My local friends in Central Asia really believe in authority. We could generalize and say that most Eastern cultures lean this way. They view society as hierarchical and they understand each tier of authority going up the social pyramid to be both necessary and worthy of great respect. They can teach us a lot about honoring authority. However, they also hold very strongly to the view that some kinds of tasks or service are not only below a leader’s dignity, but even shameful for him. Leadership is to be honored and supplied with its privileges. However, leaders are not to bring shame on themselves or their community by stooping to do the dirtiest, most menial jobs. Humble service is for those on the bottom, not those on the top.
My Western culture, on the other hand, is thick with anti-authoritarian feeling. Authority and hierarchy are often viewed through the crude lens of oppressor/oppressed. Westerners want to believe that the true nature of society is flat and egalitarian. Hierarchical leadership is to be done away with when possible, and only tolerated when necessary. The real thing, the West feels, is for us all to treat one another as equals and for no one to feel that they are above the most basic, even dirty, work. In Western society, we express these values by sometimes mocking our leaders (keeps them in their place) and by often glamorizing the work of the little guy. Even in the Church, the teaching of mutual service can be wielded in such a way as to deny the goodness of authority.
Interestingly, in John 13, Jesus honors authority while also transforming that authority through humble service. In doing so, he holds two things together that we tend to drive apart.
 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Notice how Jesus says in verse 13 that his disciples are right to call him teacher and Lord. Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, is not doing away with the hierarchical relationship that exists between himself and his disciples. They are right to honor and respect him as their leader, and he does not want them to lose sight of this. However, he has just done something positively scandalous for a Jewish religious leader of the first century – he has washed his disciples’ feet. This was a job not only reserved for slaves, but for gentile slaves. Jesus, the respected authority, humbled (even shamed?) himself and did one of the dirtiest, most dishonorable tasks of all. Then in verses 14 and 15 he tells his disciples that he wants them to serve one another in this same way. Here Jesus models and commands something that breaks the leadership paradigms of all fallen cultures: servant leadership.
This passage serves up a rebuke to both the East and the West. The East is rebuked for its penchant to privilege leaders so that they exist to be served, rather than to serve. Pride and entitlement in leaders is called out, but interestingly, not their role. This is where the West then gets rebuked. Leaders and their roles are still to be respected. The values of humble servant leadership do not negate the reality or the goodness of a world full of hierarchies. Jesus does not support some eventual Christian future where the priesthood of all believers means leadership is no longer necessary nor honored.
The balance that Jesus models so well for us is one in which leaders are honored, but they respond to this honoring by embracing sacrificial and costly service. This service in turn generates more respect, and that respect spurs on more lowly service, in a dance of sorts of mutual submission. Ancient Roman patrons were known not to address their clients as such, but as “friends,” meaning equals. But Christian leaders are called to go even further than this, not merely using different titles to communicate that they are gracious patrons, but embracing work that actually puts them lower than their followers.
What might this kind of lowering look like? In the West, it might mean staff pastors sometimes helping out with different tasks that are commonly delegated to the interns or to volunteers, similar to how in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, the high king of Anniera was known to often go out and work the totato fields alongside the farmers. In Central Asia, it might mean a pastor refusing the seat of honor, and instead sitting closer to the door, or helping to clear the dishes from the floor after a meal is finished. Yes, the leaders of the church need to be free from waiting tables in order to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, but this shouldn’t mean a complete separation from the kinds of service that would be our equivalent to foot washing.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15)
True leaders should be honored while also engaging in service that is viewed as below them – yes, as even shameful.
When modern dictators fall the societies they ruled tend to flounder and splinter. This is because they have previously been gutted. A dictator, in order to increase and maintain his power, needs to systematically weaken all other institutions of civil society that might serve as independent centers of power and organization. So he goes after religious institutions, the media, voluntary societies, other branches of government, etc. He will often permit a shell of these institutions to continue, but will appoint loyal cronies to head them up so that they no longer pose any legitimate challenge. The longer this goes on, the more a society is gutted of healthy systems and structures that it could use to organize and unify itself once the dictator is removed. Like some kind of ravenous fungus, a strongman consumes and replaces healthy systems and institutions as he feeds off his people, slowly choking the organizational life out of society.
This explains why certain Middle Eastern countries have done so poorly since the removal of their dictators in recent decades. During long decades of dictatorship, true civil society was turned into a zombie of its former self or driven underground. Often, the only network of institutions strong enough to endure the long stranglehold has been the conservative mosques, buttressed as they are by their religious ideology. Thus, when a dictator of a Muslim country falls, the West’s hopes for the emergence of a unifying liberal coalition are disappointed again and again. They liberals can’t seem to organize effectively, and it’s no wonder. All the institutions of the liberals and moderates were practically destroyed ages ago. Into this power vacuum then steps the Islamist fundamentalists, the only ones placed to organize and take over the uprising – even if said uprising began as a majority liberal movement.
An interesting parallel exists here between these political realities and the state of many churches in the Middle East and Central Asia – indeed, anywhere in the world where the culture tends to reward domineering leaders. As in society as a whole, a strongman over the church tends to take the rightful place of other legitimate systems and structures. Look at the few churches that exist in these areas, and you will notice a curious absence of things like healthy membership, responsible giving and finances, congregational accountability and discipline, and plurality of leadership. Instead of covenanted members, belonging to the church is equated with those who are loyal to the strongman. Instead of transparent finances, the pastor controls all the money. In the place of congregational discipline for its own members, you have the favor or displeasure of the leader. And there is no healthy plurality, just one charismatic, domineering personality that leaves no room for any legitimate pushback or accountability.
If we return to my preferred napkin diagram of a healthy church (described in a previous post), we see that a strongman completely replaces all of the characteristics of a healthy church that we would see in stage two, in what I’ve called an organized church.
