When asked once what the difference is between going on a mission trip and serving in longer-term missions, one missionary responded, “We stayed.” That simple answer seems obvious, but the implications are profound. In an era where, because of advances of every kind, we can accomplish more in a shorter time than ever before, one may wonder if the time has passed for the kind of longer-term missionary service that has characterized the last two centuries. I have been reflecting on this question based on my own 10 years of serving in Kazakhstan, and I invited response from several Mission Society missionaries who have 10 or more years of service.
In the missionaries’ responses, there were several commonalities. The key recurring theme was that missions is primarily about relationships, not about tasks. That is one reason I have never liked the phrase we hear often in missions, “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.” While the phrase expresses an important truth (a topic for another column), it mistakenly puts the focus on tasks, functions, and activities rather than on relationships. All those who responded spoke of building deep relationships as key to transformation. We believe Jesus is the answer to the deepest questions of any person or culture, but we first have to do the hard, relational work to understand what the questions are.
One missionary who spent 11 years in Kenya and 15 in Kazakhstan noted, “Some cultures will not ‘let you in’ until time and trust has been built. Relationships take time to develop.”
So, how long does this take? Interestingly over half of those answered noted that they felt that they began having significant, deeper relationships after five years of living in the culture. One veteran missionary wrote, “I think I felt like I really had connected about 5-6 years into the process. That was when I started really realizing that I had friends.” Another wrote, “After five years we ‘started’ understanding how Chinese people think.” Of course, this doesn’t mean there were no friendships prior, but that when living cross-culturally, it takes time to get sufficient language, culture, and contextual understanding to go deeper with people. And, as one in India noted, “Facebook cannot replace face-to-face!”
Related to this is one of the greatest joys of longer-term service—you get to go through life with people. A highlight of my years in Kazakhstan was performing the wedding of a young couple who I had known since they were teenagers and had walked with them as they came to faith, grew in the Lord, then grew in their own ability to be in ministry. This joy was also expressed by those on the missionary panel. One in Paraguay said, “I think the feeling of being spiritual parents to those who were in the youth group back in the early 2000s keeps me coming back.” Another valued “the personal time spent with people, going through their hardships and losses.” From Ecuador still another wrote, “One of the big benefits of long service is being able to see some of the first folks we worked with come into the kingdom and into His service.”
It is possible for a missionary to get stuck in a rut even living in a different place. That certainly is a risk in longer-term service. The new place can become a new comfort zone. It is important that we realize that God does not just send missionaries to bring change to people in a given place, but God uses that place for His ongoing transformation in the life of the missionary. Our person in China shared a significant change he experienced over the years. “Being longer term moves the focus away from a mindset of ‘me in China’ and turns it more towards the people. I know people will say in their first months and years that their focus is on the people, but in our experience and watching others around us, the focus tends to be on the people in relation to how it affects us. Longer term has helped us move away from that and just being focused on the people in relation to how life affects them.” Another wrote, “Some people’s attitude has been, ‘You’ve had your adventure, when are you coming home?’ Whereas, we see this as our life now.”
The big question
So, when is it too long? That answer depends totally on the situation and the Lord. Most of the people spoke of “not being released”—not in some onerous sense of duty, but just in the simple fact that they believe God continues to call them to the place where they are now serving. “We know very clearly that we are where we are supposed to be, and during the trying times, it is no longer a feeling of sacrifice or just serving, but we enjoy living here. God has placed the desire in our hearts to be here and fills that desire every day!” All who responded expressed a similar sense of peace knowing that they are living where God has called them to live and doing what He has called them to do. And they equally expressed the realization that the day may come when He will tell them it’s time to move on.
Regardless of whether we are called to serve on the other side of the world as missionaries, this raises a question for all of us. Are we investing in relationships with people where God has us living right now? Are we learning the deep questions of those around us? Are we exploring with them how Christ desires to bring transformation to our lives? All those who claim Jesus as Lord are called to that mission.
Used with permission from Jim Ramsay,Vice President for Mission Ministries, The Mission Society. http://www.themissionsociety.org/