I landed in Hong Kong and China 20 years ago this month. Much has changed in and around me. The world is different. But if there is one thing that I can be sure of, it’s the faithful presence of God. Have there been times when I felt alone in my missionary journey? Of course. Have there been moments when I wanted to throw in the towel? Most certainly. But after 20 years of missions efforts in Southeast Asia, I have seen a glimpse of God’s heart for unreached peoples, and that propels me forward.
The past has created chasmal etchings upon my heart. I have experienced mountaintop highs and dark valley depths. And God has taught me valuable lessons all along the way. I am forever changed, ever foreign and always striving to create life impact among Asia’s hardest to reach people groups.
This list of 10 things I’ve learned in my last 20 years of missionary work in Asia is by no means exhaustive. 20 years is a long time. There are many more lessons I have yet to learn, and I look forward to what comes next.
Here are some of the things I have come to realize on my missional journey:
1. THE CHARM IS SURE TO WEAR OFF.
Upon initial arrival, everything is strange and beautiful. Your camera is pointing in every direction. You’re taking in this new world. But add to the equation cultural differences, language communication problems, loneliness, and a myriad of other issues that missionaries deal with, and you’re gonna need to find some serious staying power. The “love” you had for the people before you arrived may begin to wear off. I felt that. My early journal entries are filled with pages about how much I loved the Chinese. But as I grew to understand the culture more, I began to only love the idea of them. What I learned is that if I focus first on God and his grace, love and kindness naturally spill over toward people. Missionary attrition is at an all time high. People are leaving left and right. When the charm wears off—and I assure you, it will—remember God’s great love for the world, remember the lostness of man, and remember that God means for your life to be a vibrant testimony of his gospel message in your cross cultural setting.
2. TRY EVERYTHING UNTIL YOU FIND YOUR NICHE.
I went to orphanages, college campuses, rural villages, drug rehabilitation centers and underground churches. I wanted to serve, but I wasn’t sure what specific role that God had for me. So I tried everything. It’s a good way to start narrowing down your passions and the opportunities that are out there for you to serve. I personally found myself gravitating toward the rural countryside, to the homes and huts of unreached people groups. Years later, this honed passion would grow into a ministry called Within Reach Global that my wife and I pioneered. Had I not explored many different facets of ministry, I may never have found my deepest passion.
3. A MENTOR CAN HELP PROPEL TO YOU VICTORY.
Gone are the days of lone ranger missionaries. If you’re wanting to leave an imprint on the communities that you’re targeting, it is essential that you surround yourself by people who have been down this road before. I was incredibly blessed to be mentored by a group of missionary men in China. Chuck Lenhart often told me, “You’re a small part of the big thing God is doing.” Glenn Robinson reminded me that this story is not just about me. Henrik Jensen pointed out that God was using me not just because of me, but more often in spite of me! Working and ministering alongside a team of leaders empowered me. It elevated me. Both in times of struggle and in victory, having mentors in my life brought clarity and purpose. People may someday say that I did something great in the world. I hope they do. But I know the truth. Without the continual input I received from mentors and missionary heroes, I would still be floundering in my missional calling.
4. YOU WILL BE LONELY.
Missionary to China, Lottie Moon, said, “I pray that no missionary will ever be as lonely as I have been.” Unfortunately many missionaries who live and minister in cross cultural scenarios deeply struggle with loneliness. If there’s one word to describe my early days in China, it would most certainly be “loneliness”. We don’t have to take the “slow boat to China” anymore, but even with today’s modern technology—Facebook, Skype, and the like—it can be a struggle to connect on the deeper level with church, family and friends. I have to constantly remind myself of this: I am not alone. I am surrounded by a great host of witnesses, past and present. The Holy Spirit is always with me. Though it may have been ages since we have received a postcard, personal letter or a care package, there is at least a small group of people who think of you and pray for you.
5. CREATE A TEAM OF VISION PARTNERS.
I’m not just talking about fundraising. One time cash donations in offering plates will only get you so far. I’m talking about sharing your vision with people who will stand behind you and your passion for the long haul. Call it friend-raising if you will. Make sure they’re in the know through personal messages, phone calls, postcards, newsletters, etc. I’ve come to realize the incredible power of a team of vision partners. They are the ones holding the ropes, lowering me down into the goldmine of souls in Asia. Without my team of vision partners, there’s no way I would celebrate the success and impact I’ve seen over the years. We are together in this thing, and I’m not unaware of that. My success can be directly accredited to the people standing behind me in prayer and financial support. My favorite resource on finding vision partners is The God Ask by Steve Shadrach.
