Angler Fish, Howling Mice, and Trusting God With The Excess

I’ve been in a season of more teaching and public speaking than usual. This has been good for me, as presenting or teaching in public – once easy and enjoyable – has been for a long time now a battle against anxiety and panic attacks. That struggle is getting easier, by the grace of God. Though I still long for much greater freedom in this particular area of ministry.

These opportunities to teach have reminded me of one dynamic that teachers know all too well – that the overwhelming majority of your prepared content doesn’t stick in the minds and hearts of your listeners. I find myself praying as I begin, “Lord, by your Spirit, allow those particular truths that we need to actually stick onto our minds and hearts today.”

As a freshman in college, about to embark on an intense yearlong worldview, history, and missions course, I remember John Piper encouraging our cohort in this area. “You’re only going to get five percent – tops – of what I teach or what your other professors teach you in a given lecture. What do we do with this? Should we despair?” The small percentage I remember from his conclusion is that we shouldn’t worry about that ninety-five percent that falls by the wayside. If the affections have been engaged by God’s truth, then that person has momentarily seen more of Christ, and it has been worth it.

That’s quite a sacrifice. Ninety-five percent of prepared and taught content being sacrificed for the five percent that might stick and engage the affections. An entire sermon spent for the sake of that one sermon idea, point, off-hand remark, or illustration that a listener holds onto. Hours and hours of preparation so that a listener might remember a few convicting words and might move a few millimeters toward faithfulness. In the end, the vast majority doesn’t stick. It melts away, like a snow dusting on our Central Asian street as soon as the sun rises.

Thinking of this can be a bit discouraging. It leads some missionaries to scoff at lengthy lessons and sermons as Western and ineffective, not reproducible and a waste of precious time. But does the amount lost – the amount that doesn’t stick – actually mean we are doing something wrong?

I have found encouragement recently in reflecting upon how very “wasteful” God seems to be in his secondary book of revelation – the book of creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork – Psalm 19:1.

Creation – all of it – is preaching about the glory of God. It is constantly doing this. And it is doing it everywhere, whether we are paying attention or not. It simply proclaims and keeps on proclaiming, even when there is no one around – no humans anyway. God, and the creation itself, don’t seem to be bothered by this great “waste.” Rather, it seems as if they revel in it, like it’s some kind of fun secret that we are the poorer for not being in on.

Was it a problem that creatures like the angler fish (horrifyingly fascinating and bio-luminescent) and the grasshopper mouse (eats scorpions, immune to their venom, howls like a wolf after eating) weren’t discovered by humans until 1833? What about all their “sermons” they were preaching in the previous thousands of years about the glory, creativity, and unexpected artistic flourishes of God? Was there an exasperated sigh in heaven when these bizarre creatures were at last discovered? Or… perhaps rejoicing? “Ha! They finally found that one! They never saw that one coming!”

God, it seems, delights in all of this excess. He does not seem concerned that we are getting such a small percentage of the rich homilies pouring out of nature day and night. He is beyond lavish in his sermons, and knows that most are not being retained by our limited minds and attention spans.

Perhaps this is because we were never the primary audience in the first place. Those angler fish and grasshopper mice were intended primarily for the pleasure of the king. The songs of the stars? The same. They exist as an overflow of the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their purpose is first God-ward, and then after that we are invited to listen, learn, and join in.

This then leads to an encouragement for the discouraged teacher or preacher. That sermon or lesson was never meant to be primarily for your hearers. Instead, it was an act of worship to the king of the universe. And the hearers might hold onto that one random sentence for years to come. What a bonus!

I am regularly encouraged by the seemingly random things that do stick. “You took away that from my teaching? Huh.” And I am even learning to find joy in the parts no one seems to remember. Those parts, like some bizarre creature not yet discovered, are a secret between me and heaven.

The king sees and delights in them. And that is a stunning thing.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

22 Questions That Reveal Character – Even Across Cultures

It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?

When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.

Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.

Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.

How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.

To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.

How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.

Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.

So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.

1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?

2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?

3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?

4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!

5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?

6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.

7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?

8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?

9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?

10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.

11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.

12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.

13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree. 

14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)

15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.

16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?

17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!

18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?

19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.

20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.

21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.  

And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”

Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.

These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.

It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.

Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash

The Source of a Leader’s Character

I recently had the honor of speaking to a number of my colleagues on the importance of character in leadership development. The following is from the beginning of that talk, from the section focusing on the source of a leader’s character. Today, as we reflect on what we are thankful for, I am thankful for these truths, that we have a sure and steady eternal source for godly character – and because of that we have hope in the often long and painstaking work of leadership development, and hope for our own slow character growth as well.

“As we begin today, we need to step back and look at the source of a leader’s character. How, given the history of fallen man, how is it even possible that a man would have godly character? How can this be when the image of God in was shattered in Adam and we continue to smash it through our own sin?

2nd Peter 1:4 says – scandalously – that we become partakers of the divine nature – sharers in the divine character. Well, what changed to make that possible? What happened to ‘They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one?’ (Ps 14:3)

Well, the character of God was restored to humanity in the coming of Jesus Christ. God’s eternal word, the eternal Son, became a human, became a servant in human form (Phil 2), and thereby smuggled in divine character behind enemy lines. Through his coming, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he has now made a way for any who believe to share in the nature of the god-man, Jesus Christ. This has been accomplished in the past.

Now, in the present, those who repent and believe experience two stunning realities – the new birth and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Cor 5:17).

The miracle of the new birth makes us a new creation, we get a new heart and a new Spirit, a new core and a new nature – a godly one. As we live in the present this is who we are!

Further, Romans 8:15 says that we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ This Spirit bears witness in the present that we are children of God. And he also bears fruit in us – the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, a portrait of godly character: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

But the source of a leader’s character is not just located in the past and the present. It’s located in the future too – the coming resurrection.

Again, Romans 8. ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved’ (v. 23-24).

Or, take 1st Cor 15:52-54 ‘We will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.’

Every day, we are moving closer to this coming transformation, when the character of Christ in us will be perfected. The source of a leader’s character is also this coming resurrection hope, just as it is the present new birth and indwelling of the Spirit, and the past work of Christ.

Why does it matter that we know the source of a leader’s character? Why spend all this time talking about the past, present, and future? So that we will know where to ground our hope in the difficult and slow task of character development.

We have a small core of guys in our church plant that we have been walking with for years now. And to be honest, we had hoped that some of them would be a whole lot further along by this point. Many times we’ve started the conversation on our team about moving some of them into more leadership. And then something happens that shows us that their character is not yet ready.

We go to a training conference and they fight like middle-schoolers. We try to plan a baptism picnic and they fight some more. Persecution ramps up, an alleged spy enters the group, and some disappear. Or hidden dynamics at home emerge that show the good theology hasn’t been translating into being a godly husband.

It gets discouraging. When will they be ready and our consciences permit us to entrust them with leading God’s church? We must regularly remind ourselves of the source of a leader’s character if we are to persevere in this long-term work that tends to go in fits and starts.

Remember that the work of Christ is accomplished and sure for that struggling local brother, remember that it is a new heart that beats within him, the Holy Spirit that indwells him and won’t let him go. Picture that brother one day, resurrected, free from sin, shining in eternal glory.

‘It’s a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,’ as C.S. Lewis puts it, ‘to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to [or that struggling local leader in training] may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.’

Friends, remembering their future resurrection helps us persevere in the messy present.

Remembering the source of a leader’s character keeps hope alive in the long task of character development.”

Photo by Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash

Discipleship Is a Type of Suffering

The normal work of discipleship is a type of suffering. This, according to Paul in 2nd Timothy 2:2-7.

[1] You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2] and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. [5] An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6] It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. [7] Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

2 Timothy 2:2-7, ESV

Notice how verse two, which discusses the entrusting of Paul’s message to other faithful men, is immediately followed by an exhortation to share in the suffering of Christ. Along with the local brothers with whom I attended an exegesis and preaching workshop this week, I had been assuming this mention of suffering here referred to persecution. But our cohort leader helped us to see the kind of suffering meant here is illustrated by the three examples of soldier, athlete, and farmer – all examples which emphasize the costliness of hard work and discipline. The costliness of steady, focused, tough labor. Not the costliness of persecution. That was an eye-opener for me, and a timely word.

Yes, elsewhere in 2nd Timothy persecution is mentioned, but the immediate context of these verses suggests that Paul has the suffering of discipline in mind. The kind of discipline and hard work that comes with entrusting the gospel message to faithful men who will entrust it to others also. Like a faithful soldier, a disciplined athlete, a hardworking farmer. This is the suffering of sweat, long hours, and extended seasons of toil.

Why was this takeaway so helpful for me? Because I feel the costliness of trying to disciple others and trying to raise up local leaders. I feel it keenly. Even during the several days of this training, the conduct of the local believers was deeply disappointing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t just this three-day workshop. It has been a long season of walking through one conflict after another with local believers. And I am tempted to feel like the difficulty, the sweat and fatigue of this season, means I am doing something wrong – or that I am simply not gifted enough for this kind of task.

It seems every time we are ready to extend greater trust and responsibility to locals, some petty conflict emerges (or rather, explodes), showing that the maturity piece just isn’t there yet. Crisis reveals character again and again, and yet again.

How long, O Lord, until your word and your Spirit do their work of making our friends trustworthy and faithful? Will we ever see elder-qualified men emerge in this context?

And yet here in 2nd Timothy 2, I have been given a timely word. The work of discipleship is a kind of suffering. It’s not just me. Even a sharing in the suffering of Christ himself. What an honor! Paul found a Timothy, Timothy found other faithful men, they taught others also. If not, the gospel would have never come down to me, and to my local friends. This work is not impossible. To feel like a weary soldier, a tired athlete, a sore farmer, this is exactly how I am supposed to feel.

Dwelling on this truth these last several days has steadied my soul. Unlike how many missions trainers use verse two to advocate for rapid multiplication of disciples, this context shows us the work is long-term, tough, and yes, even a form of suffering.

That is not bad news at all. For weary workers like myself, it is in fact very good news. It means we are not off-track and unfit simply because the work often feels like working cursed soil in a desolate land. No, this is the nature of the work itself. Deprivation before honor. Sweat before victory. Toil before the harvest feast.

That is the kind of suffering that leads to faithful men who teach others also.

Photo by Kamal Hossain on Unsplash

Leaders Who Know How to Follow

We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.

“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”

My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.

“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”

It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.

It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.

It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.

What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are? What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?

I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.

But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.

For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).

We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.

Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.

Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?

Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.

Photo by Chandler Chen on Unsplash

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.