By Libby Powell
“It’s easy to think that… God must be American, because that’s what we grew up in,” says TMU student Josephine Lee (Jo), her voice quiet and firm. “But God is so much more than that. God’s attributes encapsulate cultures around the world.”
Having spent the first five years of her life in America before moving to Malaysia, Jo is no stranger to the global church. In a school that has over 100 students attending from 40 different nations, she can appreciate the vastly different people that collide on campus and the unique fellowship that international students have as believers from separate cultures.
Most people know of Jo by her pink rolling backpack and stylish beret, her straightforward sweetness and thoughtful tone of voice. But tucked away in this young woman is a tapestry of hardship and blessing that sheds light on the providence of God in the lives of individuals and in the life of His church, both local and global.
Jo was born in the U.S. while her father was completing his studies at The Master’s Seminary. “My dad and mom came out of the charismatic environment, a Pentecostal church [in Malaysia], where truth is kind of watered down,” she recalls. When her dad found out about the Seminary and heard the preaching of John MacArthur for the first time, he knew he wanted the training for himself. He and his wife moved to Southern California to attend TMS with the goal of returning to Malaysia to serve the churches there again.
Seven years after the Lees moved to California, Jo’s dad finished his seminary degree and the family moved back to Malaysia, this time with the addition of two daughters. The church where Jo’s father served in the U.S. had planned to send them overseas, but unanticipated leadership issues at the church found the family back in Malaysia on their own with no support.
Even at five years of age, adjusting to a new culture was hard for Jo. She was a proud American and resisted assimilating to the Malaysian culture. “I would have arguments with my dad,” Jo remembers. “The liquid you put in your car is called petroleum in Malaysia, not gas, so we… call it petrol. And I was like, ‘that’s not what it’s called!’”
As time passed, however, and Jo grew into high school, she began to see Malaysia differently. Being multicultural took on a new flavor as “a special experience” that many did not have. It allowed her to have perspective into two vastly different cultures, while glimpsing their similarities as well.
“Malaysia is made up of predominantly three different ethnic groups… there’s the Malay, the Chinese and the Indian,” Jo explains. Her family is part of the Chinese ethnicity in Malaysia. The Lees chose to homeschool Jo and her older sister, a system they learned about in the States. Jo admits that not going to school made it harder to learn the language and acclimate to the culture.
The family began church-planting soon after they came back to Malaysia. Jo loved being at church, describing it as her “social life.” But ministry was not easy. The church was small with no elder board, they were not connected with any supporting missionaries, and it fell to their family to “do all the responsibilities that come with the church,” like finding a building to meet in and preparing the services each week.
The immense burden on the family caused Jo to question the way they served the church. It seemed that they were always giving, but never seeing any change in the members. “I realized that in my human perspective, this wasn’t going anywhere,” Jo remembers. “I went through a period of unforgiveness and bitterness towards people who had inadvertently or purposefully hurt my family in the church that we were planting.”
The first church-plant eventually dissolved, and her dad began to pastor at another church.
Around that time, at age 11, Jo was diagnosed with scoliosis, which required a spinal fusion surgery to correct. “My parents were… afraid of going to a surgeon in Malaysia, because you see plenty of people who get their spines fused and they can’t move their necks anymore… they lose mobility, they lose flexibility.” In what Jo describes as a miraculous process, God opened the door for Jo, now age thirteen, to travel back to the U.S. with her family and have spinal surgery in Philadelphia.
During their time in the States, Jo’s parents were able to reconnect and reconcile with the church that originally planned to send them out when they first returned to Malaysia. The Lee family regained the church’s support and God provided for them to become missionaries with Grace Ministries International (GMI).
Through it all, Jo sees the providence of God. “It was through the process of being diagnosed with scoliosis as a preteen and then having to go through…surgery that the Lord worked in my heart to give me a deeper awareness of my need for [Him]… and it was all through my surgery that the Lord provided for us to become missionaries again, to return to Malaysia with the support that my parents would need to start church planting again.”
Ultimately, working in international missions allowed for Jo to attend TMU with scholarships specifically for missionary kids.
Having formerly experienced the let-down of being invested in a church and seeing no fruit, Jo came to TMU with little desire to become fully involved in a church again. “I was very, very skeptical of Christians, just because often the people that can hurt you most [are] believers you know who are supposed to be following the Lord, and then who display characteristics that are not of the Lord.”
In some ways, Jo observes, the church in the U.S. deals with similar issues as the church in Malaysia. “One of the same struggles that we have in the States is the church trying to connect to the culture by appealing to what the culture wants.” Churches in both countries tend to elevate meeting people’s needs and wants above sound teaching and fellowship, like having a good children’s ministry or picking popular, feel-good songs. It’s an attraction model, Jo explains, that uses things other than the Bible to draw in members, and it’s prevalent in both Malaysia and the U.S.
On the other hand, the Chinese-Malaysian culture brings its own set of issues to bear on the church. “Chinese is very much an honor-shame culture,” explains Jo. The children feel the pressure to make their parents and their ancestors proud of them. There’s an internal pressure to be the best and do extraordinary things to gain approval and avoid disgrace. As Jo observes, this lends heavily to “the predominant struggle of Christianity in Malaysia: so much of religion is about appearances… it’s not about true heart change. It’s about looking good to the world, looking like you’re a good person.”
Reaching out to the believers entrenched in honor-shame obligations is central to Jo’s father’s ministry to his flock. His sermons often emphasize the importance of “being before doing”—a heart transformation before outward change. It’s not an easy task. “Everyone wants to be doing,” says Jo, turning her head to look around the campus. “It’s something I’ve struggled with in my own life… we go to a particular school with a particular culture that is also about appearances in a way. Everyone here is supposed to be a believer, so we’re all supposed to act like believers.” Idolizing appearances doesn’t seem to be isolated to the Malaysian church after all.
To the church in the U.S., Jo asks for prayers that the people in Malaysia would recognize their need for salvation. “In Asian cultures…there is such a big emphasis on self-sufficiency and it’s embarrassing to admit you need help…The Lord has to be the one that puts a hunger in people before we can go out and minister.” At the same time, the church—locally and globally—needs to be obedient to take the gospel to the lost. “Malaysia is not abundantly fruitful like you might see in some other countries… it’s not a place that a lot of people go to do missions.” Jo acknowledges that ultimately the work in Malaysia is in God’s hands. Her prayer is that the Lord would prepare workers who will want to serve him there.
“It’s easy to think that… God must be American, because that’s what we grew up in,” Jo continues. “But God is so much more than that. God’s attributes encapsulate cultures around the world.” Coming to TMU after the struggle of her church back home was hard for Jo. But over her time here, God has shown her just how beautiful his global church is—messy at times, yes, but sweet beyond measure. “It’s become more apparent to me how important it is for believers to embrace the diversity that comes with being a believer. We have the opportunity to make real connections with people, not based on the worldly ideal of brotherhood, but on a true biblical knowledge that we are connected by the Lord… and that’s really precious to me.”