I thought it would be awkward, like showing up at a wedding rehearsal when you’re not in the wedding party. Attend the National Missionary Convention? I had no credentials: I’m not a missionary or a forwarding agent, I don’t serve on a mission committee, and I’ve never been on a mission trip outside the United States.
“You should come,” my sister insisted. “Going there just . . . changes you.” I didn’t ask what about me needed changing (I’m pretty sure she’d tell me). Instead, I went.
On November 18, we drove from Missouri to Lexington, Kentucky, for the 2010 National Missionary Convention; its theme was “Harvest of Hope.” For a two and one-half day commitment, and a registration fee of $10 each, we had access to:
• six main sessions featuring choir performances, worship music, and the kind of mission messages that knock the wind out of you
• more than 130 workshops on topics as varied as global business, community health, homelessness, sexual exploitation, missionary care, prayer, international student ministry, evangelism to Muslims, social justice, spiritual formation, and transformational community development, naming only a few
• an exhibit hall that youth speaker Jayson French referred to as “amazingly unsettling” with some 300 booths that informed on mission initiatives stateside and abroad
• missionaries, both veterans and newcomers.
It was the place to “see and be seen,” to shake hands with people you’ve only read about and get on a first-name basis with a new generation of workers.
So who else came and what was in it for them? It seems everyone had a good reason to be there.
A summer recruitment that targeted young people drew record numbers to the teen program, “Windows of the World: Germinate,” that Jim Chamberlin, convention student director, described as “a microcosm of a mission trip in the time frame of less than two days.”
The teens experienced worship and teaching, and they also served. They constructed interior wall sections for use in ministry buildings and assembled meals that filled huge shipping containers—two going to Haiti, and one to North Korea. Most importantly, they met missionaries.
“When I grew up in the ’70s, even in small churches, you could still rub elbows with missionaries,” said Chamberlin, who was a missionary kid. “In the 30 years since then, most kids have very limited access to missionaries. This is an amazing opportunity to get a big picture of what God is doing in the world.”
Chamberlin said teens discover “missionaries aren’t superheroes. They can seem a little geeky or weird.”
“That’s the point,” said Chamberlin’s wife, Amy. “They get to see that God uses ordinary people to do great things.”
People of every age and from a wide variety of situations attended the convention. Let me tell you about some I met.
Arianna Gerry, 20
Elders at Gateway Christian Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, encouraged Arianna Gerry to attend the convention. Smitten by short-term mission trip experiences, and soon to graduate but still undecided about her future calling, Gerry chose workshops like “Validate Your Call,” “Jesus Was Single, Too!” and “Where in the World Does God Want Me?”
“A lot of older folks are excited that the kids are here,” said David Empson, executive director of the National Missionary Convention. In past years, college students participated in the convention through a separate track of activities. This year they were mainstreamed, and the increase in overall energy was palpable.
“Years ago, I heard Ralph Winters predict we were going to lose half of all missionaries by 2007. I think he meant Protestant worldwide,” explained Empson. “There were a lot of missionaries who went out in the ’50s and ’60s, and now many of them are no longer with us.”
Empson mentioned the deaths of two longtime missionaries: on Friday during the convention, Jessie Lee Troyer, who served 57 years in Italy, collapsed just outside the room where she was to have been honored for her service. And on that Sunday, Robert Pemberton died at his home in Zimbabwe, Africa.
“There is a generation of dedicated missionaries, like World War II veterans, we are losing,” Empson said.
Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter
Filling the gap are young people like Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter, who are headed to Cambodia in January 2012 to be church planters. Among the already called, they found the convention validating and practical. “It was very encouraging for where we are in our journey,” said Jonathan. Everything he heard confirmed for him, “giving up my life in America is totally worth doing.”
While their four children, ages 3 months to 6 years, were cared for through the convention’s children’s ministry program (called “Sprout”), the couple attended missionary mobilization workshops and international church planting workshops. They also took in sessions on sex trafficking, a major concern in Cambodia.
Elizabeth said she believes the convention would be useful for church elders to attend, by helping them better understand their missionaries and how to help them. “It would be good for them to get inside that culture of people who are living a very different life. Otherwise, they might not have a clue what their lives are truly like.”
The couple enjoyed “being with people like us—or rather, people I want to be like,” Jonathan said.
Steve and Susan Muschanow, 60-Something
Steve Muschanow was a trucker, but back problems forced him to retire from the road. He was looking for direction for the next season of his life and came across a kiosk for Transport for Christ, a mission dedicated to leading truck drivers to Christ and growing their faith.
He is now enrolled as a freshman at Boise (Idaho) Bible College to prepare for his new mission field. His wife, Susan, who described herself as a convention tagalong, found areas of interest at the convention, particularly the teaching on prayer. The convention offered something for everyone, she said. “You can be a missionary at the grocery store, at your job,” she said. “It’s the way you live, the way you act or respond to people, that makes you a missionary.”
I spent the better part of the road trip to Lexington outlining for my sister all the reasons why I was of no use to the kingdom of God. And then Chris DeWelt of Ozark Christian College delivered his message on prayer. He talked about the apostle Paul and how little he seemingly could do in Rome. Trapped by his chains, Paul might have thought, I can’t go anywhere, I can’t do anything. My sister gave me a sharp elbow to the ribs. “Are you listening to this?” she whispered.
I have bad knees and graying hair, two early adolescent sons, an aging mother-in-law, and a husband who shares my sandwich-generation responsibilities, with its seemingly endless chain of demands. Almost none of my daily work feels like kingdom building. My world is small, and I don’t even encounter many lost people for more than the time it takes me to get through a checkout line.
When people tell me I, too, am a missionary, I imagine what a housewife in World War II must have felt like to be told she could contribute to the war effort by baking with less sugar. I’m a long way from the front.
In a preconvention conversation, Empson told me, “I hope some of the takeaway is about prayer. I think the people of the convention show how it takes all of us to do our part.” Oh, prayer, I thought then. That’s for us benchwarmers. Yet in every convention session and workshop, I was given new ways to think about prayer—not as a tool for accomplishing my goals, but as the way to seek God’s direction and unveil his character.
I gained some practical knowledge, too. One of the workshops I attended was “Rigors of Missionary Life,” and besides feeling like my own life is much easier, I’m now better equipped to serve the missionaries my family supports—not only with our finances, but with our encouragement, and again, prayer.
Later, I realized being at the convention hadn’t been awkward at all for me. I am in the wedding party. A marriage is in my future, and where I’d just been had felt anticipatory, like a rehearsal for the main event. So I share the conviction of Jonathan Trotter who, when I asked him what kind of people should go to the missionary convention, responded, “You mean, besides everyone?”
So go. You go. Later this year. Atlanta, November 17-20. Because the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
Teresa Schantz Williams is a freelance writer living in Kansas City, Missouri, where she serves with Red Bridge Church of Christ.