For Those of Us Who Aren’t Fluent in a Second Language, Even in Our Dreams

I’ve heard it’s the holy grail of fluency: dreaming in your target language—walking around in your dream world, saying whatever you want to say and understanding everything that’s said. Sounds pretty cool.

Has that ever happened to me? Nope. I do sometimes dream that I’m back in Taiwan, but the people around me tend to say a lot of nonsense words, and when I open my mouth, I can only say the most basic of sentences. Sometimes I’m lost in the city, late for a meeting. I can’t remember the address of where I’m headed, can’t find the subway station, and have no money for a cab. It’s the cross-cultural equivalent of dreaming that I’m standing in my high school’s hallway, finding out I have a test I haven’t studied for and not knowing my locker combination. Oh yeah, and when I look down I’m not wearing pants. I think my dreams have found me pantsless on the streets of Taiwan a few times, too.

Or what about daydreaming about complete fluency, gleefully imagining the moment you take your seat as a translator for the UN? That, too, is a nope for me.

If your dreams are filled with fluent encounters in a second (or third or fourth) language, if language learning is your forte, if it’s as easy as ah, bay, tsay, or if it’s simply a piece of gâteau, this post probably isn’t for you.

But if your language learning has been a struggle, if you’re disappointed in your progress, or if you’ve reached a wall with no door in sight, read on. . . .

Before moving overseas, I’d earned a degree in English and considered myself a good communicator. I was a student of a language already, after all, and I thought picking up another one wouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not how it worked for me as I studied in Taipei. It was slow, difficult, and slow. After I’d worked on Chinese for several months, a more newly arrived, and much younger, cross-cultural worker at our school asked me how long I’d studied for one of the unit exams. He wanted to make sure that he didn’t waste too much time. I told him I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks reviewing. Oh, he said. He was hoping it wouldn’t take him more than a few days.

That was hard to swallow, but he didn’t mean to criticize me. Others weren’t so indirect, though. There was the cab driver who pointed out that my wife’s Chinese was better than mine and a Taiwanese acquaintance in a coffeeshop who overheard another foreigner speaking and said something like, “Now her Chinese is good.” Of course, the voice inside my head was even less gracious when comparing me to others. By “others” I mostly mean other foreigners. I figured I’d never speak like a local, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t reach the level of so many Chinese learners around me.

There was also our landlord who wasn’t very patient in her communication with us, especially over the phone. And there was the man I met on the street, whom I came to think of as a friend. But one day he became angry with me, complaining about my inability to understand what he was saying, stopping just short of accusing me of misrepresenting myself when we first talked.

And there was the helpful official who had me address an envelope to myself so he could mail a document to me. I had studiously practiced writing the characters in anticipation of such an opportunity, but when the letter arrived, he had rewritten it. He wanted to make sure it was legible so that the document would actually make it to our house.

Sometimes I could laugh at my mistakes, such as in low-stakes adventures ordering at McDonald’s, and when I called myself a bicycle instead of a missionary. (It helped that a friend said she’d done the very same thing.) But it’s easier to laugh when the mistakes seem like silly aberrations, rather than everyday occurrences. Those are the things we laugh about with others. It’s not so fun to be laughed at.

As with many language learners, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of simply agreeing with whatever was said to me, thinking I could figure out the meaning later. One day I was talking with the director of our language school to set up a one-session introductory language class for a group of college students visiting from the States. We were standing in the office surrounded by teachers at their desks—a group of people I really wanted to impress. She asked me a question that I only partially understood. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes. But it wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The teachers laughed, the way I’ve laughed when hearing someone unskilled in English do the same thing.

There were some times when I did feel pretty good about my communication skills. It was fun to get a reaction from people who were amazed that someone who looked like me could say “Hello” in their language. And I was never more fluent than when groups from the States came to visit. For all they knew, my Chinese was flawless. And from time to time I’d have a deep, meaningful conversation with a national where my vocabulary didn’t fail me. That helped a lot. There were even times when I truly believed those who encouraged and complimented me. But mostly I was reminded of my limitations.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, though I now wish I’d tried harder smarter better. I’ve recently learned about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and if I could have a do over, I’d like to start with a mindset adjustment. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent is mostly innate. Either you’re born with it or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes you can increase your talent with effort and practice. There are a couple ways a fixed mindset can hinder you. One is when you believe you’ll never be good at something, so you don’t try. Another is when you think you are good at it, but avoid challenging yourself for fear you might fail and show others, and yourself, that you’re not what you think you are. As much as I want to have a growth mindset, I see how my tendencies point to the fixed end of that spectrum.

But I see a limit to the growth mindset, too. So if I could start over, or start again, I’d also want to develop a more complete understanding of who I am. While I shouldn’t give up improving myself, I don’t believe it’s true that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” There are just things I’m not going to achieve in this lifetime, whether because of my inner makeup or outside circumstances. I’m still working on being more comfortable, as they say, in my own skin. If I could do that, if I could try less to become more like the people around me and do a better job of trying to maximize who God has gifted me to be, then I think I wouldn’t wander around frantically nearly as much in the world of my dreams.

So how about you? Are you having a hard time with language learning? If so, I hope you’re able to continue to grow in your abilities. I hope that if you’re not thriving in your language acquisition, you’re able to keep on striving. And in your striving, I hope you’re given the time and space to do your best, or as close to that as you can get. When you struggle, I hope you can allow yourself to strive softer. And when your studies can’t take you any further and you fall short, I hope there’s still a place for you on your team and in the work you’re doing.

When encouragements are directed your way, I hope you can trust them. When others point out where you’re lacking, I hope you know you’re not alone.

And finally, when you move about in your dreams, if you feel lost and can’t understand what people are saying to you, I hope you run into some extremely kind people who make sure you get where you want to go, even if they have to use hand gestures for you to understand them. And if they’re extremely, extremely kind, they might even help you buy some pants.

[photo: “Sunny Spot of Greenery,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

A New Resource for Member Care Providers

by Geoff Whiteman and Heather Pubols

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Essentials for People Care and Development: A Collection of Best Practices, Research, Reflections, and Strategies, an excellent new book on member care from Missio Nexus. ~Elizabeth Trotter

Since 2000, I (Heather) have served in missions and communications. These days much of my work is focused on equipping and encouraging other missionary communicators. I often tell them that the job of a missions communicator is more than just developing content and materials to promote a mission organization’s vision and programs. As we help our missionary colleagues share their knowledge and stories, in the process, we care for them as encouragers and advocates.

