Phil Wheeler knows the opportunity of a crossroads when he sees one.
Take the wide road of a life lived only for oneself? – or step onto the narrow path making his parents’ faith his own? Continue working as an engineer, or go back to school to become a pastor? Stay at home in Australia, or venture out to the Solomon Islands to serve pastors there?
“I remember going down to university in the big city at the ripe old age of 18,” he said. “The broad road looked awfully good. The narrow road looked pretty dull.”
“The broad road looked awfully good. The narrow road looked pretty dull.”
Phil chose the “dull” path. That meant following the path of the strong, vibrant Christians he encountered while at university in Sydney to become a strong Christian and, later, a pastor. It also meant following in the footsteps of his great-great-aunt who traveled as a single missionary to China and the Solomon Islands. And it meant choosing to work with WordPartners to train indigenous pastors, and seeing that these pastors have a commitment to the Word that many in the West are missing.
“They took two weeks to get to the training,” Phil said. “They left their homes in an outboard motorboat somewhere . . . to get to another town . . . to get on the cross-island ferry to get to another island . . . to wait for half a week before another ferry came. They took two-and-a-half weeks to get there. And we struggle to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to go listen to a sermon.”
Phil first heard about WordPartners in 2000 when a WordPartners’ staff member visited Australia from the United States and stayed in Phil’s home. Phil caught a vision to bring solid exegetical Bible training to pastors with limited resources and time. Many of those pastors work bivocationally in subsistence farming just to feed their families.
“I like the simplicity of the model,” Phil said. “I like the sense of a small group, intentionally working with them, immersing ourselves in the Word of God, trying to teach the Word of God and to show principles.”
Phil was invited to become a training partner for pastors in the Solomon Islands.
Australia and the Solomon Islands have a historically fraught connection. Back in the 1860s, Australians brought islanders to work on their plantations. It was cheap labor. Many islanders left their families often for years to do backbreaking labor in sugar plantations for little pay. Then in the late 1890s, the Australian government banned further non-white immigration, deporting many Solomon Islanders, in what would come to be called the White Australia Policy.
In the midst of those dynamics, in the late 1880s, an Australian woman named Florence Young saw and was concerned about the plantations’ working conditions. She started Sunday schools for the islanders and taught them English. The gospel spread among them. When the Australian government deported them back to their islands, they took the Word and faith with them.
Young went on to join Hudson Taylor as a missionary in China. She had to leave China during the Boxer Rebellion. She returned to Australia and wondered what God wanted her to do next.
One day in the early 1900s, a British freighter passed by one of the Solomon Islands. An islander named Peter Ambuofa paddled out to the freighter in his canoe. He was one of the islanders converted in Australia but had returned to his island and was shunned for his new beliefs. As tradition has it, his relatives also tried to shoot him while he was praying, but thick smoke suddenly obscured their aim. When they tried again later, their guns wouldn’t fire. As a result, some islanders believed Ambuofa’s God was stronger than their own spirits and became Christians.
But Ambuofa wanted more help with teaching the Bible to this new church. To that British sailor, Peter asked in perfect English if he could take a message to Florence Young in Queensland.
“He wrote a message, ‘Please come help us,’ in betel nut juice on a sack and gave it to the sailor,” Phil said.
“He wrote a message, ‘Please come help us,’ in betel nut juice on a sack and gave it to the sailor.”
The message made it to Young. She remembered the story of the apostle Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia calling to him. Young was at a crossroads.
“She realized that that’s what God had been preparing her for,” Phil said. “She realized then what her calling in life was.”
As a single, 45-year-old woman, she got on a boat, traveled to the islands, and founded the South Seas Evangelical Mission.
That woman, as it turns out, is Phil’s great-great-aunt.
Phil has been to the island where his aunt served. And he’s taught a class in which one of the students is a descendant of a man who killed some of Young’s missionaries.
“One of the fellows in the training was a guy called Derek, whose great-grandfather was one of the chiefs in this island,” Phil said. “Florence sent two messenger missionaries in a boat down there to start a work. When they arrived, initially, everything went okay. But at some point, they fell foul of the chief, and he had them killed. It was Derek’s great-grandfather that martyred and killed the people that my great-aunt actually sent to the islands. Then Derek and I were in the training together 100 years later. It was quite moving.”
But just as moving is the effect that God’s Word has had in the islands, Phil said. For example, after a workshop on 2 Timothy, islanders decided to stand up to false teachers in that area.
“They stood their ground against them,” Phil said. “There were a couple hundred churches that were led astray, and then slowly, over time, those churches have come back to the fold as this guy was exposed as a false teacher. It was the WordPartners training that just gave them the sense of urgency and the importance of this to actually make that stand.”
Even in Australia, indigenous pastors there find it hard to attend conferences or take courses on Bible training, Phil said. He’s seen WordPartners training work well with a culture that learns relationally.
“That’s not the way many indigenous people learn,” Phil said. “They like to sit around the fire and have a yarn and talk and then the elders might speak. This sort of training lends itself to that style of, ‘Let’s have a conversation. Let’s talk together. Let’s get engaged in the Word of God and sit under the Word of God together, and then let’s think about how we can do that well.’”
The indigenous leaders in Australia are aging and looking for a way to raise up younger leaders.
“WordPartners training is really a great model for equipping everyday ordinary Christians to become competent pastors, able to handle the Word of God effectively,” Phil said.
“WordPartners training is really a great model for equipping everyday ordinary Christians to become competent pastors, able to handle the Word of God effectively.”
As Phil thinks about the next phase of ministry and how to serve the Lord, he’s at another crossroads, too. Stay in his current role, stay in Sydney, or expand his role with WordPartners to help these pastors train young leaders? For this one, he’s taking advice from his 18-year-old self.
“I’m so very thankful for that significant turning point at university,” he said. “It wasn’t dull at all.”
The photos above are from previous trips by WordPartners staff and from second-generation training done by Solomon Islander pastors who received WordPartners training.
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