I just recently returned from several weeks of mission work in Germany. I had the privilege of being able to go back to Braunschweig, where I was last summer also, and continue to build Christian Challenge’s partnership with a Germany campus ministry there called “Connexxion.” As I’ve shared in my blog before, Connexxion has strong ties to the Baptist family as it was started by an IMB missionary named Martha Moore. In their theology and structure, they are very similar to Christian Challenge and other Baptist campus ministries in the States, although almost all of the students and leadership are German. While in Germany, I also had a chance to briefly visit with some other American friends who are serving in campus ministry on staff with Cru in Munich. Their names are Michael and Arielle Hewitt, and they were formerly on staff with Cru at CU-Boulder, and were also members of my church here, East Boulder Baptist. There were so many encouraging things that I experienced while in Germany, and it was a joy to be able to reconnect with old friends from last year, and continue to see how God is at work in this special part of the world—the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. I’ve come to love the German language and culture, and I’m fascinated by the strategic importance of this country, not only historically, but in our current world as the largest economy in the EU, and the recipient of so many immigrants coming from all parts of the world, but in particular from Muslim backgrounds. Despite a decades- long trend towards increasing secularization which has led to a post-Christian mentality for many young people, there are still a lot of vibrant believers and many amazing ministry opportunities in Germany. And I believe there’s no more strategic place to pursue ministry, in Germany as here in the States, than on the university campus.
So I want to reflect in this post a little more about my time in Germany this summer. In particular I want to consider the many ways in which missions engagement, and especially overseas missions, can shape us spiritually. As I think about the best ways to continue to promote missions involvement to our Christian Challenge students, I’ve thought a lot about how best to describe the value of mission work to someone who maybe doesn’t have much experience with it. I myself certainly still have a lot to learn, and compared to many of my spiritual mentors, I am still a missions “rookie” for the most part. But I was fortunate enough to be raised in a home church (First Baptist Montgomery) that truly strives to honor the Great Commission and serve as a “missions factory”. In addition the campus ministry I now serve with, Christian Challenge, has a long association with overseas missions, and many of our staff, current students, and alumni have engaged in ministry in various places around the world. As a campus ministry, one of our primary goals each year, in addition to providing Christ-centered fellowship, teaching, and discipleship to students, and engaging our campus evangelistically, is to mobilize our students for involvement in missions whether locally, abroad, or both. How to best do this, and how to best encapsulate the tremendous value that serving in a missional capacity can have for one’s spiritual growth, is a conversation we are continually having as a staff, and individually with students. Reflecting on three mission trips that I’ve been a part of internationally—to Ottawa, Canada in 2014, and then to Braunschweig in 2017 and 2018, I’ve come to think of a mission project as an opportunity for accelerated spiritual growth and development. Now in making that statement, I should underscore the fact that much will depend on an individual’s attitude, and willingness to be flexible and teachable. But generally speaking, I’ve seen both in my own life, and in the lives of my other Christian friends, many instances where being involved in missions provides the chance to learn about and experience unique aspects of God’s Kingdom in a relatively, short, and often intense period of time. These are things that you could still learn or experience in the course of your normal life, however the mission field—particularly outside of America, simply provides a “laboratory” if you will, where God can teach and demonstrate certain truths to us very quickly and unmistakably, as opposed to in a more gradual fashion as may occur back home.
Having said that then, I believe that even short-term missions trips can yield a huge impact spiritually, because they have for me. First, a trip may be “short-term” in that you’re only gone for a couple of weeks, but if it is part of a longer-term partnership (as our work in Germany is), then really each trip is a building block towards establishing a hopefully long-lasting alliance that will be bigger than any one individual or team. Certainly my goal all along in establishing Christian Challenge over in Germany is that eventually students or teams from Challenge ministries across Colorado will be going there without me even needing to participate directly because of the strength of the Kingdom partnership we’ve forged. Secondly, even a short-term missions trip can provide invaluable exposure for someone, opening up their heart to a new culture and ministry context, and giving them the chance to begin building special friendships, often with the result that they can’t wait to return to that place in years to come. That is certainly how I felt about Germany and Braunschweig after making my first trip there last year. I knew, almost inevitably, that I wanted to go back!
