Mission reflections from the Birthplace of the Reformation
During a year in which we are observing the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, I recently returned from a month in German-speaking Europe, most of that time being spent in Germany itself. I had an amazing experience during this time abroad, and so I want to now share with you about some of what I encountered, filtered through the lens of some different Scriptural passages that have helped me to understand and process my experiences. But before I go any further, I want to preface the rest of my report with the acknowledged fact that in terms of missions experience, I am still very much a newcomer. That was one reason in fact why I wanted to spend some time in Germany myself before leading a full student team there. But I was privileged enough to grow up in a church that really valued the Great Commission, and took Jesus’ command to spread the Gospel seriously. So I have been lucky to stand on the shoulder of some missions giants, people like Pastor Jay Wolf, our missions pastor Brian Gay, Singles minister and missions veteran Kathy Cooper, former FBC community minister Jane Ferguson—all of whom were great models for me in demonstrating the blessing and the responsibility we have as Christians for being witnesses to our faith, whether here in America, or across the ocean somewhere. In addition, in my own current ministry context in Boulder, I’ve served alongside people like Derek Gregory, Bobby Pruett, and his daughter Bethany Pruett, who have inspired me with their stories of missions work, as well as our outstanding students, many of whom are also engaged in missions work, both in America and elsewhere, this summer. I am also aware of and profoundly grateful for the support through prayers and finances of all of my ministry partners. In the most tangible way they are the ones that made it possible for me to make this trip. So with it being fully understood that I still have so much to learn about mission work, as I share these reflections, my goal is that nonetheless people would feel encouraged and empowered. I know that missions can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of the Christian life. But I want as much as possible to focus on some of the rewards because I hope people can hear about my experiences and think “I could do that too!”. A friend who served with me in Germany this summer, David Worcester, is the leader of Christian Challenge at San Diego State. He has a saying “the best method of evangelism is the kind you actually do”. Simple but true, and it holds true for missions work as well. So I really want my reflections here to prompt people to think less about all of the obstacles or potential hindrances to missions work in their lives, and more about how the obvious rewards from such engagement make it impossible to not want to go.
My time abroad was actually the culmination of several years’ worth of prayer and preparation. Our ministry at CU-Boulder, Christian Challenge, has developed a partnership over the last several years with a European campus ministry known as “Connexxion.” This ministry can trace its beginning back to the early 2000’s when an IMB missionary named Martha Moore, who had a campus ministry background in America, started a ministry in the eastern German city of Jena. Martha had actually come out of the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Oklahoma, where she had been influenced by the long-time director there, Max Barnett. And as I’ve shared in some other posts, Max, until just recently was serving as the state director for Baptist collegiate ministry in Colorado. Martha was then later on staff with Christian Challenge at USC. So she has always been part of the same ministry networks that I am serving in. Then, in early 2016, I met Martha at the annual Life Impact Conference we attend in Colorado Springs. This is a missions-focused gathering of Baptist collegiate ministries from around the Midwest and Western U.S. By the time I finally met Martha in person, I had already heard a great deal about her, and the various ministries she had started around Europe. In fact, when Martha came to America on furlough in 2016, from that initial ministry in Jena, she had expanded her work to two other campuses in Germany, in Braunschweig and Bonn, as well as a stint in Seville, Spain, and was now planning on launching a new campus in Amsterdam. She is a busy lady, with a strong drive for Kingdom work and disciple-making amongst university students, to say the least!! Interestingly enough, her name had also come up back in 2013 when I was helping with Vacation Bible School at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. During a missions emphasis with the children, we watched an IMB-produced video that featured Martha’s story, and specifically her impact on one student she had reached and disciple in Seville.
