Lighting the way
Church of God missionaries help spread God’s word to other cultures
By MELANIE D. HAYES
To spread the word of God is one thing. It’s a whole different realm to do it in a different country, culture and language.
Missionaries can be teachers, church planters, leadership developers, youth pastors, nurses, veterinarians, librarians, radio hosts and provide almost any service as long as it is in the name of Jesus Christ.
Bob Edwards, Global Missions Coordinator for the Church of God Ministries, was a missionary for 32 years.
He first got into missionary work after he met his wife-to-be Janet while they were students at Anderson University. Janet had been wanting to become a missionary after meeting several at her church, Park Place Church of God, and convinced Bob to do it with her.
“I just loved her and she said ‘We’re going to go to Africa,’” Bob Edwards said, chuckling. “I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”
In 1967 the couple did a short-term special assignment as teachers in Kenya.
“I felt a calling there to do this as a lifetime career,” Edwards said. “I was really drawn, and still am today, to the cross culturalness of living in a different country. I felt a longing in my heart to do that.”
IN THE BEGINNING
For more than 100 years, the Church of God has been sending missionaries across the U.S. and past its borders and across oceans to either help start new churches or to provide spiritual and leadership support.
“Immediately following its inception in 1881, the Church of God reformation movement road on the wave of a flying ministry,” according to the book “Passport for a Reformation.” “Groups of itinerant evangelists crisscrossed the Midwest of America by horseback, buggy, and train.
“These pioneer evangelists stopped wherever opportunity made it possible, preaching, singing and distributing literature,” it reads. “They called people out of the current confusion of denominationalism into the light of the New Testament church.”
These energetic evangelists went where the Holy Spirit led them. Once a few believers were established in one place, they would move on to another, without much organization.
Within the next few years, the missions and interest in the Church of God spread past U.S. borders.
By 1882 the Gospel Trumpet was being read in Canada. In the 1890s the Gospel Trumpet was sent to Europe — specifically England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and translated for Germany.
“By 1906 over thirty thousand dollars worth of literature had been sent into other countries of the world by the Gospel Trumpet Company,” the book stated.
Some of the first international missionaries took it upon themselves to travel to Germany, India, Mexico and Scandinavia to preach the word of God and teach the beliefs of the Church of God.
“People have been going since the late 1880s. People were going on their own,” said Stephen R. Lewis, writer and editor for the Church of God Ministries. “In 1909 they came to the conclusion that some organization was needed to offer support to activity overseas.”
In 1909 the Missionary Board was formed, making it the second Church of God agency to organize on a national level. The Gospel Trumpet Company was the first in 1904.
The first meeting of the Missionary Board — now known as Global Missions — was held on June 8, 1910, in the Gospel Trumpet Home in Anderson. During that first annual meeting, 27 missionaries were recognized. Two years later the number jumped to 65.
“In simplest terms, a missionary is a person called by God and sent by God’s Church to proclaim the gospel to people of another culture,” said the book Passport for a Reformation. “A missionary is one who assist those who have accepted Jesus Christ in other nations to fellowship one another in congregations.”
The Church of God is now present in 89 countries and territories, with 7,137 churches and 786,384 believers. About 4,861 churches and 536,332 believers are located overseas.
The Global Missions has grown to currently have 57 missionary families that include 98 missionaries. Four are in the Missionary Apprentice Program, 32 are special assignment missionaries and 62 and career missionaries. Africa and Latin America host the most career missionaries.
INTO AFRICA AND BEYOND
In 1972 the Edwards moved to Tanzania where he became the principal at a Swahili Bible School. Through his years submersed in African cultures, Edwards became fluent in Swahili.
Ten years later they moved to Nairobi, Kenya, and worked in urban ministries by traveling to 52 urban churches. One of the largest international Church of God growths is in Kenya with 600 congregations and 77,000 members.
“Most of the churches in Kenyan cities were unorganized,” Edwards said. “I went to help. That was great, a wonderful ministry.”
International Churches of God are self-sustaining and independent from the American church, Lewis explained. When a church needs help, it will contact the Church of God Ministries who will send missionaries to assist them.
