I want to tell you all a story. It’s not my story to share, but the people who own it are in the bush at the southern part of the world, with only the poorest, most intermittent of Internet connections… but even if they weren’t, I’m not sure they’d tell it the way that I will.
In fact, truth be told, I don’t know much of the story at all. Bits and pieces, distant memories, anecdotes, and what I’ve pulled together from various e-mails and a couple in-person conversations a few years ago.
But even so, I want to tell this story. And if anyone reading can correct or update the details, please do so…
When I was young, my parents led a Missionaries in Training small group in our home, through the church. It was young adults who all had an interest in, or passion for, missions. And my family’s relatively short, 13-month mission trip to Bangladesh made my parents the closest thing to resident experts on the topic available in our little town.
As far as I know, every one of those young adults who were serious about their participation in that group are on a missions field somewhere today. There’s this notion that world missions is something only a small fragment of Christians are called to do. The reality, I think, is that a lot more are called, they’re just not listening.
At any rate, all of those in that group listened, and this story is about one of them. A young man named Dave, and later his wife Judy, joined a mission organization called New Tribes Mission. In my (indirect) experience NTM is one of the most disciplined and demanding missions groups in the world — and with good reason. They send their missionaries to some of the toughest places in the world. Their goal is to reach tribal people in unreached countries, and to that end the training required before someone can even leave North America is intense.
Not only is there Bible training, and language training and translation training, but there’s survival training, where a candidate and their team are sent into a bush armed with the bare minimum in supplies, and required to live there — building their own house, finding their own food — all with the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow. There is no Walmart in the tribal communities of Africa. No cable TV or high speed Internet. There aren’t even toilets. So these candidates experience that, and have to make it through that, before they can even consider being sent out.
Of course, not all missionaries are called into the bush. Some have different challenges, in cultures certainly more civilized, but no less foreign. Dave and Judy, though, felt called to this extreme kind of work, and found their passion among the people of Papua New Guinea.
PNG is east of Indonesia, near the South Pacific Ocean. It’s the Eastern half of the Island of New Guinea. If you look above Australia, slightly to the right, you’ll find it. It is a rain forest environment, with active volcanoes, severe earthquakes and tsunamis. The CIA factbook notes that the risk of infectious disease is “very high.” Over 820 indigenous languages are spoken there, although Pidgin is spoken by most people engaged in trade.
It’s those indigenous people that Dave and Judy have been called to, and once they were done their multi-year training with PNG and completed their multi-year support raising process, where they travelled to any church that would have them, and tried to explain to the comfortable Christians sitting in their cozy North American pews the dire need of tribal people on the other side of the world for the gospel of Christ communicated in their own language, they set out for the jungle. Somewhere along the way, bringing 3 kids into world.
The built their own house, complete with do-it-yourself electricity, water and communications with the outside world. They worked with other missionaries in the area coordinating food and supply runs, building an airstrip so they could bring in what they need to live off of and start an effective ministry. They worked for years, just getting a base set-up.
And then the language training started in earnest. If NTM is demanding on their pre-missions training, then they’re perfectionists when it comes to in-field languages. So many fields, including the one Dave and Judy are on, are victims of fly-by Christians. Well-meaning people who understand the gospel, but don’t understand discipleship. They fly in, translate a few key passages of scripture, get a few ‘I believes’ from the natives, and think their job is done. The result is that a mangled form of Christianity gets co-opted into the local superstition. They understand that there’s a God — but they think He’s that tree over there, so they pray to the tree and bring the tree offerings, and ask the tree for forgiveness so that the spirits of the dead will leave them alone… and someone somewhere is patting themselves on the back, thinking that they’re doing a great job of spreading God’s word.
NTM will make no such mistake anywhere. And to ensure that no one has the opportunity to misrepresent God’s incredible plan, no one teaches until they are beyond fluent in the native language. In a place like Paupa New Guinea where languages have evolved by absorbing other influences — including neighbouring tribes — there are no rules of grammar, no conjugation… no easy mapping between English and… whatever a given tribe happens to speak. The end result is that it takes years — 6 years, if I remember correctly, before a missionary in PNG can even apply to have their language skills tested. And even once they’ve passed those tests, they don’t teach until they’ve translated the material, and had it examined and approved — a process that takes at least another 3 years.
By my estimation, Dave and Judy were on the field, in the jungle for at least 7 years, doing all of this before the real challenge came. Another missionary couple arrived at their base, ostensibly to help, but in reality all they did was hurt. Most of us have experienced some pain or another at the hands of a well-meaning Christian with all the sensitivity of a battering ram. Sometimes its malicious — most often its just because even Christians are stupid and human, and therefore imperfect. Dave and Judy ended up back home in Canada, completely unsure what was going to happen to their life’s work.
Fortunately, they had long ago learned to lean on God and trust in Him, so they took the time off, and left their base in God’s hands — knowing it was really His work anyway. And for at least 2 years, they waited on Him, not knowing for sure if they’d be back. Not knowing for sure why God had allowed such a painful set-back to their ministry. Probably feeling stranded in a country that was now foreign to them, where they didn’t feel like they were doing what they were built for.
I lost track of them for a bit in there, during our own country-hopping, but at some point, they made it back to PNG. And they didn’t waste any time. They quickly got their base back into shape — literally fighting back the jungle that had begun growing into their house and taking over their buildings. The years at home had crystalized their vision and their purpose, and they promptly began building a school/church where their teaching could take place. They reconnected with their relationships with the local tribe, and began hammering out their translation work, calling in help from all the connections they were able to re-establish there in their real home country.
This February, after probably decade and a half of work and pain and joy and tears, Dave and Judy got what they devoted their lives too: clearance to begin teaching God’s word among the tribal people of Papua New Guinea. Their language skills checked out, their translated materials passed inspection, and their leadership team of local people and support missionaries in the field were ready. On February 8, I got an e-mail, its simplicity belying the incredible effort behind what it represented, saying that they would begin teaching the next day, staring with 8 lessons a week, ramping up to 10.
Dave teaches in the classroom they built that shelters the people from the rainy season. It is packed out everyday, and when it really rains, he uses a megaphone so that the people can hear him. He finds creative ways to relate the gospel to the lives of the tribal people, and I can’t imagine the joy he feels as they respond. They’ve had to add more benches, because the 100 seats they built weren’t enough.
I imagine Dave is like a runner, who’s been training his whole life, and for the past few years, crouched at the blocks, just waiting for the gun shot to go off to finally let him loose. And man, can that guy fly…
I imagine that there are some of us that feel a bit like Dave and Judy must have. Of course, few of us will have the calling or the ability to tackle an adventure like Papua New Guinea. But each of us is built for a purpose. And if we’re willing to pursue God, He will prepare us to do that work. Sometimes the preparation is long and arduous. Sometimes we wonder why God puts us through stuff, or why He won’t just let us do it already! But He knows what He has in store for us, and He knows what kind of preparation will be necessary for us to be successful in that work.
Maybe its language study, maybe its traditional schooling, maybe its learning self-discipline with our minds or our finances or our time. But God knows what we need — and He knows how great it will be when our training is complete, and the gunshot goes off, and we’re off running, living out what we’ve learned, using what He’s equipped us with, and watching with overwhelming joy as He grows the seeds He’s planted in us and through us.
Few of us will have to experience the preparation period that Dave and Judy went through, but if we desire to be obedient then I imagine all of us will require some refining before we are as useful for the kingdom as we want to be. If you’re in that right now… take joy in that refining and equipping process — the harder it is, the bigger God’s plans are for you!