` So I was very excited to get to spend some time with her in person at Life Impact, and from there the groundwork began to be laid for my eventual opportunity to participate more directly in her work in Europe. Martha’s contagious enthusiasm and my own interest in working in secular, post-Christian settings (as Boulder has pretty much become) helped draw me increasingly towards the prospect of some kind of missions activity in Europe. Then, a few months after Life Impact, Alex Wille, the leader of the Connexxion ministry in Braunschweig, and someone who had been directly discipled by Martha, came to America for several weeks. In addition to spending time with the Christian Challenge ministry at USC in Los Angeles, Alex also served with us in Boulder for two weeks. During this time we got to be friends, and started discussing the possibility of further collaboration between our respective ministries. After further planning, prayer, and preparation, I decided to come to Germany in the summer of 2017 on what would be a combination hands-on mission experience and also “vision trip.” My goal is to eventually bring a full-sized student team from CU to work in Germany, but as a leader, I wanted to get some firsthand perspective myself before I took a team. There was also a unique opportunity to take part in a conference that would be bringing together students and staff from all of the Connexxion ministries, as well as some other American collegiate ministry personnel.
During this last month I was able to accomplish all of my goals and even had my expectations exceeded. I spent time with the ministry in Braunschweig, then attended the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, and then finally ended by spending a few extra days serving with the ministry in Bonn. Rather than give a more factual report of all of the work we engaged in (which I will do in my prayer newsletter—email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up!), here I want to think in more conceptual terms about the why, the how, and the what if, of missions. And again, please hear my disclaimer—I am in no way claiming to be any sort of expert or even veteran of missions work. But I do hope that my perspective may prove helpful to someone else, and if it can encourage even one other person to further engage in or support missions then it will have been well worth my time to write this post!!
A logical place to begin in Scripture when discussing missions would obviously be the Great Commission, from Matthew 28:18-20. But before we look there, I am struck by how with almost every missions trip the story really begins long before you step on a flight to travel somewhere far away. So often, we hear stories of how God has placed a country, a people group, or a part of the world on someone’s heart months, or maybe even years before someone has the chance to go there with a Gospel-inspired purpose. I’ve already shared a little bit of my own backstory in terms of hearing about Connexxion, and meeting Martha and Alex in America. But someone may be asking, why Germany? or even more broadly why Europe? For many people, thinking about “missions” may automatically mean going to a country that is majority non-Christian, perhaps located within the “10-40 window”. Some people may mistakenly think too that because of the historical prominence of Christianity in a nation like Germany, where after all, the Reformation began, it is a country that has already been “reached.” But statistics would paint a very different picture. According to a 2012 Eurobarometer poll, over a third of the German population considers themselves either atheist/agnostic, or non-religious. Islam meanwhile is a fast-growing religion within the country, given the large population of Turkish immigrants, and the growing numbers of refugees Germany has taken in from majority Muslim countries over the last several years. The two large state churches in Germany, depending on the region are either Catholic or Evangelical (mostly Lutheran). But as I discovered from talking with many different German university students, there are sizable numbers of people in these churches who observance is nominal at best, limited to perhaps once or twice a year on Christmas and Easter.
So my heart had for some time been burdened for countries like Germany that had such a rich Christian heritage, but where for so much of the population now the church, and more importantly Christianity itself had ceased to have much practical significance. While I was studying British history in graduate school, before I went into full-time ministry, I had taken a German class for reading purposes and to fulfill some program requirements. But after that class, I was fascinated with the language, and continued to study it on my own, mostly for reading. Little did I think at the time that I might one day have the opportunity to use some of my German language experience in a missions context! But I mention this just to note how we never know in what ways God can use parts of our past experience to prepare us for something that we may encounter down the road. While I am by no means fluent, having some background with the German language helped me immensely during my time there, which I’ll discuss more a little bit later on.
