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How Moving Abroad Helped Me Re-think Missions

Written By Sonja Chua, Singapore

When I first moved to Israel for work, the busyness of adjusting to life in a foreign land helped keep my mind occupied. However, as I started to settle into daily life and got used to the place, loneliness and homesickness began to sink in.

On weekends when my Israeli apartment-mate left to visit her family, I came back to an empty apartment—the silence and stillness unsettling to me, since I was rarely alone in Singapore. The shock of different working styles, a new culture, and the language barrier hit me hard.

It didn’t help that in the Middle East, I stick out like a sore thumb. I do not look like a local, neither do I speak like one. This is a constant reminder that I am not in a familiar place where I can easily fit in.

When I lamented about my struggles to my church’s missionary in Cambodia, she pointed out that this experience wasn’t much different from what new missionaries go through in the field, as they too experience culture shock while adjusting to new environments.

I also quickly learned that whenever my appearance and accent give me away as a foreigner, it almost always leads to questions about where I’m from. This opens up an opportunity for them to ask me questions about Singapore’s weather, the food, and various other things. While I admit I do not have a Wikipedia-page knowledge on Singapore, I have learned to memorize certain key facts in preparation for these questions, and do enjoy the opportunity to represent Singapore the best I can.

The conversation with my missionary friend, and the new realization that “sticking out” can lead to opportunities for sharing, encouraged me to think about my time in Israel from a new perspective. I realized that in many ways, I am like a “missionary” sent to Israel. All Christians, whether we’re called overseas to missions or for work, or to various other places or occupations, are always called to represent Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul writes that Christians are to be representatives or ambassadors for Christ. Jesus called all His disciples to be salt and light for Him (Matthew 5:13-14).

I’ve realized how great a responsibility Christians have for our lives to reflect the faith that we represent. As much as my face and hair and speech seem to tell everyone around me that I’m not from here, my words and actions as a Christian should do the same. After all, we have been set apart from the world (Romans 12:2). Recently, I have been considering how I can apply my life to be more dedicated to the call of ambassadorship on behalf of Christ. Here are two observations I’ve made.

 

1. It’s not enough to “look” Christian

It’s not enough to wear a cross, tell others you are a Christian, or attend church regularly. Being salt and light in the world means that others must see something different about our lives that is good, flowing from the faith we subscribe to. The way we live our lives and perceive the world around us should be different—through the lens of the gospel and eternity.

A simple way that I’ve been living that out is by practicing Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Being in academia, I find that it can be easy to get caught up in the rat race and be reluctant to share information such as experimental tips or unpublished research with others out of fear that they might steal your idea. Though it’s tempting, I personally do not subscribe to this rationale. While some of my colleagues have called me naive and too trusting in helping someone troubleshoot their failed experiment or even sharing study notes with a fellow student, I believe it is a simple way I can love my neighbor.

 

2. We can be missional with our words, too

When we are intentional in living out our faith, we are bound to get questions about the God we believe in. While no one can claim to know everything about Christianity, our willingness to engage with these questions can open up opportunities to share more about what we do know.

Once, while working in an international lab in Singapore, my Chinese colleague asked me what I did in church and why I would sacrifice my Friday evenings for Bible study even though I was tired at work. She also asked me whether I would ever “force” her to convert to Christianity.

This conversation caught me off guard, and I didn’t feel prepared to give a good answer. However, I was able to offer my colleague honesty and sincerity as I pieced together a response that I hope communicated how studying God’s word is life-giving after a long day of work and that Christian evangelism isn’t about “forcing” converts.

Since then, I’ve learned that what’s more important than having the “right” answers, is being ready to discuss people’s doubts and criticisms with them in a loving and respectful way (1 Peter 3:15). The other person is a fellow image bearer of God and how we respond to them says a lot of about the God we represent. In the midst of the discussion, if we get stuck, we can always say we do not know the answer and engage them later after we have researched a little more.

I am still learning to be an ambassador for Christ. Through various situations and conversations, I’m discovering that there are many opportunities for us to share about our faith with others. Recently, I got to speak to a Jewish student about the gospel of Matthew and share about a resource called the Bible Project—and I look forward to more of such conversations where I’m able to apply all I’ve learned and continue to grow in being salt and light to those around me.