My church back in Alabama, First Baptist Montgomery, as I’ve mentioned, has always been a very missions-minded congregation. Under the leadership of Pastor Jay Wolf we have sent teams all over the world to engage in Great Commission work. In the FBC weekly church bulletin, it lists those currently serving on missions teams as being “on the point.” This terminology has a military origin, referring to the leader of a reconnaissance or patrol. Whoever is “on point” takes on the most exposed and potentially dangerous position in order to lead the rest of the squad. The point person has to be able to read the terrain well, and adjust quickly to deal with any potential threats. While realizing that it’s an imperfect metaphor, I nonetheless think that the concept of being “on point” does help to convey some of the experience of being on a mission trips, especially when you’re leading a team. This year in Germany, the experience for me was more hands-on. In 2017 it had been somewhat of a vision trip, although I’d taken part in a lot of direct ministry as well. But this year, returning back, I had a much better idea of the kind of ministry I’d be taking part in, and in addition I was leading a team of 3 others—all recent graduates from Christian Challenge ministries either at CU-Boulder or Colorado School of Mines. It was such a great blessing having these other guys—Andrew Thomas, Gunnar Hoglund, and Seth Topper, alongside me. But at the same time I felt an added sense of responsibility to help make sure they had a positive experience in Germany, and would then be excited about helping me to promote this as a future missions opportunity to students back in Colorado. The overall experience of being “on point” really can give you a front row seat to witness God at work in your life and in the lives of your teammates. The joys, and challenges that you encounter make an indelible impression, and give you some excellent food for thought in terms of spiritual applications once back home. And of course, the more you are involved in missions, the more you begin to realize that there should not exist any kind of sharp dichotomy between the “mission field” and “home.” Another thing that I love at First Baptist Montgomery is the signs they have strategically placed at the exit from the church parking lots. They read simply, “You are now entering the mission field.” Certainly most Christians know that we are to be on mission all the time, but going overseas can help expand your perspective towards not only what God is doing amongst the nations, but also what He is doing in the midst of your normal routine and setting.
So in the rest of this post, I want to unpack and explore a bit further some of the spiritual takeaways I had from this summer in Germany. At first I thought about labeling them “highs” and “lows” respectively, but as I think more about it, perhaps it’s better just to say that everything had its place as part of the full spectrum of spiritual emotions. As we so often find in Scripture, and in the course of our own spiritual lives, God may well use something that we initially perceive in negative terms to bring about a greater good. At the same time, hopefully some things that I share can be beneficial in helping both myself and others to be on guard against potential obstacles and spiritual opposition we can face during missions projects. Most significantly though, I want to highlight some of the amazing things that God was able to teach me and bless me with during these couple of weeks.
First, I want to touch on a subject that I’ve mentioned in this blog before, actually from last year’s recap of my first mission trip to Germany. But I think it’s worth repeating—that God can work in special ways when you try to engage others in their native language. I’ve studied German for many years now, mostly for reading purposes, although recently I’ve been making a greater effort to improve my listening comprehension and speaking skills, especially in light of my missions work. While I am by no means fluent, my efforts to become increasingly comfortable on a conversational level in German have been really enlightening, particularly when I view things from a spiritual lens. Germany usually ranks very highly as one of the leading countries in the world in terms of the number of proficient speakers of English as a second language. And on a university campus you can certainly find a fairly good percentage of people who speak English quite well. That may beg the question then of why it is even necessary to try and speak German with these students?? Well there’s the whole aspect of simply trying to be culturally courteous, and while that’s important, I think there are deeper spiritual benefits to be derived from making an effort with the language, no matter how challenging it may seem (and believe me, I continue to struggle with the intricacies of German grammar!) There is a real blessing that comes from trying to connect with someone not just in a language they know and understand, but is their “heart language”–the one in which they pray, read the Bible, and have their deepest, most significant conversations with close friends and family.
