Missionaries from a bygone era, who travelled the world by sea, had a significant advantage over those of today. Their journeys to and from other continents would take weeks, not hours. This afforded time to process what 're-entry' would entail, whilst they were leaving one culture and relocating into another.
Nowadays, one long-haul flight and a couple of airport transfers only add to the feeling of disorientation experienced by returning missionaries.
What was on Paul’s mind as he sailed from Attalia back to Antioch at the end of Acts 14?
We do not know, other than his apparent eagerness to share with the church. He had witnessed both joyful reception to the gospel and outright hostility. He had seen Gentiles come to faith in Christ for the first time. He had experienced the challenge of communicating Christ cross-culturally. He had discovered the cost of cross-cultural mission.
But Paul wasn’t returning to Antioch to retire or pick up his former trade. He wanted to enlarge the local church’s vision for God’s mission. His visit lasted a long time (v28). During his stay he reported on all God had done through him and his companions amongst the Gentiles (v27). Some time later he was off again, this time with Silas (15:36-41).
Paul didn’t seem to do retirement. Instead, throughout his life, he thought in terms of recommission.
Luke only gives us Paul’s perspective on events in Antioch, which begs the question, what do churches need to consider to effectively support returning mission partners?
Truth be told, churches are better at sending than receiving home. For one, there is momentum and expectancy when mission partners depart. But, depending on the strength of the partnership, there is a tendency to lose touch over time. Names and faces can become less familiar as congregations change over the years.
Churches must be proactive when their mission partners return home and bear in mind the sense of bewilderment for those returning.
Re-entry has been compared to bereavement due to the immense sense of loss. Numbness, anger and confusion will never be far away during the early months of a return. Remember mission partners have left ‘home’ and are entering a context that will now feel foreign.
The description of Odysseus returning from his epic journey describes what many returning missionaries feel but struggle to articulate:
'Ithaca showed to him an unaccustomed face; he did not recognize the pathways stretching into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices. He rose to his feet and stood staring at what was his own land, crying mournfully: “Alas! and now where on earth am I?”'
It follows that the first thing a church can effectively do is make space to listen and learn from returning mission partners. That seemed to be Paul’s aim at the end of Acts 14. It should become the main objective of any local church and can be done in different ways:
These informal meetings also give mission partners the time to talk with church leaders and mission groups about the elephant in the room – money. If churches know the mission partner’s financial situation, they will be better placed to understand how the transition will affect the mission partner’s financial position – and what practical steps the church can take to help out.
One of the most encouraging things a church can do for their returning mission partners is to affirm that their return is not merely an end, but also a new beginning.
Returning to what was once home can feel more like decommissioning than recommissioning. We think of buildings or equipment that are shut down and removed from operation for the sake of reducing costs and minimising risks. That can be what it feels like for a mission partner on their return, especially if their overseas placement ended suddenly or poorly.
Consider a trapeze artist flying through the air at great height. For a split second they let go of one trapeze as they reach out for the next. For a period of time, a mission partner will be vulnerable: leaving one life, culture, social setting and ministry, and grasping for another unknown one.
But the middle chapters of Acts suggest no such grounding to a halt in God’s mission. The growth of the word of the Lord at this time was reflected in the momentum of the local church (6:7; 12:24; 19:20). Although Paul took time in Antioch, it soon became evident that he would carry on making Christ known and discipling believers.
Unless health is an issue requiring extended rest or recovery, churches should encourage mission partners to see themselves as being recommissioned for future service. They may be beginning a new ministry back in the UK, or entering secular employment, or retiring from paid work. Whichever way, they will still be a Christian, called by Christ to make and mature other disciples.
To recommission your mission partner is therefore a great way to ‘conclude’ a gospel partnership. It doesn’t need to be as formal or public as at the point of commission. A prayer meeting or home group bible study could easily provide the context to mark the next step. The point is, the mission partner and the local church have much gospel work still to do and these moments provide great opportunities for growth.
This blog post is part of a series about the mission partner lifecycle. Read also about the commission or mission stages.
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