More Than Money: How Local Churches Care for Global Workers
Originally published on May 6, 2021 at Gospel-Centered Discipleship
Have you ever given toward your church’s mission offering and wondered about who your dollars were supporting? Have you ever wondered how they’re doing—their ministry, personal life and spiritual well-being—but didn’t know how to find out? Are you aware that many global workers return from the field because of preventable reasons related to a lack of care?
Unfortunately, these situations are all too common in today’s mission environment. Over time, there has been a shift in roles as sending organizations have expanded in number and size, causing global workers to rely more on them for resources. Subsequently, the local church’s role and the global worker’s relationships with their home church have diminished.
How can the local church reconnect with their global workers and care well, helping to sustain them on the field? There is an example we can follow.
A NEW TESTAMENT MODEL OF SUPPORT
Sending organizations—whether formed as an arm of a particular denomination or as an independent entity—are vital to worldwide missions. However, when it comes to global worker care, they get mixed reviews. Even in the most established organizations, centralized headquarters, travel logistics, and size can make it difficult for workers to receive the personal, holistic care they need.
Even in the most established organizations, centralized headquarters, travel logistics, and size can make it difficult for workers to receive the personal, holistic care they need.
When Paul and his companions traversed the known world in the first century, care looked quite different than it does today. The New Testament paints a picture of personal care in all areas of life by the local church and local believers.
Perhaps the best example is found in Romans 16, where Paul lists approximately 26 people associated with the local church that comprised his community of support. He speaks of a large and diverse group of people involved with those churches who supported him. They include benefactors, loyalists, companions, co-laborers, and hosts who assisted him in his ministry efforts. In essence, Paul was cared for by those who knew him best and were the strongest supporters of his work. Their names are immortalized in this passage—what a beautiful picture of community!
Can you imagine today’s global workers being able to list 26 people from their home church who provide this kind of support?
THE ECONOMICS OF CARE: MORE THAN MONEY
Our care team has observed that the scope of care (and the meaning of support) in the local church is generally understood to be purely financial. And while no one would dispute the necessity of generous financial giving to missions, the reality is that support means so much more. We see it in the timeless applications of holistic care in the New Testament writings.
As an example, in 3 John 8 we read of John’s commendation of Gaius’ hospitality. The Greek term for support (hupolambánō), according to one lexicon, conveys a sense of sustaining “to supply people with what they need” or “to give to people what is necessary” or “what they should have” (Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament).
Paul’s writings bear this out as well. He mentions prayer (Rom. 15:30), refreshment (1 Cor. 16:18), participation (Phil. 1:35), fully supplied (Phil. 4:18), companionship (Rom. 15:24), physical care (Gal. 4:13–14), and spiritual health (1 Cor. 16:18). We get a picture that there are many different currencies of care by the local body outside of monetary support.
There is no question that today’s care environment is very different, but the fundamental needs described by Paul remain the same. Can we provide first-century care in our twenty-first-century world?
As our care team has stepped through this process, we have discovered three key areas that are essential to creating a culture of holistic care.
1. CULTIVATE AWARENESS
Andy Johnson writes in a book on global missions that
a healthy church partnership generally presumes that the congregation, not just a few leaders, actually owns the partnership. When the average church member understands something of the focus and direction of the church’s partnership, then the ground is laid for a fruitful relationship. This can be encouraged by regularly updating the entire congregation on the church’s international involvement. (Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, 140)
Establishing this kind of care begins, as Johnson writes, with church leadership. They are the primary stakeholders and the ones most able to raise awareness of the importance of care. They can do this via weekly messages, social media platforms, and updates from supported workers (virtually or in-person). Leadership can communicate the number of workers the church supports, the agencies their workers represent, where they’re serving (if safe to do so), their mission, and most importantly, their needs.
Global workers are real people just like the rest of us with real struggles—which are only intensified by living in a different culture, navigating a foreign language, and most of all, experiencing intense spiritual opposition.
2. STAY CONNECTED
Regular communication is a healing balm for the isolation and loneliness many experience on the field. Remaining in contact will strengthen the relationship and build trust. The goal is to be a safe place where workers can be transparent about their lives.
Whether volunteer or vocational, a care team and dedicated care contacts are vital components of the local church’s connection. Consider connecting your global workers with someone with a heart for global workers or with a Bible study class that has chosen to “adopt” them.
It can be difficult for most sending organizations to provide this kind of intentional and personal contact, but individuals within the local church are well situated to be a safe haven.
Make it your goal to be so consistent in your communication that your worker can echo the words of Paul, “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3–5). That would be the sign of excellent partnership.
3. INVOLVE THE CHURCH COMMUNITY
If church leadership has successfully cultivated an awareness of care, the message will filter down and out into the local body, and people with the heart and passion for global workers will rise to meet worker needs. But they must know what the needs are.
There is always a need for short-term housing, long-term housing, transportation, assistance with schooling, and medical issues, to name a few. One of the most prominent needs is for fellowship and community. Integration into the church community through small groups and bible studies is vital. We have found that a homegroup focused on returned global workers provides a safe place to share with others who understand their experience.
Care retreats are also excellent opportunities to involve the church community. Whether they are at home or on the field, they require people with a myriad of skills including prayer warriors, childcare workers, worship leaders, small group leaders, and counselors.
Care retreats on the field are a wonderful chance for church members to see what the life and work of a global worker really entails. David Wilson describes field visits in his book, Mind the Gaps, as “critical to bridge the understanding and compassion gaps that can so easily exist with the miles, time and differences in a foreign country.”
Going where workers are serving provides the opportunity to engage with a global worker’s life. Wilson goes on to say, “As you might imagine, this is where people really discover the real stories from the life of the missionaries and their ministries. When you’re eating, traveling and serving together, it is a great partnership and time of bonding.”
THE END GAME: WHY WE CARE
If you’ve ever traveled outside your home country, you’ve probably felt the weight of excess local currency in your pocket as you prepare to come home. You feel an urgency to spend it all. Why? Because that currency is of no value to you once you leave.
The Great Commission in Matthew 28 includes the local church, and the local church has the local currency to spend for the care of our global workers. It’s valuable now, for those who take the saving message of Jesus Christ to the nations. It is of no value when we’re gone.
As Andy Johnson writes, “we see the motivation that should drive all this going and sending and supporting—love for the glory and knowledge of the name and truth of Christ” (Missions, 65).
Reader, you are part of the Great Commission. As a member of the local church, let your love of Christ compel you to care well for those who carry Christ’s name to the ends of the earth
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. You can find her on Twitter and texatfaith.org.