Furlough to the Glory of God

The last two verses in Acts 14 record the first furlough visit by the first two foreign missionaries of the church. If they are good examples and worthy of imitation (which I believe they are in their missions philosophy) then missionaries should return at intervals to “rehearse all that God has done with them.”

But the last verse of the chapter reads, “And they remained no little time with the disciples.” (Acts 14:28) Why would they do this? Was Paul wasting time? And when it comes to application, how could missionaries today do this when many of them have 30+ churches supporting them, and many churches have just as many missionaries?

Why did they stay a long time?

At least two factors seem to be logical answers to that question even though the text is not explicit. They may have been looking for the next place to minister as they planted churches. Logistical questions like this are valid reasons to spend time on furlough at a supporting church.

Perhaps Paul also saw the need to strengthen the relationships with his brothers and sisters that were so close to him at Antioch. The last chapter of Romans is an extended list of people with whom Paul had formed friendships. Throughout his epistles we read of around 30 other people who at one point or another labored together with Paul in his missionary travels. Could the man who wrote the “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians be disinterested in relationships with those who were holding the ropes for him?

At certain levels, time alone can join hearts. Though all believers enjoy the unity of the Spirit whereby they have a closer bond because their deepest loves are the same, David-and-Jonathan friendships require years of melded experiences and conversations. Thus, the “no little time” of Acts 14:28 provided for Paul and Barnabas to live, minister, grow, and refresh themselves among their friends and peers who could more effectively pray for them not only because the church now knew the missionaries better but also because they now had a more significant heart investment.

How could modern missionaries follow their example?

At this point, let’s try to apply this aspect of missions philosophy. Suppose a missionary wants to spend “no little time” at a supporting church, so he sets his sights at merely a week-long visit with each of his supporters. With over 30 churches, he’ll be on furlough for somewhere around a year. That’s something close to the time frame of the average furlough now, with one key exception: most missionaries do not stay at a church longer than one service. Maybe they’re traveling; maybe they’re not welcome; maybe they’re exhausted from traveling; maybe they don’t agree with the church and if they stayed longer, their disagreements would be brought to light potentially threatening further support; maybe they’ve simply never thought to ask.

Of the pastors who support our family, most of them said it is rare to have missionaries who stay for more than one service and definitely unusual for missionaries to stay longer for accountability and in order to form friendships with the people.

As a missionary, I can only imagine how stressful and tiring it would be to pack and unpack the van for 37 different churches. And with nearly two score independent churches how could you hope to agree with them all? Pragmatically, a lot of missionaries would be afraid to open up if it lengthens their time on deputation, and so the downward spiral continues where both parties kind of quietly agree to work together in a very modern and business-like state. And all the while, relationships wither along with any healthy fruit that could spring from such useful plants.

From the missionary’s standpoint it would be difficult with a plethora of churches, but from the church’s standpoint, it would be a huge weight. If each missionary on furlough plus those coming in for support all wanted to stay for a week or more of meaningful relationships, how could the church get anything done? The pastor would have a week’s schedule interrupted once a month or so from another one of his missionaries hoping to pray with him and talk with him about accountability. The people would wear out of cooking extra meals, cleaning their oft-used guest rooms, signing up yet again after church, and trying to seriously remember how many kids “this one” has now.

I once visited a church of several hundred with nearly one hundred missionaries. How could they possibly allow each of them to spend “no little time” with them? Down the road was a church of less than 50 with about a dozen or so missionaries. Those 12 would probably wear on that little assembly just like 100 wears on an assembly of 450.

If missionaries and churches tried to follow Paul and Barnabas’ example in Acts 14, the week would probably include a public presentation, question and answer times, meals with families, and discussions before and after regular meeting times. However, difficult that may be for churches with a lot of missionaries or for missionaries with the reverse problem, if furloughs are worth doing, then missionaries should find time to forge and strengthen friendships with (and within) their supporting churches.

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About Seth

Planting churches with the Baptist Confession in one hand and Tolkien in the other.
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