By Howard Fong
For the past eight years, I have had the privilege of leading short-term mission teams to visit the same cities in Southeast Asia once or twice year. I will not bore you with a “ministry report”. Instead, please allow me to share with you a few God sightings and lessons learned.
- Building trusting relationships
I think in many cultures, but especially in the Asian culture, it takes time to build up a trusting relationship. There is a tendency for STM teams to go to a new place every year because the needs around the world are so great. However, I believe it is much more effective to commit to a single region or a city for a longer period.
I remember trying to organize a camp for Christian professionals in 2009 and inviting several church leaders in the target city for a planning session. Some did show up with questions and suggestions, but there was no commitment to promote the event at their respective churches, much less a willingness to co-sponsor the camp. It was obvious that they did not trust me, and for very understandable reasons. But after a few years of sending a team to the same city around the same time every year, the leaders realized we truly cared for them and were committed to them. From that point on, we have had their full appreciation and cooperation.
2. Experiencing God at work
“God is at work” sounds like a cliché, but God was, and is, at work. Let me share with you a few experiences.
We were at a “Parents Appreciation” camp where young Christian ministers shared their faith and appreciation with their non-Christian parents. A few months before the camp, one of the ministers was diagnosed with late-stage cancer at a tender age of 25. One could only imagine the angst of her parents when they came to camp. The father, a farmer, was understandably very worried and upset. How could he be open to the gospel in this frame of mind? But when his daughter shared with her father her love for him and challenged him to accept Christ, the impossible happened. Both parents accepted Christ as their personal savior that night, and it was not an emotional response. The two never wavered in their faiths during the long subsequent illness of their daughter.
A middle-age man took a boat ride overnight to come to our city to meet with the STM team, not because he wanted to befriend us, but he wanted to check us out. You see, his sister accepted Christ while attending FBCC and became a committed Christian, and he did not want the sister to be “misled”. He arrived at our hotel around eight in the morning. By noon, he had accepted Christ! He was going through a divorce and in Christ he saw the hope for a new life and the possibility of reconciliation of his estranged relationships. God specializes in turning doubters to believers!
Two members on one of my STM teams had a serious work-related conflict. They were colleagues and good friends once, but by then their relationship was strained. One of the seminar topics during that trip was forgiveness and reconciliation. At the last team meeting of the trip, the Holy Spirit worked in the heart of the two brothers. In front of all of us, they embraced and asked each other for forgiveness. God is a miracle worker!
3. Reaching across the age and cultural divides
Over the years, folks from both the Cantonese and Mandarin congregations have participated in this STM. Some came from Mainland China, some from Taiwan, and others from Hong Kong. Their ages ranged from forties to eighties. In spite of the diversity of background, we worked seamlessly as a team and enjoyed each other’s company. Yes, mission was serious and hard work, but there was also much fun and laughter.
The people we served were as diverse as the teams. Some were professionals and professors, and others were farmers and coal mine workers. Some were singles, some married, and others single-again. Some were dedicated Christians, and even full-time ministers, and some were seekers and skeptics. To meet the diverse needs, in addition to visitation and counseling sessions, our teams offered a variety of programs, such as: camps and seminars for “Parents Appreciation”, “Professionals in the Market Place”, “Singles”, “Couples”, “Parenting”, “Sunday School Teachers, “Small Group Leaders”, “Spiritual Revival”, “Worship”, and “Marriage Enrichment Retreat”, etc.
4. Making long-term investments on individuals
While camps and seminars are effective in gathering people, longer-term, one-on-one discipleship is the most effective way to touch and change lives. The relationships cemented during the trip definitely do not have to end at the end of a STM. In fact, many of the team members continue to keep up correspondence with folks they have met on the mission trips. The advancement in communication technologies has shrunk the distance between us. Tools such as Skype, Facetime, and Wechat, are very useful in keeping up correspondence with people far away. Personally, I have kept up regular 1:1 accountability relationships with 7 or 8 young men I have developed a fairly deep friendship with. Others also contact me irregularly when they need prayers or advice. I welcome and enjoy these interactions.
5. Counting it a privilege
Friends have told me they appreciated my perseverance (or stubbornness) in going on STM trips to the same region twice a year since 2009/2010. I will let you in a little secret: I am a selfish person seeking personal joy and gratification.The fact is that I probably would not have continued in this endeavor if I had not truly enjoyed the experience. I have developed good friendship with many brothers and sisters attending the Mandarin congregation through these trips, folks I otherwise would not have known well.
The God sightings, such as some of those I relayed earlier, are such an encouragement to me and have had a strong impact on my faith. It has been a rewarding experience to walk alongside someone and witness how they have grown from a new Christian to a mature ministry leader. As a bonus, I have had the privilege of being a dating advisor (and, on several occasions, a match-maker), a pre-marital counselor, and even an officiant of two weddings!
Participating in these STM trips was not an obligation or sacrifice; it was a privilege and joy! A wise man once said, “It is in giving that we become enriched.” I can definitely say “amen” to it.