Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

What Two Raw Vegans Taught Me About Sharing Jesus

A few months ago, I was talking with a Muslim friend about her beliefs.

“How do you know XYZ is true?” I asked. She stared at me for a moment.

“Because the Quran says it’s true.”

“How do you know the Quran is true?”

“I’m… not allowed to ask that question.”

“Okay. Here’s a totally different question. How do you know anything is true? If someone told you something, how would you verify it?”

“Oh. Well, I would research, and talk to people who knew, and try to find out.”

“Okay. So, would it be okay to do that with your beliefs?” She hesitated. Even though she answered in the negative, this way of looking at things shifted her perspective just slightly.

*

My friend isn’t the only one with religious baggage. I have it, too.

See, I really want to share the gospel without feeling like a used car salesman. But when I try to picture myself doing that, all these experiences come flooding into my mind: times I’ve tried to share, reactions people have had, the intense longing to obey God and to represent Him well, all the cheesy “witnessing instructions” I’ve heard, potential consequences for myself or others…

It’s complicated.

So, let’s just set that all aside for a moment. Let’s change the camera angle and take this from a different perspective.

What if there were something else I wanted to share? Something important and life-changing, but not spiritual? How would I share that thing?

*

I once met a couple who were raw. Like, they had discovered Raw Veganism, and they were like, into it. Yes, they sounded like walking infomercials for a $500 juicer. But they meant what they said. And they weren’t getting a commission.

“Like, ever since finding Raw, we’re like, so healthy, and my skin glows, and I just feel amazing.” This is the type of thing they said every five minutes. They were seriously satisfied customers of the Rawness movement.

So I googled going raw. I wondered how one goes raw, and what it entails. How to cook if you are raw. Where Rawness came from. I wondered if I had to go all in, or if I could try being “rawer” than mac and cheese and egg McMuffins. I began to explore. 

I didn’t convert. But we do eat a lot of salad now.

They say the best salesperson is a satisfied customer. These people were “selling” raw veganism with a capital RV.

Which leads me to ask — are you a satisfied customer of the gospel?

*

I once knew a guy who had a special talent for selling stuff. “D” was such a great salesman that my college psychology professor once brought him to class to do a demonstration about sales psychology.

Seven people in our class bought what he was selling.

Other than being a brilliant salesman, D always does one thing. He always chooses a product he, himself, truly believes in and uses. He is 100% confident in the product. If he wants to sell magical car wax, he scrapes his car and tries out the wax, and keeps a tub of the stuff in his glove compartment, and tests it, and has his friends test it, and in general, makes sure it works in his own life.

In our witnessing journey, is it possible to get into the headspace of a satisfied customer without sounding like a used car salesman? And is there anything we can do to make sure we are satisfied and ready to speak?

I’m not suggesting that we turn sharing our faith into selling a product. So let me bring it back into a spiritual context.

*

I have a friend I’ll call Meg. She was a member of my home church who consistently invited me into her world. I tagged along when she picked up day-old bread from the bakery to give away for free from the church porch. I helped when she cleaned the home of a depressed friend. When, because of extreme circumstances, she adopted her sister’s children, I saw her rearrange her life to love them.

But the very best thing Meg did for me was share her faith in real time. She would share scripture songs she’d written. She would tell me why she’d written them, the story behind them, why she needed God’s word so much, and how it changed things for her. She’d ask me to pray with her for her children, that she would concentrate fully on following Jesus herself, whether or not they chose to follow. She’d tell me, every time I saw her, something God had taught her that week.

Meg talked about Jesus like He sometimes stopped by for a slice of apple pie. Like He’d told her to say hi to me if she saw me. Meg was satisfied in the presence of Christ. And she told me what she saw Him do.

Meg is one of the (many) reasons why I write what really goes on in my heart. Because seeing her walk with Jesus is still a model for me.

Now I am asking God to show me how to share my faith in real time in a place very different from the town where I grew up. Instead of apple pie, there is bitter mint tea and semolina cake. Or, sometimes, when we’re back in India, there are chapattis and chai.

But God is still the same. So maybe authentic witness still begins in the same place: in my experience of God, in relying on Him, depending on Him, learning of Him, following Him, going through stuff with Him, seeing how He works, being changed by Him, enjoying His goodness and grace.

Right in front of people, out loud, in real time.

Lord, teach us how.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Abigail’s newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts.

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

Chesterton’s Fence: Understanding the Why of the Status Quo before Seeking Change

picket fence

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. —G. K. Chesterton (Autobiography)

G. K. Chesterton, the turn-of-the-20th-century English author, journalist, and Christian apologist, first came to my attention through quotations on travel taken from his writings. Along with the one above, there’s also

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. (—Tremendous Trifles)

and

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. (—said by the character Gabriel Gale in “The Shadow and the Shark”)

While these aphorisms apply to travelers and “trippers,” they also are relevant to movers and shakers, those who relocate to other countries and cultures in order to make a difference there. In that vein, I’ve recently found another idea from Chesterton—often referred to as “Chesterton’s fence”—that can relate to the life of cross-cultural workers. Before explaining it, here’s a little background.

Chesterton, born in 1874, was well known in his day as an influential defender and explainer of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis, a major Christian apologist in his own right, credits Chesterton for impacting his conversion from atheism. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis writes that in reading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” And the prolific Christian author Philip Yancey writes that if he were stranded on a desert island and could have “only one book, apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton’s own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy.”

Chesterton began his faith as an Anglican, later converting to Roman Catholicism, with this conversion being the subject of his book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. It’s in this work that we find Chesterton’s fence. That concept in a nutshell is this:

When you come across something that you think needs to be changed, you should first find out why it is the way it is. Only after understanding why it came to be can you then follow through with the change.

Here it is again, this time in Chesterton’s words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton aimed his warning at those of his day who would jettison the institution of the family, but it can also be applied to more-modern folks in cross-cultural contexts. Overseas workers are often in the business of “reformation,” helping people through personal and community change. That inevitably means coming across “fences” or “gates,” obstacles that we believe are hindering us or the people we want to serve. Throughout our history, Western workers have too often torn down these fences without the necessary contemplation. This has frequently produced negative effects, ranging from minor annoyances or irritations to major cultural offenses or physical, social, or spiritual harm. Even with the best intentions, our removal of obstacles, fixing of perceived problems, doing things the “best” way, and applying quick fixes can have unintended consequences.

