NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — As a computer science student at Penn State University, Mike Sherrill had no idea that a meeting invitation would reprogram his spiritual journey.
Sherrill responded to an invitation to the International Christian Fellowship (ICF) one Friday evening. There, the Holy Spirit uncovered the well of living water for the thirsty 20-year-old.
"From the very first ICF gathering I attended, I was hooked," Sherrill said. "It was as if the Holy Spirit had been waiting for me. … It quickly reignited the faith that had been deeply embedded in my heart as a youth."
His recommitment to Christ and the infusion of ICF's inspiration regarding global missions led Sherrill to seek an overseas service assignment the summer after his college graduation. The search led him to Japan to serve within small churches and to teach English.
"After only about a month there, I wrote in my journal that I realized I was going to stay in Japan a lot longer than just a summer," said Sherrill, who in August 2020 became the executive director and CEO of Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA. "I had no idea at the time how long it would be when I wrote that entry in 1991. I didn't leave Japan until 2017."
From rural boy to global citizen
Sherrill's formation into a global missional and educational leader began during his first foray into overseas missions in 1991. At the end of the summer, Sherrill stayed in Japan and worked at a computer company in Yokohama during the week and at a church on weekends.
"It was perhaps the loneliest time of my life," Sherrill recalled. "I had moved to this big city and lived alone in a tiny apartment. For the first few months I didn't even have a phone. Remember, email and internet were not a thing yet. … With limited language proficiency at the time, it was pretty isolating but also a time of drawing nearer to Jesus."
He left Yokohama to work full-time in a church on the west coast of Japan, where some of his loneliness was dispelled when he met and married Teresa (Thompson) Sherrill. In 1994, they returned to the United States, where he entered the MDiv program at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).
Upon graduating from AMBS in 1997, they moved to Pasadena, California, where he earned a ThM from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1998, having written his thesis on the Mennonites in Kyushu, Japan. The Sherrills attended Pasadena Mennonite Church and were ordained together in 1999 by Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Teresa Sherrill had previously received her MDiv from Fuller.
Amid the challenges of their missional calling, the couple also experienced multiple miscarriages, which stretched them to experience God's "with-ness" in trial, Mike Sherrill said. After their first son, Micah, was still born while the couple were both students at AMBS, they experienced four more miscarriages in an eight-year span. They are grateful they were able to give birth to three healthy children — Isaiah, Jeremiah and Sophia.
Teresa (Thompson) and Mike Sherrill, pose for a picture outside the restaurant called Ukai Toriyama in Hachioji, Tokyo. Photo by Terry Sherrill.
"This hardship was very formative and evoked anger toward God, along with frustration and deep, deep sadness," he said. "You especially look forward to the birth of your first child, and when that life is stripped away from you in the cruelest way, it is truly devastating and was a dark year. … We thank God for the way the AMBS community and Southside Fellowship walked with us during that time of deep sorrow."
Sherrill said the loss shed light on 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (NIV). He said, "The experience convinced me, all the more, that God is with us always."
From 1998 through 2002, he was under the mentorship of Dr. Wilbert Shenk, whichculminated in Sherrill earning a Ph.D. from Fuller, with a dissertation titled, Church Vitality in Japan. The Sherrills returned to Japan in 2000 with Commission on Overseas Mission, a predecessor agency of Mission Network, to conduct field research for the dissertation and to work with Anabaptist churches in Tokyo. From 2002 through 2008, they served the Hokkaido Conference of Mennonite Churches in education and youth ministry.
Sherrill, then, became professor and chaplain at Aoyama Gakuin University (AGU) in central Tokyo, where he served from 2008 through 2017, while also holding board positions at AGU and Tokyo Christian Woman's University. At the completion of his tenure, he served as chair of Religious Affairs in the School of International Politics, Economics and Communication; he was responsible for campus ministry, service learning, teaching religious studies and facilitating collaboration with Christian universities and agencies across Asia.
Leaving "home," returning "home"
In 2016, life took an unexpected turn. Various responsibilities, including the need to care for aging parents back in the United States, compelled the couple to make the agonizing decision to leave Japan. Teresa Sherrill and the children resettled in Goshen, Indiana, and soon experienced the welcome and support of East Goshen Mennonite Church, where they continue to attend.
Mike Sherrill remained in Japan another year to complete his commitments to the university, rejoining his family in 2017. It was perfect timing; an opening had arisen at Mission Network for the Asia and Middle East director, for which he was hired.
Reflecting on their years in Japan, Sherrill said, "It was truly home. We felt we were there to open a doorway to the gospel and welcome people to find Jesus at their own pace. Preaching, Bible studies, gospel choir, table fellowship, all became avenues for the Holy Spirit to heal hearts and draw people to Jesus."
Japanese culture can be rather cautious toward religious activities — especially when they are perceived as coming from the outside, Sherrill said.
Sharing the gospel with sensitivity to this understandable caution can be slow going, Sherrill reflected. "It may take many years of a steady presence in witness for the door of faith to open," he said. "This gives plenty of space for the time and determination it takes to acquire the Japanese language. Along the way, I often found my faith deeply enriched and felt blessed with precious relationships. Thanks to virtual technology, many of these relationships remain very active."
Witness as "with-ness"
During Episode #3 of Mission Network's podcast, "MissionWary?," Sherrill shared his understanding of missions as "with-ness," the accompaniment of people in their cultural context, being the presence of Christ, as one lives and walks alongside others in mutual relationships.
"I am excited to be a part of Mission Network, which has had this understanding and model of missions for some time already," Sherrill said. "It means that rather than bringing something that they need … we walk together as pilgrims on the journey, and we share a mutual discovery of God's activity in the world."
Sherrill said he is passionate about walking with his colleagues at the agency with energy and strategic focus, as they pursue God's calling into the future unfolding before them. He believes that this is a time when Anabaptist communities across the world are seeking to be part of the larger global Anabaptist story.
"In many parts of the world, there is a growing appreciation, especially among the oppressed and marginalized, for alternatives to violence and aggression," Sherrill said. "The Anabaptist pursuit of justice, coupled with the call of Jesus to love your enemy, draws keen interest."
The integration of these communities into the Anabaptist/Mennonite story excites Sherrill about the future of global mission, he said. From his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, along a winding global pathway, God has guided this mission leader to a vibrant growing connection with a worldwide family, bonded together through God's steadfast love and presence.
"I am excited about how the Anabaptist global community is engaged in mutual learning, encouragement and growth, East to West, South to North, fostering Christian vitality that the world notices." he said. "If people tell you that the era of missions is over, don't believe them. The Holy Spirit is working in every corner of the globe and the urgent call remains to joyfully and energetically partner in God's mission in the world."