 

These experiences have challenged me to think about how we, as Christians, are representing Christ where we’ve been placed. Do people notice us as being different because of our Christian faith? My prayer is that God will use us as His representatives to bring others to Christ wherever He has placed us to be.

Learning to Trust God in the Desert

Written By Judah Koh, Singapore

When I first started dating the woman who would eventually become my wife, my pragmatic and decisive nature got the better of me, and I declared to her, “I am called to missions, and I will eventually leave; are you? If you’re not, I think we don’t have to explore this relationship further.”

On hindsight, not only was this unromantic, but was actually a rather harsh conversation.

My girlfriend immediately asked me, “What makes you so sure?”

For seven years, I had my heart set on missions, but had never been bothered by such a question. I was always able to rationalize away the need to explain my call. It is a personal call after all, isn’t it? Yet this time round, I had to search deep; I couldn’t say that it was none of her business anymore, since we were dating, and might someday marry.

Thinking back, I remember that my journey towards missions began when I visited a church seven years ago. I was not yet a Christian at the time. I had been reading the Bible for the sake of disproving it, and various friends had invited me to different churches. That Sunday, the preacher of the church I was visiting shared testimonies from different missionaries. Against the logical personality that I prided myself on, I felt my heartstrings tugged by the stories. I did not know it at the time, but that was when I first said “yes” to missions. I was called, period.

Sometime during my exploration of Christianity, I became a Christian myself. That tug on my heart that I experienced became central to my faith journey. As soon as I was baptized, I tried very hard to get involved in my church’s missions. I joined my church’s monthly visits to a neighboring country. I plugged in to longer-term missions and joined the church’s missions committee, eventually taking over leadership of that very committee.

My girlfriend, in the meantime, had arrived at a missional calling in her own journey. When we later got married, she joined my church and helped me run the missions ministry in my church.

Because my faith journey had such a focus on missions from the beginning, I grew frustrated when people did not share my passion for missions. Relying on my own strength, knowledge, and planning skills, I tried to grow my church’s emphasis on missions. I connected with other missions agencies and explored partnership opportunities. I established policies, procedures, systems and structures, all in the name of facilitating missions. I even had a catchy tagline—“Come and be discipled; go and make disciples.”

In short, I saw myself as a savior, one who was responsible for helping others see and catch the heart of missions. In reality, I was being very self-righteous and ambitious. I was running ahead of God. And in running ahead of God, I was actually damaging the work that was already ongoing. My ambitions were causing unhappiness, suspicion, disunity, and grievances: in some corners, people were commenting that “that young punk is up to something new (unrealistic) again.”

For nine years, it felt like I got nothing done. While I never doubted the call to missions, things were difficult and I was beginning to feel frustrated.

But recently, one of the missions organizations I was connected with introduced me to a book, Plum Tree in the Desert. This was a collection of missionary stories. Reading about the successes and failures, the strengths and weaknesses of these missionaries, really encouraged me in my own journey. Here are three particular points I hope to remember as I continue on my path to missions.

 

1. God’s divine plans surpass human failures

The first story in the book was about a missionary couple who had been repatriated from the country they were serving in—right when their service was beginning to bear fruit. In fact, they were ousted from the country several times. Even at the time of writing, this missionary couple did not have an answer for why these things happened to them.

I wondered how difficult it must have been for the missionaries, to leave when such critical work was happening. I tried to put myself in their shoes—I imagine I would have been frustrated, questioning, doubting, lamenting—all natural responses to such circumstances.

And yet, though the missionaries must have been disappointed at no longer being able to serve in the country, there is a church there now. God has been faithful and carried out His own good work.

So many missionary stories that I had heard in the past focused on the successes—the number of conversions, the building of churches. It was almost as if missionary life was all glamor and success. But here was a story about failure, about disappointment.

It was refreshing to be told that the missionary life—in fact, any Christian life—is costly but a beautiful and worthy privilege. As Christians, we are called to deny ourselves, to surrender, to trust, to lean, to persevere, to take heart, to be settled and anchored in the soul and spirit. Our own strength and plans cannot accomplish anything. But even in our own failures and weaknesses, we can testify that God’s strength and sovereignty endures.

