A Millennial's Journey to Missions
One college student's path to missions through silence, stillness and listening
I sat in the college counselor’s office at the end of my junior year of high school, contemplating her question:
“What college major would you like to pursue?”
I knew I loved biology and chemistry and hoped to do some sort of scientific research someday, so I answered, “biochemistry.” In hindsight, I don’t think I even knew what biochemistry was at the time. As I continued to research colleges and careers, I found biochemistry wasn’t exactly the biggest money-maker, so I began to look elsewhere.
I read Forbes’ “15 Most Valuable College Majors,” and discovered that, in 2012, biomedical engineering took the top spot. I didn’t know much about engineering, but as a borderline millennial/Gen Z’er entering college, the main thing American society wanted for me was stability. Find something that you love and are talented in, yes; but really, find a field that promises a decent paycheck.
When I arrived on campus as an aspiring biomedical engineer, I got caught in a whirlwind. I quickly realized I had enrolled in arguably the most difficult major offered at UCLA. If I slowed down at all, I would fail (which I sometimes did). The stakes were just too high. As time in college passed, I did learn to say “no” and manage my time relatively well, but I was already part of that all-too-common millennial experience: a life in praise of busyness.
So how did I go from being a high school senior focused on hustling to achieve “the American dream” to a now-24-year-old with plans of living in Japan long-term through ReachGlobal to make disciples, multiply churches and proclaim light into darkness? Well, to be honest, only God knows. But, as I reflect back on my life thus far, there are definitely a few themes.
Early cross-cultural immersion
My interaction with cross-cultural ministry started early, when I went to Mexico on a short-term missions trip during the summer before eighth grade. With several dozen young people from my church, I trekked from California to Ensenada, Mexico, to help run a Vacation Bible School program and start building a new church facility.
I enjoyed that first trip to Ensenada, but the real, lasting impact came a couple summers later when I had the chance to return and foster deep, international friendships—ones I still cherish today. I returned to that Mexican church almost every summer for the next seven years, growing up with mis hermanos y hermanas—the sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of the lead pastor who are all about my age. I love those brothers and sisters immensely.
Beyond my annual trips to Ensenada, I was also surrounded by cross-cultural ministry at home in California. Despite my suburban, San Diego county, Christian school bubble, I had plenty of opportunities to befriend people of different cultures. One example was an organization with which my mom was involved that cared for Ugandan refugees. Through that opportunity and my mom’s servanthood, we came alongside one family with whom we’re still close 10 years later.
While there certainly are valid criticisms of short-term missions, I believe many churches use money and time wisely to build long-lasting relationships with indigenous people and churches and make disciples through short-term trips. I think the opportunities I had to experience diverse places and build deep, cross-cultural friendships throughout life—both abroad and at home—were a huge part of God’s preparation to eventually place me long-term in a different country.
Listening to God in solitude
Despite these early experiences, by the time I set off for my freshman year at UCLA in 2013, my passion for cross-cultural missions had taken a backseat to my newfound career expectations.
In my 17-year-old wisdom, I had my life perfectly planned out: 1) bachelor’s, then doctorate degree in bioengineering; 2) work in, then own a cancer research lab and 3) inevitably earn a Nobel Prize in medicine. Also, get married and start a family. Oh, and do missions...somewhere, in some way. As you can probably guess, plans changed.
During my sophomore year, through studying the Bible and building relationships at Cru, I grew much closer to God—specifically in the area of listening to the Holy Spirit. More than ever before, I learned to sit still in God’s presence and simply listen. Whether it was after class or while everyone was still sleeping on a Saturday morning, I started to intentionally take time to listen to what my Creator might be telling me. And, as I quickly learned, He had thoughts about my “perfect life plan.”
That bioengineering research track (headed straight for the Nobel Prize) changed to pre-med during my sophomore year. Then, a year later, God had another message: “Drop pre-med, pursue global missions after graduation and bring my light to the world.”
I spent the following summer in Kenya on a medical missions trip. After a jam-packed semester, my time in Africa brought a refreshing amount of stillness and peace. Although I didn’t gain any new direction about where I would pursue global missions, I came to better understand the necessity for our souls to cease, rest, enjoy God’s presence and listen to His words regularly.
As I prepared to enter my senior year, however, frustration began to build inside of me. For nearly six months—since God had called me to global missions—I’d prayed for direction, but I still had no idea where He wanted me to go. No longer wanting to be patient or sit in silence any more, I cried out to God on the floor of my apartment.
