The Teachable Will Lap the Gifted

We have a new teammate. And we have been praising God for her heart. Why? Because she is teachable, humble, and lights up when we talk about gospel truths.

We have come ourselves to light up when we encounter a heart like hers. This is because we have learned that what the psalmist says is true. Mark the man of peace, for he has a future (Psalm 37:37). Not only will someone who has a humble and teachable heart flourish under God’s kind hand, but those around them will flourish also. Teachable peacemakers make the best teammates and colaborers in the trenches of ministry. They also make wonderful friends.

Looking back on my Bible college and seminary days, it’s interesting to note how some of my most gifted classmates didn’t really end up flourishing spiritually in life and ministry. At least not to the same extent that the steady, humble, teachable ones did. In fact, over time the seemingly gifted ones were lapped by the ones most of us would have been tempted to initially overlook. The unassuming, the unpretentious, the ones who didn’t have to lead, but who eventually led anyway because of their steady faithfulness and consistency – these friends are the ones who quietly got started in ministry, have so far persevered, and are now harvesting righteousness (James 3:18).

How do we spot them? Well, the humble show up. Consistently. They listen. They are open to feedback and counsel and eager to learn how they can grow. They don’t pine after influence. They are willing and even eager to serve. They know how to laugh at themselves. They know how to follow and how to rejoice in others’ successes. This, even though there is very much a quiet gospel fire burning in their souls and often very wise things in their minds. It just seems to take a while for the rest of us to gradually shift our gaze away from the flashy ones so that we can see the better and more trustworthy embers burning in the hearts of the lowly. But time will inevitably expose the humble, and sooner or later we will not only see them, but come to lean on them more and more.

It’s just as true for marriage prospects. I remember walking down the road as a college student debating with myself about this girl that I had recently started dating. In some ways she was different than what I had imagined. Looking back, like a typical idealist, I was putting way too much emphasis on secondary things. But suddenly a thought stopped me in my tracks. A.W., you fool, what would you give for a woman with a heart of gold? It was a valid and pointed question expertly aimed to undo my wrongheadedness. Right then and there I decided to stop focusing so much on minor things and to pursue this godly woman who had a gracious and humble heart. Ten years now into marriage, I daily experience the rewards of having gone for the heart over the external details. Turns out that beauty in the heart unfailingly spills out and beautifies the world around it.

The teachable will lap the gifted. Every time. I need to keep reminding myself of this as we eagerly look for new local believers who could be future leaders and as we recruit for future teammates. If someone is very gifted, but proud, I need to remember that it’s OK to move on, in spite of the great needs around us. A better harvest comes from the hands of the humble. It’s an exercise of faith to let these types of people go, or at least to not invest in them in as deep a way as I would initially like to. And, wonderfully, some of these eventually become humble themselves, more often than not after having walked through the fire of suffering or failure. Or by simply learning to not take themselves quite so seriously. There’s frankly more spiritual power in that than we often admit.

Want to impact the world for Christ? Go all in for teachability, grace, and humility. And after others in your church start affirming the grace they see in your heart, then consider attaching yourself to some struggling church or rag-tag team of church planters like ours somewhere in the world.

Humble yourself. Sow Peace. Trust God with the timing. A harvest of righteousness awaits.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Church Size Cultures

I continue to learn just how important self-awareness is in the effort to do good missiology and contextualization. In order to understand my target culture and know how to apply the gospel to it, I am deeply handicapped if I do not understand my own preferences and my own culture. The danger of confusing personal and cultural preferences for biblical principles and commands lurks ever hidden under the surface – not unlike the sea mines in the Bosphoros that prevented the allies from taking Constantinople in WWI. In this vein, I have been greatly helped by this article by Tim Keller that addresses church size dynamics.