 

2. Serving God is about Him, not us

Another story in the book was about the wife of a missionary doctor. While the husband was an active and impactful part of the ministry, the wife struggled with her call and purpose. Women were very limited in their roles in the region these missionaries served in, and the wife had to “settle” for homeschooling her children and largely staying at home.

She writes:

For me, in all those years, the temptation was to think that we were too ordinary, too limited in spiritual power, too few in number . . . What had I actually achieved in those years in the desert, sitting at my kitchen table? But the answer for me is that it doesn’t matter how significant we appear to the world at large, or to ourselves; we are to do what God has called us to do. . . because we never know what spiritual fruit will come, and is still to come, from the friendships we’ve forged and the conversations we’ve had.

Contrary to expectation, the writer arrived at a state of contentment and purpose, knowing full well what it meant to be faithful in all that God has given and purposed for her, all the while striving to only please the Audience of One. I am reminded that God’s definition of greatness cannot be measured by human standards, and what matters most is that I am faithfully serving Him.

 

3. He works all things for the good of those who love Him

The final story I want to share is about a missionary couple who served a secluded tribe for a very long time without seeing any fruit. They sacrificed their finances and even their health with no result—the husband died from medical conditions at the young age of 44. After this, practically everyone warned the young widow against continuing the work, but she returned anyway.

When she returned, the villagers exclaimed, “You see, she loves us. She came back. The God she loves must be real.”

The missionary’s pain and perseverance birthed beauty and fruit. Like Jim and Elizabeth Elliot’s story, this helped me put things in eternal perspective: God makes all things—including deaths and sufferings—work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

 

To sum up, these stories from men and women who were willing to give everything for Christ helped me better understand risk and suffering—not that we seek them, but we embrace them as they come, knowing that the Bible has said they would come, and that God will not waste them.

Right now, my wife and I are candidates with a missionary organization. We are enrolled in some of their courses, and are seeking to be discipled and equipped to serve wherever God might send us. We are learning to rethink everything, from career choices to little daily choices, in light of this preparation.

These missionary stories profoundly impacted me because they are so raw and transparent. Yet, in such rawness and transparency I began to see the heart of surrender and trust, and above all, God’s faithfulness that surpasses all deaths and hurts, disappointments and fears. Plum Tree in the Desert amplifies the tug in my heart, and I strongly recommend it to any aspiring missionaries.

More Than A Missionary Kid

“Where are you from?”

That question used to stress me a lot because I couldn’t answer with any one country name. Over time though, I have learned to recognize whatever place God has set me as home. At this point in my life, my answer is “Hong Kong,” where I have been serving as a missionary for nearly two years.

I’ve always lived a multi-cultural life; I grew up on the foreign mission field in Mexico. Every time my family went back to visit our passport country (US), we would be busy visiting friends and supporters, and attending prayer meetings and churches to share about my family’s work. As a younger kid I enjoyed those trips because they usually meant getting spoiled by people who cared for me and my sister, and who wanted to bless us with things we couldn’t get where we were based.

I mainly grew up in and around Mexico City. Life was enjoyable, but sometimes I wished I could live in the US and have a “normal” life. In my child’s mind, I thought everyone in America was rich, and whenever I visited I couldn’t help but notice how my family friends seemed to live very comfortable, well-to-do lives. I wanted that. I thought it was what a normal life looked like. I knew it was certainly abnormal for a family to relocate to another country.

Then, when I was 10 years old, my life was turned upside down when our family moved from a large metropolitan city to a small town in the jungle with a population of 2,000.

I remember how my heart hardened towards God after that move. If we had to move, why couldn’t it have been back to America, where we were originally from? I felt like things went from bad to worse for me, and I blamed God for it.

Turning to full rebellion against my parents and the new church they were planting, I decided to stop being a Christian, since it meant following a God that didn’t really care about what I felt and wanted. In my foolishness, I started watching pornography online behind my parents’ back to show God I didn’t care about Him or what He had to say.

I became more and more dishonoring of my family, and purposely caused them grief through my rebellion and outbursts of anger. In church, all I could do was sit with a cold heart and hardened face. I was going down a dangerous road, and I knew it.

The thing about sin is that it gnaws away at our hearts—and we either pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s conviction of it, or we let it devour us. By the grace of God, I was moved towards conviction. I reached a point of realizing my life would be futile apart from its Creator, who gave it to me in the first place. I also knew the fulfillment and satisfaction I wanted in life could only be found in following the will of God for me.

