A few years ago, my wife Carrie and I were tasked by our mission organization to help launch an international student ministry in Tacoma. At the time, we had no sense of what to expect – but we quickly set to work on decoding the campus community, praying regularly over the students/faculty there, and asking God to guide our interactions on campus.
Then, we began the ground-breaking work of trying to connect with international students at TCC.
During the pandemic…
When all in-person classes were cancelled...
With no previous connections to rely upon for help…
And (honestly) no hope that the global crisis would be getting better any time soon.
Ministry was a slog.
In fact, for approximately 18 months, it was a slog. We tried everything – from using digital platforms to connect with students to walking around neighborhoods near campus to see if we could spot international students around us. There was very little fruit, and at times, Carrie and I would look at each other and ask ourselves, “Why are we even doing this?”
But then, this past spring, everything changed.
Campus administrators at TCC decided to open back up for in-person classes, and students responded by returning to campus in droves. University parking lots were full every morning, and – all of a sudden – it felt like international students were falling out of trees and landing in our laps – desperate for human connection and hungry to know about Jesus. We were meeting students from all over the world, including spiritually dark countries like Japan, China, and Bangladesh; and many of these students were interested in learning about God.
Quickly, we went from discipling 1-2 students per week to having more than a dozen new students ask to join our weekly Bible studies. Our group events averaged even larger numbers of students, and we began developing a group of student leaders to help disciple other international students on campus.
It was a huge wind in our sails after battling through a challenging season of ministry.
As the school year came to a close for the summer, Carrie and I began planning for a fresh start of ministry in the fall – this time, with a strong base of international students and a good deal of momentum. We were excited and ready for more!
Ready for more, that is, until everything suddenly fell off the rails a few months later.
In college ministry, the first week of fall quarter classes is a strategic time to be present on campus. It is a critical window tomeet new students and invite them to join fellowship events and Bible studies. And so, I made my way to campus that week with a sense of optimism and boldness.
Only this time, quite unexpectedly, I was met with fierce resistance from TCC administrators within a half-hour of stepping foot on campus. I was promptly asked to leave. It turns out that they were suspicious of our ministry and our efforts to minister to students on campus.
Two things were clear in that instant: 1) God had softened students’ hearts to be open to evangelism and discipleship. 2) College dministrators wanted no part in having a Christian organization active on campus. What are we to do with that?
Over the next few weeks, I attempted to meet with TCC staff to see if we could reconcile the tension…with no success. From their perspective, I was an unwelcome outsider. During those weeks, I spent a lot of time praying for wisdom and wrestling with what to do next. But I also felt a huge sense of loss, embarrassment, and anger about how an energetic, fruitful international student ministry had been stripped away in a matter of minutes. Ministry suddenly felt like a giant, two-year failure.
Fast forward to today, and we are still picking up the pieces from our whirlwind of ministry at TCC. After much prayer, we are in the midst of a new campus ministry launch at another local university while still quietly discipling six international students who attend TCC. Momentum is slow, but we are hopeful in this new beginning. After years of cultivating the spiritual soil among international students at TCC, we are essentially back where we started two years ago – trying to build a new campus ministry in Tacoma. And if I am honest, there are still some days when I find myself asking God, What on earth was that for??
If you have ever read the story of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37, you have probably asked the same question at the end of the passage. In the story, we see her experience an emotional roller coaster – from infertility, to the tragic death of her miracle child, to a failed resurrection, and finally a last-ditch resuscitation. What on earth was that for? Why did God allow her to go through all of that suffering?
Looking back, that question isn’t inherently a bad question. Reflecting on God’s design for our circumstances is a healthy exercise when we properly approach that question with humility and submission. I believe that God can reveal a lot about himself – and who we are – when we ask that question well.
Too often, I approach success or failure in life on the outcomes of what I am trying to accomplish. And perhaps you do, too.
Did I exceed my sales targets at work?
Was I able to mow the lawn this week?
Is my infant sleeping through the night?
The struggle is real.
But the story of the Shunammite woman has less to do with outcome – and far more to do with the journey that God had for her. While definitions of success and failure swirl around us from different directions, the reality of life is that our journeys are riddled with potholes, detours, and mystery that are all designed to teach us one thing: to trust and rely on God’s promises for us.
It’s with this understanding that we can take a deep breath and turn our question of despair into a prayer of earnest hope:
What on earth, Lord, was that for? And what are you trying to teach me right now?
And as we wait for a response in prayer, we can be assured that God is already in the process of showing us what His good and perfect plan is. Remember that our lives, our ministry, and our families are not measured by our failures. Rather, we are on a journey of knowing Jesus more intimately each day. And even when the view in front of us looks like a dead end, take heart and know that you are on the right path – that there is a purpose behind the journey that God is taking you on. We get to enjoy the ride along the way if we have the right perspective. Do not lose heart.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
2 Corinthians 4:16-18