World Evangelical Alliance Global Member Care Network Coordinator Harry Hoffman has a category for people giving this kind of care. He calls them “people helpers.” Harry says this group includes lay counselors, mentors, peers, and spiritual mothers and fathers. I might add colleagues to his list. People helpers are an often untapped or overlooked source of peer-related member care. 

In his book Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms, Jim Wilder decries the neglect of relational skills development in Christian organizations. Instead, he says, as we collectively strive to accomplish our organization’s vision, staff tire, disconnect, and become spiritually dead. 

However, Wilder goes on to explain that when our organizations first cultivate healthy relational cultures, vision is implemented in a better way. People stop “burning out for Jesus,” mature spiritually, and exhibit greater trust in God. Member care in this model becomes a critical organizational strategy for sustainability, and everyone is invited to play a part in it.

This brings me great encouragement and was part of my inspiration in spearheading the creation of this book. My desire was not just to see member care professionals better equipped. I also wanted anyone involved in missions to have the chance to expand their view of member care and see ways they could apply the contents of this book as they cared for their fellow humans serving in God’s mission.

To achieve these objectives, I partnered with Geoff Whiteman. Geoff has served as a member care professional in private practice and with mission sending and service organizations (both as a resilience researcher and a marriage and family therapist) and currently advises member care professionals directly. Together as co-editors of this book, we bring our experience as co-laboring missionaries as well as our perspectives from different ends of the member care spectrum. Geoff gave leadership to this book’s topics and authors, while I worked with each author on crafting the content for a broad audience.

So whether you are a person who simply wants to be more aware of how to better care for global workers you know or work with, you are considering a ministry of care for God’s beloved missionaries, or you are a seasoned member care professional – welcome! This book was written for you. 

Most of the contributors to this volume presented at the MissioNexus Mission Leader Conference in 2022 and 2023. The themes of those conferences were “Counting the Cost” and “Shift: Rapid Social Transformation and the Gospel.”  The people care and development workshop track connected these themes with the needs of the missions community through a practical theology lens. 

To develop this further, we asked several questions. What do member care professionals believe (theological and biblical reflections)? What do we know (research and case studies)? How can we respond (frameworks and strategies)? What will help (tools and resources)? And who can we join (kingdom collaboration)?

An axiom of missiology is that faithfulness to the universal gospel requires attentiveness to the particulars. We need exegesis of the text and ethnography of the context if the good news is to be good news here and now. This axiom is true for member care as well. There have been seismic shifts in the world that impact the world of missions and the discipline of member care. 

I (Geoff) can think of many people who have lamented to me about what they are seeing. An executive director of a mid-sized agency explained, “We used to have a good handle on member care, but now we’re not so sure. Everyone coming is carrying so much trauma. We want to help them, and we also have a job we need them to do.” 

A seasoned trainer told me, “We keep seeing major member care issues in our trainees. The people coming through training now need more training, but organizations are placing a lower priority on training. There’s a huge gap between everyone’s expectations. I’ve given my life to closing this gap, but it keeps widening.” 

On another occasion, a senior pastor shared with me about texting with global workers on the other side of the world who were in a medical emergency with their child. He said, “I’m their pastor. I have to help them, but I don’t know who to turn to.”   

I share Heather’s conviction that the invitation of member care to love one another well belongs to each of us.  And I add my conviction that some of us are invited to become member care professionals who do so with excellence. This is because many of the perplexing and pervasive challenges are best understood as structural. These are places where our walls are not framed plumb and square to our foundation and where no amount of fresh paint will remedy the problem. 

One of the more pervasive structural problems is the belief that the aim of member care is to eliminate preventable attrition rather than to see reductions in attrition as an outcome of a healthy system in which member care has a key role. Through research, we found that attrition is multi-faceted, complex, and rarely (if ever) clearly differentiated between preventable or unpreventable. Member care workers often play an essential role in helping global workers do well, but their work is often tertiary and occurs alongside friends, family, colleagues, supporting churches, and others.

To move forward we need to grow in awareness of how care fits across cultures in individual relationships and in organizational systems. And we need to approach this area with hearts and minds that honor those who came before us and are open to the diverse perspectives of those involved in today’s global mission environment. Reading and interacting with the content of this book can be one step in moving forward. 

Our prayer is that this book will meet a real need you have now and provide you with resources you can return to again and again. We trust it proves to be a blessing to you and through you to those God invites you to care for. We hope you’ll share it with someone you know and the dialogue that follows will spark new insights.

May we each be a part of building healthy relational cultures in the organizations we serve!


Heather Pubols is the editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ, – a professional journal for North American missionaries that has been continuously published since 1964. She is also the founder and principal communications consultant for le Motif ( – a communications consulting firm focused on global mission. She has served in missions for more than 20 years. 

Geoff Whiteman, ThM, LMFT, serves member care professionals as the director of the VALEO Research Institute ( and the MissioNexus People Care and Development track co-leader. Since 2000, he has served in vocational ministry and has supported the care and training of global workers in Christ since 2007. Those experiences piqued his interest in how global workers could persevere with joy which led him to research resilience ( 

Just Keep Going: Lessons From a Newbie Runner

You know who you are. You’re the one who’s been on the border of transformation so many times. You’ve pulled into the parking lot of that gym multiple times only to pull a uwee to the first coffee shop because who actually has time for that and 5 am is out of the question. You’ve picked up that budgeting book because you know you want financial peace but the automatic transfer to your savings account eludes you. You’ve pulled out your computer to email that missionary therapist but quickly numb yourself with Facebook for the umpteenth time today instead. 

I’ve been there too.

I’m the one who ran all through high school, college, and young mommy days and then let life’s demands crowd out my passion when I moved overseas for missions. I’m the one who sat on the couch and watched my sister-in-law push herself out the door day after day to crush tar with her Adidas. I’m the one who longingly scrolled past pictures of my friend jogging with her family and wanted all the same rewards but just . . .got busy.  

I’m also the one who walked into our town’s family-owned shoe store a dozen times to buy all the right shoes for my kids and ask about their running programs. I hoped that my questions would unlock the mystery of what held me back from committing. And I’m the one who received a gracious and genuine answer every single time from the shop owner, Scott Gall. Scott gave me and my husband all of his attention and talked to us like we were already in the worldwide club of runners. Oh, how I wanted to be in that club, the club of people who possess discipline and who commit to run. Regularly.  

