I was the fourth foreigner in living memory to visit the village, after two cocoa farmers and a lost French woman. I sat in the shade beside a stream, and villagers gathered to ask me who I was, why I had come and what I believed. “I follow Jesus,” I told them. Their faces showed no recognition. Eventually one man nodded slowly, “I’ve heard of him. He’s Catholic, right?”
And so I told them who Jesus is, why He matters, and what He’s done for me. I asked about their history. I went home and emailed the people who put together the ethnographic databases. But I’ve never gone back.
What does it take to engage a community with the gospel for the first time? Sometimes it’s as simple as riding up on a scooter and asking if they’ve ever heard of Jesus. But when they say no, what will I answer? What stories, what Scriptures, what metaphors will best communicate the gospel to these people? How is God preparing their hearts? What do they already know of him? It’s not enough to simply speak. We must seek to understand the people we are speaking to. Understanding requires research. Research requires time. Right now I don’t have that time.
My family moved to this region six months ago, after studying language in a different city. We are the only foreigners within a ten-hour drive. We are not yet building a church planting movement among unreached peoples. We are not yet even laying a foundation. We are slowly, faithfully, measuring the land, picking through piles of bamboo poles that will someday form our scaffolding, mixing the concrete that will become a foundation.
We didn’t intend to come alone. Pioneers missionaries always seek to work in teams, but sometimes teams are difficult to consolidate. Our foreign teammates are two years away from joining us, either raising support in their home country or studying language in a city ten hours from where we work.
None of the national missionary sending organizations in this country will send workers to our region until there is an established ministry to support them. When we came here to set up that base, we lost our recruiting momentum. Communication here is done best face-to-face, not by phone or email. We have to be here so that others can come, but we can’t recruit effectively while we are here.
In the meantime we, and our future teammates, must have a reason to live here. We need an answer when our neighbors ask why we came, who pays us, and what we do all day. We need an identity, a job and a visa. To meet those needs we are setting up a nonprofit community development organization. We hope to bless the communities around us and gain an audience for the gospel.
And so, as solitary missionaries, my wife and I have become everything: nonprofit director, cook, cleaner, ethnographer, church planter, homemaker, engineer, team leader, recruiter, teacher, parent, treasurer, employer, employee, spouse, parent, friend. We can only move forward one step at a time. One of those steps, someday, will be long conversations in the shade beside the stream of the forgotten village.
Even as we are breaking ground that others may follow, the process is breaking us. Six months without fellowship or co-laborers threatens to undo us. We have friends and neighbors, but no one pulling alongside us. No one here for the same reason. No one who shares the joy, the sadness, the loneliness, the paperwork, the credit, the blame. No one to pray for us in person in English, cook us comfort food when we’re sick or play board games on Friday nights. We have a start here, a home and a base and a plan, but the real ministry can’t start until we have teammates.
Will you be one of them? Will you join us in taking the gospel to peoples who have never heard of Jesus? To peoples who have no witness? To peoples at the end of rough roads who assume that foreign visitors are lost? To peoples we don’t even know we need to reach?