After the excitement of surrendering one’s life to overseas missions comes the actual surrendering, which has its moments of self-doubt and anxiety, say panellists at Antioch21's Goer Missions Forum. All photos by Valarie Chan for Antioch21.

Many are familiar with the ministry of medical doctor and missionary, Dr Tan Lai Yong, who served in East Asia for 14 years.

But few know that he actually waited for a decade before he left Singapore with his family in 1996.

Missions work involves long years of service. But the waiting years can be equally long and is often a lonely and silent journey.

Yes, missions work involves long years of service. But less well-known is that the preparation – the waiting years – can be equally long and is often a lonely and silent journey.

Going into cross-cultural missions is not just about learning how to squat to use the toilet. It is about waiting well – especially during the years of preparation that come before.

This was the consensus expressed by speakers at the inaugural Goer Missions Forum last week organised by Antioch21, the global missions arm of LoveSingapore.

While panellist Dr Tan Lai Yong waited for a decade, fellow panellist, 30-year-old Sarah Chan, saw a wait that lasted more than half her life. At 12, Sarah journaled the call to missions that she’d heard “pre-PSLE”, she said. This year, she is finally being sent by her church as a missionary to Timor Leste.

Mind the gap

“Mind The Gap” was specifically organised to address the long season of waiting for those considering long-term cross-cultural service. 

“A sense of humour helps. But waiting is tough.”

Held at St Andrew’s Cathedral on a Tuesday night, the in-person event drew over 200 people, most of whom were young adults.

In a poll taken at the forum, almost 1 in 2 said that they think they are heading overseas for missions within the next four to five years. 

Dr Tan and Sarah were joined on stage by YWAM Singapore’s national director Joseph Chean, who leads the Antioch21 taskforce.

In a panel facilitated by Ting Siew Lee, a missionary with over 14 years of experience in Timor Leste, Dr Tan and Sarah shared how they journeyed through the years of waiting. The trio answered several audience-raised questions relating to missions preparation.

Kingdom friendships and partnerships are a key aspect of missions preparation, said panellists at the Goer Missions Forum, as they shared their experiences and lessons learnt over the years. (From left) Sarah Chan, Joseph Chean, Ting Siew Lee and Dr Tan Lai Yong.

A radical life choice

After the passion and excitement of surrendering one’s life to follow God to overseas mission comes the actual surrendering, which comes with its moments of self-doubt and anxiety, said panellists.

“As a person who’s serious about going (to the mission field), you are making life choices differently from your peers.”

The season of waiting is needed to lay down pride, acclaim, and personal accomplishments so as to learn humility and live for God’s glory, they added. It is an integral part of missions training.

“A sense of humour helps,” quipped Dr Tan, who joked that he used to boast to his peers that he had connections with all the gangsters in Singapore, having chosen to do his medical training in the prisons instead of hospitals or prestigious institutions like his friends.

“But waiting is tough, especially if you’re between 25-35 years old,” he added.

Panel moderator Siew Lee agreed, noting that it is difficult to navigate the season of life where society expects you to be very productive and successful. Looking at this kind of timeframe from the point of view of Singaporean success and career progression, one can see the painful disconnect.

“Because, as a person who’s serious about going, you are making life choices differently from your peers who are not thinking about missions. And that tension can be quite radical,” she said.

Loving His Church

The speakers also emphasised the importance of nurturing and investing in relationships – both in the waiting and in the mission field.

“Can you be a missionary if you don’t love My Bride?”

Although missionary candidates are encouraged to gain experience in their vocation in preparation for ministry while waiting, at a certain point, a bridge is burned and the missionary’s career path diverges into the unknown.

Siew Lee said: “For Goers, it is about taking relationship-building very seriously with like-minded people who can encourage you, because you are living a very counter-cultural life and that takes its toll.”

The relationship between the sending church and its missionary can sometimes be a tricky one. One question asked was: “What if my church isn’t supportive of missions?”

The speakers challenged prospective missionaries not to classify any church in that light, but rather to go all out to engage, minister and continue building relationships. “Lone ranger” missions work can be at odds with the very fabric of what the Bible says about Christian life and community, the panellists concurred.

“Take relationship-building very seriously with like-minded people who can encourage you.”

Meanwhile, it is important for a missionary to have supporters at all levels.

The cell group is one crucial source of friendship and support, but so might be an ex-Sunday school student who suddenly remembers you and sends an encouraging message. Even church members whom you have never talked to can become surprising sources of encouragement and support.

Sarah also shared about how, in her many years of active service in church, God had to teach her how to love the Church. “It was a very challenging thing for me to learn. But that was the waiting,” she said.

“You also know lah,” Sarah, who worked in full-time ministry for several years, told the audience. “Church is not perfect. There will be pain along the way. But that whole season, I felt God asking me this question: Can you be a missionary if you don’t love My Bride?”

Panellist Sarah Chan sharing her journey into missions that started when she was only 12. Her 18-year-wait has brought her to a place where there is “no longer a wrestle with ambition” of going into missions, but a “yielding to the Spirit”.

Invest in relationships

Marriage is also a key issue – both on and off the field.

When Dr Tan’s wife asked their church about their KPIs as missionaries fully funded by the church, one of the elders wisely replied: “Remain married.”

“The mission field is hungry to see godly examples of gender roles relating in healthy ways.”

He considers this the one aspect of a missionary’s life which is more powerful than any amount of preaching, teaching or serving that is done. But it is tough, he acknowledged.

Siew Lee concurred, sharing that in her 14 years on the field she has seen three marriages break up. She also added that it is not just about the relationship health of married couples but also singles, in the healthy interaction of men and women serving alongside together.

“The mission field is hungry to see godly examples of gender roles relating in healthy ways,” she said, noting that relationships are “under a lot of strain” when people leave for the mission field.

Siew Lee urged: “Do whatever you can to invest in relationships, even to work on yourself. This is vital (missions) preparation beyond ministry.”

Change that begins within

The theme running through the night was from a devotion led by Dr Tan on Psalm 84.

Again and again, the devotion went back to one message: It is about the person, not the location.

“The journey is an ongoing movement from wanting to change the world, to seeing that it is we who need to be changed.”

Indeed, he said, the waiting journey is one where we learn:

“For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
    from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you!” 

“The journey is an ongoing movement from wanting to change the world, to seeing that it is we who need to be changed,” said Dr Tan.

“Our internal baggage may weigh us down more than our oversized luggage,” he said. “One key area of preparation is to acknowledge your fears, be honest with your shortcomings, know your strengths.”

The Goer Mission Forum by Antioch21 is specifically targeted at believers who have a serious interest and desire to go to the mission field within the next one to five years, for any duration exceeding a typical short-term mission trip.

Antioch21 intends for the Forum to be a safe space for deep conversations among prospective missionaries and mission practitioners. By drawing on the strength and wisdom of the Body of Christ, the Forum hopes to better prepare the next generation of Goers from Singapore.

The next Goer Missions Forum will be held on September 6, 2022.


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Pause for thought: Waiting is about preparation

“No risk means no need for faith”: Leaders at Courage Calls conference on challenges and failures in answering the call to missions

“We need to change the whole way we do missions”: OM’s Global South Initiative director

About the author

Sharon Szto

Sharon is a mother of two young children. Her parents were missionaries in Japan for several decades. She came back to Singapore for her junior college in the early 1990s.