Scott never judged me for not starting. He was just always there to answer my questions with kindness and patience. Then one day the seeds of a dozen conversations finally sprouted. I mustered up the courage to ask him for his 5K training program, even though I felt like a baby. He sent it to me, and I set a date on my calendar to start. I knew that I needed external accountability, so I asked my friend to do it with me. “We have to send each other pictures every day to prove that we did it.”  

I was scared that I would last two weeks and then life would get busy as it always does. Or that the interruption of my move back to South Africa would interfere with my goals. Like it always has. But I set the start date and sent my friend a picture of day 1. Then I did day 2. I found out that I could re-prioritize my life and actually follow through with running when I moved back to South Africa.  

Then I just kept going. I missed day 19 but made up for it on day 21. And yes, I felt like a baby. Yes, there was a day when I cried through my last mile at how slow my pace was. Yes, I was sore and slow. But the days turned into one full month of following the program every single day. Then two full months. Then I shaved a few minutes off my time. I wasn’t as sore, and I could breathe a little easier up that hill by the beach. And yes, I got plantar fasciitis my third month and had to take a break. But guess who’s back on the trails this week?   

Through it all, I kept sharing photos with my friend, because some of us need support to crush our goals. Eventually, sharing daily photos was replaced with using a tracking app. As I reflected on all those visits to the shoe store, I began to think about the importance of patience and encouragement. I thought about all the times Scott answered my questions even though I hadn’t started. I thought about how many people walk in those doors asking him identical questions, promising themselves that they’ll start tomorrow. And I finally understood how vital it is for seeds of curiosity to be watered before they take root.  

I slipped on my Brooks and thought about how many times I’ve shared about the God who transformed my life and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I pounded through the trail and thought about the people who have needed to ask me questions about faith but weren’t ready to commit yet. I jogged past an eight-point buck bedded in the woods and contemplated how many times we need to ask the same questions before our hearts are prompted to action. I remembered how many times my sister-in-law talked to me about hope in Christ on our high school campus before it finally took root in me.  

I was reminded of the patience, the conversations, and the people who had been part of my story of turning to Jesus. Sometimes we need to hear the same patient message repeated before something clicks and . . . it changes us. I clocked in my last slow mile and was glad that Scott hadn’t given up on our countless conversations about running. Because the day finally came when it took root in my heart and changed my life for the better.

So don’t be dismayed by the revolving door of conversations about faith that you’re having with the same person. Don’t push or judge. If they’re coming back for more, something might be happening under the surface. Those tenderly watered seeds might be ready to sprout. Keep nurturing those conversations, and you may become part of a beautiful transformation.

Lies Missionaries Believe

by Rachel Espazien

When going onto a mission field for the first or tenth time, we often have ideals of what a missionary is supposed to be, do, and look like. Some of it is impressed upon us by church culture, gathered from missionary books we’ve read, or created by ourselves.

As a young missionary I didn’t take my calling lightly, and I don’t believe you do either. Maybe you, like me, have put a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to the missionary standard. After all, we were commissioned to “go into all the world” by Jesus Himself at the end of Matthew.

I didn’t know any real live missionaries when I first went onto the field, but from what I gathered:

  1. A missionary is supposed to be empowered to help the people they serve without needing their help.
  1. A missionary is supposed to be protected from all harm, at all times, wherever they go, inside the will of God.
  1. A missionary is supposed to heal those who are sick with prayer or a simple touch.
  1. A missionary is supposed to be unhindered, and therefore it is more holy to go onto the field single.
  1. A missionary is supposed to live as simply and frugally as possible and should have no Western conveniences.
  1. A missionary is supposed to know what to say, where to go, and whom to help at all times.
  1. A missionary is supposed to focus on spiritual needs and leave physical needs for humanitarians.
  1. A missionary’s mere presence is supposed to make an instant impact on the community.
  2. People back home should be led to support the missionary without being bothered with a list of their needs.

I identified myself as a missionary. I wasn’t in my host country to sightsee or vacation. I had given up everything, all of my personal comforts and dreams, to be there, because I knew God wanted me to. Things went well for a while.

I lived up to my own missionary ideals in the beginning. I felt useful to the ministry I volunteered with. I was single and undistracted, pouring everything I had into the work.

As my boldness grew, I took on many roles that seemed important. It felt great to see a child on his deathbed start to walk and talk after I had spent months caring for him. The other short termers who were in and out looked up to me, and I got to be the one to answer their questions.

Then death came under my watch, and I began to question everything.

If all the things I knew about missions were true, why was I watching someone I loved slip away under my constant care?

My identity was so wrapped up in being that good missionary. The missionary that was undefeated. The missionary that my home church would be proud of and would want to support.

How would I tell the people back home that I had failed?

If I wasn’t making an impact like all those missionaries I had read about, then maybe I was a fake after all.

The idealistic missionary image I had built came crashing down. I was plunged into an identity crisis. I had to take a break from ministry and go home. When I left, I didn’t know if I would have the strength to come back.

On a month-long furlough to think over ministry, I evaluated my heart and motives to see if I had missed God, because in my mind, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.

During that time I came to realize that nearly everything I thought I knew about being a missionary was false. All the things I thought a missionary was supposed to be were just lies that I had believed.

As much as I would like to think I have left an impact on those I served, or that I am making an impact now, the outcomes are not mine to decide.

So . . .

Dear missionary who has believed those same lies and questioned whether you are really qualified to be on the field, let me tell you:

God never called you to determine the outcome of your serving. You were never meant to be anyone’s savior. Only Jesus can be that.

Missionaries are not a super-human species that never fail or lose a battle. In fact, more than bringing out your strengths, missions will reveal your weaknesses and neediness and bring you to a place of greater dependence on the Lord.

God doesn’t ask you to be a great missionary or to conjure up change. He only asks you to be obedient and go. With whatever little you have in your hands, just go. You may be called a missionary, but your true identity is simply “follower of Christ,” not “hero.”

Whether we follow Him to the bedside of the dying or to witness a miracle is not up to us to decide.

We could choose to walk away from the mission field. It might feel easier to stay where it is safe, to hide in our bedrooms and cover our ears to all the sadness in this world. We could be angry at the outcomes that we do not understand and question God for allowing them.

Or we can be obedient. We can lay down the lies that we have believed for so long. We can cry over injustice, and then we can get up and keep pouring ourselves out, knowing that God will use our weaknesses in the way that He chooses and that someday things will be “very good” again.


