By Tobin Perry
MADISON, Wis. – Richard and Lauren Sawyer* had much in common with next-door neighbors Aaron and Tia Jozwiak. The young couples were preparing for a lifetime of ministry by attending Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Both reached out to their neighbors together by hosting Vacation Bible Schools, flag football games and soccer matches at their apartment complex.
Yet the two couples were very different in at least one area of their lives—their future ministry plans. God had been calling the Sawyers to international missions. During their seminary days, the couple had been exploring what that meant for their future. They actively reached out to internationals in their community. They participated in a semester-long international mission trip.
Born and bred in Wisconsin, the Jozwiaks were already planning a return to the Badger State for ministry after graduation. They “lived and breathed” Wisconsin according to Sawyer.
He adds the Jozwiaks would often urge them to join them in Wisconsin—particularly as the couple decided to plant a church in the state’s biggest college town (and capitol), Madison. Sawyer says he couldn’t even place Wisconsin on a map. Born in Alabama, Wisconsin seemed almost like a foreign mission field—but not enough to make the international missionaries-to-be want to join their friends. Yet slowly God changed both their minds and their hearts.
Sawyer says the couple wanted a little more time to confirm their calling toward international missions. Since he came to faith in his last year of high school, he had graduated seminary with relatively little local church experience. Sawyer realized that by serving with Jozwiak in the new church plant he started, called Red Village, he’d get more experience preaching, leading Bible studies and discipling leaders.
Plus, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the United States, Sawyer says. More than 4,000 students from at least 130 countries attend the university, according to its website.
“Coming up here is kind of like a [foreign] mission field,” Sawyer said. “It’s very different culturally. The climate is very different. It’s far away from our families. It would be kind of like a first step, to test the waters and to get some ministry experience and get trained and prepared in anyway we needed to.”
In June of 2012—just a month after Richard’s seminary graduation—the Sawyers and their son arrived in Madison, as Sawyer joined the Red Village team as a North American Mission Board missionary intern. After a year as a NAMB intern, the couple stayed at the church to continue their ministry preparation.
In the past year and a half Sawyer has done everything from preaching to leading Bible studies to organizing church events, yet the core of his ministry revolves around his passion to share Christ and disciple believers in a cross-cultural context. For example, he leads a ministry to international students on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. He is also helping to coordinate Red Village’s first international mission trip this spring.
Sawyer adds that the practical experience of serving in a local church plant has been invaluable as he prepares for future ministry. Red Village has also provided a leadership training environment designed to challenge Sawyer and other leaders to grow in needed skills.
“I’ve been invested in by the Red Village elders and the leadership of the church,” Sawyer said. “I’m in a leadership training program that the church puts on, called Preaching Lab, where we read books on preaching, study the Scripture about leadership and do other different things together.”
Not only is Sawyer learning from his Madison experience, but it has also been fruitful. A few months ago he had the opportunity to baptize an international man who came from another world religion. Sawyer met the man at Starbucks, where he works part time, and again on a bus. He could already see God’s handiwork on the man’s life when they met.
“Over the course of nine months we became closer and closer,” Sawyer said. “We studied the Bible together. Apart from me he came to faith in Christ and rejected his background. Just about five months ago he began attending our church regularly. About a month ago I had the privilege of baptizing him. It’s what you dream about in ministry. It was a reminder that God is using us and all of our prayers.”
Sawyer felt so connected to his work with Red Village that he briefly explored the possibility that God was calling him to plant a church in North America. But through wise counsel and his own relationship with God, he realized God was calling him overseas.
“We are very interested in working with unreached people groups, going places where the gospel is not known—places where there is no church,” Sawyer said.
The couple has now started the application process with the International Mission Board. They hope to head to an international assignment sometime in 2015.
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.