But now, back to the Great Commission, which as I mentioned seems the most logical starting point for any Scriptural reflections on missions, and most directly addresses the “why” question as to our motivation to engage in missions in the first place. This passage is of course well known to most all Christians, but it is amazing how every time I come back to it, I seem to find something new that God has highlighted for my attention. Matthew 28:18-20—“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Upon recently rereading this familiar passage, I was struck by how it is not only a call to evangelism, but to discipleship as well. In other words, the Great Commission doesn’t just motivate us to engage in evangelism in order to be obedient to Christ’s last command, but it also instructs us as to a critical part of the “how” of missions. In verse 20, Christ’s command to make disciples of the nations can only be accomplished by the steady, patient work of discipleship. During my time in Germany, I certainly saw the value of discipleship and the legacy it can leave, as well as the damaging results when discipleship perhaps is not as effective as it could be. On the positive side, at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, the theme was “multiply”. The focus was all on how in our campus ministries we could strive to be more faithful by not just leading people to Christ, and then teaching them how to live as Christians, but also by ensuring that they are able to pass these same truths down to others. This is the great principal illustrated by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:1-2. The apostle is here speaking to his most famous protégé, the young pastor Timothy. “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” We see then how Paul is concerned not merely with his own legacy of evangelism, but he passionately wishes for Timothy’s ministry to be successful as well. And one mark of this success can be if Timothy is able to transfer these teachings down to the next generation of believers. During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we learned firsthand about the results of faithful discipleship as we heard some of the many stories about how Martha Moore had invested in students over the decades in five different cities across three different countries. And today, every student leader of a Connexxion ministry in Germany can trace their spiritual heritage back to Martha through either her direct discipleship, or through having been discipled by a student that Martha had discipled. Martha sometimes uses the term “impossible people” to describe some of the unlikely students she has seen make decisions for the Lord. But the true success and lifeblood of her ministry has been that when students came to faith in Christ, she was able, at least with many of them, to push for the next step of beginning a walk in faithful obedience through the spiritual foundations instilled by patient discipleship.
Now of course discipleship can be a very challenging process to navigate through, and sometimes students don’t stay the course, falling away rather than remain faithful. Certainly the secular, God-skeptical culture of much of Western Europe (and Boulder, Colorado to be sure) doesn’t help. The ministries of Connexxion in Germany, and many of our Christian Challenge ministries in the Western U.S. are not particularly large when compared with the campus ministries one could find in other states where I’ve lived, like Alabama and Texas. So discouragement can sometimes creep in, but when it does, ministry staff and students alike should heed the last promise of Christ from the Great Commission, a promise of His presence. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of this pledge from Jesus, perhaps my personal favorite among all the Scriptural promises of our Lord. It should give us an immense sense of reassurance, calm, and peace—and I believe that we in turn should strive to pass these same spiritual blessings on to others, in particular the people we are investing time in through a discipleship relationship! Encouragement then is another critical facet of discipleship—and it seems to me almost without fail that when I think of someone like Martha Moore, or the people who have had a mentoring influence in my own spiritual life, they are people who are in large part defined by possessing this gift of encouragement. Now I think that sometimes encouragement is misunderstood or minimized as simply “saying nice things”, but Biblical encouragement goes so much deeper than that. Listen to Paul again, speaking to Timothy, this time from 2 Timothy 1:5-7: “When I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also. Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Paul’s encouragement to Timothy here then, is not comprised of some idle compliments or ingratiating flattery. Rather these are well-chosen words designed to strengthen Timothy based on the spiritual heritage which Paul has carefully observed in him, and in light of the formidable challenges Timothy will face in the future. Christian encouragement is realistic and is rooted in a desire to build someone up while keeping them ever humble and rooted in a strong reliance upon the power of God. I believe too that by reminding Timothy of his spiritual heritage, Paul is both seeking to strengthen him, but also implying that there should be a strong built-in sense of accountability as well. Timothy has a responsibility before God and in deference to his spiritual forebears to continue the faithful work of the Church which Paul is entrusting to him. The Christian who is built up and encouraged through persistent discipleship can then joyfully seek to live out the exhortation that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:58—“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
