A century ago, when missionaries left for the field, they said goodbye to friends and family, expecting never to see them again. Today, with the ease of global travel and the accessibility of global communication, missionaries find it easy to stay connected with people “back home” while serving in even the remotest parts of the world.
The question we must now ask is whether global connectivity serves as a benefit or a detriment to cross-cultural mission work.
When we left for the field nine years ago, our sending prohibited travel back to the States AND visitors from the States during our first year on the field, believing that we would better integrate into the French culture if we were fully focused on “being here” for twelve consecutive months. David and I respected this counsel, but I’ve noticed that many who have arrived on the field after us have not. Millennials were born into a globally connected world, and the very suggestion that they should sever that connectedness seems false and disingenuous to them.
For this reason, Cal Newport’s advice in the book Digital Minimalism is pertinent. Rather than suggesting that all technologies be avoided, Newport believes that moderate values-based technology usage enables humans to benefit from technology while avoiding becoming enslaved by it. Digital minimalists “constantly preform cost-benefit analyses.” I believe cross-cultural missionaries MUST be digital minimalists if they want to be effective in the ministry to which they have been called.
Becoming a digital minimalist poses a distinct problem for missionaries, because the capacity to stay connected “results in high expectations from supporters at home in regard to regular news and to the quality of presentations – and the missionary needs to compete with the information overkill.” In other words, the missionary’s dependence on financial gifts obligates her to not only stay in contact with her donor base, but to do so in a way that is “flashy” enough to get their attention. Annual or even quarterly newsletters no longer suffice. Donors expect daily Facebook posts and regular Instagram photos that validate the missionary’s work. In the end, a missionary can spend so much time and effort trying to justify his ministry to his donor base that he has little time left to actually minister.
It’s not only maintaining financial support structures that complicates digital minimalism for the missionary, but the expectations of family and friends. FaceTime and Skype make it possible for missionaries to stay relationally connected to their emotional support systems in their sending country. Such connectedness interferes with the missionary’s integration process because it is much easier to depend on existing relationships than to forge new ones. When I surveyed French partners about their experience in working with foreign missionaries, this issue was clearly a problem from the French perspective: 84% percent of foreign missionaries were considered “homesick” by their French partners. Furthermore, French partners observed that 46% of the foreign missionaries with whom they worked didn’t know how to make French friends and 60% were not encouraged to integrate into the French culture by their sending agency.
What would digital minimalism look like for a foreign missionary? The struggle is personal, the struggle is real. To begin, the missionary must set realistic expectations with his supporters. Most mission agencies suggest that the missionary dedicate a certain number of hours per week to “partner development.” Having a plan and being intentional about partner development can help the missionary to choose the right technologies to achieve her goals. David and I use Mail Chimp for both digital quarterly newsletters to our entire support base and a weekly prayer letter that is sent 30-40 supporters who have “subscribed,” indicating their desire to have a weekly update. The weekly newsletter is sent every Monday, and for David and me it is not only a means of gathering prayer support but also personal accountability for our day to day activities. We take 30 minutes each Monday morning to assess the previous week and anticipate the coming one, which is not only practical for planning purposes, but formative spiritually as an Examen exercise. In this way, our connectedness with donors supports our value of accountability without becoming a distraction from our ministry.
As far as connection with family and friends is concerned, we have been highly intentional about building friendships and support systems here in France and we have ben selective about maintaining relationships in the States. This is painful, but we consider it essential to our call. We are called to France and to the French people, and we cannot fully engage here if we are unwilling to fully leave the States. I’ve seen too many missionaries try to have it both ways, and the result is mediocrity in everything.
Because of this decision, I am not as close to my sisters and I would like, nor do I see my sons as often as I wish. My aging parents are not in my home and my future grandchildren may live across the ocean from me. These are hard and agonizing realities in my life, but they were foreseen by Christ:
57 As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus said to him, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019).
 Newport, 28.
 Detlef Bloecher, “World Mission in the 21st Century: 12 Modern Trends – DMG,” DMG, accessed April 20, 2018, https://www.dmgint.de/mission/id-12-modern-trends.html.
 Unpublished survey of missionaries and sending agencies. Spring 2016. Personal archives.
 NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.Luke 9:57-62