Women have a unique and influential role in ministry, in marriage, as singles, in their families. Add missional engagement in unexplored frontier areas of China and the results are an adventurous journey following God and relying on his grace and strength. In this article, Rachel Wood shares her personal encounters with God’s guidance, grace, and power throughout her experiences in pioneer church planting and raising a family in China.
Mothering our three children while their dad traveled every month was difficult, but the highlights from my opportunities to actively join in the ministry brought meaning and a depth of purpose to our lives overseas. This “missional mothering” was different in terms of challenges and anxieties as my children grew, but the main commonality has been purposeful living—the intentionality to include outreach and discipleship among my home responsibilities. Whether at the market, in taxis or on buses, at the park, or in homes, I sought to engage those around me in conversations that would lead to spiritual questions and gospel sharing.
We lived in China for more than two decades as church planters. During that time, the abnormal became normal for our family. Normal to us was haggling with outdoor market vendors on the prices for just picked fresh fruits and vegetables that lay beside trays of pig heads, entrails, and basins of flapping fish. Our firstborn son had just turned one when we arrived in China. As our family grew, he and his younger sister and brother thought nothing was unusual about riding on yaks at horse festivals or gulping down five or six wooden bowls of salty and buttery tea with their barley flour paste. Instead of ice cream trucks and hot dog stands, our children enjoyed fresh cut pineapple on thin wooden chopsticks and steaming fluffy meat buns. With no wedding cake in sight, they gobbled up fried bee larvae served at our local friends’ weddings. They assumed the rest of the world also went to school with classmates from over eighteen countries.
When my children were babies, I toted them inside my cloth baby sling strapped tightly to my torso. We joined local students for the Friday and Saturday night traditional minority circle dances. On evenings like this, sometimes my child would fall asleep as I engaged the students in spiritual conversations.
The people group we worked with lived two to three days’ bus ride from our home in the city. My husband faithfully took ten- to fourteen-day ministry trips outside of our city each month. For safety, he usually travelled with a teammate or ministry team. While he travelled, my days were filled with caring for three young children and language learning. I practiced speaking with local friends. I organized a mom and child prayer-group that rotated to fellow workers’ homes and the homes of local women with whom we were developing relationships.
I felt a particular kindred spirit with Wendy (pseudonym), a local mom. Our daughters were the same age. God was pleased to draw her to himself, and we became sisters in Christ and close friends. When Wendy’s father was hospitalized for liver cancer treatments, she asked me to share the gospel with him.
Partnering as a Family
Instead of balancing my time devoted to each of my roles as a disciple of God, a wife, mother, and cross-cultural worker, I found that the seasons of life required a juggling of the various responsibilities of each role. When my children were young, I invested more of my time in the home. If I was not able to venture out to the community, I knew I could at least bring the community into our home. I sought to use our home as a safe place and a serving place. I have memories of guests holding our newborn daughter or son while watching the Jesus Film, and of cooking and cleaning up together over discipleship conversations. We played games with our children in between Bible study at our dining table. These moments brought joy and meaning to my early days of missional mothering.
As our three children grew older and began to attend the international school in our city, I found that the equation began to shift now that I had more time to devote to opportunities outside my home and in the community. The children became less needy of me and were able to stay with my husband while I was able to tag team with him making monthly trips to villages. Like my husband, I sought to travel with another teammate or ministry partner for safety but also for the opportunity to work together. We discipled and trained women in the local churches that had been planted. The times when I travelled led to precious bonding times for dad and the children at home. It gradually became okay with me to leave them together as I surrendered control and allowed that while I was in villages our house would be messier, the children’s meals would include ramen and soda, and there would be less frequent baths. The children cherished these times with dad so much that when my husband was heading out for one of his trips, all three children would exclaim, “Can’t it be mom that goes on the trip?”
Eventually my husband and I were able to take our children with us to the villages. We committed every Thanksgiving break to travel to villages as a family. Our children grew to love those areas and peoples. Now our children are in high school, college, and graduate school. Our local partners and the people in the villages still ask about them.
Opportunities to fellowship with local believers and do life-on-life ministry with them—even digging potatoes together, planting barley, picking walnuts, sharing our lives, and praying for their needs and sick family members—allowed our relationships to deepen and we became true brothers and sisters in Christ. I have witnessed the Holy Spirit change people’s hearts and lives testified by their actions and words. One example is the opportunity I had to know Andrew (pseudonym), a believer who suffered for the Lord. Our relationship with Andrew began at a training event where the women had brought new believers from their village to join us.