“Each country has their own assembly that is autonomous from here,” Edwards said. “Our connection is loose, but is strong in that we share fellowship.”
Edwards and his wife remained in Nairobi as missionaries from 1982 to 1989 and then became the regional coordinators for Africa. For nine years the couple acted as the liaison between African congregations of Church of God and American ones.
The couple were then asked to be the regional coordinators for Europe and the Middle East between 1998 and 2002.
“That was the last one. That was like dessert,” Edwards said, chuckling. “We lived in Germany, the Black Forest, and it was very nice.”
HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA
In 2002, the Edwards moved back to Anderson, where Bob took his current position overseeing missionary work. Although he enjoys coordinating missions trips, he misses living among foreign cultures and yearns for it.
“Even now when I visit a place like Bangkok, I go out into the streets and feel good,” Edwards said. “Even if it’s only the first or second time there, I feel like this is where I should be. It’s like people in swimming clubs — they jump into the water and it just feels right.”
“What you are getting at is that all people are one people, not really split?” asked Lewis — of the Church of God Ministries — who grew up in Africa with missionary parents.
Edwards nodded. “We are all different yet we are still related — all of one.
“Exposure is one of the greatest things,” Lewis said. “You see the need, the warmth of people and feel connected.”
“Especially when you get out of church politics, and get into their homes, their humble dwellings, eat the food they give you,” Edwards said. “You learn Swahili, share intimate conversations in their language. Those are precious moments. They bare their soul to you and you bare your soul to them. On a spiritual and personal level, it keeps you going.”
One of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences for Edwards was when he spent a week teaching and preaching in the town of Omsk, Russia, where atheism was prevalent.
“In their testimonies I remember time after time when they thought of the first possibility of God,” Edwards said. “They were moving from atheism to believing there is a God, to believing there is a Jesus that is personal to you. It was so spiritually satisfying seeing how their lives changed.”
Edwards believes that missionaries offer the most support through the relationships they make.
“That would have to be the greatest way — friendships and through leadership development,” Edwards said. “We help young leaders be equipped to lead churches.”
As a MK, or missionaries kid, Lewis has seen how American missionaries don’t go to other countries to try to take over and do it their way.
“They ask how can we best help people who are already here,” Lewis said. “They are not going to tell you what to do. They go in to walk alongside of you in a partnership.”
CONNECTING THERE TO HERE
During the Church of God North American convention every year, there are several Global Missions events to either recognize missionaries or recruit new ones.
One of the more special times for missionaries during the convention is the candle light service during the closing ceremony. During that time the commissioning of the missionaries takes place. This year it will be on June 28.
“It is a long-standing tradition where the entire body of Church of God new service missionaries are introduced,” said Joyce Hazen, recruitment and member care administrator. “Some leave shortly after. The commissioning of the missionaries is a similar kind of recognition as when ministers are ordained.”
Each person lights a candle and the light spreads from person to person throughout the room. The ceremony was always held inside the Warner Auditorium, but last year they had to move it to the Wellness Center, where for safety reasons, candles were replaced with glow sticks.
“They are taking the light to the world,” Hazen, who was a missionary in Moscow for six years, explained about the event. “They are spreading the light.”
1881: Church of God inception
1882: Gospel Trumpet being read in Canada
1890s: Gospel Trumpet sent to Europe and translated to German. Church of God members had already been taking missionary trips on their own around the world to spread their beliefs.
1909: The Missionary Board was formed to help organize missionary trips and offer support to missionaries. It was the second Church of God agency to organize on a national level following the Gospel Trumpet Company in 1904.
1910: First meeting of the Missionary Board — now known as Global Missions — was held in the Gospel Trumpet Home in Anderson. During that first annual meeting, 27 missionaries were recognized.
1912: The number of missionaries recognized at the Missionary Board meeting jumped to 65.
1923: The Missionary Board produced the first Missionary Manual presenting rules and regulations for missionaries.
Upcoming in the series
April 23 — Women have always been equal partners in ministry from the very beginning of the Church of God.
May 7 — Diversity of the Church of God
Racial and ethnic diversity have been an important part of the historical mission and growth for the Church of God.
Lighting the way
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