of this series, we're going to talk about communication and security. But I want to talk about communication with respect to loving them across the miles in this segment. One of the best ways to express your love and concern for your missionary friends, and they back to you, is communication of a variety of means. Just letting that communication channel stay open is a huge asset to nurturing and sustaining that relationship.
Of course, you must realize that the missionary's job on the field is not entirely to be communicating with you back home. There are limits of both logistical time and of wisdom. Your missionary needs to be giving a hundred percent of their focus on acculturating, learning the language, adjusting to their team, just figuring out the logistics of what life is like in their new place.
Let me tell you, transportation is different. Shopping is different. Groceries are different. Utilities and living spaces are different. Almost everything about their life has changed, and it creates a certain amount of stress. They don't need to be communicating so much time with people back home that they lose sight of why they're actually there.
So you do your part in appropriately communicating love and concern to them in a variety of ways, but keep your expectations low about how much they will be able to invest in communicating in the same way back to you. Remember, you're not the only person in their world, even back home. They have a lot of bosses to report to, so to speak, from among their supporters. They're sending church, their mission agency, and all those that make it possible for them to live overseas doing the work of the Lord.
The capabilities of communication have exploded in the last couple of decades. When we first went to the field, I literally used a small portable typewriter to hammer out a letter with carbon copies so that I could reproduce it for each of our family members, my siblings and parents on my side, and my wife's siblings and parents on her side.
We would mail that out on a Monday, and two weeks later they would receive it in their mailbox. If we wanted them to visualize what was going on on our lives, we would take photographs on regular 35-millimeter film, get it developed, get the prints duplicated, and include eight sets of prints for the eight sets of letters that we were sending out.
Then, when our family members wanted to reply to that, they would take a day or two or three and write a letter to us, which we would then receive about two weeks later. Imagine more than one month time cycle from the first communication on paper to receiving a reply either direction.
Just a footnote here, it is always special to receive written communication from your loved ones at home. All those who might send birthday cards, Christmas cards, or just a handwritten note or letter need to realize that it could be read by others before your missionary recipient receives it.
So this was before cell phones, before the internet, before email, certainly before all the social media capabilities we have now. In today's world, we have virtually instantaneous email. We can even text across the world through our smartphones. We have apps on our computers and smartphones like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and many others too numerous to mention.
They allow us to communicate with words, and pictures, and videos, and even have live video chats. There are many other programs and apps that are more or less secure. These things are fun, and amazing, and delightful to the users. But it is important that their use to be somewhat limited so that the missionary can actually get their job done on the field and not be so distracted.
Conversely, the missionary can get so engrossed in all this warm, fuzzy communication with people back home that they fail to get the job done themselves. They don't give high enough priority to limit their use of social media, communication media, video communication, and all of the stuff that goes with it.
This includes the danger of allowing children to communicate directly with their friends via these kinds of communication. Some of the best practices for missionaries are to use a very simple, short, three or four point prayer notes for the week to send out to that limited number of insider friends and family. It communicates what are on their hearts, what the most current events are, but particularly how to pray for them and their ministry in that week.
With regard to a video, FaceTime or Duo or Skype kind of communication, that should be limited perhaps to a standard time each week, like a Sunday afternoon or evening, when people are most available. Realizing that they're crossing time zones, and the time in the country of your missionary loved one may be completely different than your available time.
Of course, part of what I'm saying assumes that your missionary friend or loved one has internet available, and that's not always the case. Or it may be severely limited in hours or speed, bandwidth, so that they're just not able to have video conversations, for instance. Or they're only able to have it on Tuesday and Friday, or mornings between 6:00 AM and 11:00 AM their time.
It is incumbent upon the missionary to communicate well with the folks back home that are supporting them financially and through their prayers. My standard recommendation is that the missionary have at least a quarterly newsletter that goes out to all their friends via electronic transmission, and those four times a year can be augmented by special editions for Christmas, or mid-year, or somebody's birthday or anniversary. Or some special national event in the country in which they're living.
Digitally, those newsletters can include some pictures of the family, of the scenery, of the culture of their local friends and those that are receiving the gospel. So missionaries, here's the standard; a weekly text, small distribution to a smaller group, and at least a quarterly, probably augmented by one or two other newsletters a year to the larger group of all those interested in your ministry.
