SM-ing isn’t for Everyone!

Photo provided by Pastor Rich Carlson

Photo provided by Pastor Rich Carlson


Consistent with the new “Nebraska—It’s Not for Everyone” slogan that represents our state, I believe the same it true about being a student missionary. But I also believe it IS for more people than are currently in the application process. Here’s my historical perspective on why I say that. My Church has always been a mission-minded church with a focus on spreading the gospel to ALL the world.

“When I was a kid” (I keep promising that I don’t want to use the expression unless I have no other option, but...!) I used to look forward to camp meeting because of the returned missionaries who were making their rounds visiting as many summer gathering of Adventists as possible. Their stories were so amazing and their adventure used to stimulate that same spirit in me. It sounded both exciting and in harmony with God’s command to “go into all the world.” I wanted to be a missionary when I grew up!

But when I “grew up” there wasn’t as much need for missionaries as before. That, I believe, was a good thing because my Church focused so much on educating the local people in all parts of the world that missionaries were not in as high demand as 20 years before. I affirm my church in their long range focus. Locals understand their own people better than foreigners and I believe are able to minister much more effectively and efficiently that an “outsider.”

That, however, left a kind of hole in the Adventist theology of mission, and camp meeting was no longer focused on returned missionaries. We tried to fill the gap with “Mission Spotlight” and other such media, but for me seeing pictures and hearing singing in a 10 minute slideshow was just not the same. I needed more to keep my mission faith alive.

Along came the Student Mission program with the first SM sent out by the world church being a Union College student in 1965! Go Union! Four years later I had the opportunity to represent that same school and serve for a year in Peru. I felt confident that God was leading me when I went to my home church during a break and one of the elders stood up and said they had a chance to sponsor me as “their student missionary.” I needed to raise $535 and when they passed the offering plate that Sabbath there was $535 exactly! Off I went for one of the hardest most amazing years of my life.

I lived seven months out in the jungle where I never saw a person who spoke English the whole time. I was bitten by an alligator and a rattlesnake, broke my ankle, learned to fly, and climbed the second highest mountain in the Andes at 22,205’. I also worked. We did a youth evangelistic meeting and 28 people were baptized. In my spare time I traveled by raft down the Amazon for 12 hours and stayed with a tribe of cannibal indians. I got lost in the jungle and was attacked by a wild boar. I survived miraculously, both the boar and being lost, by a direct answer to prayer.

I spent that night telling the people gathered around the communal fire about my God who saves even dumb Americans who get lost in the jungle because they didn’t listen to the wisdom of the locals. 33 years later I had a chance to return to my jungle home and, when I asked about the tribe of cannibals they said they ALL became Christians and there’s now an Adventist church and school in the village. They love to tell the story of the dumb American who got lost in the jungle and whose God they now serve because He delivered the gringo from certain death!

I grew, I struggled, I fell in love with both the jungle people of Peru AND the calling in God’s great commission. My Church again had the foresight to realize that to retain the mission of the Church uppermost in the minds of all its members that something had to take the place of the no-longer-as-much-needed regular missionaries.

There is still a need, just not as great and much more focused on specialized ministries than the previous traditional pastor-type missionary. What took its place is what YOU have a chance to participate in. One year, exposing yourself to a new culture and the mission of our church. One year learning more about yourself than you can ever imagine because your support system is torn out from under you and you discover what you’re really made of and how faithful God can be.

One year to grow and come back to make a difference in whatever part of the world you’re placed. One year to see the needs of this world culturally, socio-economically and spiritually. One year to make a difference and have a life-changing difference made for you. All that in one year; I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Hardest year—best year of my life. Student missions, it’s not for everyone, but don’t short change it—it might be for you!

Pastor Rich Carlson is the Vice President for spiritual life and associate professor psychology and religion.