RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It was a secret Ishaq* held close for 13 years — one that caught journeyman missionary Craig Evans* by surprise when the young man revealed it.
In 2007, Evans began visiting a quaint Central Asian village where he befriended Ishaq. One day while Ishaq’s family answered the local mosque’s call to prayer, Evans was able to talk with his Muslim friend alone for the first time. Glancing around nervously, Ishaq leaned closer and whispered, “My one desire in life is to be near to God.”
He explained that he had happened upon a Bible 13 days earlier and began reading it. But when the Bible was discovered by Ishaq’s parents, both devout Muslims, they took it and harshly discouraged any further interest in Christianity. What his parents couldn’t take, though, was the seed that already had been planted in Ishaq’s heart. And so, without any other Gospel witness, Ishaq waited for the day when God would send someone who could tell him about Jesus.
Ishaq’s story was one of dozens of testimonies at an International Mission Board missionary appointment service March 16 hosted by First Baptist Church in Dallas. Evans and his wife Katie* were among 67 new missionaries sent forth on Tom Elliff’s first day as IMB president.
“I immediately recognized [Ishaq’s words] as something divine, something God had orchestrated,” Evans said. “This is an area that is very much unreached by the Gospel, to the point that an average guy, from the time he’s born to the time he dies, without God’s grace will probably never even rub shoulders with someone who understands the Gospel.”
Indeed, Evans was the first Christian Ishaq had encountered, and the pair soon began meeting discreetly to talk about the Bible. But after months of conversations, Ishaq wasn’t yet ready to make a commitment to Jesus, and Evans’ two-year term as a missionary journeyman was ending.
“I left the country without him having professed faith,” Evans said. “I don’t know where God has led him. I would love it if we could run into each other someday and I could see how God’s been working in him since.”
Evans just might get that chance. Energized by short-term mission trips and divinely appointed encounters like his meeting with Ishaq, Evans is returning with his family to minister full time in the same area where he formerly served.
“Ishaq’s story encourages you in a way an appetizer prepares you for a buffet,” Evans said. “Knowing that we serve a God who is drawing people like Ishaq — people who have not humanly had any chance to hear — but have been given by God that hunger and longing to know Him … that is the kind of stuff that encourages you to go back.”
BREAKING THE MOLD
Like Evans, more than half of the new missionaries share similar stories of calling through short-term missions experiences. For Matt Hartwell*, who pastors a Southern Baptist church in Texas, affirmation of God’s call came on a short-term mission trip to Ecuador with his wife Lilly*. A year later, on another short-term trip, God revealed where they would be serving. As the Hartwells prayerwalked an unreached mountain village in North Africa and the Middle East, His direction was clear.
“We really felt God speak to both of us, saying, ‘This will be home,'” Hartwell remembered. The couple is preparing to return to that same mountain area where they will pioneer Southern Baptists’ efforts to spread the Gospel.
But missionary calling isn’t reserved for pastors and those with careers in ministry. Many of the new appointees came from secular careers with little or no professional ministry experience. Their work won’t necessarily fit the stereotypical missionary mold, either.
Before following God’s call overseas, Ryan Williams was a general contractor. His wife Melinda was a math teacher. After an evangelism-focused Sunday School series sparked their interest in sharing their faith, the Williamses couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“We were your typical American family — two kids, a dog and house in the suburbs,” Ryan said. The Williamses are trading their “comfortable Christian life” in McKinney, Texas, to share Jesus and plant churches in Romania, where they will serve as logistics coordinators for a small IMB team.
George Dyer has spent much of his life in front of a computer. But after a short-term mission trip to Russia, the 50-year-old Nebraska man felt God leading him to give up his job in information technology to serve overseas. Dyer and his wife Laura are going to Chile, where he’ll use his computer skills to provide technical support for hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries working throughout the Americas. But Dyer admits that I.T. wasn’t how he imagined God would use him to reach the nations.
