Oh, how I dread the question! I literally would prefer to do anything else than answer THE QUESTION! And by “anything else”, I mean I would even rather fill out ministry reports to churches and sending agencies! Yes, that is how much I still dread THE QUESTION. Everyone knows THE QUESTION: when a friend or supporter passes you by and asks, “Mihai, how is life in [insert country of service here] Romania?”
It really is a simple question. No harm is intended, no ill intention. It’s almost like someone asking “how are you?” in the store check-out lane. Still, many missionaries would rather face the fire again than ever answer it. Why? Because they have absolutely no idea how to answer it. “Wonderful!” “Incredible!” “Challenging!” “Life-changing!” How does a missionary even begin to formulate an answer?
One thing can certainly be said about missionary life: it’s transformative (for better or worse)! Once someone leaves for the mission field, regardless of place of service, he or she will never return exactly the same.
Take culture for instance: the host culture has its own ways of doing things. And as much as a missionary might think them strange upon arrival, over time it is mind-boggling how many cultural quirks become integrated into the missionary’s day-to-day habits. Moreover, the missionary is challenged by new belief systems, values, ways of looking at and approaching a problem, concepts of time, dress, food, and even what is and is not polite. So many things are different that the missionary no longer points out the differences in the new culture, but rather the similarities (they are fewer and easier to remember).
And then there is language! New expressions are learned, formalities, and even proverbs. Over time, missionaries may start a sentence in their mother tongue, but find themselves finishing the sentence in the new language. For some seasoned missionaries, their “heart” language may have even changed.
All of this is happening while God is teaching the missionary new lessons of trust, faith, grace, and forgiveness. And this is not an exhaustive list.
When everything around a missionary is “new” and “different”, it goes without saying that the missionary is, therefore, forever changed.
Some missionaries, upon being asked THE QUESTION, immediately start to run through a list in their head of all of the differences between their host and home cultures. This leads them to jump to the conclusion that everything for them is DIFFERENT and everything for their friend or supporter asking THE QUESTION has stayed the same. But that is far too simplistic of a conclusion. The fact of the matter is that the friend or supporter has changed too! Maybe the friend or supporter has not moved to a foreign country, or ate strange foods like pork nose or cow stomach soup, but his/her life has changed too, perhaps the change is just not as glaringly obvious.
In caring for missionaries over the years, I have found that they often have more anxiety about returning to their home culture than when they first went to the mission field. Much of this anxiety is due to not knowing how to tell friends and supporters about all of the changes happening in their lives.
For every missionary I work with who is preparing to return to their home culture, I ask him/her to write a one sentence response to THE QUESTION. Why one sentence? Busy lives, schedules to keep, families to care for—that is often all that a friend or supporter has time for. Still, a one-word answer just won’t cut it either. If a missionary answers in one word, the friend or supporter will be satisfied with one word and move on to the next topic. A well thought out and meaningful sentence response to THE QUESTION hopefully may peak interest and lead the friend or supporter to ask follow-up questions—and if it goes really well, perhaps a lunch or coffee date. Who knows, that coffee or lunch date could allow the missionary to broaden the friend or supporter’s perspective on missions and God’s work.
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” Hebrews 10:24-25
If missionaries start to embrace answering THE QUESTION and truly give an intriguing, nuanced answer, there is great potential for friends and supporters to not just ask follow-up questions, but also to become active, engaging partners in missions.
Fortunately, the likes of email, social media, Skype, and FaceTime have made it somewhat easier to communicate with friends and supporters and help to answer THE QUESTION both verbally and visually. Nevertheless, a missionary ought to be prepared at any time and place for THE QUESTION!
Fear not, for God can give clarity to the answer through prayer, self-reflection, and debriefing.
So, “how is life in…?”
This article was written by Mihai Lundell of Member Care Romania.