If we look at the Pentecost story in Acts 2, I think this deeper connection with a heart language is a big part of the miracle that takes place with the launch of the early church. Of course, the fact that the Apostles are speaking languages they presumably didn’t know beforehand, and communicating clearly the truth of the Gospel is miracle enough in itself, but the effect it has on the multinational audience gathered there in Jerusalem goes beyond linguistic expression. Listen to the response of the crowd in Acts 2:7-8…11—“Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born…We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” We were extraordinarily blessed in that 3 of our 4 team members this summer could speak some German, and so I was able to witness again and again the way that even a modest attempt to engage people in their own language opened up doors for further conversation, and broke down some of the cultural barriers. We did a lot of spiritual surveys around campus at the Technical University of Braunschweig. Doing them in German, we noticed several things. Obviously, speaking another language, and one in which you haven’t achieve fluency, forces you to really slow down. You have to choose your words carefully and deliberately, but in the spirit of Colossians 4:6, this can actually be a very good thing. I feel confident and articulate speaking English, but when I switch to German, I’m immediately humbled, and sense a much greater dependence on God to give me the right words to express the often abstract and philosophical language of spiritual matters. Talking slowly is paired with the need to listen extremely intently. I can recall few times in my life when I’ve been concentrating so hard mentally as when I was trying to follow native speakers as they (at least to my mind) conversed very rapidly in German! But again, this can be used by God to our great spiritual benefit. In our everyday life, many of us are probably prone to not listening good enough to those around us. Conversing in another language, and finding yourself literally hanging on every word of the other person is one way to remind yourself about the importance of intentional listening! Finally, as I’ve reflected before, and I saw again this year, however imperfect our attempts may be, when we seek to engage others in their own tongue, it can be a great aid towards finding those individuals whom any missionary strives to encounter, “a person of peace.” This concept comes originally from Jesus’ instructions to the 70 disciples he sends out in Luke 10:5-7. In missions terms, a person of peace might not always be a believer or someone who’s immediately ready to repent and believe the Gospel, but they are at least open and receptive to your message, while demonstrating courtesy, friendliness, and hospitality. Walking onto a strange campus in another country to do spiritual surveys, and in a city where there aren’t too many other Americans to be seen, you certainly are praying God would direct you to such people! So speaking German became like a spiritual “icebreaker” in a sense when we did these surveys. Not always, but frequently we found that if someone was patient enough to listen to our less-than-fluent attempts at the language, they were at least willing to hear more about the Connexxion ministry, as well as open up a bit about their own spiritual opinions and background.
But as with many experiences in the mission field, engaging others in their own language can come with potential obstacles, and be an occasion for spiritual warfare as well. Initially there is just the mental strain and fatigue it can take, even when you are in a relaxed setting, among friends. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, before arriving in Braunschweig this year, I was in Munich for a few days where I had the chance to visit with my Cru staff friends Michael and Arielle Hewitt, as well as with another German friend who lived nearby and had formerly been part of Connexxion in Braunschweig. It was a wonderful time, reuniting with these friends, learning more about the Hewitt’s ministry to the many college students in Munich and the surrounding Bavaria region, and seeing a bit of this famous German city. For the sake of practice and getting me ready for the work in Braunschweig, I’d requested that we speak German the whole day. The Hewitts, after several years of living in Germany now have a very impressive command of the language. So there I was with them, and my other friend—a native speaker, scrambling to keep up! Although the mood was very relaxed and convivial, I found myself mentally exhausted by late afternoon. In fact, when we went to dinner that evening, I rather sheepishly requested we continue our conversation in English, as I felt like all my German knowledge had been drained by that point! My 3 friends were very gracious and said that they understood, but my experience after just one day of language “immersion” was very instructive. I certainly gained further appreciation for the sacrifices and effort that missionaries all over the world make to learn a new language.
