Developing Sent Ones: Their Stories Part Four

By Andy Jansen with Chris Nelson

This is the last of our four-part series of interviews zooming in on the development stage of the Sending Church Pipeline. Developing Sent Ones is one of the indispensable Sending Church Elements for being a healthy sending church.

In this last interview, I wanted to get the insider perspective from a team leader in a more traditional, cross-cultural environment. Chris and Kate Nelson (names changed for security) and their family serve among university students in a large East Asian city. The campus where they have planted their lives is home to students from over 100 UPG’s.  Their team is working to plant healthy churches and partner with healthy churches to send students to the remaining unreached peoples of the world.

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Andy Jansen: What’s your story? How did you end up overseas?

Chris Nelson: I grew up in the church, but I was 21 and in seminary before I really heard about the needs among the nations. When I heard, I couldn’t shake the sense that God wanted me to be involved in seeing those who hadn’t heard hear.

I did nothing about it for seven years, but God disciplined me and got me moving. I spent three years as a journeyman in East Asia. I met my wife, and we have been back in East Asia for the last seven years.

AJ: You’ve led a team with a consistent rotation of members you are responsible for. Do you have any particular method for identifying and recruiting those with an interest in your work?

CN: Partnerships! We look for symbiotic partners who are theologically, missiologically, and methodologically aligned—partners doing in the States what we do here. When we say “evangelism,” for instance, we don’t mean just telling people Jesus loves them or that discipleship is something that only happens at a big event.

AJ: What importance would you place on the level of partnership your team members have with a local church before arriving? How do relationships with local churches feed into your work and vice versa?

CN: We only receive team members out of relationship from a partner, and our pipeline moves from short-term to long-term. Most of our year-long teammates came for six weeks first. Most of our career folks did a year-long term first. Early in the process of talking with potential teammates, we talk about being sent well. Using resources from Upstream and some we have tweaked and developed, we coach them through what it means to keep their church involved and connected.

We want symbiotic partnerships with churches.  Our desire is that the churches would be glad their members serve with us for whatever season, and we know that healthy churches send healthy people.  Some of the most encouraging conversations are with pastors who call six months after someone returns from time overseas and say, “Our ministry is different because this person served with you.”  Those are big wins for us.

Our emphasis on the local church comes from our core value of growing in maturity together. In Ephesians four, Paul talks about the church growing together into mature manhood. We therefore don’t look at team member development as something that happens outside of the church. We as a church are growing together to look like Jesus, so teammates inevitably grow as the church is growing. 

AJ: Can you explain the difference between development within your team and in the local church?

CN: We view team member development as a part of discipleship.  And discipleship is tied to the local church.  So the first thing we want to do is make sure they are part of a healthy church while they are here with us.

The church bears the brunt of the load for discipleship and intimate relationships. This takes the pressure off the team to do everything.  As a team, we are freed up to focus on developing them as mature missionaries and ministers. 

There is a lot of overlap for me, personally.  Ninety percent of our teammates are in the same local church here.  I serve as an elder in that church, so I am pastoring my team and not just leading them as a boss.  But the lines between what team is expected to do and what church does are pretty clear.

AJ: Do you generally find that those who are interested in overseas work are well-developed and prepared for it? Is there any practical skill or area of maturity that those who join you seem to consistently lack?

CN: Because so many churches have college ministries that are making good disciples, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well-equipped people are when they arrive.

One missing piece has been the cross-cultural component—white culture in America swallows everything, so we have to work hard to teach them that East Asia isn’t just like America. The things they hate about the culture here aren’t any more sinful than the sinful parts of American culture they may love.

New teammates are sometimes missing life skills like budgeting or scheduling because many are still college students or recent graduates. Sabbath rest has never been a part of many of their lives.  Those things aren’t just essential for the mission field—they’re life skills that all of us need.  They won’t get you to the field but they may take you off

AJ: What are some ways you continue to develop your team members for life overseas once they join you?

CN: We have had teammates who loved campus ministry but not the church.  It was a battle moving them toward local church-centered work and deep connection to a local church, but all of our teammates have left loving the local church more.

We often talk about our identities as the people of God, because we want all our doing to flow out of believing. I want them to grow in an understanding of who God has made them in both the natural (personality) and supernatural (gifting), so they can steward their gifts and relationships for the glory of God.

Many areas for development have room for individual differences. Take evangelism for example.  Everyone on our team does evangelism, but the way that looks for a person with a mercy gift will be different than the way it looks for someone with the gift of teaching.

We also encourage teammates to develop and go deep with a few relationships in order to go broad with the Gospel.  Most of our teammates aren’t investing in dozens of people.  They may have to meet dozens to find three to five people to pour their lives into.

AJ: I’m sure you’ve seen those who experienced difficulty in their development and time overseas, and there were some who excelled. What made the difference?

CN: Humility and teachability are the top two things we’ve seen in successful teammates.  You have to come as a learner—about God and the Gospel, about the culture, and about yourself. Those who are willing to do that fare well.  Those who think they know all they need and just come to pour it out usually fail miserably.

Almost as important is the willingness to work hard and persevere.  There are lots of regular frustrations. Language learning is hard, and cultural acquisition takes time.  Sometimes, you just miss your momma.  But it changes everything to embrace suffering as a grace from God. Those who do well push through and beg God for singlemindedness.

Lastly, teammates who do well see the church as their family and live deeply in the body of Christ. If you don’t let others bear your burdens, you’ll implode.  If you don’t bear theirs, you’ll become a black hole of neediness.

AJ: How would you encourage individuals hoping to work overseas to discover and develop their own particular gifts?

CN: Do in the States what you hope to be doing overseas.  Share the Gospel.  Make disciples. Pray a lot for the salvation and maturity of people you are pouring into.  At the end of the day, you bring yourself with you when you move overseas.  Start becoming the kind of person you hope to be when you get overseas.