What picture comes to your mind when I say I’m a missionary in Southeast Asia? Jungle huts surrounded by monkeys? Remote villages nestled among rice terraces?
Perhaps it may surprise you that most missionaries in Southeast Asia are based in cities that don’t look too different than the West. Why is this? A few reasons. First of all, foreigners more easily get permission to live and work in urban areas. Secondly, and perhaps more important for missionaries, living in cities is strategic. They’re often filled with diverse people who are studying English and want to practice with native speakers. They’re also trying to make their way in the world and figure out what their purpose is. These desires and questions open opportunities to share about the gospel and the hope we have in Christ. When someone professes faith in Christ, we pray they will take the gospel back to their families and their villages—even to the ones nestled amongst the rice terraces.
But first, these new believers need to be discipled to maturity.
The culture in Southeast Asia remains largely traditional. Women are expected to get married at the proper time and to do whatever their mothers-in-law wish. This often includes living under her roof. Children should come soon after marriage, even though most women are also expected to work outside the home. The pressures to conform to these norms are high. Even established churches fail to highlight the work of discipling women and helping them to understand the Scriptures for themselves. It’s often assumed they’ll simply follow their husbands. Unfortunately, it’s rare in Southeast Asia for husbands and wives to engage in honest and open communication. So discipleship in the home isn’t common either.
Clearly, women in Southeast Asia face many discipleship obstacles. And yet, we believe the Word of God is sufficient to bring all believers to maturity and we trust that the culture of the Kingdom of God will permeate and renew all earthly cultures.
Let’s talk about a few areas in which the women of Southeast Asia need help. I trust they are not unique in this. Nonetheless, various cultural realities make their road to maturity especially difficult.
1. Biblical Literacy
Women in Southeast Asia need to grow in biblical literacy so they can read and apply the Word to their unique needs and struggles. They need to be able to recognize and counter false teaching, especially the prosperity gospel, which continues to gain popularity around the world. They need to be told that it’s possible to read and understand Scripture for themselves. They need to learn that they don’t have to wait for a pastor or an authority figure to teach them.
We try to introduce women to topics like biblical theology (understanding the whole story of Scripture) and hermeneutics (how to study the Bible). These tools will give women what they need to study and interpret God’s Word well.
Do you want women to move from a diet of milk to a diet of meat? Then take them seriously, and build platforms for them to learn. Seminars, workshops, book clubs, one-on-one discipling—the list goes on and on.
In Asian culture, teachers are highly honored. So it’s unlikely that many people, especially women, will feel empowered to teach others—even informally—until they’ve been specifically mentored, encouraged, and challenged to do so.
But Jesus gave the whole church the Great Commission; Paul calls all Christians ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:17–21). One implication of this is that every woman is called to disciple other women (look also at Titus 2:3–5). I look forward to the day when I’m not needed here as a missionary because there are so many mature local women evangelizing, discipling, and encouraging their peers. Mature Christian women need affirmation and encouragement from other women and their pastors to teach what they’ve learned to others.
Women in Southeast Asia need to understand intellectually and to experience for themselves how the gospel applies to all areas of life: marriage, career, finances, parenting, conflict resolution, singleness, leisure, and all interpersonal relationships—especially with their brothers and sisters in the church. The Christian faith isn’t meant to fit into a “religion” category while all other areas of life remain untouched. When the gospel transforms a family or a church, the watching world should see the power of God at work. The same is true individually. When Christians do their job with excellence and integrity, when Christians love their job without making it an idol, when Christians steward their money well, when Christians forgive and overlook an offense, when Christians have difficult conversations with truth and love—the watching world sees an attractive and inviting glimpse of the power of God amidst the kingdom of God.
Transparent relationships are always hard, perhaps particularly among Southeast Asian cultures. But if the gospel really has transformed a person, then she will gladly pursue such relationships. A Christian never needs to prop up an illusion that she always has it all together. We’re all sinners, and we’re all on a journey toward perfect happiness and holiness.
But until we get there, we need to share our struggles and to encourage others along the way. Unfortunately, in Asian cultures, this type of honesty is often seen as shameful, even in the church. Confession and accountability are rare. But God’s Word must confront and re-shape even a culture’s most long-standing practices. It must shine its light in all dark places.
Finally, like most of us, women in Southeast Asia need to learn to rest. They need to be reminded that their worth comes not from what they do, but because they are a daughter of the King. God loves them because he loves them. We rest in his grace and his finished work on the cross—not in our accomplishments, our self-sufficiency, our marital status, our career, our children’s success, and our bank account balance.
Recently, a new believer pulled me aside and said she had been reading 2 Kings and had some questions. How thrilling! She was digging into the Old Testament in her personal study! Another talented young woman set several Scriptures in both English and the local language to music. She said she didn’t want to change the words because they were so beautiful already. Two more mature local women helped me think through the needs of their peers. One is single and dedicating her life to evangelizing, discipling, and counseling students; the other is a wife and mother who regularly studies the Word other women who want to learn more. What a joy to live in community with these women as we pursue Christ together!
Women in Southeast Asia need mature believers to walk alongside them! Does that sound like an exciting opportunity? Join us in making mature disciples, establishing healthy churches, and training local leaders! Learn more here.