But while this mission project opened my eyes anew to the rich spiritual benefits that can be reaped from faithful discipleship, I also sadly saw plenty of contrary evidence as to what happens when discipleship is lacking. I remember one conversation I had with a student in Switzerland, one of the countries I visited briefly before arriving in Germany. Although she no longer considered herself a Christian, she recounted, as did many German students I later met, how she actually had some background in the church. In fact she had gone through confirmation classes at a Protestant church during her adolescence. In this liberal church, the pastor had told the confirmation class among other things that they didn’t have to take Biblical authority seriously—for example, they needn’t believe in the troublesome doctrine of hell. But rather than make Christianity somehow more palatable, even this watered-down doctrine was still not enough to convince the student to stay in the church as a practicing believer. Later, talking to various college and graduate students in Germany, I heard fairly frequently from individuals that they had grown up with some exposure to the church—an infant baptism, confirmation, or maybe just going to church at major holidays with their family. And while there were various subsequent reasons given as to why each individual had fallen away, and decided that Christianity no longer warranted a significant place in their lives, the common thread was that all of these people had been in the church at some point. So from my limited experience, these findings might suggest that the problem in Germany at least is not so much that the Church has ceased to have any influence. People’s lives to some extent are still intersecting with Christian communities, however short-lived that experience might be. But during that time in their lives, apparently nothing significant enough occurs to make them want to stay on as they grow older. Discipleship is somehow lacking. Now please note that I say this in no sort of judgmental attitude. I love Europe, and Germany in particular and my heart is heavy for the spiritual darkness there, and I know there are many, many people in the German church who are trying to push back against it. And I also realize that right here in America, especially where I serve in Boulder, Colorado, and indeed within the midst of our Christian Challenge ministry, effective discipleship remains an elusive aspiration at times. There are certainly students who I have puzzled over how to reach effectively, and I have grieved to see some fall away, despite my best efforts to keep them involved in the ministry and connected to me personally. So in no way can I claim to have cracked any code as regards to how to do discipleship most effectively. I know too that in the final analysis, as that great German Martin Luther once said “Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing, and his own dying.” So in this sense then, discipleship is ultimately dependent on just how willing an individual is to be teachable, and the extent to which they allow God to be at work in their lives.
Thinking once more of the “why” of missions, a question that I know I’ve had before is “why do we have to leave America to do missions?” On the one hand, there is a short answer to that—we don’t! Certainly living in a place like Boulder, where on Sunday mornings the preferred activities for the majority of residents would be mountain biking, hiking, running, skiing—almost anything besides going to church, I am very aware that in my own backyard, and around the CU campus is a vast mission field. That’s one big reason I felt God calling me to move to such a place to pursue campus ministry. But in my own life at least, foreign missions has come about as a natural extension of the work I do here in America. Missions has always been a progression for me. It has started very locally. Unlike some people, for whom an early missions trip proved to be a formative spiritual experience, for me, missions began literally with crossing the street. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery has long utilized its downtown location to serve the needs of the surrounding community. And right across the street from our main sanctuary is the Community Ministries branch of the church, known commonly as the “Caring Center.” There I got some of my first ministry experience working in a food bank and a thrift clothing store. It always seemed natural to me to begin with the spiritual needs I saw right on my own doorstep, and see from that how God might touch my heart for a wider circle of influence. And that is how it has happened in Boulder too. When I first arrived in Colorado in August of 2014, my priority was to become comfortable in the new culture I found myself in. Before I thought about going overseas, I needed to learn how to reach students at CU-Boulder. But over time, a natural progression towards wider mission fields naturally occurred. Our students were motivated to want to have an impact not just on the CU campus, but in the Boulder community, so we engaged the local homeless population through an outreach called “Compassion in the 303”. At the same time, I felt like I had been called to Colorado not just to be a witness to college students, but also to share my faith with friends and people living in Boulder who might not have anything at all to do with the University community. The circle then widened beyond Boulder to include Denver, where we have engaged in missions work during the last two Spring Breaks, such as helping out church planters and working with a ministry based in apartment complexes. Christian Challenge’s influence has gone beyond the state of Colorado as well to touch other parts of America. During our Spring Break in 2015, we went to California to serve in a variety of capacities around the Los Angeles area. This March, we hosted a mission team from the University of Alabama that served alongside us at the CU campus, and in August we will welcome another team from my home church, FBC Montgomery. In addition, one of my focuses with Christian Challenge, as I have shared