About a year after I started rebelling, I repented before God and my parents, and finally gave my life over to Him.

 

Who am I?

Even after my conversion though, trying to figure out where my identity lay, and who I was, was an ongoing challenge. It caused me much insecurity, and I felt lost and misplaced.

I lived in seven countries before turning 20, and I tried to find myself in each of them. I tried finding myself in the friends I had in each country, in who my parents were, in my participation in ministry, in people’s opinions of me, and in my personal accomplishments. But each of these failed me.

With time though, I came to understand the truth of who I really was. The truth I learned is that I am a sinner, just like everyone else, and the same grace that others needed is the exact same one I need (Romans 3:22-24). I am not “different” or “misplaced” from anyone in that regards.

No matter where I am in the world, God wants to work in me, change me, grow me, and love me just as much as He does the next person.

My identity lies in God and everything He says and thinks of me (Jeremiah 31:3). I may be a missionary’s kid and a pastor’s kid, but my first and true identity is in being a child of God.

 

Where is home?

So then, is there any one location to call my true home?

Yes, there is, in fact.

We belong to Jesus, and just as He is not of this world, we are not of this world either (John 17:16). Our home awaits us in Heaven at the end of this life. We’re placed on earth to proclaim the power and gospel of the Creator of the universe, and after He has accomplished all His purposes in us, He will take us home to Himself (John 14:1-3).

And yet, we still have our own journeys to travail before we reach our ultimate Home. As I said before, we’re placed on earth to proclaim the gospel, and God assigns all of us to different locations in the world to help bring about that mission. As humans, we crave to belong somewhere, to have a place of safety and familiarity. Truly, the only place we will find those qualities is in where God calls us to be. For me, that is what home is.

 

What is my culture?

Knowing that one day, there won’t be language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, or geographic separations, but that we will all be together, side by side, standing as one, worshipping the King of kings—it is a breathtakingly beautiful comfort.

As a teen, I was so wrapped up in my own “culture,” clinging to it and believing it made me who I am. But while we are meant to glean from the cultures God plants us in, as Christians we’re called higher and deeper into a specific kind of culture, a mentality that this world rejects: Kingdom culture (Romans 12:2).

The culture we are to live by is the one God has spoken for centuries into the hearts of those who follow Him: the Word and all the commands therein (Deuteronomy 11:18).

 

Being a missionary kid, I realize how my life and experience growing up was a privileged one, as I got to see firsthand the power of God changing lives and doing miracles. The testimony I have to give is one of forgiveness, grace, and hope—not only what I have seen in the countries I lived in, but also in my own personal life.

This has in turn birthed in my heart a desire to bless and minister to those in and outside of the church, so that they might be a part of the mighty work of redemption God is working in this world through each of us—His children. That is the purpose that I’ve found in Christ.

3 Ways Missions Changed The Way I Relate To Others

It was the summer after 9/11. Looking back, I can’t quite believe that we went. Everything and anything to do with airports and security was tense, and everyone was on high alert. So much was going on in the world, and yet our church still commissioned and sent out five different groups of teenagers to five different countries.

I was part of a team that embarked on a 10-day journey to China, a country I knew nothing about. I had no idea that I would fall in love with this people and place, or that God would bring me back another three times. I also had no idea how God would use these trips as formative moments in my life.

God taught me a lot during these short-term mission trips. The lessons I learned still affect me today; they inform how I live, how I relate to people, and what I put my hope in:

 

1. Seek to Understand Others

Right off the bat on my first visit to China, I learned the importance of knowing and studying cultural differences. Whether it has to do with manners, food, or dress, there is great value in knowing about the people we will meet.

Before our first trip, we were required to read Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. Taylor was an early Protestant missionary to China, and he did something that seemed revolutionary at the time. He dressed like the Chinese. This was because he wanted people to feel comfortable with him—and it worked.

If the goal of our mission trip is to know people and build relationships so that we can share Jesus, we need to be respectful of our cultural differences. If we go on a mission trip and either impose our cultural niceties, or worse, dismiss theirs by not taking the time to learn them, we will have no foundation for Jesus-sharing. I had to learn the hard way that in China I shouldn’t eat every single bite off my plate because it implied that I hadn’t had my fill. I learned that chopsticks are for eating, and shouldn’t be used for drumming on the table, as it implied I wasn’t happy with the chef.

