If recorded missionary history were a play, women begin the first act as small and insignificant characters. With the spotlight focused on strong male leads and heroic battles of faith, one could easily have assumed the only role for a woman to play is a 'bit part' in the big picture. As the show unfolds, the playwright reveals his true intentions. When we look back we see a rich legacy of women who have served faithfully - no matter the role in which they were cast.
In the early 18th and 19th Century missionary movements most women who served cross-culturally were wives of missionaries. Some ledgers do not even record their names, merely writing a lower case 'm' next to the man's name to signify his marriage. These women had no job descriptions and there was little or no expectation they would do any 'real' missionary work such as teaching or evangelising. Yet, motivated by their love for Christ these women reached out beyond expectation and made a tangible difference alongside their husbands.
It was even harder for single women to become recognised missionaries, with 18th and 19th Century cultural norms placing restrictions on independence. In this tough climate several brave heroines paved the way for ministry in new areas. New mission organisations were set up by women because existing missionary boards would not send them. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement records more than 100,000 women's missionary societies sprung up in local churches in America alone, proving to be an unrivalled source of financial and prayerful support.
By 1900, over 40 denominational women's societies existed, with over 3 million women raising funds for mission. Since then single women have played important roles in a wide range of ministries, making a difference for Christ in communities across the nations.
Don't send me to China
When New Zealand Church Missionary Society Mission Partner Stella Purchas was asked where she'd like to be a missionary she said: "East Africa wouldn't be too bad, I thought, but I didn't want to go to China." God had other ideas, and Stella arrived in China in 1933 to begin what would become an 18 year stint in a politically divided country with a rapidly growing communist movement. During her time in China, Stella was involved with education, local mission administration and Bible printing. The war years were tumultuous for western missionaries and Stella was detained in an 'Enemy Alien' camp by the Japanese forces during World War Two. She saw the persecution of the Chinese Church before being forced out by communists in 1951.
The close of China did not stop Stella's missionary vision and she spent over a decade serving in East Africa – her original choice of location. During her years of service Stella faced situations most of us would find terrifying: imprisonment, learning difficult languages, new cultures, restriction of freedom and a lack of provisions. Despite her circumstances Stella's faith in God was a strong anchor which kept her steady and she depended entirely on God's ability and willingness to provide for her needs.
Women impacting communities for Christ
The fruit of women ministering in cross-cultural contexts is vast and rich. With women comprising at least 50% of the world's population it makes sense for women to be active in mission. In many cultures women were, and still are, viewed as 'second class citizens'. The Bible tells us that men and women are created in God's image and are loved equally by Him. Christ has been proclaimed through women offering ministries as diverse as one-on-one friendship, Bible studies, Theological education, medical work, community development, creative arts…and the list goes on!
Imaan (not her real name) was part of leading some Bible study courses for women who work in child care centres in the Arab world. The women she worked amongst gained new understanding in dealing with children and their parents. These women have gone on to influence other women and children in their various communities. Like a ripple effect, ministering to women is an amazing way to influence a whole community for Christ.
While women are now considered much more than a just a lower case 'm' today's missional heroines often face some of the same 'olden day' challenges. There are still massive cultural boundaries to cross, loneliness to overcome, too much work and not enough time. Many women serve in isolated areas, and making deep friendships can be hard. For some women cultural differences draw unwanted sexual attention based on the assumption that all western women are 'loose'.
The simple need of a good friend is one shared by single and married women alike. We can support these women from afar by being good communicators, listeners and pray-ers. It is important to remember that we are all part of God's mission, whether male or female, missionary or home-town supporter, we each have a part to play in building God's Kingdom.
Sophia Sinclair has qualifications in English, Theatre and Journalism. She joined the NZCMS staff team as Communications Officer in 2009 after working as a radio journalist. Sophia has been working as a freelance writer and editor while on maternity leave during 2014. She lives in Christchurch with her husband Andrew and their sons Guy and Frank.
Sophia Sinclair's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sophia-sinclair.html