Rachel was preparing to go to Mexico in 2017 but through a series of events, ended up as a full time missionary in Haiti. She quickly found her calling as a cross-cultural worker and blogger. In 2020, after their marriage, she and her husband Nelson started Espwa Demen, a non-profit that assists impoverished children and families in rural Haiti. Because of the country’s security situation they were forced to relocate to the US at the beginning of 2023, but their ministry continues to grow in the hands of local volunteers and through frequent trips. You can follow Rachel on her personal blog or find her on Instagram.

Boy Without a Name

I can’t share many photos from our time in India because of security concerns, but the photo above, like the boy it features, is anonymous. I call it “Boy Without a Name.”

Everyone called this boy Chotu, which means “Shorty” in Hindi. It is a non-name given to child servants in north India.

This child was on his way back from depositing a load of trash in the river when he heard the sound of children’s voices. He wandered off the narrow path through town and stood on the very edge of the stage where a group of school children were giving a cultural heritage performance.

I could almost hear his thoughts when I snapped this photo: “What’s it like to go to school?”

These moments of connection and empathy happened often during my first few years in India. But at some point I began to experience something I only recently discovered has a name: compassion fatigue. WebMD describes it like this: “Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma.” The symptoms are similar to burnout. You get tired, numb, apathetic. You can’t concentrate. You withdraw.

In short? You lose hope.

I got overwhelmed when I saw how bad things really were. When I saw people betray their own. When I saw money meant to help the poor go in the pockets of the rich. When I saw people choose destruction over change.

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’re hearing an appeal for disaster relief, or counseling the hundredth addict in your practice, and you think, “Why keep trying? What I’m doing makes no difference.”

What do we do about that?

There are many wonderful tips out there, even entire classes, about how to recover from compassion fatigue. Things like taking breaks, having a support system, and practicing good self-care are all really important. And I tried them all.

But beyond these things, I needed a reason to hope.

And, ironically, I found one in the same place I lost it.

Another Chotu

Our landlords had a child servant they called Chotu, too. Although we call him by his real name in real life, I called him Chotu in my book to protect his privacy, so I’ll do the same here. 

Several years after the above photo was taken, Joshua visited Chotu in his hometown, far away from our project site. He was there to attend Chotu’s wedding.

There was very little food in Chotu’s house. It was sweltering hot, and since there was no electricity, the family found a boy with a big leaf to fan Joshua so he wouldn’t pass out. 

Things outside the house were busy. The village was trying to scrimp together money to help with wedding costs.

The next day was the wedding. But it was not a happy feast. It was a strained contractual arrangement between Chotu’s family and the family of a 14-year-old girl.

Nobody rode an elephant, shook their shoulders, or ate chicken biryani at this wedding. Nobody ate anything. The whole village walked home in the dark, hungry and unsure whether they’d done the right thing. 

These are two real families, with real pressures and real love for their children. People who notice the stars on dark nights and swim in the creek when it’s hot out and have favorite colors and favorite foods and bullies and best friends.

Because of Joshua’s visit, I learned that Chotu and his compatriots were sent to our area of India as much to keep them alive as to earn money for the family. If he hadn’t visited, we wouldn’t have known that Chotu’s 14-year-old bride was given in marriage not to uphold a tradition, but to protect her from potential rape. These parents didn’t choose between school and money or between an innocent childhood and child marriage. They chose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

The lyrics from a song I heard in high school still resonate with me: “The bravest thing I have is hope.”1

Hope is not just a cute word that belongs in a cross stitch. It takes real courage to hope. Hope is the key left in the door, the crack in the cave wall, the way out of darkness. Hope is the intersection of two things: true risk and the potential for rescue.

I knew the risks all around me. But what would be my reason to choose hope? 

Finding a Reason

While Joshua was staying with Chotu’s family, he had the chance to visit with Chotu’s big brother and sister-in-law. Somehow, while Chotu was away, they had heard about Jesus and believed in Him. Around the same time we met Chotu, unbeknownst to us, his brother was praying for a Bible. 

When Chotu went back home, we sent him with an audio Bible he could listen to on his phone. So when he saw his brother again after so many years, Chotu had the answer to his brother’s prayers in his back pocket.

“Nobody smiled the whole time,” Joshua told me when he returned from the wedding. “There just wasn’t anything to smile about. But it was so striking, because Chotu’s brother and sister-in-law did smile. They seemed genuinely peaceful in the middle of all that.”

This couple knew that choosing the hope Christ offered them would not change their external circumstances. They knew that the brightness of His promises would make the darkness seem all the darker by comparison. And they chose hope anyway.

This is why I became a missionary. To give people hope. But what about me? Will I do the hard heart work of holding onto hope myself? When I am surrounded by pain and impossibility, will I hold onto His promises? Will I believe them?

It takes courage for us to believe in what could be, precisely because it could also not be. It takes courage to invest in fallible human beings who might not be okay, even if we spend our lives giving them the chance to be.

But hope takes courage for those in poverty, too. When those in power are corrupt, or when those in authority over you have not wanted the best for you, or when you see that humans can be creatively evil, it’s only natural to lose hope. Even to lose the desire to hope. 

“Hope disappoints,” I can almost hear someone say. They, like Chotu’s parents, must choose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

Yet this “unknown opportunity,” this “unknown God” in a land of millions of deities, this hope, does not disappoint. The Bible tells me so. What a promise! What good news!

I cannot heal all the pain of the world. But I have something to offer. It’s something hard to hold, hard to give, hard to receive… but so worth the effort. To hold it, I must fight jadedness and compassion fatigue. To give it, I must trust God when He says, “That thing you’re giving out? It won’t disappoint them.”

No matter how many kids the world calls “Chotu,” God knows them each by name. And He offers them – and me – a hope that does not disappoint.

  1. From Daylight by braveSaintSaturn ↩︎

Faith, Hope, and Batteries

The saga of the batteries. Tale of humor. Tale of woe. How taking 24 batteries on an international flight refined my faith and made me question my sanity. 

Our story begins on the drive to the Dar es Salaam airport when I realized that I forgot to leave a box of batteries at the mission house. Being the anxious rule-follower that I am, I quickly looked up Emirates airline’s battery policy. It said, “Batteries… must be carried in carry-on baggage only… Each passenger is limited to a maximum of 20 spare batteries.” Ha! Funniest thing I’ve read in a while.

