When people think about giving up their career, future plans, friends and family and heading overseas to live for Jesus, they can get a bit nervous. It can feel like standing on the edge of a dark cliff, not knowing what might await them if they jump off. They’re terrified. Will I die? Will my life be ruined? Will I have anything to make me happy ever again? Is this a good idea?
But people take much more terrifying risks all the time. They get married, for instance.
People decide to sign away the rest of their personal freedom until the day they or their spouse dies. They choose to subject themselves to years of sleepless nights and trying days raising children. They choose to put themselves under a whole new host of financial responsibilities and liabilities. They choose to trust their entire futures with another fallen human, not knowing how they might act in years to come. When we think of the logic and the risks involved, this is terrifying.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to get married, or that marriage is a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s crazy. Terrifyingly crazy.
But people do it all the time. They meet someone, fall in love, and decide that it’s worth it to take the jump. They decide that marriage is a good idea. They decide that they want to do this. People encourage them towards it. They feel God leading them towards it. And they go for it.
Now back to the terrifying jump towards a life in missions. Is it anywhere near as risky, terrifying, and illogical as the decision to get married?
Let’s have a look at a little comparison of God’s promises and the realities surrounding these two decisions.
Deciding to live for Jesus in the nations shouldn’t be anywhere near as scary as deciding to get married. It’s not anywhere near as dangerous or risky. So why are people so terrified of it? Why can so few people make the leap?
If people can somehow decide that the decision of marriage is worth it, they can easily make the leap to waste their lives in some unreached part of the world.
People can fall in love with Jesus and decide he’s worth it. They can decide that it’s a good and worthwhile thing to do. They can decide that they want to do it. They can be encouraged to go for it. They can feel God leading them towards it.
What if people in the church encouraged people towards missions just as much as they encouraged them towards marriage? Why don’t they?
“In almost all areas of development, there is what is called a critical period, a time when we are primed for growth and change, when simple exposure can lead to dramatic transformation…. Afterward, things are not so easy.
The twenties are that critical period of adulthood.”
There is something very special about the twenties. It’s a time of massive growth and vocational development. I got to the field when I was 23, and those first seven years were hugely formational for me. I learned to get comfortable in a different culture, get encouraged and strengthened in prayer, talk to people very different than me, and live a life of explaining Jesus to people who never got to hear about him before.
Many of my friends who have flourished in evangelism and discipleship in unreached places also cut their teeth in their twenties. Most moved overseas in the 21-24 range. Before they got married or settled down, they had a lot of time and freedom to get out and about with the local people. They travelled to different villages and saw God do wonderful things. They gained a faith and an appetite for miraculous connections and opportunities to share Christ. Their young brains were imprinted with the ability to interface with lost people in a different language, and they gained a natural rapport (“identity capital” as some would say) that laid a foundation for deep relationships and dicipleship for the years ahead.
It’s not impossible for people to learn some of these things in their thirites, forties, or even sixties, but it can be a lot harder. I do know amazing people who went to the field and were used in much later years, and I praise God for calling and using people at all ages. But I still do believe there’s something so special about spending the twenties on the field. For Jesus’ sake we should strive and fight to get them out there with him.
Young potential missionaries don’t need good jobs, seminary degrees, or families of three. They need to get out there and be exposed and transformed during these especially formative years. As Meg Jay said, “simple exposure can lead to dramatic transformation”. They just need some community, encouragement, and above all a vibrant relationship with Jesus.
From what I’ve seen, a 23 year old with two years of experience on the field will have exponentially more missiological knowledge and wisdom than a 32 year old with four years of seminary training.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:36-37)
What do a potential missionary and the royal official in John 4 have in common?
In John 4 we read about a royal official who came to Jesus, begging him to come and heal his son who was close to dying. Instead of coming with him and healing his son, he just said, “You can go, your son will live.”
And this royal official simply “took Jesus at his word and left.”
Conventional wisdom would say that the father of the dying child was acting foolishly. People would have seen or heard that Jesus healed people by touching them. That’s just how it was done. He should have persisted, should have brought Jesus right to his house and secured the opportunity to have him put his hand on his son.
Instead, the royal official just left and walked away towards his son’s impending death. He had literally nothing to go on except for Jesus’ word that he will be ok.
Those wanting to leave their normal life and pursue a life of making Jesus know among the unreached face a similar challenge of faith.
Conventional wisdom says that you can’t just give up all these important things in life and expect everything to turn out ok. Everyone has to work really hard to secure things for their future. You can’t just walk away and expect them to be taken care of for you. I mean really, who’s ever seen that happen!?
“You need to have a paycheck to make sure you can provide for yourself and your family. How will you pay the bills? How will you save for retirement? Think about your future.”
“What if this doesn’t work out and you have to come back home? What do you have to ‘fall back on’. How will you make a living?”
“So-and-so is such a good man/woman of God. And you’re not getting any younger. If you walk away now how will you ever find someone to marry? Do you want to be a weird old lonely person??”
“You don’t have lots of ministry experience and haven’t even led anyone to Christ. What makes you think you sure you can just go over there and expect those people from a different religion to believe?”
“If you leave, who will take care of the people around you, who will reach them? Don’t you see that God needs you to be a light right here?”
“You have such an effective ministry in your home church here. Can’t you see that this is a very valuable gifting that you need to steward?”
“I heard that when people go overseas to these dark places, they can easily slip into heresy, and even teach others incorrect things. Shouldn’t you stay home and get more schooling, at least a masters in theology perhaps?”
“You get such joy from your current profession. This is who God’s made you to be, and he gives you satisfaction in your work. Won’t you shrivel up and die without it?”
Walking away from these things with no foreseeable guarantee for the future is kind of like the royal official walking away from the healer and just going back to his helpless, dying son. It seems irresponsible. It seems crazy.
