Katie and I were “sent off” by the Central and Cedar Lane churches a little over seven months ago. We loved getting to spend the summer with these two churches so goodbyes were hard. But we said goodbye knowing we were headed to the place for which we had been preparing for years.
In January and in April of this year, the house churches in Arequipa had their own two send-off Sundays.
The McKinzies and Smiths, after living in Arequipa for more than six years, were returning to the U.S. Our church here had welcomed four missionary families over the last year, so thinking about sending families away was a mental gear-shift. We wrestled with how best to say goodbye, with what sort of service would honor the McKinzies and Smiths and provide a sense of communal closure. But as the departure dates approached, it gradually dawned on us that a “goodbye” wasn’t enough. This had to be a sending ceremony.
For years Team Arequipa had been telling the story of God’s mission. God commissions God’s people to be a blessing to the nations. And so a key part of Greg, Megan, Kyle, and Larissa’s message was that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a missionary. The vision was for Peruvian Christians to be captured by this same hope and in faith participate in this mission.
So the thought of a goodbye at the end of missionary service wasn’t enough. There was a disconnect between the message of “We’re all missionaries” and “Your missionary service is over, goodbye.” The problem lies in our use as a church of the word “missionary” itself, reserving it for those who decide to participate in God’s mission away from home or from a stateside job. But if, as Christians, we understand that to follow Jesus in the 21st century means to participate in God’s mission, we’re all missionaries. And any goodbye—whether it be because of a job change, school change, life change—is, rather, a sending off to participation in God’s mission in a new place and new way.
In Peru, there is a strong emphasis placed on “saludos” (greetings), and so too the culture of “despedidas” (saying goodbye). So of course individual church members and families spent time with the McKinzies and Smiths saying special goodbyes before their departure. As a church, however, instead of saying goodbye, we sent off, laying hands on the McKinzies and Smiths and asking God to go with them as they took a step in new directions but in God’s same mission. To hear Peruvian followers praying blessing on these two families gave me hope—not just for the future of the McKinzies and Smiths but also for the mission as it continues in Arequipa.
Of course, redressing a goodbye as a sendoff doesn’t make it any easier. Our small house churches here are still feeling the absence and loss of relationship with US American missionaries. But sending people off with a greater purpose in mind preserves hope that none of the relationship building was in vain. It preserves a sense of duty for both parties, the sender and the one being sent. And it preserves our expectation for the God whose mission this is. Which is why we closed each service singing with hope:
(For all that you’ve done, for all that you’re going to do—thank you.)