before, is ministry to international students. I have had the privilege to connect with students from Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Italy, Japan, Panama, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and South Africa while I’ve been at CU. These experiences have naturally helped open my eyes to wider opportunities for overseas ministry and reminded me of God’s great heart for the nations. And as I have already described, God used people and events in my life to plant in my heart the seed for an eventual participation in the work of these German campus ministries called “Connexxion.” All of this is illustrated by a verse from the prophet Isaiah. Although he is called first to preach to the children of Israel, and call them to return to faithful Covenant living, Isaiah soon realizes that his mission’s implications stretch far beyond the fate of just one people group. Isaiah 49:6—“Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My Salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Having an exercising a spiritual vision that extends beyond your own immediate context for ministry can thus naturally lead you to increasingly widespread missions involvement. In this way, another missions “why” then becomes a “how.” In other words, in what way does God touch our hearts to prompt us to begin caring about people, cultures, and lives far beyond the sphere of our own daily activity?? Well essentially He expands our vision. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but when I logically seek to follow that thought to its conclusion, considering what it means to have one’s vision expanded in a spiritual sense, I think of being able to see into the future. As we just saw from the Scriptural passage, Isaiah was gifted by God to be able to sense that his calling might somehow impact members of the nations, Gentiles, that he would never even meet. In the same way, God can touch us, especially perhaps in those moments that we feel discouraged and maybe even question how much good we are accomplishing through all of our mission activity. The Lord can show us through His scripture what will be the sure and certain conclusion one day of all of our Kingdom work, the great goal towards which every missions endeavor points, however partially or incompletely. It is the portrait given in Revelation 7:9-10—a glimpse into the very Throne Room of Heaven. “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Thus knowing how the great Redemption story will one day end should give us an enormous amount of confidence to continue forward with our work. We also needn’t burden ourselves with a feeling of responsibility in the sense that someone else’s salvation is dependent on whether or not they hear the Gospel from us! We know that God will accomplish His purposes, and will bring representatives from all of the nations together on that great day in Heaven’s throne room. But whenever we decline an opportunity to join where God may be at work in the mission field, we miss out on the chance to gain a blessing by participating in such Kingdom-building work. While I was at the Connexxion Conference, I got a chance to be inspired by the vision casting of Martha as she talked about her vision for the future of the ministry, a project she calls “Boundless.” The idea is to continue to expand the work she has been doing on different campuses in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Teams will come from America for a year-long experience that will include first partnering with one of the established campus ministries, and then setting out to start a new ministry at a different campus. The first campus chosen for expansion was actually the University of Cologne, and we were able to go there and do some spiritual “scouting” there during the Connexxion Conference. Martha Moore has had such a successful career as an IMB missionary because she is able to take the vision God gives her for one particular city, such as Jena, or Braunschweig, and then she translates that to something that is repeatable and transferable to a different city, maybe even a different country. In the meantime, the ministries that she leaves behind continue to flourish because she has discipled student leaders who will then in turn raise up new leaders, all in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:1-2.
Related to vision casting, another spiritual trait that was certainly evident among the students and staff of the Connexxion ministries in Germany is that they are Kingdom-minded. This can come across in many different ways, but in essence it means they are focused on the big picture, and don’t get distracted by what we might call “small dreams.” One of the speakers at the Connexxion Conference was Robbie Nutter, leader of the Christian Challenge ministry at Kansas State. He taught during one session from Mark 10, the story where James and John came to Jesus to request special seats of honor next to Him in heaven. Robbie used this story to ask the provocative question, “Are small dreams keeping you from Christ?” Now certainly there is nothing wrong from time with being honored or recognized. Everyone enjoys feeling appreciated, and being singled out for a word of praise or encouragement. But as we work in ministry and in missions, is our primary motivation to win the praise and recognition of our fellow men and women? Or are we focused on the Kingdom, to the extent that we don’t mind being overlooked, allow the spotlight to be on others, and don’t even care who gets the credit, as long as God is being glorified, and His work is continuing? This is the essentially the message of Jesus in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I have sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labors.” So in this Kingdom work, we are all simply one part of the process and we leave the end results to God, and are able to be open-handed, realizing that only through a selfless, team effort, can great things be accomplished for the Lord.
