What to Do When Your Mind is Aflame With Ideas

Knowing what to do with a mind aflame with ideas is important for everyone. But for creative, visionary, idea-oriented, dreamer types, it just may save your life – or at least your relationships.

What do I mean by a mind aflame with ideas? Well this situation may be something you’ve seldom experienced, but imagine what happens in your mind when a new opportunity unexpectedly opens up before you. Suddenly you have trouble focusing on daily life because there’s so much noise in your mind from all of the half-baked thoughts and ideas now rushing around up there connected to this new development. Or, if you’re like me, a little bit of caffeine or even some good music can kick your ideas into overdrive on an almost daily basis. The problem is not just that you should be focusing on your shower, your work, your current conversation, etc., but also that in the moment these thoughts feel very compelling. Your mind feels like it is aflame with very good, breakthrough-type ideas. Perhaps even a bunch of them. When in reality, the vast majority of them are really not that great, or at least not great yet.

Over time I’ve learned that wisdom is needed to channel this rush of ideas in some healthy way. A rush of ideas, a mind aflame, is essentially a rush of creativity. So, while it can be dangerous, it is good, a gift even. God is a creator, and we are made in his image as little re-creators. In the mysteries of human ability, we first “create” in our mind, before creating in the physical world around us. These acts of mini re-creation point to God as the one true creator, the only one able to make something out of nothing, and the one working everything toward a coming age of perfect new creation. Unlike God, we always make something out of something else. This is true in a mind aflame as well. Things we have learned, remembered, intuited, seen, heard, or spoken before suddenly start lighting up in a storm of brand new connections in our brain, due to some kind of stimuli. Again, these flames are good flames, but they need to be managed wisely so that other good things don’t get burnt.

First, you need a place to contain them. Rather than acting on a rush of ideas quickly on the one hand, or trying to shut them all up on the other, have a place where they can be safely stored. Develop some kind of system, some kind of holding pen for these ideas. I like to use a task-management app, Trello, to write down new and captivating ideas. An ideas notebook or journal could serve the same kind of function. Writing them down in a “To Chew On” list accomplishes several good things.

First, in the chance that they end up being good ideas, it keeps me from forgetting them. Most of us who are living in this frenetic age know that this is a real danger. Second, it allows my mind to relax and focus on other things because I know that I’ve written down that idea for later consideration. It results in the good kind of compartmentalization, the freeing kind. Third, writing new ideas down in order to come back to them provides for a period of marination, of sifting, or refining. Some of these ideas will eventually be discarded when in the light of future perspective or experience they are shown to be unhelpful. Or when they simply lose their luster, for one reason or another. Others will prove to be good ideas, but ideas to be given away to someone else because they don’t fit my abilities or opportunities. Still others will prove to be good ideas whose season has not yet come. And this is one of my favorite categories. Because there they sit, waiting, like seeds ready to germinate and sprout at some unknown future date when circumstances, the right people, and resources line up. Every time I come back to consider certain ideas and once again find them to be compelling and sound, my confidence increases that I am indeed supposed to do something with them someday – even if that something is merely to give them away to others. Ideas that have been chewed on and refined for a decade can end up bearing very good fruit when providence finally sets them free.

Let me say this part plainly. If you are an ideas person, a creative, or a visionary, then you need some kind of system like this. Not having some method whereby ideas are recorded, sifted, and sat on can keep you from committing to the actual season and work that God has given you to do now. In the words of Master Yoda, you’ll be like young Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.” Not having a system like this can also lead to all kinds of existential angst as you struggle with the pull of the magnetic visions which march through your head in colorful succession. “How do I know I’m doing what God wants me to be doing if I constantly feel drawn to all of these other seemingly-important things?” By placing these ideas on some kind of metaphorical shelf for periodic viewing, you create space for the possibility that those desires can serve some future unforeseen season, while you free yourself for greater investment in the current calling God has placed on your life.

A lack of a way to channel a mind aflame with ideas can also wreak havoc in your relationships. This happens as you frighten or agitate those around you with yet another wild idea. So, along with a way to contain your ideas, you also need a way to wisely communicate them to those you live and work with. This, not surprisingly, is a lesson I had to learn early on in my marriage. But it’s also been something I’ve had to relearn and communicate well for every team or working relationship that I’ve been a part of. For example, a creative person often blurts out ideas that are fresh off the boat, having just that day or that moment docked in their mind, as it were. The creative knows that merely verbalizing these ideas does not mean that he is actually committing to them, or even that he is seriously considering the idea. But those around the creative don’t know this, and they are left to guess at which stage a given idea is. If they are someone who is wired to not share an idea until it is mature and fully-baked, then they can get positively alarmed at the creative’s constant barrage of big ideas.

