By the Lord’s grace, many missionaries enter the field and find solid Christian community with their fellow missionaries or local believers. However, many others find themselves dropped in a remote location, with little to no Christian witness. They become lonely and isolated without the fellowship of other believers. Others may experience conflict among their missionary team that arises out of culture shock, disagreements on strategy, unmet expectations, etc. In short, the missionary life is not easy.
But since the Bible sets up churches as the mechanism for sending, it seems the antidote for loneliness and isolation is built in. Yet, while some sending churches excel at keeping in touch with and supporting their missionaries from afar, other missionaries often feel forgotten by their sending churches.
Forgetfulness can be caused by many different things, such as the “out of sight, out of mind” paradigm. Or, the church completely outsources missionary sending—and therefore missionary care—to the sending agency. Or, they simply don’t know how to care for their missionaries once they are on the field.
Enter advocacy teams. As a church raises up and sends out missionaries, it can simultaneously raise up and equip groups of church members to take care of these missionaries. Here is a succinct explanation of advocacy teams and how you can implement them in your church.
What is an advocacy team?
An advocacy team is a small group of people who provide ongoing support to a church’s sent-out missionary unit (individual or family) for the duration of that missionary’s time overseas. This team serves as the primary link between the missionary and his or her sending church.
“An advocacy team serves as the primary link between the missionary and her sending church.”
Typically, the team serves two functions: care and representation. They care for their missionary in a plethora of ways: prayer, communication, meeting physical needs (such as sending care packages), visiting in person, and helping with logistics (i.e. storing furniture, arranging stateside accommodations, etc) to name a few. Additionally, the advocacy team represents the missionary to their sending church—communicating prayer and physical and spiritual needs to the pastors and congregation. The team essentially ensures the missionary isn’t forgotten.
Why advocacy teams?
Scripture encourages us to remember and care for those we send out. There is biblical precedence for a sending church’s ongoing connection with the missionaries they commission. In Acts 13, the church at Antioch set apart and sent out Paul and Barnabas for the work to which the Holy Spirit had called them.
We read about their first missionary journey in the rest of Acts 13, and at the end of chapter 14, they returned to Antioch and “reported everything God had done with them and that he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 CSB). This cycle of sending out and returning happens twice more throughout chapters 15 through 18.
Not only do we have an example of an actual sending church, but we’re also commanded in Scripture to care for our brothers and sisters. In 3 John 1:5–8, John tells Gaius that he acts faithfully in whatever he does for the brothers and sisters. John exhorts him to send out the brothers and sisters in a manner worthy of God and to support them as “coworkers with the truth” (CSB). The Bible tells us to love one another, bear one another’s burdens, and encourage one another. These “one another” commands can, and should, be carried out for those in our church who are far from us.
Advocacy teams are the frontlines of missionary care, which here can be described as carrying out those “one anothers.” They remain in contact with a missionary and aware of his or her needs. They provide care in whatever ways they can, and when the need for care goes beyond what they can provide (for example, pastoral care), they communicate those needs to the church.
Who is on an advocacy team?
The advocacy team is made up of members of the sending church, but teams can be constructed in different ways. I’ve seen one church direct small groups to adopt a missionary and take responsibility for their care. In other churches, the missionary herself has gathered her own team—typically people with whom she already has a close relationship: a small group leader, a roommate, an accountability partner, etc. What is most important, though, is that these people commit to working together to care for their missionary.
“Advocacy teams remind missionaries that they are not alone—they are part of a body of Christ who loves them and is committed to their welfare, spiritual health, and success.”
When should my church create an advocacy team?
The best way to establish this group of individuals is to develop teams before you send out the missionary. If a team is created while the missionary is still with you, they have the opportunity to spend time with the missionary before he or she is sent. The team gets to be part of the sending process and establish a solid foundation from the beginning.
Of course, if you’ve already sent out missionaries and are just now starting to think about how to care for them, it’s never too late to commission others to take responsibility for their care. Technological advances make it easy to connect a missionary with an advocacy team, even after they’ve already left.
How does my church develop advocacy teams?
Regardless of when you set up your advocacy teams or who participates, developing teams may seem daunting if you’re building this process from the ground up. Many people in your church may not have thought about what it means to care for a missionary and, therefore, have no idea what they should do if they join a team. Here are a few simple principles to get you started.
- As stated above, the best and easiest way to create advocacy teams is to have the missionary gather the team himself as you prepare to send him out. Help him determine who in your church may be a good fit.
- Once the team is assembled, meet with all parties to discuss potential expectations and responsibilities. Some questions to consider:
- How frequently will the team meet to pray for and chat with the missionary?
- Will all or part of the team visit him in person?
- How often will the missionary communicate prayer and other needs?
- Is she willing to be held accountable by her team?
- How will church leaders remain connected to the missionary?
- What, if any, resources can the church contribute to help the team care for the missionary?
- How will all parties contribute to helping the missionary re-enter once his term is finished?
- Be clear on time commitments. A missionary term can be one to three years, and the team should commit (to the best of their ability) to care for him for the entire term. If circumstances change—people move and other things happen—plan to replace team members with others.
- Be flexible, recognizing that life is dynamic for both the team members and the missionary. Things may not always work out the way you plan on paper, but that’s okay. Allow the team to determine how they can serve in a way that is both beneficial to the missionary and does not overburden them. Understand that a missionary’s schedule changes frequently, so communication may be difficult at times.
- Take advantage of member care through the sending organization. Organizations like the IMB have dedicated personnel for missionary care on the field. These personnel are located in close proximity to other missionaries and provide counseling and other support during their term. Though a sending organization’s member care is not as focused as an advocacy team’s care, it can be a great asset when the advocacy team’s distance works to their disadvantage.
Missionaries face many challenges on the field: physically challenging environments, distance from family and friends, culture shock, language barriers, and spiritual warfare. Advocacy teams remind missionaries that they are not alone—they are part of a body of Christ who loves them and is committed to their welfare, spiritual health, and success.
Meredith Cook is a content editor for the International Mission Board. She has an MDiv in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband live in Houston, Texas. Find her on Twitter @MeredithCook716.