I was nineteen years old when I learned to drive a car.
Before that, I had been in cars my whole life. I had ridden in them. I had learned how to change a tire. I had taken a driver’s ed. course in high school. But I had never sat behind the wheel with the car moving until that point.
I thought I knew a lot about driving. I thought I understood what happens on any given road with multiple cars. But when I was the one making the decision about when to make the turn onto a busy street, I didn’t know how to do it. I would let multiple opportunities to merge into traffic go by. Then I would careen into a gap that was probably too small to be safe. At one stoplight, I’d start braking almost as soon as I could see the light. The next one, I’d screech to a last minute halt, with the front of the car protruding into the middle of the intersection. It took time and practice to learn not only how to apply the theoretical knowledge I had, but also to realize what I still needed to learn.
Then, that same summer, I moved to Australia for a study abroad program. The cars were the same, but Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road. And I was still working on finding the turn-indicator in the best of circumstances!
People who move overseas for the sake of the gospel are almost always invested in evangelism. They usually are interested in learning about different places and cultures. College students who are about to move past their formal education (finally!) want to do something meaningful with their lives. These are all good things.
But the thing I would tell any college student aiming to move overseas for the sake of the gospel is this: learn about the basic Christian life of discipleship.
That advice can feel like a bucket of water on your missional parade. But many missionaries come overseas, and their understanding of Christian discipleship is like what my understanding of driving was. They know some theory, but they don’t have many hours on the road. And with that level of proficiency in disciple-making, they want to jump straight into off-road racing.
In cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship, there are all sorts of challenges. The terrain is unfamiliar and often surprising. But most of the surprises are also the typical challenges to discipling you will face anywhere.
To shift metaphors, you shouldn’t try mountain biking when you still need training wheels. But because discipleship can feel so basic, it’s easy to assume you’ve got it and focus on the more exciting components of cross-cultural ministry.
I’ve met many missionaries who feel compelled to participate in reaching all peoples with the good news of Jesus Christ. They’ve made immense sacrifices to live in places where there was no gospel light, or a small, young Christian community. They have understood the ‘go’ of the Great Commission, and obeyed. But what lies unexamined is what a disciple is.
The best way to prepare to go is to disciple and be discipled now. Proclaim the gospel to people around you. Watch non-Christians become Christians, and over time grow into spiritual leaders. Invest in the hard work of walking alongside a fellow Christian as they battle against depression. Encourage a young believer fighting against indwelling sin. Weep with that married couple who miscarried. Rejoice with the grandmother whose grandson puts his faith in Christ, and then pray with her for his sanctification. Disciple, and be discipled.
Where is the main place you can find and participate in these sorts of things? Certainly not in a campus ministry, as encouraging and fruitful as your relationship may be there.
The place where you can best prepare for a ministry among the nations is a local church full of ordinary Christians. The diversity of Christians of all different ages seeking to be faithful in all different kinds of stages, the work of caring for and being cared for by people who are not like you in small ways—this is the Lord’s ordained means for preparing you to minister to people who may feel completely different than you. You will not learn all the answers to all potential challenges you may face overseas. But you will learn the fundamentals of Christian discipleship and how to apply them to real life.
The best way to prepare here and now for a life of faithfulness overseas is to invest deeply in the life of a local church. Learn from other Christians. Help other Christians love Jesus more. Work together in making the gospel known in your community. Learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
That advice may feel boring to you. It may feel too basic, too simplistic.
But if you are unclear on the basics, how can you make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all the Lord has commanded?
Get behind the wheel before you have to drive on roads you don’t know.