I remember hearing John Piper once say, “We always resist the Holy Spirit! But he is powerful to overcome our resistance any time he wants to.” That line there is just about as good a summary of my practical Calvinism as I can find. In light of my deep brokenness, sin, and shame, I often must turn to the comfort of knowing that nothing in me or outside of me can ultimately resist the gracious conquest of the Holy Spirit in my life. He will keep coming on, until all my resistance is finished.
The second part of this live medley, “Guns/Napoleon” is a new song for me. And one that I have loved getting acquainted with. It envisions God’s conquest of someone’s heart through the lens of a Napoleonic army taking over a fortress. The details in the lyrics are fascinating also. “Hanging pictures on the walls” refers to how the portraits on the walls always change when a new regime takes over. In Central Asia, those portraits are very important. Listen for when the trumpets come in at 1:37.
I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.
My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-ridden urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.
This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.
Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.
“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”
“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.
“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”
“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”
And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.
The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.
We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.
My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)
Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.
“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”
I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.
During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.
I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.
It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.
Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.
As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.
The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.
Although the Apostolic Council resolved the question of circumcision within the Roman Empire, the issue re-emerged among the Nestorians of Mesopotamia after the seventh century as a result of the Arab conquest. Islamic scholars reproached Christians for failing to have themselves circumcised, as their prophet Jesus had been. They replied that baptism had replaced circumcision, as Christ had abolished the latter by his own baptism. Neither an external sign nor ritual cleansings were crucial for the covenant with God, but rather the symbolic death and resurrection in baptism and the inner purity of the heart. ‘What good does it do a darkened house to have lamps on its outer walls while the rooms within remain unlit?’ Regarding the replacement of circumcision with baptism, the East Syrian metropolitan Odisho of Nisibis (1250-1318) wrote, ‘The Jews had to distinguish themselves bodily from the other heathens, since God had determined that the messiah would appear among their descendants. In the same way [like circumcision] a man marks his camels, sheep, and horses, to distinguish his possessions from those of strangers. The baptism of true believers [however] encompasses the mystery of death and resurrection. For immersion in an abyss of water is similar to death, as one no longer has senses, as when one is buried in the earth. The emergence from the water is they symbol of resurrection, resembling rising from the grave. For this reason, the apostles required that, before baptism, the candidates wear black penitential garments and afterwards white robes, to represent the transition from the world of darkness to the world of light.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, it's a line dance and a picnic
For the return of Jesus, honorable clapping
ّWe are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and any colorful flower we place under his feet
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ is on his way
His return is soon, our hope is with him
We are in the midst of the day that Christ returns
Each and every colorful garment we place under his feet
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ has come
For the knowledge of God, he is the only way
We are in the midst of a project to record some local worship songs and some partners introduced us to this one. “It’s one of our believing friends’ favorites because it feels so local!” they said. And it’s true, in contrast to some of translated 90’s worship choruses, the melody is very much the local style. And the lyrics? Well, you bring in line dancing, picnics, and colorful flowers and you are speaking the love language of our local people group.
This is why it’s so important that local believers come to write their own worship songs. What Westerner would ever start a worship song or hymn like this? Hallelujah, hallelujah, it’s a line dance and a picnic? And yet in this culture, this is wedding language, family celebration language, the language of overflowing joy. These people burst out into line dancing whenever they are overcome with happiness. Just this past weekend we traveled to the top of a mountain during a snowfall. And what did we find there? A bunch of giddy locals playing music and line dancing in the snow (and also throwing snowballs at each other).
Our local climate is not exactly gentle. We have harsh winters and even harsher summers. But that means that locals are extra responsive to the gifts of beauty and green that creation gives. Every spring, when the land is reborn, it’s time for serious picnicking (I’ve never lived anywhere else where you have to factor in the reality of “picnic traffic”). How appropriate then that this song should envision the return of Christ, and the making of all things new, as a spring picnic scene.
There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.
We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.
None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.
Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.
No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.
Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.
Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.
As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.
If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.
Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.
You don’t know how to line dance, so you say the ground is uneven.
Local Oral Tradition
Humans tend to blame shift when they are actually the ones coming up short. Apparently we have an English equivalent that goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.” However, I had never heard of this English-language proverb until I came to Central Asia. That could mean it’s from a different part of the English-speaking world, or it could just represent another TCK gap in my American cultural knowledge – these still emerge occasionally. Yes, I’ve still never seen Mary Poppins and I know precious little about professional sports. But no, that is no one else’s fault. I take full responsibility!
