They cross dangerous rivers, hike through deserts and drive into impenetrable jungles. There's nowhere on the planet Philip and Sharon Smethurst won't go for Jesus.
Wanted: Adventurous young adult willing to travel to exotic, remote lands to advance the kingdom of God. Think apostle Paul meets Survivor.
That's the adventure premise offered by a progressive organization seeking to redefine the missionary of the new millennium as he or she journeys into regions considered off the beaten path. With its motto, "Any Road, Any Load, Any Time," Overland Missions is a little-known apostolic ministry that some view as revolutionizing missions work for churches and Christians.
Describing journeys similar to those found in the Acts of the Apostles, Overland sojourners say they have witnessed the salvation of whole villages, healings, people set free from demons and outright miracles during expeditions to southern Africa and the Amazon Basin of South America.
But unlike first century missionaries, Overland "apostles" are equipped with high-tech tools that include Global Positioning Systems, satellite phones, Zodiak inflatable boats and overland expedition trucks.
Since launching Overland three years ago, founder and expedition expert Philip Smethurst has been recruiting, leading and mobilizing young adults to do "extreme" missions work. He says it isn't unusual for his group to travel two days by canoe in search of a tribe that has never heard of Jesus and to discover that they often are the first Westerners to come to the village.
The ministry, though, is not interested merely in conversions. It works alongside local churches and Bible schools in Third World countries, establishing partnerships in an effort to make disciples in each area.
"The heart of our mission consists of building solid relationships with the local people, showing them Christ through our love," Smethurst says.
Russell Cephas, mission director for Full Counsel Christian Fellowship, a ministry based in Little Rock, Arkansas, says: "I believe [Overland] is one of the most exciting and innovative mission ministries that exist today.
"For many years, missionaries endured the rugged terrain of jungles and crossed dangerous rivers and swamps, forging their way into uncharted areas to reach unreached people groups with the gospel.
"Phil has been able to develop a mission strategy that is similar to that of the early missionary pioneers, but with the use of modern technology," adds Cephas, who first heard about Overland in 1999 while ministering in Harare, Zimbabwe. "He has been able to merge the best of the two worlds together--the rough exploratory dimensions of missions with 21st century technology."
Faith and the Real World
Passionate about mission work since his conversion as a teenager in South Africa, Smethurst started his work as a backpacking, itinerant preacher, a role that took him around the world at age 21.
"I realized the opportunity for young adults to travel and minister in that manner because of its effectiveness, mobility and flexibility," Smethurst, 34, told Charisma. "I felt like I was just a prototype of the young adult. I saw the potential for the young adult to be an itinerant apostolic minister of the gospel."
David Montecalvo, 20, says one of the "most incredible highlights" of his life happened last summer during a five-week trip across central and eastern Africa. During a visit in a village near Tushinga, Zimbabwe, he and another Overland member prayed for a 55-year-old man who had been blind since birth.
"I didn't know how to pray so I just prayed this simple, 'Lord, heal him,' prayer," says Montecalvo, youth pastor of Word of Life Christian Church in Merritt Island, Florida. "He opened his eyes, and he could see, but he couldn't see clearly--like the man in the Bible who could only see something like trees after Jesus healed him.
"So we continued to pray for him," Montecalvo adds. "He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he could see clearly. He started running around. It was just awesome. Tears ran down my face as I saw this man completely set free. My faith was just built up."
Eric Partin, 40, youth pastor of Merritt Island's East Coast Christian Center, considers the unorthodox yet effective approach of Overland to be "the wave of the future."
"I have found the nature of these trips is exactly what the generation of this new millennium is looking for--something extreme, radical and with purpose," says Partin, who has seen several young people from his church go on Overland trips.
Cephas says he is "absolutely confident that Overland is ordained of God."
"There is a powerful anointing that rests on this ministry," he says. "God supernaturally raises up the right kinds of people to be involved with every trip."
Adds Partin: "Overland's trips are modeled after Paul's missionary trips in the book of Acts. I believe it's a formula for successful missions for young adults."
David Philips says doing the work of an overseas missionary seemed like "mission impossible" until he heard Smethurst speak in 1999. Philips, 20, recalls Smethurst challenging the young people at Merritt Island's Word of Life Christian Church to consider "the whole missionary adventure."
"I had a preconceived notion of a missionary, which Philip blew out of the water," Philips says. "I thought it was an older person who taught kids Sunday school, someone who wasn't mobile and who just ministered in one place. But Philip said missions work wasn't all like that. It was something that I could relate to and be involved with. I felt a connection with my passion for missions."
Since then, Philips has taken several Overland expeditions. He currently is on a yearlong backpacking excursion that will take him around the world, with jaunts through South America, New Zealand, Australia, Asia and Africa.
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