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Preparing to Thrive Among Dust and Thorns

by Will Couloir, DDS, with Elizabeth Couloir
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2016

“Nothing will ever be the same again.”

That was something we heard repeatedly from overseas workers as we prepared to move to North Africa. It’s easier to see the truth in that now, as I sit writing this on a bed covered by a mosquito net and listening to the loudspeaker from my neighborhood mosque, all from within my house surrounded by sand and Muslims. Ten years ago my wife and I were living happily beside a golf course in the United States, with no kids and a pretty comfortable life. Today there are four us, we’re rather uncomfortable, we live every day in three different languages—and we love it. That’s just weird. Nothing will ever be the same again, and that’s not a bad thing.

I’m going to start with something you probably already know—“unreached people” are unreached for a reason. People list all kinds of valid reasons for this being true: difficult-to-access areas, harsh living conditions, resistance to the gospel, religious persecution, the need to learn a new language(s) and culture in order to effectively communicate the gospel, etc. In extremely simple human language, it’s hard to get there, harder to stay there and even harder to see any fruit. But, as I said, that’s simple human language. The reality is God is moving powerfully in the darkest places of the world in our generation, and we as healthcare professionals are strategically gifted with the tools to access areas closed to traditional mission endeavors. The problem is that if you truly want to effectively “reach the unreached,” then your life is going to have to radically change, and if you don’t start preparing now, then you’re probably going to fail.

Elizabeth and I got married after our junior year in college. We had dated for some time, and both of us shared a deep (and mostly theoretical) passion for seeing the kingdom of God advance among what are commonly referred to as “unreached peoples.” Like most kids in their early 20s, we also had no real idea what that meant or what we were supposed to do next. I  was pre-med in college and decided to become a dentist. Honestly, that was the extent of my planned preparation. Fortunately, it wasn’t even the beginning of how God was planning to prepare us for cross-cultural ministry in hard places.

We want to be straight up honest with you from the start; we’re still new to this thing. After about seven years of preparation and planning, we finally left the states about two years ago. Since then we’ve had a baby, lived on two different continents, studied two new languages and had a lot of “learning experiences.” With that in mind, here’s what we would say to anyone even thinking about preparing to go to hard places for the glory of God.

Effective cross-cultural ministry doesn’t happen overnight, so get started.

The best way to prepare to effectively minister crossculturally overseas is…wait for it….to begin ministering cross-culturally NOW, wherever you are. Brilliant, I know, but much easier said than done. Here’s the simple truth, if we don’t consistently step outside our comfort zone today in our own country, then there is no reason to expect we will suddenly be able to effectively do it tomorrow when we arrive in another country. God intends for you to take risks with your life. As a dental student, I assumed I would simply concentrate on school for four years and worry later about preparing to go overseas. I found this assumption powerfully challenged by men and women who recognized that “later” often never comes, and if it does, it is overpowered and entrenched by a mortgage and the American dream. On the other hand, God is always ready to transform us now, wherever we are.

For us, that meant moving from our comfortable suburban apartment in Memphis, Tennessee to an inner city neighborhood where we were suddenly the minority. That was rather uncomfortable at first. Elizabeth had never been mistaken for a prostitute before, and a bounty hunter had never shown up at our door before with a gun. We moved in with a lot of trepidation and little cultural understanding. It didn’t take long to figure out though that our neighbors weren’t that different from us. We wanted similar things—purpose, significance, joy, health for their families, stability. The problem was that we often came from very different  backgrounds and didn’t share a lot of common experiences.

This was my first really consistent exposure to stepping out of a place where my white, upper-middle class culture wasn’t  dominant. I realized slowly that communicating on a deep level about significant things wasn’t really possible without first seeking to understand and empathize with the plight of my neighbor. This wasn’t simply showing up for a few hours to work in a bad part of town before heading home and feeling good about myself. Rather, it was a process of failing and trying again to open myself up and be vulnerable and love my neighbor as myself. It was invaluable to what we’re doing now, and it taught us we need to regularly take risks to make disciples and advance the kingdom of God. Maybe moving into the projects isn’t what God has for you, but maybe finding the nearest Syrian refugee and loving him like a brother is His plan for you.

Learn to feed yourself.

As we prayed about where God wanted us to go, we had the opportunity to spend time with missionaries in restricted countries in Central Asia and North Africa. There were no traditional church buildings; even if it had been possible to build one, it would have been counterproductive to identify yourself as such an easy target. We watched as small groups of believers gathered together in their houses to pray, worship and teach each other from the Word. Some of these people had been working for years in isolated areas under great spiritual oppression. These weren’t seminary trained pastors, they were healthcare professionals, engineers and various laypeople who loved Jesus like crazy and were wasting their lives on Him.

As we talked to these people, one of our questions was, “Where do you go for encouragement and to be fed?” The response was simple—learn to feed yourself or you won’t survive. It was a radically simple approach that seemed to take Jesus at His word when He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV 2011). If we go filled with the Holy Spirit and take the Word of God, then God can use us. However, missionaries do burn out, especially really bright, gifted, talented ones (like healthcare professionals) who think they can operate under their own strength and forget who is truly doing the work. If you want to last in difficult places, build STRONG spiritual disciplines in your life now that will sustain you in the valleys and hardships that are coming. It’s too late to do it when trouble comes. You’ve got to start today.

If you intend to be part of planting churches in hard places, then you should strongly consider being part of a church community that models a similar type of discipleship and worship. (As a corollary, if your overseas medical plans don’t include disciple making, then your dream is probably too small.) In most difficult service areas, these are small, intimate house church-type gatherings. If you can’t find such a group, start one. In the healthcare world, it would be impossible to become a licensed physician without demonstrating adequate competence in your specialty. Surprisingly, few seem to apply this type of thinking to church planting and disciple making. Why would you expect to be successful in a foreign culture and language at doing something you’ve never practiced in your own country and language? We reproduce what we are, not what we aspire to be later. So, step beyond what is comfortable and begin to learn how to produce in your home country what you hope to replicate in another culture.

Develop a theology of suffering and deepen your affections for Christ.

Before you go overseas, sit down with your family and ask yourselves some hard questions. What’s our ultimate goal in this, and how far are we willing to go to pursue it? It’s a question Elizabeth and I wrestled with as we tried to figure out how deeply we truly treasured Jesus. If it was God’s will, would we be willing to serve in a hard place that put our kids’ lives in danger? What if one of them died? Would our love for God sustain us, or would such loss crush us? What if we labored for years like Isaiah and no one listened to us and we died and were buried in unmarked graves? Are we doing this because we treasure Christ above all things and want to see Him made much of, or are we seeking our own glory? These aren’t easy questions, and being human means it’s hard to predict what our response would be in real life. But we can root ourselves in Scripture, study and wrestle and memorize, as we develop a theology of suffering. Prepare by deepening your affection for Christ and go because of an overflowing love for Him, not to be a hero.

We, of course, gave ourselves too much credit…then the theoretical became real. I remember sitting next to my daughter during a few terrifying minutes where she struggled for breath but her lungs were too filled with fluid from pneumonia to find it. As I rushed her to the hospital, I prayed desperately for healing, and I found myself questioning the same God who I felt ready to die for a few weeks before. I felt anger, even betrayal. Then a strange thing happened. I was given this incredible supernatural peace. He brought to my mind His promises in Scripture and reminded me of His sufficiency in hardship. Later, we rejoiced when our daughter recovered, but we were grateful for the experience because it was as if God was teaching us that He would be enough regardless of the circumstance, that truly nothing could compare to the surpassing greatness of knowing and communing with the Maker of the Galaxies.

We have a sovereign King who delights in using broken and weak people to be a part of incredible things. We hope you (and we) are weak and He is strong, otherwise it’s probably going to go poorly. We’ve been given incredible gifts as healthcare professionals, and just as in the Parable of the Talents, our Master will return and demand an accounting of what we’ve done with them to expand His kingdom. Today there are millions and millions of people who will die and spend eternity apart from God if no one tells them who He is. We have resources, opportunity and the gospel as our possessions, and we have the Spirit of God within us as our inheritance. The only question is what we will choose to do with the days we have left. We’re hoping you will pray desperately, go boldly and serve selflessly. If you do, you will look back at your life in years to come with joy and wonder. We hope we will be there with you. And if you do go, we can promise you,

“Nothing will ever be the same again.”


Will Couloir, DDS, and his wife Elizabeth live and work in North Africa with their two kids. Their team is working to develop and implement health strategies that facilitate the sharing of the gospel and making disciples among unreached people groups.