I can still remember the sense of God's call on my life like it was yesterday. I was in Ukraine on a summer mission trip in 1994. It was a fresh Saturday morning in late May, the sky was blue, the clouds were whiteand I was angry. The previous summer, I had first heard of the opportunity to go to Ukraine. I had taken the spring term off from my university studies so I could raise support and prepare for my departure on May 9th. I was very excited about what God was going to do through my life that summer. God raised the support and I was ready to goor so I believed.
I had been reading books on cross-cultural missions, had learned how to share my faith and readied myself to weather whatever apologetic conundrums I might face. I had read the biographies of a few people I considered lucky enough to be among my forebears in Christian mission. What a legacyand what a future. I was going to change the world! It was exciting to imagine how God's pleasure in me would grow because of my heroic obedience. Yet, there I washaving been "in mission" for less than two weeksutterly disillusioned. By that point, I had been pick-pocketed and my wallet stolen. I had been given a black eye from running into the shoulder of a teammate while swimming in a pool that was built prior to the invention of waterand certainly chlorine. I had sprained my ankle to such a degree that bruised and bulbous swelling extended from my knee to my toes. Upon seeing the pain I was in, my team leader had brought me four ibuprofen pills and a bottle of beer. One elderly local earnestly suggested I spend the next few days alternating compresses of vinegar and urine on my ankle. A teammate had to carry me slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes wherever we went.
The stark contrast between how well I thought I was prepared for mission work and the realities of my experiences was nearly too much to bear. I was miserable. In a frank discussion with my leader, I told him I had been swindled into believing "God would work powerfully through your life in mission. God is going to use you!" I remember specifically telling him, "If I were to leave today, I would never look back. I hate it here, and I don't like you much either!" I genuinely believed God had called me to take part in this trip; I had felt so zealous for God before I left. Still, here I was "suffering" immediately with the culture and not understanding why God would be allowing these painful things to occur. The experiences I was having didn't seem to fit the level of obedience I thought I had offered to God in coming. Didn't he owe me?
But something happened that day in late May. Despite my pride, anger, bitterness and immaturity, I had been given an opportunity to share the Good News with a Ukrainian athlete. His name was Igor. He was slightly shorter than me and had dark brown hair. As we approached the end of the gospel tract I was using, I sensed something in him I had never been blessed to witness before. I asked him if the prayer in the tract expressed the desire of his heart. He said "Yes," and placed his faith in Jesus. It is difficult to capture the moment within the confines of words, but what happened next left my life changed. I experienced the presence of God tangibly within his love for me and for Igor. God spoke to me in that moment about his love, his patience and his grace juxtaposed to my selfishness and pride. It wasn't laced with condemnation or exasperation. I just sensed that, against all reason, he was delighted in me through Christ. I was stunned. It was the first moment in my life where the thought hit me, "If God's love is like this, and if he can use someone like me to communicate his love, then I can't think of anything I'd rather do with my life than point people to Jesus."
One of the most important components of that summer for me was the wise, mature, Christ-centered leadership God had provided. My life was coming apart. My selfishness, complaining about unmet expectations and critical spirit reasonably deserved exasperation and frustration from my leaders. It would have been understandable if they had sent me home. Instead, I was treated with care and understanding. I sensed they loved me out of their character, not my own. They accurately detected a disconnect between my academic knowledge of Jesus' righteousness credited to me, and how I actually went about ministry. They helped me identify several things that had become idols for me, things which had served as my "functional saviors," things I trusted in for my righteousness other than Christ. Here are a few of those things:
- zeal for the lost
- personal disciplines
- ministry results
- the intensity of my hard work
- superior theological training
- strategic mission objectives
- public recognition for any of these
It was not until these things were stripped from me that I realized they had been my idols. God was gracious to give me wise leaders who could sniff these things out in my life and help me begin the process of resting completely in Christ's finished work on the cross.
As our current team helps train Chinese to answer God's call on their lives for mission, we think we can learn a few things from my experience. As we all know, these experiences are not unique. Many of us go into mission work with a great amount of zeal, believing ourselves to be ready to face whatever may come. Yet, we don't know anyone in mission who hasn't experienced these things in one way or another. As prefield trainers for new Chinese missionaries, we see them struggling with many of the same things. The purpose of this article is not to suggest another set of lessons to incorporate into the training experience; rather, we are suggesting a kind of training environment essential to seeing Chinese missionaries well prepared for what they will face on the field.
Many excellent things have been written about what components should comprise prefield mission training curricula. These components include theological knowledge, missiological instruction, ministry skills training, strategy formulation, platform preparation and so on. We affirm these whole-heartedly, but, as we have repeatedly learned the hard way, the "academics" of this preparation are not enough. We cannot simply add a module to satisfy this need. We must be people who are deeply at rest in what Christ has done for us. There are no short-cuts. (Let us as trainers also be vigilant so as not to allow our "productivity" in cranking out trainees to become a functional savior in our own lives.) Prefield training must consist in a large part of drilling the gospel deep into the hearts of those preparing to go. Trainers must bear in mind that these things may not sink in until the functional saviors the trainees have trusted in prove to be false. Yet, as ministers of the gospel ourselves, we must be part of pointing our brothers and sisters to Jesus.
Please read the two columns below from side to side. The bullet points go together. The left column describes a person who is a minister of the gospel, but not experiencing it personally. The right column describes a person who is a minister of the gospel and is experiencing it personally. As you may suspect, the left column is highly auto-biographical.
The risks of not providing an environment where trainees are pointed to Christ's finished work on the cross are enormous.
No one has done any formal study on Chinese missionaries who have been sent out: how long they last on the field and the cross-cultural effectiveness of their eventual ministry. Some have ventured to estimate that in several countries in Southeast Asia, out of 100 or so such workers who have arrived in these countries, less than ten managed to stay beyond six months and engaged in actual cross-cultural work. The rest either returned home, having made no perceivable plan to stay long-term, or they ended up reaching the immigrant or business population from China. Most front-line practioners have seen similar trends. It is our assertion that this attrition rate is because most of the training currently available is primarily addressing the academics of mission preparation.
The gospel-centered training environment we are suggesting is not easy; it is messy–but it is essential.
Dan Chevry and the Sojourner Cross-Cultural Training Team coauthored this article as a joint-effort. Sojourner provides prefield training for Chinese missionaries. If you would like to interact with them, they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image Credit: Gaylan Yeung