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Too Old For Instagram: How to Make a Difference With Missions Later in Life

In this Q&A, adapted and edited from a breakout session at the Virtual Missions Conference, we spoke to two couples who started their second careers as MTW missionaries later in life—after completing full first careers, raising kids, and moving into retirement. Dick and Joanne Brown served in Bogota, Colombia, while Bob and Sharon Drews serve in Tokyo, Japan. In this conversation, we talk about what it’s like to become a missionary later in life: the challenges, the fears, and the incredible kingdom opportunities that await those willing and brave enough to put their life experience to work overseas for the sake of the gospel.

MTW: At a time in life when most folks are looking forward to relaxing in retirement, instead you went overseas to serve as missionaries. What drew you to go into missions later in life?

Dick Brown: We felt the call to missions in the early ‘80s, but it took us a while to get there. For a long time, we served behind the scenes on our church mission committee; we went on short-term trips; we were senders and pray-ers—but the Lord used that time to help prepare us for when we could eventually go. Finally, in 2013 we left to serve in Bogota, Colombia. We went as short-term missionaries, intending to be there for just three years, but ended up staying for seven. We got to serve at the only English-speaking Christian church in the entire country of Colombia. It attracted people from all over the world. I think our membership roll had people from 28 different countries.

Joanne Brown: When we would go on short-term mission trips or talk to missionaries who had been on the field, it was so exciting to see God showing up and doing things. Most of the time we live by faith—we don’t often see God actively doing things for us that we can’t do for ourselves—but on short-term trips God kept showing up. I just wanted more of that. I wanted to see God. 

Bob Drews: We’ve been missions committee members and church members for a long time, so we knew the need for cross-cultural missions. But it wasn’t until we saw a specific need and how we could help with that need we felt compelled to go. Dan Iverson, the MTW Japan country director, specifically asked us to come to Japan and help care for the missionary team, providing the church with the experience of a longtime ruling elder and his wife, and doing administrative and support work. We began to see more and more what ordinary people could do in missions—those who aren’t teaching elders or doctors. After we arrived our role grew until we became the leaders of a new team in Tokyo. 

Sharon Drews: We had been going on short-term trips and came to love the work of MTW in other countries and saw things that we could do that would help. We love doing hospitality. We were trained under Paul David Tripp to take others through “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands” personal workbooks. So sharing hospitality and offering Tripp’s ministry training were two ways that we knew we could serve on the mission field. And God must have been preparing our hearts 30 years earlier when we were stationed at a naval base in Japan—gaining some insights into Japanese culture, growing to love the people and the food … but I’m still not a fan of the earthquakes! 

MTW: I suspect that there are people thinking: “Man, I wish I had the guts to do that.” I bet you all had some hesitations and concerns as you anticipated going to the field. What worried you about going and how did the Lord resolve that? 

Joanne: I think our greatest concern was pressure not to go from family because they wanted us to be involved in the lives of our grandchildren. And that was nice, and we did want to be involved, but this is something that we had been thinking about for a really long time. Unfortunately, we didn’t really prepare our kids for the idea that we might go, and so it came as a total surprise to them, which was wrong on our part. Leaving family, especially grandchildren, was hard. 

We also had some concerns about acquiring language at a later stage in life. I was really fortunate in that I had studied Spanish for four years in high school, and I must have had a really good program because, while I didn’t have a very good vocabulary, I did remember how to conjugate verbs—so that helped. And then Dick had me translate for him. 

Dick: I spoke functional Spanish. I could order in restaurants and get around on daily life, but learning a language is much easier at a younger age, I’ll tell you that. 

Joanne: It was nice that we were serving in an English-speaking environment because we could still minister in a different culture that was mostly Spanish-speaking, but we had people we were ministering to who were English speakers. Even though we weren’t great at the local language, it was amazing how God would provide. We would constantly find ourselves in positions where we needed someone who could understand what we were saying—but whenever we really needed language help, God would always provide someone! 

Bob: So, Sharon has an aversion to earthquakes. Japan is a very safe place, but it does have both earthquakes and hurricanes. But every overseas environment has its particular concerns you could worry about. 

One of my major concerns was support raising. I think that was mostly based on my own pride. I had been working since I was 16 years old, and the idea of other people giving me money so I could go on the mission field was … It just felt wrong. It’s humbling to raise support, and maybe I didn’t want to be humbled.  And it was also scary thinking, "What if we’re turned down?” That would be really humbling. But we also discovered that many people were eager to help, and we’re so thankful. 

