When considering what to cover, we decided to let the people attending set the agenda. Sitting around four tables, they created a list of what they might consider 'barriers' to overseas mission - the things that would make them reluctant to go. The list they produced as almost exactly as we anticipated, and we then went through each point in turn, looking both at the Bible, and also our own experiences of serving God overseas. Much of it may have relevance to the readers of this blog, so I will summarise the discussion here.
This is often top of the list. What would you do if you became seriously unwell overseas? Are there not loads of incurable tropical illnesses? How do you manage without good access to healthcare? Of course the precise answers will depend on exactly where you are and what you are doing, and also might vary depending on whether you have any pre-existing health problems to consider. But we need to remember that God is sovereign - Psalm 139 states 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be'; in fact, these words are engraved on my daughter's grave. God already knows what illnesses will occur. When considering risk, there tends to be an assumption that there is no risk involved in staying at home; this is a very simplistic and naive view, because illness or accident could occur at any point. This piece written by a doctor regarding response to the Ebola epidemic makes this point well. Furthermore, I believe health is one of the greatest idols of our current generation. Let me ask you, what proportion of prayer requests at your church are relating to health issues as compared to spiritual issues? Who is to say that God cannot use illness, even death, for His glory. I do not make this point lightly. When our daughter was born, we prayed that God would use her life greatly. We had many ideas and dreams about what that might look like, but we certainly did not expect that it would be through a cardiac arrest at nine weeks of age, evacuation to a South African city where we had never been and knew nobody, and death from brain injury six weeks later. However, through that time I do not think I have known greater spiritual blessing despite the human anguish. Nearby Christians heard of our situation and rallied around - we were welcomed to live with a family with five children. We were lent a car. When we could not change money, gifts were given at just the right time. But more than that amazing physical and practical provision, the gospel was clearly preached. We knew 'the peace of God that surpasses understanding' (Philippians 4:6-7). We knew a 'hope that does not disappoint us' (Romans 5:5). We knew the absolute certain reality of heaven, and that '
Often children and health go together - and I can only advise people to be prayerful and seek wisdom here. For example, it may well be better (if resources make it possible) to give birth in a country which has reasonable medical services. In my last pregnancy, I was admitted to hospital eight times and had I been overseas, I would have needed to return home. But many of my other thoughts regarding health are discussed above.
The second major issue with children is education. And along with education, socialisation. I believe this too to be an idol of our current generation, and I think there is a lot of misunderstanding as to what constitutes a 'good' education and what real-life 'socialisation' might actually look like. Again, I never want to be dogmatic and suggest there is a 'one size fits all' solution; that would be naive, and it is worth noting that the Bible does not speak specifically on this area. Rather we are giving guiding principles. I would encourage parents to consider what the most important thing is for their children. What are the most important lessons? I would encourage them to be creative in embracing the opportunities which present themselves in daily life - these are different, but often extremely rich in cross-cultural settings. There are many different options - for us, home education currently fulfils our goals for our children, but one could also consider local pre-schools and schools (with the advantages of learning local language and culture) - perhaps with top-up lessons at home. Or for those who are uneasy, it might be helpful to consider a very structured home education curriculum that closely follows the national curriculum of ones home country. I would challenge parents to think outside the box, to talk to several other families who had travelled with young children and to spend time considering resources and materials. Some (ie Sonlight) have been specifically developed with the missionary family in mind.
A huge challenge can be the need to raise appropriate financial support - and the amount required does tend to increase as the family grows. Taking the lead from pioneer missionary Hudson Taylor, many mission organisations have a 'by faith' policy, whereby missionaries must never ask specifically for finances (unless direct questions are asked of them). This has a clear Biblical precedent, but can seem intimidating to many. Again, this comes down to trust in God. I know many testimonies of those who have been down to their last penny when a donation has arrived (the story of George Mueller is particularly inspiring in this respect). Or of clinics which have run low on essential materials, only to receive an anonymous package, just in time. You might say that God has never provided for you in that way. But have you ever been in that position of need? With finance (and indeed many other resources, such as stamina, strength, faith, wisdom) God does not often give you a 'bank account' full, so that you can look to the future and see that you have accumulated enough for your hour of need! However, He does know all that is needed. Consider the model prayer of Christ: 'Give us today our daily bread' - He knows what we need, although it is important to comment that this may differ from all that we want! Read the beautiful words in Matthew 6: 25-33: '
. God knows that work will be tough at times, and gives us the resources to cope in such situations. I have heard many examples of people who have been poor at languages being able to learn quickly when there was a need; this is not invariable - there are times when it proves too difficult. Advice can be taken on this - there do exist language aptitude tests which mission organisations can use to help place candidates in appropriate countries. Regarding culture-shock, this is an almost universal process of adapting to change. The stages are well described, from the initial 'honeymoon period' where everything seems exotic and fascinating, through to the disillusionment and frustration that comes after several months before (hopefully) reaching a new state of equilibrium. There are also then problems of 'reverse culture shock' on return home, and for some (I'd put ourselves into this category) we never really feel 'at home' on this earth again. This can be both good and bad, depending on how you view it!
5) Lack of a Specific 'Calling'
I think great confusion can arise at this point. What does one require as a 'calling'? It may be that you know somebody who has always clearly felt directed to serve God in a specific way in a specific place. You may know another person who clearly felt 'called' to quit their job, and do something radically different in a far corner of the earth. But I believe that both of these are less common. How does God speak? How does God guide? There are many books, sermons and other resources on this topic! (Briefly - through the Bible, prayer, Christian friendships and counsel, circumstances, desires, dreams - and yes, also at times through the supernatural). But I would say that the Bible is clear on a couple of principles: for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8). Often, putting all of this into practice will involve using our God-given skills in the hardest, neediest, most spiritually dark places on earth. And that is global mission.
6) More specific questions on training - Bible training, skills needed, courses required
These sometimes come up among the first questions asked, but I have put these towards the end for a reason. I believe that if you are being obedient to God, then He will guide you and direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6). By the time you are seriously considering going, the specific place and task may have become clear - and if so, then the specific requirements may well be more apparent now than at the start. As mentioned above, it is highly possible that God has given you a skill or vocation already - medicine (and related fields), teaching, IT, building, project management, accountancy, art, music and many others - that God can use. Or it may be that your role is in church planting ministry - but even here, no skill you have will go to waste!
And if it really is not the right time......
God is sovereign and He guides through our circumstances too. It might be that illness, caring responsibilities, other pressures and challenges mean it is not possible for you to seriously consider going overseas to serve God at this point in your life. But you can certainly be involved in Global Mission - and if (as many readers of this blog are) you are educating your children, this is an ideal time for them also to learn. Get old of Operation World (or the children's version). Read stories of missionaries. Watch video clips teaching on global missions. Pray together. Write to missionaries that you support (and if your church does not support missionaries, ask why not!). Get a map of the world and put it on the wall where the children can reach it - show them the journeys which were made by early missionaries. Mark where 'your' missionaries are. Read the Acts of the Apostles. And you will be encouraged by the childlike passion with which these concepts are embraced.