…so Neil renamed “The Journey Deepens” retreat that took us to Philadelphia last weekend along with the Michaleks, Plahutas, and Leons. Indeed, “The Plot Thickens” is a good description of what transpired in the 1880s countryside manor where we stayed. Hosted by World Evangelization for Christ’s U.S. Headquarters, the retreat is designed to help people discover their role in cross-cultural work and determine the next steps in their missions journey.
How did our journey there begin? Neil and I had been mulling over whether Urbana, a missions conference geared for college students, was worth one week and over $2000 in registration fees, travel, and lodging. Then “The Journey Deepens” caught my eye in a Missions Catalyst email. Philly wasn’t too far away so I perused the retreat web site. The description, structure, and price were all right. The small groups with missions coaches sounded best of all. Before I mentioned it to Neil that day, I got another email about it, this time from OMF. I’ve never received an email from OMF unless I contacted them first. But it was a notice about the retreat. We decided to sign up and started trying to recruit the Michaleks.
The next morning our decision was confirmed when Holly McCallum also emailed me about the conference. Soon enough the Michaleks, Plahutas, and Leons were all signed up, too. I started praying that the retreat would prove worthwhile, that we’d get some clarification and answers to questions. God answered my prayers far beyond what I’d imagined!
My two main questions were: 1. Should we go to Thailand with Aor or through a missions agency’s short-term trip? and 2. If/when/how should I pursue some type of ESL training? Of course we also wondered “Should we go?” but that seemed too big a question to be answered in one weekend, and I was right.
So here’s how God answered my questions through this retreat. Two days before we left, Aor left me a message while I was swimming. She said she had to return to Thailand suddenly because her mother was having surgery. This is significant because we were considering going to Thailand with her when she returned to visit family for several weeks in December. But now that she went on short notice in June, how would she have the money to go again in December? We would probably have to wait another year or more and we wanted to take a trip sooner to gage our interest in the culture.
The reason we wanted to go with her was so we could see the culture first-hand, through the eyes of a national. But we also wanted to hook up with at least one missionary or missions agency while there. We didn’t want to spend more money on an expensive short-term trip and be able to serve in a small way, without getting to see much of the country or the people. But the missionaries at the retreat recommended going on a short-term “vision” trip, rather than a service missions trip. They said it’s possible to visit a number of missionaries and ministries throughout the country, as well as to visit a language training center. This is supposedly the best way to get a feel for if you’d like to consider long-term work in that culture.
Regarding ESL, I was told it’s always a useful training for cross-cultural work, and the endorsement to my teaching license was probably the best way to go. But one missionary raised a good point: it might be better to go on the “vision” trip first, see what kind of work we’re interested in doing, and then decide if/what type of training to get. I’m glad I heard this because I don’t want to spent $6000 or more on courses that won’t be helpful to me. In the mean time I can take a certificate course at Hudson Community Chapel for $50-100 and get the basics.
The eight Xenoids were together in the small group which was nice because we didn’t have to go over our backgrounds to understand each other, and we didn’t have to listen to people’s weird theologies or corny platitudes. One of our coaches reaches out to Chinese students at American universities, as well as leading short-term English-teaching trips to China. His organization, Chinese Outreach Ministry, will be a valuable contact for Craig and Jackie’s International Student Bible Study. They even have a branch of their ministry at Kent State. Our other coach spent 35 years translating the Bible in the Philippines and now recruits for Wycliffe.
The coaches offered useful practical advice and shared great personal experiences (once the translator’s husband was kidnapped by an Al Queda-trained group!), but I was longing to talk with a church-planter. Jackie found one (I think she met everyone there) and I enjoyed listening to her stories but they didn’t answer any of my questions. And she wasn’t there as a missions coach; she was living at WEC before departing to Spain in a month.
Next on the schedule was a missionary forum to answer our questions. The first panelist introduced himself as Steve Niphakis, church-planter in Thailand for eleven years, Thai language and cultural training director for six years, and now a recruiter for OMF. His answers during the panel were very helpful and Neil and I approached him immediately after to schedule an appointment during our afternoon break.
He gave us almost two hours and unloaded all sorts of useful, detailed information with impeccable cheerfulness. Maybe that’s what seventeen years in the “Land of Smiles” does to you. He was exactly what we’d prayed to find at this conference: successful church-planting experience in Thailand, highly knowledgeable about language and cultural acquisition, and working for an agency to help get people on the field. Even better, we were already interested in OMF because of the Gibsons and Hudson Taylor.
And best of all, he said he would be happy to mentor us through the process of becoming missionaries if that’s the route we want to take. He offered to meet us at our home or his (in PA) to figure out what type of training and preparation we need. And he’s even willing to meet with people in our fellowship if they have questions or want help becoming a sending church.
He also said some interesting things during the panel about his love-hate relationship with the American church. And in answers to Neil’s question about choosing a field and agency, he said “Your team is more important than your field. You can play on a lot of different fields if you’re on a good team, but if you’re team isn’t right, it doesn’t matter what field you’re playing on, you can’t win.” This analogy to sports was actually helpful and describes how I feel. I’m interested in Thailand but I’d be happy to serve in other places as well. But if we become missionaries, we want the agency to have the same values and ideas about ministry, their vision, doctrine, etc.
OMF’s mission seems to match our own: they’re into establishing indigenous church-planting movements where the churches are reproducing within their country and sending to others nations, especially places closed to whites. Many OMF missionaries are doing pioneer work in unreached areas, and the existing Thai churches are very community-oriented.
OMF is praying for 100 new workers to Thailand. Now I can see why. Steve thinks Thailand is on the verge of exponential growth. The recent political unrest has left Thai people, especially youth, looking for a change. The country is politically open and missionary visas are available. Churches are being planted and Thai people are interested in Americans and therefore willing to make friendships with them.
Steve recommended applying to agencies early because it can take four years to even begin language training. If you apply early, he said, the agency can help you determine the preparation and training you need. So we need to think and pray seriously about whether we want to take the step of applying. We came away from this retreat with some “next steps”: stay in touch with Steve about developing an action plan and think about planning a “vision trip” to Thailand. At the same time he is encouraging us to talk to our “pastor” about this direction and make sure we’re on the same page with OMF as far as theology, ethos, methods, etc. before we go any further.
All the missionaries strongly recommended developing a strong support group who will pray for us as “the plot thickens.” We’re blessed to have such a close fellowship of believers who are interested in what we’re doing. But if you read this and want to commit to praying for us regularly, please let me know and I’ll keep you updated about our deepening journey.