“I don't know, Jen, are we even ‘doing’ anything there? Or is it just a thing to…feel like we are doing something?” My dear friend emailed me those words last week. Our two families have been going each week to the apartment of a newly arrived Somalian refugee family. We drive across town every Sunday afternoon with cookies and board games and we pile into their teeny apartment living room and spend an awkward hour attempting to bring levity to their otherwise very difficult lives. It’s been about six weeks and she’s right, it doesn’t feel like we’re getting much done.
Her question points to a deep truth, which is felt acutely amongst missionaries overseas: missions is a long, hard slog. But this reality is rarely discussed here at home.
Here in North America we have energizing missions conferences and provocative books that prompt us to consider going. Many of these conferences and books do, in fact, send us packing for God’s glory and the joy of all people. My husband and I love these conferences and books. We need leaders who consistently point us back to God’s global purpose and our role in it. Without their enthusiasm and convicting messages we slide into self-absorbed monotony.
But here’s what every missionary experiences about six months into his or her stint overseas: a sinking feeling of, “Oh my goodness. What have I gotten my family into over here? This people group is not receiving us. They cannot understand me. I cannot understand them. I am exhausted. This is not what I signed up for.” Like my friend, they ask, “Are we even doing anything here?”
In my 17 years as a missionary, I have been to retreats and heard women in Japan cry out to God for mercy in the hard soil to which He has called them. I have gathered in small groups and seen the anguish on the faces of women in Tibet whose children are paying a very high price for what they perceive to be little or no payoff. I have shared coffee with women in Europe who wonder if they’ve dedicated their lives in vain to the people in their host countries. They each ask, "Are we even doing anything here?"
Two years ago when our mission agency had a Europe-wide conference, hundreds of church planters from across the continent (which has a total Evangelical Christian population of only 2.7%) gathered for refreshment and training. As various regional leaders stood before the crowd to share updates, they literally repeated one another over and over, “Missions is a long, hard slog.” We had been in one of the world’s most atheist nations for over a year and we couldn’t have agreed more ourselves.
At missions conferences, on the field, and even here at home, we who are in Christ need to remind each other that while we are called to be faithful, it’s up to the Lord to produce the fruit.
With all authority in heaven and earth, Jesus asked us to go and tell all nations about Him in Matthew 28:16-20. He asks us to be faithful and He promises to be there (v. 20). In Acts 1:7-8 He promises to provide us with His power through the Holy Spirit as we go out into every neighborhood here at home and abroad. As we go, He goes. We carry Christ in us into every context whether it’s here in the United States or overseas. Not only does He promise to be with us and to provide the necessary power, but He promises that our efforts will not be in vain. Revelation 5:9 tells that people will indeed believe from every tribe, tongue, and nation. There will be fruit, produced by the Lord Himself, through our faithfulness.
God’s redeemed people are God’s means for redeeming people.
I’m looking forward to sharing a cup of coffee with my friend this week and telling her that I completely understand her apprehension—I feel it too. But, yes, I believe we are really doing something there. Because when we walk into that apartment, so does Christ in us. Though our attempts at connecting with our Somalian friends are feeble at best, Christ in us is present. Jesus fills their apartment at least once a week. As we obey Him and sit with them on the very rug from which they pray to Allah, Jesus asks us to trust Him that His power is present and He will bear fruit according to His will.
The truth about missions is that it’s a long, hard slog. More often than not, I think missionaries feel ineffective. Crossing cultures in Jesus’ name is downright painful. But we are God’s means for His ends and we must step out in faith, trusting His presence and His power, and that He will bear His fruit in His time.