The memory couldn’t be much clearer if I had a photo: a large classroom, probably twenty feet wide by thirty long. Tables in the middle and around the edges of the room covered with all sorts of exciting and intriguing things: photos, cardboard record players, blowguns. A twenty-foot snake skin, no less than eighteen inches across.
What else could a ten-year-old boy want in a church basement?
I grew up in church, and my parents have been what I affectionately refer to as “professional Christians” since before I could know anything different. They have never liked being known as missionaries, and I didn’t think of them as that until our fifth move—to the exotic foreign lands of West Germany—when I was fourteen. But from long before my birth, our family was involved with churches that were passionate about global missions, and that sought to instill that passion in their congregations through annual missions conferences.
While missionaries to India, China, and Africa shared their stories and gave their challenges to the grown-ups upstairs, the younger crowd of fidgety boys and girls wandered wide-eyed through the displays that had transformed their Sunday School rooms. In the same rooms where we learned ancient stories about lions licking their lips at Daniel, we now heard about men like Jim Eliot and Nate Saint who had, just twenty years earlier, died at the hands of the Aucas in Ecuador.
Long before Indiana Jones traveled the world in quest of the Holy Grail or the Temple of Doom, that adventure-laden classroom when I was ten grabbed my own heart.
Long before the Jesus film became the most-translated evangelistic tool in history, that cardboard record player was the first audio New Testament I’d seen and heard.
It seems strange that only this one conference has wedged its way into my conscious memory. My family’s frequent cross-country trips to raise financial support and visit churches often coincided with those churches’ own missions events, but none evokes the memories of that snakeskin and blowgun.
I have been to many other missions conferences over the years, as well. The speakers and their presentations are often (not always!) polished and engaging. High-definition photos and professional-quality videos shown on massive screens bring the missions to life for those of us whose biggest adventure is often a twice-daily freeway commute. But for a ten-year-old boy, nothing could compare with feeling a snakeskin or shooting a blowdart.
Not everyone who sits in church on Sunday morning is called to cross oceans as a missionary. Jesus called some to follow him and others to go back to their homes. But every Christian has a part in the “all peoples” mission of God—a mission that reaches from our homes to our communities to our nation…and to the ends of the earth.
So how will we train our kids, our young people, our churches to reach those ends? How will we grab their hearts for places and people a world away?
As I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks working on a paper about engaging the local church in missions (and, interestingly, listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father” play over the house speakers!). I’m surrounded by a dozen books about the what, why, and how of missions. And on the walls, paintings evoke the many areas of the world where the company gets its beans: Sulawesi, Tanzania, Yergacheffe, Papua New Guinea.
Maybe the heart-grabbing could begin right here as we find those places on a map and start learning about the people behind the coffee.