It’s up to the visionary-type then to communicate to those around them at what stage is this most recent idea. “Hey, let me a run an interesting idea by you that I’ve never thought about before,” is very different from “This is something I’m beginning to seriously consider,” which is different from “I’ve chewed on this idea for a decade and I think that now is the time to implement it.” If you can learn to orient those around you to the various stages of an idea in your mind, you can keep them from panicking and getting holes burnt in their jackets by the embers of your mind aflame. For new ideas, they need to know that it’s just something you’re tossing around, and that they can help you know whether to pursue it further or not with some dispassionate talking about the various pros and cons. For ideas that are getting serious, they need to know that you are asking for some serious feedback and interaction, even feedback that gets more emotional. For an idea that you are ready to move on, hopefully this is not the first time you are communicating it! If it is, you’ll need to be ready to back up and slow down so that your hearer can experience some of the process your mind has already gone through in refining the idea. Even if it is the first time hearing it, letting them know how long and carefully a certain idea has been considered goes a long way in assuring them that you’re not about to upend your life (or theirs) on a whim.

For those who live or work with an idea person, please understand that God may have placed you in our life for the important job of keeping us from financial ruin, pain, or premature death by bursting the bubbles of our bad ideas (which yes, we think are good). But the manner in which you do this is very important. We tend to get very excited about our ideas, so whenever possible, let us down gently and we are likely to eventually see the light – and even thank you for saving us from some very bad things. You may immediately feel that an idea is simply the worst ever, but a quick and stiff take-down of an idea is likely to cause the visionary-type to feel that you simply can’t see the possibilities that they can, and they’ll go off to chew on it more in isolation – which not the best outcome for anyone involved.

Creatives and idea people, for our part, we need to humbly seek out people who can help us work through our parade of shiny ideas, and genuinely be open to the critical feedback we receive. Sure, sometimes we can see several steps ahead in a way that others can’t. But the downside of this gift is that we often can’t see the ground immediately around us. To put things in terms of eyecare, we are farsighted, so would be wise to travel with some nearsighted counselors.

Yet even though we need systems, thoughtfulness toward others, and the wisdom of a community in order to balance our strengths (like everyone else), a mind aflame with ideas really is a gift from God. Who can explain how exactly this process of mental generation takes place? While never even near the level or kind of supernatural inspiration that the biblical authors experienced, inspiration can sometimes seem the only word in English fit to describe the experience. An idea that simply wasn’t, now is. Things previously not connected are suddenly, surprisingly, beautifully joined – and for the life of us it sure felt like it was something outside of us that made it happen, as if it were breathed into us by something or someone far wiser and more creative than we are. Perhaps there is a downstream category of “natural” inspiration that functions in the human mind simply by nature of our descent from Adam and creation in the image of God. For it’s not only believers who experience a mind aflame with ideas, but even those still cut off from their creator. This is an experience we share with the lost – though believers are the ones who can turn this natural gift into one that is also spiritual. In this way a gift of vision or creativity can, redeemed, sometimes function as a gift of faith.

The next time you experience your mind aflame with ideas, don’t run for the fire extinguisher. Something good is happening. Lean in, seek to record and channel it wisely. Seek to love others through it, even as you guard yourself from being swept away by it. While most of it may not stand the test of time, there may be one nugget, one seed of an idea, that does prove enduring and good. And only God knows the kind of things such an idea is capable of.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

Not Forever, Yet Still Meaningful

“Make sure they know their commitment doesn’t have to be forever to be meaningful.”

I recently shared this tip with a friend who was struggling to build a core team for a new church plant in eastern Kentucky. He had another informational meeting coming up, and since I wouldn’t be able to make it, I was eager for those at the meeting to be free from the false choice of a never-or-forever commitment to living and serving in the mountain town chosen for the church plant.

Many tend to view a commitment to missions or church planting as a life calling to a certain place or people group. And for some, it is. Church history says that Timothy eventually settled in Ephesus, ministering there until he was martyred as an old man. Patrick gave his life to Ireland. But for Paul and others who were part of his apostolic band, several months or years here and there seemed to be the norm.

For lead church planters, there is an important distinction to understand between the planter-pastor calling and what can be called an apostolic planter calling. Planter-pastors aim to plant a church and then to pastor it for the long-term. For those who are called to an apostolic planter ministry, their leadership over the church plant is meant to be temporary from the beginning, and they aim to go on planting other churches. These planters have a gifting that echoes that of Paul, where churches are started and then handed over to long-term elders, and it’s in this sense that I’m using the term apostolic, without here getting into the debates about whether there is an actual apostolic gifting or office for the church today.

