When I was six years old, my parents accidentally forgot me at church. Both of them had driven that day, and they simply pulled away thinking I was in the other vehicle. Meanwhile, I sat happily on the church steps, waving goodbye to friends. At first, the autonomy of it all was pretty cool. But when the last car left the parking lot, I began to feel six years old. We lived only two miles away, but less than five minutes alone was enough to convince me: it stinks to be forgotten.
Now multiply that by thousands of miles and several years. Perhaps you start to get a feel for what missionaries experience when their sending churches lose touch. They may not act like six-year-olds, but the results can be surprisingly similar. The loneliness and disappointment due to a lack of tangible support can lead not only to disconnection, but downright dysfunction.
No one responds to the missionary’s newsletters . . . so they stop sending them. No one ever comes to visit the missionary . . . so they stop giving invitations. No one invites the missionary onto the stage or into their home. . . so they spend entire furloughs with family in another state or traveling to speak only at other churches.
The loneliness and disappointment due to a lack of tangible support can lead not only to disconnection but downright dysfunction.
What’s sad is that this may already be the relational norm for many churches and missionaries. Recently I met a missions leader who admitted just that, telling me her church was once so estranged from their missionaries that for months they had been sending support checks to one who had died.
A Biblical Perspective of Sending
If sending were simply a model, then this wouldn’t be a big deal. Yet the Scriptures portray something much different. There, the relationships between sending churches and sent ones are rich enough to create longing for one another and deep enough to span the separation.
Barnabas and Paul appeared eager to return to Antioch, their sending church, where they reported “all that God had done through them” and “stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:27–28). And the church there seemed eager to receive them, giving them public (and likely private) space to share their lives and ministry. It was the natural expression of a deep, inseparable bond.
Nevertheless, disintegration between churches and missionaries can happen today even among the most loving, well-intentioned senders. How? The same way I ended up left behind by loving, well-intentioned parents. When we assume someone else is taking care of things, then no one owns the responsibility. Church leaders and sending agencies are not the only ones responsible for missionary care.
Third John 1:5–8 helps us understand that the privilege of caring for those on mission belongs to all believers. Andy Horvath even argues that Jesus’s term “the least of these” from Matthew 25:40 refers to those he sent on mission to preach the gospel. If that’s true, then part of the outworking of our salvation is tied to how we receive and care for sent ones. Whoa.
Third John 1:5–8 helps us understand that the privilege of caring for those on mission belongs to all believers.
But let’s be honest, we’re human—and busy ones at that. We forget. So just like we need pastors and friends to constantly remind us of the gospel, we need people to take the lead in for sent ones and to remind the rest of the church that they can’t let go either. According to my experience with sending churches around the country, one of the best ways to faithfully execute missionary care is something called “Advocacy Teams.”
Using Advocacy Teams to Care for Your Missionaries
Advocacy Teams (also called Barnabas Teams, Missionary Care Groups, and Support Teams) are simply a model of missionary care. They are typically groups of four to eight people with a designated leader who commit to providing ongoing support for a particular missionary (note: one Advocacy Team per missionary or missionary family). They meet regularly to pray for and communicate with the missionary as well as plan things like sending care packages, providing logistical support, setting up visits, and anything else the missionary needs.
They do not, however, care for the missionary so that no one else has to. One of their most important responsibilities is representing the missionary and their needs before the rest of the church. Here, they serve as mobilizers, creating ways for the entire church to be involved in the missionary’s life and work, such as organizing receptions, printing and passing out prayer cards, creating prayer chains, hosting fundraisers, reporting to pastors, monitoring security communication, and making needs known. In other words, Advocacy Teams make sure no one is forgotten.
A common question churches have is how to best implement Advocacy Teams. Outside of simply emphasizing and recruiting Advocacy Team members, I have observed two practices worth noting. One church uses Advocacy Teams as their first step in missions involvement. If a member expresses interest in missions, they are invited to a monthly gathering of Advocacy Teams. There they can participate in praying for a missionary and also potentially join a team. This not only builds a culture of missionary care, it exposes church members to the realities of missionary life, which helps produce more missionaries.
Another church asks their missionary candidates to build their own Advocacy Teams before moving overseas. This isn’t the church’s way of skirting the responsibility but instead pushing missionary candidates to invest relationally in the church. To the extent that they build their Advocacy Team, they will benefit from its care. The church then provides ongoing encouragement and accountability to the Advocacy Teams to ensure they are caring for missionaries faithfully and effectively.
Advocacy Teams have been a proven way to maintain the kind of relationships that not only benefit sending church and sent ones, but give evidence to the God who binds them together. For more info, check out this downloadable guide provided by The Upstream Collective.
Zach Bradley is the director of content strategy at The Upstream Collective, director of training and operations at Refuge Louisville, and a missions pastor at Sojourn Community Church. He also authored The Sending Church Defined and blogs at brokenmissiology.com. You can find him on Twitter @zachsbradley.
All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).