There is nothing more painful than when a missionary leaves the field, whether it is for a short break or permanently. This is because somehow the missionary feels they are failing in what God has called them to do. Missionaries have a saying too that “the only honorable way to leave the field is in a coffin”. It is partly true. (I am talking about “career” missionaries, not people who spend a week in Haiti or Mexico.)
Why do missionaries feel this way? Maybe it is because they often have told people they are willing to commit their lives to a country. When they return home, with their life intact, sometimes makes them feel they failed. Other times, they didn’t have much fruit in ministry and so when they return home people expect them to report how many tribes they won to Christ or how many churches they planted, but they have little to report. This may cause them to feel a bit of shame in their hearts. Living a life in a different culture is complicated and difficult. So, returning missionaries often feel awkward.
So, what if you meet a returning missionary? I want to give you some recommendations on how you can encourage them.
- Talk: Let them talk about their experiences. Living in a foreign country is an adventure; an adventure of a life time. It is nothing like your vacation in Mexico, nor your trip to an Indian Reservation. Returning missionaries want, and need, to talk about it. They need to feel like someone cares. Just let them talk. They probably need to talk hours on end. You can learn many interesting things from a missionary.
- Pray: Pray with them. Missionaries love to pray. I am not talking about praying every time there is a meal or special occasion, but ask them how you can pray for them. Then pray for them. . . immediately. Most missionaries are used to long hours of prayer and drawing close to God. When you pray for them, the Holy Spirit will bless them and soothe their hearts.
- Food: Buy them a good steak, several times. If you ask a missionary where they want to eat, they will tell you the cheapest and most ordinary restaurant in town. Trust me, it is not because they like it, but they don’t want to be a burden to you. They also work among people who are very poor where they consider eating at a nice restaurant a luxury which they do not need. Don’t ask them where they want to go, take them for a steak. Take them to the best steak restaurant you can think of. Everyone loves a good steak. They would never ask for it, but they would appreciate it. If you know what kind of food they like then make a point to take them to their favorite restaurant. It will be a blessing they will not forget.
- Rest: Help them take a vacation. Do you know when most missionaries take a vacation? Never. Sometimes they feel guilty for resting. Sometimes they feel like if they don’t work every moment they are wasting their life. People, however, need to rest. They also will not feel like they could spend the money for proper vacation. Many missionaries live on other people’s tithes and offerings. Therefore, they may feel it is not right to use “God’s money” entrusted to them for a vacation. Help them to take a vacation. Drive them to Disneyland and pay for their tickets. Let them borrow your car to go into the mountains. Let them use your family cabin, or pay for a rental. A small group could send them on a cruise to the Caribbean or Alaska. They will never do it on their own, but they need the rest. They will draw closer to God during their rest. They will draw closer as a family during their rest and it will be a memory they will never forget.
- Honor: Recognize them and their accomplishments in church. Acknowledge them for what they have done, and the sacrifices they have made. As you honor others, you too will be honored. Honoring them will strengthen their faith and bless their heart. Ask them to share publicly about their experiences. Any setting is fine. Most missionaries would be glad to speak for a group of two or a group of two thousand. Missionaries love to encourage others to serve the Lord and always have a nasty food story to share which will make you cringe and laugh at the same time. Do you know why most missionaries go to a far away country to share Jesus to a foreign people: Because they heard the stories of another missionary.
Maybe you don’t know there are missionaries around you. Just keep your eyes open, I bet you will find that seated very near to you in church is a missionary who has come home. They may be home for a number of reasons. You can encourage and bless them.