When I passed through the metal detector stationed at the airport entrance, all the batteries were divided between two carry-on bags (so that neither my husband nor I would exceed the limit). They flagged the bags for a full check and pulled out the 24 batteries in sheer amazement at my stupidity. “These belong in your checked luggage,” the screener informed me. 

I dutifully transferred them. Then it was time to go up to the counter to check in for my flight. But those batteries were really bothering me. When I signed in for my flight online, I clicked a box that said I didn’t put any batteries in my checked luggage. Now I was a liar! Whatsoever should I do?

Well, I don’t recommend this, but what I did was run the whole scenario past the gate agent, who then called his manager, who then told me that batteries are the same as “personal electronic devices” (PED), and their rule was that you could have up to 15 PEDs in each piece of checked luggage.

So now I needed to open my bags, count the batteries in front of them, and make sure I was under the limit. That was fun. 

The next scene in our saga takes place at the departure gate when my husband hears his name over the loudspeaker. Then a serious-looking police woman escorted us below the terminal to a small windowless room where a burly Tanzanian man went through every item of my husband’s luggage. Now for some unexplained reason, he had to put the 8 packaged batteries in a carry-on and leave the 4 remaining loose batteries in a checked bag. The 12 batteries in my checked bag were never mentioned. 

Don’t worry. It gets even more nonsensical. 

After our extended layover in Dubai, we went through security once again. Of course, my husband’s carry-on was flagged. The security agent reached her hand in, pulled out the batteries, clucked her tongue saying, “This is far too many,” and unceremoniously dumped them in the garbage.

We had now had four airline security professionals tell us four different things with equal amounts of confidence and certainty. Even though none of them was actually correct!

This epic journey left me wondering: What am I confident about? What is even worth being confident about? I have opinions. I have beliefs. I have books that have given me information and studies that have given me data. But what am I truly, 100% unswervingly confident about?

When I really think about it, when I really dig down deep in my soul, I have to admit that a lot of what I confidently proclaim may very well be false. People, very smart people, used to think the world was flat. Others thought the planets revolved around the earth and believed it enough to put Galileo in jail when he claimed otherwise. And on and on I could go giving examples of confidently stated beliefs that were ultimately proved false. 

I don’t even need to go back through history for examples. Turning on the TV is enough to prove the point. Every news channel has educated people with impressive resumes arguing different sides of every issue. Whether it’s meteorologists incorrectly predicting the weather or political pundits wrongly anticipating voting results, again and again we see that you don’t have to be correct to be confident. 

And, let’s be honest, I could also say the same things about many churches. Calm down and hear me out. One church is convinced that baptism requires full immersion. Another claims sprinkling is better. Both are full of Jesus-loving people who have read the Bible, some of them in the original languages. (I could continue with more examples, but I want to avoid any nasty comments, so I’ll stop there.) As my husband says, “All churches are 70% correct in their theology. It’s the 30% that we’re endlessly arguing about.”

So all of this has left me wondering, “What am I truly confident about?” Here’s what I have so far:

  1. God is love. The Bible is a love story between God and God’s beloved creation. Every story of forgiven sinners and sought-after fishermen and abundantly blessed nomads shines brightly with the great love of God. The God who creates life, gives freedom, and sacrifices everything to save us from ourselves. 

My life also speaks of this truth. I’ve felt God’s love, known God’s love, and seen God’s love in action. The love of God has strengthened me, held me, comforted me, and kept me safe. I am confident that God loves me and you and every other person on this planet. 

God’s abundant love flows from my heart to the world around me. I show my allegiance to the God of love by loving others. They should know we are Christians by our love – not by our rules or stances or controversies.

  1. God is here. God’s presence permeates everything. It’s most obvious to me in nature. A flower in bloom displays God’s love of beauty and attention to detail. A mighty oak tree shows God’s strength and power. A cooling breeze tells of God’s gentleness just like the rising sun speaks of God’s faithfulness.

It’s harder to discern God’s presence in the dark, ugly places of this world. When death, disease, and decay move into our lives, it can seem impossible to find God there. In those moments, you can’t feel or see or experience God’s loving presence. Often it’s only in hindsight that you realize the loving arms of God were right there supporting you all along. 

Knowing that God is with me right here and now puts my whole life into perspective.  I can turn to God for help any time I need it. I can be a detective of grace, searching for God in my daily life. As Mother Teresa said, I can even look for God’s presence in “the distressing disguise of the poor.” 

I could go through the Nicene Creed and tell you all the other things I believe about God. I could open the Bible and show you all the verses I cling to about God. But honestly, it is those two truths that I am most confident about. It is those two truths that I orient my life around. It is those two truths that guide my decisions and shape my days. 

God is love. God is here. That is what I strive to speak confidently about to a world so desperately in need of God’s loving presence – from Dar es Salaam to Dubai to wherever else I may go.

Christian life is like a house. Mine needed a remodel.

I like to envision my life in Christ as a house. For the first 25 years of my life that house was designed, built, and furnished almost exclusively by a very specific brand of evangelical Christianity. I attended a Christian college with a slightly broader brand, and some redecorating started early in my twenties, but for the most part, that house remained pretty much the same. 

I struggled with deep introspection and constant condemnation in my performance-oriented walk with Christ. But I never considered whether something was missing in the house of my theology. Up to that point my spiritual community held to our theology and way of life in very arrogant ways. We believed we were the cream of the crop. We lived thinking we had the most coherent belief system with very little to no contradiction in our understanding of God, salvation, and church government and practice. 

Then in my mid-twenties the Lord used a different flavor of evangelicalism to open my eyes to a fundamental truth about the gospel that I hadn’t tasted up to that point. I started to savor the life-giving reality that the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was for me too as a Christian, not just unbelievers. This realization rocked my world. The constant introspection and condemnation I had lived with started to ease up as I learned to take hold of the gospel as the only reality that defined my life. 

This began a remodeling project in the house of my spiritual formation and practice. A few walls were knocked down, and the living room became larger. More people could come and sit. I realized I had much to learn from groups that were outside of what I had previously considered acceptable. The more I honed in on the importance of a gospel culture in the church (not just an evangelistic culture but one actually gospel-shaped and motivated by grace), I realized how the culture of my church (and denomination) had been sorely lacking. 

