LEBANON, Ohio (BP)–“We’ve been waiting 30 years for you to come.”
Charles Stoddard* won’t forget the day he heard those words from a family of five living in a squalid shack in Asia. They hadn’t eaten in three days, but food wasn’t the reason the family invited the Southern Baptist missionary to their home — they wanted to know about Jesus.
Stoddard and his wife Nicole* — who completed a three-year term overseas earlier this month — were among 21 missionaries appointed by International Mission Board at Urbancrest Baptist Church in Lebanon, Ohio, July 12. Speaking to a crowd of more than 800, Stoddard recounted that the Asian family’s grandfather had come to believe many years ago in the existence of “one true God.”
Shortly before he was martyred for his faith, the grandfather told his family to wait for the day someone would come to tell them more about this God. Three decades would pass before one of the family’s sons happened to overhear Stoddard talking about Christ in a public park and recognized he was the one they’d been waiting for.
“I suddenly realized that this family, who had never met another Christian, who didn’t even know that a Bible existed — God had been preparing their hearts for 30 years to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Stoddard said. “That family accepted Christ that day, was baptized, and today a church meets in their home.”
What’s more, at least 40 others have come to faith in Jesus as a result of the family’s conversion and passion for sharing the hope they waited so many years to receive.
“Billions are still waiting to hear,” Stoddard said, which is why he and his wife are returning to Asia with their three children to continue spreading the Gospel.
That overwhelming lostness is also what’s sending Tricia Van Lesser* and her husband Tony* back to Central Asia after completing a two-year term there in 2008. Van Lesser remains haunted by the sound of women wailing at the funeral of a Muslim grandmother she had come to know and love.
“That evening, as her cloth-wrapped body was carried by her sons to the grave, the sound of the wailing became deafening,” Van Lesser remembered. “As I stood with the family I was overwhelmed at the hopelessness. They wept because they did not know where their devout Muslim grandmother would spend eternity. I wept because I did know.”
Kirsten Hale* and her husband Geoff* also are heading to Central Asia. First introduced to missions through Girls in Action, Hale was drawn further into the Great Commission when she volunteered on two short-term mission trips with her church. But making the commitment to serve overseas for an initial term of two to three years — instead of two or three weeks – proved difficult.
“I valued a college degree, getting married, having a nice home and raising my kids in a safe neighborhood,” Hale said. “Would I be OK without these things? Would I be able to be satisfied in Christ alone?”
God answered her fears through Matthew 13:44, Jesus’ parable that compares the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field.
“Its value is worth giving up everything,” Hale said. “God has convinced us that taking the Gospel to Muslims in Central Asia is worth the cost.”
The appointees bring the total number of IMB missionaries to 5,544. They are being sent to four continents — 14 to Asia, four to Africa, two to South America and one to Europe. Of the 21 missionaries, 18 had previous short-term experience.
Because of a significant shortfall in the 2008 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, IMB trustees in May suspended two short-term programs and approved a reduction of new appointments for the remainder of 2009. New appointments will continue on a more selective basis, covering the most strategic assignments.
IMB President Jerry Rankin described the appointment service as one of the most exciting things that Southern Baptists do and thanked Ohio Baptists for their faithful support of international missions, which yielded 600,000-plus new believers baptized last year.
“These are your missionaries,” Rankin said. “It’s your prayers that sustain them as they go. It’s your gifts through the Cooperative Program and to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that enable them to go in obedience to their call. Not one of these has to be delayed in going to the field out of the necessity to raise their support because you as Southern Baptists have already provided.”
Rankin noted “unprecedented breakthroughs that we would never have imagined a few years ago.”
“The fact that we cannot identify the places where many of you [appointees] are going indicates that God is opening doors … to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Rankin encouraged the new appointees to walk intimately with the Lord, immerse themselves in the people they’ve come to serve and to identify with suffering.
“You will never touch all the lost people in the places where you’re going. You’re going to be overwhelmed by the massiveness of population, the congestion … it’ll be frustrating and discouraging,” he said. “Your most effective witness is living out in flesh and blood the reality of your faith.”
Rankin added that the power of the Gospel can’t be overestimated.
“When you’re living without any hope in this life — [living with] poverty, disease and corruption — when you’re living under the burden of fear and superstition … [you] cannot overstate the power of the Gospel message to draw people to Jesus Christ. Once it is received, there is no restraint in sharing it. You’re compelled to share it with others. That’s what happened in Thessalonica [in New Testament times]. And that’s what’s happening in many places around the world.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.