We probably all know stories of exemplary, devoted, single missionaries; either from our Sunday school days as a child, or from seeing such people visit our churches every few years whilst on home assignment. I have had the privilege of knowing several such people, and I thank God for their devoted service in face of many difficulties.
It seems clear to me that sending single missionaries into cross-cultural situations is just as relevant today as it ever was. Paul’s missional exhortations in 1 Corinthians 7 are so obviously applicable to this situation: single people have greater freedom to serve the Lord in an undivided manner. Their decision to move abroad usually has an impact on fewer people in their home context. Life, ministry and personal cultural adaptation are simpler when you don’t have to worry about how the move will put pressure on your marriage, or affect your children and their education, or about how the grandparents will react to no longer seeing the grandchildren regularly. But let’s not be naïve: along with the freedom of singleness come additional challenges, notably loneliness, not necessarily feeling understood, no immediate accountability, and lots of practicalities and paperwork to face on your own.
I want to share my testimony of being a single missionary in the hope that it might help churches who are thinking through sending or supporting single missionaries, or indeed single people who are thinking about a cross-cultural move for the sake of the Gospel.
I have served in France for the last 10 years, and I have been single throughout that time.
I have never felt a particular « call » to singleness. I am single quite simply because, in God’s sovereign plan, it has not (yet!) happened. I say this because there is sometimes a misapprehension that a single person should only be sent if they have felt a call of singleness on their life, or have made a clear commitment to remaining single. Most single missionaries that I have known have been like me: wanting to get married if God brings that good gift along, but using the good gift of singleness for as long as it remains to serve God wholeheartedly.
I am grateful for those friends and church leaders who encouraged me in my desire to go overseas to serve in a cross-cultural setting. I am also glad of those who helped me understand that there would be particular challenges for me as a single woman, even if those challenges have sometimes ended up being different from the ones that they warned me about. But there is one aspect that I don’t believe anyone ever mentioned that has ended up being absolutely crucial for me: the need for family.
For the last 5 years, I have been working in a local church setting. Within that local church one or two families have taken me under their wing, and included me in their family life. The list of the ways in which they have treated me as a member of their families is endless: invitations to their special family birthday meals; a regular gift by one of the kids of his home-harvested honey and his home-made jam; an offer to stay overnight when I feared a stomach ache might turn out to be appendicitis; organizing a birthday party for me in their home with 30 guests; giving me discreet but generous gifts at financially tough times; cooking me meals just so that I have something in the freezer for a night I don’t feel like cooking; giving up their evening plans when I had crashed my car so that I could have someone to hang out with; coming to the police station with me to report a stolen car. What is more, they have graciously accepted my attempts to love and serve them, in spite of the clumsy way I might sometimes have gone about it.
All of these things remind me of Ps 68.6a: « God sets the lonely in families. » God has set me in families on the mission field. It has been His particular grace to me to help me to persevere in times I might otherwise have given up. Don’t get me wrong: my friendships with other single people in France have been a rich blessing; but having a relationship with a whole family, with all of its members – wife, husband, teenagers, kids, toddlers, babies – has meant a richness that no one person could provide on their own.
And so if you are considering sending a single person into a cross-cultural context, it is worth helping them think through not only if there is a team that can be a support for them, but whether there are families they can become a part of. If you are single and considering moving to a cross-cultural setting, I would likewise encourage you to think this through. And in the case of a single person already serving cross-culturally who doesn’t have this support, I would encourage you to remember that the setting in families is God’s work, and so to start praying specifically for this for him or her (or yourself, if you are that person). Ask God to help that missionary seek out opportunities to serve families, and for those families to serve and love them. And as we see God provide, what a joy it will be to praise Him for His abundant loving kindness, just as David is when he realizes that this is the God we serve:
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds;
rejoice before him – his name is the Lord.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Psalm 68.4-6)
Missionary with UFM Worldwide in Lagny sur Marne, France
Photo credit – Freepik: https://goo.gl/qWipU1