Let's just talk about two other ways, briefly, for showing love to them across the miles. The first is gifts. Though we encourage ministries to live within the local economy as much as possible, there may be certain things that they really would like to have or that are very special to them, or only available from our side of the world that they would really appreciate getting.
Realize that it is expensive to ship things overseas, and that depending on the size and the value, they may be opened and examined by customs officials on their side of the water. We have missionary friends in one country that says, if you can't ship it in a large-size padded envelope, then don't ship it.
Which brings us to the other way of delivering these kinds of gifts, and that is by hand. It doesn't mean that you personally have to take it by hand yourself, but one of the worldwide practices of missionaries everywhere is to carry small packages for each other from homeside to their place of ministry.
Significant luggage allowances for international travel should never be neglected. I remember one time carrying an entire computer tower server into a country, inside a large suitcase. Usually missionaries need a smaller, easy-to-transport piece of technology. One time I brought an entire IKEA order in two large suitcases to a foreign country.
The most extreme case is a dear missionary friend of mine who upon returned to the field after coming to the United States for a conference, took 20-something full-weight duffle bags, and all the extra baggage cost of that, across the world for his missionary friends.
And just think, it's not always for Christmas or birthdays. Sometimes sending something that is completely unexpected is a big help. Also realize that even though you ship it in time for Christmas, for instance, they may not get it until much later. I remember one time on the field we got our Christmas packages in February.
So smaller thoughtful things, well-packaged and shipped overseas are always welcome. Food items, unless they are extremely well packaged and padded, may not make it. I remember some dear friends of ours sent us a glass jar of honey, which broke in transit, and when we received it, all we got in the bag was millions of ants. I always say that chocolate chips and higher in nuts like pecans and walnuts are always welcome.
I remember receiving some relatively-current issues of good housekeeping, type of magazines that my wife really appreciated seeing, what was going on, and what recipes and styles and furnishings were popular.
But in these days, there are other ways to give gifts. Digitally. You may be able to give a gift of a movie digitally, or books digitally, or audio books. So many families and their children have tablets or computers in which they can play games, or watch a series of children's videos.
It's true that you have to be a little bit more creative to love them across the miles. I know my wife enjoys talking to her overseas grandkids, and reading them stories over Skype. They look forward to story time with grandma.
We'll talk more about field visits. But in this episode, I just want to say be careful about too much. We talked about the possibility of desiring or expecting to have too much communication so that it even limits or becomes a barrier to your missionaries actually fulfilling the task and priorities for which they're called to the foreign country.
In general, ease of travel has made it so much easier to visit your missionary on the field. It was impossible a hundred years ago for people working in inland China, for instance. But now it is possible for family members to go visit their loved ones overseas. For church leaders to visit for shepherding and pastoral care of their workers overseas.
And in general, that is a blessed time. It is a wonderful opportunity to visualize, and get the taste, and smell, and feel of what it's like to live there. However, these visits can be overdone as well. The visitors should not have high expectations that the missionary or the missionary family is going to be able to drop everything that they're doing, and interrupt whatever their normal schedule is, to take care of them and lead them around like a tour guide into all the great things in their country to see, and taste, and experience.
You're going primarily to fellowship with them, to love them, express your care for them, to understand them better and to observe what's going on. Certainly, there's a temptation of a visiting pastor to somehow expect to be given opportunity to teach or preach, but that is not the real purpose of visiting the missionary on the field. It's not to add another notch to the belt of the visiting minister. It is to shadow, and learn, and shepherd your missionary so that they will be more effective on the field.
And there is something about how much time, how many days are spent. I remember having to counsel some missionaries working in a really challenging ministry in France, that they just could not accept so many people coming through because they were in France. They had friends, and the young adult children of friends that wanted to visit France, and spend a freebie vacation time with them and have the missionaries take care of them.
Listen, if you go to visit your missionary, even if it's your own family member, you need to compensate them something for the cost of your being there. Don't make your presence a financial hardship on them, and for them to give a big sigh of relief when you leave.
So here's these three major areas; communication in general on both sides. Gifts and supply of material resources, or even digital things that they would enjoy. And then the visit itself, going in-person. Those things express a lot of love and appreciation, and they are a huge encouragement to the missionary on the field.
So if your loved one is a missionary, don't focus on the negative. Be creative and focus on the things you can do to extend and facilitate that relationship over the miles.