“What did I do wrong?” moaned Alex as he stared at the grade for his first college biology test. He had just transitioned to college from a public high school where he had been near the top of his class. Getting his first biology test back with a score of 70 percent was devastating for him. Together we explored some time-management strategies and talked about ways to organize study time. We also discussed strategies for integrating bits of information into the big picture to capture the essence of the overall concepts. As a college professor, working together with colleagues or students, there always seemed to be opportunities to strategize together to solve problems and find ways to move forward. Those sessions helped get us all through the discouraging times and lent perspective to what sometimes seemed like failure.
Now Janella and I work with career and student missionaries in three countries. We see them in person between one and four times per year. Some projects have two career families and several student missionaries providing opportunities for regular planning sessions, fellowship and prayer time among the team members. AFM seeks to place missionaries with other career missionary partners. We recognize that “Two are better than one . . . for if they fall, one will lift up his fellow . . . and though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a three-fold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12). However, many projects have a single career family in an isolated area because no one has been found to partner with them. Between furloughs, the only colleagues they see are their field directors, like Janella and me. Although they have many ongoing interactions in their ministry, there is little opportunity to get away from the pressure of being always on call and on display in their community. People are constantly watching and commenting on their actions and words. It is hard and lonely work.
All of our career missionaries come to the field with a deep commitment to share the joy of the gospel with unreached people. However, it does not take long for them to discover that commitment is not enough. Ministry in this setting requires great patience and wisdom that only comes from complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit. AFM works in challenging environments among people living under the very real bondage and oppression of Satan. The local people sense this and dedicate significant portions of their lives to behaviors designed to appease spiritual forces. Problems in life such as illness or infertility require ceremonies, offerings or payments to pundits, priests or monks. To improve their next lives in the endless cycle of rebirth, people strive to earn merit through good works.
Missionaries may work for weeks, months or years without seeing much evidence of anyone coming to understand the freedom from fear and the hope and joy that the gospel provides. Here the devil wields one of his most effective weapons—discouragement.
Daily we see clear evidence of the battle between God’s kingdom and the forces of evil. In such circumstances it is a challenge to know how to find balance and perspective. It is natural to wonder, Am I doing enough? Is this approach working? Why are we not seeing results? Back home, friends and family all too often reinforce these questions of self-doubt. “You are burning out. Don’t you think it is time to come home?” “Your children should not be exposed to those illnesses. It isn’t safe there.” In the early Christian church, Paul and the other apostles faced these challenges, and their experience provides guidance for us. Paul enjoined the Philippians, “Each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
What is your responsibility in supporting those who work on the front lines among unreached people? Are you praying daily for them? Are you contacting them and asking them to share specific prayer requests? Do you send periodic notes of affirmation and encouragement, sharing experiences from your life when God sustained you? Do you share encouraging scriptural passages with them? Their ministry needs your ministry, which needs to go much further than an occasional prayer or donation. I challenge you to select several student or career missionaries in whom you are willing to invest deeply. We all have the privilege and opportunity to be part of sharing this gospel of the Kingdom. Please accept the challenge to partner with and creatively support missionaries who are laboring in difficult environments. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11).