But feeling less then fully comfortable in another language can be opening a door to spiritual attack if we’re not careful. I experienced this rather intensely the first day our team was walking to the campus in Braunschweig. I knew I was about to go onto a campus where I didn’t know anyone, in a foreign, largely secular country, and try to engage complete strangers on the oft-awkward topic of their spiritual lives, in a language I didn’t have complete command of. I began to feel discouraged and full of doubts—in a way that I don’t usually experience when I’m preparing to engage in evangelism back in the States. I think when we’re in the mission field however, we cannot underestimate the propensity of the enemy to try and attack and discourage us. Certainly this is the warning expressed in 1 Peter 5:8-9 and Ephesians 6:11-12. But then something really neat happened. I’ve shared in an earlier blog post about the profound benefit that engaging in Scripture memorization has brought to my spiritual life. So knowing these two verses about the reality of spiritual warfare, my mind also turned to anther Scripture I’d learned, Exodus 4:10-12. Here, God reassures Moses, who’s feeling very uncertain about his speaking skills, that He will be with him, and speak through him. Recalling this verse gave me a new burst of confidence and I was able to go out with my team and have a great experience doing spiritual surveys in German.
Related to how God can work through us in our attempts to speak another language is the fact that the Gospel itself is so powerful, and fundamentally true and consistent across any barriers of culture or language. This was certainly illustrated memorably on our trip, most notably one evening when our team taught the content for Connexxion’s weekly discipleship meeting. This is a gathering of the student leaders of the ministry. We wanted to share with them something that would be spiritually impactful and also readily applicable in their lives. So I actually taught on Scripture memorization, expressing my heartfelt conviction that this had been one of the most valuable disciplines I’d engaged in. And what’s really neat is that the student leaders in the Connexxion ministry had already been engaging in Scripture memory, following the example of their leader, Alex. The other three guys on my team all shared about the spiritual transition from campus ministry to full-time work, and how they were seeking to honor God, and share Him with their coworkers. We were all able to clearly communicate I think, speaking a mixture of German and English. I feel strongly though that the more effort we make to stay Biblically faithful in our teaching, and share out of the overflow of what God has been teaching us in our own lives, the easier we can communicate fundamental truths across potential barriers of culture or language. It reminds me of an old ministry adage I’ve heard that it’s better to have a prepared man than a prepared message. Another beautiful experience where cultural barriers melted away was when we had the opportunity to attend a service at the Braunschweiger Friedenskirche, which is one of the largest Baptist churches in Germany. Although the sermon was in German, some of the praise songs were actually in English, and were ones we were already familiar with like as “10,000 reasons.” But the real highlight of the service was the opportunity we had to share in communion with our German brothers and sisters in Christ. This special celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a great reminder of the common bond we have as Christ followers, regardless of where in the world we call home.
Speaking of bonds, another really great thing that God reaffirmed for me during this mission trip was how engaging in overseas ministry can serve to powerfully connect you with your fellow team members. Although I already knew Seth, Andrew, and Gunnar, the time we spent together in Germany drew us even closer together, and gave me so many neat opportunities to see their hearts in regards to Kingdom service. I roomed with Gunnar and we had lots of quality conversations in the evenings and as we walked across town to meet up with the rest of the team each day. I really enjoyed getting to talk with Seth too, and then Andrew, who’d also been with me in Germany last year, continued to inspire and encourage me with his command of the German language. I also enjoyed some great times of fellowship with Jonas, one of Alex’s staff members with Connexxion, who Gunnar and I stayed with. Also, while in Germany, I skyped on several occasions with Austin Riley, one of my Christian Challenge students who’s currently serving on a summer mission project doing developmental engineering work in Rwanda. Both being in the mission field, we were able to powerfully encourage one another with stories of what God was doing in our respective settings. All of these times of special bonding reminded me of the truth of Proverbs 27:17—“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Again, this is a truth we certainly can note in our everyday lives, but one that takes on a special resonance when we’re removed from our usual support network of family and friends, and must rely that much more strongly on the people God has placed alongside us to serve.