Now, this diagram is simply a tool I’ve used to quickly summarize the characteristics of a healthy church as they relate to the typical stages a church plant goes through. Not all of the characteristics are rigidly sequential, but I would contend that the three stages of Formative, Organized, and Sending are a common pattern in how church plants develop – and, for our purposes today, that there is a qualitative difference between what is present in a formative church and what is there in an organized church. That difference lies in the intentional organization and systematization of what had previously been a gathering of believers functioning more organically.
A bible study that has really taken off might gather regularly for fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, and discipleship. They might share the gospel regularly with their friends and neighbors. All of these things are biblical and good. And while they can be organized into systems, they don’t have to be organized in order to be done well. They don’t demand careful planning and organization. They can exist in an organic fashion for a very long time with only basic plans put in place. The same cannot really be said for the characteristics in stage two. These require careful thought and planning and implementation if they are to even exist in a church plant. And they will not ever exist in a healthy way without great intentionality that leads to the birth of good systems. In fact, to simply wing the structures of stage two is to play with deadly fire that will burn many.
This required intentionality and creation of systems and structures explains why the elements of the organized church stage are absent or so underdeveloped in many house churches. These characteristics are complicated and time-consuming to figure out and it’s simply easier to keep punting their development until some future date. Often, there is a great deal of ignorance about how to actually begin to teach and then roll out things like membership, plural leadership, and discipline. This is why groups like 9 Marks focus so heavily on reviving both the knowledge and the practical details of good ecclesiology for the Church. Even those committed to these things in principle can often botch the implementation. I’ve often heard it said that the number one mistake of reformed church planters and church revitalizers is appointing elders too quickly.
However, this is so far assuming that the church planters, missionaries, and members want to see these systems developed. But often, past experience and current methodology commitments mean that the preference is for things to stay organic and natural (And this often has roots in Westerners’ own cultural moment of being post-institutional). Stage two will just happen naturally, it is claimed, as the Spirit eventually gets around to leading the locals into how to be a biblical church. Missionaries can live in a fantasy where the kinds of intentionality and organization required in their own culture for the church to function well are actually considered bad, or at least not really necessary in the more pristine cultures of foreign lands. Some even view focusing on the characteristics of stage two as bad for church multiplication, the kind of thing that leads to the terrible “I” word that is alleged to kill movements of the Spirit, institutionalization.
When you pair these Western postures with cultures already prone to domineering leadership, you get a lethal cocktail. The missionaries aren’t interested in pushing for organized church characteristics in their church plants. They want things to stay organic and rapidly multiplying. Locals, never having before known the power of a spiritual family organized in a healthy way, default to how their families, mosques, and government are run – strongman rule. Soon, a strongman does emerge who then goes on to make the church his own little fiefdom. The missionaries become perplexed and discouraged at what has happened, and either fall in line themselves or are eventually run off when the strongman feels they are a threat to his monopoly. The end result is a sick church, one without biblical membership, giving, leadership, or discipline. Biblical mission, often the final characteristic to be developed, will also never happen through this kind of church where a spiritual dictator has settled down to feed on the sheep.
If we do not plant churches with a willingness ourselves to lead in the development of stage two characteristics, we do a great disservice to the local believers we are claiming to serve. Like a society naively asked to go vote after decades of dictator rule, we set them up for failure. A power vacuum will always be filled. And in strongman societies, little dictators spring out of the ground like so many narcissus flowers in the Central Asian fields of spring. Local churches all over the world desperately need systems of healthy giving, leadership, discipline, and membership. How will they know what these structures look like if we do not intentionally teach and model them? Or do we really believe that these systems will somehow contaminate indigenous churches more so than the inevitable strongman who will take over in their absence?
Should stage two characteristics of a healthy church be contextualized? Absolutely. And yet here we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. An imperfect effort to contextualize a system of membership is far better than never initiating formal membership because we are afraid of some kind of Western contamination taking place. Covenants can be modified for the pressing needs of specific contexts. Membership lists and vows can be oral rather than written and signed. Leadership can be chosen and honored in ways that are locally sensitive. The Scriptures provide ample room to carefully apply the principles of church organization to a given culture. “All things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) does not mean you should simply copy/paste the systems of First Baptist Church back home. But it does mean we should give serious attention to the right ordering (organizing) of the church. As Paul said to one church planting team member, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What was asked of Titus in his cross-cultural setting is still asked of us today.
Strongmen will never coexist peacefully with healthy systems that can hold them to account. They will always seek to prevent their emergence or to choke the life out of them if they are present. On the other hand, the best way to prevent the people of God being ruled by these domineering men is to order the church wisely, even if this involves great intentionality and careful organization. Protecting the church means organizing it so that it might fully display the glory of God – not only in its organic love and obedience, but also in its wise systems and structures.
The words were spoken in a soft voice. The speaker, a silver-haired older man with deep blue eyes, sat just as calm and hospitable as ever in his armchair as he spoke them. But the effect of these words was like a bomb – some kind of vacuum grenade that sucked all the noise out of the room and shut the mouths of a room-full of arguing twenty-somethings.
Well, not all the mouths were shut. Barham’s* mouth was hanging open, cut off in angry mid-sentence. The change coming over him was quite remarkable. His red face was returning to his natural Central Asian olive tone, the deep creases in his forehead were relaxing, and a softness seemed to return to his eyes and even his entire posture.
Somehow, our older host had known just the right words to say to defuse our explosive situation. The words he uttered cut to Barham’s heart, tapping deeply into Central Asian values of honoring the elderly and being a gracious guest. I sat back and exhaled slowly. Our host, pastor Dave*, had once again proven the power of a wise and soft tongue.
Barham, a new believer and a refugee, had moved in with his girlfriend, an American who was also professing to be a new believer. As their friend and community group leader, I had called them to repent and stop living together. When this counsel was rebuffed, we had brought a couple other believers into the situation. This only led to more angry opposition. Finally, we informed them we would be bringing their situation to the whole community group as a step on the way to informing the entire church. Not known to shy away from a fight, Barham and his girlfriend had decided to come to the meeting where we would inform the group in order to defend themselves and to tell us off for our self-righteousness.