In everything that we do, we should seek to break down barriers between people, not build them higher. If we want to build stronger relationships with people, we need to take time to understand their customs and learn with humility. This also applies beyond mission trips. Wherever we are, there are people around us who are different from us. Instead of assuming that we know better than them or that their behavior should conform to ours, we need to walk in humility, understand their perspectives, and affirm their worth and value as persons made in the image of God.

In a world and time where there is much civil unrest because of differences—cultural or otherwise—among people, we would do well to exercise humility and seek understanding in our own homes, schools, and communities.

 

2. Always Check Our Motivations

I’ll forever remember this moment: One of my group members was holding an orphan child in her lap, and for some reason he needed to leave. Instead of letting him go when he needed to, the group member kept him there, crying, while she insisted on getting a picture just so she could post it on Facebook when she got home.

Something about this just struck me as wrong. This was supposed to be about the kids, their needs, and how we could help them. Instead, it very quickly became about getting the perfect picture to show the world. I think that we need to seriously check ourselves when it comes to short-term missions. Why are we going: what is our heart and motivation? What good are we hoping to accomplish? Will our being there benefit them or is it more about us? What if we went and worked, but with zero recognition or evidence?

A lot of us struggle with what I would call “mock humility.” While mission trips are certainly not the only place this happens, it seems to be a breeding ground for it. We want to serve, but we want the picture to prove it.

Jesus was well aware of our temptation and desire for recognition. He addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Later in the same sermon, Jesus reminds us that we should be seeking His kingdom. This is about His name and renown—not our own.

Again, this temptation isn’t only present on mission trips. This is true of our everyday life. I’ve struggled with this at work, feeling as though other teachers receive acclaim and praise for something they did, while I don’t get recognized for the things I’ve done because I tend to be more quiet and behind the scenes. I especially feel this as a mother. Moms do so many things that are behind the scenes, and that no one will ever know about.

To combat this need for recognition, we need to remind ourselves that we are not after the approval of man. This must be a daily, moment by moment surrender. This is a discipline we’ll have to practice, and we’ll have to be intentional about it. God is the one we aim to please; He is the one who sees our work, even the work we do in secret.

 

3. Help Others Develop Kingdom Vision

During my time in China, we had the opportunity to worship at a local church. And the picture of kingdom-life came alive for me.

When we entered the church, they seated us so that we could mingle with others in the congregation instead of sticking to our own team members. I sat next to this lady who sang her heart out during the hymns. Most of the hymns I didn’t recognize, but one I did. It was the hymn, “Just As I Am.” We stood next to each other; she was singing in Mandarin, and I was singing in English, but we were singing the same song, the same message, to the same God. I remember thinking that this is what heaven must be like.

Psalm 86:9 says, “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name.” That day, I got to see a glimpse of a day when people from every tribe, every tongue and every nation will gather and bow and sing to the One who is worthy. This moment ignited in me a longing, a yearning for the day of Jesus’ return, when He will make good on His promises.

Those promises became very real for me in my years in China. That first trip, when I sat in church with that sweet woman, cemented in me an interest in the nations, in encouraging people to get out of their bubbles and comfort zones to experience God’s world and people, and to look forward to the coming kingdom. It’s what brought me back to China another three times. It’s why we support my dear friend who has committed to living in Papua New Guinea and sharing the gospel there.  It’s what led me to do the work I do today—for the last seven years, every spring I’ve taught about 100 teenagers a year about the five major world religions. This is all rooted in the conviction that it is important to know the people around us so that we can introduce Jesus and the kingdom to them in a way that they can understand.

 

It’s been eight years since I’ve been to China. I think about the people there often, and I very much hope to return one day. I would love to show my husband and daughter this place that impacted me so much. But until I can return, I don’t have to put these lessons on hold. God didn’t just work in my life and change my perspective when I was on the mission trips, He is still actively speaking into my life where He has placed me. And so today, I’ll look to my mission field as a teacher, a wife, and a mother. I’ll seek to encourage others by affirming their worth and value, to check my motivations and serve for the One, and to always keep the kingdom at the front of everything I do.