As Slow As It Takes

When we came to the field we thought that we were already on the slow track when it came to leadership development. Many popular missions methodologies advocate handing over significant authority to new believers very quickly, within a matter of weeks or months. Some even have unbelievers facilitating and leading Bible studies. These methods teach that the upfront direct leadership of the missionaries keep the local church planting work from multiplying and keep it dependent on the expert outsider. So, the direct involvement of the foreigner is kept to an absolute minimum, and leadership responsibility is handed over as quickly as possible. What of the biblical qualifications for elders/overseers/pastors? Often a new title is used to skirt these requirements, such as “house church leader.” It’s true, Paul never explicitly says that a house church leader/facilitator/trainer can’t be a new convert. Alas, play with language enough and you can get around just about any otherwise clear verse of scripture.

In this kind of atmosphere, we knew that we were in the minority with our conviction that we needed to spend three to four years pouring into local men before they would be ready to lead. This conviction came out of the desire to be faithful to leadership standards laid out in 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They also came out of ministry experience in our own culture where it really took two to three years to truly know a man’s character. We added on a year or so to account for the difficulty of “seeing” character through a foreign language and culture. Our context in Central Asia had also already experienced several waves of church planting implosions. One dynamic that was present in all of them was local leaders who were given position and authority apparently before their character could handle it. The Central Asian tendency toward domineering leadership combined with a Western missionary culture terrified of being paternalistic and the toxic brew that resulted poisoned many a promising church plant. We came to believe that three to four years would be necessary to push back against this tendency toward domineering leadership and to model instead a humble, servant leadership. If we were viewed as paternalistic by other Westerners, then so be it.

The fascinating thing is that even our slow track was not nearly slow enough. A couple years ago I heard a Central Asian pastor from a nearby country being interviewed. He was speaking of the tendency Western missionaries have of giving a church planter salary to local believers way too quickly, and in a way that sidesteps the local church that might already exist and may have important insight into why that brother is not in a position of leadership yet. This pastor spoke of the slow labor of love it is to see a Central Asian new believer mature to a point where they can handle leadership in the local church.

“In our years of ministry here, we have seen it takes about seven years for a new believer to be ready to lead,” he said.

Then he continued, smiling, “It took Jesus three and a half years with his disciples (and they were still a mess). Why should we in Central Asia be surprised if it takes us twice as long as it took Jesus?”

This pastor’s experience and logic stuck with me and I began interacting with veteran workers and other faithful pastors from Central Asia and the Middle East on this question of timing. What I found was a general agreement among long-term workers (usually those who had experienced a church plant implosion or two) on the wisdom of this kind of seven-year perspective. The response from local pastors was even more vehement.

“Yes! Foreign workers always appoint men as pastors and leaders who are not ready! This is damaging the church severely. Please take the time necessary, perhaps seven years or even longer, to make sure these men are faithful.”

This feedback fits with our own experience in our local church plant. By three to four years in, the men who came to faith out of Islam were indeed growing tremendously in their biblical knowledge and even in their ministry ability. But it was the character piece that kept emerging as a red flag. Tragic immaturity in interpersonal conflict, a willingness to lie when convenient, a buckling under persecution, a tendency to excuse certain cultural sins – these sorts of issues kept putting the pause button on our team discussions about moving these brothers into more leadership.

We could see these things because we were interacting with these brothers in their local language and involved with them in a life-on-life discipleship. Had we taken a more hands-off approach (non-residential, not in the mother tongue, Westerner not leading) advocated by much of missiology, we would have been unable to see these character issues clearly. And we would have appointed these men as pastors or given them pastoral authority, perhaps without the official title. As so often happens, we would have promoted a man in the “potential leader” category to the “qualified leader” category prematurely. And we would have put him in an extremely dangerous position.

Instead, we learned that for the sake of the church, we needed to go twice as slow. Has this been frustrating and discouraging at times? Absolutely. Many of us cross-cultural church planters are more gifted as evangelists and starters and find ourselves now in temporary pastor-shepherd roles that feel a lot like two-to-three-years for a decade. But what else is to be done? Shall we continue to take shortcuts around the biblical requirements for a leader’s character so that we can get back to the ministry we feel more gifted at? Should we continue the pattern of appointing men who are not ready, only to see their lives implode and their churches fall apart? What of the pressing demands of lostness around us? Can this kind of time-consuming investment in the local church be justified?

We must be willing to go as slow as necessary in order to see faithful local leaders raised up. We can only do this by trusting God with the timing, the adjusted expectations, and the weight of the lostness around us. We need to remember that the existence and health of Christ’s church is not in opposition to his plan to reach all peoples. In fact, the healthy local church is God’s means of reaching all peoples. Or are we imposing our own arbitrary timelines on God’s plan to reach a people group? The promise, after all, is for a believing remnant from each people in eternity, not that we will saturate a people group with the good news in our own generation. Should we aim for gospel saturation? By all means, but not as a promise and not at the expense of laying solid foundations for the local church. To do so would be to try to fight a war and to ignore the need for supply lines. As those who study warfare say, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. An army is not judged by its ability to make a strong initial attack, but by its ability to sustain that attack until victory is achieved. And that involves a lot of less-than-exciting long-term planning, training, and preparation.

It may take a minimum of seven years to see faithful leaders raised up in Central Asia. It may take less, or more, in another unreached region. Are we willing to surrender our own expectations and dreams to see faithful men entrusted with the truth? May we not only be willing to go fast for the kingdom when necessary, but also to go slow, as slow as it takes.

Photo by Bogdan Costin on Unsplash

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