Recently I returned from an experience of a lifetime: a mission trip to the African island-nation of Madagascar. Madagascar is located in the southeast region of Africa in the Indian Ocean, 225 miles off the main African continent at the closest point. The island is roughly the size of Texas and has a population of twenty-two million. Americans are most familiar with the nation from the animated film “Madagascar.” I must say there are no penguins in Madagascar, but the lemurs are incredible!
I went on-mission to Madagascar with a group of ten other individuals from my church. Our ministry work was unique: we planned and led a cluster meeting for all IMB (International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention) missionaries and their families currently serving in Madagascar. Life in Madagascar is difficult. It is a third-world country (evident from the time you step off of the airplane) full of ethnic, religious, geographic, and linguistic diversity. Ethnically, the nation is 75 percent comprised of 6 different ethnic groups while the other 25 percent is a wide variety of small ethnic and tribal groups. Religiously, roughly one-half of Madagascar’s population practices a “traditional” ancestor worship type of religion while the other one-half claims to be Christian, both Protestant and Catholic. Many of the Malagasy people that claim Christianity have mixed-in elements of ancestor worship. Islam is also practiced in Madagascar, constituting seven percent of the population. Geographically, Madagascar has a large central plateau, dense forests, swamps, desserts, and coastlines. The climate ranges from a very hot rainy season to a dryer semi-arid cool season. Furthermore, as is the case in third world countries, sickness and disease run rampant. The Malagasy people, and even the missionaries serving there, often live continuously with some kind(s) of illness or disease. Linguistically, Madagascar has a base language (the Malagasy language) that is spoken throughout the island, but numerous dialects are found all over the nation that are often unintelligible to outsiders of any given tribe or people group. Conclusively, Madagascar is a challenging place to be a missionary. It is both physically and spiritually challenging. Thus, there was great need for our team to serve with excellence in pouring into, encouraging, and reviving the IMB missionaries in Madagascar.
For several days our team poured out every ounce of love, encouragement, and fresh breath possible into these missionaries and their families. Several of our team members loved on the preschoolers, others led elementary-age children through a genuine Vacation Bible School experience, I and another team member led the teenagers through an authentic youth group experience, and our senior pastor preached to and loved on the adult missionaries and their spouses. While in America we take opportunities like these for granted, for these missionaries it is a once a year (or even once every two years) experience. These families had the opportunity to worship in English, engage in English preaching, converse with one another, be together and have fun. The adults had the opportunity to enjoy some downtime away from their children, and so much more. For some of these missionaries warm water (or even the presence of running water altogether), a meal being served to them, and a comfortable bed were luxuries. While our team may not understand how meaningful this time was for these missionary families, from the outside looking in, this was a vital ministry.
My time with the teenagers was transformational. Place yourself in the shoes of a teenager whose father and mother have been called to international missions. Mom and Dad obediently submit to the Lord’s calling, not knowing where they might go to serve. Consequently, the family is assigned to Madagascar: a physically and spiritually challenging place on the other side of the world. Try to imagine the implications this would have for an American teenager moving into this context. Reactions such as resentment, anger, a desire to part ways with the family, and more might be expected. If any of these reactions had taken place in the teenagers I led, God had worked them through it. The seven teenagers I led through several days of a youth group experience were some of the most humble, godly, and spiritually mature young people I have ever had contact with. A summary statement of the collective group of these teenagers came from the youngest of the group: “The most direct way I can be obedient to God right now is by loving my family, supporting them, and engaging in the ministry they have been called to.” Incredible. I have heard the cliché saying all my life, “on a mission trip you hope to bless others, but you end up being blessed the most.” This rang true for me more deeply than it ever had before.
In light of my mission trip experience, there are two overarching lessons I learned in Madagascar:
- Genuine followship of King Jesus must permeate every ounce of a Christian’s experience. Sure, we know this to be true in theory, but do we live it out? During the few days I spent with these missionary teenagers and their families I heard and saw this being lived out. In our American version of Christianity it is easy to follow Jesus when it is convenient. This is even sometimes true of the most committed Christians, leaders, and even pastors in America. The missionary families of Madagascar (and all over the world, no doubt) eat, sleep, and breathe followship of Jesus Christ. It permeates every ounce of their being. While God calls all kinds of people to all kinds of contexts to live out and accomplish His overarching purpose for human existence, the model of 110 percent followship that those missionary families live every day of their lives was motivating, convicting, and a blessing. It causes me to ask questions such as these: What evidence of total followship of King Jesus is there in my life? What areas of my life are often void of total followship? Do I sometimes “lay aside” or “turn off” my followship? Is there any justification or excuse for anything less than total followship? If I were to give an account to King Jesus RIGHT NOW for the completeness or incompleteness of my followship, how embarrassed would I be?
- Relentless pursuit of God’s mission and purposes must triumph over secondary and meaningless matters. What are missionaries in Madagascar (and all over the world) trying to accomplish? The same mission and purposes as the Apostle Paul and King Jesus Himself. The missionaries in Madagascar have a simple mission: Go, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to be obedient to King Jesus. This approach seems familiar. Oh yeah, they are the marching orders Jesus left with His disciples before He ascended into heaven! Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19—20). Once this begins to take place, individuals converge as local churches to then repeat the process together. God is blessing the work and the missionaries doing the work in Madagascar. Lives are be saved, discipled, and released to serve according to the mission and purposes of God. Churches are beginning, growing, and reproducing. God empowers the work and workers when the mission and purposes are His. The mission of God, His Church, and individual believers is not complicated. It has never changed. What has changed and what is complicated is what humans have made of God, His Church, and Christianity in America and other places in the world. Rather than being heart-broken over lost souls and sold out to God’s Great Commission and purposes; rather than relentlessly pursuing total followship of King Jesus; rather than aiding towards the building of GOD’S Church and GOD’S Kingdom; we become more focused on and consumed with our personal desires, preferences, and selfishness. Consequently, rather than pursuing the Great Commission, we pursue personal preference. Rather than celebrating the opportunity to follow Jesus in totality as His children and pursuing that very thing; we argue, complain, and become emotional over secondary and even meaningless matters. We turn the will of God upside down and make Christianity and God’s Church more about me, myself, and I rather than God and other people. As a result, American Christianity and Church life is often a far, far distance—even unrecognizable— from what God ordained and willed for His people and His church. It does not have to be this way. My experience in Madagascar caused me to fall on my knees before King Jesus, confessing and repenting of sin in my own life: of all the ways I have let secondary and meaningless matters (personally, in my family, and in my ministry) take the place of God’s purposes and mission. You can do the same by asking yourself, answering honestly, and appropriately reacting to these questions: What secondary and meaningless matters (when compared to the purposes of God; see Matthew 22:37—40 and Matthew 28:19—20) have I made primary in my life and my church? In what ways have I stifled the mission and purposes of God by my actions towards others and/or my church? What attitudes and/or actions must I confess and repent of in order to be fully in the center of God’s will for my life and church? What system of accountability will I set up to ensure that God’s purposes triumph over secondary and meaningless matters from this day forward?
There is much more I could say about the ministry, conversations, travel, sightseeing, and life in Madagascar. Ultimately, the opportunity that God allowed me to serve His servants and the life-lessons He has taught me are such that I cannot offer enough worship and thanks in return. The experience and lessons learned in Madagascar were transformational and will mark my life, family, and ministry for the rest of my days here on earth.