Before we moved to Cape Town, South Africa, people repeatedly said to us, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to leave home to move across the world.” But we never realized leaving Cape Town to move home to the US would be much harder.
Shortly after my wife and I were married, we sensed the Lord leading us toward international missions. We weren’t sure where, how, or when. So we devoted ourselves to prayer, asking specifically for clarity, wisdom, and peace from the Lord. Over a period of about eighteen months, God answered our prayers by revealing and affirming his plan for us to move overseas as missionaries.
On February 7, 2014, my wife and I boarded a 737 with a one-way ticket for Cape Town, South Africa. Only twenty-five months later, we found ourselves praying through the unexpected possibility that God was calling us back home.
“We had to trust in God’s sovereign plan and know that wherever he called us, it was ultimately for his glory and our good.”
We had barely been in Cape Town for two years. Ministry was going great. We loved the church we were serving and were seeing fruits of our labor. We had grown from a family of two to a family of three with another on the way. By all accounts, life was good and we were happier than we’d ever been. This just didn’t make any sense.
Doors Opened and Doors Closed
Yet, over the course of several months, we began to see God closing doors in South Africa and seeing doors open back in Tennessee. We learned of an opportunity to serve at one of the regional campuses of our sending church. In addition, a fellow missionary in Cape Town expressed interest in taking over the role if I left. Over the next two months, and to our surprise, doors continued opening for Tennessee and closing in Cape Town. Just as God affirmed our calling to move to South Africa, he was doing the same for our return to the US.
But if we were willing to go to the ends of the earth, why would God call us back to the US? It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was tempted to think, “But we’re needed here”, and “We can make a much greater impact here than we ever will back home!” This thinking is often known as missionary guilt. We feel guilty about leaving. We feel like we’re quitting, abandoning the people, or throwing away everything for which we’ve worked so hard.
But we have to be reminded that God’s plans are perfect and if he is leading us to return home, there’s a good reason. Only God knew the answer to our questions, but we knew we had to trust in his sovereign plan and know that wherever he called us, it was ultimately for his glory and our good.
Living on Mission Wherever You Are
The first step of living missionally is having a heart posture similar to that of the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me” (Isa. 6:8 ESV). Our prayer prior to moving to South Africa was, “God wherever you want us to go, whenever you want us to go, and however you want us to do it, show us the way, and we’ll follow.” That prayer was easier to pray because we actually wanted to go to South Africa. It was exciting. It felt important. We felt like God had chosen us to meet a real need.
Praying about returning home was harder. We were at a crossroads, excited about the new ministry assignment God had placed before us, but we hated to leave Cape Town. We needed to be willing to follow God even if the assignment didn’t seem as important, even if we didn’t necessarily want to obey. So, in July of 2016, we packed our bags and boarded a 737 with a one-way ticket back to Nashville, Tennessee.
“God isn’t done with us just because he calls us home. We live and minister at home like we lived and ministered on the mission field.”
These are six things we learned when God called us home:
- We may not understand why God tells us to do something.
And that’s okay. I know his plan is perfect. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9 ESV).
- The greatest place to be is where God wants us to be.
We often feel tension when God gives us a new assignment that requires us to leave the field. It is completely normal to experience this tension, but we have to remind ourselves that if God is leading us in a new direction, we can trust his lead.
- Missions is not location-specific. It’s a part of our identity.
What makes us missionaries is not our location on a map. It comes from a conviction for the lost that propels us to carry the gospel wherever we are.
- God doesn’t measure our success with ministry metrics.
Success isn’t based on how many churches we plant, how many people attend our church, or a number of baptisms. Ministry success is based on God’s work and our faithfulness to whatever he has called us to.
- Returning home doesn’t mean hanging up our ministry boots.
God isn’t done with us just because he calls us home. We live and minister at home like we lived and ministered on the mission field.
- God’s call to serve overseas may be more about what God wants to do in us than what he wants to do through us.
There was a T-shirt in South Africa that said: “I need Cape Town more than Cape Town needs me.” This was such a good reminder that God was using Cape Town to minister to us while he was using us for ministry. Sometimes we are tempted by the idea that God has called us to go because he needs us to go. God does want and desire for us to be involved in his kingdom work, but he certainly doesn’t need us.
Do our lives look different than what we thought they would when we boarded the plane in 2014? Yes. But God has been faithful every step of the way, and we know we’re right where he wants us to be. We’re humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve in South Africa, but we’re equally humbled and grateful that he has given us the opportunity to serve where we are now. We love our church, and where God has placed our family to minister in Middle Tennessee. Our geographical location may be different, but our calling remains the same: “Go and make disciples.”
Taylor Johnson is the children’s minister at The Church at Station Hill in Spring Hill, Tennessee. He’s married to Jenai, and they have two children, Graham and Molly-Anne. In 2016, Taylor and his family relocated back to Tennessee from Cape Town, South Africa, where they served as missionaries of Brentwood Baptist Church.