After working in Cambodia for nearly two decades I have noticed how my perceptions, opinions and effectiveness have changed over the years. When I first came to Cambodia I thought that I would be able to make significant changes in the nation in a few months, at most in a year or so. Looking back at my early years, my long-term impact was almost negligible.
According to a World Evangelical Alliance report, 43% of missionaries stay less than 10 years on the field. The average missionary service is only 12 years. Only 24% of missionaries globally work among unreached peoples (areas which are less than 1% Evangelical). I am not surprised that the world today is less-reached than in the time of the apostle Paul nearly two thousand years ago. There are not enough people willing to “go” and even less willing to “stay”. That being said, consider my observations from the years I have spent in Cambodia.
Five Years in a single field (1st Term):
By five years a missionary should be effectively fluent in the language and able to be comfortable in a culture. They should begin to understand what is beneficial and what is not beneficial. They probably still have a lot of passion. However, missionaries at this stage often look at more longer-term missionaries and consider them ineffective and old-fashioned. They tend to repeat what every other five-year-missionary did before them too. They want to start a church and pastor it, they develop strategies yet most are never implemented, and they translate basic materials for new believers. (I can’t tell you how many dozens upon dozens of basic theological studies are published each year in Cambodia, yet deeper materials are severely lacking.) Additionally, I have observed that those who spend the majority of their time with other foreigners rarely speak Cambodian, are not very effective in the culture and often spend their time talking negatively about Cambodia and quickly become discouraged and disillusioned. I tell new foreign missionaries working with me to avoid missionary hangouts like the plague!
It was in the first five years that I began to make genuine Cambodian friends. We talked only in Cambodian, went on trips together and spent our free time playing sports, eating balut, and enjoying time together drinking fruit shakes. Looking back at my first five years I thought I knew what was effective. I started a few dozen churches most of which continue today, but many mistakes were made and long-term effectiveness was still very minimal. Much of what I did was completely dependent on myself and thus, when I stopped in those specific ministries. . .they stopped too. Not much is left from my first five years of effort in Cambodia. What is left are friendships and people I trained in those years.
Ten Years in a single field (2nd Term):
A key to effectiveness is to never stop learning. The second five years is about learning more about language and culture, but also what is more effective. You’ll laugh at some of the things you once understood and maybe cry looking back as you so how your actions offended people. However, it’s important to keep learning. Now, you not only are fluent in the language but you begin to understand not only words, but some of the nuances behind the words. If you are really good in the language you can tell a joke and people get it and laugh, or you can get upset and speak rapidly without messing up the grammar or switching to English.
In my second five years, my theological idealism inherited from seminary has pretty much worn off and I realized that theology can only be understood and expressed uniquely within its own culture. It is here that I begin to grow more spiritually mentored not by my American pastor friends, but by Cambodian leaders. I experience the power of the Holy Spirit in Cambodia and my life and ministry begins to change. My effectiveness continues to grow as now I develop deeper and long-lasting relationships with Cambodians.
Fifteen Years in a single field (3rd Term):
My third five years sees the most dramatic changes. A missionary at this stage not only masters the local language, but now thinks in Cambodian. He not only understands words, but can understand the heart behind the words. Many locals will begin to comment how you are “one of them.” At this point ministry becomes second nature and you not only have learned to survive in a culture, but to how to thrive.
At the fifteen year point I not only spoke fluent Cambodian, but they say I speak with no accent (I can even switch between regional accents to blend with the people). I also dream in Cambodian and feel more comfortable with Cambodians than I do foreigners. At this point, through intuition, I could tell what strategies would work and what would not. I further refined my ministry in church planting, evangelism, discipleship and teaching to be more effective. At this point, I have seen considerable fruit in ministry with thousands of leaders trained and thousands of churches planted. I have been to every corner of Cambodia and have seen significant fruit. Though I have wanted to quit many, many times I know that my effectiveness is not because my “skills” as a missionary, but because I just didn’t quit. I invested time into friendships, into pastors and into communities.
Twenty Years in a single field (4th Term):
The fourth five years I not only desire to be more effective, but I believe that I understand the church, pastors and the people of my new country in such a way I know what will be beneficial to them. Many new missionaries, the smart ones, consider old guys like me a resource of information. The not-so-smart ones just repeat all the mistakes that I made in my first few years. Looking back I see the most significant ministries I had are long-term discipleship ministries. I value commitment to a task more than anything. My supporting churches and friends believe in me because of our long-term relationship as well.
At twenty years I begin to have visions and ideas which I believe will change this nation. My understanding of culture, language and people helps me to evaluate and instinctively know what is effective and what is not. Money is not a central issue to a problem, but I know that finding and developing committed people is the greatest value. Looking across this land I have grown to love as my home I can count on my hands the number of people who had stayed the course to see Cambodia change. I know now that Cambodia will not be changed by the few missionaries who stick it out, but by the thousands of local Christians who grow in their faith. It is in these people that I chose to invest all of my time. My role is to support the Cambodian church, not lead it. I rarely even see foreign missionaries anymore and the rare times I spend with foreigners is only with those who seem teachable.
How important is time?
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yetno one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
-Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, emphasis added
A powerful message we can glean from this message is the importance of time, toil and endurance. To work with people is always difficult. It’s downright hard. There is no substitute for time and hard work. In any venture in life I believe simply being dedicated for a long time and making an effort will likely yield much fruit. It certainly is true from what I have observed over nearly two decades in Cambodia.
I am not a very smart missionary; I have made plenty of mistakes and honestly I am not that talented. I don’t even play guitar. But I think the two strongest characteristics I possess are that I was willing to work hard and invest time in a nation. I have seen many missionaries come who I felt had the potential to make huge impacts in this nation, yet I was not surprised as one by one they quit and went home or bounced to other countries like popcorn. They usually touted “God called me home” as a way of saving face; somehow blaming God for their weaknesses. These two characteristics don’t require amazing skill to possess, you only need to be committed to God’s first call no matter what obstacles Satan throws at you, or not matter what difficulties come. Just don’t quit