Over the course of the next 10 years (with two huge cross-cultural moves in the mix), God kept slowly remodeling my house but all still within a specific theological framework. He redecorated – adding rugs here and there, switching out paintings and wall art or completely replacing them – but most of my influences were still within a strong word-centered tradition. 

When we arrived at the country where we live now (yes, a third cross-cultural move), the remodeling project became significantly more intense. I went from thinking my house was pretty complete and without much need of significant change, to realizing I needed major overhaul. Through deep suffering the Lord started to expose how the actual foundation of my home needed to be completely replaced. He started to show how my Christian walk was not only shaped by the theological system I had lived in all my life, but also by trauma and dysfunction. 

I needed significant healing and rescue, and my Father was eager to gently, tenderly deliver me. He used the strength of other spiritual communities to help me taste a bit more the fullness of who He is and the riches of his presence. In the contemplative traditions I’ve delighted in being with God, in slowing down and focusing on his actual presence with me. Through my charismatic friends, he has fixed my gaze on the Spirit and on his ministry that pours the love of the Father.

He is growing my dependence on the Spirit’s ability to lead me and guide me in righteousness, not because a spiritual community or leaders tell me how to live but because He himself is able and willing to do it and because he has given me Christ’s ability to discern it. Community matters deeply, and leaders can be a gift, but I am discovering what great confidence there is in listening to the Spirit.

Over time I have found myself jealous for more of the triune God, and that desire is the main filter through which I evaluate different traditions and systems. While I still strongly care about theology and the surety of the word, I want the house of my walk with Christ to have a strong awareness of the nourishing presence of the actual person of God – not just truth about him. 

As I consider this major remodeling that God has done in my life, I have been struck by two things that matter immensely in our Christian formation and practice. Doctrine matters, theology matters, but what matters more than a specific set of beliefs is that we know how much the Father loves us in Christ and that, trusting in that love, we live by the Spirit and not in the flesh. 

Interacting with people from many traditions and backgrounds, I have been struck by how we are all tempted in similar ways to doubt the love of the Triune God and to live with confidence in the flesh. It shouldn’t surprise me since that has been the attack of the devil as early as Genesis 3, when there were no denominations or traditions – only humans. 

The brokenness of the world, of relationships, of our own hearts gets in the way of us knowing deep in our souls the delight of the Father to us through Christ. We forget (or don’t know or don’t grasp) how our in-Christness defines every aspect of our reality. We focus so much on what we do or don’t do, that we think that the love of God depends on that. 

And this leads us to find our security, significance, and confidence in many good things that are not Christ. We boast in our accurate understanding of the word, in our precise theology, in our visions and experiences in the Spirit, in the power and effectiveness of our prayers, in our liturgies and rhythms of fasting and silence and solitude.

But when our confidence is on anything outside of the finished work of Christ and of his life, death, and resurrection (and their power in us), we end up reeking of pride and can become oppressive in our interactions with our brothers and sisters. The flesh is the enemy, not those outside of our circles.

While I have struggled to know where I fully belong in the context of so much theological and practical diversity, I have also come to be supremely grateful for an outsider perspective. I have been learning from many but not fully belonging anywhere.

Yet I am supremely grateful for what God has given me through such distinct theological backgrounds and cultures because in all of it, he is giving me more of himself in ways that offset the profound loneliness of this long season of painful but needed transformation. I have been grasping and savoring the surety of his presence with me because of what he has revealed about himself in the beautiful prism of his diverse body. 

I am thankful for the things I get to keep of the tradition and theological system that first shaped me. And I am also grateful for the freedom to identify which things I don’t want to keep from them – which allows me to recognize the needed gifts and beauty in other traditions.

We all need our houses to be remodeled eclectically. No single theological system or set of doctrines or practices holds the vastness and mystery of God. When Christ alone is the sure foundation, our homes are strong enough to withstand expansive remodeling so that the beauty, glory, and paradox of the triune God is what defines and establishes every aspect of our life in Christ. 

Because at the end of the day traditions and systems and doctrines are just that: traditions, systems, and doctrines. None of them can save. None of them is a sufficient source of confidence. Only God himself is worthy of all our trust, rest, and joy.

Questions for Jesus about Re-entry

by Anna Brotherson


Did you ever wake up in the morning and forget, for a second, where you were?

Did you ever get a thrill down the back of your spine when you realised you’d actually done it — actually come to earth and lived among us?

Does it all feel like a dream to you now?

Do you ever imagine the life you didn’t choose — the one where you didn’t come to us?

And if you do imagine it, how do you feel? Are you glad you chose Earth?

And now, Lord — do you miss it?

Do you remember the first time you ate warm bread dipped in olive oil?

Do you miss the feeling of sand between your toes?
(Have you made plans for sand in the place you’re preparing?)

Do hot tears run down your cheeks when you remember the ones you loved, who are no longer with you?

Is there anything there that reminds you of here?

Does anyone there talk about here?

Is there anyone there who has felt anything like what you have, who has experienced here like you have?

Does anyone there feel like you feel when the topic of first-century Judea comes up?

Did you know it would feel like this, after all had been done?

Do you miss it?

Despite the pain, despite the cost and the loss, the dirt and the sin — do you miss it in any way?

Do you have a few bits & pieces up there to remind you of it?

Do you wish you had more?

Or, are you able to just look ahead — look to the day when all the best of it is back — the bread, the sand, the warm hand of a friend on your shoulder, the affectionate hospitality of women, the laughter of children, the breeze, the birds, the splash of water on your face?

Are you busy rebuilding all that now? Does it take your mind off the loss?
(Is that what I’m supposed to do now?)

Were you, like me, relieved and yet desperately sad to leave, that day when you went “home”?

Does home feel like home to you now?
(It doesn’t, for me.)

Now that you’ve been here with us, eaten with us, touched us, loved us — can you bear the wait until we’re together again?
(I’m not sure I can.)

Would you do it all again?
(I would, in an instant.)

Was it worth it?


Originally from Tasmania, Australia, Anna spent nine years living and working in a big city in Southeast Asia, along with her husband Derek and their three children. In early 2020 they moved to Sydney, Australia, where Anna spends her days taking care of her family, teaching Biblical Greek at Sydney Missionary & Bible College, and helping women as a childbirth doula. Anna is the author of Lewis’s Interesting Life, a picture book for TCKs.

