What happens when you remain called and fully committed to overseas mission work but believe God is leading you to return “home” to New Zealand? Are you, then, still a “sent” mission partner?
NZCMS took a brave step when it approved the Weymouth family returning to New Zealand while allowing me (Rick) to remain fully engaged in Middle Eastern theological education by extension (T.E.E.) and in tertiary level theological education quality assurance ministries in the Middle East and Asia. I work from a home base in a small country town in the North Island, with Anne contributing locally (may we say, at the “home” end?) and re-engaging in local church and community ministries. And, of course, I would be able to travel back to the Middle East and Asia reasonably frequently each year. Three years ago, pre-Covid-19, that was a reasonable assumption!
So, how does it work when a pandemic means, for an extended time, that you are effectively locked up and cannot travel overseas, or, if you can, you will struggle to find a way back?
How did the Apostle Paul Serve in his ‘lock down’?
Intriguingly, the Apostle Paul found himself in a similar, yet far more severe, situation when he was imprisoned in Rome, facing the death penalty. Was he still a “sent one,” while chained to a Roman soldier and under house arrest? (Our Covid lockdowns seem somewhat trivial in comparison!) Could his ministry, the work of the Gospel, continue under such circumstances? Had it all come to an end?
That was the no. 1 question of the Philippian Christians when they heard of Paul's arrest and imprisonment in Rome. They had a special friendship and a supportive relationship with the Apostle, which he describes as a “partnership” (koinōnia) in the Gospel (Phil 1:5; 4:15). So, they sent Epaphroditus from Philippi to Rome to bring Paul a financial gift, meet some of his practical, physical needs, and to especially ask about the work of the Gospel. Had it now come to an end?
At the same time, Epaphroditus brings news to Paul of disunity in the Philippian congregation amid growing opposition, leading Paul to become concerned about the work of the Gospel in Philippi! To answer their concerns, give thanks for their gifts and the practical service provided to him, and to address the crucial issue of unity, Paul writes the letter which we call Philippians.
Contrary to what the Philippian believers had expected, Paul reassures them that Gospel ministry has continued and was not merely continuing but was advancing while he was imprisoned! Not only has the entire imperial guard heard that his imprisonment is for the sake of Christ, but local believers have been emboldened in their proclamation of Christ (Phil 1:12-18). Gospel ministry is going on, and their shared partnership in the Gospel can also continue (Phil 1:7), even if the pending trial leads to Paul’s death (1:19-26).
Overseas Missions from Home
In the same way, also contrary to natural expectations, it has been surprising to find that after two decades of mission based in the Middle East, some of the most significant things I have ever done in ministry – by God’s grace(!) – have been accomplished in the last two years, while sitting at a desk in a small home office on the edge of a small town of about 5,000 people in rural New Zealand.
We should note, though, that these God-enabled contributions have been built upon our 22 years of physically living in the Middle East and a similar period of active involvement and service in theological education there. Back in 1996, our language school director used to say, of the Arab-world, that maximum effectiveness in cross-cultural ministry required a minimum of seven years of living there. While serving now from home here, continuing mission impact is possible precisely because we have been there – for many years of living, learning, loving, and serving cross-culturally.
And, since April 2020, this has all taken place without any overseas travel possible! It is amazing what can be done in our digital age, with virtual networking and synchronous video conferencing! The global pandemic has forced us to rethink not only mission, but many facets of what used to be “normal” life, work, ministry, and education!
It has given huge impetus and relevancy to the programs of e‑Learning and, much more recently, doing theological education by m-Learning through mobile devices such as smartphones, both of which we’ve been seeking to establish in the Middle East. There is significant need for appropriate quality measures, standards and guidelines for online evangelical theological learning as theological schools re-think their delivery of Bible, theology, and leadership education, without compromising in any formational area.
Of course, these new ways of education bring up all sorts of other challenges! In the online environment, how do you ensure that learning remains holistic and transformational? How does one tap into processes of personal, spiritual, character, and ministry formation from an online, educational point of view? These are issues we have been carefully addressing, but I digress. We will need to save that discussion for another article!
The Challenges and the Benefits
For sure, there are limitations to mission work, whether from prison (as in Paul’s case) or “home” in New Zealand, including some previously unheard-of tech-hazards, such as “Zoom burnout”. Working relationships with colleagues require additional efforts and time, including many evening video conference calls, necessitated by the 9- or 11-hour time difference between New Zealand and the Middle East, and occasional middle-of-the-night calls, most of which I try to avoid.
Yet, it is a blessing to remain actively involved in ministry in the Middle East and Asia from New Zealand. With appropriate care and effort, home-based, overseas-focused mission is not only possible but can bring unexpected outcomes.
With the Apostle Paul, his imprisonment led to a bolder witness from believers in and around the Roman capital. For a home-based Mission Partner, the personal time and energy saved through not regularly travelling overseas are significant. And it is valuable, too, that not being present on location in the Middle East means that my co-workers are less dependent upon my presence, which is a good thing. It also means that my inputs can be more thoughtful, considered and strategic. Indeed, that is what I call “the crazy thing” about serving from home – finding that significant things can still happen! Probably a “God thing,” wouldn’t you say?
As it has happened, I now have several roles in Middle Eastern and Asian theological education and serve in them with a heartfelt passion. Whether an overseas-based or a home-based Mission Partner, it is incredibly rewarding, and a privilege to follow in the footsteps of the model Servant, sent by the Father, who “came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
“As the Father has sent me, I also send you”
In this respect, I am encouraged by Don Carson’s insightful words about Jesus’ saying, in John 20:21b, “as the Father has sent me, I also send you.” He notes that the perfect tense of the verb “has sent” (apostellō) suggests that “Jesus is in an ongoing state of ‘sentness.’ Just because he ascends to his Father does not mean he is no longer the ‘sent one’ par excellence. We as Christ's disciples do not take over Jesus’ mission, replacing him, but rather his mission continues and is effective in our ministry.
So yes, one can be a ‘sent one’ as a home-based, overseas-focused Mission Partner, for the work we do, wherever and however we do it, is carrying on Christ’s work of mission, not our own. Our service, placed in Christ’s hands, is to continue his service as “the sent One” within this world, so loved by God.
(1) “Home” is in fact a very relative word. For our two (then) teenage sons, who grew up in the Middle East, returning from that part of the world, early 2018, to live in New Zealand was not returning “home”; it was leaving their home! But the important matter of TCKs (Third Culture Kids) and their experiences is the subject of another article, another time. This one is written from not-a-TCK perspective! And, to muddy the waters further, it is penned by a West Islander, for whom New Zealand has become an adopted home.
(2) God willing, that may change in 2022, if/when quarantine free travel is permitted again for vaccinated travellers.
(3) D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar NTC; Eerdmans, 1991) 649; cf. also Luke’s introduction to the book of Acts, with the ministry “that Jesus began to do and teach” now continuing through the apostles (Acts 1:1).
Rick & Anne
Mission Partners to the Middle East from NZ