But Jesus still tells us that we can go, we can let go, and we live and be ok.
“I tell you the truth … no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields (think sources of income/investments) for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age … and in the age to come, eternal life.” Mark 10:29-30
“Whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Mark 8:35
Every time you get out to spend some time with the lost people, it is important work.
It might feel like nothing much is happening. Maybe there wasn’t a really fantastic opportunity to share, or maybe your interactions were pretty awkward. “Is this really worth my time?” You might be asking.
Really, it is. There’s so much important stuff going on.
You’re reminded of Jesus’ heart for the people.
I constantly forget about lost people, and my heart constantly grows cold and apathetic. I find I need almost daily contact with them to keep my heart soft and keep my life and calling in perspective. Even if it’s just hearing one story from one person and getting a tiny hint of Jesus’ empathy and compassion for them, that’s priceless.
You’re getting a chance to hear and interact with the Father
God is very interested in reaching the lost, and if you put yourself out among them, you might hear or feel his prompting towards someone who is particularly in need of a witness. Moments like these are really special. It’s like being a little kid who gets to go to work with his dad.
You’re learning the language and culture
It may seem insignificant to have them slowly explain another joke, or learn one or two words you didn’t know before. But this is really crucial stuff. Bit by bit, you’re breaking down the wall between you so that you can understand them, clearly show them Christ, and eventually teach them to trust and follow him.
You’re learning to communicate his love and truth in a whole new channel of language and culture, and this takes looooots of time. You’re building a new life to be constantly used by him in witness, and even the most mundane and seemingly unspiritual interactions are important building blocks towards this goal.
You’re being a witness
Jesus sent his disciples out to be witnesses of him, to be people who told people who Jesus was and all that happened. And now this job gets handed down to us. The hugeness of this is beyond what we can fathom. After all, these words we carry from him can have an eternal impact.
I’ve been amazed to see how just a few words from a gospel worker can totally ruin someone’s life. I met someone who started his journey to faith because one foreigner (who he thought was crazy) simply smiled and answered a quick question about knowing he’s going to heaven. I also heard about someone who found some believers and wanted to give his life to Christ. He explained that 20 years ago he had one conversation with a couple of foreigners on the street, and God had never left him alone ever since.
Sometimes we can be tempted to belittle these chances to say something about him, thinking that they can’t make that much of a difference. We can feel like we’re just dropping a few tiny seeds into giant rocks, and they’ll never sprout. But just one of these seeds has the power to crack and uproot the world’s biggest mountain, leaving a massive orchard in its place.
If you go out and you didn’t get to say anything about him that day, just getting out there and wasting your time for Jesus is a beautiful act of worship. If you were wandering the streets and parks for six hours, aching for some opportunity to let someone know about who Jesus really was, that’s beautiful and it must please the Father’s heart.
Others around you (even leaders) might look down on your attempts to simply get out there and be a witness. They might even rebuke you like the people rebuked the woman anointing Jesus in Luke 14:
“Why this waste of your time? You could have used all that time for something more effective! You should have done ‘x’ or ‘y’!”
To which Jesus might say:
“Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Getting the good news to the darkest places on earth is like playing hockey.
Talking to people in a foreign language and culture is a bit like learning to skate on ice. At first, it feels extremely weird and difficult. People wave their arms, flop around and fall.
Just like skating, getting comfortable in these environments takes a lot of time and practice. It takes a lot of falling, bruises, and frustrations. But it’s also a lot of fun.
The missionary, like the hockey player, has to get on the ice, day after day, and put in the time it takes to be able to move around freely. He has to do drills and exercises (ie. language study). He has and spend time skating and playing with other people (ie. talking with locals).
While most people are happy keeping busy with normal life on dry ground, the hockey player has to sacrifice massive amounts of time and other pursuits to really get comfortable on the ice. As one athlete said, “You have to constantly say no to other things, and yes to your sport.”
The missionary, like the hockey player, is also learning to work with other people, to face constantly changing circumstances and get creative and improvise plays to get to get a shot at the net.
The hearts of unreached people, like the nets in hockey, are fiercely guarded. Before you even get close to them there are lines of defenders. They’re doing their best to block or knock down any opponent with a puck. There’s an entire team of well-coordinated opposition working to stop any kind of advance.
When skating towards the unreached with the puck of the gospel there can be all kinds of opposition. There’s religious fanaticism, suspicion of foreigners, and the everyday troubles that can arise when living abroad. There’s also distraction, doubt, and discouragement that seeks to dissuade down the gospel worker’s own heart from the game. Day after day the task can seem impossible. “Man they’ve got some good defense! How are we possibly gonna get the puck near the net today… it’s hopeless.”
But the missionary, like the hockey player, is spurred on by some indescribable hunger for the game. He feeds off the morale of his teammates, and lunges forward toward the impossible. He weaves through defenders, looks for open lines, and stays on his feet even in the face of big disappointments and crushing hits. He darts in and out of different openings and is always listening to the voice of his coach, the Holy Spirit.
Of course, the missionary can’t continually stay on the ice in the heat of the game. Every now and then he pops out to sit on the bench, catch his breath and rest. But he’s constantly getting back out there, throwing himself in the thick of it, helping his team and hoping for a shot on net.
Then, every now and then, something magical happens. Circumstances line up, and the missionary finds himself sitting in a room full of people with a with 1 or 2 open and curious hearts. Conversation turns into a testimony about Jesus, and there’s an open line past all the usual religious and cultural defenses.
Like a shot in the top corner of a hockey net, the missionary is able to deliver a few words about the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and people really get it. The gospel puck whizzes past the defenders and hits the heartstrings of a people who’ve never heard it before. The goal light goes off. The worker, the team, and the fans watching and praying all feel something like this: