What are the first steps to becoming a missionary?
A missionary’s call is not a “career choice”. It is a calling from God. As a former missionary I know this, and experienced this call in my life nearly twenty years ago. And when I took that step of obedience, by faith, I embarked on an adventure that took me to places I’d never dreamed of going.
I have a friend who experienced the same calling, but not to Guatemala. She went all the way to Cambodia to work with “the least of these“. Jennifer describes her calling in her own words.
The Call of a Missionary
It is so amazing to look back over many years and see the hand of God on one’s life and how He weaved together both the negative and positive, joyful and painful things together to guide us to the path He designed for us. I understood the Gospel and had a desire to know and follow Jesus when I was just 5 years old.
I had heard about Jesus at church, and I began to understand the love of Jesus through a loving Sunday school teacher. I told my mother that I wanted to believe in Jesus and ask Him to save me, and she invited the pastor to come and talk to me.
I remember waiting excitedly for the pastor to come, sitting by the window watching for car lights to enter our driveway. I remember the pastor sitting with me at the kitchen table and sharing the Gospel with me. I remember following him in a prayer to ask Jesus to be my Savior. I remember the joy and peace of knowing that I now belonged to Jesus forever.
As a ten year old child, I attended a Vacation Bible School at my church. I remember the teacher telling the story of Mary Slessor, a missionary to Africa. I remember the pictures of Mary trusting Jesus for protection from lions and violent gang members, and the stories of Mary loving the African people and guiding them to Jesus.
I remember the joy and peace of knowing that I now belonged to Jesus forever.
At the end of the lesson, the teacher gave an invitation (that perhaps was not very well done). I remember the teacher asking who wanted to be like Mary and do what Mary did (meaning trusting Jesus as her Savior). But my heart was racing with excitement about the adventures and ministry of Mary Slessor, and all I could think about was going to a country some day to tell people about Jesus and trusting Him to help and protect me in these adventures just as Mary did.
Related: When God Spoke My Name – Literally
So, I raised my hand. The well-meaning teacher was excited as she led me to another room, probably thinking that I wanted to trust Jesus as my Savior. She had me sit in a chair facing her as she shared with me the whole Romans road and the Gospel, while I listened politely.
Finally, she asked me if I was ready to put my trust in Jesus and ask Him to save me. I told her no. She asked me why. I explained that I have already done that, and that now I want to do what Mary Slessor did…I wanted to go to another country to tell people about Jesus. The teacher seemed disappointed and was not sure what to do next. But that was a defining moment for me…the spark for missions had been lit in my heart.
The spark for missions had been lit in my heart.
Developing a Missionary’s Heart
Meanwhile, there were many painful situations that God allowed in my life that I can now see He worked together for good. The loss of a baby brother gave me a passion to love and help children, and I often had dreams of saving babies when I slept at night.
Enduring several types of abuse gave me compassion and empathy for people in this world who have been hurt or rejected. Being bullied continually at school gave me the courage to be different, to follow the beat of a different drum, to follow Jesus rather than the peer pressure of kids at school.
Finally, at the age of 14 years old, I attended a mission conference where I publicly gave my life to Jesus to be a missionary. I remember the peace and joy of knowing beyond doubt that I had found my purpose in life, the purpose that God had created me for.
Being bullied continually at school gave me the courage to be different, to follow the beat of a different drum, to follow Jesus rather than the peer pressure of kids at school.
As a teenager in high school, I hung out with disabled, socially awkward and rejected kids, befriending them and telling them about Jesus. I read as many missionary biographies as I could get my hands on. Hudson Taylor, George Mueller, Amy Carmichael and Elizabeth Elliot were my heroes.
Cultivating an Authentic Heart for Missions
However, looking back now, I realize that much of my passion for missions was for all the wrong reasons. Missionary stories were adventurous and exciting and romantic… and as far from my difficult home life as possible. Missionary biographies were my obsession to help me get through some very difficult things at home.
Becoming a missionary seemed like the exact opposite of the struggles I was enduring at home. Going into missions for the adventure or for the excitement or to escape dysfunctional, abusive relationships are never good reasons to go into ministry. Furthermore, self-fulfillment and boosting our self-esteem when we feel good from helping other people is a selfish and wrong reason for serving God. These motives will never hold a person on the mission field for the long haul when life gets tough with obstacles, exhaustion, difficulty, persecution or suffering.