In this season our community group was a motley crew of young Bible college students, newlyweds, internationals, and new believers. We were all very young and things were often very messy. We jokingly nicknamed our group Corinth because of the way the Spirit was working powerfully to save and sanctify even as sin messes spilled out on the regular, setting things on fire. This group was where I first cut my teeth in leadership in our sending church, and I was often overwhelmed and very much in over my head.
Wisely, each of the community groups was overseen by one of the elders of the church, who also served as a mentor to the group leader. These pastors would sometimes attend the groups themselves, often rotating between the several they oversaw. Dave was our appointed elder, but every week he was also at our group meetings (perhaps it was clear that we really needed this), though he seldom spoke during the meeting itself. He seemed content to let me do most of the leading, while he and his wife brought a welcome measure of age and gentle wisdom to our very young group.
The day that Barham and his girlfriend showed up to challenge us over step 2.5 of the Matthew 18 discipline process, we were meeting at Dave’s house. This proved to be providential, setting up Dave to remind Barham of this crucial point after the conversation had gotten out of hand. Earlier, I had done my best to handle the awkwardness of Barham and his girlfriend showing up and had also tried hard to be clear, kind, and firm as we responded to their accusations. But things had escalated, and it had practically become a shouting match as I and other believers present tried to speak sense to our friends who were running headlong into sin and ignoring all counsel.
But Dave’s wise word had evaporated all the anger in the room, and opened the door for spiritual sense to prevail. Barham hadn’t been willing to listen to us, his believing peers. But he softened under the gaze and the truth spoken lovingly by Dave, his fatherly host. That day proved to be a turning point, and Barham and his girlfriend did end up living separately again until they were eventually married.
This wasn’t the first or the last time that I saw pastor Dave drop a wisdom bomb, though it was one of the most dramatic. I had begun to see this also happen in elders meetings, where a group of us leaders-in-training were permitted to attend and observe. While other personalities were stronger or more charismatic, the room hushed every time Dave had something to say. There seemed to be several reasons for this. First, he didn’t speak up that often, so when he did, everyone was curious to hear what he was thinking. Second, he was the eldest of the elders present, having spent many years ministering to rural Kentucky churches, having experienced the death of his first wife, and living now with the heartbreak of adult children who were not believers. He had a wealth of experience gained through sorrow, earned on a long road of faithful service. And finally, when he did speak, the presence of spiritual wisdom in his words was unmistakable. Younger men like us who were mainly drawn to the words of the more dynamic leaders in the room watched and learned as those same dynamic men hung on every quiet thing that Dave had to say.
I remember a small prayer meeting from around this time, where Dave was giving a brief encouragement to the ten or so people present. In a season where I was tempted to equate busyness with faithfulness, he told us, “Our Lord led a busy life, but he didn’t have a busy heart… he didn’t have a busy heart.” As Dave paused thoughtfully, I remember wrestling with this small, yet weighty comment, knowing that I for sure had a busy heart, but realizing that my Lord indeed did not. Dave didn’t seem to have a busy heart either.
Proverbs 25:15 says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” In other words, do not be deceived, there is tremendous strength in gentle and wise words spoken at the right time. When this takes place, a soft tongue can break even hardest bone – or the hardest heart. I am reminded of Jesus’ gentle words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:17-18, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” These gentle words of the Messiah proved extremely powerful – they brought about not only this woman’s repentance, but the awakening of her village also through her.
I have seen this proverb lived out among very few men. But there are some, like Dave, who know and model the power of a gentle tongue. That tense evening with Barham in Dave’s living room, and every time I have seen him use it since, I have longed to someday have a tongue like that, to be able to break the hard and brittle with a soft word of truth fitly spoken. Like some kind of struggling apprentice trying to learn a new skill, I have tried my hand at it over the years. It’s not usually had the same effect. But there are times where it has seemed to at least not make things worse, and a very few times where someone’s entire demeanor has changed because I responded with gentleness rather than matching their combativeness.
It’s easy to feel like men like Dave are a different breed, some higher rank of Christian who have found the secret skills of wisdom. But then I remember that all wisdom comes from the same source, and that it is not selectively and secretly handed out to a special class of Christian. No, wisdom stands on the street corners, inviting all who would to come and learn from her (Prov 1:20). It is given generously by our God to all who are in need of it and dare to ask again for more of it (James 1:5). There is a trustworthy path to one day having a gentle tongue that can break a bone. And that is the path of asking our Father for wisdom again and again and again – and learning to watch those to whom the gift has already been given in abundance.
Yes, there is power in dynamic, charismatic speech. The Spirit does gift some in this way. But let us not forget the power of a gentle tongue, also gifted by the same Spirit of wisdom. Let us lean in and seek to learn when its softness silences a room and pierces hard hearts. When we are in its house, let us put our hands over our hasty mouths. For there is a power in a gentle tongue that is often overlooked, but is not to be underestimated.
A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.
This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.
It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.
Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.
What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.
First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.
The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.
My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.
Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.
Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.
We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.
But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.
What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.
My wife has always maintained that those going into ministry should first work a few years in food service. Her main point in this claim is that you will never treat that server, barista, or otherwise unimpressive worker the same after you’ve known what it’s like to be in their shoes. My wife worked her way through college, picking up countless shifts in the campus cafe, serving at banquets, and working in the cafeteria. She finished her undergrad with no debt at all, a feat that her future husband was unfortunately not able to replicate.