“Our thought was that we’d [primarily] be doing church planting, evangelism, outreach — things of that nature,” Dyer said. “Everybody wanted an I.T. person … but we said, ‘No — we’re called to missions, not to do I.T. support.’ But God challenged us as we were fasting and praying and said, ‘Are you willing to serve Me any way I need you to serve?'”
While some of the appointees, like Dyer, were called to missions later in life, many say they felt God drawing them to missions as children. Sebastian Vazquez and his wife Erin are carrying on a family legacy, serving among international university students in Toronto, Canada, as fourth-generation church planters.
Nearly 100 years ago, Vazquez’s great-grandfather, Angel, was led to Christ in Argentina by a Southern Baptist missionary from Mississippi. Angel, a baker who immigrated to Argentina from Spain, eventually became a church planter, as did his son, Ramon (Vazquez’s grandfather). Ramon’s son, Raul (Vazquez’s father), became a pastor and church planter in Texas after the Vazquez family moved there.
“At first, I carried it [his family’s legacy] as a burden because I thought that it was something that was pushing me into ministry, sort of like the family business,” Sebastian Vazquez said. “But now I really have peace with it and love to share the story because I really think it shows God’s faithfulness — a missionary 100 years ago who probably never realized that the one little baker he led to the Lord would be the first of four generations of church planters.”
Fifteen of the 67 appointees are bound for service in North Africa and the Middle East — a region that’s experienced an unprecedented season of unrest since the beginning of 2011. Those missionaries include Hank and Ruby Greene*, who have the unique challenge of sharing Jesus with deaf Muslims.
“If governments that have previously opposed the Gospel are toppling, this is a pretty good opportunity to go in,” he said. “We may as well take advantage while the foundations are cracked and let the Gospel fill the gaps.”
The appointment service was a historic event for Southern Baptists’ deaf missions work. The Greenes were among six missionaries specifically appointed to reach the deaf, the largest number in a single appointment service. More than 250 deaf attended the service, including several deaf pastors and Jim Dermon, president of the Southern Baptist Convention of the Deaf.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Drawing upon his years of ministry experience, Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright encouraged the new missionaries to keep their priorities in order.
“I think the biggest challenge that anybody has over the long haul of ministry is confusing their ministry with their love for Jesus,” Wright said. “As you get excited about doing the Lord’s work … it is easy to get so wrapped up in your ministry that you substitute the ministry for Jesus. Whatever you do, keep that love for Jesus Christ as the preeminent concern for your life. And secondly, love your spouse — love your family.”
Before praying over the appointees, Executive Committee President Frank Page expressed hope that the missionaries would be such powerful witnesses for Christ that even demons would know their names.
“One of the most fascinating chapters in all of the Bible is Acts 19,” Page said. “It tells an unusual story of seven sons of Sceva who were casting out demons. They got ahold of a world-class demon. The Bible says it beat them up and sent them out of the house naked and bleeding.
“But in Acts 19:15, the demon looked at the sons and said, ‘Jesus we know, Paul we know, who are you?’ I pray that these missionaries will be so powerful in the spirit of God that demons in hell will know their names.”
New IMB President Tom Elliff spoke specifically to the missionaries’ parents. As a former missionary and father of two missionaries, he said the parents may be thinking, “Why is my son or daughter being called to the mission field?” Elliff said the answer begins with the reality of hell.
“Hell is an actual place. It’s an awful place. And it’s an always place. There’s never a moment where a person who spends eternity in hell will say, ‘Well, I’ve about got this handled.’ No — there’s always as much out in front as there is behind.
“There are soon to be 7 billion people on this globe. Over half of them have very little access to the Gospel. [These new missionaries are] saying, ‘Well, not the ones that I meet. Not the people where I’m going, no sir — I’m going to share the name of Jesus with them.'”
The appointment service brings IMB’s global missionary force to 5,014. The next IMB appointment service will be Sunday, May 22, at Mandarin Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.