“This principle,” says Chesterton, “applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.” Those “thousand things” could range from painting a room a different color or changing a meeting time to overthrowing longstanding traditions or upending cultural norms.

Back in 2004, in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, Christian historian Meic Pearse addressed the large-scale impact that years of heavy-handed, ill-advised change brought on by Western entities have had. He writes,

Very many, especially Third World, people have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it . . . and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value.

Gene Daniels, at Missio Nexus, responds to this passage in this way:

What bothers me most about this statement is not that it is generally true, but that it is often as true of Christian missionaries as it is of diplomats, generals, and international businesspeople. Of course, the gospel brings social and cultural changes to receptor societies; however, the careless and insensitive way missionaries often treat the things that others “hold dear and sacred” is disturbing. The rapid advance of Western culture, riding globalization as a wave, seems to have caused an epidemic of amnesia among Western missionaries, causing us to forget our roots.

Whether the changes we’re promoting are small or large, we first need to understand the origin of the status quo and what needs are being met by what’s currently in place. We also need to ponder possible outcomes and examine our motivations. And along the way we need to contemplate such broad (and sometimes competing) issues as ethnocentrism, colonialism, syncretism, contextualization, modernization, isolationism, and globalization. All of this requires investigating, asking questions, listening, partnering, and practicing patience and humility.

Chesterton goes on to further explain his metaphor:

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

To be clear (as I said before), overseas workers are often agents of change. Some laws, some institutions, some practices, some mindsets should be replaced. Christian cross-cultural workers carry a transformative gospel. And while we shouldn’t mindlessly bulldoze everything that seems to stand in our way, neither should we propose that every fence should be left standing. After thoughtful, careful, sensitive consideration, some of them should come down. Sometimes there is a better way.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Geoffrey Bles, 1955; Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Doubleday, 2001; G. K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, Sheed & Ward, 1929; Meic Pearce, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, InterVarsity Press, 2004; Gene Daniels, Decoupling Missionary Advance from Western Culture,” Missio Nexus, October 1, 2009)

[photo: “The Fence Line,” by Alan, used under a Creative Commons license]

Churches, We Need You! (Why the Church is a Critical Piece of Missionary Care)

By Jessi Bullis

John Piper has famously mobilized Christians for international missions by saying, “Go, send, or disobey.”

In this well-known statement, Piper acknowledges the truth that not everyone was created to be an overseas missionary. God has blessed millions of people with giftings that would be under-utilized if they were to move internationally and try to fit into a role that God didn’t call them to. This is not a downfall. It is an incredibly beautiful part of the tapestry of the great commission (Ephesians 4:11-13). We need goers, and we also need faithful senders – those who make it possible for those being sent to serve with health and longevity.

God designed the Church to be positioned on both sides: the going and the sending. Throughout Paul’s letters we read many accounts of his gratitude for the believers’ communication, faithfulness, and prayer, along with his requests for both tangible and spiritual support (Phil 1:3-5; 2 Thess. 3:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:10-15; 2 Tim 4:9). 

God gave people in the Church different giftings to carry out the great commission. There is so much beauty in this diversity of calling, because it glorifies God: His creativity, His knowledge, His grace, His faithfulness, and more (1 Cor. 12:4-6). 

Both accepting the gifts of others while simultaneously offering our gifts to the Church is a necessary key to the coming of God’s Kingdom, because it is how we glorify God daily, and it is how we present God’s beauty to the rest of the world (John 13:35). 

So today I’d like to speak to those of you who are not going or who perhaps did go and are now back on the sending side. How can you do the sending with as much zeal and excellence as the ones going?

Yes, this often means financial support. We see this all throughout Paul’s letters. He used his trade of tentmaking to provide income for his missionary journeys, but he also heavily depended on the financial support of those in the Churches he was ministering to. 

However, the Church’s role in sending missionaries does not end with financial support. 

Time and again we hear Paul asking for support in other ways — fellowship, communication, and constant prayer. 

Often, a family spends six months to a year raising their financial support, having countless dinners and church events, are “sent off” with fanfare, and then that’s it. They are suddenly cut off from tea times and dinners with friends. From mentoring chats with older believers. From a village of believers pouring into their kids. Sometimes they are even cut off from access to worship in their own language.

And those are just the church-specific things. 

Suddenly they’re learning to cook things from scratch, trying to do life in a new language, navigating new schooling situations for their children, and raising their children with a brand new set of cultural and environmental challenges. 

All without their church and the people who were preparing them to go. 

The family did not change overnight to suddenly not need regular congregational support. If anything, the opposite is true. They’re thrown into one of the hardest transitions of their life, all without their support systems. They haven’t become “holier than thou.” They’re still human. They still have needs. And they still fall into the Lord’s plan for the interdependence of the Church. 

A missionary friend of mine recently told me that once she moved overseas, she rarely heard from her friends back in the United States. In the midst of her biggest life transition, she felt forgotten.

When they would return to the U.S. and they would visit their sending church, throngs of people wanted to speak to them. And many of these same people would tell them how much they loved seeing her Facebook photos of her children in the jungle or their bamboo house. Yet these friends had never even hit the “like” button. She had no idea they’d even cared that she posted photos.

Instead of feeling encouraged by their exclamations, my friend was frustrated, confused, and hurt. For the last few years on the field she’d felt abandoned and alone. Something as easy as pressing the “like” button had not occurred to these friends. Something so small, yet so impactful. 

Most of the time I find that believers want to know how to support their missionary friends, but they simply don’t know how. I’ve spoken with believers around the world who’ve said they didn’t want to write too often and make their missionary friends homesick. They loved them dearly, but they just didn’t know how to transition to long distance support. 

Churches need to know how to support missionaries beyond finances, and they also need to educate their congregations how to do it well. 