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

My mistake as a former house-church-only advocate was this very thing, confusing a house church size as being a more biblical choice. Small was holier than big. Simple was holier than complex. Just as good missionaries need to constantly remind themselves that many strange things in their new culture are “not wrong, just different,” so Christians must remind themselves of this same truth when interacting with churches of different sizes. The key takeaway is not just that churches of different sizes usually have different cultures, but rather that they inescapably have different cultures. To refuse to let the culture change because of some personal size preference is to do damage to the church and to impede its healthy growth, like new grandparents insisting that Christmas must always look the same even though their grown children now have their own children plus another other set of in-laws that need to be honored.

This article is also full of specific wisdom to help leaders when their churches are passing from one size culture to another. Since many of the churches that are planted in Central Asia will exist in the house church to small church range, I am helped to be aware of how to proactively lead or help the local leaders anticipate what kind of shepherding is needed to make this transition.

If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.

Read the full article by Tim Keller here.

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A Proverb Appropriate for Christmas

The bigger your roof, the more snow it collects.

Regional Oral Tradition

Or as Uncle Ben from Spiderman so famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Growing influence and means necessarily come with greater responsibility, and yes, even greater problems. Too much snow and a roof that’s not strong enough can even lead to collapse. So a wise man knows the importance of a strong roof and speedy removal of the snow if it’s getting too high.

Merry Christmas to everyone who might read this post! And may your roof, literal and proverbial, not collect too much snow.

One Idea for Missionary Care in Local Churches

Two units on my team have recently had to come back to the US temporarily. These kind of unexpected returns to the home country are increasingly normal in this year of 2020, due to both the pandemic and the changing security situation in some parts of East Asia. Because of my team members’ return stateside, I have been thinking again these days about caring for missionaries upon reentry.

A few years ago I served as the missions pastor at what would become our own sending church. I inherited a practice there that I want to commend to others as a unique way to honor and care for missionaries who have just returned.

When missionaries returned during that season, we would set aside an entire evening for them to debrief with the whole team of our pastors and their wives. It was a big commitment to make given the number of folks we had overseas and the number of elders as well. But these gatherings always proved to be very sweet times. We’d arrange abundant snacks and beverages, childcare for the missionaries if needed, and then give them our undivided attention for several hours.

The goal was to give them an opportunity to share everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There wasn’t a set agenda for the time other than mingling for a bit, an extended time of listening and Q & A, and then prayer over the missionaries at the end. Yet it was amazing the kind of ground that could be covered in evenings like this. Tears and laughter were not uncommon. It was also a way to show particular honor to our friends who had embraced the costs of the mission field for the sake of the gospel and on behalf of the our church. I’ll never forget the scene of one of our single missionaries sharing her story of serving in SE Asia while all the pastors and wives listened with full attentiveness, seated in the living room and on the floor around her. What an honor, I thought, for this godly woman who may sometimes be overlooked because of her singleness.

When missionaries return to their home country, they are in need of a ministry of listening. Despite other kinds of honor and attention, it’s rare that they actually get to share in depth about their time overseas. Yet there is often a need to process what actually happened, to figure out what the high points and low points were, and to begin the path toward healing after the scars of the previous ministry season. This comes most often through verbal processing with trusted counselors.

There is also the need to be reminded of who they are in Christ and that there is a body of leaders behind them who know them and vouch for them. Many missionaries have such hard seasons on the field that they come back questioning their calling and their fit in the task. These types of conversations with pastors can be key to preventing missionaries from being swayed too much by the attacks and trials that they have experienced. As they pour out their hearts to their shepherds, this can be the beginning of their passion and confidence in their calling being restored.

As a missions pastor, there were other benefits as well. This kind of gathering helped to keep missions front and center for all of our church’s elders. It also provided a rare opportunity for us to actually get together with all the other pastors and their wives for a time centered around our missionary friends. In a fast-paced and time-oriented culture, it was an evening where we got to be event-oriented together, letting our missionaries share as long as they needed to (After all, most missionaries become more event-oriented the longer they are on the field). Also, missions pastors tend to have certain kinds of gifts and not others, so I was always helped by the wise questions and different kinds of insights that came when all the diverse pastors and wives were interacting with our sent ones. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 24:6).

