Years ago, as a college student at Virginia Tech, I attended my first Boston World Missions Conference in 1983. At that time, I was in search of purpose and direction. At the conference I was captivated by the speakers and their messages, but the most impactful moment was viewing the world population clock that displayed running birth and deaths as the conference progressed. All I could think about was the enormity of the work before us. I came back to Virginia Tech, told my future girlfriend/fiancée/wife (all the same person), that I was moving to Boston to join the Munich, Germany foreign missions team, and work in my field of forestry while making disciples in that country.

Fast forward 33 years. I am now in my mid-50s, my wife is a few years younger. We have two boys, both disciples, one is married, the other is dating. No grandkids yet. We have been blessed by God to experience 12 years in Boston where we led both in and out of the full-time ministry. Later, in North Carolina, my wife and I both pursued and completed graduate degrees, she with a masters from North Carolina State University (NCSU) in science education and me with both a masters from NCSU and a PhD from University of New Hampshire in satellite remote sensing. She has worked as a middle school science teacher and I have worked as a research scientist with the US Environmental Protection Agency and as an associate professor adjunct at NCSU. We have led at many levels in the Triangle Church and have enjoyed the mission locally as we approached empty-nester status. Yet Germany never happened for us.

Four years ago, we met the young leaders of the Burlington, Vermont church, Mike and Kristen Balzer, while watching our younger son play the University of Vermont in soccer. They first introduced the idea of eliciting mission help from our generation, asking if we or someone we knew might want to join them in their church family. Later, Michaela and I went to the Reach Conference in St. Louis and reconnected with our friend Chris Efstathion. Chris and his wife Ann had recently retired and were using three to four months per year assisting the ministries in Eastern Europe. They had budgeted and saved to do this work in an area where the languages and cultures were much different from that in central Massachusetts. We felt moved by their initiative which has benefitted the groups in eastern Europe but also transformed their lives. We asked what country we could offer some assistance to, in which they replied Bulgaria. We then replied, “Where is Bulgaria?”

Chris put us in touch with some of the disciples from Sofia. We Skyped with them to connect with the purpose of seeing if this ‘marriage’ was feasible. I spoke to one disciple, Kiki Kirilov, almost weekly after our St. Louis conversation with Chris. After a conversation with the Bucharest church leader, Gyorgy Orsos, and Chris, Kiki, and myself in a group Skype call, I overheard Kiki say, “I think they really might come.” I started crying right then and committed to going to Sofia. I closed my laptop because I felt I had intruded on their conversation, then met my wife at work and told her that we were going, despite not knowing the exact finances or timing.

So, for the last two summers my wife and I have stayed for several weeks with the small group of disciples in Bulgaria. This summer we also visited the disciples in Athens, Greece and Bucharest, Romania. The first summer we spent two weekends teaching a workshop on marriage and parenting and a seminar on the compatibility of science and faith. In Sofia, the first summer, the Sofia group would agree with the assessment that faith was very low, and there was a visible lack of new people coming to church or studying the Bible. The science and faith seminar saw new visitors attend which very much encouraged the entire group. This summer, we held the same two weekend events where God saw nine different guests attend with a church of only 12 members!

Selfishly, the benefits we have received have far outweighed what we may have passed on to them. God has moved so visibly it has been shocking to me, which it shouldn’t be. God’s imprint was so obvious in the work he was doing that Michaela and I constantly laugh and cry at the moments he has provided. We deeply love all the disciples in Sofia, praying for them consistently, and are interested in their lives. Our visits to Athens and Bucharest also provided new relationships, to a depth that Michaela and I jokingly prayed as we approached our last weekend in Stockholm, Sweden that we would not have a chance to really connect with the disciples there because our hearts were so full from all the relationships he had already provided. Yet, he did not answer that prayer in our favor…. we also connected with Chris and Kim Reed and Shane McDowell and his now wife Victoria (formally Smith) and our brothers and sisters there in Sweden.

Germany never happened for us in the early part of our marriage. Yet now, we find ourselves on the continent of Europe speaking in four different countries, reaching out to peoples of different languages and cultures, and being the better for it. Recently at the Northeast Christian Conference “Thrive,” I was able to meet Shawn Wooten (Kiev church) for the first time and talk of our work in Europe. Shawn, along with Chris and the leadership team in eastern Europe, are formulating plans to strengthen and equip all the churches that are currently staffed and those without full-time leadership, with the intent to see great numbers of people come into a new relationship with Christ.

We need others to step up to this mission field, to use their retirement or vacations to serve these groups of disciples. There are others filling in the gap. While in Athens we met a young family from the church in Geneva, Ludovic and Tara Gruel and their two children, plus a teen disciple (Corrine Dux) who used their four-week vacation to share their faith and assist the church. After we left Sofia, another couple from Texas, James and Carol Bright, visited the church in Bulgaria with the intent of mutual encouragement. What is happening is allowing God to fulfill this prophesy from Joel 2, “your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Please feel free to contact me (john.iiames@gmail.com), Chris (cefstathion@gmail.com), or Shawn Wooten (shawnborsch@icloud.com) if you are interested in serving in this capacity.