What does it mean to support a missionary?

A big part of my current role as a missionary is raising and maintaining support. That word “support” gets thrown around a lot, what does it mean? And more than that, what does it look like?

To find the answers to these questions we can look to another missionary who had a church that supported him. Paul, the author of Philippians (and many other New Testament books for that matter!) wrote a support letter to a church. We can learn a lot about what it means to support a missionary in this letter, especially in the last verses, verses 14–23 of chapter four. Paul outlines what it means to support a missionary, here are some takeaways from that text.

1. Support is a partnership in God’s mission.
In 4:13 Paul says he can do all things through God who strengthens him, but in the very next verse he writes, “yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” God could have provided for Paul is any way He wanted, but He chose to do so through a community of believers who believed in his mission. The Philippians shared in Paul’s trouble. They were truly partners, not just in name only. They were active sympathizers. I’m sure this meant they shared prayers, encouragement, affections, time, money…everything that a real community shares together.

These partners, Paul and the Philippians, were participating together in God’s mission. Verse 22 throws a side glance at this mission, where Paul writes that believers from Caesar’s household greet them. How could people of Caesar’s household become believers? Through Paul’s mission work, the same work the Philippians are a part of. God is doing something and we get to be involved, some in going, some in sending. Both roles are necessary and need each other.

2. The practicality of support doesn’t make it any less spiritual.
Paul is in prison when writing of this letter. That meant he needed clothing, food and money. These are really basic needs and don’t feel very “spiritual”. But this is what Paul needs and this is the trouble that the Philippians shared in. Most of the time writing a check or sending gifts don’t feel very “spiritual” but they are necessary. But this everyday kind of living is how God normally works, isn’t it?

Baptism, the sign of a spiritual re-alignment and God’s adoption is simply the submerging in or pouring of water. The Lord’s Supper, the symbol of Christ’s broken body and his blood, is merely bread and wine. Christ’s parables of the kingdom of heaven were agrarian based, literally earthy.

Support is practical, yes, but support is more than a euphemism for money. There’s clearly a spiritual aspect. Paul calls is a sacrifice and offering to God in verse 18. Giving to Paul was a way the Philippians could give to God. This is no less true today.

3. Giving is how we grow.
In verse 17, Paul isn’t so much concerned with the actual giving as much as he is concerned about their growth. This pastoral turn teaches us that supporting a missionary isn’t just about the missionary, it’s about the supporter, too. Remember, this is a partnership is every sense of the word. The generosity of the Philippians is evidence of the Spirit’s work in their lives. Generosity is hard because it requires faith and trust in God. Generosity isn’t hard because we have to give up stuff. The giving up of stuff itself isn’t the issue, it’s the underlying question: will I be provided for? Paul anticipates this question in verse 19 and gives us God’s promise that He will supply our needs.
The Christian, perhaps more than anyone else, has the foundation to be the most generous. Because our supply is according to Christ’s riches, we know we will always be cared for. To live as if that’s true means to live generously with all God’s given us. Not just money, but our time, our prayers, our affections and relationships, everything.

This letter to the Philippians doesn’t just teach about support, it also gives encouragement to the support they have already given. He praises the generosity of the Philippians as he teaches them about it. I can imagine Paul’s heart swelling with love and pride over this church that supported him when nobody else would. I can imagine Paul running through his head the names of the people in that community, and as he does so he feels the love of God. These people have shared in my trouble, they have given to someone who will probably never see God’s work through Paul with their own eyes.

I can imagine Paul’s situation because I often find myself there. When I think of everyone who supports us through prayer, finances, places to stay when visiting, etc., I am truly overwhelmed. The line I often use is you all believe in me more than I believe in me. Thanks to everyone who is sharing in our trouble, who share in God’s vision of seeing more churches planted, who want to see people come out of the darkness and into the light.

We are in this together and it’s a joy to be here with you all.

As Paul wrote years ago in verse 20:
To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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