My encouragement to my teammates heading back home was to request this kind of a time with pastors, mentors, or friends soon after they get back. If asked how the church can serve you, it’s not selfish or silly to ask for an evening where you can share everything you need to, unfiltered, with those who have sent you out. This kind of time can be the beginning of processing the victories and losses of your previous term in a healthy way. Getting to share so fully in a setting like this also helps when the relatives or fellow church members don’t really take an interest in the details or stories of our time overseas. Even one chance to get it all out there and be prayed over can be very restorative.

My encouragement to any pastors out there reading this is that you also consider how to implement some kind of expression of this time. The actual format and details of this suggestion are not as important as the principle: Local churches can serve their returning missionaries by providing a context where they can share their heart, in depth and at length, with trusted leaders. The applications of this could be as varied as the unique makeup and contexts of local churches. But any church that pursues this kind of ministry of listening in order to serve their missionaries will be caring for them well, even in a manner worthy of God (3rd John 6).

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A Song For Those Longing For Humble Leadership

Listen on, listen in 
Have you seen my Master? 
You ask is He like those I’ve met 
Or kings with slaves in number 
They cheat their way to glory’s seat 
Lay burdens on mens’ shoulders 
Their fingers soft their knees too weak 
Unmet by work or prayers 

Served the man who served Him death 
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him 
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced 
By a heart that didn’t understand 
My Master is a humble man 
When He knew His hour had come 
He kept His cup tight in hand 
How great it’d be to see Him old 
Still how much better the way He chose 
He chose 

Served the man who served Him death 
Washed the filth from his feet washed the dirt from him 
Betrayed for a pocket silver-laced 
By a heart that didn’t understand 
Then to hang on a hill He died 
With the company of thieves on His left and on His right 
Said one man ‘Remember me if You can’ 
And He gave it all to him 

Even when no one saw 
He loved us to the end 
Even when everyone ran off 
He loved us to the end 
Even when we have to stare through the holes 
In his hands 
He loved us to the end

“He Loved Us To The End” by Poor Bishop Hooper

He Must Manage His Household Well

A name great and renowned, but a village broken down.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the importance of a leader’s immediate circle and responsibilities. He may have an impressive reputation, but the state of his household and village tell a lot about his real character and leadership. If teaching locals on the eldership qualifications from 1st Timothy chapter 3, I would use this local proverb as one way to illustrate the statement that an overseer must “manage his own household well” (1st Timothy 3:4). Ground the teaching in the text, illustrate it with the culture. In this case, with the oral tradition.

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Some Will Walk Away Because We’re Not Conservative Enough

[1] Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, [2] through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, [3] who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. [4] For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, [5] for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)

We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.

Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.

In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!

And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.

For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.

As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.

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Holding Our Timelines Loosely

As a leader, I have been greatly helped by the concept of holding our principles tightly while holding our applications loosely – e.g. major on the importance of evangelism, but allow for a healthy range of biblical evangelistic methods. Too many of us are majoring on the applications in a narrower way than the Scriptures do. The implications of this simple principle could defuse much conflict on the mission field (and in the church) and lead to some great work being done. Alongside this concept comes the related idea of holding our timelines for those applications loosely as well. In our zeal to implement biblical principles, we can all too easily move too quickly, and thereby risk losing our people and undermining our ultimate goal.

I remember hearing Pastor Brian Croft of Practical Shepherding share a story of church reform, where the slower timeline made all the difference. After teaching through the concept of biblical eldership, a pastor came to a members meeting where they were to vote on moving from a single-pastor model to a plurality of elders model of leadership. The pastor knew that they would be able to get just enough votes for it to pass, but he also sensed that in doing so he risked losing older members of the congregation. He decided to defer the vote to a future meeting. In the time that passed between the meetings, the pastor realized that the term elder itself was at the source of much of the opposition. When he switched to speaking about the proposed changes using the biblically appropriate synonym of a plurality of pastors, the opposition evaporated. Turns out there had been an underlying fear that elders were some kind of Presbyterian thing that was being smuggled into a historic Southern Baptist church. By choosing to wait, this misunderstanding came to light, a contextual linguistic shift was made, and those who might have been lost by the change were instead won over.

