5 Things I’d Tell My 21-Year-Old Self if I Started My Missions Journey Over

Long before 9/11, my family and I set off for Malawi in East Africa with blond-haired, blue-eyed three- and five-year-old boys. We knew they were going to stand out once we arrived—shocking, I know. But the first thing that drew others’ attention was us trying to check in approximately eighteen footlockers at the airport. We attracted the attention of everyone around us, especially the kind-hearted man behind the counter.

After he asked our destination, and why so many footlockers, we proudly told him what the next chapter of our lives purported to be. Looking at our blond-haired boys he asked, (the first of hundreds of times) “Are you taking your boys with you?” Of course, I was tempted to say, “Nope. We’re leaving them here for five years!” Alas, my wife, knowing my personality, gave me “the look,” so I told him they would be making the journey with us.

I was not prepared for his tears.

I defy any of you to try today what happened next. He placed the boys on top of one of their footlockers and allowed them to ride on top of it as it moved along the conveyor belt. Once outside we watched as our sons and their luggage were transferred to a cart and then loaded into the belly of the airplane—just the luggage, not our children. They were driven back and soon reappeared on the conveyor belt inside. And so the adventure began.

Laugh more, love with reckless abandon, embrace your mistakes, and make everyday a new adventure with our creator.

Thinking back on that time, I wondered what I might tell my twenty-one-year-old self if we were starting over on the mission field. Following are a five ideas that came to mind.

  1. Hold on to Your Sense of Wonder

Wonder, awe, and adventure quickly lose their luster when the reality of missionary life sets in. Despite the smelly pit toilets, language mistakes, and oh, so many airports, there should remain throughout your time of service a sense that you are on a wondrous journey with Jesus. In the ebb and flow of daily life and cultural changes, children’s stress is multiplied by seeing their parents stressed out. If I could do it again, I’d laugh more, love with reckless abandon, embrace my mistakes, and make every day a new adventure with our creator and our kids.

    2.    Make Your Home the Center of Your Family’s Worship

I was taught indirectly that I could mentor my family via sermons, Bible studies, and through all of the functions of the local church. When we moved to the field, however, all of those “functions” disappeared overnight. I was no longer a pastor with days filled by sermon preparation, weddings, and funerals. All of that dissipated like fog on a sunny day.

I wish I had been the spiritual leader my family needed me to be in our home by leading my family daily in worship through God’s Word, praying together, laughing, and singing as a family. Unfortunately, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson at the expense of my wife and kids. Oh, how I’d love to start over and make our home the center of our worship.

    3.    Learn from Jesus and Become a Great Storyteller

I was trained to study the Bible in such a way that I could preach it. I wasn’t necessarily taught to learn the great stories of the Bible by spending time with Jesus. If I could change that now, I would have read the beautiful stories in God’s Word in order to spend more time with Jesus and learn from him.

I would hide those stories in my heart so that I could tell anyone, anywhere, at any time who he is. I would pass them on to our boys until they also could reproduce them by memory with great joy. I’d pray that our children would join Ruth and me in passing them on to the countless people we encountered along the journey. Through great stories we learned in intimate relationship with our Lord, we’d share about the captivating life, death, and resurrection of our Savior.

   4.    You Can’t Do This Alone

Jesus sent out the disciples by twos. And a quick reminder we often forget in practice: a married couple is one. If we were starting over, we would strive to journey with others—wise older couples, young single ladies or men, and other young couples. This extended spiritual family would help flesh out a witness of love for lost people, my own family, and me. In many locations where workers serve, there are no places to play and no places to pray. There isn’t a readily available network of people with whom you can build community. Starting over, we’d go with a larger biological slice of the Body of Jesus.

   5.    Build a Family Wherever You Go

Finally, if we were starting over, I’d tell myself to be less dependent on our stuff and support from family and churches in the United States. Instead, I’d tell myself to be more dependent on nonbelievers and Jesus followers wherever we visited and lived. I’d tell myself to treat them like family, which means entrusting my own provision and that of my own family into their hands.

If we were starting over, I’d tell myself to be less dependent on our stuff.

Over the years, I sometimes gave in to pressure that reduced our “target people” to just that, a target. They became the people we were there to minister to, not necessarily learn from. With a fresh start, I would sit more at the feet of the oldest men and women in a host of villages to hear their stories and learn from them. Within their own cultures, they were the Pauls and Esthers. I would be their Timothy, learning from them and loving them as our family, not as baptism statistics. I would decrease so that they could increase.

This journey of ours has been an adventure, and we often wish we could start over on another three-plus decades of exciting discovery. If it’s your turn, though, let me encourage you to laugh every day, make worship the center of your home, revel in the Body of Christ, and know that going to the nations is one of the greatest gifts that God gives his children. Maybe one day you will hear your sons say, “Dad, we had the greatest life any kid could ever experience.”

Nik Ripken is a leading expert on the persecuted church, having researched extensively in more than seventy countries. A veteran missionary of thirty years (primarily in North Africa and the Middle East), Nik also is the author of The Insanity of God, which inspired the motion picture of the same name.

A simulcast of Insanity of God, the movie, along with a Q&A session with Nik and Ruth Ripken and David Platt, will run Sunday, November 13. Visit here for more information on how you can join.