Was I Really Ready?

In The Nick of Time
by Jeff Straub

Reflections on a Return Visit to Canada

My wife and I recently returned from a weekend visiting the location of our first ministry. It was a joyful weekend as we renewed acquaintances made 22 years ago. What a blessing it was to minister again to people whom God had given us to love and lead!

But the weekend was not all rosy. It was also a weekend of profound sadness as we saw what little was left and thought about what might have been. The church building I had helped erect was in shambles, mostly torn down. Worse, the flock we had labored to assemble was, for the most part, scattered.

As I look back over that ministry, now more than 22 years in the past, I wonder what part we played in its demise. I have a great sense of sorrow for opportunities missed and for work left unfinished. The children to whom we ministered are now grown adults with children of their own, and the sins of the fathers have brought forth sinful behavior in the lives of the next generation. Children and adults with whom we worked week in and week out are living much as they did when we labored among them long ago. One Christian whom I asked about the current status of the community offered a simple assessment—“Worse!” Perhaps a bit of history will fill in the story.

The ministry to which my wife and I were first called immediately after college was a difficult one—an Indian reserve in Canada. Working among aboriginal peoples in any country poses a formidable challenge. Language, culture, poverty, sin, and worldview issues all coalesce to make ministry among tribal people one of the most difficult (from the human perspective) ministries to attempt. Couple that with our youthfulness, our general immaturity, our insufficient grasp of all things biblical, and our lack of solid missionary preparation, and it is little wonder that things went no further than they did and not surprising that so little seems to have endured.

Not that we received a bad education. It was good as far as it went. But that is just the problem. It did not go far enough. In the late 1970s, in the part of Fundamentalism in which I happened to be, many believed that those who could enter ministry did, while those who could not went to school longer, “gathering their tools.” I heard one professor lament that some men were just “tooling around,” appearing to have no burden, no drive, and no heart, so they stayed in school.

But those of us who were “called of God” simply had to get out and get with it. We knew what had to be done, and we felt that we were the ones to do it. We launched into ministry, eager to serve, but most of us were insufficiently equipped. I lacked skills and ministry experience to really do a work for God on a foreign field. For much of our first ministry, though we loved our people, we did not really do much else that was right.

My poor people! It was bad enough that I was young and inexperienced. But that I was insufficiently trained as well was inexcusable. Worse, many coworkers were also insufficiently trained. It was the blind leading the blind. Many of our leaders had little or no mission experience, and my training had not really prepared me for cross-cultural work, so it was trial and error. Mostly it was my people who were tried by my errors! Not surprisingly, the works we began are all gone—nothing left but memories of faulty efforts and futile thoughts of what might have been.

This whole experience, however, was not a total loss. God used it in our lives to teach us much about Himself and challenge us much about ourselves. The ministry was a hammer and chisel God used to begin chipping away the rough edges of our lives and to do a sanctifying work in our hearts.

In retrospect, what should we have done differently? First, it would have helped if we had been better-equipped. Granted, I knew more about the Bible than did the people among whom I served, but that knowledge proved insufficient. I knew little about church planting, cross-cultural ministry, contextualization (right or wrong), language learning, field assessment, etc. Moreover, there were a number of seminary-level classes I simply had not taken. Had I stayed in school for two additional years (at the time I had a one-year M.A.) and completed a seminary degree in the 1980s, my introduction into ministry would have been slower, but doubtless it would have been more effective. I simply did not have enough training to have a well-defined theology of mission or philosophy of mission. I had a burden and a calling, and among my colleagues and mission leaders that, it seems, was sufficient.

Our goal was to build an indigenous work among a people traditionally resistant to the gospel. But having a worthy goal was really only part of the issue. I had no real strategy in mind as to how that goal would be attained, nor did I have an exit strategy as to how that work would be turned over to the nationals. I took no classes, nor did any of my peers, and we had no field council to assist us. Our mission prided itself in having no field councils. I recognize that field councils sometimes threaten the autonomy of independent-minded missionaries, but they also serve as a ready reference for junior missionaries who can and should learn from seasoned veterans.

Seminary students often ask me how much education they should obtain before going to the mission field. My answer goes something like this.

“It depends. What do you wish to accomplish?” Most often, the men suggest that they wish to train the nationals. “Okay, then, to what level do you wish to train them? As Sunday school teachers? As church leaders? As pastors? If this is the case, I recommend a Master of Divinity be considered a minimal degree for nearly every missionary!”

Exceptional cases may exist (God has certainly used men with less training), but we are dealing with eternal issues. Does it seem prudent or reasonable to take short cuts? I make no apology for encouraging men to prepare themselves where I did not—or to wait to instruct until they have really learned.

This is not an implicit argument that more education guarantees success. Frankly, I know of no guarantee, one way or the other. Ministry prosperity depends more on the work of the Holy Spirit than on the work of the missionary. But this is not a justification for poor preparation. God may choose to use foolish things to confound the wise, but whom do we really think we are kidding? We go off ill-prepared to do a job way beyond our capacity. When we fail, we blame God. God “closed the door.” He “led us elsewhere.” He “hardened their hearts.”

It is easy to blame God for our failures. We have been doing that since the Fall. But as I reflect on the weekend my wife and I enjoyed among friends that we dearly loved, I just wonder if some of the blame for the failure does not lie at my feet.

As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams

Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady (1696)

As pants the hart for cooling streams
When heated in the chase,
So longs my soul, O God, for Thee
And Thy refreshing grace.

For Thee, my God, the living God,
My thirsty soul doth pine;
Oh, when shall I behold Thy face,
Thou Majesty Divine?

Why restless, why cast down, my soul?
Hope still; and thou shalt sing
The praise of Him who is thy God,
Thy health’s eternal Spring.

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
The God whom we adore,
Be glory as it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

straub.jpgDr. Jeff Straub has served as adjunct professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), as well as at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Moscow, the Ukraine, and Romania, at Pi edmont Baptist College, and at LIFTS Institute (Kitchener, Ontario). He has been a senior pastor and church planter in Canada and was a missionary among the Ojibway Indians in Wanipigow, Manitoba. He has had several articles published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, as well as in FrontLine Magazine. Dr. Straub is married to Rebecca, and they have 3 children. He enjoys books, golf, hunting, and fishing.
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