As a missionary kid who grew up my entire life away from my parent’s home town and sending church; as someone who now works with hundreds of missionary families; as someone who has dear friends all around the world, I want to leave you with some practical ways you can “send” and continue supporting the missionaries in your life:

  • Schedule regular time to check in with the missionaries you have a connection with. Put a recurring date on your calendar and send a message of encouragement or reach out to plan a phone call. Ask about their children or even say “hi” to their kids. Give them permission to talk about the hard things. Be present and listen even when it doesn’t match up to your expectations of a missionary. 
  • Send a letter or care package. Fair warning: it may get lost in transit or be opened by national authorities to check its contents. But I can guarantee the missionary will know they are loved if you are willing to send them snail mail. (Check with them on what’s best to mail and whether they’ll have to pay import tax so you can cover that cost.)
  • Be trained in debriefing so you can effectively help missionaries and their children to process the good and hard parts of their time on the field. 
  • Instead of waiting for a newsletter, reach out to them to ask them what you can be praying for. And then be diligent in praying. Oftentimes missionaries do not know if anyone is even reading their newsletters, much less interceding on their behalf. 
  • Develop a formal team that checks in with each missionary on a monthly basis and train the team in knowing what to ask, what to look for, and how/when to recommend additional care resources. 
  • Plan a trip to go see them. Not for a short-term mission trip that they need to plan and lead, but rather a trip just to support, encourage, and love them. 
  • Consider putting on an MK camp abroad for the Missionary Kids in the area. We’ve found that these camps are often deeply impactful on MKs, who are rarely on the receiving end of care. (Check out TCK Training’s retreat curriculum created expressly for this purpose.) 
  • Learn about what resources are available to them, and consider gifting those to them. You can find a list at the end of this post. 
  • Encourage your church to receive training on best practices in missionary and MK care. This Churches Supporting Missionary Families Training would be a great start. We also have a page dedicated to equipping churches to send and care for missionaries well.
  • “Like” their pictures on social media. It means more than you know. 

There are many ways that churches can come alongside missionaries; when they do, they contribute to the health of the missionary and their ministry. This is an important role for the church. Let’s learn to do it well. 

 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Seeking Buddha, Finding Jesus (resources for ministering to Buddhist and Hindu people)

​There are so many amazing books about how God is moving among Muslims and Animists. And there are scores of useful gospel training seminars by former missionaries to these religious groups. But what about Hinduism and Buddhism?

When I worked with high-caste Hindu people in India, I often wished I had access to more true stories about Hindu background believers. I wanted to hear from honest, soul-baring Hindus about what it’s like to consider following Jesus. What they’re up against, why it’s difficult. What really draws them. How they handle the clash between the expectations of culture and Christ. I had read textbook definitions of Hinduism, but things looked so different on the ground. I often wished there was a Seeking Krishna, Finding Jesus. Or even a Peace Child or Bruchko set in the high-rise apartments of New Delhi.

Slowly, over the years, I’ve collected the names of a few insightful books. Eventually, I wrote my own. My adventures were far from those of Bruce Olsen, but I shared from my heart. I shared about what it’s like to wrestle yourself every day so that Jesus can lead you. I shared about the beautiful people I knew in India, why following Jesus there is difficult, and what we tried to do about that. And I shared about how our real God is meeting real people right where they are.

There’s so much more to reaching people in a Hindu context, but I hope my stories and experiences can begin a conversation about it.

A New Story to Tell

Last year, I was approached by a family friend who serves as a missionary in Cambodia. Her father is Cambodian, and he narrowly survived the Khmer Rouge genocide as a child. Sovath survived because, as he says, “I called on a God I did not know.” Eventually, he came to know that God when he saw a vision of Jesus in a refugee camp.

Sovath and his family asked me to write his story.

To say I felt honored and excited is an understatement.

In between interviews, I went online to find resources to help me understand Buddhism. I found precious few. Again, I wished I could read Seeking Buddha, Finding Jesus, or a Peace Child set in the rice paddies of Vietnam or the traffic-jungles of cities in Laos.

That’s when I realized just how important Sovath’s story is.

As Sovath began to unravel exactly why it was so hard to follow Jesus as the member of a Buddhist family, and why he chose to follow anyway, I was surprised. His explanations were not what I had predicted. My experience with Hinduism didn’t translate to Buddhism. It reminded me that picking up your cross to follow Jesus will look different from person to person – and from culture to culture.

I’m about to give you a list of books and resources I’ve sourced from A Life Overseas readers, colleagues, and from my own shelves.

But before I do that, I wanted to ask for help in bringing another book into the world.

It’s tentatively titled Great Unsearchable Things, and I’m praying for the grace and insight to make it a work of art that will help readers understand their Buddhist background brothers and sisters better.

How You Can Help

Firstly, I’ve set up a fundraiser to help cover the cost of researching, editing, and marketing Sovath’s book. You can read a little more about his story on the GoFundMe page. You can also read the first chapter of the book at this link.

Secondly, I would like to put together a team of beta readers who would be willing to read the first draft to offer insight and suggestions. I’m hoping to be ready for that step in Spring, 2024. If you’re interested, send me a note at abigailfollows AT gmail.com.

Thirdly, I want to encourage those of you who think you might want to write your missions story–or the story of a friend. If you were looking for a sign, I hope this article is it! We need to read these stories to help us understand and empathize with each other. We need people who have asked tough questions and listened hard to the answers to share what they’ve learned. Your story just might help someone lead a person to Jesus. So below the book lists, you’ll find a handful of resources for aspiring writers that will help you on your way.

On to the lists.

For Working with Hindus:

When learning about ministry among Hindus, it’s important to know that India’s relationship with Christianity is complex. Spend ten minutes looking at discussions on Quora or articles in Indian news outlets about Christianity in India, and you’ll quickly understand some of the major issues. As a result, many books, websites, and ministries are searching for the best, most authentic, least damaging way to reach Hindus with the gospel. Think of these resources as adding to the conversation, rather than as definitive “how to’s.” 

Living Water and Indian Bowl, by Swami Dayanand Bharati

The Camphor Flame, by C. J. Fuller

LearningIndia.in — Very practical, though not currently updated.

MARG Network 

Mimosa, by Amy Carmichael 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo – Not a Christian nor a missions book, but Boo’s artful reportage will help you understand the social infrastructure of India like nothing else I’ve read.

William Carey Publishing’s list of Hindu missions books

I Am a Hindu, Why Should I Consider Becoming a Christian? (Article)

Following Jesus in the Hindu Context, by H. L. Richard

From Hinduism to Christ, by Raj Vimuri

From Hinduism to Christianity, Embracing the Journey, by Anjli Sharma

Hidden Song of the Himalayas, by Abigail Follows

For Working with Buddhists:

Change the Map Prayer Network

Seeking the Unseen, Edited by Paul H. De Neui

Leaving Buddha by Tenzin Lahkpa & Eugene Bach

God Spoke Tibetan: The Epic Story of the Men Who Gave the Bible to Tibet by Allan Maberly

From Buddha to Jesus by Steve Cioccolanti

William Carey Publishing’s list of Buddhist missions books

For Aspiring Intercultural Biographers and Memoirists:

Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction

Storycraft, by Jack Hart

Telling True Stories, edited by Kramer and Call

Scrivener, a computer app/word processor/organizer that separates content by chapters and scenes. Great for writing out of order and keeping track of everything.