The other category for us had to do with aging parents. When we were planning to go, we still had two parents alive who were approaching a time in their life when we knew they’d need care, and Sharon’s mom in particular was having a lot of health concerns. We had made a commitment to her to stay in one place and care for her in her later years. But, as it turned out, a guy Sharon’s mom knew came along and asked to marry her and away she went. That kind of cleared the decks for us. It was a week after that that we received the call to go to Japan. 

Sharon: Because I was pretty fearful of earthquakes, as soon as we arrived in Japan I began praying to God to not allow any strong ones—and then the big earthquake of 2011 hit! Bob can tell you, I have long had a fear of being around the ocean because of tsunamis. So, going to Japan where there are earthquakes and tsunamis was a challenge for me. But when the earthquake came I realized it was not for lack of someone praying for protection against an earthquake that God had allowed this one to happen. It hit me that this great earthquake was part of God’s story: for His glory and our good. And as terrifying as it was—the destruction by intense shaking, the huge tsunami, the scary nuclear radioactive leak—God was at work in his people and through his people. MTW missionaries wanted to stay to help, and it was a surprise to me that I wanted to stay too. God had put that desire in my heart. He used that situation and other situations on the mission field to expose my own worries, fears, and discomforts—some that I knew I had, others I wasn’t aware of. He was revealing His hand at work and making changes in my heart. He taught me that He is worthy of my trust in all things, at all times. 

MTW: We often think of missionaries as pastors, or sometimes doctors and nurses serving as medical missionaries. But none of you are teaching elders or medical professionals. How can older folks’ life experience and skills be uniquely useful in global missions? 

Dick: I am not a pastor—I was in sales and marketing for 30-plus years. Joanne is a schoolteacher. So, if you’re not a pastor, don’t think that you don’t have skills to offer. Life experience can add a lot to a team that’s full of younger people. Hospitality is big. If you can open your home and your hearts and just invite people in, that can be a big ministry right there. That’s exactly what we ended up doing. 

Sharon: I agree with that. It’s interesting—because Bob was in the Navy and he was out to sea so much, I used to have this dream that when we retire, I want him all to myself. We both love to read, so my vision was get a cabin in the mountains surrounded by nature and animals, and sit down and read—have shelves lined with books. But something I read in the Bible helped me to see that God designed us to be in community. That helped me to desire to do hospitality, but I didn’t feel very gifted in it. But when you pray and ask God to help you be able to do what you can’t do, He does it. So now we love hospitality. 

Bob: In most of the world, believe it or not, most people respect older people just because we’re older. So, you have an open doorway. So many people growing up not knowing one or both of their parents—that goes for both young missionaries and for nationals. And so, people with life experience, with long business experience, long church experience, long family experience, or even long single experience as a Christian person an speak into the lives of the young people they meet with a lot of credibility. As Americans we don’t necessarily experience that, but overseas people are almost instantaneously looking to you as a mentor. 

Dick: We found that just being married for as long as we have been was a unique experience for a lot of people. That led to some interesting opportunities for conversations—people wanting to know how we did it and why we did it—because a happily married long-term couple is rare in a lot of cultures, including ours. 

Joanne: We did a lot of work with the university and career singles group, and so many of them had no male figure in their life. The majority of them were being raised by just their mothers. So Dick had a great opportunity to just spend time with guys, take them out for coffee, join them for different things, and he became like a surrogate father or grandfather to them. Just having a male parental figure in their lives was a huge plus, and a lot of the younger missionaries didn’t have time to do that. 

Dick: There is one other big advantage to going to the field later in life—and please don’t take this the wrong way—but when you go as a missionary without taking your own children it gives you a whole lot of flexibility that a lot of the other younger missionaries don’t have. For a lot of missionaries, their first priority is obviously their family. But if you go later in life, as we did, you have more time to just do ministry. You can also help minister to younger missionary families and be kind of surrogate grandparents. There’s an important role to fill just by having life experience. 

Sharon: When we were in Tokyo, I met a group of young Japanese moms who were stressed out over parenting. They said: “It’s hard work!” And I agreed with them. But then they wanted me to help them with parenting. My first reaction was: “Oh my goodness, I can’t remember what I did two weeks ago. How am I going to remember what I did about parenting over 30 years ago?” But I had just read a book called “How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” and I asked them if they would like to go through it with me. As we went through the book I was able to bring in the gospel. It turned out to be a really fun group. They were so willing. None of these women were Christians at the beginning, but some of them ended up becoming Christians over time. One of them is now a Christian and is now leading that same group of women. 

See the full conversation, as well as other Virtual Missions Conference breakout sessions  at mtw.org/vmc

If you'd like to speak to someone about MTW’s global missions opportunities, email [email protected], or browse opportunities at mtw.org/serve.

Staff Mar 23, 2021
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