I say this because I’m fully aware that often when church folks gather to talk about the mission field, Europe is not the “glamorous” part of the world to highlight. We don’t hear as many stories of mass baptisms, churches being planted overnight, or fearful persecutions—the dramatic events that sometimes accompany missionary testimonies in other parts of the world. And as I mentioned earlier, some American Christians may even have the outdated idea that Europe has already been “reached.” But the courageous students and staff of the campus ministries we worked with in Germany are just as much on the point for Jesus as anyone I’ve ever met. And the importance of their mission field has nothing to do with how much recognition it gets in American churches, or how many IMB staff members are allotted there, and everything to do with the great spiritual needs that are apparent around the country, and so acutely felt in its institutions of higher learning. Certainly I recognize and respect the call to bring the Gospel to many of the difficult places that lie within the 10-40 window, and the urgency preached by people like David Platt to provide Gospel access to unreached people groups. Everyone working in those settings has my utmost respect, and I even understand the need for a special priority of resources and mobilization to those parts of the world. But with that being said, it’s also ok for God to call some people to other parts of the globe, where while the cultural context is quite different, the spiritual darkness is just as real!!
I talked at the outset of this post about how I wanted to make missions seem possible for everyone, and really encourage people to think about how God may be calling them to a mission field. In that spirit, I wanted to focus mostly on the positive things that I learned during this past month abroad. However it would be false for me to insinuate that missions is only about reaping spiritual benefits. As anyone who’s taken even the briefest short-term trip knows, the mission field is both a place where we can experience God’s bounty in unexpected and powerful ways, but also a place where we can face some of the strongest spiritual attacks, obstacles, and discouragements. So I want to address the third missions question—“what if”. Because if we’re honest, for many of us there is always a degree of fear lurking in the background when we think about foreign missions. Even though in years past, people would have considered Germany a safe travel destination, the recent rise in terrorist attacks there, and across Europe, made me slightly on edge as I prepared to travel there. Our team even filled out a special IMB insurance policy to cover us in case we were affected in any way by a terrorist event. But beyond such dramatic fears, often the obstacles we confront in the mission field take on a more personal, but no less challenging aspect. For me, one big challenge to embrace was my use of the language. Even though I knew that many of the Germans we’d be working with spoke good English, I had put in a fair amount of time over the years studying German, and I am convinced that this is not by accident. God uses circumstances and interests like that in our life to leverage for the Gospel, if we allow Him to. But for all of my language preparation, this would be my first time ever to be “immersed” in the language 24/7. After a few days of traveling in Vienna where I tried to use German as much as possible for things like ordering food or buying tickets, I noticed first of all how tiring it could be to try and “live” in a language besides my native tongue. I began to grow apprehensive. Would I actually be able to talk about spiritual things in German with college students that I didn’t even know?? Once I arrived in Braunschweig, I began to look for as many opportunities as I could find to practice my German—speaking at restaurants, in shops, and conversing with students in the Connexxion ministry. It was here that I felt all over again a special affinity for international students! Like me, they were still learning this challenging new language (although their German was far superior to mine), and they were very patient to help me along in our halting, stumbling conversations. I was immediately aware too of how much greater the challenge is for international students who come to America. At least in Germany, whenever I had trouble with the language, there was almost always someone there who could help explain the word I needed in English. But internationals who come to America are rarely extended such courtesy. They are expected to be able to fully function in English only from the time they arrive.
In addition to practicing my German some with the students in Connexxion, I enjoyed going to one of the largest Baptist churches in Germany, also in Braunschweig, and heard an excellent sermon in German. Later at the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, I was able to attend one of the workshop sessions on discipleship which was also held in German. God used these teaching opportunities through a different language in a special way I believe. So often, when listening to Bible teaching, the greatest enemies we must fight against are distractions of every conceivable kind that come into our mind and threaten to divert us from the topic at hand. Our mind can wander easily because we are able to half-way listen to someone speaking in English and still also be thinking about something else at the same time. But when I hear a message in German, I have no choice but to fully attentive! I have to hang on every word to be able to properly understand, and it struck me later that this is the attitude and the posture we should adopt any time the Word of God is spoken or taught! During the Connexxion Conference in Cologne, we made two different day trips to the Universities in Cologne and Bonn respectively in order to engage students on campus in spiritual surveys. Then, once the conference concluded, I went to Bonn for several more days to help serve alongside a student mission team from USC, and we again engaged in spiritual surveys with the students at the university there. It was these spiritual surveys that I was most nervous about beforehand. Because in all honesty this type of “cold-call” evangelism where you have no prior connection to the person can be challenging for even back in my usual ministry setting at CU-Boulder. And while I had already gotten in some good practice speaking German, it had been mostly with people who were already part of the Connexxion ministry. They had been patient and polite with me as I had tried to use the language, but how would it go with complete strangers? Maybe they would resent me interrupting their studies, relaxing, or conversations to have a talk about potentially awkward, spiritual topics with a clearly less-than-fluent German speaker. Perhaps they would even harbor some anti-American sentiment when they learned where I was from, or would be fearful and suspicious hearing about a campus ministry, since such groups are much less common in the German university culture than back home. Maybe with my uncertain command of German, I would say the wrong thing or confuse them with my questions. These were all among the fears that ran through my head, most of them honestly lies from the Enemy.