Why should the devil have all the good music? It’s still a valid question. I was probably nine years old when my big brother bought this album from a Christian book store. Years later I’ve brought this song back on the playlist and my kids love it. Music, as a powerful and beautiful element of this creation, does not belong to the enemy, though it has often been hijacked. Pleasure, as dear uncle Wormwood reminds us, is God’s territory. As one of the most powerful tools humans have to convey emotion and words, it’s no mistake that musical worship has been a part of the Church (and God’s people before that) from the very beginning. And one of Islam’s – and Christian fundamentalism’s – biggest blunders was when it declared most music sinful.
A number of years ago I was asked to crystallize the church planting vision and distinctives of our church’s elder team, and to build upon it. They wanted me to put these things into a written form that would bring some definition and guidance to what was emerging as a new international church planting network.
I remember reviewing one of the drafts of this project with the elder team. While the feedback was mostly encouraging, there was one piece that at the time I found confusing.
“I just don’t see a plan here,” said one elder.
Now, I had defined key terms, spelled out our distinctives, established the principles of our strategy, set some goals, and provided several pages of content covering what it meant for someone to be trained, sent, and supported within this network. So I was perplexed at what exactly it meant that one of our sharpest elders – a brother at the time working in management in the corporate world – couldn’t see a plan. We scheduled a follow up meeting together so that I could better understand what he meant.
Somewhere in the course of our meeting I came to clarity on a point that has served me ever since. Different personalities have different understandings of what that little word, plan, means. I illustrated the difference between myself and my fellow elder like this. He was a roadmap type, and I was a compass type. He was looking for detailed, step-by-step directions and definition to this church planting strategy. I had provided the vision, the distinctives, and the strategic principles, and simply hadn’t aware that anything else was necessary.
Compass types like me are happy to know where “North” is, and to navigate each situation according to the framework of theology and principles they’re committed to. But roadmap types, while recognizing the goodness of vision, principles, and theological frameworks, feel as if they’ve been given no clear leadership about what to do come Monday morning. If compass types are leading roadmap types, the roadmap types are often frustrated by the lack of practical detail. If roadmap guys are leading compass types, the compass types often feel micromanaged. When neither are aware of these different orientations toward planning, they are usually headed for a collision, often under the guise of other issues that might exist. I continue to experience the reality of these differences as I work with colleagues who are wired to be roadmap planners.
The good news is that both orientations are good and needed. The compass types can keep us from losing the forest for the trees and they excel in flexibility and adaptability – while all still tied to solid conviction. The roadmap types keep us rooted in the practical daily realities of what we actually need to do next. They are great at thinking through next steps and in providing liberating checklists that can melt away organizational fog. And they are often better at crystallizing actual methods and plans. I still don’t have a discipleship plan to give a new missionary if they request one. I prefer to weigh each new believer’s situation and to make a plan on the spot. But I have colleagues who can give you plans for phase one, phase two, phase three, etc.
The roadmap types can become a little too married to their plans and strategies and confuse application for principle. The compass types can forget that to actually do the work we need to commit to a defined method. If a roadmap type is tempted to think, “My method of evangelism is the biblical method,” a compass type is tempted to think, “Method? Who needs method? Just preach the gospel.” Both are off-balance.
One of the stranger realizations we’ve had since coming to the field is to realize that large “tribes” of missionaries are characterized in part by these different orientations. Let’s call one tribe the Church Multiplication tribe and another tribe the Church Health tribe. Many organizations, including my own, are made up of members representing both tribes.
The Church Multiplication tribe is the one writing all the books on new and exciting methodologies, movements, and strategies. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about strategy and methodology. They are by far the bigger tribe. The Church Health tribe is the one writing all the articles and recording the podcasts which focus on the importance of theology and the local church in missions. They gauge if someone is part of their tribe by leading with questions about the gospel, ecclesiology, and a distrust of the current most popular method out there (today it’s DMM). The Church Multiplication tribe tends to be evangelical, sometimes reformed, but not usually coming from a background which emphasizes ecclesiology. The Church Health tribe is often strongly reformed and evangelical and deeply impacted by groups like 9 Marks which labor to recover the centrality of the local church.
I find myself a man with feet in both camps. I have roots in the Church Multiplication tribe, but have been mentored and greatly helped by many in the Church Health tribe. I often find myself trying to nudge the Church Multiplication guys to give more weight to theology and the local church and stop trusting methods so much – and then trying to nudge the Church Health guys to give more weight to culture, methods, and contextualization. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recognize these emphases. Now, these are all very important issues and conversations. I’m not downplaying the importance of the local church in missions or the importance of being thorough students of culture. I’ll take both, thank you.