Our own Alyson Rockhold and Elizabeth Trotter are both book coaches and love helping aspiring writers figure out how to tell their stories.

Abby Emmons is one of MANY YouTubers who talk about writing. She focuses on fiction, but I found her analyses and insights to be applicable to story-based nonfiction as well.

 

Photo by Joshua Follows.

Parent Self-Care: Moving Past the Buzzword to Prioritizing Well-being in the Midst of Life Abroad

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

As much as self-care has become a popular term in recent years, the essence of it has devolved from its intended meaning – doing things, big or small, for our holistic well-being – to being primarily about bubble baths and charcuterie boards. Rest assured, as much as I love a bubble bath and a good charcuterie board, as much as I think a bubble bath and charcuterie board can be good ‘small things’ for our holistic well-being, as much as I wonder how many times I can get away with using bubble baths and charcuterie boards in a single paragraph, I’m not talking about bubble baths and charcuterie boards.

I’m talking about all the important aspects of self-care, from emotional processing, to healthy boundaries, to planting green zone moments. And I’m talking about this because, in our research at TCK Training, we’ve seen that mental illness (including depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses) in TCK parents is high. And this impacts our well-being, our children’s well-being, and our ministry’s well-being.  

You may have gotten the memo. It’s a pretty commonly accepted fact: Life on the Field is Hard. And there are a lot of factors that make it harder, like popular theologies of suffering, expectations on what missionary life should be, and our own pride in how much we can endure. As if that’s not hard enough, life on the field makes good self-care harder to do with a lack of resources, overworked teams, and a shortage of amenities. But wait, there’s more! 

Because we also expect to be able to do it all, we rarely tally up how hard things are, and we often just shame ourselves for having a hard time at all. 

I believe that when you outline your core values, you can find the time and the means to make them happen. Usually when I’m talking to missionary families, they want to have a healthy family and a thriving ministry. I believe that’s possible. But only through following the example of Jesus. Jesus had a thriving ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, but he had a core objective of preaching and teaching – just like we have a core objective of leading our families in the ways they should go.

In Mark 1:35, Jesus finished a great day of his thriving ministry, woke up, prioritized his own well-being (he went off to an isolated place to pray), and then set up boundaries around how much time he would spend on his thriving ministry (even though there were crowds of people expecting him to resume his work). Being imitators of Christ, let’s follow his example of taking time to prioritize his own well-being.  

Emotional Processing

Oftentimes when talking with TCK parents about the unique struggles their kids face, we hear a lot of surprise. “How is this a unique challenge for TCKs? We also went through these same experiences.” I won’t be addressing that particular question in this article, but I acknowledge that, yes, parents go through many of the same things their children do, which means that, yes, parents need to be emotionally processing their grief, too.

Here’s a unique struggle for TCK parents: while TCKs haven’t always learned how to hold together their big emotions in public spaces, TCK parents have. So you’re in these moments where you’d really love to sit down and have a good cry, but you can’t. Because you’re living in a fishbowl. Because you’re managing everyone else’s emotions. Because you know that it doesn’t fix anything. But there never seems to be a convenient time to have a good cry, so things don’t get processed.

We need to stop waiting for time to process the challenges we’ve faced in our expat life and start making time. Take some time to journal or talk through hard things that have happened and how that impacted you. Print out our free Processing Questions worksheet, and on the back write out the things you really ought to process. You can carve time out of your weekly schedule, or you can double up on tasks. Try laminating our processing questions printable and thinking through the questions while you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. We know that showers are the perfect place to solve the world’s problems. Let’s repurpose them to solve our own.  

Healthy Boundaries

Living on the field usually looks like immersion. You’re there 24 hours a day, with the people you’re trying to serve. There are calls at all hours, and demands for more than you can possibly give. So you die to yourself and pick up your cross and go on and on trying to meet all the needs. At some point you start to wonder how long you can do this because looking at the road ahead or behind you, 10, 20, or 30 years seems a lot longer of a journey than the road to Calvary. You thought you heard that the burden is easy and the yoke is light, but that must be for the people you’re serving. Not for you. So you set your jaw and hoist up the cross and carry on. 

Let me speak the gospel truth for you: Jesus beckons you to him, and his burden is easy and the yoke is light. Laying down your life and picking up the cross? You’re already doing that. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove, because Jesus doesn’t measure his love for you in how much you do for him. He says, “Let me teach you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Wearing yourself out is not what Jesus has in mind for you. 

Saying “no” is an important spiritual discipline. Think about your values, and and then look at your calendar, your choices, and your life, and decide where you need to put boundaries so you have time for the things you value. 

How many hours will you work? What hours will you not work? How much wiggle room do you put in for emergencies? What defines an emergency? At the end of the day, how do you want your family to perceive you, and what choices do you need to make to present that way?

Green Zone Moments

It’s time to talk about bubble baths and charcuterie boards again! In stressful moments – which happen a lot on the field – our bodies can get into the red zone. These are high stress levels with lots of cortisol (the stress chemical) and adrenaline. These chemicals cue your body to move into survival mode. Fight, flight, freeze, be really irritable with your family members — there are a number of ways that this can show up, but the symptoms reveal the chemical balance in our brains. For holistic well-being, we need to get relief from all those stress chemicals. One strategic way of doing this is through Green Zone moments. 

A Green Zone Moment is a moment that you know you’ll enjoy so much that it will bring you peace and lower your stress chemicals – at least for a bit. Even better, positive anticipation of Green Zone Moments can also help reduce cortisol levels! This means looking forward to a bubble bath or a delicious charcuterie board is good for your mental health. But it doesn’t have to be a bubble bath or charcuterie board. 

What activities bring you joy? It doesn’t have to be practical. Listen, Jesus could have gone into an inner room to pray, but instead Jesus regularly went on a hike alone into the wilderness. Not because it was a practical option, but because, I posit, it was delightful to him. 