Most of my wife’s jobs were on the campus of Southern seminary, where she attended Boyce college. Over the four years she worked on campus, her brief or repeated service interactions with students, staff, and visiting leaders gave her a unique window into the character of each. This is because the way we treat those with supposedly unimportant jobs always says something about our humility. Seminary can be a heady place. World-renowned scholars are teaching and being made. Current leaders rub shoulders with future leaders. Famous pastors preach in chapel and visit to give prestigious lectures. In other words, the temptations of fear of man and showing partiality are regularly present, made all the more slippery in that everything is set in a context of preparation for ministry. After all, why slow down and engage the college kid behind the counter in a black apron when standing right over there is the author of your favorite theology book?
These dynamics meant that my wife and others working service jobs always noticed the ones who would indeed slow down and truly engage them as people and fellow heirs of the kingdom. And of course, they would also notice when students or leaders didn’t extend even basic Christian courtesy. Now, everyone has bad days where we are lost in our thoughts or discouraged and forget to make eye contact or interact genuinely with the person behind the cash register. The issue is not what happens as a one-off, but what is the pattern of our lives and interactions with those in everyday or lowly roles around us? Do we truly see and value those around us whom the world deems unimportant? Do we ever slow down and genuinely engage them, seeking even to delight in them? Pay attention to those who do this well, for they are the kind of leaders worth following.
In the field of leadership training, some authors speak of the “waiter principle,” the idea that how a leader treats a server speaks to whether that leader is truly a leader of integrity or not. A true leader will understand that every role in their organization or company matters, and this will affect how they treat those in even the lowest roles. In Central Asia, it’s not so much the restaurant servers who get treated poorly, but the cleaners or the chai boys. When we’ve taught leadership seminars in local universities, we’ve learned to slow down and focus on this principle, because in a patron-client hierarchical society, the culture says that it’s actually shameful for leaders to treat the unimportant with respect. While Western culture is a little stronger on this point, the temptations toward showing favoritism toward the important are really universal. No matter where you live, our sin natures want to judge by appearances, honoring the rich, talented, and important, and belittling or ignoring the poor or average among us.
Somewhere like seminary can illustrate why it can be downright foolish to judge by appearances. That foreign exchange student making your sandwich might in a few years be leading a thriving church overseas and show up on a 9 Marks podcast (as took place in my earbuds this week). The guy doing landscaping may end up planting a church in one of the hardest cities in North America. The gal making your coffee may become a well-known author, or, in my wife’s case, serve faithfully on a frontier church-planting team in a region overseas where many others would never even consider raising their families. Basic wisdom tells us to honor even the lowly because we cannot predict if or when they will be lifted up to a place higher than ours – and if that someday happens, then our honor or shame is tied to how we treated them before.
But this strategic wisdom really shouldn’t be our primary motivation to show respect to those who appear unimportant among us. It still assumes that it’s the potentially-powerful who are worthy of more honor. Instead, the deeper motivation should be that God has welcomed the lowly, honored them, and even delights in them. We need to remember the upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30). Jesus welcomes little children and rebukes those who don’t (Mark 10:14). He befriends the outcasts (Mark 2:16). He pronounces blessing on the poor and pronounces woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). Not many of God’s chosen are rich, powerful, and important in this world (1 Cor 1:26-31). The sick and the poor are the true treasures of the church, and every person we interact with has a fascinating story that overflows with God’s glory, and the potential to themselves be eternally glorious – to even be a judge over angels (1 Cor 6:3).
Being reminded of the nature of God’s kingdom can help us live in such a way that we become believers and leaders who truly see the lowly. Picturing that service worker resurrected and remembering that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3) can transform our everyday interactions with those around us – and give life to those who often feel invisible. And if seeing and delighting in those deemed unimportant becomes a pattern in our lives, then we are well on our way to developing this character trait of a true and trustworthy leader ourselves.
While I didn’t have too many jobs in food service (Stints at Jamba Juice and Jimmy Johns showed me my hands could never seem to move fast enough), I have often experienced a similar dynamic because I don’t present as physically or interpersonally impressive. I have a pretty average appearance and bearing and I find myself not very good at first impressions in a Western context. This means that those I’m briefly introduced to often quickly move on to those who appear more interesting. I can’t help but notice that there’s often a very different sort of interest shown later – once they learn about my ministry and story. This means that those who show a kind engagement before they know about my background and ministry accomplishments truly stand out. Their posture toward an unimpressive person has shone a light on their character. Without knowing it, they have outed themselves as humble and trustworthy.
I’ll never forget the time I met a very well-known pastor and author during my first week as a green, 25-year-old missions pastor. This leader was a regular speaker at T4G. He had published numerous books and spoken to tens of thousands. He was at our church for an important meeting with our senior leadership, and I was somehow invited to sit in, even though I was the brand new kid on staff. Yet in the hallway, as we made cursory introductions, this leader didn’t quickly move on to talk with the more dynamic leaders like I was used to. Instead, he slowed down and turned to me, deeply interested in the couple of details that my lead pastor had told him about me. Looking me in the eyes, he seemed to be fascinated by what he had heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, I hear you’re just beginning a new role as a missions pastor. I am so excited about your ministry.” I was so taken aback by this kind of focus that I have no idea what I said in response. It was qualitatively different to be seen in that way. And it made me desire to be the kind of leader who would see others around me, even when they haven’t achieved enough to “deserve” that kind of focus. It also made me want to repent for the times I was guilty of ignoring the unimpressive.
Leaders who see the lowly and unimpressive are the kind of leaders worth following – and the kind of leaders we should want to become. This is because how we treat the lowly is truly a window into our character. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we meet someone who doesn’t appear that important. And if God is calling you to go into ministry, then follow a wise woman’s advice and consider first working some years in food service.
