By Frank Decker
Not long ago, I was speaking with a missionary who has served orphans in Russia for 16 years. Recalling the fact that she had initially signed up for a one-year term of service I asked, “If you had been able to look into the future and learned that after 16 years you’d still be serving there, what would be your response?” “I don’t think I’d be able to handle it at that time,” was the reply.
There is a reason why God reveals things to us progressively, rather than permitting us to see clearly into the future. And this seems to be true even from ancient biblical times. In Genesis 12, when God spoke to Abram and told him to “go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house,” Abram must have wondered “where?” But at that point God only said, “to the land which I will show you.” Had that been me, I might have replied, “Huh? Lord, that’s not enough for me. I need a five-year plan—a spotlight that shines way down the path—or at least an immediate destination.”
At a recent conference on sharing Jesus with Muslims, an attendee asked the staff person who was representing our mission, “What is your method? Is it the ‘Camel’ approach? Is it ‘Insider?’ Do you do traditional church planting? Is it something else?” Indeed, missions over the past several decades have often been characterized by plans that have been cooked at home and served overseas. So, I was pleased when I learned that our staff member’s reply was, “Our approach is to go there and begin by listening, observing, and learning. After being there for a while, a strategy will emerge.” In contrast, I am aware of my own temptation to establish detailed ministry plans well in advance, with their projected outcomes and timelines.
Maybe this is why we are instructed in James 4:13-15, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a place and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow…. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” How interesting that unambiguous counsel to take a step of obedience immediately follows: “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
About 30 years ago archeologists in the Holy Land dug up the pieces of a “foot lamp” from the era in which Psalm 119:105 was written, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” After reconstructing the clay fragments, a wick was inserted to match the size of the original one, and an interesting discovery was made. The lamp provided enough light for one step.
That God reveals things progressively as we take steps of obedience is congenial to responsible missional thinking and practice. I am reminded of one missionary in the Far East who took steps of obedience that resulted in his service in a city near—but not among—the unreached people group whom God had placed on his heart. For seven years he was obedient, learning the language and ministering in that city. Finally, his patience and obedience paid off and he was granted governmental authorization to move into the city he had originally hoped to reach and live among the people whom God had placed on his heart. As it turns out, the official who granted access was someone whom this missionary had discipled during his years of waiting.
I think of another missionary who went to South America and ended up using his engineering skills to help indigenous believers develop a bottling company to fund their ministries. This idea came to him only after he had served for a number of years. And I think of a missionary who went with her husband, a medical doctor, to West Africa. While living there God laid on her heart the need for improved literacy, and she began an extensive ministry addressing this issue, which remains today. These are a few examples of how vital strategic mission decisions often are made only after previous steps of obedience have been taken.
Sometimes when we look into the future we only see fragments, glimmers of light, yet they are enough to take a step. But later on we can piece the fragments together and see how those little steps of obedience can result in a completed puzzle, and we are able to conclude that God’s hand was guiding us at each point. It is fine to have ministry plans and goals, and they can be very helpful “pegs” on which we hang our plans. But they must always be cast in the shadow of a willingness to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who seems to lead us step-by-step.
By the way, that missionary who initially went to Russia for twelve months will be headed back in July for her 17th year of service in that obscure part of Russia which she now calls home.