It has been said that the number one mistake of “young, restless, and reformed” church planters and church reformers is moving to a plurality of elders too quickly. We could probably restate this to say that our number one mistake is trying to implement applied structures of biblical principles too quickly. It’s so easy to do. You chew on a biblical understanding of the local church for years, grow a deep affection for seeing it lived out, then you find yourself in a leadership position over a church or a team – and so you try to change everything at once. The results of this approach (often implosion) can be easily understood from a distance. The time that it took for the leader to see the truth and to love the truth has not been in turn given to those he is leading. Clarity on biblical principles and methods takes time when you are working with real people. What seems so obvious to you today is in reality the result of the Spirit patiently leading you toward greater clarity and affection over an extended period of time.

There is also the issue of trust. Trust takes time to grow, often more than two years – which turns out to be the point at which most pastors leave their church. I don’t know the stats for how long the average team leader overseas stays in his role, but I know that in our region we have incredible turnover. To build real trust with those we are leading takes a long-term posture. When those we are leading are really convinced we are for them and committed to them, then they will feel less threatened by our proposed changes. Because of these things, we should default to moving slowly in the first two to three years, trusting that the necessary trust is being built that will make for lasting, healthy change.

I am as guilty as anyone at introducing changes too quickly. I tend to chew on something slowly for a long time, like a doner kabob gradually roasting and rotating on the spit. Then all of the sudden I cut. off some shwarma, meaning I make up my mind and introduce a change – only to find others are not at all ready for it! Having learned this about myself through lots of trial and error, I am growing in my appreciation for the slower track, where incremental growth in the right direction is celebrated, even if it takes us five years to get to a place where the applications of our principles are mature. If unity is growing around the biblical principles, if those we lead are growing in their excitement about where we are going, then we can be patient with different paces of progress toward that destination.

This holding loosely to our timelines can also help those we are leading, as we assure them that we are not in a rush. There is time to wrestle with emphases, teaching, and methods that feel or sound different. How many of those that we lead have lived through the coming and going of many leaders and fads? Their hesitancy to be all-in with our plans shouldn’t surprise us. But hopefully our grace, patience, and genuine friendship can surprise them.

Yes, there comes a time when we must act, and act decisively. Not all delay is godly. At some point it becomes sin. I do not recommend dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing gradually. And yet most of our people are not wolves, but sheep who need patient under-shepherds. There is also wisdom in recognizing the common error of our generation – that of going too fast, not going too slow. We are generally in a rush to implement our vision and see things change overnight – still showing the truth of the old African term for Westerners, mzungu, those who run around in circles.

Let us hold our timelines loosely when it comes to leading others toward biblical faithfulness. As much as possible, let us celebrate incremental growth in the right direction, while we keep holding out biblical principles. Put that desired change on the five-year or ten-year plan and commit it to constant prayer. If we do this, I think our future selves will thank us.

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What Four Years of Elders Meetings Taught Me About Team Unity

There is tremendous power for unity in a practical theology of the body of Christ. For two years I was able to sit in on elders meetings at my church as part of a leadership development program. Then for two more years I was able to participate in elders meetings as an elder myself, before we left for the mission field. What I observed in those four years of meetings has continued to shape the way I work for team unity among my teammates on the field.

