Things I Wish I’d Known: Reflections on 10 Years of Overseas Cross-Cultural Ministry

It’s a new year and naturally, it’s time for me to reflect and look back on all the good things God has done. Since the moment I came to faith as a teenager, I’ve been involved in cross-cultural ministry, leadership, and church planting – that was over 20 years ago! It’s only the last 10 years that I’ve been in Southeast Asia.

I’m not writing as a ripe old man imparting wisdom, cause I just celebrated my 35th birthday last Christmas (that’s right I’m a Christmas baby). But I’m writing as a still very young and still very dumb knucklehead filled with grandiose ideas like being destined to change the world for God’s glory.

I’ve learned a few things on this short journey, made a whole lot more mistakes, and most importantly, am constantly surprised by God as I witness dreams come true. My hope is that these reflections would be helpful to other missional leaders coming into their own and the next generation of emerging knuckleheads…and maybe there’s something for those who have been around for a while.

1. Commit to a Cause

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that change doesn’t happen overnight and it takes serious people to get serious results. Cross-cultural missions is not something that you just stumble into, it’s a task for the prepared and dedicated.

Cross-cultural missions is not something that you just stumble into, it’s a task for the prepared and dedicated.

When my wife and I first arrived in Asia over 10 years ago we had no idea how long we’d be here. We only knew that we were committed to finishing whatever we started. We’re now realizing that after a decade we are still only “getting started” as our apostolic giftings and influence is really just beginning to manifest and bear fruit.

I am indebted to the people were dedicated to me, who saw that I was worthy enough to invest in. I learned dedication from my refugee parents who risked everything to find opportunity in America. I also learned commitment from the multiple gangs I got jumped (initiated) into to earn respect. And I learned serious dedication from the mentors who took me in as family and walked with me in Christ.

Who are the roles models in your life that exemplify this type of dedication to a cause?

Sadly, many of my peers and friends are more dedicated to paying their monthly Netflix subscriptions than any sort of justice, social or missional cause. That’s o.k. because I like to be entertained just as much as anyone else. But people who live for instant gratification and only see short-term solutions will never move beyond the couch or see beyond the computer screen. They will never see lives, families, communities and entire regions transformed by the power of the Good News. This type of change takes commitment to a greater cause, to a greater Person than yourself.

2. Be a Learner for Life

My first solo trip to Southeast Asia was in 2001 when Google, blogs, forums, and pages didn’t really exist. I had to do research the old fashion way, by talking to actual people and taking notes, with paper…and a pencil – remember those? Before moving overseas in 2007, I had already done years of research on the region and had a bunch of practical cross-cultural experience on the streets of Southern California. But as I stepped off that airplane and my face was blasted by the hot humid Asian weather, I suddenly realized that I would be here for years and didn’t know jack diddly squat about anything.

Leaders who make a difference are leaders who continually learn about different things.

Leaders who make a difference are leaders who continually learn about different things. I had to become a diaper-wearing baby all over again just to understand the new languages, worldviews, cultural-cues and missional platforms at my disposal and beyond my reach. Today, I continue to meet new church planters and missionaries, who are confident they can change the world but can’t even count the local currency in their hands. Having simple faith in our ministry endeavors is essential, but we must also put in work to learn about the context and the people. That type of learning is love at its best and can benefit a leader over a lifetime.

3. Be a Family on Mission

We arrived in Asia with no kids, now we have three crazy and cute versions of ourselves. I have no idea what kind of adults they will grow up to be but I know for sure what I don’t want them to be; resentful of their upbringing overseas, lacking in compassion for the needy, and without a vision for God’s glory on this earth.

Mission shouldn’t happen at the expense of your family but should be an expression of who you are as a family.

Mission shouldn’t happen at the expense of your family but should be an expression of who you are as a family. It’s sad to see spouses who have nothing to do with one another’s work. It’s sad to see kids grow up, hate God and resent their parents for forcing religion on them. I want my kids to struggle alongside us. I want them to laugh at the things we do and pray for the things we pray and love the people and places we love. As much as possible we are learning to include our kids in decisions and everyday activities so that mission can be an extension of who we are and not just what we do.

4. Deal with Undealt Issues

Early on I thought I was going to serve God overseas and change the world but later realized that I was the one who needed saving. I left sin issues undealt with and they started dealing with me. Going overseas is not a testament to your spiritual strengths, it only amplifies your spiritual weaknesses for Satan to exploit.

Going overseas is not a testament to your spiritual strengths, it only amplifies your spiritual weaknesses for Satan to exploit.

