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Marketplace Ministry from Experience, Pt. I

Expatriates: Our Accidental Pathway to Missions


Life in the Oil Patch

A poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says that more than 40 percent of America's baby boomers stayed with their employer for more than twenty years. The survey of more than 1,000 Americans fifty and older shows that 41 percent of those employed workers have spent two decades with the same company, including 18 percent who've stayed at least thirty years.

They nailed it. This was us. We are part of the baby boomer generation known for being loyal employees of their company. My husband accepted a job in the energy sector right out of college and stayed with the same company for his entire career. We moved only once and stayed within the US. For twenty-five years, we lived a stable life in the middle of the oil patch in Houston, Texas. Our family grew, and so did our roots.


An Unexpected Opportunity

Fast forward to 2010, and we were almost empty nesters. Two of our children had flown the coop, and our youngest had one more year of high school. After graduation, it would be just the two of us. Honestly, we didn't talk much about what we would do with our time. We thought we would continue working, stay involved with our local church, and do some traveling. The future looked pretty predictable, and we were okay with that. But the Lord had other, bigger plans for us.

A project Jeff was working on led to an offer to work in Basra in southern Iraq. There's a saying in the expat community: "The employees go to work, the families go to live." For this project, families would live in Dubai, and employees would travel in and out of Iraq each week.

I have never been a huge lover of change; I like predictability, and I am not a risk-taker. But the offer to move to another country piqued my interest. Jeff traveled a lot during his career to project locations all around the world while I held down the fort at home. There were many times I wished I could have accompanied him. Now, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. It was exciting, but it was also a big decision that weighed heavy on the whole family.


Decision Time

So many things needed to be considered if we decided to take the assignment. What would we do about the house, the cars, the dog, and especially our aging parents? Our oldest was about to be married and deployed to Afghanistan. Our middle was entering her last year of university, and a challenging academic schedule lay ahead. Perhaps the most significant factor was related to our youngest daughter. Would she be willing to forgo her senior year of high school in the US? To be sure, it was a pivotal time.

I heard a message recently based on Ecclesiastes 11:1–10 that emphasized this point: don't be afraid to take calculated risks. Risk is an integral part of living a life of faith. We cannot know the future, so we must not be afraid to step out in faith. The message was a reminder of the tension we felt between staying or going as we struggled with our decision.


After a lot of prayers, counsel, and information gathering, we knew the Lord was leading us forward into what turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. One by one, God answered each of our concerns, sometimes with a clear solution, other times with a simple "Trust Me."


Moving Out

Late in the summer of 2010, we left our home, school, friends, family, jobs, and church for what turned out to be six years living in two different countries. When we left, our worldview was narrow and our awareness of the need for the gospel was incomplete. I liken it to what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face." We came back to the US radically changed, with a better understanding of other cultures, the global body of Christ, the needs of global workers, the need for the gospel, and a clear calling on our lives to minister to global workers. The mirror wasn't so dim anymore.

It never occurred to us to separate our faith from our life. As a result, God opened up possibilities for ministry, discipleship, and missions, and we gained invaluable insight into his work around the world.

A Challenge for Christian Expats

When we were serving overseas, there wasn't a term for people like us. For years after our return, I found it awkward to describe the integrated life we led. We went as an expat family employed by an international corporation, but we were also Christians. It never occurred to us to separate our faith from our life. As a result, God opened up possibilities for ministry, discipleship, and missions, and we gained invaluable insight into his work around the world.

Today, there is a term for this kind of ministry: Marketplace Missions. This growing alternative path for ministry (which has been aided by globalization) is an underdeveloped resource for worldwide missions. Your status as an employee of a global company gives you access to resources that are difficult for others to obtain (for example: visa approval, housing, transportation, and medical care).

Your Christian life is not confined to your passport country and your home church. God means for you to put your faith at the forefront of this amazing opportunity.

If you are currently living the expatriate life or you see the potential for it in your future, then I have a challenge for you: your Christian life is not confined to your passport country and your home church. God means for you to put your faith at the forefront of this amazing opportunity. Be open to his guidance and be willing to take that calculated risk. You will be forever changed, and you will be amazed at the ways God will use you to accomplish his work.

“When I trusted Jesus Christ as my Saviour, 'I married adventure'; and that meant living by faith and expecting the unexpected.” – Warren Wiersbe


Click here for part two of this article series.

 

Shirley Ralston (MA in Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband, Jeff, now reside in Houston after living overseas for several years. You can find her on Twitter and texpatfaith.org.


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