After serving 27 years in Africa, a missionary reflects on how ministry changes but God’s grace remains constant.
Go in without expectations. That’s a maxim I’ve found useful when I had to cross cultures.
Many years ago, as a seminary graduate, I moved to Malawi to serve as a missionary. After seminary graduation, we waited five long months for a visa so that we could move to Malawi. I suppose I should have studied up on Malawi, gotten a head start on learning the language, and talked to many people to get advice. I didn’t. Someone had told me not to build up expectations in your mind before moving to a new place. They said that was a sure way to make the culture shock worse.
So I went in empty and uninformed. I learned what Malawians were like by talking to Malawians. I figured out what it took to live in the country by living in it. I learned the language by using it. That worked well for me.
But in spite of my best efforts to be entirely empty going in, there was one expectation that I could not chase out of my mind. I had the picture in my mind that our WELS mission was huge in Malawi. What I found was that there were many, many large Christian churches already well established in Malawi. I was feeling disappointed and perhaps a little depressed. Did we need to be here?
But my attitude changed when I started learning the local language. I walked around the neighborhood and used what I knew, adding a new phrase or two every day. After a few months, I had gotten to the point of asking things much more complicated than, Muli bwanji? (How are you?). I was going around asking things like, “If King David in the Bible was a murderer, then how do you think he got to heaven?” Through thousands of conversations with Malawians, I became very happy that I had been sent as a missionary to Malawi. I found that no one I talked to (even the churchgoers) had actually heard the gospel.
I started to serve our Lutheran churches once I knew enough Chichewa, and I found that so many people were hearing the gospel for the first time. During my ten years preaching in churches, not a week went by when I did not see that eureka of the gospel in an adult’s eyes. A few times I literally saw tears of joyous amazement over the grace of God in Christ. And then there were over one thousand babies I brought the gospel to through Baptism.
After those ten years, I began teaching at the ministerial school. I’ve had the blessing of teaching dozens of men who are now pastors or will be pastors. They are now going out and seeing the eureka of the gospel, baptizing, preaching, teaching, and giving the comfort of the Lord’s Supper.
In the past four years, I’ve also been blessed to lead our team of Africa missionaries. Our focus is on building up the 125-plus African pastors in our sister synods in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, and Zambia. We offer advanced classes and workshops, and we still support the training of new pastors. On top of this, we’re finding new places to bring the gospel. Groups of pastors and their congregations have called us in to teach the Word in countries like Liberia, Rwanda, and Uganda.
It’s been a wonderful blessing to be a missionary in Africa. It has exceeded expectations! And now we’re moving. My new job will be to support all our world missions worldwide as a missionary advisor. We’ll be living in the United States again. After 27 years away, that’s almost a foreign country to us.
I’m already trying my best to go in empty, without expectations. I know the culture in the USA has changed hugely since 1993. My family has had a dozen long visits back to the States and seen some of it, but we haven’t lived in it. It will be a big adjustment, but one we trust God will bless. We will try not to build up expectations about how people act, what traffic is like, or how great the pizza is. We’ll wait and live it and learn it as it comes.
But we do have one big expectation. We expect we’ll keep on being surprised by the grace in our own lives and by seeing how powerful and effective his Word is in the lives of others around the world.
Author: Paul Nitz
Volume 107, Number 09
Issue: September 2020