But there is at least one difference that is not an issue of biblical conviction, but merely of group personality – and here is where I return to the roadmap vs. compass orientation. When these two tribes get together and discuss/argue methodology, I’m convinced that at least some of what is going on is a hidden issue of cross-cultural communication. It usually goes like this. The Church Multiplication camp is excited about a given method. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced it’s biblical. The Church Multiplication camp is a little offended at these prickly brethren playing the Bible card and push back to see if they have an alternative method to propose. The Church Health camp responds with biblical principles (compass language) – not a plan or a method (roadmap language). The discussion goes back and forth like this for a while and eventually ends with everyone feeling unsatisfied. The Church Health camp isn’t convinced that the other camp has biblical convictions and the Church Multiplication camp isn’t convinced the other side has a plan at all and assume they are merely going to reproduce traditional methods. In one sense, you could say they are speaking on different frequencies. And yet they aren’t aware of it. They are speaking past each other.
I’m convinced that learning about our own wiring and the wiring of others on this compass vs. roadmap spectrum is one practical way we can move toward healthier partnership on the field (and perhaps back home too). We can learn to speak the language of the other tribe, as it were, when we are communicating about our ministry, vision, and strategy. This can help us deal with the distrust that emerges when we don’t initially hear the other side addressing things that we find to be crucially important. When roadmap guys can tie their methods to principles and a theological framework, that will gain them a better hearing among the compass guys. When the compass guys can break down their principles into a nuts and bolts plan, that will gain them a better hearing among the roadmap guys. For example, Church Multiplication missiology quietly but deeply values the ability of a practitioner to visually portray his strategy on a napkin, a whiteboard, or on a screen. When Church Health guys scoff at this visual communication and merely stick to their thick position papers, they are missing an opportunity to communicate their convictions in different, but valid ways. Similarly, if Church Multiplication guys would write up some position papers that are very well-grounded in the Word, I think they’d be surprised at the kind of traction they’d get in different quarters.
In my story earlier, my fellow elder and I were on the same page theologically, but we had reached a misunderstanding because of a different personality-orientation toward planning. Turns out we were wired to see planning differently, to the glory of God. I needed general plans with goals, principles, and outlines. He needed plans with step-by-step procedures and detail. Our differences led to a stronger document in the end, because we were able to figure out a way forward in a context where our unity around the gospel and the essentials wasn’t in question.
Now that I’m on the mission field, our network of partners here is mostly Baptistic and reformed – everyone has Piper books on the shelf. And yet there have been some very deep rifts and hurts in the past over methodology. I think this unacknowledged difference of orientation is partially to blame. It’s not always an actual disagreement over theology and principle that divides us. It’s often differences in personality, culture, language, and politics. This is tragic. The good news is there are practical shifts that can be made in terms of language used and questions asked that can make a big difference.
Sometimes there will be real convictional differences that underlie these rifts. I’m not saying that all conflict between missionaries is simply a matter of misunderstanding one another’s wiring. But some of it is! Let’s get rid of that some. And then, if we have other believers on the field who indeed have different doctrine and convictions – then let’s pursue with them the healthy practice of theological and methodological triage.
And let’s learn to understand and value the compass types and roadmap types that the Lord has placed around us.
A local friend of mine recently visited our international church for the first time. A teacher, and a somewhat traditional man, I was curious to see what his impressions would be. After the service I asked him about it.
“I’m amazed at all of the small children here!” he said. “You don’t see any small children at the mosque.”
“Really?” I asked. “Is that not normal?”
“No, we don’t let any children under six come. But not only are families with small children here, their children are sitting quietly and listening! This is amazing.”
In response to this, I was able to share the story with my friend of Jesus encouraging the little children to be brought to him, from Matthew 19. It was likely the first time he had ever heard it. I also assured him that the small children (such as ours) definitely do not always sit quietly. But persevering parents who aren’t afraid of giving ten thousand reminders make a big difference.
He was also amazed by the diversity. Being an international church, we have members and attendees from twenty countries or so.
“I haven’t seen anywhere like this in our city before. So many people from Asia and Africa and Europe. Look at this man! I wonder where he is from?”
My friend kept on commenting in this vein, seemingly unable to stop, eyes wide at the fascinating mosaic of human skin and culture in front of him. I just smiled. The ethnic diversity of our church family is indeed a powerful witness.
“Was there anything else you noticed? Do you have any other questions?” I asked.
“Yes, your services… are they always this long? It was very long.”
I just laughed. “Yes, it’s a little long. But I’m so glad you got to be part of it.”
Little children and people from lots of different ethnicities, all worshiping Jesus together in a very long service. Not at all a bad first introduction to the local church.