Another challenge that I faced, and that proved to be an instructive part of this year’s mission project was being able to put small setbacks into context. Given the climate of spiritual warfare that can sometimes exist in the mission field, incidences which would be relatively minor back home can take on a magnified proportion and threaten to distract us from our mission if we aren’t careful. This year, despite all of the stereotypes you might have about German efficiency, I experienced numerous delays while taking trains! The worst was a four hour stoppage, naturally on a train where I hadn’t bothered to reserve a seat since the journey would typically have only lasted a half hour. During the delay I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I tried to decipher the German loudspeaker announcements, and worried how late I might be getting in that evening. Eventually when I made it to the main Frankfurt train station, it was well after midnight, and so I had to end up spending the night there before I could take an early morning train back to the place I was staying at just outside the city. Then I had to quickly pack to get ready to take another train to Munich where I was supposed to connect with my ministry friends the Hewitts. Again, a four-hour travel delay in the US might be a bit frustrating, but when you’re on a mission trip it becomes more of an annoyance because you have limited time, and a busy schedule to keep. But when I found myself getting a bit stressed on that stuck train, I tried to pass the time in prayer and by reciting some Scripture memory verses. While I arrived in Munich a bit more tired than usual, I was still able to have a great time connecting with and encouraging my missionary friends there. Everyone has always told me how flexibility is an important value in missions, and certainly that’s the case when we can learn, in the spirit of James 1:2-3, to exercise Godly patience, and not as they say “make a mountain out of a molehill.” Another day, when we were in Braunschweig, Andrew, one of our team members fell ill. It was the day of perhaps our biggest planned outreach event, a World Cup watch party for the Germany-South Korea game. But poor Andrew was bedridden with a bad cold and congestion. It was frustrating for us as a team and we felt for him, but we prayed, and stayed in touch with him throughout the day, encouraging him to rest and not feel bad at all for missing the event. He was fortunately able to come back strong the next day. Again, having a cold back home and taking a sick day from work is not really that big of a deal, but getting sick far from home, and not being able to participate in a ministry event with your other team members can be more demoralizing.
We also had to deal with some frustration and disappointment in relation to the spiritual surveys we conducted on campus in Braunschweig. The vast majority of students we talked to expressed little to no interest in a Christian group, and talked about God as having little place in their current lives. That can be tough, especially when you get a team motivated to step out in faith and go share in another language. It would be great to have seen more immediate fruit from surveying work. However I do believe that God can often teach us so much through experiences of frustration or at least when we don’t achieve the outcome we’d hoped for. Honestly speaking, the general attitudes towards God that we found in Germany were quite similar to the level of overall apathy and spiritual disinterest we often encounter on the CU campus. At any point, whether in the mission field, or back home, we can choose to focus on those negative aspects, or we can instead keep our eyes fixed on those positive things God is doing, both in plain sight, and also in ways that might remain hidden to us, at least for the present time. So with the surveys, while we might not have gotten as many positive responses as we would have liked, we did have some great conversations with German students who were kind, very open in talking about their spiritual background, and patient with us as we tried to express ourselves in the language. In addition we were able to get contact information from numerous students who expressed some interest in Connexxion. We didn’t get a chance to see these individuals again, but Alex and his team will have the chance to continue following up with them in the weeks to come. We can also take joy in the fact that seeds were planted, and as so many Christian testimonies over the years have demonstrated, the patient work of the Holy Spirit weeks, months, or even years after our presence there could always yield fruit. Also apart from the surveys we can be joyful about all of the wonderful interactions we had with students in Connexxion—being able to encourage them, pray with them, and share life with them. I have so many fond memories now from the last two years of conversations I’ve had with German brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as those who were coming into the ministry as spiritual seekers. Building these personal relationships is always the highlight of any mission trip for me.
