Going When Circumstances Say Stay: Deciding to Become a Missionary
For over a year, my wife and I stood at one of the most significant forks in the road of our family’s life; we were trying to discern the voice of the Lord. Should we leave our home, my career of over ten years, and our family and friends in order to live and serve in China? We prayed for the Lord to shout the answer, but what came back felt more like a whisper in a noisy room. We heard most of the words, but not all, and had to discern the whole message from its parts. At times my wife and I agreed on what we heard; at times we did not. One thing we both knew, though, was that neither of us ever expected to be wrestling with a decision like this.
By grace, my wife and I committed our lives to Christ as adults in 2001. I was in the middle of earning my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and my wife was beginning a successful career in consulting. We had been attending a wonderful church and took advantage of any opportunity we could find to serve - Sunday school, new believers’ classes, small groups, event planning teams, and global outreach. It was through our involvement in global outreach that we had been exposed to Christ's movement around the world, and particularly in China.
From our first China vision trip in 2003 until 2012, we briefly toyed with the idea of moving to China, but had instead grown increasingly convinced that God was calling us to be faithful senders and mobilizers in our hometown. Contributing to our apparent confidence about our roles as senders were several significant circumstances. We felt God had shown us favor in effectively leading small groups, discipling individuals, and directing significant global initiatives at our home church. The Lord had blessed us with three wonderful children who were succeeding in school, in sports, and in many deep friendships. I had developed a strong reputation in my career and was earning a substantial salary that enabled us to donate generously and to serve liberally in our church and community.
Most significantly, my sister-in-law and her boyfriend had recently moved to our city from another state and shortly thereafter gave birth to the cutest and sweetest nephew. Their proximity allowed us to build and enjoy a depth of relationship with them that we had never dreamed about. We had prayed for years that we would have opportunity to live near them. This, finally, was an answer to those persistent, heart-felt prayers. Surely, the Lord would not bring them near to us only to have us move away from them.
In spite of the success we were experiencing in our hometown, at the end of 2012, while on a ministry trip in China, I began to sense a strong urging that we needed to consider moving to China and serve as missionaries. Along with some of our ministry partners, I had identified several limitations in the approach our church and her partners had in serving China. Namely, we could be better at engaging local believers so that our work was not so dependent on foreigners. Also, the work of our church and partners was not clearly leading to the building of local churches, a core value of ours and of our home church. I began feeling a tremendous burden to address these limitations, even though it directly confronted the confidence we had been sensing in our role as stateside senders.
After sharing with my wife, we experienced tremendous confusion. Why wouldn’t God have called us ten years earlier, before we had kids, before my sister-in-law moved into our community, and before I established my career? The inertia of the life we had built seemed too substantial to make such a drastic shift. Why isn’t God calling some of our other ministry partners who seemed to be more qualified and for whom the life change would not be so jarring?
We initially could not resolve all the questions because my wife felt that all the data suggested that we should stay the course and remain in the U.S. as faithful senders and disciplers. I agreed with her in many ways, but felt torn because I could not shake the deep burden that I was feeling. As we wrestled with these questions, 2013 proved to be the most stressful year we had ever endured together. Unlike most missionary couples we knew, our calling was not clear and we had tremendous difficulty coming to a shared decision together. After many tears, sleepless nights, long conversations, hours of searching the scriptures, and heart-wrenching prayers, we committed in unity to moving to China.
However, even after making the decision to go, circumstances continued to emerge that tempted us to stay. While we recognized that some of our successes in connecting with ministry partners, engaging with business partners, raising financial support, and preparing ourselves for the expat lifestyle could only come about by Providence, there were also things that regularly caused us to revisit our decision. We were being given ministry opportunities in our church that years earlier would have been an answer to prayers. We were being asked to mentor potential missionary candidates. A position became open to lead global outreach at our church, and were I not leaving for China, I would have been a highly probable candidate. I had been given responsibility over one of the most significant projects at work and we were seeing tremendous success. My sister-in-law was not only in the same city as us, but was considering moving into a house down the street from us. The decision never became easy.
This blog post is the first in a three-part series describing my recent experience of moving to China. In the next post, I will share some of the considerations and practical lessons we experienced that allowed us to finally make a decision.
Chunsun (meaning “spring bamboo”) is a collective pseudonym for writers ministering in sensitive situations to Chinese people. The author of this post lives in China and serves in supporting and strengthening the Chinese house church.