Great Missionary Families

Early missionaries of the churches of Christ.

By John and Beth Reese

Adapted from a lecture given at Harding University Lectureship September 29, 2010



                What is a missionary?  All Christians come under the Great Commission.  Some are fulltime while some are vocational.  Some work locally and across their own nation, while others go to foreign countries.  Some work within their own culture, while others work cross-culturally.  For our illustrations, we are going to take most examples from cross-cultural missions.  But that does not reduce at all the truth of the priesthood of all believers.

What is a “Great” Missionary Family? ALL missionary families are great because they are following the Great Commission.

Characteristics of Great Missionary Families:

Visionary- ability to see opportunities that many others did not yet see.

  1.  John 4 Lift up your eyes and see
  2. Pioneer (early) missionaries to new areas or countries. (See “History of Mission”)

Commitment– being willing to be involved long enough to get the job done.

  1. Deny self, take up cross and follow Me. 

Not take plow and turn back e.g. Paul vs John Mark

  1. Example of Elizabeth Bernard

Born in 1890, nurse in Army, disease of eyes, training for helping blind, wanted to go to China but others discouraged her.  She said, “I have tried to serve my country, and gave valuable, healthy years in the Army as a nurse.  I don’t regret this, as I love my country.  I have tried always to serve my God, and now even though my health is broken, I would like to serve as best I know how, in a place I can serve best.  China is a country of sickness and poverty.  Their poverty I cannot help, but their sickness I can aid a little, and with all the blind training I have received, surely I can teach the blind to read and study God’s work.  Do you realize how many blind there are in China who otherwise will never be taught? Who else will go teach?” Tune, Tom. “Ah Wing’s” Elizabeth Bernard. Lebanon, TN: Tom Tune, 1977.

Living through two world wars, her work there lasted forty years.  After her death in 1971 Tom Tune said, “Elizabeth Bernard was already a legend, even while living. She gave up a normal family life. She lived on the level and economy of the people she served. God was with her.   Now she is with Him.” Tune, Tom. “Ah Wing’s” Elizabeth Bernard. Lebanon, TN: Tom Tune, 1977.

  1. Peter’s commitment led to his early death; John’s similar commitment led to a long life of service Jn 21: if he remains until I return, what is that to you?
  2. Staying a long time – some even a lifetime.  Example of those who have spent their whole lives for the mission of God.  List of those who lived (or are living) more than 30 years in a country that is not their own by birth (See “History of Missions”).

Example of continued commitment after having moved home- Barney Moorehead, 1925 to Japan, started Kings College which became Ibaraki Christian College, returned home after 5 years because of language, great promoter of missions the world over.

Walking by Faith – trusting in the Lord to provide the direction to go as well as the way to get there.

  1. Limited commission; 2 Cor 3; Php 4 God will provide.  Another expression of commitment is multi-generational commitment: Sending missionaries for generations from the same family. E.g. in Jeremiah of nomad’s family.  Timothy’s grandmother and mother.
  2. Walking by faith is more than just trusting that God will provide ‘finances’ to take care of us.  It is also a way of life.  Our children can see what is important in our lives. They can see that faith is real in our life.  When our children can see that following the Lord and His great commission is real to us, many of them will find that becomes a huge part of their life as well.  Example of list of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation missionary families.

Faithfulness to the Word –trusting that the Word of God always has the right answers.

  1. E.g. Original Christianity in Mt 28 “all I have commanded you.”  E.g. the word’s strategy in 2 Tim 2 of training the locals to mature & carry-on.  E.g. Being a missionary ‘where you are’ 1 Pet 3:15; Heb 5; Col make most of every opportunity
  2. Story of Juan Monroy of Spain at the World’s Fair, 1964, Don Quixote and the Bible, “What do you use besides the Bible to guide you?,” E.J. Summerlin, 12 congregations. Tilotia, Becky. The Gleaner. Vol. IV, No. 1, February, 1969.

Sacrifice – being willing to deny some personal wants (family closeness, advancement in career, living conditions, resources) in order to get the job done.

  1. Mt 16 Whoever takes up his cross.  Jn 12 seed dies to bear more seeds [Paul’s attitude of completing Christ’s sufferings] 1 Tim 6 all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution]
  2. Example of Augusta Brittell –“Africa is just as close to heaven as any other place in the world. And I hope to give my life in God’s service in Africa. And when my life is over, I want to be buried in a simple manner there. I shall not come back to America on furlough. I would rather use the money to spread the Gospel to lost souls. Oh, I know I will miss you people, and there will be many times when I’ll long for a visit with all of you; but I’ll have to keep that pleasure until Christ calls us all home to heaven.” Korfker, Dena. Mother of Eighty. Winona, MS: J.C. Choate Publications, 1970.

Example: Sending more than one family member (siblings) to mission fields. List of siblings used in missionary service (See “History of Missions).  Illustration of Army’s rule.

