Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How God Called Us to Japan (part 2)

Note:  This is part 2 of a 3-part series.  Click here to read part one...

During October 2008, Gina and I had the opportunity to join a team from Mission to the World on a "vision trip" to Sweden, Latvia, and Lithuania.  MTW has several church planters in that region surrounding the Baltic Sea, and the trip was an opportunity to see the works and pray for the missionaries in person.

To say the trip impacted us is a great understatement.  Over 10 days, we visited three church plants in Sweden, spent time with MTW church planters Carl and Becky Chaplin in Riga, Latvia, and heard a presentation by one of MTW's national partners in Vilnius, Lithuania.  At every stop, we were struck by the great opportunities for the Gospel as well as the recurring need for more missionaries.  Jesus' words in Luke 10:2 came to life in new ways:  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

In Stockholm, I had the joy of leading a Bible study made up of young professionals who dreamed of planting a new church in that city.  I don't remember the passage I taught from, but I do remember the expressions on their faces - how open and hungry they were for God's Word.  I also remember their gratitude.  They were so grateful for our willingness to travel so far to spend an evening with them in God's Word.

The time we spent in Riga was especially memorable, and we were captured by the stage of the work in that country.  MTW partners with several Latvian pastors who'd already established two churches in the city.  They'd also founded a seminary called Baltic Reformed Theological Seminary to train new leaders for church planting throughout the whole region.  Although Gina and I weren't looking for a new job, we talked about how we could see ourselves contributing to the work in Riga.

On the last day of the trip, we visited Vilnius to hear about the state of the Church in that country.  Most of the Lithuanian ministers (at least those in our circles) are very old and nearing retirement.  A dear brother named Algamonte shared with us about the need for Christian leaders in Lithuania.  As he closed his presentation, he became emotional and said, "My friends, the fields here are so ripe for the Gospel.  If I had 10 men who would simply read my sermon manuscript before a group each week, I could plant 10 new churches next year!"  At that moment, Gina and I looked at each other, and I think we both knew that our lives were taking an unexpected turn.

On the flight home, we talked at length about our experiences in light of Algamonte's challenging statement - which was still ringing in our ears.  Algamonte was praying for 10 "manuscript-readers" and no one was willing to come.  I imagined that if I resigned my position at Grace Fellowship, at least that many men would apply to take my place.  In our own denomination, there are more trained leaders than pulpits and I was occupying one of those.  Was I really in the place where I could be of maximum benefit to Christ's Church?  More importantly, might God be leading us to move?

During the coming months, the trip continued to dominate our conversations.  Gina and I found ourselves wrestling with how over-staffed the American Church is when compared to the ones we'd seen in the Baltic region.  Here, we have the luxury of choosing a particular church based on the personality of the pastor and the style of music in the worship service.  In Stockholm, Vilnius, and Riga there are only a handful of Gospel-proclaiming churches in he whole city!  And those have limited resources and very few members who are qualified to teach or offer spiritual leadership.

We also took stock of our own ministry here in central North Carolina and thought about how small our impact has been.  Don't write that off as hopelessness or false-humility.  We know God has used us, and He's done some big things in people's lives through us.  We rejoice in that and don't take it for granted.  At the same time, the church in America will barely notice when we leave.  There are hundreds of Christian leaders who are ready, willing, and able to fill any small gaps we leave...that's just reality.  In contrast, the Church in a country like Lithuania (or Japan!) may be forever changed by our coming.  It's just another example of the same lesson God taught us after we moved from our house in the country (from part 1 of this series).  If Gospel-opportunities increased based on a relatively small into the city, how much might they increase if we went to a place with a much greater need?

As I shared all this with a friend over coffee one day, I asked him to pray that God would make his will clear to Gina and me.  His response jolted me when he said, "Brother, it sounds to me like He's already been clear.  And it sounds to me like you've already left."  I knew he was right.  I'm pretty sure we made the decision while Algamonte was sharing his heart with us that day in Vilnius.

I realize I promised to tell you how God called us to JAPAN and so far I've barely mentioned that country.  As I shared in my first article, the Spirit used several small, related stories to send us across the Pacific.  Ultimately, He used a trip to Eastern Europe to open our eyes to the need for Christian leaders to move overseas for the sake of Christ's Kingdom.  As we wrestled with that, we always assumed He was calling us to Riga or Vilnius.  In retrospect, He simply used that trip to loosen our grip on ministry in America.  He was leading us to Nagoya all along, but that part of the story will have to wait for now.  There's still one more chapter to go...

(To be continued)

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