Today’s guest post is by Megan Burns. Megan is married to Brian, and works as a biblical counselor in Richmond, VA with Heart Song Counseling. She served in the Philippines for three years, and has a passion for counseling cross-cultural workers, as well as equipping the local church to care for those they have sent out around the world. Megan enjoys writing about counseling, discipleship and missions on her blog, Remade Whole.
How do you love and support someone whose lifestyle and struggles are so different from your own? How can you enter into an unfamiliar suffering in order to connect and come alongside someone with Christ-centered hope?
As I see it, there are two parallel lanes on the path of connection. First, recognize the common ground you stand on — as human beings in a broken world and children of God who are waiting in hope for our eternal home, the core of our suffering is very similar. The other lane is a heart that desires to know and understand the other person’s particular situation and struggle, one that listens with compassion and humility.
When it comes to understanding the life and challenges of cross-cultural missionaries, we can often have a skewed perspective. We may tend toward romanticizing their life, imagining it as idyllic and wonderful all the time. Or we may see their challenges as so great that we view missionaries as superhuman or hyper-spiritual. Either way, our skewed perspective keeps us from recognizing our common ground and seeking to truly understand and connect. Since missions is the work of the church, we are called to partner with and support those whom we’ve sent out to do the frontline work around the world. In order to pray and care for missionaries well, we need to cultivate an accurate perspective on the challenges they face.
Missionaries are real people with real struggles, living in difficult places with real darkness, in order to share a real hope. Their struggles are universal, and yet also incredibly unique, with added complications inherent to cross-cultural ministry. Though not an exhaustive list, the following challenges are a good starting point to help us grow in empathy and loving care.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Living as a foreigner presents a never-ending parade of difficulties. Especially in the beginning, nothing seems to come easily. They have to become like a child and relearn everything: language, culture, navigating logistics and relationships. And no matter how much they learn, missionaries will never be seen as natives. Crossing the barriers of language and culture can be an obstacle to pursuing deep relationships in their new home. The life of a foreigner can often feel isolating and exhausting.
Changes in Community
When moving overseas, missionaries have to pick up their roots and say goodbye to many of their closest and longest relationships. The natural grieving that results is often complicated by the new reality of having only a few, if any, fellow believers nearby. Since most of their relationships are new, it may feel as though no one truly knows them. Though God provides and cares for them, missionaries can struggle with feeling alone and unsupported, especially when hard times come.
Whether they have it or need more of it, money poses unique challenges for missionaries. For those who raise their own support, they may struggle with guilt over asking for money and being dependent on the help of others. Some do not have enough to meet both their personal and ministry needs, and are faced with making difficult decisions about what to prioritize and how to best allocate the funds they’ve received. Those serving in developing nations must also navigate the reality and tension of living among poverty — wanting to help everyone, but feeling overwhelmed by the needs and unsure of how to offer effective help. Missionaries also have to learn and operate within the financial expectations and responsibilities they have as foreigners in their new culture.
When ministry is your job, it can be physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. Learning to make disciples in a new culture and language is difficult, and the spiritual darkness is often discouraging and heart-wrenching. Missionaries quickly realize they’ve reached the end of themselves and need God’s strength and wisdom daily, in all things. They are constantly being poured out, and in many cases rest is hard to come by.
For missionaries, their family and teammates often fill the roles of coworkers, church members and friends — all rolled into one. That makes for a lot of contact and interdependence. There’s no escaping the need for one another, and any conflict in one sphere impacts the rest. The ability to choose who they prefer to interact with and pursue relationship with isn’t really an option on the mission field. Therefore, the relational and communication difficulties must be walked through in grace, rather than avoided.
These factors and many others contribute to the overall stress of cross-cultural life and ministry, which can highlight and exacerbate one’s typical sins and struggles. As with any challenging circumstance that God’s people find themselves in, He uses it to refine and strengthen their faith, teach dependence and humility, and reveal Himself more intimately. Missionaries are sinners and sufferers, just like you and me. It’s important to remember that we are all on the same journey, and we are equally in need of God’s love, grace, strength and wisdom.
As we grow in our understanding of how similar and unique the missionary life is to our own, I pray that we will be better equipped and motivated to care well for those we’ve sent out. Here are some practical ways to get started:
- Listen intently, with a heart that welcomes and desires to understand, rather than to judge.
- Know what’s going on in their lives so that you can grieve and celebrate with them.
- Live your life on mission, unified with them in one purpose.
- Display thoughtful care and service by helping to meet their practical needs.
- Pray specifically, and communicate regularly. Let them know that you haven’t forgotten them.
- Be gracious and patient in your expectations of them.
- Be available as a sounding board and a reminder of Truth, pointing to the sufficiency of Christ.
Connecting with missionaries in order to pray and support them in their work may require us to grow in understanding an unfamiliar context, but this is not an impossible task — it simply calls for intentionality. What next step can you or your church take to better know and care for those serving around the world?
- Look What God Can Do! by Jess Jennings — http://a.co/d/9fE4Bck
- Servant on the Edge of History by Sam James — http://a.co/d/g9VMQZT
- A Chance to Die: The Life & Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot — http://a.co/d/gvnnaIE
- Mountain Rain by Eileen Crossman — http://a.co/d/epKiWAN
- The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken — http://a.co/d/7qL8Uw
- Center for Great Commission Studies at SEBTS — http://www.thecgcs.org/blog/