“Before we agree for you to meet with these ladies, we need to know what your ministry strategy is.” I could see my wife’s face cloud over as she read this text. During a difficult season of ministry where she was struggling to make meaningful connections with local ladies in our new city, she had heard of a community center run by other believing expats that was in need of someone who could do local language Bible study with a few local women. As one gifted to do this very thing, we were excited for her to be able to help these ladies understand God’s word, especially since there was no one else at this community center who could currently help them. But once again, the “S word” was being deployed as the primary filter for partnership. Not my wife’s testimony, not her doctrine, not questions regarding her character or competency, but the deal-breaker for simple Bible study with local women was going to be her position on strategy of all things. Her ministry methods would mean she would or would not be allowed to study the Bible with several open women from an unreached people group. If my wife didn’t espouse the right strategy, then these expats would effectively deny these local women the chance to study the Bible. During a season of attempting to bring healthy change in a city deeply divided by ministry methods and strategy, this text made us feel somewhat angry and somewhat sick.
Many Christians in ministry are prone to be dogmatic about their methods – even more dogmatic than they are about their actual dogma (their teaching/doctrine). Missionaries are particularly at risk of this, likely due to the specific needs and gifts required by the mission field context. There are a few methods that are commanded more explicitly by the scriptures, things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but most of our ministry methods are an effort in trying to apply biblical principles faithfully so as to come up with faithful expressions of those principles for our unique setting. Study what the New Testament has to say about musical worship and you’ll see what I mean here. Lots of principles about worship, almost nothing regarding the actual forms we should employ. Nevertheless, Christians in ministry become very dogmatic about our own preferred methods, even when the scriptures don’t speak to them specifically. Rather than treating a method’s importance as primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on how clear God’s word is about it, particular methods are elevated to be primary based on some other standard – a standard which is sometimes unexamined, and other times mere pragmatism. When this happens, we expose ourselves to at least seven profound dangers.
Limiting our biblical options. When we zero in on one expression of a biblical principle as the way to do it, rather than understanding that it is a faithful way to do it, we limit our biblical options. As a former house-church-only advocate, this was an error that I fell into. House church is a great biblical option for some contexts. But if we are in place where church can happen in other settings outside the home, why would we automatically rule those options out as less faithful or less effective? Ministry is hard anywhere in the world. It is particularly hard when we are seeking to plant churches among the unreached. We need all our biblical options on the table.
Failing to do good contextualization. We often become dogmatic about certain methods merely because of reasons that are personal and tied to our own cultural background. “We will not use a projector for songs because of the baggage I have with it from the church I grew up in.” But have we stopped to study our focus culture to understand what using a projector might mean to the actual locals? It really does not matter all that much what it means back home. Instead, is it a biblical option and how does it communicate in the local culture? Good contextualization is often prevented because those in ministry enter their new contexts with a prepackaged set of methods that they have gotten from their books, their trainers, their past experiences, or some study based on a movement in another part of the world. Thus, they fail to first stop and ask insightful questions of their actual target culture – and so they fail to do good contextualization.
Encouraging unnecessary division. Paul says that division among Christians is necessary (1 Cor 11:19). But we must strive to keep these divisions appropriate to how central something is to the truth of the gospel and the central teachings of the Bible. As others have so helpfully written, we must know the right hills to die on. Some issues are worth dying for since they separate saving faith from false gospels. Others are worth dividing over and require us to be in separate churches, such as our ecclesiology. Then others are worth debating for within the same church, like our understanding of the end times. Then there are issues to personally decide for, such as whether we should drink alcohol or eat pork in a Muslim context. When we fail to do “triage” like this with our ministry methods, we end up treating tertiary things as if they are secondary or even primary. For example, if one missionary is fine with introducing one local believer to another when they are not naturally part of the same “household,” other workers might ostracize this missionary because they are violating their movement strategy. Sadly, these kinds of divisions will also not be limited to the community of ministry professionals, but will trickle down to those we disciple as well.
Exposing others to false condemnation. Our preferred methods often have an uncanny correlation to our personal gifts and strengths. When we get dogmatic about these methods, we can cause other believers to feel as if they are a less valuable part of the body of Christ because they are not as strong of an evangelist, not as good at reproducing stories, not as expressive in corporate worship, etc. We must be aware of the accusations that our brothers and sisters will hear when we speak or believe too dogmatically about our ministry methods. We may be exposing them to struggle with false condemnation.
Becoming a silver bullet salesman. This danger is particularly for those of us who experience seasons of success or breakthrough in ministry. After a year of very encouraging ministry in college, one mentor cautioned me to make sure I didn’t assume that my experience would be true for all others also. It was sound advice. Fresh off a year of seeing my Muslim friends miraculously come to faith, I was at risk of sharing the “gospel” of my methods with any who would listen, implicitly communicating that they would see the same results if they followed the same formula. The ministry and missions world is full of books and speakers who are effectively silver bullet salesmen. Praise God, they saw breakthrough in their particular ministry. But now they’ve written a book and reverse-engineered their experience so that if you follow these simple steps you too can be a part of this new thing that God is doing! Some will even imply that they have uniquely rediscovered the methods of the early church which have been lost over the centuries. This kind of talk is heady stuff, but is really spiritual naivete – self-deception at best and spiritual pride at worst.
Leaving a more temporary impact. When we become dogmatic about our ministry methods, we zero in on things that may be proving to be effective in our own little slice of culture and history. But by focusing on these expressions rather than on the principles they come from, we end up leaving a more temporary – rather than lomg-term – impact. The next generation’s context may be drastically different from my own. If I try to pass on my methods, they may prove to be ineffective. If I pass on my principles, these have the flexibility to be applied in countless diverse contexts. This is what separates the Christian books that continue to be read century after century from those that are forgotten. This is also why Protestant principles such ad fontes (to the source) and semper reformanda (always reforming) have given Protestant Christianity such dynamism and flexibility in the last 500 years compared to the older churches that became so chained to their Latin, Greek, or Syriac ministry methods (i.e. traditions).
