Missions Is Not for Wimpy Women — And Nine Other Lessons from Ethiopia

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I’m writing this on my last night of seven in Addis Ababa, the sprawling, higher-than-Denver, capitol of Ethiopia — which just became the second most populous country of Africa.

The international, inter-agency cooperation of missions today is illustrated by the fact that we are staying in a Mission to the World (PCA) guesthouse and speaking at a college sponsored by SIM, whose international leadership just passed from a Scot to a Nigerian based in America. Jason Meyer and I spoke at five different churches, including International Evangelical, Pentecostal, Anglican, and Reformed charismatic.

Our conclusion: Bible-tethered, expository exultation, Christian Hedonism, and Big-God theology resonates across oceans, cultures, languages, and denominations. It bears fruit in every soil. What an amazing thing to do tag-team exposition in Ethiopia with my pastoral successor!

Ten Glimpses of God’s Global Mission

So here are some standout glimpses of missions as I saw it.

1. I was ashamed of President Obama’s policies on so-called gay marriage and abortion. I apologized to one Ethiopian pastor who is often consulted by the national leaders of Ethiopia. He said how difficult it is to persuade his leaders to stand for truth and righteousness when America threatens to tie international aid to the endorsement of these sins. He stood before his church of several thousand after I preached and called them to prayer about this crisis. I told him I thought these policies were wicked. He knelt down beside me and asked me to pray for him.

2. In her emergency medical training here, one of the missionaries from our church in Minneapolis was invited to cut herself and then sew it up so she could actually be sure she knew how to do stitches. She did it. But not to worry, she practiced on cow tongue first. Missions is not for wimpy women.

3. I stood behind a plastic surgeon from Minneapolis and watched him give a new life to an eighteen-month-old boy with a cleft lip who in his poverty would have been an utter outcast. For 45 minutes, he carved and sewed with the skill of a medical artist. The before and after was a stunning picture of rebirth.

4. I heard an illustration of the wisdom of God’s providence in sending missionaries from everywhere to everywhere — not just from the West to the developing world. An Ethiopian Christian missionary was sent to Muslim-dominated Pakistan. When the mayor of the city in Pakistan heard that he was there, he told him that he may do anything he wants in this city. Why? Because 1,400 years ago, Ethiopia gave asylum to the fleeing Mohammed, and we owe Ethiopia this favor. I asked, Did he know he was a Christian missionary? Yes, was the answer, and this is the kind of thing God is doing all over the world.

5. One of our missionaries spoke of the remoteness of her life far from any city: The “toilet” is outside and during the rainy season not only is there the downpour to be endured at night, but snakes and hyenas. Not exactly your average American walk from bedroom to bathroom on dry carpet.

6. One medical missionary corrected a common missionary counsel. He said that we are often told, if you are not an evangelist in America, getting on a plane won’t make you one elsewhere. He said that in his case this was not true. For him, the commitment to leave a lucrative, American medical practice and serve in Ethiopia has given him both opportunities and boldness in witness that he never had in his medical practice in the U.S. This is true, he said, both stateside and on the plane, and in Ethiopia. So let’s be careful about being too absolute in the kind of pronouncements we make.

7. We saw one of the challenges of Muslim contextualization. One of the missionaries teaches a Muslim convert Bible stories, which she travels seven hours to repeat to a nomadic unreached people group. But when she comes back to her hometown, she does not want to associate with the missionaries in public. She does not want to be known as a follower of Jesus. It is too disruptive in her family. The missionary asked me what she should do.

I suggested that she give her helper the benefit of the doubt that perhaps she does not know what Jesus said about this. I suggested she teach her some new stories that include texts like,

Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. . . . For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:35–38)

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12)

8. On our last day, we drove two hours outside of Addis to a magnificent, lush valley, and hiked along the cliffs until we came to what is known as the Portuguese Bridge. This remote, triple-arch bridge was built 400 years ago by the Portuguese out of limestone and ostrich eggs. It is still in use for the farmers with their donkeys, even though in the rainy season the water beneath has rushed against its foundations with four centuries of force. The marvel of this construction, and the beauty of the far-stretching valley, portrayed the craft of God’s image-bearers and the wonder of his own handiwork.

9. I heard the plea again, and I give it here, that young people seriously seek a deep and unshakeable God-given call to giving their lives to an unreached people group. Short-term missions has value. But trying to accomplish long-term goals with short-term commitments is difficult. Most of the peoples left to reach are hard to reach. What is needed is the commitment of a life, not just a year. A language to learn, a culture to know, a people to love, a gospel to speak, a church to plant, leaders to train — this is the pouring out of a life. May God give many of you this high and holy and hard calling.

10. Nevertheless, if you have any life left, dream like you never have. For example, I met a missionary who was a math major in college, spent part of his life in the military, most of it as an aviation engineer, then got a seminary degree, moved to Ethiopia to teach theology, and now, at age 67, is beginning a PhD program in church history while he teaches. Does this inspire any 60-somethings out there?