The Bent Sampling
Much has been written recently on the viability of short-term mission (STM) trips, both on the impact they have on those in the host country, as well as the lasting impact that these trips have on the participants. Much research tends to agree that the lives of the vast majority of STM participants are not changed in tangible, long term ways: no increased giving, no increased praying, and no increased engagement for the sake of the Gospel. STM participants have been compared to saplings: they can be bent and held in one place for a week or two, but once released they nearly always return to their previous states. Some odd saplings, however, have a hard time straightening back out.
When my wife and I took our first STM trip to Senegal in 2004 little did we know that we were spending two weeks in a place that our family of five would one day call home. We spent those two weeks in small, rural villages seeing what life was like for the unreached Muslim people that lived there. We asked a lot of questions, watched the missionaries who spoke the language and understood the culture, prayed a lot, and many times fought back tears as we were gripped with the reality of pervasive lostness. It is no understatement to say that we returned home changed.
It’s true that God had already been at work in our lives opening our heart to the idea of living and serving cross-culturally, but there is something about seeing lostness and spiritual need with your own eyes that impacts you in profound ways. It has been said that what the eye has not seen the heart cannot grieve over and for us that was true. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus saw the multitudes that He was moved with compassion because He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. You can read about the lost sheep and be moved. You can hear about them and see pictures of them and indeed it may tug at your heart. But something happens when you, like Jesus, see them; when you walk among them.
For us, we knew all about the 10/40 window, facts about unreached peoples and those without access to the Gospel, and had read about the pressing need for the Gospel in the world. But it was something different to be there. To sit and drink African tea together. To walk side-by-side with Senegalese down the sandy lanes of the village. To share a meal from the same bowl. For us, seeing and talking and living, even for a short time, among these shepherd-less sheep touched us deeply. And we returned to the US confident that we would return to Senegal.
As the church that I pastored became more and more involved in southern Senegal through STM, our family became more and more convinced that God was calling us to go and live and serve there. With each trip that I would take to Senegal, the burden for the people and the desire to be more engaged with the work there grew heavier and heavier. We had challenged our church to pray that God would call a family from among us to go and live and serve among this unreached people and it was becoming clearer and clearer to us that God was calling us, the pastor and his family, to be the ones who would go. And as we prayed we asked God, “When? When is the right time?”
God confirmed the time one hot May afternoon during another STM trip. Our church had focused upon a village called Diouloulou; a village in a region of southern Senegal where there were no Christians. Our church had sent numerous STM teams for several years before seeing the first villager commit his life to Jesus. I traveled back to southern Senegal that May to disciple and baptize that first Christian, a young man named Abdoulaye who had given his life to Jesus a few months earlier. (Abdoulaye has since baptized four other men.) He chose to be baptized in the most public place in the village: the river down by the market.
As Abdoulaye and I stood in the water together before his baptism he gave public testimony of his faith in Jesus in his local language. And after Abdoulaye came up from the water he had both arms raised praising His Lord and Savior and I thought, “This is why we come; this is why we are here: to see people pass from spiritual death into the new life that only Jesus can bring!”
After his baptism Abdoulaye sat up on the bank of the river on the edge of an old dugout canoe so that we could make a video of him sharing all that Jesus had done in his life. He was so excited that he said he could not explain himself in English, so he launched into his animated dialogue in French, a language that at that time we did not speak.
But as Abdoulaye came to the end of his story he began to talk about the villages that surrounded Diouloulou and to call their names: Bambadinka, Djibali, Sathiaba, and several others. Then, with arms raised, he exclaimed in English, “All Senegal for Christ!” In that moment I thought, “Here is this new Christian who just a few months ago was a faithful Muslim. Who has lost his job because of his new faith. Who has been ostracized by his family because of the Gospel. Who has been harassed by the local imam because he now identifies himself as a Jesus follower. Yet he is saying, ‘All Senegal for Christ!’” And our hearts had been saying that same thing for many years as well. In that moment I knew that the time was right to begin making our transition to Senegal.
And now, as I write these words, I sit under a mango tree in our front yard in the village in southern Senegal that our family has called home for the last three years. Now, this odd sapling and his family are putting down roots among an unreached people. This sapling is bent because of what God started many years ago during a STM trip and this sapling remains bent under the call of God and the weight of a people who desperately need the Gospel.
By: Matt, Serving in Senegal