Opening the door to doctrinal drifting. We have a limited capacity for dogmatism. I have often observed that missionaries who are dogmatic about methodology are less convictional when it comes to theology, and vice-versa. It seems we simply cannot live in the real world and be dogmatic about everything. We must fix ourselves to some particular area of importance which then becomes our ballast for navigating everything else. If our north star is “right” methodology, then that means right doctrine is not what we ultimately look to for guidance. This opens the door to doctrine and theology slowly feeling less and less important, as we convince ourselves that right practice is really the main thing in the end. Yet dogmatism in our methods has another path that leads to doctrinal drifting, or to what many are calling deconstruction – when our much-hyped methods let us down. If we have been fixated on the false promise that the “right” methods will be a guaranteed formula for success, then we are in for a gut punch when they inevitably fail. And the enemy uses that season of disorientation to convince us that it wasn’t just the methods, it was also the theology that we believed that led us here. This seems to be happening all around us as in the West as Christians grapple with abuse in the church, and proceed throw out both unhealthy leadership methods along with complementarian theology.
Ministry method dogmatism will lead us to some bad places if we let it shape our lives and ministries. We need to open our eyes to the dangers of this very common malady and put ministry methods and strategies where they belong – as the flexible servants of solid biblical principles and doctrine. While a few areas of methodology are commanded more specifically in the New Testament, most of our methods are not the kind of thing we need be dogmatic about. Should we be convinced of our methods? Sure, let’s have well-formed opinions and make intentional choices about what methods we employ. But let’s not hope in our methods, as if they are what will make or break our ministries. Our methodology – and the Christians around us – can’t handle that kind of pressure. Only the word of God can. Let’s keep the dogma in the dogmatic, keep the central things central, and hold the other stuff with lots of grace, a willingness to change, and a good dose of humility.
Despite this renewed condemnation of Arianism, it had adherents in the Eastern Roman Empire until the fifth century. It was for Nestorius, of all people, that this state of affairs had particularly bitter consequences. In his sermon on the occasion of his consecration as patriarch of Constantinople on 10 April 428, he threw down the gauntlet before the Arians by addressing Emperor Theodosius II with these words: ‘Emperor, give me your kingdom purified of the [Arian] heretics, and I will give you in return the Kingdom of Heaven.’ The Arian partisans, thus provoked, preferred to burn down their own church rather than had it over to the new patriarch. The fire spread to neighboring houses, and an entire quarter of Constantinople went up in flames, leading to great unrest. Nestorius’s inaugural sermon literally turned into an inflammatory oration. The situation was that much more explosive because all the Gothic soldiers stationed in Constantinople were Arian. Although the soldiers remained in their barracks, Nestorius had on his very first day in office incurred the anger of the Byzantine military leadership and a segment of their nobility.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 33
Whatever you make of the theological arguments surrounding what would later become known as Nestorianism, Nestorius himself is a historical object lesson in how to rashly make enemies and immediately burn bridges. It’s not without reason that Titus 1:7 calls for church leaders to “not be arrogant or quick-tempered.”
I took a moment to register Darius’* response. This was different.
“His sister told me they had two villages,” he continued, “and from what you’re saying this is one of them. We need to go and find our brother.”
Harry*, a long-time believer, had disappeared again – which usually meant something bad had happened, some kind of threat of violence from his family or tribe on account of his faith. Whenever this happened to Harry in the past, the other local believers wouldn’t dare to get involved. Hence why Darius’ response was so different.
“Good. Mark* and I have already agreed to go. Last time Harry asked us to stay away when stuff like this happened, but staying away left him isolated and things did not go well. This time needs to be different. We would be glad to have you with us.”
I called Mark, the other expat serving with me as temporary pastor of our little church plant.
“Mr. Talent* is coming also,” Mark told me.
Another surprise. Mr. Talent, although a former soldier, had not been willing to get involved in past persecution interventions -“I can’t risk it with how well-known my dad is.” But it seemed as if things had changed for these two local men we’d been pouring into. Character was apparently growing. A readiness to risk for their brother in the faith was now there. This, in a culture where you might risk for your blood relatives, but almost never for your non-related friends. I’ve written in the past about some questions that can expose character, even across culture. One of them was, “Do they run when the wolf comes?” Wolves, in the form of Harry’s angry relatives, had potentially been spotted. And Darius and Mr. Talent were feeling some holy protectiveness. Praise God.
However, that didn’t exactly mean that we knew what we were doing. The principle was clear. In a communal, honor-shame culture, Harry’s tribe needed to know that he was not alone. He had people who would come looking for him, both locals and foreigners. This, we hoped, would give them pause if they thought about harming Harry further, maybe even convince them to hand him over if they were holding him somewhere. But the plan was what missionaries elsewhere have called “build the plane as you fly it.” We would go to Headless village, ask around to try to find Harry’s violent uncle, and try to somehow find Harry himself. If he was wounded, we would try to get him out of there. I had brought some first aid packs with me.
The uncle was the key to finding out what happened to Harry. After Harry had gone dark for several days, Mark had gone by his house to check on him. His mother and sister, distraught, told him that three days previous Harry’s uncle had shown up demanding that Harry accompany him to the village for some work on his house there. After that, Harry had been out of contact with everyone. He never came back to the house. No calls got through to his mobile phone. This was the same uncle who had lived with Harry’s family since Harry’s father’s death many years ago, living off their income and regularly beating them. Only recently had Harry been able to kick his uncle out of the house, an episode which also resulted in the uncle coming back when Harry wasn’t home and seizing some of Harry’s Christian books from his bedroom. Harry had been optimistic his very lost uncle might read some of the books and have a heart change. In hindsight it looks more like he was strengthening his hand for revenge.
Darius and I met at my house and then drove together to meet up with Mr. Talent and Mark. I was surprised to see Ray* with them also. Ray is a friend and pastor in the US who was in town for a few days after having preached at our retreat the week before. Had he volunteered to come with us on this risky outing? Or had he been “volun-told” to come so that we could have at least one mysterious American with us who couldn’t speak the local language – thereby raising some potentially helpful doubts in the minds of the villagers about what exactly our connections were? I’m still not sure which one it was, but I was grateful he joined us.
