I was talking with someone recently about the needs for cross-cultural workers in Asia and the Middle East. The lady was in her sixties and she had a real heart for mission. She agreed with me about the needs overseas and she and her husband were at a stage of life where they could go. But she looked at me sadly. “You see, I’m just too old now,” she said. “My body is old and my mind is old. I can’t remember things like I used to. I can’t even remember what I was going to tell you just now. I’d never be able to learn the language.”
“Oh no!” I said. “Never think that. You’re never too old for language learning. It might be a different process, but if God is leading you to cross-cultural ministry, you’re never too old for Him to use you.”
“Sure,” she said. “Tell me how many people you know who’ve actually gone to the mission field in their sixties and then learnt the language really well.”
“I know loads of them!” I said confidently. And then, as always happens, when I make sweeping statements, I wracked my brain and couldn’t come up with any! I tried really hard but realized that many of the older missionaries I knew (with good language) had actually been in their adopted country for 20 years or more.
She smiled at me. “See!” she said. “You don’t know any.”
“Well, maybe I don’t,” I replied. “But I know something better than that. I know couples in their sixties and seventies who have gone to the field after their retirement and they’ve known how to love. They’ve known how to serve. They’ve known how to just sit and be still with needy local people. And because they’ve known those things, they’ve used their vocabulary and their back-to-front grammar to love people in the name of Jesus. And because they’ve loved people, I also know of loads of Nepalis who have come to faith or been encouraged by their witness.”
The thing is, no matter how old we are, there’s a reason not to go. In our twenties, we’re not fully qualified yet, or we haven’t found our life partner or we need more time at Bible college. And then in our thirties, we have issues with pregnancy or childbirth or paying off the mortgage. Sometimes we’re so absorbed by small children that we have little time for local relationships and language. And then by the time we’re in our forties, our children need secondary education and we need to return to our home country. Then, not long after that, our own parents begin to age and need our assistance. And so it goes on. There’s problems with superannuation and retirement funds and grandchildren. There’s always something!
Maybe, instead of dwelling on the problems, we should keep reminding ourselves of what is at stake. Why am I choosing to live and minister where I am? What are the needs and the resources in the place where I am? What skills and gifts has God given me and in what ways am I being accountable with those gifts? Could He be leading me to use those gifts elsewhere, where the workers are much fewer? Syria for example has a similar population to Australia and yet has only a few dozen cross-cultural Christian workers. It’s the same in Iraq and Yemen and Uzbekistan and many other countries. Every day fifty thousand people die amongst the unreached people groups of our world, without ever having heard of Jesus. And we sit and worry about our grey hairs and reading glasses.
Maybe the question is not how old we are, but how faithful we are with the message and the gifts that God has given us. If He’s leading us to pray or to give or to go to needy places in the world (or Australia), He’ll also give us what we need to serve Him there. And perhaps that’s the best thing about actually growing older! God slowly transforms us into people who can’t help but share His message of love and forgiveness.
Naomi Reed is a former Interserve Partner. She is also a bestselling author and gifted speaker. Her latest book, The Plum Tree in the Desert shares stories of faith and mission from Interserve Partners over the last 25 years. Naomi is also speaking on the Australia-wide Unfolding Grace tour. For more information, see Unfolding Grace.