Untimely Death of the Nelsons: We Lost Some of Our Best

felt like quitting

Untimely Death of the Nelsons: We Lost Some of Our Best

Mark Nelson* was my friend, student, and co-laborer in reaching the unreached. On July 4th, 2018 he went on a picnic with his wife Lana* and 4-year-old son Joshua*. They traveled to a remote waterfall in the Central Asian country where they served.

It was there that the earthly lives of this family were brutally stolen.  Their guide, a local shepherd, shot Mark and little Joshua causing their death. He then forced Lana off a cliff to be killed on the rocks below. The bodies were not recovered for several days. The trial of the perpetrator is ongoing.

Mark, Lana, and Joshua have run their race and are in perfect joy with our Father. Those of us left behind grieve…yet with hope (I Thes.4:13).

An Energetic Mobilizer

I first met Mark in the tail-end of the 1990’s.  He invited me to teach in a Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. He was on staff with the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena. Mark was an energetic young mobilizer for the frontiers. I mentioned to him that we were planning a training school for missionaries. It would be at the YWAM Church Planting Coaches location in Northern California.

We were offering YWAM’s entry-level training, the Discipleship Training School (DTS), along with the important addition of a Frontier Missions (FM) focus. We call it the FM-DTS. Graduates would be equipped with skills for making disciples and forming simple, reproducing churches among the unreached. I was not surprised when Mark’s application came in.

A true asset to the FM-DTS, he helped staff the Perspectives Course we offered alongside the YWAM training. Having a clear call to the people of Central Asia, he moved there soon after completing our training.

Frustrations and Breakthroughs

I continued to coach Mark on the field. He experienced challenges in pursuing his clear-cut goals. Working with an existing team was sometimes difficult. They were less focused on Mark’s goal – the church planting movement he longed to see.

He did see real breakthroughs among student-age guys he lived with and discipled. He came to the first GAP (a Gathering of Church Planters) we did in Malta in 2004 and again to the second one in 2006.

His fun and adventurous spirit was one of the most enduring memories of many who attended. His leap into the sea from a high stone arch called the Azure Window stopped many hearts (temporarily).

Mark eventually left the team to return to the USA. He wanted to gain additional training and reposition for another approach to his task.

A Wedding and Return to Asia

He got involved in church planting in the Pacific Northwest of America. Before long he met and eventually married a lovely young woman named Lana. With their common call to missions, they headed to YWAM-Mendocino for Lana to receive her training. They were ready for their move to the Central Asian field, this time to a different country with a large population of the same Muslim people group Mark had already worked among. He and Lana would take on citizenship in their adopted land. 

In a small town with a population of only 20,000, the Nelson family came to be regarded by residents as one of their own. They built a home and were planning to create a public park for the children of the town.

Mark ran a community-development project, that aimed at reviving their people’s ancient rug-weaving culture. It also provided income and opportunities for rural women.

Mark and Lana discipled and trained Central Asian men and their families as church planters. He was preparing to bring a group of these workers to the 2018 GAP (for which he and Lana were on the planning team). These plans were cut short by their tragic deaths.

Determined to Go Forward

Miraculously, ten of their disciples came to GAP anyway, shaken and grieving but determined to fulfill what Mark had asked them to do. Translation was provided by an FM leader who previously served in the country where they had worked. God is amazing. So were they!

Lana and Mark had modeled this determination for them.  The couple experienced the cost of pursuing movements among the unreached. Their first daughter, Lydia*, died in Central Asia at birth. They buried her in their adopted town, watering the soil with their tears, thousands of miles from their saddened families.

Lana endured numerous miscarriages. But they were overjoyed with the birth of their son, Joshua, four years ago. We were privileged to host Joshua when he attended the 2016 GAP in Malta with his folks.

Even though he was never to have the siblings they all desired, Joshua was loved by his parents, the villagers, and far-off family. Louise and I got to play grandparents on a visit the Nelson’s made to our home in February 2018.

It was one stop in a three-month trip to the USA to visit family and friends. Lana and Mark marketed carpets, and tried to maximize chances for a healthy pregnancy. In this last objective, they were disappointed by yet another miscarriage.

Still, they persevered through hardship.

I Never Felt More Like Quitting

When the news of the Nelson’s murders reached Louise and me in a remote lemur reserve in Africa, we were devastated. We wept and sobbed so far from anyone who could really grieve with us.  I’ve never felt more like quitting.

It wasn’t long before I knew I could not. I imagined how I would one day be meeting Mark and Lana again. I would have to explain how their murders caused me to give up my Kingdom calling. The image of that conversation changed my heart. It emboldened me to continue.

They never considered quitting. Neither would I.

Mark and Lana represent the very best in YWAM Frontier Missions. They committed to their God-given goal. They were determined to see disciples and churches multiply among a specific unreached people group.

Constantly seeking to network with others, they used “both hands of the gospel,” helping meet spiritual and physical needs. They improved their ministry skills and brought blessing to the ends of the earth.

Cry Out For Others to Go

We must cry out for ten or twenty with the same commitment to rise up and take their places.

Pray too for their Central Asian disciples. Pray for residents of their town, weavers and others impacted by this great loss. Also, pray for the families of Mark, Lana and Joshua. There have been memorial services in their Central Asian town filled with their grieving friends and neighbors. Of course, in the USA there have been services as well: crying together; celebrating their godly, fruitful lives; being inspired to follow their examples; remembering we shall eventually see them again. Additionally a project is underway to build the children’s park in that Central Asian town, in the Nelson’s memory.

The needs of the unreached in Central Asia tug at our hearts.  Who will go to take the Nelson’s place? Write to us if you want to be trained to serve among Muslims of Central Asia.  Though the challenges are real, the harvest is ripe and workers few.  Will you go?

*Names have been changed.


Comments: 4

  1. Judy Hayden says:

    Thanks, Brian, for your touching eulogy for the Nelsons and for your honesty in sharing your wanting to quit. May their light continue to shine among this people group long after their earthly lives have gone, and even bring their murderer to true faith! And may MANY more rise to replace them in that field.

  2. Yohan Selvis says:

    I also knew “Mark”, he attended a GO Equipped tentmaking course in Pasadena. We became friends and kept in contact through the years and trials. When this happened, I seriously considered quitting my mobilization ministry as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Grace sakpa says:

    So touch by this story. It was very encourage too.

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