Verne Ward grew up in the Church of the Nazarene but had little idea he was going to be a missionary. Questions about eternity and what really mattered got him to ponder his life’s mission. After college, Verne started to disciple young people. Later, he met a missionary kid and got to know his family. Discipling this young man started Verne’s fascination with missions.
In 1983, Verne and his wife, Natalie, began their ministry as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Over the years, Verne graduated to broader assignments, which eventually led to his election as the Asia-Pacific Regional Director in 2005. In 2012, he was elected the director of Nazarene Global Mission. In this role, Verne seeks to assist the church in accomplishing the mission of God across the world, especially where the church does not yet have a presence. Ward sees missions as an expression of the incarnation of Jesus. He says, “God came to live amongst us, and modeled how we are to relate to other cultures and peoples. When we live in another culture, we learn what other people value and understand who they are. This enables us to become trusted friends who can share the transforming message of Jesus.”
Since the 1997 decision of the Board of General Superintendents to declare the United States and Canada a mission field, pastors and church leaders are asking what it means to view ministry with missionary eyes. With this in mind, Grace and Peace Magazine met with Verne Ward to ask him for insights on how pastors can also be missionaries and about some of the recent developments that have taken place in global mission.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.
G&P: IN 1906, NAZARENE CO-FOUNDER PHINEAS BRESEE CLARIFIED THE VISION FOR EARLY NAZARENES WHEN HE SAID, “OUR CHURCH IS PREEMINENTLY A MISSIONARY CHURCH. IT KNOWS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOME AND FOREIGN FIELDS—IN THESE DAYS ALL FIELDS ARE NEAR.” IS BRESEE’S CONVICTION EVEN TRUER NOW THAN IN HIS DAY?
WARD: Yes. I think there has been an awakening around the world that missions is everyone’s responsibility. When I talk about missions, I’m talking about that cross-cultural sending out, going into, being incarnate among people not like us. As opposed to earlier in our denomination’s history, forty percent of our General Board missionaries are non-U.S. missionaries. It’s really exciting to see what God’s doing to bring people into missions from many cultures across the globe. It’s not restricted to any place in particular, and as that happens, I see us having to change a great deal to facilitate it. There are pastors all around the world—certainly in the United States— who are feeling God move, and they’re saying, “Our church is going to take responsibility for this part of the world.” It’s a different kind of mission than we’ve known before, and we’ve got to learn how to facilitate that as a global church so it can be done effectively and with the greatest result possible.
G&P: WE SOMETIMES ASSOCIATE THE WORD CHURCH WITH A BUILDING. WHAT DOES THE WORD CHURCH MEAN IN A MISSIONARY CONTEXT WHEN, OFTEN, THERE IS NO BUILDING?
WARD: Some of the most vibrant churches I know are twentyfive people in the living room of a high-rise apartment who are there every Sunday to worship together and study the Word. Some of these groups do not even have any formal preaching. Someone leads the study of the Word that day, and everybody studies along; there’s singing and prayer; there is often eating together, hours spent together. That’s a church. That’s the body of Christ coming together to worship God. Any time people get together regularly for nurture, fellowship, accountability, and worship, that’s the church.
G&P: WHAT CAN PASTORS LEARN FROM MISSIONARIES ABOUT BRINGING THE GOSPEL TO THOSE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH’S BOUNDARIES?
WARD: One of the ways to think about mission is: How do we get involved where people are? How do we relate to them? Are we enough like them that they’re comfortable being invited to be a part of us? Or do we need to go to them, do we need to become a part of them? We’ve got to think in terms of how we can connect. Many of us would be surprised to see the different kinds of groups around us. In cities all around the world, people work together, go to school together, and hang-out together, which provides huge opportunities to share the message of Christ. Many of these people won’t come into a church, so we’ve got to go to them.
Our missionaries teach us that we cannot let anything be a barrier. We erect barriers to the gospel by requiring certain things in order to have a church, to be able to reach people. Are these things essential? If they’re not, we have to let those barriers go, whatever they are. We’ve got to let God do what God does, and then we have to do our best to help build the church from there.
G&P: What does it mean for the church to be indigenous? Should the church reflect the culture in which it is planted?
WARD: Culture is how we see things; how we understand the world around us. So, it’s absolutely critical that our worship is authentically us worshiping God. People need a worship that is them, that they are comfortable in. Some people are better than others at crossing over to another culture and seeing the differences yet embracing and enjoying them. Most people, however, want worship to be dependable and in their own cultural context; in essence, that’s how we see the world and feels right to us. What kind of people do we gather with for worship and discipleship? Most of us want to gather with someone who understands us.
That’s why I like to talk about the missional church transforming society. We do mission when we cross cultural lines and become like someone not like us; we learn to understand them.
The missional church transforms the community where it is. We plant a church because it will be part of the fabric of that community, and lives will be transformed; when lives are transformed, the community is transformed, and whole societies are impacted by the missional church. When a church is planted, the people in that community are alike; they share a common language, a common understanding, and common values. When others join who are different, it becomes necessary to cross the barriers to reach them. That’s what I call mission. Mission requires incarnation. God comes and lives among us. That’s what happens in incarnation. I go to live among people who are not like me, and I value and learn from them. I learn their values, and I understand who they are and what they believe. I become a trusted friend. When I share Jesus with them and what he’s done in my life and his dream for them, then I’m a trusted friend who is sharing the gospel. The Holy Spirit has a chance to work in their lives and confirm what’s being said in their own hearts and lives.
