By experience, I have learned that becoming a church planting missionary is more than an occupation but a calling of God into His mission. When called by God, Christians know their calling, are defined by it, and are more likely to focus on the spiritual and cultural preparation and training required for effectiveness, especially in a cross-cultural context.
Mission without calling typically leads to despair, discouragement, and failure, a reality I have experienced throughout the years in teaching and training missionaries.
The great illustrations for understanding God’s call and mission are Jesus, who became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14), and Paul and his co-workers who became “all things to all men . . . for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor, 9:22-23).
Jesus, knowing that He had come from the father not only to show us a way to live but also to die for us, struggled in the flesh, praying to the Father, saying, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Luke 23:46). This has led to the pertinent question, “How do we grow in maturity to model and reflect this Jesus Way?”
As an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul frequently began his letters to the churches with a focus on prayer. He began his letter to the Colossians, for example, by giving thanks to God for his work in the church and for their love and faith in Jesus Christ, and for their love for all of God’s people (Col 1:3-6). This has led me to a second pertinent question, “How do we, likewise, grow to reflect the apostolic nature of Jesus by seeking to humanly imitate his divine life as illustrated by the early apostles?”
As a church planter, I continually asked the questions, “What would Jesus do? How would He minister in this context?” and “How would the Apostle Paul minister in this context?”
Jesus and Paul became my missional role models as I ministered among the Kipsigis of Kenya, taught Missions and Bible at Abilene Christian University, and mentored and equipped missionaries through Mission Alive.
For example, I was called to be a missionary during an age when there were few missionaries in the churches of my religious heritage. I was about eight years of age when I got up the courage to talk with my older sister Karen about this vision. At that point, I had never met a missionary or had much contact with anyone with a passion for beginning communities of faith with an allegiance to God and His message. We lived on an Iowa farm where we worked the fields planting corn and raising pigs for sale, and herding a few cows.
My parents had a life-changing experience during this time. They became dissatisfied with the church of our religious heritage and came into a small church in Iowa. The church became central to life even though we had to drive a distance to get to church services and events.
The centrality of the church in our family life was apparent as a child. I remember my father, Chalmer Van Rheenen, praying on his knees late at night when I should have been asleep. He was an Iowa farmer with an exceptional work ethic. As one of his sons, I was expected to work in the barns and the fields after school and on the weekends with my father and older brother. I especially remember cleaning out the pig barns by scooping up the pig manure and throwing it to a manure spreader, which would then be broadcast onto the fields as fertilizer in preparation for planting corn and other crops. This family discipline on the Iowa farm formed a work ethic within us as children.
Like all families, we had many struggles. At times mother was controlling. I had an older brother of great abilities, wondered how I could measure up to him, and was frequently exasperated by his brotherly way of putting me down. I remember feeling at various times that I had to measure up to him and his significant abilities despite my inabilities. In later years I learned that I had a form of dyslexia and thus, over the years, had to discipline myself to cope in many ways.
In the midst of all this, I began hearing the calling of that God early in life to be a missionary like the apostle Paul.
It was near Christmas when our mom and dad received an invitation to a gospel meeting. They choose to go to the meeting rather than the candle-lighting Christmas service at the Reformed church. They were drawn by how preaching was from scripture and the way of salvation and forms of worship were stated very clearly. After their baptism, they couldn't get enough of the scriptures. We, as children, have special memories of our parents, especially Dad, sitting on a kitchen chair reading for hours. They found what they discerned, according to their understanding at that time, a church that followed the “patterns and examples” of the early Christian church.
In the summer of 1959, when I was 13 years of age, our family traveled south to look at Christian colleges where we children might study. Mom and Dad only had a grade school education and wanted more for us. We first visited Lipscomb University in Nashville, then Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. In Searcy, we heard about a small Christian school called Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould in the northeastern corner of the state and decided to visit there on our way back to Iowa.
Upon arriving in Paragould and contacting Emmitt Smith, the founder and President of this small school, we were invited to say in this home for a few days to get to know the area. Our parents were greatly impressed with Crowley's Ridge Academy. It was the community of loving Christians that they had always desired. They perceived this might be a new home to replace being estranged from their Dutch roots because they had left the Dutch Reformed tradition. Because of their Churches of Christ (CofC) teaching, they sounded righteous to family, and that separated them from the blood family. The church family became family, but that was rocky, too. I sometimes wonder if moving to Arkansas was a "begin again" for them.
While God’s calling to mission occurred early in life, and equipping in a preliminary sense was within the family and the local churches we attended. Focused equipping occurred first a Harding University on an undergraduate level in Bible and then at Abilene Christian University in graduate studies in Missions.
Harding University became a place of formation, giving me an imagination and understanding of ministry. I also grew in leadership by developing and leading weekend campaigns working with local churches to reach out to neighbors, friends, and relatives, and serving as Vice-President of the student association during my senior year. I was inspired by the influences of teachers like Dr. Jerry Jones and Jimmy Allen.
Abilene Christian University became a place of transformation. I grew beyond the sectarian, topical theology of my church heritage by learning to read the Bible narratively within its historical context. That is, reading the Bible as the Story of God through Israel, who was to be a light to the nations in the Old Testament, Christ in the Gospels describing how God in His Son Christ became flesh and dwelled among us, and the Holy Spirit indwelling the early Christian church leading them to become the light of God to the nations. I was formed by Dr. George Gurganus, the first professor of Missions in the CofC heritage at that time. Fuller Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School became contexts for missiological preparation. Paradoxically I was never an in-residence student in either of these seminaries but moved from a Master’s degree in Missions to a Doctor of Missiology degree by taking intensive short courses. During these years of study, I served for two years as a campus minister at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and fourteen years as a church planting missionary among the Bakonjo of Uganda (one year) and the Kipsigis of Kenya (13 years). Studying while serving as a missionary enabled me to be on mission with God in the midst of missiological practice.
As I grew as a missionary, I discerned the significance of missions training. Missionaries without significant training are seldom able to perceive cultural differences but merely interpret local realities within their own cultural perspective. They fail to realize the extent of cultural diversity—how learning local languages help understand indigenous customs. Our first African language was the trade language Swahili, which enabled us to talk with people from various tribes and ethnic groups. As we began working among the Kipsigis people, it became apparent that we had to learn the local language in order to understand the indigenous culture. To learn a language is to learn a culture.
My prayer in writing this is that these experiences might encourage you to likewise learn from multiple sources while serving in the mission of God.
Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen served as a church-planting missionary in East Africa for 14 years, taught Missions and Bible at Abilene Christian University for 18 years, and served as the founder and executive director of Mission Alive. He is the author of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, and The Changing Face of World Missions.