“How have you been?” “So, you really like it there, huh?” “What kind of food do you eat there?” “What’s your take on the recent geo-political changes?”
Any missionary on furlough has fielded these types of questions in Sunday school classes, during mission board presentations, and over dinner tables. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with these questions, as they can certainly lead to enjoyable conversations. But take a close look and notice what is missing in these questions . . . they have absolutely nothing to do with the Great Commission. Really, you could ask those same questions to a returning Muslim student or secular businessman friend.
As churches who send out missionaries, we should have far better and more eternally valuable questions. We want to encourage our returning missionaries, we want to be encouraged by them, and we want to spur on the good work of the Great Commission. To help, here are three questions, or three categories of questions that are drawn from Matthew 28:18-20.
1. How is evangelism going?
Matthew 28: 19, “Go, therefore, and make disciples . . .”
The main thrust of this command is to make disciples. Those who follow Jesus are to work to help others follow Jesus,. And how does that happen but through evangelism?
While missions can include so much more than evangelism, it’s certainly not less than speaking the gospel to people in places who don’t know it, with the aim to help them repent of their sin, trust in Jesus, and follow him. Missions is fundamentally an evangelistic endeavor.
One of the best ways that you can serve your missionaries (and be encouraged by them) is to ask about evangelism. Ask about the unique difficulties in evangelism in their context. Ask about specific people that they are evangelizing. Ask about things that would help them be even more faithful in evangelism.
Knowing these answers will cause you to be all the more faithful to pray for your missionaries and for the people they’re evangelizing. You’ll get a front-row seat to see what God is doing in the lives of real people halfway around the world. This will encourage you and hopefully spur on your missionaries to remain faithful to the primary task of the Great Commission.
2. How is language learning going?
v. 19, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . .”
All nations. I’m not going to get into the weeds as to what exactly this means. Rather, I’ll make a broad observation: most people in most nations don’t speak English.
As English speakers, we should be incredibly thankful that English is prominent in many countries. Incredible gospel work can be done all over the globe, in English.
But missionaries who learn the local language well enough to lead a Bible study or preach a sermon have expanded the limits of their ministry. Becoming proficient in a local language allows a missionary to better understand and minister to the needs of the people and churches around them. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that language learning tends to lead to longevity. Missionaries who know the local language tend to stay longer, develop deeper relationships, and work toward lasting fruit.
So church, encourage your missionaries in their language learning by asking about how it’s going. Ask about the challenges. Ask how you can help them. Perhaps there’s a financial need, where your church could pay for language classes or a tutor. Perhaps there’s a time need, where your church could send some students over for a summer to watch kids so that a mom could spend dedicated time learning language.
Language learning is slow, hard, and mostly boring. Church, encourage your missionaries in this incredibly humbling process. You may not know anything about the language of your missionary’s context, but you can serve them in worthy task of learning that language.
3. How are churches doing?
v. 19–20 “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”
Following the command to “make disciples,” Jesus tells us what to do next: baptize and teach. Disciples are to be baptized and gathered around the teaching of God’s Word. The Great Commission has a goal that is greater than a bunch of undefined individual Christians scattered around the world. The practical goal of the Great Commission is local churches: baptized disciples of Jesus who regularly gather around his word and together obey his commands.
Every missionary’s context is different. Just think about how a missionary might describe a church they planted in the jungle of a closed country in contrast to a missionary serving in an open metropolis. But regardless of where someone is serving, the missionary goal is the same.
Be like the church in Antioch (Acts 14:27-28) who listened to Paul share about how there were now churches (with elders even!) in Lystra and Iconium. Ask your missionaries about the church(es) they know or work with. Ask what church they are a part of and how it’s going. Ask about their needs and what unique challenges they face.
A government that sends an emissary to a foreign land in hopes of establishing diplomatic ties doesn’t care about how spicy the food is. They want to know, “Do we have an embassy set up yet?” In the same way, churches send out missionaries with the hopes of establishing and strengthening churches. So when your missionary returns from the field, ask about how this eternally important mission is going. Ask about churches.
These are certainly not all the questions that you should ask, nor should these questions be the extent of your care for them while they’re back with you. My hope here is simply to elevate the importance of that Sunday school class sharing time, that mission board presentation, and that dinner conversation. Missionary furloughs should encourage the missionary and encourage the sending church. This is done best when missionaries are asked to share, “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).