On the Long Road of Making Disciples

Spread among ten small villages in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, the Wantakia people live isolated lives. For over 20 years, representatives from this people group of more than 6,000 have been asking missionaries to bring them “God’s Talk.” Until now, they have remained cut off with neither gospel message nor Bible in their own language.

But these are coming soon. And with them, hope.

In 2015, three families — Jack and Lael Crabtree, Jeremy and Mandy Hambrice, and BJ and Jill Sanders — started out on the long road of making disciples among the Wantakia people.

Living with the people, they studied diligently in order to understand the Wantakians’ culture and language, to put their unwritten language into a written form and to teach them to read their own language.

They have started translating the Scriptures and will later shift into a cycle of continuous translating and teaching, first from Creation to Christ and then through the entire New Testament. This long-term discipleship will not be measured in weeks or months, but in years.

Equipped by the Church to Serve

So how did Jeremy and Mandy get from Arkansas to the opposite side of the world? They certainly didn’t just “end up” there. God sent them, and He used the local church.

Jeremy calls First Baptist Church of Magnolia his spiritual home. That is where pastors David Watkins, Stan Scroggins, Roger Dunlap and Dustin Wisely, along with many other faithful men of God, poured their lives into Jeremy and later his wife, Mandy. They discipled Jeremy and Mandy in the Word, and they exemplified living out God’s mission right where God placed them.

With warmth in his voice, Pastor Dunlap recalled those earlier days and years. “I knew Jeremy when he was a young man, when he was a boy really. [When Jeremy was] in junior high and high school, I watched him grow. … He really began to take his spiritual walk seriously.”

Jeremy Hambrice playing baseball

While being discipled at First Baptist, Jeremy attended nearby Southern Arkansas University on a baseball scholarship.

It was in this context of discipleship and spiritual growth that Jeremy entered professional sports. “After my junior year in 2006, I got a call from the New York Mets that told me that I had been drafted and that they wanted me to come play for them.”

Jeremy started playing for the Mets as God continued to direct him.

In between his two seasons with the Mets, Jeremy continued to grow spiritually as he spent concentrated time studying the Word with his close friend Pastor Dunlap. After his second season, Jeremy’s cousin, who serves with a ministry called The Traveling Team, also influenced him toward missions.

“For the first time,” Jeremy said, “I began to see that there was a story other than mine. And I wanted to be involved in God’s story.”

Jeremy realized that “I should not ask, ‘God, what is your will for my life?’ but instead should ask, ‘God, what is your will, and how do I fit into it?'”

Once that better question was asked, the answer was straightforward. God’s Word was so clear. He had called us to make disciples of all nations.

“I was challenged with the fact that we’ve had the Bible in our language for over 400 years. But there were 2,000 or more language groups that didn’t have one word from God written in their own language.” As far as Jeremy was concerned, he needed a call from God to stay home. Otherwise, he planned to go to one of those groups.

Jeremy left the Mets. He and Mandy headed back to Arkansas to seek the Lord’s direction with the help of First Baptist.

Preparing to Send the Missionaries

First Baptist Church Jeremy with his pastors

First Baptist had a reputation for being missions-minded, generously giving of their finances. But now they were embarking on a new journey: they would send a family from within their midst as full-time, cross-cultural missionaries. What would this look like?

Sending their own missionary “was a whole new paradigm for us,” Pastor Dunlap recalls. “Our people have proven that they had a heart for missions, but we wanted to know if they had a heart for sending out a missionary.”

Together the pastors and Jeremy spent time in prayer and in research.

They recognized that the framework would have to be First Baptist with the Hambrices. Jeremy encapsulated their collective understanding of what the relationship would look like biblically: “From the beginning of this whole process, we knew there was no way we could do this without First Baptist Church of Magnolia, nor did we want to. We were certain that if God were calling us, then He must have been calling our entire church body as well.”

Furthermore, “we could not just be missionaries that our church merely supported. First Baptist was going to have to see planting churches among the nations as their call and responsibility and send us as their servants to go and do it.

