We had heard Panama is a popular retirement destination for North Americans. During our trip to check out that nation we were providentially led to an English-speaking nondenominational church comprised primarily of Americans and Canadians living there.
Since October 2009, my wife and I have been traveling to Panama each month so I can preach part time at the church. Here are a few things we have learned about this type of ministry.
International Living Is a Growing Trend
According to various estimates, 6 to 8 million Americans live outside the United States (not counting government or military workers). It is believed that number is growing, with some estimating up to 3 million more Americans move outside the U.S. each year. A series of Zogby Polls commissioned by New Global Initiatives indicated as many as 7.7 million households were seriously considering international retirement.
Evidence of this interest may be seen through the success of TV programs such as Househunters International and publications like International Living magazine. Financial magazines regularly carry articles about retirement overseas. One such article in Money magazine actually featured a family in our church.
There are many reasons for this trend. Health care is cheaper and, in many countries, just as good as in the United States. Housing is more affordable, and the overall cost of living is considerably less. Add the allure of living in a tropical climate with beautiful scenery and you have compelling reasons to consider such a move.
A slower pace of life and bountiful, inexpensive fresh produce provide for a healthier lifestyle. Further, many retirees who have encountered substantial economic challenges—exorbitant health insurance and decimated retirement savings—have concluded international retirement is their best hope of early retirement or a more comfortable retirement standard of living.
A New Mission Field Ripe for Harvest
The trend presents exciting ministry opportunities and potentially an entirely new mission field. I am learning, though, that many factors contribute in making expatriate churches such a potentially fertile mission field.
First of all, expats crave fellowship. They seek out each other. We are finding it easy to create a sense of community within the church. It comes about naturally. Those willing to retire to a foreign country tend to have a bit more “sense of adventure.” Accordingly, it seems people are more receptive to the challenge of stepping out of their spiritual comfort zones for the sake of greater mission and ministry. The entire adventure has moved them into new experiences.
The retired or semiretired have more time to invest. In the States, we would be concerned about overtaxing our people. Here, it seems people are looking for meaningful and rewarding ways to invest their time. When we hosted a ministry that makes free prescription eyeglasses for the poor, the majority of our congregation was involved in various tasks surrounding those days of service.
There is less church competition. The sheer number of U.S. churches offering varying styles of worship, programming, and facilities has contributed to a consumer mentality that is plaguing many churches. If someone isn’t happy, it’s easy to look elsewhere. In Panama, if someone is seeking an Evangelical church with services in English, we’re the only option within a 90-minute drive.
When I arrived at the church, I found attendees from virtually every denomination. They had already figured out the only way to have unity was to be just “Christians” and to follow the Bible as opposed to any specific church tradition. People understand we can’t just “do church” like it was at their home church. This openness has been incredibly freeing and refreshing.
I have read that people in transition are more open to the gospel. We are certainly seeing that. Some wives told us they prayed for years that their husbands would attend church with them. Here in Panama, it’s happening.
We have visitors nearly every Sunday from just about everywhere. They tend to be delighted with the warm welcome from a Bible teaching family of believers. Numerous folks who are considering relocating to Panama have found our church. This dynamic seems to indicate there is considerable growth potential for expat churches.
The lower costs of living and property mean startup costs for an expatriate church may be considerably less than in America. We have been blessed to have a local hotel offer us free meeting space. However, when we outgrow this space we are confident we will find very affordable space to rent in some of the numerous commercial shopping centers going up. The affordable living costs also present an opportunity for those wanting to work with a church while also enjoying retirement.
In Panama, it isn’t difficult to find good missions projects. We are in a foreign mission field abounding with opportunities to assist other churches, ease poverty, and minister to children.
Sure, there are challenges unique to our situation. People are coming and going all the time—much like a Florida “snowbird” church, but it is much less predictable when you will encounter a mini exodus. The diversity of backgrounds can present a challenge in building cohesive leadership with common vision. However, at this point the advantages far outweigh the challenges, and God is providing for us in marvelous ways.
You, Your Church, and International Retirees
• If you are nearing retirement, prayerfully consider whether international retirement might be right for you as a lifestyle, and as an opportunity to use your golden years in rewarding service.
• Churches may need to broaden their mission philosophies and look for these types of works to support. There’s a good chance some in your congregation are considering this type of retirement. Give them a vision for kingdom work!
• Look for short-term mission opportunities in these areas. The resulting fellowship and ministry awareness could be a blessing to all involved.
Timothy Keim is pastor of Coronado Bible Church in Coronado, Panama. The 1981 graduate of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College served 10 years in music, youth, and preaching ministries before being called into a career in financial planning and dispute resolution.