Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Digital Dilemma for Missionaries

Written by: on March 22, 2019

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5]

[1] Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019).

[2] Newport, 28.

[3] 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.

[4] Unpublished survey of missionaries and sending agencies. Spring 2016. Personal archives.

[5] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.Luke 9:57-62

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

9 responses to “The Digital Dilemma for Missionaries”

  1. Mike says:

    I hear you. Thanks so much for sharing your digital challenges to balance your connection to your family, supporters, and sending organization. Thanks for persevering to endure and finding a way to manage the tension between your family and supporters versus your host nation family and the people you serve. Your ministry is advancing the Kingdom of God because your incarnational life is reflecting the love and grace of Christ to the people in France.
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

    • I do firmly believe in incarnational ministry–because Jesus showed us the way. But there is an ongoing tension that must be attended to. And the tension changes as parents age and ministry on the field changes, so the hardest part is trying to stay flexible while maintaining that tension. This is only possible if I can stay attentive to the Holy Spirit.

  2. Kyle Chalko says:

    Great post Jen. Excellent points about how social media makes the transition to missionary work a lot harder in some regards.

    Thank you for your sacrifice for the mission field.

    • I don’t think of it as sacrifice, really. We all make choices about how we willspend our life, and all of those choices requires some give and take. But as Christians, we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we know that whatever is asked of us is nothing in comparison to what Christ offers. He is worthy. And it is truly my joy to follow Him. That doesn’t mean that it is always easy or without pain. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe He was worthy.

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    Are you feeling better? I can hardly wait for the Israel memories from you…

    I remember reading a book about the first Christian missionaries to Hawaii. They left their families and never saw them again. They traveled from the Eastern US seashore and boated around the tip of South America. Lost much weight, got sea sick, and brought all of one suitcase. My oh my. I am humbled beyond words.

    Did I tell you my daughter is going to be a missionary, to Bolivia. She graduates college this May with a Spanish major, and will be going for 6 months to immerse, be trained, and discern the future.

    I hope she grows up to be just like you! Thank you for your sacrifice and wise use of technology…

    • That’s one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received, Jay. Sincerely…thank you. (Be careful what you wish for, my friend. Your daughter might become an egalitarian in the process. :))

      And to be sure my “sacrifice” pales in comparison to many who are in more challenging palces. I am not lkely to be killed for my faith–in most ways I have it easy.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    I never considered the impact of digital connectivity on missionaries. We left for New Zealand before such a thing existed and even then felt it laborious to right letters to our supporters once a quarter. I can’t imagine the pressure of having to give constant attention to my profile in order to keep supporters back home happy. As a result, even though we have been living back in the US for 15 years, NZ still feels more like home than the US. We truly adopted that culture as our own.

    I understand the perspective of the French nationals. It would seem like the foreign missionaries desire to live and work in France but maintain their most coveted relationships abroad. This would appear disingenuous and I understand how this could cause hurt.

    For my own children as they have traveled overseas (my daughter is in Spain now) we put no pressure on her to maintain contact. She will when she can but we are happy for her to be independent. I have students who speak to their mothers daily sometimes multiple times and they live only an hour or two from home. I want to call up the parents and scream at them to cut the apron strings!! I don’t think that would go over too well.

    There must be a balance for those arriving to the mission field. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the mission organization to communicate both to the supporters at home and the missionaries abroad what the expectations are, and limitations of, regarding digital connection to ‘home’. Do you think that would work?

  5. Greg says:

    The question of connectivity vs productivity is a very real question. We have found that those that are more connected with their home country are less connected with their local work. We have seen this in personnel considered short term and long term. There seems to be an engagement correlation between their ability to release daily interactions with “home” and a willingness to be open to new relationships in their guest country. Btw our sending group told us to stay in country 3 years. I too have not seen that in recent years. Jenn your sacrifice is real and difficult at times. Aging parents are a reality, kids in states pull at our heart strings. Finding that balance (as you know) is an ongoing struggle. I hear you and I affirm your choices. I was asked again this week, “will you ever move back home?” Thanks for your commitment and desire to serve the Kingdom despite the obstacles we all face.

  6. Jenn,

    Interesting… the call to follow Christ necessarily involves sacrifice and travel down a road one would not normally select. Thus, you have reduced access and limited connection to (future) grandchildren and parents. The internet says the opposite: you can always be connected and relevant.

    You have selected a noble path and I pray you will find in digital minimalism the beauty of long-term French friendships, bearing fruit for the kingdom.

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