Regardless of age, gender, race or stage of life, the impact of an overseas mission experience can be jarring, heartbreaking and life changing.
Jim Richards, 61-year-old executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and Ryann Mathews, a 22-year-old student and daughter of an SBTC pastor, were part of an SBTC group that traveled in March to India to labor alongside Southern Baptist workers and local pastors in witnessing and preaching among Hindus and Muslims. A veteran of more than a dozen mission trips around the world, Richards’ experiences far exceed those of Mathews, who was traveling abroad for the first time. Despite the disparity, the Holy Spirit similarly moved them as the team grieved for the desperate physical and spiritual poverty of the Indian people and reflected on widespread shallowness in churches back home.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking to see the people blinded. It makes the pages of the Old Testament just leap to life,” Richards said.
More must be done to reach the lost with the gospel, Richards and Mathews agreed, and to rouse American churches from indifference.
That goal may seem insurmountable in places like India, where the government forbids evangelism, Christian converts are ostracized by their families and Christians make up less than 2 percent of the population in a nation of 1.2 billion people.
The dark spiritual condition was profoundly evident in the deplorable living conditions of India’s street people and their veneration of carved images in a Hindu temple ceremony. The SBTC team sadly watched as worshipers presented offerings to a lifeless statue while their fellow Hindus, living in squalor, begged in the streets for daily needs.
“The people are so religious, so devout. But for what?” Mathews asked. “It broke my heart. They have a god for everything. Jehovah God has everything!”
Yet amid the darkness shine small points of light—namely, several International Mission Board workers and about 50 native church planting pastors. Answering the call by IMB President Tom Elliff to adopt Unreached and Unengaged People Groups (UUPGs), the SBTC joined hands with the missionary in southern India, partly due to the convention’s relationship with a North Texas church plant reaching Indian immigrants.
This was the convention’s second trip since adopting the IMB couple about four years ago. The team appraised the effectiveness of the partnership and provided resources in the form of preaching, mentoring and encouragement.
“A people group is unreached when the number of evangelical Christians is less than 2 percent of its population. It is further called unengaged when there is no church planting strategy consistent with evangelical faith and practice under way,” according to the IMB website.
Richards said it is imperative that Texas churches and associations join the effort in engaging and reaching the lost overseas. While the IMB pays salaries and some ministry expenses, there are few financial reserves to fund specific projects the missionaries undertake.
The SBTC has helped fund projects through the India Baptist Society—including the construction of a multi-purpose facility used by the missionary and the pastors—and facilitated an ongoing connection with national workers. Richards spent two days in one region teaching pastors. Some traveled 8-10 hours and slept on the meeting room floor just for the opportunity of training and fellowship.
Mathews spent her week “just genuinely loving on” street children and their parents. Witnessing the nature of their existence was physically, emotionally and spiritually overwhelming, she said.
Fascinated with India since high school, Mathews said she believes her mission opportunity was divinely orchestrated. Her father, Tony Mathews, pastor of North Garland Baptist Fellowship and a seasoned mission-team volunteer, did not try to soften the reality his daughter would experience.
“Whatever preconceived ideas you have about missions, throw them out,” Ryann Mathews said. “I was broken. Totally.”
Richards said: “Observing people who have never been on a mission trip is like watching a light being turned on. A person’s entire countenance changes when they see the lostness and needs of others in some very difficult places.”
The team returned to the states with a renewed burden for the lost abroad and at home. Having fellowshipped with Christians whose lives and livelihoods are threatened if they heed the Great Commission, Richards said, “I see the shallowness of the church in America. It grieves my heart that we take Jesus flippantly.”
Mathews said she has no shame or guilt for her material possessions as some do after witnessing dire poverty. Instead, she realized she had taken for granted something less tangible yet far more valuable—her freedom.
During her visit, Mathews had frequent opportunities to engage a young Muslim mother who made saris for the women on the SBTC team.
“I would tell her ‘Jesus loves you’ and ‘He died for you,’” Mathews recounted.
At the end of the week the woman gave each team member a handmade bookmark on which she had written, in Arabic, “Jesus is Lord.”
Mathews said she believes the woman wanted to profess Christ but was afraid of the repercussions.
The consequences of conversion, for Muslims and Hindus, can mean being ostracized from their families, losing their jobs, even death. Hindus, who believe in millions of manifestations of their one god Krishna, must fully process the concept of one God for all people before placing their trust in Christ.
When they do, Richards said, “They are repenting of all other gods and that Jesus Christ is the one and only true and living God.”
Each trip supports Christians in the mission field, emboldens the volunteers’ witness at home and sparks in them the desire to return to the field. Mathews said she knows she will go back but not when. On their last day of ministry in the streets, the mother of a toddler to whom Mathews grew especially attached asked Mathews when she would come back.
“I’ll try in a year” was all Mathews could think to say.
Crestfallen, the mother replied, “That’s too long.”