Student Missionary Training: Becoming the Gospel You Preach
Torrential rain fell like shredded sheets whipped in the wind as a bolt of lightning brilliantly illuminated a million liquid pixels. My heart skipped a beat as my whispered, “one one thousand, two one thousand three one thousand . . .” was interrupted by a tremendous clap of thunder. “Run for the shelter!” I shouted. “Run!”
A few days earlier I had stood in front of a nervous group of new student missionary volunteers. “Missions may be one of the hardest things you ever do,” I told them. “The greatest challenge you may face will most likely be you.” Muffled laughter rippled through the room. “We often have idealistic images in our minds of being a missionary,” I continued. “We dream about going to faraway places to help poor, lost people come to know and love Jesus. But in reality, being a missionary is brutally hard work. You may be thinking, ‘I’m not afraid of hard work,’ and if that’s true, your host missionary family will be grateful. But that is not the kind of work I’m talking about.” I paced up and down the line of earnest faces and paused to look directly into the eyes of a young man heading to a closed country. “The hard work I’m talking about will most likely have something to do with facing yourself.” I paused as I seated myself on the table at the front of the room. “Missions has a way of forcing us to face our fears, our brokenness, our doubts and our self-centeredness.” Students shifted in their seats, glancing at each other and back to me.
“What does it mean to be a missionary?” I asked.
Someone called out, “It means to be someone who shares the gospel!”
“And what is the gospel?” I responded.
“Gospel means ‘good news,’” someone else piped up.
“And when do we need good news?” I asked, turning in the direction of the student who had spoken.
“When there is bad news?” she responded.
“Exactly,” I said. “And what is the bad news that the gospel addresses?” She looked puzzled. I leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. “Listen very carefully,” I paused. “Jesus did not come to give us a message; He came to give us new life! Abundant life! If we have this life, then we have a message. If we don’t have the life He promised, any message we preach or share is hollow.
“The following four statements sum up my philosophy of missions and missions training,” I continued. “One: Salvation looks like relational healing. This means that if God is doing His saving work in you, then your closest relationships should slowly but surely be getting better.
“Two: Living in community reveals relational brokenness. What does this mean?”
“It means that other people drive us nuts sometimes,” laughed a young lady.
“Close,” I said, “but not quite there yet.”
“It means that when we work closely with others we are forced to face our own brokenness,” said a young man.
“A-plus!” I said. “Exactly! And because missionary service demands that we work with teammates to reach other people in challenging and unfamiliar contexts, cultures and languages, it is especially effective at revealing the cracks and flaws in our characters.” Heads nodded.
“Three: Relational brokenness gives us an opportunity to practice our faith in God’s power to save. If this is true, and I believe it is, then how would this change the way we look at the inevitable conflicts and tensions we have come to expect when working with others?” A quiet young lady raised her hand. “Yes?” I said looking at her.
“It means,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “that we should see interpersonal conflict as an opportunity to practice our faith.”
“Exactly!” I said. “And that leads us to our final point.
“Four: The way we live together is the gospel we preach. Why is this point so critical to missions?”
“Because people won’t listen to the gospel we preach if we can’t get along with each other,” said a young man.
“And that, my dear friends, is why missions may be one of the hardest things you will ever do,” I concluded.
The calm and comfort of the classroom seemed a long, long way away as we huddled together, our voices drowned out by the rain roaring on the roof of our makeshift shelter. We were 48 hours into the challenging weekend event we affectionately refer to as “The Crucible.” The exercises and hardships had galvanized this group of diverse people into a tightly knit community characterized by vulnerability, trust and Christ-like selflessness. “Thank You Lord,” I whispered as I looked over this group of precious young people. “Thank You for preparing them step by step to illuminate the gospel through the tempests and trials they will face as teams. Please, Lord, demonstrate Your gospel through them!