Doing what you love is no sacrifice, missionary says of career in Africa

As he nears his retirement after spending much of his adult life serving God in Africa, John McPherson has an interesting take on his career as a missionary.

“I don’t think what I have done should be seen as a sacrifice,” said McPherson. “Doing what you love to do is not a sacrifice. The sacrifice was really made by my parents. It’s a sacrifice for those who love the person (who has been called).” 

McPherson is speaking from personal experience. All these years later, he still recalls that when he informed his parents of his decision to enter the missions field, “My mother’s first choice for me was not Africa.”

John McPherson

But Africa is where McPherson was called, and it was there that he served in a variety of roles, beginning with a two-year tenure as a missionary journeyman in Zambia from 1971-73.

He spent the next 11 years in the United States, serving as pastor of  Petersburg Baptist Church in Petersburg, Ky., before returning to Africa in 1985 after being appointed as an instructor at the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 1996, he moved to Zambia, where he served as an instructor and academic dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zambia until 2016.

McPherson, a member of Arlington Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., is currently on his final stateside assignment, and is scheduled to retire in February 2018.

“My parents taught me to find out what the Lord wanted me to do — and then go do that,” he said, noting that his mom supported his call to Africa, despite the long distance. “When it became clear that (Africa) was God’s will, both my parents supported me in that.”

“Doing what you love to do is not a sacrifice.”

While many missionaries spend their days teaching others about the gospel, McPherson spent much of his career teaching others how to teach others about the gospel.

“My work has been in leadership training,” he said. “The center of world Christianity is shifting to the southern hemisphere. God has blessed the gifts, the prayers and the work of Southern Baptists and has raised up an army of believers around the world. And what many of those areas need now is trained leadership.”

Training is crucial

To emphasize the importance of teaching others how to preach and share the gospel, McPherson said he often encourages people to imagine what would happen if they went to church one Sunday — and there was no one there who was adequately trained to teach Sunday School or preach.

“The church would suffer and you would suffer,” he said. “And that is the need that we have in many parts of the world. We need to train leaders to teach and preach the Bible and lead their churches. God has blessed us, and we have started many churches in many different areas. But leadership training is crucial.”

McPherson has seen some turmoil during his time on the missions field. He was part of three evacuations during wartime in Liberia, including one memorable experience in which “the U.S. Special Forces had to bring in the helicopters and fly us out,” he said.

McPherson said much of his ministry is an example of Lottie Moon dollars at work.

“Lottie Moon was crucial for us,” he said. “I worked with bush churches on the weekends, and I had a four-wheel drive truck that allowed me to get to those places. And that’s the sort of thing that Lottie Moon does. It provides those materials and provided the materials that we used at the seminary. I’m a big fan of that offering.”

Doing more together

McPherson also believes that the Cooperative Program is an essential piece in regard to the impact of missions.

“The Cooperative Program has been so successful because it is so appropriate to who we are as Southern Baptists,” he said. “Now we have megachurches, and we thank God for them. They can stand on their own, basically. But the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches will have 100-200 people on Sunday mornings, and they can’t do big things on their own. But they can join together, through the Cooperative Program, through the Lottie Moon offering, and do things that they could not do individually.”

As he looks back on his career, McPherson said he is thankful to the Lord for allowing him to play a role in planting spiritual seeds that he hopes will develop and blossom for years to come.

His work has included establishing more than 30 satellite seminary-type Bible schools (“nonresidential centers”) and the development and implementation of a Master’s program at the seminary where he taught.

Both projects were designed to help develop Biblical teachers, and are part of the legacy that McPherson has left in Africa.

“Seeing the way many of the African young men and women have been trained and then have taken that training to be used by God, has been very fulfilling,” McPherson said.

David Dawson is communications specialist for the Baptist and Reflector, the official news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. This story was first published in the Baptist and Reflector in Dec. 2017.