by Jeremy Bell
A few years ago, I joined a short-term missions team from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to work alongside IMB missionaries and local churches in Tokyo, Japan. Many of you may be unaware that the Japanese people remain an unreached people group (i.e., less than 2% Christian). This statistic would often cross my mind as our team would be packed on trains with Japanese people traveling around this massive city. Yet, my heart would be deeply saddened because Jesus’s words would ring through my mind: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2).
These feelings of compassion for this people group gave me an attitude to help them in any way I could while our team served in this area of the world. I think many short-term missionaries have this type of missional disposition when doing work for the Lord cross-culturally. However, sometimes this mentality—while seeking to bring honor and glory to the name of Jesus—can prevent short-term missionaries from being open to how long-term missionaries and local believers can impact our worship of King Jesus. In other words, short-term missionaries have a propensity to go and teach and do, but often forget the humility of learning and listening to their brothers and sisters in Christ living in different cultures.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has kept short-term missions grounded for a season, maybe we should take some time to reflect upon the lessons God was teaching us as we went out to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Perhaps this will spur within us a deeper love for how God was conforming us into the image of his Son while also cultivating within us a desire to take up this commission once again after the pandemic relinquishes its travel restrictions. To help foster these two purposes, I would like to share an experience that I have been reflecting upon from my trip to Japan in 2018.
I had the privilege and opportunity to preach at a church in Tokyo, Japan during this short-term missions trip. Our team entered this Japanese church, which was basically a two room flat on the second floor of a local restaurant. We crammed into these two rooms sitting on fold-out chairs to worship King Jesus. My text for the morning was Psalm 67, and my point to our Japanese brothers and sisters was to pray that God would use them to reach the Japanese people with the life-changing message of the gospel. In other words, to take seriously the Great Commission by praying for and sharing Jesus with the Japanese people in their vicinity.
When the sermon was over, the pastor had the entire congregation stand up for a time of prayer, which he led. As Baptist missionary from America, when I heard “amen,” I proceeded to sit in my chair, but then, a faint voice from the back of the room spoke up as I was about to sit. She began to pray with a sense of urgency and fervency. The people around me began to make vocal signs of agreement with her prayer. After she said, “amen,” another person began to pray, and another, and another—this continued for about 5 to 10 minutes. The emotion of their prayers could be felt even among us as short-term missionaries even though we could not understand what they were saying due to the language barrier. Nevertheless, it was genuine communal prayer to the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and it was pulling on my heart strings as well.
I asked the pastor what had just happened after the service ended, and he informed me that the message convicted them to pray for the Japanese people around them. They pleaded with God to use them to bring about his plan of salvation for the Japanese. I was almost speechless when he relayed this information because while I expect God to work when his Word is preached, I cannot remember the last time I saw a church respond with intense corporate prayer after a sermon ended. This was the lesson I learned that day in Tokyo, a lesson I will ask in the form of a question: “How often do we go to church expecting God to do a mighty work and respond with fervent prayer after the Word is preached and his Holy Spirit moves?” It reminded me that when we worship, we are not on our timetable, but rather on the Lord’s time as he works freely among us by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As I reflect on this experience, the Lord taught me a valuable lesson as a local church member—go to worship expecting God to work in Spirit and in Truth. Our brothers and sisters in Japan might teach us a valuable lesson about coming to church expecting to hear from God through his Word and responding accordingly when he does. While we may go to teach and assist local believers and missionaries cross-culturally once COVID-19 has ended, let us remember that we have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters living in different cultures. By us reflecting on our past missions trips or sharing these trips with others during the pandemic, perhaps we will not only grow in our relationship with Christ now, but also God might stir within our hearts to go—either short-term or long-term—once travel restrictions cease.