As always in such moments, I found comfort and reassurance in God’s Word. A few passages stood out for me during this time. In Exodus 4:10-12, Moses is offering excuses to God as to all the reasons why he feels inadequate to be the Lord’s messenger. But God’s response echoes to us down through the ages as a reassurance and reminder of where true spiritual power comes from. “Then Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” Then I thought too, of Paul’s self-confession in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5—“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
So it was certainly a comfort to reflect that two of the mightiest men the Lord ever raised up, Moses and Paul, were both somewhat lacking in self-confidence as to their own ability to communicate the message to others effectively. As a result of course, they were that much more dependent on God’s power which is how the Lord wants it to be for all of us. And for me then, there was a real spiritual reason for my wanting to use German as much as possible during my missions work. Sure a part of it is because I have put a lot of time and effort into trying to learn the language, and there is always a natural curiosity to see much you really know, putting your skills to test in a real-life, rather than class-room type setting. But from a spiritual standpoint, using German allowed me to receive certain lessons from the Lord, as well as overcome some of these aforementioned spiritual fears that gripped me when I prepared to do campus evangelism.
I think I can some up these lessons in a few adjectives: Humility. When I’m speaking in English, I usually feel fairly eloquent, and able to express myself clearly and effectively. After all, a large part of my professional training in Seminary and my subsequent campus ministry experience has involved me learning to be able to clearly communicate and teach the truths of the Word of God, in prayer, preaching, and discipleship. But trying to accomplish spiritual tasks on even an admittedly much smaller scale in German proved to be an exercise in humble learning. I remember once in Braunschweig I had the chance to lead worship, and I performed two songs in German. These were two songs which I knew already with the original English words, and for which I had to practice several hours just to be able to present a half-decent rendition. Another time before a worship service with the student ministry, I was backstage with the speaker, my friend, Alex, and everyone in the circle prayed for his upcoming message. So I joined them, in German, and about 2/3 of the way through my prayer, I ran smack into the language barrier. Being unable to conclude my thoughts in German, I had to rather embarrassingly switch back to English! But again, God used these experiences to show me humility, and also I believe to develop some other spiritual qualities.
Meditation. Often in ministry settings in America, I may launch into a prayer, an answer to a question, or even part of a message, and I don’t necessarily have to plan out, or meditate over everything I say in advance. It’s nice of course to be able to speak more extemporaneously, but at the same time we can lose something when we don’t give ourselves the time and space to meditate thoroughly over every Word that comes from the Mouth of God and that we wish to communicate to others. But often, as I spoke German, I had to premeditate the words and phrases I would use. So this afforded me the opportunity to be extra careful and intentional in the way that I spoke about God and my relationship to Him. Listening. I pride myself on trying to be a good listener in all settings, but especially as it pertains to ministry. But as I’ve already mentioned, we must often struggle against every form of distraction as we seek to listen intentionally, because to really hear what someone is saying, to be fully present in that conversation, and to absorb what God may be seeking to teach us, takes effort. But as I’ve already mentioned about hearing the German sermon and workshop discussion, so it was true also for individual conversations—listening in another language gave me no choice but to be fully, acutely attentive if I had any hope of being able to understand!! I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring someone, or only half-listening, and again God used those experiences to convict me that it should always be this way when we are listening to someone else privilege us with the story and details of their personal spiritual experiences. Finding people of peace. I had heard many missionaries talk before about the importance of finding a “person of peace”—not necessarily a believer, but someone who was at least open to the Gospel, and would serve as a friend, and a helpful guide into a new cultural setting. Well again and again during my time in Germany, the Lord blessed me to have encounters with such individuals, many of them students that I met during spiritual surveys. But I believe that my speaking German with them actually helped somewhat in that discernment process. My method of finding a potential person of peace was to go up and explain to them in German that I was a visitor to the campus who would like to ask them a few questions about student life at the university. The students would know immediately from my accent that I wasn’t German, or a native speaker of their language. And some probably could guess pretty quickly that I was an American. But if they were patient enough to nonetheless to talk with me for a few minutes, tolerating my bad grammar, and even helping me as needed find the right word to use in German, then I would say I found a person of peace. Often they weren’t necessarily believers, but if nothing else, they had been willing to show hospitality to a stranger, and literally in every conversation that progressed far enough for me to ask about a spiritual background, not one student took offense, or refused to answer. Indeed, having heard so much about Germany being a “cold culture” and how religious belief is seen as an essentially private subject, I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which these students who I had just met were willing to share about their spiritual backgrounds, and receive some information about Connexxion. Now of course there were students who didn’t wish to speak with us, just as there would have been back in Boulder (and honestly percentage wise, about the same), but by trying to speak German, it seemed I was able to maybe identify even earlier on those individuals who were a little more open.