It doesn’t even have to be big or different from what you already do. I went through a season where I had a list of 30 tiny luxuries, and I tried to get 10 everyday. From a cup of coffee to snuggling with my kids to taking the time to get music playing. I didn’t add more than a couple of minutes to my day, but I purposely valued the little things I can do or even already do for myself. 

The Why

I think this culture of downplaying our own needs and elevating the needs of others is problematic and leads to burnout more than it leads to healthy communities. I saved “the why” for last because I don’t want to have to say it at all. I don’t want to have to convince you that you’re worth caring for.  I don’t want to have to convince you that your losses deserve to be processed, that your time and energy deserves to have boundaries, that you deserve to have tiny frivolous moments of joy recklessly seasoning your life, that you deserve well-being. 

And I know this culture well. I know how suggestions for making life easier can be dismissed with “I’m fine.” I know how truths can be met with “That seems true for everyone but me.” I know how pervasive it is and how hard it is to combat this world view that our needs don’t matter. 

I think that you should do this for yourself. I think that when the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” it starts with loving yourself. So you should do this for you. But if you can’t: research shows that your mental health has a huge impact on your children’s holistic health. 

The CDC-Kaiser survey of Americans shows 19% of people said they grew up in a home with an adult suffering from mental illness. In our survey, 39% of TCKs (and 39% of MKs) said the same. Additionally, the rate of TCKs reporting mental illness at home went up over time, from 1 in 3 TCKs born before 1960, to half of Gen Z. Mental illness of an adult is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) because the research shows that it has a strong impact on a child’s lifelong well-being. In fact, TCKs who reported this ACE also reported significantly higher rates of abuse and neglect – including 64% reporting emotional abuse and 58% reporting emotional neglect. 

We as parents need to do what it takes to stay mentally well. 

The prescription is to process your grief, protect your time and energy, and plant delightful moments throughout your day, week, and life. When you do these three things, you’ll see the positive impact of these investments in all areas of your life.

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

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Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (and that’s not a bad thing)

 

It’s kind of a short-term mission trip mantra: “This trip shouldn’t be about you. It’s about the people you are serving.”

I’m here to flip that on its head: This trip isn’t mostly about the people you are serving. It actually should be primarily about you.

And that’s not a bad thing. Stick with me here; don’t write me off yet. 

Let’s start with the second part: this trip is not about the people you are serving. 

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: if this trip were really about the people on the other side, then you would just take the $20,000 your team raised and send it to the missionaries or local pastors instead. 

They could support the local economy by buying the supplies you are bringing. They could hire locals to build the house or paint the church – people who are likely desperate for work. They could pay for an expert to train the church members to run the VBS themselves (in the local language) and supplement the income of those church members who need to take time off of work to serve. And with the extra, they could support a local pastor. Or top up the deficit in their ministry account.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your service is a waste of time. Certainly, God can use you to touch lives. But my point is this: it is unlikely that a team who doesn’t know the language or culture will be able to make a measurable impact in a foreign country in seven to ten days. Often, there are already people living in the country who could do the exact same ministry themselves if necessary. (I know there are exceptions, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.) 

In spite of all this, I’m still a fan of short-term missions. This is not an anti-missions-trip article. Those are out there. This is not one of them. 

So why do I still encourage these trips? Because I believe God can use them to transform lives. Not necessarily the lives of the people you are serving. But your life? Yes! 

Because your short-term trip is actually about you. 

Now, I need to clarify a couple of things here. You’ve all heard the horror stories of teams who complain, criticize, demand – the ones who make the trip about themselves in the nastiest of ways. We personally witnessed a team who thought it would be funny to make a bet as to who could go the most days without showering. (It was only funny to them.) 

Your short-term missions trip isn’t camp or a vacation. You shouldn’t expect room service, predictable schedules, or familiar food. Expect to be uncomfortable. It’s not about your agenda. It’s not about your needs. 

Most of us know this. Duh. Let’s move on. Most of us say, “That’s not me. I’m going to serve.”

That’s great, but there’s still a problem here. Sometimes, our attitude of serving can actually breed a different type of self-centeredness: the kind that feels really good and important with all the wonderful things we are doing. This kind of service puts me up here on this pedestal and the people I’m serving down there in the dust. They need me. They want me. They are so blessed by me. 

This kind of serving can even masquerade as humility. It can say, “I need to do this for these people because they can’t possibly do it themselves. I wouldn’t want to ask them to help me, because this service is my gift to them.” Which is sort of a roundabout way of positioning myself as the hero of the story. Short-term missions trips, unfortunately, are really good at this. 

As you can imagine, this kind of service usually does more harm than good (both for the servers and the recipients). So how do we avoid it? 

Well, let’s reframe your trip. 

Let’s make this trip less about you serving the local people and more about how God can use it to change you. Why would missionaries invite you to come if they know they don’t really need you for this ministry?

Because what they do need is your partnership. They need your encouragement, your fellowship, your questions, your interest in their host country. They need your financial support. They need you to go back home and champion their ministry to your church. 

That last part is key. Maybe you thought you were interested in their ministry before, but once you see it for yourself, your perspective will be blasted wide open. It should be, if you let it. 

Whether or not this happens is entirely dependent on your focus. Is this trip about you feeling good about yourself for serving? Or is it about humbly walking into a cross-cultural situation as a learner, with your hands and your heart open wide to how God wants to transform you? 

Barna’s* study on short-term missions says this:

“As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to listen to each other, valuing and learning from the wisdom and experiences that God has given to each of us. Believers in the slums of Kenya understand God’s provision and sustaining presence in ways that many more affluent Christians do not. African-American brothers and sisters in Birmingham, Alabama, have much to teach Caucasian believers about suffering and forgiveness. But if short-term trips are built around ‘doing,’ accomplishing particular tasks and projects, they cannot create the time or safe space necessary for this type of listening and learning.”

So walk into a short-term trip with an open mind and an open heart, and ask yourself the following questions.

Will you allow God to use this trip to change the way you see those who live in poverty? 
To challenge how sacrificially you give? 
To reenergize how you pray? 
To remodel how you spend your time? 
To transform your priorities back home? 
And finally, might God be calling you to fulfill the Great Commission overseas? If not, could He be calling you to personally advocate for these missionaries or their ministry? 