“As our sending church, it would be their job to lead and shepherd us and to help us get to the field and stay there. As their missionaries, it would be our job to humbly submit to them and stay in close communication at all times.”

Stan Scroggins, the missions pastor, brought their shared vision before the entire church.

“Stan did a great job of putting together what it meant for us as a church to support [the Hambrices],” Pastor Dunlap said. “He asked ‘What does it look like for us to support them, not just financially, but in every other way?’”

The discussion wasn’t just theoretical. First Baptist Church counted the cost and found themselves ready to send out their own missionary. Or as their senior pastor, Pastor Brent Summerhill, explained, “God has His missionary family and His mission-minded church ready for one another.”

huts on a mountainside

Preparing the Missionaries to Go

As Jeremy and Mandy kept praying, God answered. He gave them a similar yearning as that of the Apostle Paul. Jeremy said, “We had a desire to go where the gospel had never been and to translate the Bible into a language that did not yet have it.”

Their church leadership then provided direction by pointing them to Dr. John David Smith and the other Baptist Mission Association of America (BMAA) directors.

“They were excited to hear about how God was leading First Baptist and were ready to help us continue to move forward,” Jeremy recalls. Though Dr. Smith had developed an excellent program for training BMAA missionaries, he assessed that the skills needed to reach a remote people group would require specialized instruction. With his considerable background in equipping missionaries, he determined that Ethnos’ program would prepare them well.

part of the missionary team with Wantakia people

Dr. Smith and Jeremy explained the need for this preparation to First Baptist, and they watched the Lord bring unity. Jeremy expounded, “Our church, the missions office and our family all agreed that the best road for us to take would be to enter Ethnos’ extensive cross-cultural training program.”

First Baptist had faithfully discipled the Hambrices and confirmed their call to serve God as cross-cultural missionaries. Then they “made it their responsibility to see that we got the best training possible,” Jeremy said.

During their four-year training with Ethnos, First Baptist provided financially for the Hambrices and arranged opportunities for growth in ministry. The pastors mentored Jeremy as he interned at the church over the summers, growing in his ability to teach and preach.

commissioning service for Hambrices

The Church Sends the Missionaries

First Baptist invested heavily in Jeremy and Mandy even before they arrived on the field. According to Pastor Summerhill, “We want to engage in [our missionaries’] lives and invest in them because by investing in them, we’re investing in the gospel.

“Once our church believes this is what God’s calling us to do,” he said, “we’re all the way in, and we’re going to do what’s necessary financially as well as in these other areas.” Conversely, he pointed out that lack of unity or preparedness would be a hindrance to the gospel.

They exemplified unity when it came time to choose a place of service. “We studied the world together, and we prayerfully asked God to make it clear where First Baptist should send us,” Jeremy wrote.

The Hambrices then faced another major step — developing a team of ministry partners. First Baptist again took the lead. They supported Jeremy and Mandy financially, and Pastor Scroggins connected them with other churches where they could share their vision.

The time finally came for the Hambrices to head to the field.

“I will never forget the day we were officially sent out by First Baptist Church of Magnolia,” Jeremy wrote. The church leaders ordained him, and Pastor Scroggins challenged them with an emotional message.

“That night I was given the opportunity to preach and praise God for meeting all of our needs,” Jeremy wrote. The church also threw a going away party after the service. The memory of that time, Jeremy said, “still encourages us to this day.”

Keeping the Missionaries on the Field

First Baptist Church takes responsibility for seeing the Wantakia people reached through Jeremy and Mandy. Pastor Dunlap expresses it this way: “Our church feels a real ownership in their ministry, in their lives, in their family.”

The church installed Pastor Summerhill as their new senior pastor after Jeremy and Mandy arrived in Papua New Guinea. He, too, fully embraced the church’s vision of sending the Hambrices to reach the Wantakia people on their behalf.