Almost immediately, thoughts of Japan flooded into my head. I thought back to my freshman year, when the desire to join Cru on a weeklong Japan vision trip had risen within me...but I didn’t sign up. I remembered how, that same summer, I had a plan to do a summer mission in Tokyo...but I decided against it to work and help pay for school expenses. I remembered the department-wide email I’d received about a bioengineering internship in Kyoto, Japan, that was perfect for me...for which I then missed the application deadline.
As I navigated through all these thoughts, I asked: “Are you calling me to Japan next year?” and the answer was clear: “Yes.” God had actually begun calling me three years prior, yet He was gracious to remind me and reveal His plan in a new way.
Fast forward three years, and I’ve now completed a two-year short term with the Tokyo City Team and have been accepted to return long-term to Tokyo in 2020.
If I could give advice to anyone seeking direction from God, I would tell them to sit in silence, pray God would mute the voices of the enemy and the world, and listen closely for His voice. And then to keep doing it until they hear Him. It can be frustrating when we can’t hear anything, I know, but when we understand what it means to listen to the voice of God—to really be attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit inside of us—everything changes.
I sometimes wonder, if more people had the chance to stop their busy lives—especially in places like Los Angeles and Tokyo—and simply wait for God to speak to them, how many would God send out into the world to proclaim light and truth? Why am I in the minority of millennial Christians living abroad and planting churches? What if the default answer for “What am I going to do after college?” wasn’t “get a job I’ve planned to do for years” or “find the highest earning career” but instead was, “whatever I hear God asking me to do”?
I’m certainly not criticizing anyone for staying in their home country and working a job they’ve spent years preparing for, because that’s often exactly where God wants His kids to be. I’m so grateful for my friends working in the U.S.—without them, I wouldn’t have the support team that sent me to Japan and keeps me alive! I’m simply wondering if, in the grand scheme of things, more people might realize the very best thing God has for them is outside their native country—if only they stopped to listen.
The third and probably most important factor in my current path is a deep and personal understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Matthew 28:16-20. In my junior year of college, while I was still pre-med, I walked through these passages with my discipler. I don’t think the idea of being an ambassador for Christ had ever been so personal to me until we studied this Corinthians passage along with the Great Commission.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:18-2, emphasis mine)
Even though some disciples doubted, Jesus still passed on His authority to them to teach the Word, to make disciples, to baptize and to guide people into the Kingdom of God. “Ambassador for Christ” isn’t a title attributed to a select few believers—those good at sharing their faith—instead, “believer,” “Christian,” “follower of Jesus” and “ambassador for Christ” are interchangeable. Carrying the weighty name of “Christian” while rejecting the role of “ambassador for Christ” is paradoxical.
Every believer, every ambassador for Christ—whether he or she is a millennial like me, a Gen Z kid behind me, or a baby boomer like my parents—must strive to understand the depth and the weight of the role to which God has called each one of us.
Being an ambassador for Christ doesn’t necessarily mean traveling to Japan or India or the Middle East, but it might! Maybe the very best thing God has for you is to be an ambassador in your company or organization in your hometown; maybe it’s being an ambassador for your children as a stay-at-home mom or dad; maybe it’s running a local ministry in your spare time; maybe it’s working in the local church; and maybe, just maybe, it’s moving to a new country, learning a new language and culture, falling in love with a new group of people, and representing Christ in a place where His name has barely been heard at all.
Accepting God’s abundant gift
In Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God, he says:
“Our failure to hear God has its deepest roots in a failure to understand, accept and grow into a conversational relationship with God, the sort of relationship suited to friends who are mature personalities in a shared enterprise, no matter how different they may be in other respects. It is within such a relationship that our Lord surely intends us to have, and to recognize readily, his voice speaking in our hearts as occasion demands. I believe that he has made ample provision for this in order to fulfill his mission as the Good Shepherd, which is to bring us life and life more abundantly. The abundance of life comes in following him, and ‘the sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (Jn 10:4).”
There’s a cartoon you may have seen where a little girl stands in front of Jesus with her small teddy bear, as Jesus implores her to let go of it. Little does she know, Jesus is holding a huge, life-size teddy bear behind His back, ready to give it in return for her small one. Our Creator is waiting to give us life, and to give it abundantly.
I don’t think my self-made plan to become successful and find a cure for cancer was bad, by any means. I don’t think God would’ve been disappointed if I chose that direction. But through conversation with Him, through listening prayer, through understanding the Great Commission Jesus has given to every believer, I realized God had a life-size teddy bear behind His back, waiting to give me life abundantly.
No matter the ups and downs I face in Japan, the struggle of learning a language, the hardship of being away from family and friends, I have overflowing peace and joy knowing I am in the place He most wants me to be.
If you or someone you know is wrestling through God's calling, learn more about how you can join ReachGlobal in establishing the church where the gospel isn't known.