Yes, one goal of your trip is to serve. By all means, go in with an attitude of dying to yourself and your comfort. Look for ways to love others well, and trust that God can use you to build His kingdom. But you must remember that the success of the long-term impact is entirely connected to your transformed life. 

If you walk away from this trip and go back to your life and nothing changes, then this trip will be a waste. If you are not open to God transforming you, then don’t go – send the money instead. Because this trip is mainly about what God wants to do in you. Will you let Him? 

 

* “A Field Guide to Better Short-Term Missions Trips,” a Barna Group Research Study

I highly recommend the Chalmers Center excellent book/video series “Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions” (the videos are free online!)

Can Faith and Fear Exist at the Same Time?

by Rebecca Hopkins

Anna Hampton and her husband Neal lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries, including 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. She’s a mom, risk specialist, and member care worker who now trains workers in risk management, fear, and courage from a Christian perspective.

She’s just published her latest book, Facing Fear: The Journey to Mature Courage in Risk and Persecution, as a follow-up book to her first, Facing Danger: A Guide Through Risk. Her latest book delves into the practicality of fear in the context of witness risk—the risks that both local believers and global workers face. She offers tools that work in a variety of risky contexts.

I’m thankful for the chance to sit down and chat with her.

Tell me the differences in your two books.

My first book, Facing Danger is about a theology of risk. What does that look like functionally? How do we do risk assessment? That leads us to know how to mitigate or manage it. It’s very practical.

The Facing Fear book asks, “How do we be shrewd as a serpent?” Facing Fear is a better pre-field book because we can deal with our fears before we go, and we can be trained in situational awareness. The book can be used as a resource — it doesn’t have to be read straight through. Instead, you can turn to the chapter you feel you need right now.

There’s so much in your Facing Fear book. I felt like I could take one chapter and just spend a month thinking through it, talking through it, doing exercises through it. You’ve taken this one word, “fear” and you’ve written about all the complexities of it. Was that intentional? Did you go in knowing and having a very deep sense of, “This is really complex, we need to really dive into this?”

No. What started me on the path was an email from a team leader in Central Asia. Her team experienced an attack by extremists. One person had been killed, one person had been kidnapped, and the team had left the country and were regrouping in a border country. She wrote to me and asked, “What do I tell the team? How do we process our fears, because we’re preparing to go back in?”

What would you say to people who are planning to go in and could be killed the next day? That’s the lens through which I think and write and the way we respond pastorally to people.

But then the other thing that drives me is responses from the church. I sat through two international church sermons where they preached (too simply) on fear, and I was like, “Okay, that’s not true.” You can have faith and fear and not be in sin. So what’s the relationship? I want to know exegetically what the Bible actually says. I just started collecting research. And five years later, Facing Fear has helped me develop my thinking, although I don’t presume to have the final answer.

The church’s conversation around fear has morphed into a whole thing with COVID and responses to COVID and all that. But you are speaking to an audience who knows that, while they’re making dinner, there could literally be enemies at their gate. Tell me more about the people you are writing to.

I’m writing to Christ followers advancing Christ’s kingdom primarily in the most dangerous areas. Of 500,000 global workers, I’ve heard anywhere from 2 to 9 percent go to unreached people groups. Those areas are also often the most dangerous. Those working in these areas often don’t have much pastoral care. The front line needs support, needs a cup of cold water so they are strengthened to go another day to push forward his kingdom. That’s the heart behind my writing.

Is this going to be accessible to a nonwestern global worker?

That would be my desire. For example, a Chinese Christian may think, “This risk mitigation is a western thing, and it costs money.”

But actually, it doesn’t. The example I use is a house pastor on their way to the house church. If the Spirit tells you to go right instead of left because left takes you to the house church where the police are, but turning right means, “I don’t want you in jail today,” we’re going to turn right. But if you want me to go to jail today—because we know what happens in jail, we hear the stories of Chinese pastors in jail and how people come to Christ—then do that. Do what he’s called you to do. But it’s not an automatic thing that you have to go risk your life.

The main point is to listen closely to the still quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit and obey him. Experiencing fear in dangerous situations is normal; however, we don’t have to let it paralyze us. Without fear, courage is unnecessary. Courage is moving forward despite our fear in the next step of obedience. This message is for all Christ followers, from the west, the south, the east, and the north.

What has been missing from our conversation in missions about risk, fear, persecution, and martyrdom?

What’s been missing is a holistic response. There are not a lot of books that really address fear with practical situational awareness, our human physiological response, addressing fear management (our emotions), and with spiritual tools to learn to lean on God. Facing Fear tries to combine science and theology and emotions—a holistic response.

Unlike the majority world Church, the western Church hasn’t suffered very much, and so teaching on fear tends to stay at the surface level. We western Christians give simple answers that not only don’t help, they actually harm. This book does not give simple answers.

Additionally, there are not usually “answers” on many of the topics. For example, on the chapter on discernment and meaning, I describe what type of meaning will sustain us in danger and persecution, but to get to that point will require the reader to enter in to the journey of discerning their own meaning for their cross and suffering.

This book is a guide, not an answer key. It’s an invitation to deeper conversation about the intersection of risk, fear, and Gospel advancement in hard places. It goes beyond what we hear on a Sunday morning from the pulpit or read in pop-Christian books.

This book will challenge a simplistic binary worldview. It’s for those who want to go deeper, who want to leave the solid ground of the superficial and gain a foothold on the brink of the deep.

That’s a really good point about missionaries often being sent from more “stable” places, and so they may not have received that deep teaching on fear. They may know how to share the gospel. They’re going to learn another language or they’re going to learn how to raise support. But they don’t know how to truly enter into risk and make decisions and then recover from the trauma.

What else would you want somebody who’s considering reading this book to know about it?

Writing Facing Danger was therapeutic for me to work through our experiences in Afghanistan. But 2021, the year before I wrote Facing Fear, was probably the worst year of my life. It was an extremely painful, foundation-shaking year. I also had continued to gather so much research, I was overwhelmed by the material and needed to start writing. In January 2022, I cancelled everything in my life except what ministry trips were already scheduled, and just began writing. I wrote 10-15 hours a day.

I didn’t realize the effect of these months of writing and focus until the morning after I had turned in the manuscript to the publisher. On June 1, 2022, I stared at my blank journal page, considering how I felt, then wrote, “The storm is over.” It took me all summer to recover – I spent every day sitting on my veranda, crying and grieving. It was a storm to enter that day in and day out, and that is what the persecuted church faces every day, with very little break. By comparison, we know nothing of this type of oppression and pressure.