“Brent just pushed us further down the road,” said Pastor Dunlap of Pastor Summerhill. “The way that he encourages the church to support Jeremy in so many different ways” heartened both the church body and the Hambrices.

workteam helping Jeremy build their house in the village

Pastor Summerhill plainly spelled out his and First Baptist’s ownership of the Hambrices’ ministry: “When we talk about Jeremy and Mandy and Papua New Guinea, our goal, our prayer, is to see the Wantakians reached and discipled.”

To give specific detail about First Baptist’s desire for the Wantakia people, he referenced an Ethnos video about another missionary team that had gone into an unreached people group. They studied the culture and language, translated Scripture, taught literacy and shared the gospel. They discipled and trained the believers. God planted a church through the missionaries, and the church had His Word in their heart language.

That is First Baptist’s goal and desire for the Wantakians. They know that in order to reach that goal they must take care of their missionaries. “One of my key concerns is their personal well-being … not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually,” said Pastor Summerhill.

Jeremy recognizes First Baptist’s vital role in their ministry as well. “Now that we are here, First Baptist’s responsibility has become even greater. Not only are they responsible to keep us here, but they are responsible to make sure the Wantakians get the gospel and grow in it.”

One way that First Baptist takes care of the Hambrices is by ensuring that they have the financial resources necessary to fulfill their ministry. They give abundantly and sacrificially along with other churches, the denomination and individuals to provide for the Hambrices’ needs.

But, their investment in the Hambrices goes far beyond finances; Pastor Summerhill along with a team from First Baptist came to help complete their house in 2015.

the First Baptist workteam with the Hambrices

Also, the church regularly communicates with Jeremy and Mandy. This encourages the family and keeps First Baptist up to date on the ministry’s progress. When Pastor Summerhill receives an update, he shares it with the congregation.

“Jeremy has messaged me and said, ‘Hey, listen, if I get a video to you, will you show it?’ Well, of course we will. And so our people have been able to see Jeremy and Mandy and their children talking about what they are doing.”

If Jeremy has a request, Pastor Summerhill said, “We do it right then even if we have to change what we have planned.”

The communication is good in both directions. Pastor Dunlap highlighted the fact that the Hambrices “do a great job of keeping us informed,” and commended Pastor Summerhill for keeping their names in front of the people. “There’s seldom a week that goes by that … they’re not mentioned.”

Of course, technology helps. “Our people have direct contact with Jeremy and Mandy through Facebook and [other] social media,” said Pastor Summerhill. “Seldom do I ever get up and say anything to the church that they don’t already know.”

Jeremy continues to be encouraged by First Baptist’s dynamic relationship with them. They hear from members of the church frequently while in Papua New Guinea, and pastors often call.

“When they come home,” related Pastor Summerhill, “our church does a tremendous job of taking care of them, encouraging them, doing our best to meet their needs and just loving on them.”

young and old Wantakian men

Looking Forward to That Day

First Baptist previously thought that when someone felt called to missions, he simply went. Through sending Jeremy and Mandy, they learned that a process must take place, and the fruit often comes years down the road. Indeed, planting churches is a long road, but they’re well on their way.

“The whole reason we’ve sent Jeremy and Mandy is to see them do what they are doing,” said Pastor Summerhill. They’ve learned the language, developed an alphabet and are now in the translation process.

The church prays for the time when the team can start teaching the Bible.

Pastor Summerhill acknowledges that it’s not just the Hambrices. “I keep talking about Jeremy and Mandy, but the rest of that team is vitally important to what’s going on. … So, we pray for that whole team to get to that place where they are sharing with the Wantakians God’s story of Who He is, what He has done and how He redeemed them, and to begin seeing them converted to Christ, to see them being discipled in Christ.”

Pastor Summerhill looks forward to the day when, together, they reach the end of that road.

“And so that’s our heart, to support Jeremy and Mandy and the rest of the team so that the day comes when there is a church on that mountain clinging to the Word of God, trusting in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Portions of this article were based on an article written by Jeremy Hambrice for the March/April 2015 issue of mission: world magazine, the Great Commission magazine of Baptist Missionary Association of America.