I’m calling the village Headless village because it is one of the main settlements of the tribe named The Headless Ones. These warlike nomads had settled in our area a couple centuries ago and still maintained a reputation for always being ready to fight – and having a lot of guns. Their neighborhood in our city – where Harry and his family lived – was one of the few where the local police would not allow foreigners like us to live. Given the warlike nature of this tribe, I wasn’t sure if our collective anxiety was sufficient or not quite enough. Mr. Talent and Darius certainly believed that we could find ourselves in a very dangerous situation with armed tribesmen very quickly and that we needed a wise approach.
“We’ll go to the village white-beard,” they agreed. “We’ll start with him and ask if he knows the uncle, explain Harry’s disappearance, and have him come with us as a mediator. That should provide some protection if the uncle gets angry at us.”
Right, I thought to myself, how is it that I’m always forgetting the importance of working through authority figures in this culture?
The first trick was finding the village white-beard, a social elder sort of position which every village apparently has. Unfortunately, it was now dark, so it took a little while to locate his house. When we did, we walked across a field of dry tilled earth and took counsel together about how to frame the situation in a true, but non-inflammatory way.
“Harry has been a language tutor for many of us foreigners. We can share that info and express concern that he has disappeared without notice,” Mark proposed.
“And don’t forget to mention that he’s also worked for the UN and other international organizations. That name alone should carry some weight, and help us in our purpose of convincing the tribe that Harry is not alone, but has some connections,” I added. “We need them to know that he has a lot of respect in some circles that they might not be aware of.”
We agreed who our spokesman would be and walked up to the village white-beard’s gate. A little boy spotted us and ran inside to get his father, the village white-beard. He came to greet us in the dark, wearing the traditional outfit of parachute pants fastened with a cloth belt around the mid-stomach, underneath which is tucked a collared shirt and traditional style jacket. A traditional turban and cap were on his head. He was a man in his 50s with a grey mustache, and seemed to have a friendly look about him. So far, so good.
Mr. Talent and Mark led the introductions and the purpose of the visit. The village white-beard ordered the boy to run inside and fetch us some water. We had forgotten to translate much of this initial part for poor Ray, who at this point assumed things were going poorly and the boy was sent to get a weapon. He was very relieved when he emerged with a tray of glasses and passed them around. Remembering the need to cue Ray in to what was going on, I told him to take a swig, toss the rest on the soil, then put the empty cup back on the tray. Locals don’t sip. They chug, chuck, and then give the glass back immediately.
“Is it safe to drink?” Ray asked.
“Maybe, maybe not. But we should anyway for the sake of honor,” I responded with a grimacing smile, raising my glass and taking a swig.
We seemed to be in luck. The village elder said he knew a man by the name of the uncle, with a nephew named Harry. He called him and put him on speaker phone. We held our breath.
“Is this Ali* the son of Bakir*?”
“Yes, respected one, please go ahead.”
“Ali the son of Bakir, with a nephew named Harry?”
“Yes, upon my eyes, that’s me, and who are you, honorable sir?”
“It’s me, elder brother Omar.*” This was followed by a long string of respectable pleasantries between the two of them.
“It seems your nephew has disappeared and there’s a group of his respected friends here asking about him and saying they aren’t sure if he’s safe or not.”
“Oh? That’s strange. He’s safe alright. He’s right here with me.”
We leaned in. Was he telling the truth? Was Harry really there with him and safe?
“Well, put him on if it’s no trouble.”
“Upon both of my eyes. Here he is.”
“Hello?” a younger voice rang out from the speaker phone. “This is Harry, who exactly is looking for me?”
At this point we all looked at one another in surprise and alarm. The names were right, but the voice was definitely not Harry’s.
“That’s not Harry’s voice!” we whispered to the village elder. “That’s somebody else.”
“Huh?” said the white-beard to us, “Where exactly does this Harry live?”
“In the city, in the neighborhood of the Headless tribe. He’s an engineer.”
The white-beard scrunched his brow and leaned into the speaker phone, running these details by Uncle Ali and the alternate Harry. He shook his head and looked up at us.
“You’ve got the wrong Ali and Harry. I remember now this Harry you are speaking of. Engineer in the city, connected to our tribe, not from this village. Not actually a member of our tribe. They’re really from another village up on the mountain. You’re mistaken to think that they have a house here.”
This thoroughly confused us. Up until now we had been convinced that we had the right village, based on putting the pieces together from the intel we had. But his sister had said something about them having two villages. And Harry had always been a little opaque about his background details. Maybe this was an ancestral village with no recent ties? Had we come to the wrong one? …Or was the village lying together because they were all in on it?
“They’re lying, I can tell,” whispered Mr. Talent to us.
“I’m not sure they’re the ones lying,” said Darius, with a look of suspicion and disappointment. “Harry told all of us many times that he was part of the Headless tribe. They’re all saying he’s not.”
“Let’s call Harry’s brother,” someone suggested. Not knowing if they had been in on it or not, we hadn’t wanted Harry’s immediate family to know we were coming to the village, in case they might alert the uncle before we got there. Harry’s brother lived in Europe and wasn’t really involved much with the family, but he was back temporarily on a visit. He picked up and started talking with Darius on speaker phone.
“Harry? Ha! He’s fine! He’s just traveling and in a neighboring country right now. Why is everyone so concerned about his safety?… He’s safe, I assure you… Are we part of the Headless tribe? No, we’re not. Did Harry tell you that?… No, we are from another village up on the mountain, though all our neighbors are Headless… My uncle’s not involved in any of this, who told you he was?… No, Harry is just traveling, I’m sure he’ll reach out to you soon. Haha.”
