Confessions of a Messed-Up Missionary
How a patient God is leading a broken man to China
"Lord, please protect Steve from the landmines in Cambodia." That 4-year-old prayer is one of my earliest memories of church. Exposure to missions at a young age certainly had an impact on me. Yet my story is not as simple as, "I always knew I was going to be a missionary!"
God Can Use Anything
In July 2008 I was at a conference where 2,000 teens gave $90,000 in one night to build orphanages in Cambodia. A few months later during my freshman fall at UMD, a cute girl asked me why I had never been on a missions trip. Conveniently, I had just heard about a trip to visit the orphanages built from the youth conference offering. So I did what any college guy would do--I signed up for a missions trip to impress a girl.
To my dismay, the trip was canceled just as quickly as it was offered. That seemed to ruin all God's perfect plans for my life. Discouraged, I asked my Bible study group to pray for me. One friend sent me information about an internship in China. I was immediately intrigued, but also hesitant. Missions as a hobby seemed doable, but "evangelism and discipleship in China's underground church" gave me pause. The internship sounded like it was only for the all-stars, which meant I was out.
Still, I couldn't stop thinking about the trip. After hearing my excitement about it, followed by my reasons why I couldn't go, my pastor called me out: "If you keep making excuses you will never go anywhere!" With no more excuses, I was off to China.
When I think about that season of my life, I'm amazed at God's grace. I was a mess in a million and one ways. My motives were all over the place. I could barely articulate the gospel. I was full of pride. Thankfully, God's sovereign purposes do not depend on our perfection! He really does use "all things" for his glory.
God Is Relentless
What I saw in China was a church that was alive, a gospel message that changed hearts, and a country full of millions of people cut off from God. The beauty of gospel life conspired with the reality of lost souls and abducted my heart. What right did I have to think that those in China, trapped in human traditions and demonic deceptions, should not hear this good news? How could I withhold this great truth that sets men free when it isn't mine to keep?
Convinced of my new mission in life, I headed back to UMD full of confident plans. What awaited me was my sinful pride, fear, laziness, and ignorance. There was much more of it in my heart than I was willing to admit. As a result, the following two years were a painful season of pruning for me.
This season culminated in a study abroad semester in Beijing. Thousands of miles away from my Christian community, I plunged into sin. I astonished myself with how much I could sin in five months.
Towards the end of my trip God spoke to me through a sermon, convicting me of my small ideas of who he was. My response was to run from him. It took the tragic death of a close friend a few months later to shake me out of my rebellion.
I returned to campus spiritually broken. For two years God had systematically emptied me so that I would cry out to Him. He was not willing to let me serve out of my arrogance and pride. I asked a friend to start at zero, to tell me about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
God Graciously Provides
At that point, my confidence that I should be a missionary was around 5%. After all, I had just made a mess of my time in Beijing. Why should God send me back?
It has taken me another five years to learn that God is gentle. He provides precisely what we need in order to take the next step. Leaving home and moving to China to plant churches is a huge challenge. It will not happen by accident. Many decisions have been required. Each one has been terrifying in its own way. Each time, God has given me exactly enough faith to take the next step.
In the fall of 2011 he introduced me to Jon Smith, Angel Cabrera, and others (including my future wife Sara!) from Covenant Life Church. They modeled and taught new ideas that profoundly shaped my life, such as:
- Discerning a calling requires a community
- God's sovereignty is so great that he can even use our poor choices
- If we know anything correct about God, it is only by his grace
- We evangelize out of a heart of praise and gratitude, not obligation
The list could go on and on.
God also provided for me through solid biblical teaching. Many times I heard a sermon that corrected my thinking right when I needed it. David Platt's sermon, Divine Sovereignty: The Fuel of Death-Defying Missions bolstered my confidence when my mentors were deported from China. When I became comfortable in my white-collar job, the film series Dispatches From The Front made me weep about the deadness of the world. Books such as Let The Nations Be Glad and Send Me, I’ll Go provided clarity when I was unsure of my direction.
God continued to provide new opportunities to serve. After Sara and I got married in 2013, we were convinced of our missions call but knew that we needed training. The mentor with whom I had worked in 2009 offered to train us for one year. Church planting in China wouldn't even be fathomable without the practical training he and his wife gave us during that year-long internship in Taiwan, particularly in the areas of discipleship, preaching, and cross-cultural ministry.
Halfway through our internship, Sara and I finally had the confidence (not in us but in Christ!) to pursue full-time missions. Since our return in November, we have been developing a strategy, church partnerships, and a dedicated support team. By God’s grace we will take a vision trip in Spring 2017 with a view toward relocating in the summer.
What does it take to make a missionary? As my story shows, it’s not just for all-stars. Through the power of the gospel, messed-up people become ambassadors for the kingdom. God knows just what we need and gives it to us one step at a time.
Editor’s note: To learn more about Phil and Sara’s vision and strategy, visit www.gospeltochina.com