Michelle Atwell was a brand-new Christian when she attended InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s global missions conference Urbana and dedicated her life to fulfilling the Great Commission. “I didn’t know how the Lord would use that in my life,” Atwell said. “But I made a commitment that I would do whatever he would ask me to do to bring glory to his name among the nations.”
Last year, Atwell became the first female US director of SEND International, a ministry that equips Christians for cross-cultural ministry. As part of her job, she travels around the world and works with SEND’s missionaries, SEND’s ministry team, and regional leaders.
Atwell recently spoke with Christianity Today about the role Russia played in sparking her love for evangelism, why there’s a disparity between the number of women serving as overseas missionaries compared to domestic church planters, and how unreached people groups are arriving in America as refugees.
Where does your passion for church planting come from?
Approximately six months after Urbana, I spent a summer in Samara (a city in southwestern Russia), with InterVarsity doing lifestyle evangelism among Russian students. I lived among Russian students, and with a Russian family on weekends, and picked up some Russian. Through this experience, I developed a heart for what it meant to live overseas and what it meant to evangelize and disciple people.
When I returned home, I thought, I’m going to be a missionary in Russia. But God had other plans. I was a relatively new believer at that time, and I was the only Christian in my family. It would have been very difficult for me to make such a switch like that. So the Lord had me involved in local ministry.
But fast forward, I got married and began raising a family, and the church we were attending started a church plant in Chernobyl. I felt God saying, Here is another opportunity to pursue what you loved to do back when you were a student with InterVarsity. With my church, I began training a team from our church to go to Chernobyl, partnered with a church from Kiev, Ukraine. For five years, we visited the area twice a year and planted churches in villages right outside the exclusion zone [the area most affected by the nuclear reactor disaster].
What has it been like to be the first woman in this role for SEND International?
Mission agencies are grappling with, “Well, is the church going to approve of this?” For example, I had a mission agency ask me, “What was the ramification of you coming on board? What do the churches say?” I was so glad to be able to say that all of the churches that supported us prior to me assuming this role are still supporting us today.
Women, especially single women, are really strongly represented in missions. Why do you think that is?
Gosh, I really don’t have an answer to that. There are a lot of women who love Jesus and who want to go out and make a difference. We are relational by nature, and we love partnerships. In some ways, we’re just wired to naturally share our faith and to live that out in meaningful ways. There are women who say, “I’m not married. How would God use me in ways that I’m passionate about?”
Although there are many single women on the mission field, it’s a lot harder to find female church planters. Why?
Theological barriers are one of the reasons why we don’t see as many women in “church planting roles.” We all share a deep commitment to a high view of Scripture. But there’s a wide spectrum of teaching about what the Bible intends regarding women and an even wider spectrum of how that teaching is carried out in a church-planting role.
At SEND International, some of our best church planters have been women. That’s been the case since the beginning of our organization. We’ve always been on the frontlines of saying, “Yes, we want to send women out as church planters.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee