In the latter part of Acts chapter fourteen we see the activities of Paul and Barnabas as they are finishing their first missionary journey. Churches were established in several cities. The disciples were taught, and converts were trained to lead the churches.
After this they returned to Antioch. The church of Antioch was their sending church. In all probability, they did not decide before they left Antioch that after four years they would return to the church. We are not told why they returned at that particular time. The four years had been filled with activity. They had suffered beatings, imprisonments, and opposition from religious leaders and government officials. It may well have been that Paul and Barnabas realized that if they were to continue to be effective, they needed some rest and relaxation.
In Mark 6:31, Jesus even exhorted the twelve to come apart and rest a while. I am assuming that this is the basis for what we call furlough in the field of missions. Until recently, nearly all foreign missionaries would return to America for a furlough every four years. The great majority of missionaries are affiliated with a mission organization that has a policy which determines the length of time on the field and the length of the furlough. The majority of the organizations would have a policy of a missionary spending four years on the mission field and one year at home.
The original purposes for furlough were varied. Of course, one of the main purposes was for rest. Another purpose was to allow the children to be in their home culture and to get acquainted with their relatives. Often the missionaries would spend time in advanced training. In the case of faith missionaries who were supported by churches, they would be expected to visit all of their supporting churches and report on what God was doing through their ministry. The early missionaries did this. Notice in Acts 14: 27–28 that they did not report what they had done but what the Lord had done. They were very careful to give God the glory for the wonderful results. They would spend quality time with their sending church, and they would report to the supporting churches.
Most mission organizations have modified their furlough practices in the last twenty years. With the technological advancement of transportation and communication, the need to be in America for a year is unnecessary for many missionaries. Therefore, many now spend a shorter time in the States and come more often. With the use of the internet and email, missionaries can communicate with their relatives and their sending church on a regular basis which makes it unnecessary to report to every church during furlough.
One of the primary purposes for missionaries spending time in America now is to attempt to raise additional support because of the devaluation of the dollar and the inflation that takes place in many countries. Additionally, there is still the need for missionaries to occasionally “come apart.” This is sometimes done near their mission field, but most often it is done by spending a few months in the United States. Just getting away from the work for a period of time can be a great blessing.
Even though it is good to separate for a time, furlough is not vacation. I remember my wife Virginia sharing a conversation that she had with a pastor’s wife during our first furlough. The pastor’s wife said to her, “I wish my husband got a year of vacation after every four years.” Most of the time, a furlough schedule bears little resemblance to a vacation since missionaries must travel from city to city visiting potential supporting churches or participating in mission conferences.
Despite today’s rapid transportation and unbelievable means of communication, there is still a need for furlough, even though it is quite different from the original concept.