Stay or Go: How Long Should a Missionary Serve in One Place?

Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing. I notice the raised eyebrows, and it’s usually followed by an expression of “Wow!” or “Really?!” Usually, it’s accompanied by a compliment, but every once in a while I wonder what they’re really thinking. I’m referring to the reaction others give after they’ve asked me how long I’ve served in the Central Asian city where I live. I agree, twenty-four years is a long time, particularly in the same place among the same people group.

Biblical Standard?

As God redeems a people for himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation (Rev. 5:9–14), sometimes he does so by using people who come and go on a short-term basis, like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–40. Sometimes, God places workers in a location to accomplish a certain part of the task utilizing a particular gift or personality, as he did with Paul planting and Apollos watering the gospel seed sown in the hearts of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:5–9).

But, I must admit, sometimes I wonder if there is a biblical standard for a missionary staying in one place with one people for a long time. Some have pointed to the life and ministry of Paul as a template for not staying in one place and, instead, remaining ever on the move.

I’ve known several of my colleagues who, like the great apostle, against their will and in great anguish, had to leave due to expulsion for their missionary activities. It usually involved a frantic tidying of their affairs and paying an exorbitant fee for last-minute airline tickets. Such departures were often accompanied by extreme sorrow and grief at leaving new friends and loved ones behind. In reading about Paul’s activities in the New Testament, though, it appears that he stayed put until his persecutors caught up with him.

God Has a Plan, Not a Pattern

As much as we’d like to find a pattern for how to go about the task of fulfilling the Great Commission, it seems that God may actually have a specific blueprint for each of us rather than a pattern. Recall in John 21 when Peter asked Jesus about John, his fellow apostle. Jesus replied in so many words: “John’s life is my business” (John 21:22).

Our human nature seems to always lead us to compare and look at others. We want to make sure we are “doing it right” and even, often in an unfortunate spirit of competition, that we are “doing it better.” This is true even when calculating how long we should stay in a specific location on the mission field.

Our human nature seems to always want to compare and look at others. We want to make sure we are “doing it right.”

In these times, value is placed upon being fast and effective. Yet, the eternal God who commands all time and space examines our hearts’ motives more deeply. The proper question for the mission worker is not really, “How long do I stay?” but rather, “How do I do the work of missions for however long God has me to stay?”

Although this is certainly not exhaustive, I think three principles are helpful to consider in guiding the “how” of the person who is engaged in bringing the gospel to and making disciples among the unreached.

Love Deeply

People are not projects, so we shouldn’t treat them that way. In some of my early years on the field, I had a plan and I wanted to work that plan. Oh, how frustrated I became when the people my plan targeted just wouldn’t cooperate! It really wasn’t their fault, they were being the lost, sin-sick, separated-from-the-love-of-God people whom we all were before Jesus broke through to set us free. My focus often involved wanting to accomplish a goal before love even entered the scene.

Again, Paul’s example should be our own. He told the Thessalonian believers (a place Paul only stayed a few weeks before expulsion ended his stay there) the following: “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). Paul and his team certainly proclaimed the gospel, but they made sure the aroma of love through action accompanied them on the task.

Paul and his team certainly proclaimed the gospel, but they made sure the aroma of love through action accompanied them on the task.

Stay Connected

The gospel in our generation has penetrated more unreached peoples in the past twenty-five years than in the past two hundred years prior to that. God’s servants can be found in almost every corner of the world in extreme and dangerous locations. We truly never know if today will be our last one in our country of service. But, if we must leave, it’s still important to stay connected to both the believing and unbelieving friends and neighbors where we serve.

The apostles often fled from place to place, but they maintained their connections to the churches they planted by writing letters. More than a third of our New Testament would not exist if people like Paul, Peter, John, and Jude failed to encourage the young Christians from their former fields of service. Today, in the age of instant communication, this is easier than ever before, but it still requires discipline and intentionality to keep in touch.

Obey

This final principle is really the basis for everything else in our lives. We are where we are for as long as we are because we seek to know and obey God’s will. We are not our own, but instead adopted children of the king purchased by the blood of his beloved Son. If he says “go,” we go. If he says, “stay” we stay.

We are where we are
for as long as we are
because we seek to know
and obey God’s will.

Each time my wife and I return to the United States, we always set aside time to ask the Lord to reaffirm his call. Each time, he has said to return. So, we return. Not out of dread, but out of joy and a desire to please the one who saved us. How long? That’s really not in our hands. How? As obedient disciples.

In the end, prepare for the long haul, but entrust the length of time to the Lord who controls it.


Todd Jamison has served for twenty-four years in Central Asia with his wife and four children.