Perhaps the most persistent and nagging obstacle to overcome and guard against in the mission field is fatigue accompanied by occasional homesickness. In Braunschweig we experienced long days of ministry that were very exciting, but also draining. As a result it became even more important than usual to stay rooted in God’s Word, and not grow weary in our work. Alex did a great job helping with this, as several times he organized Bible studies in the morning for the team before we went out to do spiritual surveys. These provided a much-needed boost to get us going, and I also found great solace in my Scripture memory verse cards. I knew these little verse packs would be an indispensable part of my packing list, and I turned to them repeatedly to help clear my mind of distractions and be able to focus better on the important Kingdom work at hand. I was also wonderfully sustained by the knowledge that others were praying for us. Each team member assembled a group of prayer partners back in the States, whom we sent updates to, and who we asked to be praying for specific things on specific days during the trip. I was reminded of the great truth of a phrase that Brian Gay, the missions pastor at FBC Montgomery likes to us—“prayer is not part of our strategy—prayer IS our strategy”. Ironically, during the packed schedule that mission trips often present, we can end up unintentionally sacrificing some of the very practices—prayer, Scripture memory, or Bible study, that are most needed to keep us spiritually healthy while in the mission field! I’m so grateful to my outstanding team members, Alex and his students, and my prayer partners back home for helping me to stay anchored and spiritually focused while in Germany! With such support systems in place, we are prepared to weather whatever setbacks and potential discouragements we may encounter in the mission field beforehand, keeping them in the proper context, and thus maintaining the attitude that Paul encourages us to have 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.”
In closing, I want to think for just a few minutes about how I can apply some of the things God has taught me this year during my time in Germany. It’s always good when you return from a spiritually beneficial experience to take stock of how you can continue to draw upon those lessons going forward. Several things come to mind for me. This trip certainly reaffirmed the value of spiritual disciplines, in particular Scripture memorization,that can help us to stay focused and Christ-centered amidst any potentially distractions or obstacles. And while I’ve mentioned here those distractions which are more specific to the mission field, the truth is that in our everyday lives we are always fighting a battle against those things of the world that would draw us away from God. Another powerful aid in this process of staying God-focused, whether in the mission field or at home, is drawing strength from the encouragement of our Christian friends. I relied so much on my teammates while over in Germany, and back in the States, I’m reminded of just how blessed I am to be serving with an outstanding staff at Christian Challenge, and fortuntate I am to be able to work with some great student leaders, just as Alex has in his ministry in Germany. This mission trip also reminded me of the importance of pushing through fear barriers that could threaten to hold us back spiritually. The misgivings and doubts I was experiencing that first day while walking to the campus were just lies of the enemy, and overcoming them in the more stressful and uncertain atmosphere of a foreign campus will help me to lead by example and encourage our students to overcome whatever fears they may have in doing evangelism here in Boulder.
I also think back to a conversation I had with Austin, my student who’s currently serving in Rwanda this summer. Austin is extremely well-traveled for someone in their early 20’s, as he has done study abroad trips to Spain and Argentina as well as developmental work in Peru and now Rwanda with engineering humanitarian groups. But Austin has always striven to ensure that his time spent abroad included a spiritual component as well. He’s gotten involved in the life of local church congregations in many of the countries he’s visited, and has also made an effort to share a Gospel witness with many different people he’s met in his travels. He’s someone I would regard absolutely regard as a missionary even though strictly speaking his travels haven’t been missions trips. As I’ve already shared, Austin and I were able to mutually encourage one another during our respective missions trips this summer through prayer, and skype conversations. I remember a conversation I had with him before we both left however that particularly stuck in my mind. Austin was talking about how valuable his travel experiences had been, from a cultural standpoint, but also spiritually. Then we discussed our hope that more students in the ministry would have the chance to experience serving God in an overseas context. We talked about what some of the obstacles or hindrances were that might keep students from embracing the chance to use their college years and the unique freedom they had at this stage in life to engage in missions opportunities. We mentioned potentially legitimate reasons such as academic constraints, family issues, or the need to work during the summer to gain money for school or to support others (although we try to encourage and remind our students that there are usually plenty of people willing to support a student financially for a missions project). The one factor that often predominates though in keeping students from engaging in missions is fear. But as 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us, this is an emotion that’s never from the Lord, and one that we should always encourage each other to overcome. Just in these last two summers alone, God has taught me so many amazing things through the opportunity to engage in overseas missions. And I certainly wish I had been more active in such endeavors when I was the age that my Christian Challenge students are now. So I look forward to the chance to encourage and mobilize them for participation in whatever mission field God may be calling them to. I know the blessings of serving out “on the point” will far outweigh whatever challenges there may be, and that our ministry back in Boulder will be immeasurably benefitted from the work God is doing through our students far beyond Colorado.