Like many young men with a heart for ministry, there was a time when I thought that my personal set of spiritual gifts was somehow superior to others’. I would not have said this, but I know at times I felt it. Or at least I failed to feel down in my bones an appreciation for gifts that were different than mine, which is almost the same thing. This is where observing the elders meet together was so helpful for me. Here was a group of men, a group very diverse in terms of age, background, personality, and gifting. And yet they worked well together, appreciated their differences, and even celebrated them. The one gifted in preaching would praise the one gifted in systems, who would praise the one gifted in wisdom, who would praise the one gifted in the biblical languages. They would lean on one another in the tasks in which they were weaker. They not only knew that their differences made them a better team of shepherds, they actually believed and felt this, even in the midst of disagreement. And I began to believe and feel it as well.

The diverse gifts given to the body of Christ, the Church, are described in passages like 1st Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1st Peter 4. These and other passages put together give us a robust theology of the body of Christ. Christ has ascended, and in doing so has given gifts to every single believer, though not the same ones. Each believer has gifts with which they are able to uniquely build up the body of Christ in love, and each believer is in need of the gifts of the rest of the body, just as the different members of the human body need one another. All are to be honored, none are to be despised, even though some gifts are more powerful for edification than others. All gifts are spiritual, though some seem to us more supernatural than others. Through these gifts we serve and teach one another, display God’s power to the lost, and we glorify the giver of these gifts, knowing that they come from him and are not of our own making.

Before sitting in on elders meetings, I could have written you a decent theological paper laying out these truths in detail. But in order to really make this theology practical I needed to see it modeled. Here’s a plug for any pastors out there thinking through raising up leaders – make sure there are places where the men you are raising up can observe you modeling leadership, in addition to the good content they are learning. Modeling enables others to learn things practically and intuitively which complements study that is heavy on the abstract and on the knowledge necessary for leadership.

Now that we are on the mission field, we are trying in turn to pass on these biblical principles to our teammates. It has been said that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. I believe this. But a lived theology of the body of Christ can not only hold missionary teams together, it can even cause them to flourish and to be powerfully effective, even in the midst of disagreement.

Our previous team was made up of three families, all very different from one another in personality, culture, and giftings. We had our fair share of conflict and times where we drove each other crazy. But God was gracious to us, we ate a lot of good kabob together, and we came to genuinely appreciate one another’s friendship and diverse spiritual gifts. Together we saw a small church planted in the hard soil of Central Asia. We reached an important stage of maturity as a team when we were able to openly affirm one another in the ways we were individually gifted, rather than seeing one another as a challenge or threat. We grew in doing this in team meetings and even in front of the local believers, who were prone to comparing us to one another. By emphasizing my teammate’s gifts, I could not only encourage them and remind myself of how much I need them, I could also model for locals how to honor believers they are very different from. Practically, I could also lean on my teammates’ pastoral and preaching gifts, their energy for life and language, their hospitality and sharp minds for making detailed plans and arguments. And they in turn could lean on me in other areas.

Now we have taken on a new leadership role with a different team, even larger and more diverse than our previous one. Our prayer is that this practical theology of the body of Christ will soak deep down into the foundation of who we are as a team. To see a fellow believer a little bit more like Christ sees them, as a saint uniquely gifted by the ascendant king – that is a powerful force for team unity.

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Whence The Self-Perpetuating Hierarchy

With the deaths of the apostles (apostoloi, or envoys), who had been the chief conveyors of Jesus’s message, the role of the bishop grew; and by the beginning of the second century we find him being treated in a more exalted manner – as a successor to the dead apostles and symbol of unity for the local congregation – but still the appointee of his congregation. As its symbol of he was duty-bound to consult his congregation in all important matters. “From the beginning of my episcopacy,” the aristocratic Cyprian of Carthage, monumental bishop of third-century Africa, confided to his clergy, “I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people.”

By the end of Augustine’s life, such consultation was becoming the exception. Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; and bishops could no longer rely on the opinion of their flocks – increasingly, uninformed and harried illiterates – nor, in all likelihood, were they averse to seeing their own power grow at the expense of the people. In many districts, they were already the sole authority left, the last vestige of Roman law and order. They began to appoint one another; and thus was born – five centuries after the death of Jesus – the self-perpetuating hierarchy that rules the Catholic church to this day.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 61-62