Matthew Robertson’s life and career has embodied in it the meaning of “going into all the world” but is also an example of how one does not have to leave one’s country or go into full-time ministry to fulfill the Great Commission.

When thinking about what it means to be a missionary, a particular image may come to mind. 

Perhaps one may think of a life of full-time vocational ministry where one exclusively engages with sharing the gospel in traditional ways.

Although those aspects are a part of PLNU Alumni Matthew Robertson’s (92) life, his journey in missions has looked slightly different and embodies within it a more practical approach, showing that one can use one’s vocation, passion and skills to spread the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission.

Where it all started

Matthew Robertson was born in Southern California. His mother was a concert pianist and recording artist and his father was an attorney and professor of law.

Due to his parents’ jobs, especially his mother’s, the Robertson family moved around a lot. 

“Growing up I lived in Southern California, Mississippi, Alabama and so had quite diverse settings growing up,” he said. 

They would also travel to other countries like the Philippines, Hong Kong and England. 

Robertson’s mother would also sometimes work as a minister of music in churches.

As a result, Robertson was exposed to all sorts of denominations including Presbyterian, Methodist and Assemblies of God church. 

At the age of 10, his parents divorced and Robertson began to live with his mom. She later remarried as they settled into the Bay Area in San Francisco, California. There, he began attending a Christian high school.  Recruiters from Christian colleges in the state would often visit his school, and that’s how he first found out about PLNU. 

One of Robertson’s many interests was surfing. His love for the sport was one of the aspects that attracted him to PLNU. 

“I ended up visiting the campus and immediately fell in love with PLNU and ultimately ended up attending,” he said.

Discovering a calling

Robertson started attending PLNU in 1988, majoring in English and Literature. While attending, he engaged in missions work. He spent a summer in Mexico doing youth missions at a program hosted by the Church of the Nazarene, and remembers how formative it was to his heart for missions afterward.

“It was my first time, really, to experience poverty,” he said. 

Robertson had often traveled internationally growing up but he had never come face to face with real poverty like he did that summer. It gave rise to some conflicting emotions. 

“I got to really see life through the lens of poets and authors and gained further appreciation for beauty, life and for some of those things that we take for granted in terms of relationships, nature and things like that.”

“I was angry at first,” Robertson said. “I prayed, ‘God, why am I here? Why did you bring me here? Why do I have to see this?’”

But soon he realized something important. 

“I realized in the children I saw playing … they had more joy in that moment than I had because I was bitter and angry,” he said. “They were happy with whatever they had. They were experiencing real poverty and also experiencing real joy, pure joy that Jesus talks about.”

Robertson continued to pursue international experiences while in college. As an English and Literature major he got the opportunity to visit England, Scotland and Wales as part of a literature study tour. 

“That was also just an amazing experience to travel around and get to experience those different cultures and people,” he said. “I got to really see life through the lens of poets and authors and gained further appreciation for beauty, life and for some of those things that we take for granted in terms of relationships, nature and things like that.”

Robertson recalls how his experience with traveling growing up contributed to him feeling like there was much more to the world than where he lived. 

“I think it’s very easy to get stuck in a bubble of where we live, where we grow up, and not venture out of that,” he said. “Partly because I grew up traveling, I didn’t necessarily feel like there was a bubble. Because of that, I didn’t feel settled in an area or in a place and was able to venture out to be adventurous and also really be obedient to God’s calling. I really felt like God was calling me to the world.”

It was that calling that opened up pathways for a life of missions. 

From Eastern Europe to Africa 

After graduating in 1992, Robertson moved to Bulgaria in partnership with the Church of the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries to do missions work in Eastern Europe. Part of the mission work he did there involved planting churches, but a large part of it also involved other practical areas. 

Robertson began engaging in humanitarian work and even registered a foundation. He also taught English classes.

Robertson was there for a year, got married and returned to Bulgaria with his wife shortly after. 

“We were there for about six months and then they asked us to go and help start work in Hungary,” Robertson said. “We worked with partners to get the work established and start the first church in Hungary, partnering with some of the Nazarene churches in Europe.”

In addition to planting a church in Hungary, Robertson and his wife volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. 

After a few years, the Robertsons moved back to the United States and settled in Portland. It was there that Robertson began working at Timberline Sage Software as a Lean process improvement specialist, project manager, and technical support specialist and started to learn the ins and outs of organizational development. 