Our service to Jesus must be an outpouring of our love for Him based on our close walk with Him.
Still, God was gracious to me in allowing me to hold onto the dream of being a missionary to help me through some difficult years. It was not until later as a young mother and missionary that I began to realize that my motives for serving Jesus were all wrong.
Our service to Jesus must be an outpouring of our love for Him based on our close walk with Him. Any other motives are wrong, including boosting our self-esteem, serving out of obligation, being unable to say no because we are afraid of what other people think, serving for the adventure, serving for the power of being a leader, etc. Yet, God is gracious to us and uses us for His glory and for the benefit of people even when He knows that our heart motives are not quite right.
Related: What on Earth is God Doing?
Get Missionary Training
After high school, I attended two years of Bible school. These were the best two years of my life as I was surrounded by missions and ministry opportunities. I was excited and charging forward in my calling while being surrounded by other believers who were also moving forward in serving the Lord and various ways.
At the end of those two years, I went on a two-month mission trip to India and fell in love with the country. I wanted nothing more than to be a full-time missionary to India. So I returned to the US and proceeded to prepare for India by attending a university where I could get a degree that would allow me to get a visa for India long term.
I am so thankful to the Lord that He knew me better than I know myself and loved me enough to change my course.
In the meantime, I served at several Indian churches in the US near the University so that I could learn more of the language and culture. However, sometimes we are blinded thinking that our dreams and passions are God’s plans for us. God had a big change of plans in store for me, and now, looking back, I am so thankful to the Lord that He knew me better than I know myself and loved me enough to change my course.
India was my dream. But just as I was about to reach that dream and had everything working in place for me to achieve that dream, God introduced me to a different plan…His plan.
I met a man from Cambodia, a refugee who had survived years of torture, starvation and genocide under the communist Khmer Rouge, had come to know Jesus in a refugee camp in Thailand, and was now a student at the Bible University I was attending. As I got to know him and his family and began serving in his church with Cambodian refugees in inner-city Philadelphia, we began to talk of marriage.
But this man had no calling to be a missionary. His calling was to serve God among Cambodian refugees in the inner city. He had escaped from horrible things in his country of Cambodia and had no desire or reason to return as a missionary. Yet he had a passion for serving his fellow Cambodian refugees in ghetto areas of this city here in America inflicted with poverty, gang warfare, drugs, etc.
I wrestled with the idea of marrying this man. I was called to be a missionary. He was not. Logically, I could not marry a man who was not called to missions. After much prayer and fasting and wrestling, I realized that India, my dream that was now within reach, was my dream for me, not God’s dream for me.
I also realized that if I had promised God that I would be a missionary, I was not going back on my promise, but, rather, leaving that promise in His hands and trusting God to help me fulfill that promise. I also realized that my marrying into a family and community of refugees in the inner city of the US, I was, indeed, being a missionary.
My dream that was now within reach, was my dream for me, not God’s dream for me.
After we were married, my husband and I served in his Cambodian church in Philadelphia for a year, working with youth and children. Then we moved to California where my husband pastored a Cambodian church and I was a youth leader for Cambodian youth. Several years later we moved into an inner-city ghetto in California where we started a small house church and a after school program for Cambodian and Latino children and for youth desiring to escape the gangs.
Related: Showing Compassion to the Hurting
Then one day, my husband surprised me…God had been working on his heart, and he felt called to return to Cambodia as a missionary. Wow! I had trusted God to hold and fulfill my promise to Him. And this was His surprise answer for me.
A Missionary Sees a World with Needs
Jennifer is right, the way God works is far different from our own ways. The tapestry he’s weaving in our lives is much more intricate and beautiful than our minds can imagine. He sees the bigger picture!
This story continues in Part 2, so stay tuned! The adventure has only begun! Meanwhile, here are some facts about Cambodia.
Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia and borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Its population is over 16 million and the official religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by 95% of the population. The Khmer language is the official language and is spoken by most Cambodians. The Government is a constitutional monarchy which is lead by a prime minister. Corruption is prevalent at all levels of government and society and human rights issues include slavery and displacement.
Cambodia still continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world. Less than 3% of the population are described as Christian and, currently, Christians worship and work freely in the nation.
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