Mark and I exchanged confused looks. That same brother had been there earlier in the day when Harry’s sister and mother had tearfully described the uncle’s appearance and Harry’s disappearance. Why had the story now changed?
After some further conversation with the white-beard, our group decided to head back to the city. It really did seem as if Headless village was not involved in Harry’s disappearance. The tension that had built up as we anticipated a confrontation gave way to disappointment that our efforts had seemingly been in vain. At least if the village had been involved, and they had successfully duped us, then they now knew that Harry had some friends who would come asking awkward questions. Hopefully the ripples of our visit would make it’s way back to the violent uncle through the grapevine, alerting him to this as well. That could create some options that weren’t there previously.
The others headed home while Darius and I drove back toward my house, trying to make sense of the situation. We decided to swing by Harry’s neighborhood so that Darius could talk to Harry’s mom and sister. No one was home. We called the brother again and decided to meet him at a mall on the other side of town. Somebody, or multiple parties, had to be lying.
When we met up with Harry’s brother to try to figure out what was going on, it only muddied the picture even further. He kept claiming that Harry was just traveling for fun and contradicting things he had said to Mark earlier in the day. At this point it was too late to visit the other village up on the mountain, but we talked about making another surprise village investigation in the coming days.
We never did head to the village on the mountain. The next day we got some messages from Harry. He was on a bus, already in another country. He said he was safe, but something bad had happened and he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. He needed to find somewhere quiet to rest. He was not willing to answer our questions. He was sorry he had left without telling us. Over the last couple months we’ve continued to get brief, sporadic messages from Harry as he was smuggled through several European countries to his final destination. He still hasn’t told us what happened. Nor have we been able to put all of the pieces together.
My best guess is that Harry’s uncle had really showed up that day and taken him to the village on the mountain. While there, he had made some kind threat or attack that terrified Harry, causing him to go dark for several days and make a run for it without even coming back home to get any of his things. Faced with another threat of persecution, Harry had relapsed to his old pattern – isolate and disappear. This time it seems he may be gone for good. His family had initially told us the truth only to walk it back later, perhaps out of fear of blowback from the uncle.
Harry’s sudden departure was a very discouraging development for our church plant and our team. He had only recently began helping to preach again after a period of restoration for having abandoned the church in a previous season. After years of coaching to next time include the body in your suffering and not go it alone, none of this counsel was heeded. Darius in particular was cut deep by his departure and the possibility of at least some deception and self-interest that was wrapped up in it. “We were ready to get killed for him, but maybe he was just trying to get to Europe and saw his chance and took it, just like all the others.”
We felt it keenly too. After several years of rebuilding, we had hoped that Darius and Harry would soon be ready to be elders-in-training. But every time we get to this point, our potential leaders tend to implode. Darius’ tone about the possibility of leadership has also changed because of what happfened with Harry, casting doubt on if he has the 1st Timothy 3:1 desire to be an elder someday. Facing an extended time away from the field ourselves, we were now set to leave our teammates with much less help than we had expected.
So much ministry in Central Asia happens in fits and starts. Costly losses are accompanied by a subtle flash of change and growth. I am grieved over whatever happened to Harry – and how he chose to respond to it. But I am also truly encouraged by the signs of growth that emerged in Darius and Mr. Talent. They really did put themselves in a dangerous position by going to an unknown village – known for its violence no less – in hopes of tracking down a persecuted believer. And though it didn’t turn out how we had hoped, the spiritual courage they showed was real. And a sign that even in the greatest setbacks, God is still at work to grow his people. These brothers had the courage to go to Headless village – a new spiritual instinct that was radically counter-cultural. It’s a beginning. One that someday just may lead to them speaking before kings.
When the axe handle was a branch of our own, we have come to the destruction of our home.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb speaks of betrayal from a group member using the imagery of an axe cutting down a tree, when the handle of the axe is, in a perverse turn, shaped from a branch of that same tree. This is actually pretty good imagery for what betrayal feels like. This saying also acknowledges the great fear and destruction likely to come upon a family when betrayed by one of its own. It is one kind of danger to be attacked by outsiders. It is another thing altogether to have the attack come from within. Anyone in ministry who’s ever dealt with a wolf among the sheep knows this danger, and likely shudders when recalling it.
Tragically, our focus Central Asian people group has quite the history of betrayal and treachery. It is one of the besetting sins of the culture that will need to be weeded out by the new gospel culture established by the Church. In the meantime, it is one of the thorniest factors often preventing churches from taking root. It’s hard to keep a group going when group members are regularly tempted to sell one another out for money, influence, or other personal advantage. The presence of actual spies – regardless of who they are working for – really doesn’t help either.
I’m not a huge fan of the “Why didn’t I learn this in seminary?” complaint. Seminary isn’t designed to cover every specific problem that might crop up in ministry. However, I will say that those heading into ministry could certainly use more training in how to deal with betrayal of the church – a practical theology of wolves, as it were. At least as Westerners, we are so optimistic and believe-the-best in our bearing that we can get caught woefully unprepared when a divider and traitor emerges. Betrayal from within doesn’t have to mean “the destruction of our home” as the proverb says, but if we pretend it won’t happen to us we greatly increase the chances of this indeed being the outcome.
When faced with a traitor, we have the great advantage of having Jesus’ example as he was betrayed by one of his closest followers. The presence of Judas, and Jesus’ interesting toleration of him, helps us know that betrayal is not only to be expected, but can be overcome and even used in God’s glorious plans. The church in Ephesus is also a helpful case study of dealing with wolves (Acts 20, Rev 2). If we let these examples inform our expectations of ministry, that will help. They can steady us in the great fear and disorientation caused if a betrayal occurs. And keep hope alive that no matter the level of destruction caused, treachery will not have the last word. The tree, as it were, may be cut down by the axe, but its downed fruit may just plant an orchard.
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.