“I began working on internal process improvements and doing organizational development type work,” he said. 

Through their church in Portland they met a couple whose husband worked as the regional director for the Middle East and East Africa division of Habitat for Humanity. That’s when the couple invited the Robertsons to move to Africa to work for the organization there. 

After some consideration, Robertson took the position as a country director for Habitat for Humanity in Uganda.The skills he learned working for the software company became useful for his work in Africa. Although Habitat for Humanity’s national program in Uganda had been growing, the processes, systems and structures were inefficient. 

“The skill set that I had been learning and developing and using around process improvement, organizational development, helping to fix and improve systems and structures — that was exactly what was needed in Uganda at the time,” Robertson said. 

The Robertson family had a great experience living in Uganda. They had a three-year-old daughter when they moved, and they later welcomed a son while living in Uganda. 

“It was a great experience for raising children,” he said. “Ugandans are very hospitable, very welcoming and caring of foreigners and visitors. We felt very safe raising our children there.”

The church they attended in Kampala was incredibly diverse and had people from many different countries and many  different Christian backgrounds from Catholic to Baptist to Methodist. 

“To us it felt kind of like a picture of what heaven is going to be like,” he said. “We’re all going to be there. Different colors, backgrounds, experiences, we’re all going to be there worshiping together.”

Return to the United States

After 3 years in Uganda, the Robertsons returned to the United States. It was there that Robertson began working for the global humanitarian relief and development organization, World Vision.Robertson continued to use his skills in organization development at World Vision. 

He also helped launch new programs focused on bringing awareness of the issue of HIV AIDS to U.S. churches and donors. The goal was to get more churches involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, encouraging them to sponsor children affected by the virus. Through that, Robertson was able to create structure for strengthening church partnerships.

“We would have individuals sponsoring children, and then churches would adopt entire villages and sponsor children and build schools in those communities.”

Working closely with churches led him to his next opportunity as a missions pastor for a church in Texas. 

“I’d worked with [missions pastors] to help develop missions programs as a missionary,” he said. “But I’d never actually been a pastor.”

Robertson joined the church to continue the missions work they had been doing in northern Vietnam. Although they did everything out in the open and with full transparency, they had to use a slightly different evangelistic strategy due to the communist regime in the country. 

“We were able to work in remote villages in northern Vietnam,” Robertson said. “They knew we were Christans, but we didn’t go in to do gatherings or do rallies. It was relational evangelism.”

They began to mobilize people from church who were doctors, business people, teachers, lawyers and encouraged them to do missions, meeting people in their respective fields and forming relationships. It was a different way of doing ministry, using people’s vocations and focusing more on relationships. 

“It was one to one relationship development and relationship evangelism that we were doing,” he said. “And the communist government knew what we were doing and they allowed us to do that because we were humble and transparent in our approach.”

“Where are all the children?”

It was in Vietnam that Robertson’s eyes were first opened to the issue of human trafficking. 

He recounts a period where he and his team would visit villages in northern Vietnam near the border with China. 

“Normally when you go into a village like that, the kids come around the vehicles  and start cheering,” he said. “They’re excited, they’ve got visitors.”

But something peculiar happened this time time around. 

“So we pull into this one village and there’s no children,” he said. “There’s nobody running out to celebrate, to cheer.”

They began to ask around for the children. The villagers explained that the children were either gone or in hiding. 

“What had happened is traffickers from China had come across the border and taken children into China,” Robertson said. “Part of that was due to the one child policy that China had for so many years. There weren’t enough girls or brides, so they’d take girls out of this village in northern Vietnam to China.”

This experience led him years later to accept a position working for Agape International Missions, a non-profit organization that focuses on the fight against human trafficking. The organization works primarily in Cambodia. 

“Agape International Missions fights human trafficking, holistically,” Robertson said. “We have a Christ-centered approach to fighting this. The Holistic approach includes rescue. We have a SWAT team. We work with the Cambodian government. We have full authority to go in and do raids and rescue girls out of sex trafficking. Once those girls are rescued, then we take them to a restoration home, which is a safe place, place where they can experience healing.”

The organization provides counseling and therapy for the survivors.

One of the things they do is they throw princess parties for the rescued girls when they first arrive to their restoration homes. 

“We put a tiara on her head and celebrate her,” Robertson said. “We want her to know that she’s a loved, valued, cherished, daughter of the King. She may not yet know this King, but she will get to know the King of Kings and Lord of Lords through the love of our staff.”