Despite popular belief, there are no superheroes of ministry or mission. We are all just deeply flawed people who seek to walk in God’s grace one day at a time. People involved in cross-cultural ministry are especially susceptible to moral, financial, and ethical failure as they lack homes, support networks, and accountability. Add to the fact that many are just trying to survive in a new place, learn a new language and function in a new culture – that’s a recipe for burn out.

I have learned that God is not seeking my perfection, but he is seeking my intention. He wants me to bring to light things hidden in dark places. He wants my heart to draw near to his. This is the center of the Gospel – that he sent his Son to suffer, die, and deal with sin so that through him we might draw near and be used for his glory.

5. Don’t Live Inside a Box

I’ve been in ministry long enough to know and observe that every missional worker has a degree of separation between what they do for Jesus and what they do with their time, money, resources and work. When we separate our lives between the domain of the “sacred” and the “secular” we are not living under the reign of God or the domain of the Kingdom – as he rules it all.

When we separate our lives between the domain of the “sacred” and the “secular” we are not living under the reign of God or the domain of the Kingdom – as he rules it all.

I’m not exempt from compartmentalizing my life either. I’m guilty of binge-watching TV shows and playing hours of online shooters for “me time”. I’m also guilty of not taking enough vacation because it doesn’t feel as “sacred” as starting a church or doing some discipleship training.

Life in boxes often results in unmet expectations and frustrations. For example, missionaries doing only business wonder why after years of laboring there are still no fruit of disciples and churches. And missionaries who do strictly traditional church ministries wonder why they have never been able to engage communities and have social impact.

Asian culture has taught me a valuable lesson, that our lives are glass boxes and part of the wider community, and who you are and what you do is not a secret to the people around you. I realized that every part of my life had to surrender to Jesus because only he can fulfill and redeem all for His glory.

6. Conform to Christ and Not Culture

To be whole is to know who you are and to whom you belong…as a cross-cultural worker you lose all that. The very fact that you are serving across multiple cultures means you don’t really belong to any one culture – your essentially an alien.

Most human beings obtain their identity (and sense of self-worth) from their community which is informed by their culture. As an Asian-American minority, I knew that I was never going to be at home anywhere but I never realized how much not being a part of any one culture would hurt me.

The longer you live overseas, the farther you drift from your culture of origin, and the deeper you understand how you will never have a home in the culture you came to serve. Sometimes, I’d be kickin it with friends or supporters in the US, who would express something really stupid or offensive about nationals (indigenous peoples). And almost every week, I’d be kickin it with local friends and nationals who would say or do something really offensive to remind me of my foreign status.

Knowing that you belong to Christ and His Kingdom is more important than having a family and home on this earth.

Knowing that you belong to Christ and His Kingdom is more important than having a family and home on this earth. This is the calling of a true missioner. This is the journey of a heavenly pilgrim. This is Jesus who laid aside his heavenly glory, to take on a new identity, one that included flesh and blood and sacrificed his Trinitarian community on a wooden cross so others could live. Christ calls on his people to conform to his likeness and be a part of his Kingdom.

7. Expect the Unexpected

I’m constantly being surprised by God. Expect to be constantly moved by how God moves in your life.

Expect to be constantly moved by how God moves in your life.

I find myself in moments of disbelief, that God would use someone like me, to impact an entire nation for His Kingdom. That God would allow me to see a crazed demon-oppressed man transformed and in his right mind. That I would be sitting around a table with a dozen national leaders who are asking my opinion about the direction of church growth in the entire country. That my son and daughters would crawl into my bed early in the morning to say “we miss you, Daddy”. That my wife would look at me with understanding and agreement in her eyes about the mystery, grace, and unique privilege we have to serve here, in this remote country with no family or same-cultured friends.

I never realized that each year would top the previous one in how epic and awesome God really is. This is the real blessing in serving the King, that 10 years is only scratching the surface of all God wants to do in and through his people.

4 thoughts on “Things I Wish I’d Known: Reflections on 10 Years of Overseas Cross-Cultural Ministry

  1. Oh MYYY! A triple YES! and AMEN! to everything you said! We first went over in 1983. The stories we could tell…Plus we belong to an international mission agency – a double whammy (sometimes, um, “challenging”, but ultimately, stretching/refreshing to consider other insightful, different, & exciting viewpoints.).
    Thank you for this piece. Refreshing to see younger people “get it”.

    • Thank you Marie for your enthusiasm, and more importantly, for your many years of faithful service! We are also part of an international mission agency, but as you know, when you arrive in the field, your real teammates are the people around you – the ones who labor alongside you no matter what organization we’re from. Your experience and enthusiasm is also refreshing.

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