I appreciate you sharing the heart behind that. You suffered yourself in your own experience. But even writing this book has been an act of suffering. And entering into people’s suffering, with just a huge heart for them is really beautiful, but also hard and important.

A Life Overseas readers can get a 20% discount by using this link (or any of the links embedded throughout this interview). The discount should apply at checkout.

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Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an Army brat, a former cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, and a freelance writer now based in Colorado. She covers missions, MKs, and spiritual abuse for publications like Christianity Today and The Roys Report. Trained as a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last past her latest address.

Go With the End in Mind

by Ben Barthelemy

We probably all remember that day. The one in which we stepped onto a plane to begin the journey to our ministry area. For some of us there was a feeling of great excitement, while others of us were feeling scared, sad, nervous, and perhaps a hundred other emotions, maybe all at once. And yet, all cross-cultural workers experience that day of departure, a day when everything suddenly gets very real.

To those who are still preparing to go, allow me to give one piece of unsolicited advice. You have probably gotten lots of it already. (Make sure you bring lots of chili powder, you can’t get it here. Don’t worry about packing winter clothes, it doesn’t get cold. Remember to get a bank that doesn’t have international service fees. Bring lots of Pepto Bismol, Turkish tummy is terrible!) So, to add to the cacophony of needed and not-so-needed tips, here is one more: go with the end in mind.

I dare say this isn’t typical advice for soon-to-depart missionaries, but the reality of the matter is this: you will not be there forever. Often, in our excitement to “do amazing things for God,” we don’t think long-term. In my own continent of service, Africa, there have been countless ministries started by cross-cultural workers, and there have been countless ministries which closed once the missionary left.

Generally, we Westerners are “doers.” It seems, for both good and ill, we have a “git-er-done” kind of mentality. We show up to various places around the world, we see a need, and we start doing something about it (often in a very clunky way, but that’s another story). And yet we don’t consider what will happen when we leave.

So often these ministries succeed for a long time because they are supported with Western money and Western skills. What happens when the worker leaves? Well, they take their financial connections and skills with them. The ministry may limp along for a time, but in many scenarios, the ending has already been written. When all is said and done, local people are left to pick up the pieces because there was no plan for the future. They may feel like the missionary/organization deserted them.

As we look across the landscape of global Christianity, trends indicate that the Church in the West is declining. Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom, makes the argument that the epicenter of Christianity is moving to the Global South. This brings with it both dangers and opportunities. We need to recognize that Western missionaries and finances are likely going to be on the decline. We can no longer just assume that these missionary ventures will be forever propped up by the next young couple our organization sends our way.

If you were to look closely, my guess is that trends in missions would indicate that missionaries are staying on the field for shorter amounts of time than in the past. In previous generations cross-cultural workers would spend their entire careers on the mission field, but in our current day people are much more transient and prone to try many different things throughout their career. Our missions strategies need to adapt accordingly. All of those in missionary work need to be asking the question, “What’s my exit strategy?”

Consider the apostle Paul. He traveled the ancient world preaching the Gospel and planting churches. In the churches he planted, he had a plan for their long-term sustainability. It was called “eldership.” These churches were led by local believers who were godly and capable. Now, I can already hear the excuses in my head: “But there are none of those.” If this is true, then it becomes our job to train them up. Isn’t that an integral part of discipleship?

Missionaries are often an independent and driven lot who can have more than a little “control freak” inside. We have to be willing to let others do things differently and perhaps even experience failure. Paul did send some scathing letters, but he also didn’t micromanage. He couldn’t have, because within a relatively short amount of time he was off to a new place of ministry.

This principle of going with the end in mind is not just for church planters, however; it applies across ministry contexts. Constantly be thinking about how you will hand off the ministry when your time is up. The last thing you want is for those remaining behind to be forced to scramble because you didn’t see the end coming.

So I encourage those of you already on the field to have or develop an exit strategy. Take intentional steps toward your plan, and inform both your leadership and your local partners of that plan. And for those who are about to depart, remember to go with the end in mind.

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Ben is a sinner saved by grace. He is husband to Beth (a far more accomplished writer than himself), dad to four daughters, and partial owner of two cats. They live and work in South Africa where they are involved in theological education.

When God Surprises You With Abundance

When I first heard Christ say, “Follow me,” I was sixteen years old. I often wondered what kind of cross I would carry for choosing to follow him. I pictured myself living in a hut in a mountain village or maybe in a “barrio” similar to the slums I would drive by on my way to school. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that there would be loss, pain, maybe even persecution. And it’s true – it has been, at times, grueling and crushing. What I didn’t foresee then was that following Christ could also mean, at times, abundance. 

But here I am years later, living overseas and recently moved into a house that is better than anything we had hoped. Not only is the house built on two plots of land, perfect for our kids to play and explore, inside the house is spacious as well. We have a dedicated guest room with its own bathroom and a lower level that is airy and perfect to host large gatherings. We have a separate dining room to host multiple guests, and my husband is able to have an office to more effectively work from home. 

And the view, oh, the view is breathtaking. Because our house sits at the top of a hill, it overlooks a precipitous narrow valley, ringed by mountains. We can see a small town that sits on the mountain across from us, and at night, the cheery lights from the houses greet us in the distance. Secluded by a row of tall cypress trees, the house has a farmhouse feel. When you sit in the veranda that overlooks the valley, the twittering of Palestinian sunbirds with their turquoise plumage and playful flight simply delight the senses. 

For years I’d been saying I wanted to have a house that was guest-house material, a place that would be lovely and restful, a place where others could come to get away, “preferably with a gorgeous view,” I’d say. This house is all that and more (for the same rent we were paying before!). A few days after we moved, I told my husband, “I feel like my soul grew two sizes.”

But not long after, I found a nagging restlessness in my heart. I couldn’t relax into enjoying our home. We don’t know any other expats in this country with a space like ours. A voice kept whispering, “God wouldn’t be this kind to you, you don’t deserve it. Did you somehow manipulate him into giving it to you?”

When our functional theology is about what we deserve, we quickly turn to self-atonement strategies to cope with undeserved gifts. “We will steward this house well. We want it to be a blessing to others,” we say. And while this desire to be a blessing is absolutely real and good, what if that is not the primary reason why we have this house? What if our Father is this kind? What if, before we think about how we can use this home for the good of others and the kingdom, we receive this gift with both hands and simply savor the rich love of our Dad who sees us intimately? 

