Mistakes Made: Costly Team Decisions

Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.

This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.

This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.

When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.

But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.

Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”

I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.

Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.

As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.

Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.

Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.

Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

Please, Call Me Bob

Last night we were having dinner with some dear friends, one of the few families that has served here for more than a decade. They shared a story with us about the power of the title, pastor, here in this culture. In spite of being an ordained minister back in the West, learning the local language, and doing residential church planting work, many of the local believers were markedly more responsive when a visiting pastor from the outside would show up. All of the sudden, they would bring out great spiritual questions and want to sit and receive training – when they had resisted these very same things when offered in their language by a man who knew them and was actually living among them – because a real pastor was now present. My missionary friend, by doing the work of a church planter under the radar in a place where you can’t do so officially, was regularly not granted the respect given to someone who could afford to use the title of pastor or missionary openly.

“He’s been sacrificing everything for you for years! And you only show interest when the foreign pastor shows up? That’s the power of that title in this culture!” his wife said at one point.

What is going on here? Shouldn’t the one who does the labor of a pastor but can’t use the title for security purposes be granted the same level of respect as one who can use the title openly? At least part of this dynamic has to do with what is called high power distance and low power distance cultures.

Every culture has to deal with the unequal distribution of power within its own society. The difference between high power distance and low power distance cultures is how they think about what kind of power arrangement is most ideal. For those in low power cultures – like the West – we mentally and emotionally prefer to envision a culture where power is shared more equally. We don’t like authority figures to have too much more respect or power than their followers have. But those in high cultures actually value there being a big difference between how much respect and power is given to authority figures. In a low power culture, a more just society is one where everyone is treated equally. In a high culture, a more just society is where everyone is treated according to their status.

This comes out in interesting ways. Have you ever noticed how majority culture, middle-upper class Westerners have an aversion to titles? “Please, call me Bob,” a doctor might respond after you’ve just addressed him as Doctor so-and-so. However, this is not necessarily the case even in minority cultures in the West. In the US, African American and Hispanic cultures tend to put a higher value on the use of titles. Pay attention to the church signs and you’ll see what I mean.

High power cultures really value titles. They also value other signals of status, such as differentiation in dress and living standards. Framed certificates are displayed proudly in the workplace. Even in the home, titles for older siblings can often be used in place of their first name. To call an older brother (or any man) by his first name only can be taken as a grave offense. “Where’s your respect, you young whippersnapper?” The respectful maintenance and visibility of the hierarchy of power (age, class, position, etc.) is understood to be one of the cornerstones of a just and healthy society.

This is the unique situation my missionary friend found himself in, here in Central Asia. We, coming from a low power culture, deal daily with these strong dynamics of a high power culture. We live and work in a place where the use of the title missionary or pastor would actually accomplish a lot. But for security purposes, we can’t actually use these titles. And methodologically, we’re not always sure that we want to use them, given the ways these dynamics are often abused by local leaders. A local wolf in sheep’s clothing has no qualms about applying these titles and status symbols to himself, and thereby tapping into the honor the culture automatically extends to anyone who flaunts them. Domineering leadership is a real problem here, in basically every kind of authority. This gives us pause about merely taking on these authority status symbols uncritically. Yet to ignore them altogether is also not a very good option, because that often signals that we don’t actually think we have any authority at all.

Now, the Scriptures were written in high power cultures. The cultures of the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world definitely held to the ideals of high power distance. And yet the word of God spoken into those cultures strikes an interesting posture. It both affirms the reality and goodness of authority, and the need to honor it appropriately, while also affirming the ideal of servant leadership and the equal dignity of every person (1 Pet 2:17, Eph 6:1, 1 Tim 5:17, Luke 22:26, 1 Pet 3:7). Going further, a common theme in books such as Luke and James is “the great reversal” where those the world does not honor are the ones who end up most honored by God: children, the poor, gentiles, and sinners (Luke 13:30, Matt 19:14, James 1:9-10, 1 Cor 1:26).