So how did the actual talks and spiritual surveys go?? Well it varied of course. We often found students who had some exposure to the church either through a baptism, a confirmation, or having attended on major religious holidays with their family members. As I alluded to earlier in my post, the problem, at least in part seems to be that not enough is happening in the churches to make them want to stick around later in life. A problem, which of course is also very much a reality here in America. Hence my extended discussion about the importance of discipleship earlier in this post. I also heard many students that were hesitant to claim belief in a personal God, or the God of Scripture. And yet at the same time, very few were outright atheists. None of them seemed hostile either to the idea at least of what Connexxion was trying to do—build community among university students and at least give them the opportunity to hear and respond to the claims of the Gospel. Certainly it would seem that many of the German students we spoke with would like to find more community, as their college experiences seemed mostly comprised of working and studying, without nearly the level of extracurricular activity and involvement that is more typical in America. Also, just as an aside—I heard virtually nothing negative directed towards me personally as an American. Some of the students I talked to had traveled before in the U.S or expressed a desire to visit. Sure, some of them asked me about Trump and the current political situation, and I tried to answer as diplomatically as possible. But on the other hand they were perfectly willing to discuss equally sensitive questions in Germany, such as the future of the refugee situation, or their feelings about the EU and Brexit. The students we spoke too on the whole were remarkably well informed about events in America and the rest of the world, and seemed genuinely pleased we were visiting their country.
Now just as a closing note. I in no way want to come across as prideful about my language abilities. First of all they aren’t nearly good enough yet to warrant that!! And I also know that many Americans don’t have the opportunity to learn or practice foreign languages nearly as easily as most Europeans do. Spiritual preparation through Biblical study, prayer, and engaging in witnessing to others here in America is by far the most important way we can equip ourselves for the mission field. But I just wanted to mention the language aspect so that I could encourage anyone who is thinking of using their language skills, however meager they may be, in the field. If my experience in Germany is any indication, the locals you meet will be extremely appreciative of even a small effort on your part, and as I was, you may be pleasantly surprised how God can use language to open some doors, and teach you some spiritual lessons during your missions experience.
Well it’s now time to close this lengthy blog post! In summary, I would say that there was nothing that I learned during this mission trip that I could not have learned while in my regular ministry setting in Boulder. However, I do feel like this was somewhat similar to an “accelerated course of study.” In other words, in just a few weeks I was able to absorb a variety of spiritual lessons, as I’ve attempted to communicate in this blog post. These may otherwise have taken me longer perhaps to learn in America. So I would encourage anyone who’s contemplating an overseas mission trip to go! God may be able to teach you faster and in a more unique way, some of the same lessons He wishes to impart to you here. And you might find too upon your return that you are that much more ready to engage in the mission field that your own hometown, university campus, or local workplace represents. What a privilege to partner with God in the ever-expanding work of His Kingdom, work which, we know from Revelation 7 will end in the beautiful picture of a Heavenly throne room filled with the representatives of the nations!!