When Missionaries Come Home

How Churches Receive Them Well

What an exciting moment in the life of a church when missionaries are sent out for the sake of Jesus’s name. Their departure reminds the whole church that we live as pilgrims in this world, sent forth to proclaim the good news that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, lives and reigns as our saving Lord. We rejoice to see such workers go into the harvest fields in answer to prayer. And we frequently respond well to the call to make personal and corporate sacrifices to send these workers well.

But what do we do when they come back?

The work of supporting missionaries in a manner worthy of God does not end when they return, either for a temporary respite or a permanent move. As important as providing for their needs on the field may be, thoroughly caring for missionaries requires ongoing care — practically and pastorally. This remains just as true when they return as when they go.

Receiving the Sent

A few verses in 3 John frequently (and rightfully) receive attention as central for helping the church understand its work of supporting missionaries well. John, the elder, commends his beloved friend Gaius for how he received missionaries who had come to his church. Then John encourages him to continue:

You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. (3 John 6–8)

These missionaries have gone out from their home church. They have left the comfort of friends and family, the security of steady income, and the familiarity of their hometown for a single purpose: to make Christ’s name known and exalted among the nations (Romans 1:5). They are, therefore, worthy to receive ample support. In fact, John says that it is the duty of Christians to support such workers: “We ought to support people like these.”

But what does it look like to support missionaries “in a manner worthy of God”? The answer is not so straightforward as helping them get to the field and ensuring they have what they need while there. While John instructs Gaius on how to send them out, he also commends him for how he received them — a strong antithesis to the self-centered Diotrephes, who “refuses to welcome the brothers” (3 John 10). Gaius’s hospitality and care for the missionaries was so warm that, when they returned to their sending church, they bore witness to his love for them (3 John 5–6).

“What returning missionaries need most is to freshly behold the glory of God.”

The way he treated these missionaries, strangers as they were to him, testified to his commitment to magnify the name of Christ. Gaius welcomed them as brothers, fellow adoptees into God’s expanding family of redeemed children. He understood that the welcome Christ had given him in salvation served as the example for his own ministry of welcoming others (Romans 15:7). Thus, the hospitality he and his church demonstrated proved to John that he was indeed “walking in the truth” (3 John 3).

Three Needs Churches Can Meet

Every church that sends missionaries will, God willing, have the opportunity to receive them again and care for their needs close at hand. While many specific needs of each missionary unit (singles, couples, or families) will change, other basics will remain the same no matter the stage of life or ministry. Churches that aim to receive missionaries well can seek to meet at least these three categories of need: rest, community, and worship.

1. Rest

Missionaries returning from the field are usually tired. They may not admit it, but they are likely worn out. It is hard work to move to unfamiliar regions; learn to function in a new language; navigate the complex, multilayered nuances of cultural exchanges; face the spiritual and physical needs of multitudes; work to fulfill ministry commitments; and, on top of all that, raise a family, keep up a healthy marriage, maintain personal spiritual disciplines, and work through the difficulties of team life (which often involves layers of multicultural complexity). Most returning missionaries need a season of recovery from their labors if they are to enter them again with renewed reserves of strength.

Churches have the opportunity to make their return from the field as low-stress as possible. This can mean everything from helping with basic necessities (housing, transportation, clothing, food), to making sure that they have access to services such as counseling, to providing opportunities to get away for an extended time, to making sure their calendars don’t fill up with too many ministry commitments. While receiving well doesn’t mean that the church by itself must provide all these things, a willing team of brothers and sisters can alleviate the stress of the many unknowns missionaries face when returning from the field.

2. Community

The health of a missionary’s community on the field varies widely. In some ministry locations, Christian community might be nonexistent, whereas in others it may be more vibrant than anything the missionary knows elsewhere. Regardless, the need to be in community with fellow believers doesn’t change once missionaries come home. Intentionally integrating them into the rhythms of regular church life beyond the Sunday-morning gathering will remind them that they truly belong to their sending church.

Folding them back into the community also means making sure they are known. Missionaries often come back to churches where new leaders now serve, new members have joined, and other members have moved on. A sending church can feel awfully full of strange faces. Thus, a church’s leaders would do well to make the whole church aware of returning missionaries and ensure there are opportunities for them to both know and be known by the congregation.

Receiving missionaries back into the community also means reestablishing friendships (and making new ones). This process usually requires greater intentionality on the part of those who receive. It means opening up our homes to newer faces, listening well, and asking questions about experiences and places for which we might not have categories. In short, it means stepping out of comfort zones and (to a small degree) crossing the cultural boundaries that divide the dining-room table. Once again, making the most of these opportunities reflects the kind of Christlike love for which John commended Gaius — a love that demonstrates who are the true children of God (1 John 3:10, 17).

3. Worship

Finally, what returning missionaries need most is to freshly behold the glory of God and have their whole hearts captivated by love for him. Hopefully it was just such a vision and desire that compelled them to cross cultures in the first place. But the wearying demands of overseas ministry can cause our sight to grow dim. Don’t be surprised if missionaries return from the field needing reminders of God’s purpose to fill the earth with his glory “as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Don’t be surprised if discouragement has dampened godly desires. Loving missionaries well when they return includes encouragement and building up their faith.

Not everyone will have the same experience. While some missionaries serve in locations where they are part of an established church, others serve where there is no church at all. Regardless of ministry context, no one outgrows the need to behold the living triune God, declare and sing with fellow believers the wonders of who he is and what he has done (without translation into their mother tongue), sit under preaching that faithfully exposits and applies the whole testimony of God, and partake in the shared meal of the new covenant. Receiving well, in this case, means folding missionaries into the established rhythms of worship and, as a whole church, ensuring those rhythms faithfully reflect the biblical vision.

Conferences and retreats can also be good opportunities for renewal. Pastors, other leaders in the church, and fellow members who know the returning missionaries well can ask wise questions to discern their spiritual health. Where greater needs exist, they might provide scholarships for missionaries to participate in these events. However, the weekly gathering of the local church remains the primary means God has given for renewal.

Receive Them in a Manner Worthy

Churches are called to both send and receive missionaries “in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 6). Sometimes the sending can be easier. They get on a plane and disappear from view, packing along with them the opportunity for frequent and direct engagement. But when they return, those opportunities return with them. And just as we ought to support them as they go, so too we ought to support them when they come back. By this we become “fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 8).

works as an editor, writer, and teacher. He lives in Minneapolis, MN, with his wife and three children.