I recently had a chance to address students at a missionary training school. It was exciting to see their expectation and joy at the thought of ministering to unreached people groups around the world. I can remember the buzz of expectation mixed with the anxiety of trying something new. Many of them are not sure what continent they will be living on two years from now, let alone what language they will be speaking, or food they will be eating. Spending time with them was fun and inspiring.
Into this context I was asked to talk about our mission agency, World Team. I was happy to do that, and was able to answer questions and hopefully give some guidance in that area. However, I thought one of the best ways to use my time there would be to pass along some wisdom I have gained along the way. I see myself as their older brother, still in the middle of the work, but a few steps ahead. Here is what I shared with them:
1. Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
I remember the days of making plans and then seeing them come to fruition! I remember not understanding some of the confusion in missions, because it seemed so simple to me. “Do this, don’t do that.” “You should go to the field with a team of people, not just by yourself.” “You should work intimately with the local church for decisions about benevolence.” “You should seek to never do for others what they can do for themselves.” How warmly I remember those simple days!
When we went on a vision trip to Cameroon in 2010, one of our missionary guides told us that the theme for his missionary has been one word: “messy.” These same missionaries had actually planned to go to Papua, Indonesia, even raising support. However, when the time came, they were unable to obtain a visa. So, they ended up in Cameroon. On top of things like visas you cannot control, cultures often view time differently than missionaries. I remember within the first few months we were in Cameroon we were invited to a meeting that was said to start at 9am. We arrived promptly at 8:45, but it did not end up starting until 11!
But it is not just culture and governments that make plans go astray. At the end of the day, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Part of the reason things never go exactly as we plan them is that we are not God. He reminds us in the book of Isaiah,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
We come up with all kinds of missionary strategies and priorities, but at the end of the day, God is the one who decides who is saved and who is not. We have God’s Spirit and his Word, and insomuch we can actually know the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). But not all of them. And, in my experience, we actually tend to be pretty bad at predicting what God is going to do. Honestly, I have a hard time figuring out what people are going to do ahead of time. It probably should not surprise us that it is difficult to anticipate an all-knowing, all-surpassing God. My advice to you: plan for everything to not go according to plan. If you are the kind of person who loves plans, just make like 5 of them: Plans A-E. If you are a bit more on the flexible side, just roll with it.
2. The Darkness is Darker Than You Can Imagine
One night I was eating dinner with my family and I heard shouting in the yard in front of my neighbors house. I went out to find him with one hand pulling his girlfriend’s hair, and with the other punching her in the face. I was able to pull him off of her and pin him to the wall of his house while she fled. As I tried to talk to him about his role as protector, rather than oppressor, he laughed in my face. I returned home to my family glad that a woman was spared from most of a beating, but just weeping. I kept saying to myself, “I shouldn’t have to stop a man from beating his wife!”
As you prepare to go to the mission field, I can imagine that you have great hope. Perhaps you have specifically chosen to go to the unreached of the world. That is an amazing choice! But I ask you to take a moment and count the cost. The unreached are not “noble savages” out longing to know the name of the Savior they already worship. Rather, they are people who have existed for centuries, maybe millenia, without Christ and without his word. They have learned how to deal with anger and frustration and conflict through many different means, but almost never do those means involve peace. Violence is natural to man apart from God. Apart from God, people are not good.
Each people group is different, but without the Gospel, none of them are honoring God in their lives. They are lost, and in desperate need of truth. There are few things that will be harder. I am not asking you to abandon hope, there is great hope! But you should approach the task realistically. It will be difficult, but…
3. It Is Worth It
My theology demands that obeying God is always worth it, even if there are no results. It was, therefore, worth it for Isaiah to proclaim God’s message to a dull, blind, resistant Israel (cf Isaiah 6). Doing what God wants is always worth it, no matter if people respond. And it is clear (Matthew 28) that God wants Christians to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world. So, it would be worth it to proclaim the Gospel to the Kwakum people, even if no one ever responded.
However, and thankfully, it is very unlikely that ours is a prophet’s task. Rather, it is much more likely that as you go out to the unreached peoples of the world, many will respond. How can I say this? Well, our commission, already mentioned above, is not the same as Isaiah’s. God told Isaiah, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive‘” (Isaiah 6:9). Compare that to what Jesus told us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). That is a hopeful call! It is a call that anticipates fruit.
Another reason to have hope is that while we do not know everything that God is going to do, God has given us a glimpse into the future. In Revelation 7 we read, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” Pre-crucifixion, there were not very many people outside of Israel that could speak of God as their salvation. The church age is therefore when people from “all tribes and peoples and languages” come to know God and the Lamb. Who are these people, but those you are setting out to reach?
Stacey and I have just begun to taste the fruit of our labors, but even those brief glimpses have shown us that it is indeed worth it. Stacey recently shared the amazing story of Magui, who was baptized not long before we left Cameroon to come back to the States for home assignment. Before this we were able to rejoice at the salvation of Koo and Mami. Seeing these few people saved was awesome, but it has been an even greater joy to see the Lord transform them, by his grace, into new creatures. Before we left we watched Koo and Mami reaching out to an orphaned boy in our village, giving him a place to stay and even paying for his school. Magui committed to reading through a Gospel study with another woman in our village who is blind. When I look at all of the effort, pain, exhaustion, frustration, and deep sorrow that have been a part of our path, they do not even pale in comparison with the joy that comes from the fruit of our ministry.
So, my dear aspiring missionary, I am so thankful for your zeal, passion, and hope. I am not writing to you to take any of that away. The Gospel is a hopeful message, given to weak messengers, but literally guaranteed success. I confess, I do not look to the future with the same giddiness as I did when I was in your shoes. But even as I think of the joys we have seen, I cannot type without tears in my eyes. The path that is ahead of your is hard, very likely harder than you can imagine. But it is worth it. I don’t, not even for a second, regret taking this path. I encourage you to soberly, joyfully, hopefully, follow me.