We’re all called to God’s mission, to be transforming agents in our communities. However, some are called to cross-cultural mission, to go to people who are not like them, to become like them in their communities. They learn what those people value and become part of them. If our churches are going to reach others, we have to find those who are ready for cross-cultural ministry and support them. That ministry might be in our own towns, it might be in our own suburbs, but mission is everywhere. It is local and global.
G&P: HOW DO YOU PREPARE PEOPLE TO GO OUT AND SHARE THE GOSPEL? HOW DOES A MISSIONARY—HERE AT HOME OR OVERSEAS—CROSS A CULTURAL DIVIDE?
WARD: On the Asia-Pacific Region, we have courses to help people learn about evangelism, how to approach people, how to spend time in prayer asking God to prepare the way. We believe that prevenient grace goes before us. That means we never talk to a person whom the Holy Spirit hasn’t talked to already. We spend about two or three days equipping them for service, another half a day in prayer; then they have one or two hours to go out and have an intentional spiritual conversation with someone. That scares most of us to death, but the coursework prepares them to do this. Often, they are absolutely shocked by the conversations they have with people—all of a sudden, someone opens up the conversation just as they’re trying to figure out how to open it themselves! That’s just expecting God to do something beautiful without being pushy. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but it’s amazing how many times it does, with prayer and expectation, eyes open, ears open, listening to other people, letting them come in to your life, letting the Spirit woo them in.
Some people we meet really are pre-Christian. They do not have a Christian background. I don’t wait for them to come in. I meet them where they are. What coffee shop are they at? How do I get to them where they are, to be there with them and share the stories of God, connect with their lives? That is a missionary mindset.
As a missionary, you evaluate new communities. You ask people, “Tell me about your community”; they’ll tell you what you don’t know about them, what you can’t learn by merely observing. That’s probably the most common practice a missionary uses in connecting with people.
Missionaries go to great lengths to understand others—their values, how they express themselves—so that when they do speak, they speak the other person’s language, they speak to the other person’s need. We have a natural inclination to want to speak from our own context, and we think that’s going to communicate to others, but that’s never been the way it works. That wasn’t the way Jesus or Paul did it. They came to people, they asked questions about their lives, they sought to understand their situations. We can learn a lot if we ask for Jesus’s perception, for the sensitivity of the Holy Spirit. As a missionary, you just count on that. Being in a culture that’s different from your own causes you to depend on the Holy Spirit a little more than on your own talent and skill.
G&P: WHAT SORT OF WORK ARE NAZARENE MISSIONARIES DOING TODAY?
WARD: That is a difficult question to answer because missionaries in the Church of the Nazarene do so many different types of tasks. Some missionaries are out there in coffee shops every day, and they’re making friends and sharing the gospel. Some are going into remote communities and spending time with people and sharing the gospel there. Others are facilitating the process. In other words, they’re part of the structure that helps equip the missionaries. Most of our missionaries, more than half of them, are in some kind of educational role, equipping leaders and pastors. Then you have the administrators who support the work.
In the world today, there are a lot of places where we have missionaries that we can’t publicize. These areas are too dangerous for us to advertise our presence there. Yet, our young people are being called to these places; since they’re not hearing what we are doing there, they often don’t know that we’re there. I would encourage anyone to contact us about what God is saying to you about mission. We want to help send people into the field.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES TO YOUR ASSIGNMENT AND THE SUPPORT OF GLOBAL MISSION?
WARD: It is not intuitive to understand how to send missionaries, support them, and help them become incarnate in the communities where they go. One of the issues missionaries have is developing relationships where they are and, because of time constraints, putting less time into some of those relationships they have back home. That’s a critical element— giving time to the people you’ve come to be with. For those of us back here supporting these missionaries, we need to know how to let people go, to give them the time they need to develop those relationships in their new communities.
Missions is sacrificial; our churches don’t give funding for global mission out of their abundance. People don’t pray out of all the extra time they have to pray. This is sacrificial effort to see God move in places that are beyond us, and I certainly recognize that sacrifice. We have churches all around the world sacrificially giving in order for missions to take place. They’re giving time and prayer and intercession; they’re giving time to learn and understand what’s going on in mission today; they’re giving of their resources as God asks them. That’s sacrificial and holy. I’m responsible for spending a lot of money every day, and sacrificial giving enables that. I want our pastors to know I recognize that. It really is sacrificial. I’m here as their agent of mission; together, we’ll accomplish what God is asking of us.
G&P: DO YOU HAVE ANY MISSIONARY HEROES?
WARD: Philip Alanjin is one of my heroes. He’s a Papua New Guinean mountain man. He went to the tribes around him—enemy tribes, as it were—and presented the gospel. He shared with the people, becoming part of their community. He would plant a church and then go to another place. Sometimes, that was very rough. He was beaten many times and thrown out many times. Part of the reason he’s a hero to me is not just because he could absorb that kind of punishment but because of the way he loved God. He never learned to read, though he tried, but he remembered the stories of the Bible and the stories of God, and because he knew Jesus, he knew how to tell those stories; he knew how to tell what Jesus was like, how to talk about the transforming grace of God to sanctify people and change them wholly.
This interview has accompanying videos. Please CLICK HERE to view the videos.