During a break between a chronological storying session and evangelism training, I asked Andrew, then a relatively new brother in Christ, to share his testimony with me. He said:
Sister Rachel, before I came to Christ, I used to come home drunk most nights and beat my wife, my little daughter, and even my father-in-law who was living with us. My daughter would run and try to hide in our little home whenever I arrived. However, when my friend shared the gospel with me and I became a believer, my life changed. Now when I go home, I hug my wife and father-in-law, and my daughter even comes running into my arms.
A year later Andrew and the other believers in his village tried to build a church for their gatherings, but the local monks came and tore it down They beat Andrew and the other believers. When I met him a couple of weeks after that incident, Andrew recounted how he and fellow church members had tried to block the monks from tearing down their simple church building. He told me they punched him, hit him in the face, on his mouth, and even knocked out some of his teeth. He said, “The whole time they were beating me, I remembered how Christ was beaten for me, and thought, ‘This is a little bit of how my Lord must have felt.’”
After almost two decades of frontier church planting, we saw God raise up local believers with a heart for cross-cultural outreach. They were ready to begin sending out workers. My husband and I hosted a conference for a large church-planting network and trained leaders to select, teach, send, and support their own members. I facilitated a sharing time with the single women evangelists, pastors’ wives, and wives of the sending center directors. As we shared and prayed for one another, I realized that they struggled with some of the same challenges that my fellow expatriate women and I struggled with. These conflicts occurred as we gave our best to the Lord, our husbands, our children, and those we were called to serve. Even though our language and culture were different, we all experienced similar joys, struggles, anxieties, inadequacies, guilt, and blessings.
Suffering and Bearing Fruit Together
The greatest challenge we faced was when our youngest son, Ethan (pseudonym), was ten years old. As they grew up in China, Ethan was the most spiritually sensitive of our three children. At four, he had told us to “speak the language” and share the Christmas story to evangelize the local guests we had invited for dinner. He always asked every guest who joined at our dinner table—which averaged a couple of times each week—”Do you know Jesus”? Then one night Ethan complained that his foot hurt. We assumed that since he was a healthy and active ten-year-old boy, he must have sprained his foot riding his bike, running, or playing soccer with his friends. The following day Ethan still complained of his aching foot. We gave him a pain reliever and put him to bed. That night he cried in unbearable pain. The next day, we took him to the medical clinic in our city that was run by an expatriate Christian doctor. He was unable to give an accurate diagnosis but took blood samples. Unexpectedly, the bloodwork results indicated a malignancy. The doctor advised us that if Ethan were his son, he would take him to Hong Kong for a check-up as soon as possible. Within twenty-four hours, three Hong Kong oncologists had all diagnosed Ethan with cancer that needed immediate treatment. We soon found ourselves back in the United States facing a long road ahead of chemotherapy and radiation for acute leukemia.
While Ethan continued therapy, I returned to China to close down our home of almost eighteen years. It was Wendy and other dear local partners who came to pray with me and for what lay ahead. My fellow workers, who had become like family to me, helped with the sorting, packing, moving, and storing of our family of five’s household goods. I could not have accomplished this in less than a week without their love in action—whether dealing with apartment utilities and phone bills, providing meals, boxing and taping, hauling furniture and books, and even driving me and two bags of our family’s most precious mementos, along with Ethan’s special books and toys, to the airport for the long trans-Pacific flight back to the USA. At that time, Ethan was just one month into his three-and-a-half-years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We praise God that Ethan is now in remission. After four years, we were able return to China. Our local partners and the churches that had been planted were still standing strong.
My life’s journey has led me toward a deeper understanding of God’s grace, sovereignty, and faithfulness. I have experienced the depths of his faithfulness. Even through sickness, governmental restrictions, and natural disasters (an earthquake during our third term) nothing done in his name and for his kingdom is wasted. It is hard and challenging work, but as we take up our cross daily, we know that our “labor in the Lord” is not in vain and that “at the proper time we will reap a harvest.” It is worth it because the precious spotless Lamb is worthy. God’s presence and power were evident in spiritual valleys and mountaintop experiences of ministering cross-culturally. It has been a joy and privilege to follow God’s leading.
Image credit: Randy Posslenzny
Rachel Wood (pseudonym) has lived in East Asia for over 25 years and has been involved in full-time ministry since 1997. In addition to being a wife, she is mom to two adult children, a new daughter-in-love, and a high schooler who is with them overseas. Her passions and interests are missions, …View Full Bio