The first time I “met” Lauren & Jonathan was on a video screen last fall when our church (Austin Stone) shared their story as an example of people who were living out the call of the Church to minister to the poor and oppressed in Austin. As a newly-wed couple, they had chosen to rent an apartment in the St. Johns neighborhood of Austin, which is a poverty-stricken, ethnically diverse, and spiritually tough area of town. That choice, in and of itself, was a huge challenge for me personally at a time when God was beginning to stretch me in the area of local outreach. But that choice had an underlying motivation that expanded my understanding of living intentionally in light of the gospel.
Lauren & Jonathan moved to the St. John’s neighborhood in view of a call. But that call was not just to their neighbors in need that would physically surround them here and now. The call was one of preparation for a different task… to one day move to Southern Sudan to live out the gospel to a people in need in a far off land. And every decision they make is a reflection of this goal.
I have never heard of someone preparing so methodically for their pull to the nations. It started with Jonathan doing weeks of research on the internet, narrowing his gaze to Sudan. Next was a vision trip for Jonathan himself. Living 4 months in Sudan, he met as many church planters, ministry organizations, and locals as possible so he could witness first-hand what the needs are in Sudan and how Jesus is using His people to meet those needs. Since then, they’ve returned as a couple twice… once just the two of them, and once leading a team of other believers. Being on the ground over there has been crucial to their preparation, and with each trip God connects their hearts more & more deeply to the cause of Christ in Sudan.
After Jonathan & Lauren were married, they settled on a home church in Austin (Austin Stone), knowing that they needed a place to get trained and fed. Plus they recognized a hunger within themselves for a community of senders and encouragers. Next they moved to St. Johns neighborhood to practice cross-cultural interactions and the art of living simply. But their choice for a home also has paved the way for a good deal of practice in perseverance, fighting the spiritual warfare that encircles them, and understanding the need for constant prayer. Being connected to a local church and a local community here in Austin, while they are in the mode of preparing to GO, has been pivotal for their development. Plus it is forcing them to daily put into practice now what they hope to live out when they move to Sudan.
Last summer, the two of them served as team leaders for several summer mission trips back to Matamoros. Knowing that one day they would be leading groups of people who will come to Sudan they wanted to practice guiding and helping others experience the global work of God. The mindset of replication has been a high priority for them. On the one hand, they want to reproduce themselves here, so that when they move to Sudan there will still be an advocating voice left behind to continue to connect Austin to Sudan. And on the other hand, they also want to be mobilizers for the nations at large. Yes, their heart is for Sudan. They want people who are willing to join them by going (some short-term, and some to stay). But their heart is also a replica of God’s heart, which is for the whole of this world. “We desperately want people to come with us to Sudan, but we also want people who are willing to stay and keep the ball rolling for those in the field,” she says.
They’ll return to Sudan in February 2009 to plant a garden and build a house, then come back to the states to attend an intensive 5 month training camp through Heart of God Ministries. After that, they’ll head out to Sudan until God calls them home or to somewhere new.
Once they move, Jonathan & Lauren will be living among the Sudanese people, working with a Sudanese church-planting pastor & his family. “I am excited to be discipled by this couple… to learn from those who aren’t just talking about church-planting or reading about it, but from people who are actually doing the work in a hard place and pressing on in the midst of difficulty,” says Lauren. “They are church-planters with a vision for the unreached and they’re pushing the front lines further and further out from their home. We want to be a part of that.” William & Eunice are the Sudanese couple they’ll be working under. Their love for the people of their own nation runs thick. They also believe strongly in development, not relief. So all of their projects help to train and develop the local people to provide for themselves and each other, together.
The project that Lauren will work on once they get to Sudan is a boarding school the church started. The purpose of the school is not just to provide the kids in the region with an education—of both traditional school subjects and the gospel—but also to immerse the children in ethnically diverse groups, encouraging the development of inter-tribal relationships in hopes of one day eliminating the tensions felt between tribes. Jonathan will serve as an assistant pastor to William, helping out in all-things pastoral, which in Sudan encompasses just about everything under the sun.
In addition to the boarding school, William & Eunice’s church has also created adult literacy programs, pastor & discipleship training for church-planting movements, a clinic to aid in mercy ministries to the locals, a women’s ministry, a grinding mill program that helps up efficiency of the labor needed just to provide food for the community, a nursery school, a micro-enterprise loan program to help locals start new businesses… the list goes on and on. Each project has as the heart behind it a chance to share the gospel and redeem a people for Jesus Christ.
Jonathan & Lauren have always had an element of missions intertwined in their story. Jonathan and Lauren met while on a trip to Matamoros, Mexico, and their relationship began on a trip to China. Jonathan initially made his intentions for marriage clear during his first stint in Sudan. And they spent several months in the first year of their new marriage in Sudan, exposing Lauren for the first time to the land they felt called to long-term. Their focus is directing all their energy to preparing to go back. Their heart remains there, even as they live here in Austin, because they are moved by the people who need love & mercy demonstrated to them through the lights in the lives of Christ followers.
To move to Sudan will certainly come with sacrifices for Lauren & Jonathan. But what it boils down to for them is asking of themselves, “Am I all talk, or am I really willing to suffer for the gospel? Do I say I would suffer, because I know that’s what I am supposed to say, or will I really do it?” Not to suggest this answer has been easy for them to make. Almost daily it is an issue of God having to soften their heart, bring conviction to their spirit, and remind them of the faces of people they know in Sudan who God has asked them to help on His behalf. It is a struggle to continually surrender, but it’s also not a choice for them because of the call Jesus has placed on their lives.
“There are many days when we just look at each other and want to say ‘let’s leave tomorrow and do it by ourselves,’ because of all the work it takes just to prepare. But we know we can’t, we shouldn’t.” They know they need a sending church, a group of advocates helping to keep their arms raised when they get tired.
It would take nearly a year for me to meet Lauren face to face. And I am glad I did. To be in her presence gave me a clear sense of her dependence on God. She takes her walk, and her call to Sudan, seriously. She is no different than you and me, except maybe that she knows where God is taking her.
Before she met Jonathan, she felt God speak a passage of Scripture over her life: Jeremiah 1:4-8—
“The Lord gave me a message.
He said, ‘I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.’
‘O Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!’
‘Don’t say that,’ the Lord replied, ‘for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and take care of you. I, the Lord, have spoken!’”
This is what drives her to press on. Knowing that what seems impossible with man is possible with God.
Our church, Austin Stone, recently showed a follow-up video to tell their story one year after their first testimony video. To see the follow-up video, watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVLGCd28xzM