How Do Financial Factors Impact Missionary Attrition?

by Andrea Sears

Life on the mission field includes unique financial stressors. Many cross-cultural workers raise their own salary and expenses. Inviting others to join in the work of the Great Commission through financial contributions is a blessing, and helps to grow us in humility and trust in God’s provision. But it can also be uncomfortable and stressful when we don’t know when or if our next paycheck will arrive.

In addition to the pressures of fundraising, life overseas is subject to other financial wild cards such as fluctuating exchange rates, inflation, immigration fees, unexpected expenses, and even increased risk of financial loss due to robberies. Workers may find that what they raised is suddenly not sufficient for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

No one becomes a missionary thinking that they will get materially rich. In fact, many of us leave more lucrative positions in our home country to become missionaries despite the cut in pay. The missionary life is definitely not about making money, nor should it be.

But even with the right motivations for mission work, ongoing stress about finances can take its toll. In our survey, we measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be financial factors:

  • I felt uncomfortable raising money.
  • My financial support was low.
  • I struggled to adjust to my missions salary.
  • I struggled with financial discipline and budgeting.
  • The cost of living (or inflation) in my host country was higher than expected.
  • I was unable to pay immigration fees and costs for residency in my host country.
  • Local currency exchange rates made my support level insufficient.
  • I was unable to meet debt obligations.
  • I was unable to save money.
  • I was unable to pay for children’s schooling.
  • I was unable to plan for retirement.

Quantitative Results

The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field,
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor that said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect, and
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision.

Discussion of Quantitative Results

The majority of returning missionaries felt some degree of discomfort with raising money (67%) and experienced low financial support (53%). Both affected their return decision to some degree at least half of the time. The strength factors (0.93 and 0.95, respectively) were the largest for this section, but they were moderate when compared to other factors in the survey.

The next tier of financial concerns included cost-of-living or inflation surprises (strength factor 0.73) and being unable to save money (0.75) or plan for retirement (0.80). While many missionaries are able to raise support for their normal monthly expenses, it is less common to raise enough for future financial planning through savings and investment. While this may not be a problem for short-term assignments, long-term missionaries may find themselves financially vulnerable later in life because they have sacrificed their highest earning years in the work force to missions.

38% of missionaries struggled to adjust to their missions salary, but it affected the return decision of only 1/3 of those and not to a large degree (0.53). It seems that most missionaries are prepared to buckle down and manage their budget very carefully. As a result, the remaining items surveyed were either experienced by few or were of low concern to those experiencing them.

Funding Status at Departure to Mission Field

In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we asked each participant if they went to the mission field fully funded. If they did not, we asked them to supply a percent of support raised relative to their goal.

75% of participants in this study went fully funded to the field. The remaining 25% went with varying degrees of funds raised relative to their goal, as indicated in the chart above. Individuals who went to the field before reaching full funding went at an average of 63% of their goal and a median of 70%.

When we divide the sample into subgroups of fully-funded and not-fully-funded, we see that the not-fully-funded experienced significantly higher levels of financial distress on all factors. First, we can see that the percent that experienced each stressor was higher for all measured statements.

Next, we can see that in nearly all cases, the percent of not-fully-funded respondents who felt that the factor affected their return decision was also higher.

Finally, when comparing strength factors, we can see that nearly all of the financial factors were more heavily weighted in the return decision for the not-fully-funded group.

This analysis shows that there is a demonstrable correlation between going to the field without full funding and experiencing higher levels of financial distress.

Matthew 6:19-20 exhorts us to pursue that which is eternal, rather than that which is temporal. But the Bible also teaches us to plan ahead (Proverbs 13:16), save diligently (Proverbs 21:20, I Corinthians 16:2), and be prepared for emergencies (Genesis 41:34-36, Ecclesiastes 11:2). Missionaries are not exempt from these teachings – all Christians are responsible to be wise administrators in caring for our families and others.

Given that so many missionaries experience discomfort with raising money, we have some options before us to help manage the financial stress that comes with the missionary life:

  • comprehensive training and preparation on the theology of fundraising
  • consulting on strategy and event planning
  • accountability for meeting planned goals
  • investigation of other models for missionary support (for example, tentmaking, business as mission, or church/denomination salaries for missionaries)
  • mission policy balancing “stepping out in faith” with required thresholds for funding before departure
  • provision of “safety nets” for temporary low support while on the field
  • flexibility in furlough policy that allows balancing of family and fundraising needs
  • insurance coverage that helps missionaries avoid high unexpected medical or mental health care costs
  • required savings and retirement contributions

Does your agency offer these types of support? Are there other innovative ways of helping missionaries with finances that you have seen?

There is sometimes a sense in missions that “people are donating money for the direct impact that I will have on the mission field, not for me to have insurance or savings or be able to plan for my future.” We rightly feel a tremendous burden to be good stewards of the money that we have raised. But that does not mean we must neglect our own needs.

Expecting missionaries to be paupers can actually cause them to stumble and become proud and competitive about how frugal and unworldly they are. This sin of pride in frugality is no less sinful than the blatant idolatry of riches.

Financial safeguards are an important part of giving the missionary a sense of some minimum level of security at a vulnerable time when most of the security they have known is stripped away. The missionary should not put their faith in that security instead of in God, but this does not mean that they should not have it at all.

Providing for missionaries’ financial needs within reason will free them to be the healthy workers that we need to keep on the mission field. Surely we can do this in balance, providing for the emotional and physical well-being of our workers while still being careful stewards of God’s resources (which include not just the money, but the missionaries themselves). It is well worth the investment of donors’ money and should be seen as a necessary part of ensuring a missionary’s health and resilience, thereby extending their longevity.


Andrea Sears and her husband, Seth, spent 13 years working in the largest immigrant squatter settlement in Central America (in Costa Rica) and founded the Christian community development ministry giveDIGNITY. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Johnson University. She currently lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, directs the ministry’s local team from afar, and enjoys living near family and being a new grandmother.

Changing the Rules of the Game

The organization I used to be with had a “Career Program,” and anyone could apply after one year on the field.

Even though I’d been on the field for several years, it wasn’t until I was 30 that I attended a Career Conference as a one-time guest to check it out. The main question asked in the application (at least in my mind) was, “Are you open to making a ten-year commitment?”

Single 30-year-old Amy played chicken with Future 40-year-old AmyLet’s see, I’m single and 30 and if I do this for ten more years I’ll be single and 40. Blink, blink, blink! I couldn’t run fast enough from that conference, and I NEVER looked back. I was comfortable taking it year-by-year, and if it ended up I was 40 and single, I was cool with that. I just wasn’t cool committing to being single.

