When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first.
I haven’t always done this. And I’ve been hurt and hurt others by not following this wise practice. It’s quite easy to justify bypassing the discipler, especially when there are theological and methodological differences. “Why should I run this by that other foreigner? He doesn’t understand healthy church. He doesn’t know the language and culture well. Or he isn’t reformed. Clearly this local has approached me because he has seen our work is more solid.”
We might have the opportunity to start studying the Bible with a local, to invite them into a training program, to hire them, or to invite them to our church plant or discipleship group. But these wonderful opportunities can become hidden landmines if we ignore that other believer who has invested so much in this local.
Not that there are never times to bypass someone’s mentor. If that mentor teaches a false gospel, then that would be a different situation. But I’m referring here to mentors or disciplers who are evangelicals in the sense that they agree on the fundamentals of orthodoxy and the gospel.
What do we accomplish when we run a certain new plan or idea with a local believer by their primary discipler? First, we honor that person and the spiritual investment they have made in that local. This is very important for modeling how believing leaders should relate to one another. Second, we have the opportunity to get buy-in from that discipler, meaning they will be supporting this new plan from their position of relational weight. It’s more likely to succeed if the local’s first Christian friend and mentor isn’t taking potshots at your efforts when visiting with that local, but is instead increasing their trust in you. Third, this gives us an opportunity to be aware of hidden issues that might be going on underneath this local’s excitement about us and our new opportunity.
What might those hidden issues be? Perhaps that discipler called the local out on some sin, and the local was unwilling to repent – and that’s why they’ve excitedly sought you out to be their new discipler. Maybe there are longstanding issues with sin or weakness that provide helpful context or a wise change in direction. Or the local is upset about his discipler not turning into a patron for him in financial terms and so he’s moving on – hoping that you will be the one who bankrolls him. It could also be because of some real issue with the discipler himself, something that can come out more clearly if we actually meet with them instead of sidestepping them.
During a season where my family was the only one from our previous team on the field, a neighboring country had a devastating earthquake. I was asked by my organization if I would help lead a relief project. The only problem was I couldn’t get into this country as an American, so I would have to send locals in to do the work. I planned to send in some local believers, because of the deeper level of trustworthiness that is supposed to be there among those of the household of faith. Our initial plan was to send in supplies that we bought ourselves. But there were issues at the border. And friends in the relief and development world pushed back, saying that it hurt the local economy of the area affected if we flooded it with supplies from the outside. Better to send in workers with cash who can buy the needed supplies locally.
100,000 were homeless. It was winter. I had my parameters – hire a couple local believers who speak the right language, send them in with tens of thousands of dollars to buy relief supplies and distribute them, and just make sure there are receipts and photos to document everything. I knew only a few local believers who spoke the right language, and one of them turned me down. Another agreed to do it. So I reached out to a new English student of mine, *Tony, knowing that he was a new believer and knew the right language. Tony was thrilled to do the work and committed to the project right away.
We were already far along in the planning process when it dawned on me to inform Tony’s discipler, his best friend of ten years, another American missionary. I called him up and let him know, and as we talked I began to wonder if I had gone about things in the wrong order. He was gracious, but clearly concerned about the whole setup. Apparently, Tony had some deep money issues, and some issues with honesty. His discipler was worried that this would be a bad situation for him and provide some strong temptation. But it was too late at this point to back out, or so I felt. Plus, I had some concerns about this foreigner’s methodology and theology – and those concerns didn’t leave me as open to his experienced counsel as I should have been. I proceeded as planned, trusting that everything would work out.
The earthquake relief project initially looked to be a smashing success. But after only a few months, things began to unravel. $4,000 of the project cash was “stolen,” likely an inside job. There was evidence of inappropriate use of the funds when they were on the other side of the border. Tony and the other man’s love of money was stirred up, and they began deceitfully scheming to get funding from other Christian groups for their ministry efforts, which ultimately led to a heartbreaking church split. It had all started so well, but ultimately proved to be kind of a disaster.
In hindsight, before I even called Tony to float the idea to him of doing this project, I should have called his mentor and gotten his counsel and his blessing. He probably would have told me not to send a new believer with money issues across an international border with tens of thousands of dollars. But in my haste and presumption I was only focused on helping those in need as quickly as possible. And I bypassed the discipler.
Sadly, my tale is not that uncommon. In contexts where missionaries from different organizations are working, relationships with local believers often overlap. And in our suspicion of one another and excitement to agree to new plans with locals (especially when they affirm us so warmly), we often end up hurting other missionaries, getting hurt ourselves, and undermining the spiritual growth of our local friends.
When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first. In this is wisdom.
*names changed for security