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A mangy dog barked. A few locals eyed the stranger from their shacks. The sun sank toward a red horizon.
“This is a dead end,” the missionary told himself nervously. He was a rookie. It was one of his first trips into the Philippine countryside on his own. Anywhere else seemed more promising for ministry than this, and he intended to get there as soon as possible.
He turned his pickup truck around. Just before he mashed the gas pedal, he heard a voice: “I want you to stop right here.”
No audible voice. God’s voice? The missionary pulled over — under protest.
“I’ll walk around for five minutes,” he muttered. “Then I’m outta here.”
He saw no one outside — just more dogs that followed him, growling with a distinct lack of hospitality. He forced himself to stroll through the village, almost hoping he wouldn’t find anyone. Turning one last corner before scurrying back to the truck, he encountered a group of fishermen mending their nets. He approached them.
“I’m a missionary,” he said, struggling to make himself understood with his beginner language skills. “Could you guys tell me if there’s someplace around here where I could tell people about Jesus?”
The fishermen looked at each other. “Why not here?” one of them replied.
That village eventually became home to a church, which went on to start three more churches, which in turn started others.
Funny how God works while you’re on the way to someplace else.
That young missionary, now a grandfather, remembered his long-ago experience at a home fellowship I attend. We were talking about the time Jesus fed more than 5,000 people in the wilderness (Matthew 14). Actually, He told His disciples to feed them. They were exhausted and hungry themselves. They didn’t begin to have enough food to satisfy such a large crowd — two fish and five loaves of bread. They probably worried about starting a riot.
“Bring them here to Me,” Jesus said, calling for the fish and bread (Matthew 14:18, NASB). Something happened between the time He blessed the food and the disciples started passing it out — something only Jesus could do. But He used His doubting followers while doing it.
“He says the same to us: ‘Just bring Me what you have,’” writes Andy Stanley. “We’re discouraged about our inadequate education or experience or training or resources — but whatever we have, however small it seems, Jesus wants us simply to bring it to Him, and He’ll use it to meet the need.”
We know in our hearts that it’s true. But it seems counterintuitive to the modern mind, like much of what Jesus said and did. We believe in education, preparation, planning, measurement and accountability — and rightly so. God deserves no less than our best. If ministry is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It’s a foolish servant who spends valuable time (and his master’s resources) on new projects without counting the cost, using proven strategies and best practices.
And yet, plans and training aren’t enough. Planning didn’t start the Great Awakening in America or the Shantung Revival in China. God’s Spirit, convicting repentant sinners, did.
“A tension seems to exist between the plans we make and the plans God chooses to bless,” writes Guy Muse, my favorite missionary blogger. “In fact, the Lord actually states it this way: ‘My thoughts and my ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours’ (Isaiah 55:8-9, CEV).
“Missionaries are expected to set goals, [make] action plans and work towards fulfilling them. ... I personally don’t mind putting things down on paper. Knowing what one is trying to achieve and working towards ministry goals brings a sense of direction and satisfaction. Only one problem, though: Year after year, only a small percentage of what is put down on paper happens as it was envisioned. We plan, but He leads. As He leads, we follow. More often than not, He leads in directions we had not anticipated.”
It has always been thus in missionary work — or any other ministry. When the Apostle Paul and his companions tried to go to Bithynia on one of their carefully planned mission journeys, “… the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” (Acts 16:7, NASB). Later, Paul had a vision of someone standing and appealing to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9b, NASB).
“What usually happens when our plans don’t come to fruition as envisioned is we double the effort, work harder and plow forward, insisting at all costs we be permitted into Phrygia and Bithynia,” Muse observes. “After all, Asia needs the Gospel and we know that it is just Satan that is standing in our way! But Paul didn’t blame Satan for not having been allowed to go to these places and do what he had planned. He understood it was Jesus who was calling the shots.”
Planning is good. Biblical, even. Just remember who calls the shots.