  1. Biblical family: Jesus willing to call the two sons of Zebedee; Barnabas and his nephew John Mark;

Humility – remembering that Jesus is the Lord and the head of the church and that what “I” do is very small compared to the world and the span of time; salvation and success are all a matter of grace.

  1. Mt 19,20 great is servant and least, II Cor not commend themselves e.g. benefit from advise, encouragement and support from others (Supported –has a benefit of good support in prayer, funds, and encouragement e.g. Paul’s need for Titus)
  2. Example of Joe Cannon: Sunset World Mission Forum, lists of countries around the wall for prayer signatures, Joe signed every list because he had already prayed for each of them by name.

Open to learning and adjusting – ability to be willing to be taught and to realize that different people can look at the same thing from different perspectives.

  1. e.g. Meaning of “Disciple”; child-like; which to hear, slow to speak
  2. Example of George Benson – first missionary to China, Philippines, no mission training, sought out advice from denominational missionaries who had worked in country for a long time.

Balanced –ability to keep things in perspective and realize that commitments to immediate family were important as well as to be able to work towards the big picture of reaching the lost.

  1. Stewardship; wisdom passages; Proverbs or Eccl on moderation. Temptations of Jesus aimed for imbalance.  2 Cor every thought captive. Obey all I have commanded you- means more than just Go and preach.
  2. There are many stories of those who felt preaching the gospel meant they did not have to also ‘love your wife’ and ‘train your children.’  Unfortunately we have lost some of those children from the Kingdom.

Fruitfulness – ability to realize that not all fruit is immediate and to trust in God to give the increase.

  1. Word not return void Isa 55; God gives increase 1 Cor 3; Promise of fruitfulness Jn 15 Yet not always seen e.g. Jeremiah not fruitful in his lifetime, but God used his example and his teaching for much fruitfulness later, as already evidenced in the books of Daniel, Nehemiah etc, and as seen today.
  2. Example of John Reese and prayer for Zimbabwe

Persistent – ability to keep trying in difficult times.

  1. Lk 8 bears fruit through persistence; Open door yet much opposition; other patience passages and e.g.s
  2. Example of A.B. Reese, He wrote I have ‘no money, no credit’ in trying to raise funds to stay in Africa.

Example of Otis Gatewood talking to Mikhail Gorbachev: In the summer of 1992, Otis and Irene planned a trip to Moscow. They had raised money in the US, Germany and Austria to purchase eight tons of food to give to Mikhail Gorbachev, to be distributed to the elderly and orphans. They had no appointment with Mr. Gorbachev, but Otis thought he had a better chance to get in, if he took food. Darlene, in Vienna, made a hotel reservation for Otis and Irene at the Hotel Ukraine, a hotel in which they had never stayed. Otis wanted to find a woman named Sonya Marionovskaya, who had been his tour guide when he first visited Russia 34 years earlier. In a city of nine million people, with no clues, finding one person wouldn't seem likely to anyone but Otis. He asked the people at the Ukraine Hotel if they knew Sonya Marionovskaya and they said she had previously worked at that very hotel. They found Sonya for Otis. The Lord had led him to the right hotel. Sonya didn't think it possible to get an appointment with Gorbechev, but Otis insisted. When Sonya returned, in a day or so, she had arranged a meeting with Mr. Gorbechev. When they walked into the tightly guarded office, Otis handed his business card to Mr. Gorbechev, who said, "I know who you are." Otis told him they had brought eight tons of food for him to distribute to those who needed it. Otis told him that he was a good man and should be back in politics. When the former president said he did not want to be back in politics, Otis tried to enroll him in preacher school. After a few minutes, Mr. Gorbechev said, "You are a very persuasive preacher." When Otis told him he needed to know Jesus to have his sins forgiven, he said, "I believe you are the first and only preacher who told me that I am a sinner." Otis said, "But you must be baptized." Gorbechev said, "I have been baptized." Otis replied, "But baptism is not the sprinkling of a few drops of water on the head." Gorbechev quickly answered, "But I was baptized by being put down into the water. It was a cold winter day when I was baptized in the cold river. My grandfather then wrapped me in a warm sheepskin and carried me away. My grandfather was a strong character, and I admired him very much." Otis then said, "But before a person is baptized, he must believe." Gorbechev hit his fist on the desk and said emphatically, "I have been baptized and I am a Christian." Otis thought it was time to close the discussion of baptism. They had a very cordial visit.” Pruitt, Harvie. “Obituary for Otis Gatewood.” Abilene. Sept. 21, 1999,


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We are looking forward to hosting a Re-Entry in Edmond , OK on Friday and Saturday, December 10-11, 2021.  It will be an intensive two days filled with discussion on subjects such as fitting into the American church and adjusting to American culture. There will be separate classes for children. 

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