6. FIND TIME TO REST AND PROCESS.
One of the challenges to missional living in cross cultural scenarios is learning how to say no. Desperate need surrounds missionaries on every side. It can be overwhelming at times. After all, we came to serve, to bless, to make an impact among those who are in desperate need. But taking time to rest, to get away and meditate is essential to missionary health. Jesus knew this. Even when the crowds were at a all time high, he slipped away to an undisclosed location. He said “no” to the crushing needs of the moment so that he could regain strength in the quiet space between pioneering. Missionaries often feel ashamed to get away and take a vacation. It’s one of the 10 things missionaries won’t tell you. After years of trying to suppress the need for rest, I am finally coming to grips with the reality of finding inner strength in a quiet place. And for someone on the front lines of reaching the unreached world, that momentary time alone by myself is a game changer.
7. SUCCESS ISN’T ALWAYS EASY TO MEASURE.
I am a pioneer spirit. I’m not easily satisfied with status quo. I like to see results and success. But it can be difficult to gauge success in the spiritual realm. Spreadsheets and numerical values don’t tell the whole story. Discipleship and life transformation is a process and people are not concrete values. I have traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout Southwest China’s rural communities. I have shared the gospel to innumerable unreached peoples. I have baptized and discipled hundreds of people. But sometimes I wonder if I have seen success or not. This is the conclusion I’ve come to: I am called to be not only to do. Who I am is simply a follower of Christ, and if my life impacts others in a positive Christian way, God knows the details. He knows how to measure success. Sometimes I hear stories. People thank me for helping them along the journey. They praise me for what my life stands for. But I know deep inside, I am simply a ragamuffin, a sojourner, one of the weak things of the world that hopes to leave a mark in eternity. At this point, I cannot concisely state how my life has changed the world. The treasure I’m laying up is not on earth, but in heaven. Someday we’ll see what true success in the eyes of God is, and we might all be a little surprised.
8. YOU WILL BE MISUNDERSTOOD. GET USED TO IT.
In airplanes and public parks, restaurants and offices people will ask you what you do. The word “missionary” conjures up a host of mental images, not all desirable. So you’ll have to explain what you do. Even then, most people simply won’t get it. Even family members will wonder when you’re going to “get a real job”. Someone recently asked me that point blank. At Within Reach Global, we are reaching the least reached people groups of Southeast Asia through evangelism, discipleship and church planting. But even my closest friends still wonder what I’m really doing. C.T. Studd said, “Some wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell; I wish to run a rescue mission within a yard of hell.” I know I’ll be misunderstood for giving up some temporal comforts for the sake of the unreached world, but I’m actually totally fine with that.
9. READ YOUR BIBLE, PRAY EVERY DAY AND YOU’LL GROW, GROW, GROW.
There have been seasons when I seriously thought that my well-crafted structures and strategies for reaching the lost would suffice. To be sure, there is value in vision and mission. A well organized outreach plan is imperative. But at the end of the day, I must learn, like Hudson Taylor, to “move men through God by prayer alone.” You see, “The history of missions is the history of answered prayer.” But not only have I realized that I need to spend time in prayer for the people I am reaching in ministry. I need to be nourished. I need reminding of God’s presence and promises. The simple reality is this: God has invited me to walk alongside him, to know him, to see what he’s up to, and join him in this epic redemptive plan of salvation. That truth comes through time spent in the word and in prayer. That in turn evokes joy—which is my strength—and God knows I need power to accomplish all that he has called me to do at the uttermost parts of the earth.
10. I HAVEN’T ARRIVED YET.
I have seen breakthrough among unreached people groups. I have seen life transformation in the hardest to reach regions of Southeast Asia. I have subliminally made notches in my missions belt, stories of glory and victory. I have experienced mountaintop experiences of missional living, and with it came chasmal valleys and dark struggle. But the story is still being told. King David said, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” The road ahead is winding around the bend, disappearing in the distance. I am still a sojourner, ever foreign, looking forward to arriving at my true home. 20 years have passed since I first landed on Asian soil. Who can say how many more years I will be here? But one thing I know to be certain: God’s purposes are sure and his glory is enduring. My vision remains, to honor God and to reach the unreached.
Inspired to reach unreached people groups with us? You can donate to Within Reach Global on our donation page here.