Reflections of a millennial in urban missions
By Tan Zhu Nian
I’ve always thought it cool when I hear of friends living overseas—gaining unique experiences, going to ever-so-interesting places, meeting people from different cultures. The grass always seems greener on the other side.
It was almost a dream come true when an opportunity arose for me to be sent to Mongolia to reach students on campus in 2017.
But having been on the other side for almost a year now, I have gotten accustomed to life in the ‘greener grass’. What used to be “exotic” and new is now everyday life.
The shine of living overseas has officially faded away.
A frustrating start
In my first three months here, feeling helpless was the norm. I couldn’t speak the language nor understand what was going on during staff meetings (thank God for Mongolian friends who kindly translated for me!), and always needed someone to speak on my behalf.
I found myself suddenly not being able to do the things that I used to do in Singapore––even though I knew how to do them cognitively. As somebody who values efficiency and effectiveness, coupled with a constant need to be doing something, it was frustrating.
Many times, I questioned God –
“Why did You bring me here?”
“How can I possibly be effective in a place where I am neither fluent in the language nor have a good understanding of the culture?”
“I’m sure I’m a hindrance to my team here. Do I actually have something to contribute here?”
“God, what exactly do You want to teach me?”
Depend on Me, God said, I know what I am doing. It became clear that God wanted me to learn how to depend on Him all over again.
It’s only when we are taken out of our comfort zone, will we be forced to completely trust in God. Because that’s all one can do. In the midst of my helplessness, I learnt to cling on to the Most Reliable Source.
During my third week of ministry, I remarked to a team-mate that I still had not met any students who could speak Chinese during campus outreach. Less than 5 minutes later, the girl whom I approached was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese Translation! God is so amazing!
Even though she did not receive Christ after I shared the gospel with her, she was willing to meet me again to learn more about Jesus. Since then, we have met up a few times to read the Chinese Bible together. It’s amazing to hear her share what she learns from the Word each time!
If you are wondering how to survive the start of serving overseas cross-culturally, here are some lessons from my own:
1. Be patient. Enjoy the process.
Learning the local language and understanding a new culture is easier said than done. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have wished that I had the gift of tongues. Oh, if only I could instantly speak the local language and connect with the students here!
My fellow local co-worker, had to sit me down to tell me, “Hey, you’ve only been here for a few months, give yourself time to improve! It’s ok to not be able to speak fluently.”
I have since learnt to enjoy the learning process, laugh at myself for the many mistakes I make and celebrate little successes such as having people understand my broken Mongolian.
2. Take a step back. Observe first.
Cross-cultural training has taught me to take time to observe first and understand how things work, before I say anything.
Having come from a Singaporean culture where things are structured and plans a necessity, it’s easy to want to put in place structures that I was used to. My brain goes into overdrive at almost every staff meeting. I am always bursting with questions I want to ask.
I have to always bear in mind that it’s not wrong, it’s just different.
Through months of observing my team-mates and slowly understanding the local culture, I have learnt how to complement them with the gifts and talents that God has blessed me with.
3. Decide from the onset to be faithful.
One of the lessons I’ve learnt in my years with Cru since student days, is the concept of a “lifelong labourer”. Be it your home country or overseas—wherever God places you—THAT is your mission field.
Serving God overseas does not mean that the work I do is better or more important. We are all part of the body of Christ, helping to fulfil the Great Commission together.
Where He brings me to is where He wants me to be faithful in doing what He has called me to do, no matter how big or small it is.
As I continue to serve His purposes over here, my prayer is that you will also be right at the centre of God’s will for wherever you are. That is indeed the best place to be found at.
Have you ever been called by God to minister in an overseas context but don’t know where to start? Connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to explore the various overseas opportunities with us!