They also provide vocational training at the restoration homes where survivors can learn a skill and begin to think about the future. 

“We teach them sewing, woodworking, musical instruments,” he said. “We catch them up in school, in English, in salon care. We want to give them life skills and job skills so that they can be empowered and equipped for their future.”

In addition to the rescuing and restoration work Agape does, they also focus on prevention efforts. 

“We’ve started a school there for 700 kids where at-risk kids can get an education that they wouldn’t normally be able to get,” he said.

They’ve also planted a church in a red light district. 

“One of the areas where we’re working in Cambodia was a notorious, evil, dirty, gross red light district called Svay Pak,” he said. “It was a destination for pedophiles from all over the world.”

They began doing outreach there, and God led them to plant a church in the area.

“That completely changed the trajectory of that community,” Robertson said. “Today, the street is paved. Kids are rollerblading on the same street where they were once trafficked. The church is thriving.”

“We see this journey of victim to survivor to abolitionist,” Robertson said. “We are seeing this generation of girls that are now fighters. They’re joining us in this fight. And it’s really encouraging to see.”

When it comes to what people can do to support these efforts, Robertson said that the first thing people can do is pray. 

“This is spiritual warfare,” he said. “We’re fighting this evil.”

He also discourages people from viewing pornography. 

“When people view pornography, whether they realize it or not, they’re fueling sex trafficking,” Robertson said. “So people need to be aware of that and need to fight the temptation to look at it.”

Robertson now works as a Director of Relational Advancement for Agape. 

He works to advance the ministry by establishing relationships with individuals, families, churches, foundations, businesses, and spearheading fundraising efforts. 

“But it’s really a lot more than fundraising,” Robertson said. “It’s relational. It’s helping people to see what God has done and is doing, to invite them on the journey.”

One of the great results of their work is that many of the survivors end up becoming abolitionists themselves. 

“We see this journey of victim to survivor to abolitionist,” Robertson said. “We are seeing this generation of girls that are now fighters. They’re joining us in this fight. And it’s really encouraging to see.”

This is something that brings Robertson a lot of hope. 

“When you go there and you see what these girls are subjected to,” he said. “You hear their stories, the abuse, the rape, the trafficking, and how they’ve come out healed, restored, and that is only through the power of Christ and his church working.”

Mission, vocation & calling

Today, Robertson resides in Rocklin, California with his wife just outside of Sacramento. His daughter is now married and completing a degree in criminal justice. His son is in the Army Reserves, pursuing a job in law enforcement. 

In addition to the missions work he does for a living, Robertson also serves as the president of the Alumni Board and as a Member of the Board of Trustees at PLNU. 

Robertson’s life has been one marked by missionary work in many places around the world. He has been able to use his vocational skills in organizational development to provide practical solutions to people’s problems around the world, form significant relationships and also encourage others to do the same. 

Robertson reiterates that the fulfillment of the Great Commission is for everyone, not just for full-time missionaries. 

“Jesus challenged us in the end of Matthew before he ascended to heaven to go out into all the world,” he said. “And so where is God calling you? What gifts, talents and experiences do you have that you can use to share your life, your store, to share the gospel with someone?”

Robertson said that fulfilling the Great Commission need not involve moving to a different country. 

“It may mean across the street, it may mean in your office building, it may mean getting on a plane and going somewhere,” he said. “What’s important is that you’re going and that you’re sharing the gospel, sharing the love of Christ with others and not relying on somebody else to do that.” 

Robertson believes that all Christians are called to a life of missions. 

“We are all missionaries,” he said. “We are all called. It’s just that we’re called in different ways. So the role of the pastor, of the missionary is important. But it’s just as important as those of us that have vocational skills, that have business skills, that have experience, where we can go out and sometimes even get into places where pastors can’t go or missionaries can’t go.”

Robertson stresses the importance of Christians using their vocational skills to help spread the gospel. 

“And so we can all go wherever we are and wherever God calls us,” he said. “But it’s really about obedience. What is God calling you to? And that these give skills, talents, experiences that God has given you is not just to be kept and consumed for ourselves, it’s to be shared with others.”

Guimel Sibingo is a freelance writer based in Lisbon, Portugal. She graduated from PLNU in 2014 with degrees in communication and philosophy/theology. She has a Master of Arts in journalism from the University of Missouri.