The aforementioned organization has a fairly large batch of new people joining each year with a good-sized portion being young single people. We also have a good-sized number stick around, find love, and get married. So, during the pre-field orientation there is a buzz of the potential from the newbies. Will this be my story? Will God honor my faithfulness by bringing me a mate? 

And then I (or any other number of singles stand up) and are active in their training and preparation. I joking tell them I’m there as a cautionary tale. Of course, you might fall in love and get married. Or, you might not. Either way, you can have a rich and invested life.

Talking about “singleness” is a bit like talking about the ocean. It’s vast. Parts are tingling with life and parts are dark and cold. There are schools of fish and loners. There are happy fish and those who want OUT OF THIS WATER right now. Over the next weeks and months and years we will swim around in the waters and hopefully you’ll see yourself reflected.

But when it comes to singleness, I can say this for sure: Jesus is into being a game changer.

Hours of my childhood was spent playing Old Maid, eating cheese puffs, and drinking milk with my two sisters and Grandma Young. The goal of the game is to gather pairs of delightful cards like Arnie Angler, Freddie Falloff, or Careless Carrie and not be stuck with the Old Maid card.

For some reason my sisters and I fell in love with the old maid card and changed the rules of the game to whoever had the old maid was the winner. Oh we worked so hard to hide her in our hands and protect her. She was the prize. She ended up being bent and worn from all the love.

old maid

My mom recalls cringing every time Grandma would say, “No, no! You don’t want to be an old maid!” Oh but we did! We did!

Grandma was one of the most faithful pray-ers in our family, and I have no doubt my many years in China are a direct answer to her faithful prayers. Looking back, I see five of us in that room eating cheese puffs, drinking milk, and playing. Jesus is there, smiling and nodding, knowing that one of us would indeed grow up and become an old maid, a spinster missionary, the most prized card in the deck.  That’s right my child, value will be placed firmly on her. And you. And all who define value by me and not some outside imposed rules.

I don’t know your story.  But I know that you have been fought over and bought with a price, and you are the most valued card in the hand Jesus is playing.


A version of this first appeared on Velvet Ashes.

Old maid photo credit: Amy emailed the etsy store owner and received written permission and a thank you for asking.

Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.


Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

When Skies Are Gray

The past few weeks the city where my family makes its home has been in the international news. We’ve won first place– but it is not a competition we wish to win. Jakarta is the city in the world with the worst air quality.[1] Headlines scream at us; newscasters speak of doom and respiratory distress. Jakarta does not always rank number one in the world, but the absence of rain has left the pollution hanging over the city like ugly gray cloud-cover.

Perhaps this is no different than previous dry seasons. Only this time, the international news has picked it up, social media is talking about it, and I am forced to think about it. Smartphones make it easy to check on the AQI (Air Quality Index), and the red heading day after day screams UNHEALTHY at me.

At our school in the slum community, we use songs to help the children learn different things. One song that we sing with the children is: “Biru, biru warnanya. Biru, biru carilah. Langit dan celana jeans, biru warnanya. Blue, blue. Look for the color blue. Blue is the color of the sky and blue jeans.” Except, all too often here, blue is not the color of the sky. Gray, gray, everything is gray.

Last March, I wrote in my reflection about “cross-cultural skiing”: “How do we help our children when the air itself is different from what we are used to? How do we help our families navigate switching between cultures on this journey of cross-cultural skiing?”

Now, those questions continue to reverberate in my head as I reflect on the air quality my children are breathing. How do I help my children when the air around them is literally dangerous? Why does choosing to follow Jesus here put the physical health of my children at risk? And how can I follow Jesus here and be a responsible parent at the same time?

And yet, I deeply believe that Jesus has called us here. I believe that God loves our neighbors in this garbage-collecting neighborhood. I believe that as I mourn because of my children’s years of exposure to Jakarta’s unhealthy air, God also mourns for the millions of people in this city. We live in a broken, hurting world. Shalom has been shattered, and all creation is groaning.

All too often the poor bear the brunt of environmental hazards. While the rich can afford air purifiers, air-conditioned cars, and vacation getaways to clean mountain air, my neighbors live next to piles of burning garbage, with no financial safety net. Many people live with lingering coughs, skin irritations, and other physical discomforts as a result of the environment in which they live.

I feel sad. And angry. And, honestly, I often feel a bit hopeless as I look around this slum community I call home.

Each Sunday, we travel to a wealthy part of the city where we attend an English-speaking church. The comfortable, air-conditioned service and indoor playground provide a refreshing alternative to playing on the trash-filled field for my children. Each week we experience culture shock as we jump back and forth between two worlds. The church is currently undergoing a huge building project, and I sometimes struggle with inner angst as I imagine what such money could do to help my neighbors instead of purchasing the newest gadget for the youth group.

But each week at church we soak in the times of worship. We learn new songs that become the soundtrack for our week at home. Over the past decade of serving in this city, I have come to know the power of worship as a weapon against the encroaching darkness. And even when life doesn’t make sense, with my breath I will choose to worship God.

This is not a polished reflection. I feel raw and a bit confused. In the past week, two women in our community died. One was a grandma who passed away from old age; the other was a woman suffering from untreated diabetes. The brevity of life seems to be at the forefront of my mind. Only a few weeks earlier an 18-year-old and a 28-year-old died, one of an untreated illness—the other’s life suddenly cut short by electrocution. We know all these families, and the ripples of grief continue to be felt around the community.

In faith we wait for all to be made new, for the day when there will be no more tears. We wait for all heaven and earth to be renewed, including the very air we breathe.

O Lord, have mercy.
As we breathe this air. As we walk these streets.

As we attempt to be agents of life and love to those around us.
May we not get lost in the gray.
Show us the beauty of your blue skies once again.
May we keep working towards and longing for your true Shalom.
On earth as it is in Heaven.
And give us the wisdom we need to parent in such a broken world.
Have mercy on our children.
Help us to trust You.


If you would like to join me in praying for the city of Jakarta, you can download Shalom: A 30 Day Prayer Guide for Jakarta’s Urban Poor here.

[1] I wrote this essay in mid-August, at which time Jakarta was ranking #1 in the world. In more recent weeks, other cities have replaced Jakarta for worst air quality, although Jakarta remains in the top five. See this BBC article for more information.

(Photo by Alexander Nrjwolf on Unsplash)