It was while Norma and I were living in a small town on a remote stretch of New Mexico desert, and I was reading a book by an Asian preacher, that God gave me my heart for missions.
In 1995, I was in my fourth year as minister of Central Christian Church in Portales, N.M. Norma and I had come to love the many great Christians who made up that church, but we were crying out to God to point us in a new direction.
Portales is a town of about 11,000; except for Clovis, it is about two hours in all directions from planet Earth. When we accepted the call to minister to the Portales church, Norma and I knew from the start that it was unlikely that we would stay there for more than a few years. We had both spent our entire lives in big cities. We felt no attraction to the tiny town or the desolate terrain, and the church also had its problems. The previous minister had been fired, leading to the loss of several members and a deep rift among those who stayed. But we accepted the church’s invitation to pay them a weekend visit, fell in love with the people there, and we came away with a strong sense that God wanted us to go there to help that church find its way back to a better place.
We had a very successful ministry at Central Christian Church. Attendance grew from about 125 to more than 200. The youth program, under our leadership the first year and then with the help of a full-time youth minister, grew by leaps and bounds. The church had five elders, most of whom had held their positions for years; I set out to recruit and train new elders to join the existing ones, and we succeeded in involving the next generation in leadership.
By the end of our third year in Portales, I believed that our work at Central Christian was mostly done. I began to inquire about other ministry opportunities. That is another story entirely, and an amazing one that I will have to tell some day — but during the summer of 1995, I was actually hired by three different churches, one after another, but each time God slammed the door shut in the most unusual ways.
After those events, Norma and I were emotionally wrung out, feeling lonely and a bit lost. In September 1995, I decided to discontinue any further inquiry about other churches, and wait for God to point us in the direction He wanted us to go. I made a pact with God that I would go to the front pew of our church sanctuary at 7 a.m. each morning for 100 days, where I would plead with Him to reveal His will.
Before I knew it, it was Christmas time. We had relatives visiting for the holidays. One day, everyone seemed to be busy with something, and I decided to do some reading. I went to my shelf and found Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan. I had owned a copy of that small book for a while, but had never read it. I began to read, and I couldn’t put it down.
K.P.’s story is an amazing one. He tells it in Revolution, and it is summarized on the website of the organization he founded, Gospel For Asia. A primary theme of Yohannan’s book is the “native missionary movement,” which truly is revolutionizing how U.S. Christians do missions.
Yohannan points out that God has raised up millions of native Christians on every continent. In fulfilling the Great Commission in other nations, we U.S. Christians should not barge in with our own agendas, ignoring the believers and churches who are already there. Rather, we should be asking how we can help those native Christians succeed in reaching their homelands for Christ. Among the ways we can help native evangelists are by providing leadership training and financial support.
Yohannan’s message hit me as a clarian call. It occurred to me that perhaps God was closing the doors to U.S. churches because he wanted Norma and me to turn our focus in the direction of world missions. I was filled with shame and excitement. Shame, that like so many U.S. pastors, I had been paying little attention to missions, while being all-consumed with the misadventures of my own little neighborhood church. Excitement, because the Holy Spirit was tearing away my blinders to help me see the world and my calling in a new light.
I finished Revolution in World Missions by the next morning. As I finished the last page and set the book down, it occurred to me that I had just reached the end of my 100 days of seeking God’s will. This was God’s clear answer. He wanted Norma and me to pursue world missions. And, because I had immediately embraced the “revolution” potential of supporting native evangelists, it had to be role in which we would serve as strategic partners alongside native ministers and church leaders.
In our church office, we kept a box into which we threw all of the “the missions mail.” We didn’t even bother to open it; we left that to our Missions Committee to do. That holiday morning, there was suddenly nothing I was more interested in than to read about missions and missionaries. We lived in a parsonage just two doors down from the church, so I walked over and began reading.
In that box I found a newsletter from Spanish American Evangelism in El Paso. The newsletter had a prayer request: for God to raise up someone with both ministry and publishing experience to come lead their Spanish-language missions publishing organization.
I’d heard of El Paso from Western movies, but I honestly didn’t know where it was on the map. I was surprised to see that it was less than a five-hour drive southwest of Portales. I called the chairman of the SAE board that night, and Norma and I drove to El Paso a week later. I was expecting a dusty little border town, and was shocked to find a modern city of more than a half-million people.
With our hosts from SAE, we drove into Juárez, Mexico, where so many Christians have traveled on missions trips. It was twilight as we made the 30-minute drive through Juárez to an evening Bible study at a small Mexican church. About two dozen Mexican Christians were in attendance. I didn’t speak the language, and I stuck out like the gringo I was. But for the first time in a long while, I felt like I was home.
Home — not necessarily in that particular church or neighborhood or city. But in reaching across language and cultural barriers to love and support Christians of another country — in that sense, I felt as if I had found my way to where I belonged. Three months later Norma and I were living in El Paso, where I served as director of SAE, traveling in Mexico frequently, as well as to Costa Rica. SAE became our crash course in world missions.
I’ve heard it described as “a heart for missions.” Those of you who have it know what I’m talking about. Those who don’t, really don’t. Until every now and then, when the Holy Spirit pulls off the blinders, as He did for me.
On that Christmas 12 years ago, God gave me a heart for missions: the desire to do what little I can to help my Christian brothers and sisters in other countries. It is one of the best and most interesting Christmas gifts I’ve ever received. A gift that I am still unwrapping and trying to fully understand these many years later.