Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia.
Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.
Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling.
But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”
My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.
We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions?
We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.
The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)
Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.
Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there.
Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home.
Instead ask questions that reconnect.
“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.”
“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”
“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”
“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?”
“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?”
Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post.
Don’t ask how their vacation is going.
Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.
Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.
This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.
Instead ask what this time looks like for them.
“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”
“Will you be able to take a vacation?”
“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?”
“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?)
Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.
The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions
Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.
Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”
Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome!
Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.
Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”
Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”
Jean: “What breaks your heart?”
Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?”
Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences. I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other.
Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.
Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.
Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.
Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”
Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]
Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.
Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.
Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.
Matyas: I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews.
Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”
A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?”
Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.
Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.
Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.)
When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class.
Don’t get too personal.
Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway.
Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.
Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)?
Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).
Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions.
Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends
Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.
Don’t ask for numbers.
Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”
Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.
Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”
Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.
Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?”
Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.
Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?
Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.
Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.
Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that? These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.
Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.
Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for.
So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.
Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them.
Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.
Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!
Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end.
Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.” (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)
We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!