One of the hardest challenges when moving to the mission field is leaving behind our home church and integrating into a new church in our country of service. When we go to the field, we can’t take our church or life group with us. As missionaries, we are called to leave our community of faith to create a new community or to integrate into and serve an already existing national community. And that, of course, is not easy.
So how can we as missionaries attend our national local church well? Here are nine suggestions.
Begin with the conviction that God’s plan is for you and your family to be a productive, maturing, accountable part of a local church.
This is an important starting point. Regardless of your particular missionary calling or activity, God intends for you and your family to be plugged into a local expression of Christ’s body. Being a missionary does not exempt you from your need for the local church. Nor does being a member of the universal church or being a member of a local church in the States.
The local church is an indispensable part of God’s plan for our personal spiritual life and health. According to Ephesians 4, our maturity and growth come from Christ through his body (vv. 11-16). It is within the context of the local church that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). We need the church and the church needs us so that we can “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). This mutual edification in the church is so important that the author of Hebrews forbids us from “neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some” (v. 25). That applies to missionaries too.
Make it your goal to be the best lay member possible.
Unfortunately, missionaries are often poor examples of how believers should relate to and function within the church. For some reason, many missionaries seem to feel that being a missionary gives them a pass to attend church sporadically or to keep an arm’s length from the life of the church.
This is a shame because missionaries, given their maturity, knowledge, experience, and training have much to offer the national church. Missionaries should be exemplary church members. Their attendance should be a blessing and a challenge to national believers. They should model what it means to love the church and to serve as active, healthy, productive members.
Here’s a helpful self-test: “If I were a pastor in the U.S., would I want people in my church to attend the way I attend this national church?” No church is helped by half-hearted, distant, unattached attendees or members. Believers—especially ones who are perceived to be mature (like missionaries)—who are not engaged, who don’t cultivate one-anothering relationships, and who don’t serve sacrificially with their gifts do more harm than good.
Strive to increasingly have your emotional, spiritual, and social needs met by national believers.
If your goal is effective, long-term ministry in your country of service, this is a must. Authentic, Christlike, deeply impactful ministry on the field will only happen to the degree that you commit yourself to pursuing deep relationships with the people to whom you’re called to minister. The Apostle Paul modeled this when he said to the Thessalonian believers, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Wherever he ministered Paul forged deep, meaningful relationships that were a constant source of encouragement to him.
I say “strive” because, of course, this is not easy, especially in the early years on the field when our language and cultural skills limit our ability to connect deeply with people. So you’ll have to work hard at this. You’ll have to be willing to continue to pursue people even when your attempts to forge relationships are rebuffed and when the language and cultural barriers make it exponentially difficult. As the word “increasingly” indicates, this will probably be a long-term process. It may take years to penetrate those barriers. But the investment will bear long-term fruit, both in terms of your competency as a missionary and personal sustainability on the field, as well as the impact you have in people’s lives.
Intentionally integrate into the church’s natural disciple-making processes.
Local churches have activities and programs that are designed to grow people in maturity. I’m talking here about activities such as Sunday School, cell groups, midweek services, and fellowship times. Don’t be selective about what you attend. Don’t just attend Sunday morning and give the impression that you’re not a fully invested member. Don’t stand on the periphery of church life and activity. Again, this kind of arm’s-length relationship to the church does not serve the body well.
Invest deeply in individuals.
Being an invested member in the national church doesn’t require one to fill a position or official role. Look for people whose lives you can plug into. Pursue people. Love people. Give sacrificially of your time, energy, and relational emotions to know and serve individuals. Again, forge deep relationships with people. Even if our local national church is not our specific “official” missionary ministry, we should always be on-mission, ready to pour into those whom the Lord brings across our path.
Deliberately serve the church’s leadership.
It may be that the most helpful way you can serve your church is by loving and serving its pastors and leaders. Leadership is a lonely difficult place to be, and often a missionary can minister to leaders in ways that other church members can’t.
Don’t make your team or local expat community (or anyone else) a substitute for the local church.
While our team, other expats, and our relationships back “home” form an important support network for our cross-cultural ministry, they were never intended to replace the role of the local church in our life. As Ephesians 4 indicates (see point 1), the local church, to which Christ has given specific gifts, leadership, spiritual oversight/authority, and one-anothering responsibilities, fulfills functions beyond what other relationships, groups, and institutions can provide.
So it would be a mistake to expect your team or others to do for you what the local church was designed to do. There are exceptions to this, such as when a team is planting a church together. But in general, what our team can offer us is limited because, biblically, it’s not a local church.
Make the local church your family’s center of gravity.
Attending church well is not only important for the well-being of the national church. It’s also important for the missionary’s family. A couple of years ago I had a missionary lament to me that he felt he had “unchurched” his children by not ever being plugged-in and active in a local church on the field. That’s a real danger. Following the biblical pattern for being part of the body of Christ prepares our children for a lifetime of healthy interaction with the Church.
It also provides the missionary’s family with opportunities to serve and minister in ways that his “official” ministry doesn’t. Much of my missionary work involves travel and public ministry. Most of what I do is not something that my whole family can participate in. But we all do have one specific ministry in common—our local church. It’s there that we serve together as a family.
Love and serve the church unconditionally.
As noted above, attending church cross-culturally can be hard and, to be honest, very different from what you’re used to. The preaching may be different. The music is sometimes strange. Services may seem drag on endlessly. The church may not be healthy by your (or biblical) standards.
But don’t make the church being what you think it should be a condition of your loving and serving it. When we do that—when we withhold ourselves from the church because it doesn’t meet up to our vision of what a church should be—we betray that we love our idea of the church more than we love the church itself. Or to put it another way, we love our ecclesiology more than we love the ekklēsia (Greek for “church”).
Now, loving a church unconditionally doesn’t mean that we don’t want to help it change. Hopefully, our presence will have a positive, redeeming influence on the churches that we attend. But rather than using our intellectual, educational, or ethnic “muscle” to affect change, we should pursue change biblically, through loving and trusting relationships that we’ve developed with the church and its leadership. And most importantly, we must not withhold ourselves from the church because we disagree with it. It would be better to find another place to congregate than do that.
Regardless of our specific calling as missionaries—be it church planting, leadership training, Bible translating, evangelizing, or whatever—the local church should always be front-and-center both in our work and in our personal lives. And regardless of the success of our missionary strategy, the time we invest in our local national church will be time well spent. God will be glorified, saints will be sanctified, we will be edified, and the word of the Lord will speed ahead and be honored (2 Thess. 3:1).