In some ways, praying for missionaries is like buying Christmas presents for your distant relatives in Florida. You don’t know what their day-to-day life looks like. You don’t know what they need, what they want, or what would be most meaningful. As a result, we often opt for prayers to bless the missionaries that are rarely more personal or specific than an Amazon gift card sent via email. But we can do better.
In fact, we must. Prayer isn’t just a passing gesture or a frivolous holiday present. Prayer is supplying missionaries with essentials for their survival. Prayer is partnership in their work, vital to its Spirit-filled efficacy and the rescue of sinners. At the risk of sounding clichéd, prayer is a matter of life and death. Our intercession protects them from harm (2 Corinthians 1:11) and provides for the gospel’s advance (Romans 15:30–32).
“Prayer is partnership in their work, vital to its Spirit-filled efficacy and the rescue of sinners.”
As I’ve lived on both sides of this relationship over the years, I’ve found that there are some simple prayer requests that are always applicable and always needed. Even if we don’t understand our missionaries’ living situation or don’t know special requests from the field, Christians at home can still become more intentional and directed in their prayers. Of all the gifts you provide your missionaries, these will be among the best — in part because they always need them but perhaps never thought to ask.
Favor with Local Authorities
Missionaries, especially those serving in difficult locations, often ask us to pray when it’s time to reapply for a visa or reenter their country of service. Accordingly, Christians at home might pray only once or twice a year for their missionaries to have favor with the local officials, either when they apply for residency or cross through customs. However, this request represents an ongoing need. Missionaries don’t merely need access to a country; they benefit from the ability to remain there long term in a steady and peaceful living situation.
This fits with Paul’s instruction to Timothy and the church in Ephesus to pray for those in positions of authority over them. We do so in order to live and minister in stable societies, ultimately with the hope that many will be saved (1 Timothy 2:1–4). In some situations, state-sponsored persecution leads to the triumphant advance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12). But such suffering also can stifle Christian witness in certain places and times (similar to when all Jews were forced out of Rome, Acts 18:2). Therefore, it makes sense to regularly implore God to grant favor among government officials, to plead for an amenable regime, and to ask for a calm environment where the church can grow and flourish with dignity, gaining the respect of the community (1 Peter 2:12).
Furthermore, while we might be inclined to pray most for those in highest authority — for presidents and prime ministers, even dictators and despots — we also should recognize the truth in the American aphorism that “all politics is local.” Often, what happens in Washington is disconnected from the day-to-day practicalities of municipal governance. And this principle applies to foreign contexts as well, if not more so. Thus, we should pray for our missionaries to have good relationships with all authorities, such as local police and tribal chiefs, even school boards and landlords. These relationships often directly contribute to effective ministry and preserve missionaries’ presence in a community even more so than federal policy.
Healthy Partnerships with Local Churches
When we send missionaries abroad, we do so because those places need the gospel. Perhaps they even need us. But what is easily forgotten in this process is how much missionaries need the locals. In most countries, even among unreached peoples, there is already a Christian witness present. Only in the most extreme locations will there be absolutely no local expression of the body of Christ within some proximity. But even in such cases, we can follow the example of Paul who, longing to go to Spain, sought the help of a culturally and geographically nearer congregation, the church in Rome, to partner in his ministry (Romans 15:24).
When we observe the pattern of Paul’s ministry, we find him constantly looking for opportunities to partner with local churches in his missionary endeavors (Acts 13:1–2; 1 Corinthians 16:6; Philippians 4:14–17). He didn’t want to venture out alone, but with the help and support of other churches. Also, he continually mentored and worked alongside individuals from the churches he planted (Acts 20:4–5; 2 Timothy 4:9–13). His ever-expanding ministry remained connected to other churches in the region, at times appealing to their example to instruct new and struggling churches (1 Corinthians 11:16). In other words, Paul’s pioneer missionary efforts depended upon and integrated with local churches and their leaders.
“Like all of us, missionaries are tempted to grow weary in doing good.”
Sadly, wherever I travel around the world, I tend to hear the opposite about American missionaries. We often parachute into a region without consulting the national church. But seasoned missionaries will tell you that effective and fruitful ministry depends on trusting relationships with proven national partners, with individuals and churches who demonstrate a faithful witness to the gospel and faithful adherence to its ethic.
Furthermore, such partnerships are critical to maintain ministry when we are absent. Missionaries come and go, but the locals are the ones who make the mission last, which means this is one of the most important ways we can pray for missionaries.
Bold Witness with Unbelievers
More and more of Christ’s ambassadors today are moving into dangerous locations, taking the gospel into “closed” or “restricted-access” countries. In order to gain entry to such places, other lay Christians have caught the vision to pursue business as mission (BAM). They’re leveraging their marketplace skills in a globalized economy, seizing the opportunity to be salt and light in places where some missionaries struggle to maintain residency.
In both of these situations, we should note the strong temptation for expat Christians to avoid overt evangelism or soften the gospel for the sake of long-term presence in a place. The challenge may be especially keen for those in business who desire to preserve good standing with their employers and not lose their job. In either case, I’ve seen many missionaries, those who go to the ends of the earth at great risk to themselves and their families, consistently struggle to open their mouths with the gospel. They might justify their silence for the sake of a broader strategy, or to avoid persecution or expulsion. Even when these missionaries muster the courage to speak of Christ, they might do so timidly.
Therefore, we should pray earnestly for our missionaries to be willing to speak the gospel boldly (Acts 4:29; 20:20, 27). After all, if tent-making Paul needed this prayer, surely our missionaries do too (Ephesians 6:19). They aren’t super-Christians. Like all of us, they’re tempted to grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9), to lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:1–2), or to avoid difficult conversations. As a result, like all of us, they sometimes feel like failures when it comes to evangelism — especially when they’re doing it in another language and culture. I believe that if our missionaries could be completely transparent with us, they’d admit this struggle is real and they’d ask us for prayer to be better witnesses. Sadly, missionaries sometimes don’t think they can be honest with us because they think we won’t understand.
Make a Difference with Your Prayers
Those who support missionaries do so because they want to make a difference in the world. My encouragement to you is that we can do just that by making a difference in the way we pray. Of course, there are many other ways we can and should pray for missionaries: for their marriages and their kids, for their faithfulness and endurance, for their financial provision and their physical well-being.
But of all the requests you could make for your missionaries, these are some of the most important, and yet the most forgotten. Reflecting on my own time living overseas, these are the prayers I would have wanted others to pray for me. I can’t think of a much better gift.