First Contact Sidelined


I'm a researcher. When I have questions, I ask around. I Google. I read reviews (lots of reviews), and when possible, I experience for myself. Acquiring knowledge gives me a rush, and sharing newfound knowledge with others is just as satisfying. That’s just how I’m wired. Lately however, God’s been stretching me quite a bit in this area, forcing me to take a backseat on my road into the unknown.

I just moved my family across the world to Papua New Guinea to serve with New Tribes Mission. We plan to move into a remote and unreached tribal group, learn their unique language and culture, develop an indigenous alphabet and literacy program, translate the Bible into the tribal language, and teach through God’s story foundationally – all with the express goal of establishing a mature body of indigenous believers.

Our church-planting team is made up of two other families (Sanders & Hambrice) that we love like family. They arrived in Papua New Guinea six months before us, and did all the research for us! They passed pertinent info on to me, while we were back in the States, and there was no way for me to actually experience life in Papua New Guinea! I had to depend on my team for information on things ranging from what people groups were on the table for us to work with to advice like, “Don’t raise your eyebrows at a woman!” The separation wasn’t fun, but my team absolutely killed at communication!  (Thank you, FaceTime Audio!).

Our whole team is together now, here in Papua New Guinea, but my family and I are in the middle of learning the country’s trade language. Our team is still making plans to move forward, while we feel a few steps behind, and I constantly have to ask myself, “What course of action is going to have the most long-term benefit for our church-plant?” In asking myself this, I’ve learned (rather,  re-learned) that God’s timing is always best, and that His plans will always work out better than mine! Also, my gut reaction is frequently wrong.

Case in Point

Our team has decided to pursue work among the Wantakia people group, who live in the country’s central mountain range. There hasn’t been any missionary presence in this particular group for more than 18 years, and the gospel has never been proclaimed in the heart language of the Wantakia. The next step on the journey to a mature church in Wantakia is to execute a People Group Assessment (PGA) Survey, and decide which village will be most strategic to move into.

We will be hiking to every village, recording population information, assessing linguistic ‘purity’ (are they speaking dialects or are other languages present?), and language vitality (are the children learning and speaking the vernacular? The trade language?). We’ll also assess inter-village social and leadership dynamics to accurately gauge the people-group’s receptiveness to new missionaries coming to do this work. All this information will help us make a more informed decision, before we move in and build bush houses.

I’d love to go with my coworkers on this initial PGA survey of Wantakia… This is first contact for our team! My flesh screams, “Jack, you have to go on this survey, no matter what!” In reality, however, I’m still only learning the trade language, and my coworkers are linguistically competent enough to do this PGA tomorrow. I just wouldn’t be capable enough to communicate. To force my way onto the survey team would mean asking my team to wait a few months while I finish language study.

After some prayer, and conversation with some people wiser than myself, I had to admit that the best option for our team and the future Wantakia Church was to encourage Jeremy and BJ to go on this initial survey trip soon, and without me. So BJ and Jeremy are going to fly into Wantakia this week! Please pray for their trip!

After this initial trip, our team will wade through a ton of data and plan for a second shorter follow-up survey on which we’ll hopefully determine a village for allocation. Hopefully by Survey 2, my grasp of the trade language will make me an asset to the team.

Making the decision not to go on this trip meant giving up my own half-baked, romantic ideas of tribal ‘first-contact,’ and trusting my teammates to do the job without me. But I’m planning to work in the jungle with these men for the next decade or two, so If I can’t trust their judgment now, what does that say about our team?

So, I’m continuing to learn to think with a team perspective. We’re all a part of the Body of Christ, so shouldn’t we be thinking with a team perspective most of the time anyway? I’ve come to appreciate the rare blessing of great teammates who maintain quality communication. In continually keeping those channels open and honest, they too put the team first. I’m so blessed to have awesome teammates, and a God who is faithful to supply wisdom, leadership, and such gentle guidance for his children.