We are not just servants living on mission for the purposes of the King. We are his actual kids – deeply beloved, thoroughly delighted in. What if, as we are giving out to others, he wants us to taste all that He is and all that we are to him? 

As overseas workers, do we have a theology of abundance? I have been pondering this question for months. When generous friends gift us time away on what feels like an extravagant vacation, when God provides the perfect car for the needs of our family, or when God blows us away with increased monthly support that we didn’t sweat hard to raise, do we have a functional theology that allows us to relish all that grace? Without guilt, shame, or fear? 

Our theology of abundance not only allows us to receive grace, it also helps us when we are living very different lives than Adoniram and Ann Judson lived in Burma or Jim and Elisabeth Elliott among the Quechua people in Ecuador. 

“We have left it all to follow you.” Peter’s words ring in our ears. Have we? We have cars, A/C units, and grocery stores with western-like goods. We can text with our families across the oceans and within seconds, get a reply. In some ways, at times, our sacrifice seems less significant because the lack we experience is not the same. And so the abundance we enjoy in comparison to theirs makes us feel a bit like a fraud, like we are in some way second-class workers, not as “hard core” as those of old.

But their devotion to Christ is not measured by their sacrifice but by their faith in him and their day-to-day dependence on the Spirit. God is not measuring the strength of our sacrifice either. Rather, he asks whether Jesus is our only source of confidence for the life he has given — with its gifts, sorrows, and responsibilities. 

What if the abundance in our life is rich soil for growth when it is enjoyed by faith? What if this bounty in resources and capacity is a gift that enables longevity, allowing us to be stable and grounded enough to care for the overwhelming needs of those around us? What if the God who cares for us according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus delights to tend to the souls and bodies and minds of those he sends out to serve him? What if he knows how much we need to hear, “I see you?”

I hope you know I am not saying we can only feel seen in abundance. Neither am I advocating the pursuit of abundance. I know the destructive power of prosperity gospel theology and the trap it can be in ministry. I am a firm believer in the importance of a robust theology of suffering. I am, after all, a lay counselor, passionate about holistic soul care. But a robust theology of suffering is not complete without a theology of abundance. 

Our Father’s generosity is to be received gratefully, joyfully. His kindness is to be stewarded and leveraged. When we do that with Christ-confidence we are, like Mary Oliver wrote, “half crazy with the wonder of it.” We delight in the foolishness of grace that lavishes us with everything our Father is for us. Not because we have done so much in following Jesus, but because He won it all when he led ahead of us.

Is Christ Still Worth It?

In 2007, worker friends of mine were martyred in a country in Central Asia. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and praying for direction for the desires the Lord had given me for his kingdom. I was so shaken by their deaths. I remember how, shortly after it happened, I was swimming furiously in the gym pool, praying to the Lord, ”Who will take their place? Please, send me.”

I couldn’t make it to the memorial in the US, but a pastor friend shared with me the eulogy he had given. One line has had a profound effect on me. After talking about all the challenges these worker friends faced, and their many adversaries, he said something like, “You may hear about all this opposition and all the difficulties they faced, and their lives may not sound appealing to you. But the truth is, their lives did not appeal to them either. They loved Christ more than they loved their own lives.

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I remember when we were first getting ready to go overseas. My husband and I had the opportunity to share at a church together. I was passionate, convinced that Christ is worthy and that he is worth our sacrifice. I was so glad we were finally (at age 33 and 32) on our way to serve Christ in the Middle East for the rest of our lives. 

The first three years were exciting. We had a lot of adrenaline, and we were planted in really good spiritual communities. During that time we joined a team to help plant a church. We felt like we were finally living our dream life. Then the Lord called us to another ministry in another country. 

The last four years, since arriving in this country, we have faced many difficulties: significant health problems, a brutal treatment to catalyze physical healing, an excruciating language learning season, deep loneliness, unresolved trauma flaring up with intense symptoms and a need for additional counseling/therapy. A tragedy a year ago left us reeling, and we are still processing the shock of it. Our efforts in relationship building haven’t borne the fruit we hoped; right now the path doesn’t seem very clear. The ground at times feels shaky underneath our feet. What can we stand on? At times we feel like the wind in our sails is just…..gone. 

We have been overseas for seven years now. According to a friend, who is also a clinical counselor and who has done a lot of research about mental health in workers, we are right at the burnout period. And frankly, we feel it. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot I love about our life here. I love where we live. I love the beauty around me. I am so thankful for the expat community we have started to get to know. Our kids are doing really well at school. But I don’t love how lost we feel right now, how very little we have to go on for ministry. We have dreams for the work here but struggle to find our place in it. 

We shared some of this with our church this past summer, asking for prayer. I wondered how they might hear what we shared. Did our lives sound as unappealing as the ones from my friends? We were definitely not sharing the glamorous, attractive stories that you sometimes hear from workers when they come home. We were not doing the best job at recruiting, if you ask me.

A question swirled in my head: What would motivate any of our friends at church not only to keep praying for us, but to maybe one day also go overseas? Is Christ still worth it?

Is Christ worth years and years of language learning? Is he worth the death of who we are in English for what we can be in another language? Is he worth our praise when we have more questions than clear answers from him?  When the ground doesn’t feel firm, and our confidence feels shaken, is he worth it? 

The thing is, Christ hasn’t changed. He is still the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). He is still the one who knows the end from the beginning, whose footprints sometimes are unseen as he leads through the sea (Psalm 77:19). He is still the one who creates the visible out of the invisible (Hebrews 11:3). He is still the one whose arm brings salvation (Isaiah 59:17).

Christ is still the one who stoops low even as he has all authority on earth (Matthew 28:18-20). He is the one who gives himself to us so completely, so joyfully, so powerfully, so lovingly. The one who is our life — our only life!

This verse in a new song by CityAlight and Sandra McCracken captures why we can still love Christ even when we don’t love our lives: 

On the road that You walked
With the weight of the cross
All my pain and my sorrow You held
So to You I shall hold
You redeem every loss
For my Lord, You have given Yourself

Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
And if I should remain in the valley today
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself

Yes, friend, in the valley the risen Christ is still worthy and worth it, because there we get Him – all of Him – forever.