Some in the West have defined the “unchurched” as people who are Christians but who are not connected with a church.
Sometimes I feel like I’m an unchurched missionary.
Our mission organization has a specific focus: fill the gaps in the Bible translation movement to reach the Bibleless and church-less people groups around the world. These are the last places that the Gospel has not yet reached. We set out to provide Scripture access to those without, to reach the unreached and to church the unchurched. It’s inspiring and exciting and daunting.
But in going to these dark and lonely places with just our immediate family or a very small team, we can start to feel out of reach and unchurched ourselves.
Perhaps you are in the same situation. Do you have a Christian community where you belong?
Is there a pew with your name on it and a hand extended to greet you with the peace of Christ? Do you have a place where you can ask for prayers and confess sin? Do you have people who will bring you food when you are sick or send you a note when you’ve been absent for too many weeks?
Or maybe you worship at a home church where you are the Sunday school teacher, worship leader, pray-er, and preacher. Do you long for a larger church where you are part of the body instead of being expected to fulfill all the roles of every part?
Or maybe you are currently in your home country, but you also feel unchurched.
You go to church – or to a different church – every week, but you don’t feel part of the church. Some people may hold you on a pedestal because you are the “missionary,” and some people may even know your name or the names of your kids, but it doesn’t feel like a community you belong to, at least not anymore. After spending significant time overseas, for many cross cultural workers, attending church in your home culture can be one of the more difficult aspects of reverse culture shock.
For my young TCKs, it is really difficult for them to feel like they belong. Overseas when we attend a church, my husband and I can understand enough to follow along and participate, even when the practices are different from what we are used to. But our kids aren’t fluent in the local language, and the cultural practices are often jarring to them. The transitory life of cross-cultural living and the need to raise support and visit new people and new places can make TCKs feel unchurched even when they are in their passport country. What church do they belong to? Where are they seen and remembered as a member?
For most of the last 10 years, we’ve met in our home as a family on Sundays, inviting our friends who are not yet Christians to join us. Our family times of worship are tender and sweet. It is beautiful to sit together singing a hymn or taking communion together as a family. I love hearing our little two- or three-year-old pray, and I love hearing our insightful ten-year-old ask a great question. Because of our isolation, we have developed strong family spiritual habits.
But I miss church.
I miss community and fellowship. I miss Bible classes that I’m not teaching. I even miss bad lobby coffee and too-much-food potlucks. I miss hugs from old ladies who tell me they’re praying for me and the knowing glances from other moms wrangling their two-year-olds in the back.
But when I’m in my home country, I find that I still miss church. I miss feeling deeply connected to just one place rather than being spread out thin. I miss being seen not as someone coming to ask for money but as just another sheep in the flock.
Going to the ends of the earth to translate scripture and bring the peace of God to a people group who hasn’t yet encountered Jesus is beautiful and holy work. But it’s lonely and isolating and changes us in ways that make it impossible to go back home the same, which can make home seem pretty lonely and isolating, too.
Maybe you are in a place and a season of life where you are really missing feeling deeply connected with a church, too.
If so, here are five things that have not taken away the difficulty, but have helped me and my family when we start to feel disconnected and unchurched.
- Remember you aren’t alone (even when you feel like it).
The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is so relatable to us cross cultural workers, isn’t it? We can pray to God, “I have had enough Lord,” and feel at times like we are completely alone as we serve God. We can be exhausted and need physical rest. We need to know God hears us and has not left us. We need God’s “gentle whisper” to remind us that He is with us and that we are not the only ones serving Him. God is with us, and we are not alone. He has many servants who are serving Him diligently. This is true around the world and in your home country.
- Stay connected to spiritual disciplines (even when you don’t feel like it).
When our “job” is our ministry, it is even more important to stay connected to the Vine in our private, personal lives. Reading scripture, praying, fasting, confessing, giving, and practicing Sabbath rest are spiritual disciplines that can sustain us during the dry, isolating seasons and also the very demanding seasons of home assignments. Spiritual disciplines create space in our lives for God to show up and teach our hearts. We don’t always feel like doing these disciplines, but we do them as a submission to Christ, training ourselves for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-8). If you have TCKs, creating rhythm and space in your life for spiritual disciplines (not just in your ministry activities or fundraising activities outside the home) is incredibly important for fostering authenticity in your Christian life.
- Create in-person community where you are with the resources you have (even if that means your “church” is made up of people who aren’t believers yet).
If you are feeling alone, look around you and identify the people who are already part of your life. How can you strengthen these relationships and create a true community? Are you sharing your needs or only meeting their needs? What needs do you have that this community could fill? How can you make the relationship give and take rather than just you giving and serving? When we didn’t have a group of Christians to meet with, we created a community from our friends, most of whom were still not yet Christians. This little home church group became our best friends and the people we called on when we needed help. We supported each other through griefs, trials, and difficulty.
- Stay connected with key people in your home country or home church (even when that means your “church” is really far away).
With the Internet, it seems like it should be easy to stay connected to our home country friends, family, and churches. However, just because it is easily accessible doesn’t mean connection is easy to maintain. As time passes, it is easy to lose touch. People in your home country may be very busy, and you may be very busy or in a difficult time zone for connection. So, identify key people in your home church who seem to genuinely want to encourage you. Make an effort to send them personal messages beyond what you send out in a newsletter or post on social media, and make sure to encourage them and ask about their life, too.
Watch the worship service from your home church online. During covid many churches began streaming their worship times and Bible classes. Allow your TCKs to maintain ties to your home church and special friends, too, by arranging online messages and meetups for younger kids and encouraging older kids to stay connected through safe online communication.
- Stay connected to online communities like A Life Overseas (even when you don’t know the people in “real life”).
I’m so thankful for the encouragement I’ve received from ALO, social media groups, and godly individuals I’ve met online but have never met in “real life.” Our kids are also part of a TCK group within our organization composed of kids all over the world. They meet over Zoom to have silly parties, talk about American culture, have Bible study, and be reminded that there are other kids just like them.
Online communities can sometimes get a bad rap because it “isn’t real life,” but these safe places can offer perspective and encouragement and create connections that can be a huge blessing when facing isolating situations. (If you’ve been blessed by the ministry of A Life Overseas, consider donating to keep the site running.)
God created us to live in community, but finding community as a global worker can be hard. Sometimes we missionaries feel unchurched ourselves.
So as we thank God for the community we do have, whether in our host country or our home country, may we look to God to meet our needs and the needs of our TCKs. May we trust Him to bring people into our lives who will provide community, whatever that looks like in the season we’re in. And may we look to Him always for the reminder that we never walk alone.