Longevity in one place on the field. An elusive thing for our region of Central Asia. The contemporary missions effort in most of this region really began in earnest in the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union and other dynamics of globalization allowed sustained access for many foreign missionaries. They entered mostly not on religious visas, but as NGO workers, teachers, students, and businessmen. Creative access has indeed allowed some degree of access now for almost thirty years. This is worthy of celebration, even as that access looks increasingly threatened in many areas.
Yet it has proved remarkably difficult for long-term workers to actually stay long-term. Present are all the usual reasons why missionaries leave: team conflict, moral failure, burnout, trauma, health problems, family issues, etc. Added to these would be the difficulty of obtaining steady visas, geopolitical instability, danger from war and terrorism, and the difficulty of doing missions work among hard to access people groups and hard to learn languages. Central Asia just seems to wear workers down, not usually through some catastrophic event (although this occasionally happens) but rather through successive years that all come to feel like one step forward, two steps back.
The work is slow work. The harvest is there, but much work is needed to just gain access to the field and then to remove the rocks. Movements? If you’re enamored with those you will end up moving to a different region. We don’t really have veteran workers who have stayed here for decades that we can lean on. Most got kicked out or left. The average length of a long-term worker here is six to eight years. Just long enough to get really proficient at a new language and culture. Just long enough to get truly disillusioned. I’ve read that six to eight years in is also a very common time period for marriages to fall apart. Perhaps there is a connection in these similar time frames.
It’s said sometimes that we all stand on the shoulders of giants, of those who have gone before us. But here we have no giants. They all got kicked out before they could reach that stature. As one of my friends and colleagues once put it, “It’s more like we stand on the shoulders of the hobbits who have gone before us!” Our forbears had access for a few years, set up a platform, reached basic proficiency in the language, saw some friends come to faith, saw a couple church plant attempts implode, then had to leave. A fresh crop of workers is brought in and the same thing happens on repeat.
Some respond to these realities by calling for a radical reimagination of the role of the missionary and the nature of cross cultural church planting. “We need a new paradigm!” And yet this hasn’t worked either. The new-paradigmers experience the same rate of turnover and disappointment as the rest of us. No, we don’t need some brand new model that hasn’t been present in 2,000 years of church history (though we probably need a great many tweaks). Rather, we need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the patience of Job, the endurance of Paul, longevity of John, the true rest found in Jesus. We need the spiritual power to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58). We need prayers for increased faith so that we will not grow discouraged at the hardness of the soil. We need partner churches and leaders who will celebrate the small victories that are to be had and who don’t move on to more high-impact partners.
I was once at a conference for a different region of the world. A missions pastor from a prominent church was presenting. Speaking of how excited he was to hear of the hundreds of churches being planted in this other region, he referenced my focus people group, which his church had adopted ten years previously. “You know, we adopted them, and you can’t really un-adopt someone… but, we are really excited about our partnership with this other group in this other region. It is a high-impact partnership! So many churches are being planted through this exciting methodology!” He didn’t know who I was or where I worked, but it was stunningly blunt and mercenary thing to say. In one sense he was right, my people group looks exciting and romantic in the beginning, but then turns out to be full of a thousand false starts.
In a generation wired for instant gratification, we workers in Central Asia (and our partners) are in need of the historic virtues of loyalty, courage, honor, persistence, and even duty. Our region has not had the hundreds of years of missionary presence that others have. Our Careys, Judsons, and Taylors have not yet emerged. We are many times the first missionaries in millennia to live in a certain city or town. In the mysterious providence of the Spirit, we are seeing slow and steady growth throughout the region – but not yet a true awakening (with the possible exception of Iran). Can we posture ourselves such that we are able to accept this reality of hardness while not letting go of holy ambition? We need to not despise the day of small things (Zech 4:20), yet at the same time have hearts that earnestly believe full-blown awakening is possible (2 Thess 3:1).
We need prayer for these things. Would you pray that if we must be hobbits, that we would be found to have been faithful hobbits? That somehow there would be a window by which some of us could even become giants, old wizened veterans who have lived here for decades on end? We know that the promises of scripture will come true. We trust in the power of the word, the spirit, and the people of God. And yet humanly speaking, unless the people of God are able to stay longer, we will not be able to see healthy churches planted here that last.
And that is our vision – healthy churches planting other healthy churches that last, until our people group and all those in our region are full of indigenous local churches, tenacious and glorious embassies of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1st Corinthians 15:58 ESV)