So, what are we to do when navigating these differences between low and high power cultures? We need to be able to study the whole counsel of the word on this topic, then study our own personal culture, and finally, study the different cultures we are interacting with.

We need to have a practical theology of power and authority. Again, the Bible affirms that authority is established by God (family, government, church, etc.) and therefore it is good and not to be rejected (Rom 13:1). However, our fallenness means that all authority here tends to be warped by sin (Gen 3:16, Ezekiel 34). Power in this age needs to be redeemed and transformed – but cannot discarded while living in the real world as God created it. What does redeemed and transformed authority look like? Jesus and the Apostles model this for us (Luke 22:27). Now, in the local church, the priesthood of all believers is to be celebrated, as is the special role of leaders within the body (1 Pet 2:9, Eph 4:11). Those with natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel makes them lowly. And those without natural power are to rejoice in how the gospel lifts them up (James 1:9-10). There are times when the use of titles is inappropriate, according to Jesus (Matt 23:1-12). And there are times when the use of titles can be done for the sake of godly respect (Mark 3:14). Wisdom, love, and context make all the difference here.

We also need to know our own cultural bent. If you are a Westerner reading this, it’s helpful to realize that we live in a culture that has serious issues with the very idea of power and authority itself. Western culture is philosophically bent towards living in a fantasy where power differences don’t have to exist. Yes, this even affects missionaries. Some have experimented with this fantasy in the house churches they plant overseas, trying to get rid of the role of a teacher or preacher altogether. However, being fantasy and not reality, this never works for the long term. Sooner or later leaders, teachers, and preachers always emerge. We might cringe when our local friends use respectful titles for us, but why is that? Where does that cringe originate? The Bible or some kind of cultural reaction we’ve inherited and continue to propagate? We need to take an honest look at our own power distance preferences and make sure we can pinpoint what is biblical and what is personal.

Studying the local culture’s power distance preference is also crucial. How do they envision the ideal distribution of power in society? And why? What of this needs to be redeemed and what needs to be rejected? In our local culture, I am thrilled that our local believers are trained from their youth to respect the elderly and to use respectful titles for them. This good cultural value needs to kept and deepened via gospel motivation. But the prideful arrogance that so often comes once a title like pastor has been bestowed – and the idea that this title is some kind of status for life that can be genetically passed onto children – that practice needs to be done away with among the new community of faith.

As with so many of these spectrums of culture, there are going to be cliffs on either side, expressions of a low power preference and those of a high power preference that clash with biblical principles. If you are flirting with the idea of getting rid of teachers in the local church, you’ve gone too far – just as you are if you believe that the pastor controls the decisions of the members of his church. Yet there’s going to be a range of expressions in the middle that are faithful to scripture, yet still feel very different from one another. It’s just not necessary that a church in Kentucky give a visiting speaker a special scarf in a public ceremony (complete with photos) after his sermon. But for Nepalese churches, this is highly honorable in the sight of all. When in Kentucky, privately give brother “Bob” an envelope containing an honorarium as a thank you, and that will do just fine.

Practically, it will be helpful for high power distance believers to wrestle with ways they can publicly honor the “least of these.” This will be radically counter-cultural. Just as it will be helpful for low power distance cultures to think about if there are particular ways they need to give “double honor” to the leaders and authority figures among them, as so much of the popular culture is raging against this – and even the leaders themselves might squirm when honored!

Fellow missionaries and anyone involved in ministry, let’s be sure we are making these decisions with scripture-informed intentionality, and not merely out of cultural default. This will take some work. But it will be work that will result in a community that leverages power differentials in a compelling and other-worldly way. In this world reeling from the abuses of the power and the abusive reactions to the abuses of power, this kind of redemption of power distances is desperately needed.

Photo by Mariah Solomon on Unsplash

*For more on high and low power distance cultures, see F. Scott Moreau’s Effective Intercultural Communication

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.

Photo by Tory Doughty on Unsplash

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).

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Antonio Barroro on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash