There’s still a place for Aussies in a world that still needs missionaries

New head of missionary college wants to send out a new generation

During their first year as missionaries in Southeast Asia, Derek and Anna Brotherson suffered from so much culture shock that they both fantasised about getting so sick they would need to go home to Australia.

They felt as if they had returned to stumbling around like toddlers.

“The first time I tried to explain the gospel I didn’t even have the word for forgive and it just fell in a heap,” explains Derek Brotherson. “The first time Anna tried to tell the gospel she said that Jesus came to boil people, rather than redeem people! The word for boil and the word for redeem are one letter different!”

Over the ensuing years Derek and Anna, along with their three children, had to cope with challenges of all kinds – including hair-raising medical emergencies, demon-possessed Christians and a pastor who also was the local witch doctor.

Now, after ten years on the mission field, teaching and training the Christian minority to be pastors and missionaries, they’re packing up their lives to come back to Sydney, and realising how much they are going to miss.

“Saying goodbye to people and sorting through all the materials I’ve used, just to see how much of our life we’ve poured into this place – it is very hard,” says Brotherson, who has been appointed the new principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC), starting in July 2020. SMBC is a independent college that describes its purpose as “training men and women for gospel ministry in Australia and overseas in a missionary context.”

The Brothersons had no fixed plans to return to Australia but prayerfully considered the role. “We started the application process thinking, ‘Well, let’s just see where this goes and what we think God is saying’ – because we weren’t sure.”

“The chance now to be a part of that ministry again, shaping future generations, is just very exciting.”

During the interview process, Brotherson had a strong sense that God was opening doors for him and that “the kind of person SMBC wanted fitted our history and background and passion more closely than we might have expected; and so that gave us the conviction that it’s a good direction to take.”

Speaking to Eternity via Skype from his base in Asia, Brotherson says he is excited about the opportunity to equip the next generation to bring “the unchanging word into a changing world.”

“Anna and I both did the MDiv [Master of Divinity] at SMBC, and those three years profoundly changed our lives in terms of deepening our understanding of the gospel and how to communicate it,” he says. “In the ten years since, I’ve looked back on those years as the years that shaped us; so the chance now to be a part of that ministry again, shaping future generations, is just very exciting.”

He points out that the global mission scene – and its global mission force – is changing rapidly as the centre of gravity of Christianity moves from Western countries to the Global South.

When Anna and Derek attended their in-country language school which had been founded by missionaries, its students were 40 per cent Texan, 40 per cent Korean and 20 per cent the rest of the world.

“They’ve said things like ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, because if people believe it, they’ll have so much trouble.'”

“But now in our expat connections with other missionaries, the direction things are taking is that sending countries like Australia will be more a minority; but I feel we have something really unique to contribute. We’re not the be all and end all, but we do bring some unique contributions. I think it’s very important for students at colleges like SMBC to see what particular contribution they can make; and then wait and see what God does with that!”

Brotherson believes missionaries such as those trained by SMBC bring the importance and centrality of the Bible as the way God speaks to people and as Principal will keep that at the forefront.

“A lot of missionaries from other countries  don’t come from learning biblical theology so I’ve found one of my big roles here has been working with other missionaries, but also local Christians, to keep putting that forward as the way God is at work.”

“Some of my students have said to me – these are students who already believe the gospel, and I’m sending them out to do an assignment to share it – they’ve said things like ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, because if people believe it, they’ll have so much trouble. They’ll be persecuted. Their family will reject them.’ “

“It’s exciting for them .. to learn what it means to believe in the power of the gospel and to learn what it means to fear God above man.”

That’s when Brotherson takes them to the parable in Matthew 13 where the kingdom of God is likened to a treasure in a field and a pearl of great value.

“And we’ve read that parable together and said, ‘Yes, they could have all these terrible things happen if they believe what you tell them, but we need to remember that the kingdom of God is so valuable that it’s above all of those things.’

“When they first share the gospel, they come back glowing and saying, ‘Oh that was so exciting; I finally got to talk about what I believe. And they didn’t punch me in the face like I expected and they were really friendly and we swapped phone numbers and we’re going to meet again!’ “

“It’s exciting for them – and it’s exciting for me as their trainer, who is bringing the gospel to them – to learn what it means to believe in the power of the gospel and to learn what it means to fear God above man … their faith and courage have grown though that.”

Another favourite scripture is one that has helped local Christians to understand grace – the words the thief on the cross spoke to Jesus:  “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Earlier in his years teaching in the Bible college, Brotherson’s students came to him after class and revealed the disjunction they felt between what he was saying and what they believed.

“So in response to that, along with some other people at the college I developed an evangelistic retreat for first year students. It’s because they come from some churches where the gospel just isn’t understood, and is very syncretistic with witchcraft and traditional animistic beliefs. “

“It’s quite common to go to the witch doctor as well as church, and regard that as part of your life. I asked a student once, ‘What does your pastor say about all this witchcraft?’ and the student said ‘oh, my pastor is also the local witch doctor!’”

Brotherson said he is constantly learning about the different responses people have to the same passages of Scripture which affect people so differently in Australia.

“As you go through the gospels, with the material on demon possession and exorcisms, there was a tendency for me to kind of embarrassedly skip over in Australia; but here it just grabs attention, and people want to know more … Or if you read Genesis 1, where God created everything and is over all – is quite different from the animistic worldview where there is a whole series of gods. The reason a person would keep going to the witch doctors is that they think witch doctors have dominion over illness. I might know that God has dominion over eternal salvation, and I’ll trust him for that; but if I’m sick today I’ll go to the witch doctor…”

“This fear and belief in spirits is still very present.”

Demon possession is surprisingly common here among Bible college students, he says.

“Over the years there have been a number of such cases. In fact, sadly, we had a girl die a few weeks ago; she was in first year, so very new to college, and a lot of her fellow first years in the dorm will no longer sleep on beds. They all want to sleep on the floor because they’re afraid of this girl’s ghost coming and knocking them out of bed. This fear and belief in spirits is still very present.”

Brotherson says he simply tries to help the students to deeply understand the full biblical worldview. “And that is to start believing that God is above all, and all power is in Jesus. So to read with them stories of demons being exorcised, and stories that show God’s in control above Baal in the Old Testament, or whatever it is, brings a change to their whole worldview. But if an actual incident of demon possession occurs, they report that their worldview wavers; so what they really need in that period is to grow strong in their faith.”

As the Brothersons get ready to fly back to Australia, they are aware that it’s not a matter of coming home for their children, aged 10, seven and four.

“Our firstborn was 10 months old when we arrived, our second was born here on the field, and our third was born during our first home assignment. It’s very different for them compared to us. For us, returning home is coming back; for them, it’s moving to Australia for the first time,” he explains.

“They’re going to miss their little school environment. When my son had his birthday party recently there were seven guests, and they were all from seven different countries. That’s a special little community, where the cultures mix in a beautiful way; so they’ll definitely miss that.”

“What should be our new mindset as a minority that’s seeking to be missional?’

Asked about his new role, and what he hopes to do Brotherson said “I think SMBC has an amazing group of staff – many of them experts in their fields – so I see my role as principal is really to equip and empower them each to use their expertise, and to speak into that question: how SMBC can best be equipping people for overseas and local cross-cultural mission in a world which is changing rapidly.

“I’ll be pushing those experts I have in the college to ask those questions: what are the changes in society? What are barriers to the gospel? What are the new opportunities, and how do we need to train people to most effectively engage with that? Christians are no longer a majority in Australia; what should be our new mindset as a minority that’s seeking to be missional, and what might the best methods to achieve that? That’s the big picture I’m dreaming of.”

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