Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leaning into the Unknown and the not-yet Understood

Written by: on September 6, 2018

I feel a deep connection to Jackie Pullinger’s story because I consider her a spiritual grandmother. Years ago a mentor and friend of mine saw a very short clip of a documentary on what Jackie was doing and promptly bought a ticket to Hong Kong. What he witnessed was completely outside any experience our denomination would have hosted, and it wasn’t something he could explain, but the Holy Spirit prompted him and so he responded. His experience transformed his expectation of God  and subsequently his ministry. He was my pastor for only a brief time while I was in University, but his influence has been Spirit filled and lasting, because he was willing to lean in when the Holy Spirit whispered an invitation.

Over the course of my ministry, I have served in many contexts, across denominations and nations. Each has been unique in some way, and yet what I have learned about the character of God and needed position of my heart in an earlier context remains consistent in the next. While some aspects of my ministry have become shaped by learning to own my unique shape, much is reformed in response to each new context. Thus it seems healthy and even necessary to acknowledge each new place as an unknown. This humble posture of openness creates space for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 to prevail.

 Accepting the invitation of God to follow into unknown territory is a key theme in Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon. She identifies the early seed planted in her life when a missionary speaker asks the question “And could God want you on the mission field?” (Pullinger 2014, 38) And her response being “of course God wants everyone on the mission field’ even though she did not yet know what a mission field was!” (Pullinger 2014, 27) The specific invitation to Hong Kong came through a dream, which is an affront to modern sensibility, even often in the church.

The Walled City within Hong Kong had some distinct ministry challenges which the narrative slowly reveals. The majority of the population were minimally educated. This challenge nullifies strategies that depend on basic reasoning capacities or logic hinged on foundational education. It was a society without a moral compass. Given the absence of familial stability and a corrupt justice system, self-preservation was the primary motivation of the people. This contributed to many aligning themselves within the triad system in an effort to establish security, but which also resulted in an allegiance which could cost one’s life to break from. Seeking survival, the inclination of the people within the city was to take as much as they could from a given benefactor in a way that civil society would deem selfish and exploitative. The prevalence of drug abuse was both a cause and effect of the deep poverty and lack of infrastructure necessary for human dignity. This particular context reveals needs on not only the spiritual and physical level, but also required a re-establishment of stable society based on truth and a quickening of conscience far beyond the majority of mission fields where some semblance of morality might pre-exist. 

Given the complex situation, Pullinger recognises she needs to lean into the unexplored power of God. She says  “If God had anything more for me, I wanted to receive it. I would sort out the theological terms later.” (Pullinger 201461) As a result a key tool for her ministry, praying in the Spirit, was given to her. It was not something she was taught about, nor could she learn through language classes, but was a gift she received upon pursuing God and being open Being equipped with something she did not fully understand. This tool became a distinct hallmark of her ministry with people wanting to be redeemed from their addictions. Confirmation that this was not only a gift for Jackie in ministry, but a distinctive of the Spirit’s strategy to redeem addicts comes as newly yielded drug addicts, yet without understanding of faith, pray in the Spirit in order to overcome the usual withdrawal symptoms from drugs. 

The gift of the Spirit seemed to transcend language and understanding on multiple levels. Not only was prayer in the Spirit strategic and able to challenge both the spiritual and physical authorities laying claim to the lives of the vulnerable community, but it also shaped their reasoning. Though biblically uneducated, an imprisoned man was empowered to share with others by this same Spirit power. Pullinger explains that “(t)heir teacher had known little with his head but much in his heart, and I never met a group of men who understood better the meaning of Jesus giving up His life for them.” (Pullinger 2014, 221)

While being open to the reshaping of ministry for each new context, we must remain tethered to what has been learned in the past by drawing on the experiences of those who have gone before us. The motivation which shaped the flavor of the mission was consistent first with scripture and more generally with many other missions “We love our people whether they turn out well or not, and the successes do not vindicate our ministry nor do the disappointments nullify it. What is important is whether we have loved in a real way—not preached in an impassioned way from the pulpit.” (Pullinger 2014, 237) Jackie frequently sought out the thinking of other missionaries within China as a resource. This story is not a prescription of how mission out to be done, but instead undoes the notion that their could be a systematic prescription for mission at all. It is the call to step into the unknown, and let the Holy Spirit guide us into ways we don’t yet understand in response the unique people and context which stands before us.Pullinger shares her experience as an invitation which she articulates from the very beginning, “So go! Write your own books! Go!” (Pullinger 2014, 9)


Jackie Pullinger and Andrew Quicke, Chasing the Dragon: One Woman’s Struggle Against the Darkness of Hong Kong’s Drug Dens, (Minnesota: Chosen Books, 2014).


About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

5 responses to “Leaning into the Unknown and the not-yet Understood”

  1. Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, you said, “the gift of the Spirit transcends language and understanding on multiple levels.” I was wondering if you think that we can have that same level of gifting in our ministry or do you think this was just a special case? Is it that we are not open to this gift because of our tradition? I felt Pullinger just abandoned herself to God’s will, and the gifts flowed. I am praying that we all can experience such levels of gifting. Blessings!

  2. Andrea Lathrop says:

    I love your conclusion that Jackie’s life is not a prescription for the way missions must be done but proves that there is not a prescription. I agree and need to be reminded of that. I (and we as a culture?) have such a tendency to compare myself and my ministry to others. A prescribed way that I can adhere to and succeed in seems much more safe and comfortable than the unknown. And yet there is something about the kingdom of God that cannot be experienced or received without stepping out in faith into the unknown with Him. And this is not in conflict with learning from those that have gone before us. Thank you.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thank you, Jenn. I was drawn to your comments about the environment of the walled city and it’s social construct which created a strong sense of self-preservation and survival within the people. This makes the incarnational story of Pullinger all the more impacting as she models just the opposite before them every day just as Jesus did. In a world where self-preservation and promotion are rampant in our culture in the U.S. may the Church become the incarnational portrait of Christ in tangible and spiritual means.

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Jenn. Having re-read most of Henri Nowen’s books recently, your reflections reminded me of Nouwen’s implict observation that we all too often see ourselves and ministry through the eyes of everyone else, rather than God. And, when we do try understand God’s perspective, our experience and understanding of God has been largely shaped by the perspectives of others. It’s only when we move out of our culture and language that we can fully reset our memory and perspective. I have often wondered if that was the case for the Alostle Paul in his adventures with the Gentile world. For Nowen it was moving from the competitive and success driven status of European academia to the L’Arche community dedicated to the flourishing of the intellectually disabled. It was in that context that he, rather than they, who was healed and transformed. Personally, having been priveldged enough to travel to many parts of the world (often war torn and in poverty), I have seen that my understanding and experience of how God’s Spirit works has been, and continues to be, reformed too. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I have often enjoyed Nowen’s perspective as well Digby. I believe it was his writing that initited my understanding that God calls us into relationship with the poor, broken and marginalised because we, as people who have more inherited privilege, need them to teach us. I have often chewed on Jesus’ words that ‘the poor will always be among you’ and where once I read that as an inevitable reality of a broken world, I tend to now read it as a promise that we will always have people desperate enough to teach us how to truly hunger for God out of complete necessity. God could, and sometimes does, provide for those in need or who are broken with spontaneous miracles, but I think God chooses to invite us to co-labour with him to be part of the solution precisely because He knows our deepest heart needs. This seems to be one of God’s methods of reforming us.

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