Having been involved with both North American and cross-cultural church planting, it’s curious to note that the planter-pastor approach is the dominant model and assumption for North American church plants, while the apostolic planter model is the dominant model and assumption for planting churches cross-culturally. The conversations tend to be very different in these two spheres of church planting regarding what is necessary for a church plant to be successful. Preaching is a great example of this. For North American church plants, a strong gift of preaching is held up to be absolutely necessary. But for cross-cultural church-planting, preaching is often downplayed or even jettisoned altogether. Given these drastic differences, there needs to be more cross-pollination between missionary planters overseas and church planters in North America who are planting in their own language and in near-culture contexts. This is necessary so that neither are stuck in their own echo chambers. But that is a separate post.

What I want to focus on today is that just as some lead church planters are called to a life commitment and others to give a much shorter time, so the members of a church planting team can also be called to either kind of commitment. But perhaps because the planter-pastor model is the dominant one in North America, those considering joining a core team of this kind of church plant tend to assume they are being asked to commit decades to the church plant and focus city. This is, understandably, a very big ask. So it’s no wonder that many church planters heading to hard places in North America have a difficult time recruiting a team.

Yes, some will be called and gifted with a life-long commitment to a new church plant and new city. But this kind of long-term calling will not be the case for everyone, and is not necessary in order for team members to make a meaningful contribution to the church plant. The mid-term category for missionaries serves as a helpful example here. Many will go overseas for one to three years and then return to their home countries. Not only is this a very formative time for them, it can also be a crucial support for the long-termers on the ground. And eternally-significant ministry can take place in that kind of time frame as well. Gospel seeds can be sown and friends can come to faith and discipled. Churches can even be established.

If this is the case overseas, why would it not be the case when church planting team members will be ministering in their own language and in a near culture? While studying the local culture will still be important, this kind of church planting has the massive advantage of the team, from day one, already being fluent in the local language – with the exception of some local slang and idioms, of course. This is still just enough ignorance to be dangerous, but you can’t get away from every possibility of risk and embarrassment in this kind of service. Nor would you want to, since everybody ends up more humble and happy when they can laugh at themselves. 

Calling for mid-term length commitments, say one to five years, might not only free up more people to commit, but could also keep them from unnecessary shame and disorientation when they are a number of years in and are burnt out, or simply need to transition to a setting that’s healthier for their family. Being in a season ourselves where our family’s health raises a lot of questions about our future in Central Asia, it can be profoundly disorienting to rethink the next several decades when we had thought the path before us was more or less clear. Whether overseas or in city church plants in North America, many families end up needing to make significant moves somewhere in the five to ten year range. This often has to do with kids getting older, the costs of serving in a hard place piling up, and some kind of natural human cycle where we get restless and tend to lose hope of real change actually happening in this particular range of years (check out the most common years for divorces to take place). Rather than recruiting all teammates with a decades-long vision, there may be some wisdom in anticipating these dynamics and calling for shorter commitments as well. That way, even if someone decides it’s time to transition after their five years are up, this is a chance for celebrating their faithfulness, rather than an unexpected blow to the team that yet another member of the core team is leaving.

There are downsides to calling for midterm commitments. Investing in midterm teammates can take a long time, so it’s a blow when all that investment feels like it’s leaving after only a few short years – and then you have to do it all over again with someone new. That kind of turnover on a team can be discouraging and heavy. Wisdom is needed to make sure this is actually paying off. But when we remember that we are not just investing in these teammates for what they can do for the work, but we are investing in them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, those who will go on to serve elsewhere, then we can better bear these costs. We might not see as much return on the investment as we had hoped for in our local work, but we can trust that all faithful sowing will eventually bear fruit, both in the person themself as well as in the future churches they are a part of.

Starting something new is a tricky thing. This is just as true of churches as it is of anything else. There is a very subjective sense of momentum and growing stability that can make all the difference in others buying into the vision and taking the risk to join a church plant. Given this fragile dynamic, the simple presence of a few more faithful people can make all the difference in the early years. For those unsure about long-term callings or doubtful that they could in good conscience commit to decades, hearing that they can make a real difference by giving a specific year or three might turn a “No” into a “Yeah, by God’s grace, I think I can do that.”

It may not be forever. But that doesn’t mean means it’s not meaningful. After all, Paul only spent three years in Ephesus, and even less time elsewhere. The choice need not be never-or-forever. A few good years sown in faith as part of a church plant in a hard place may yield more of a harvest than we could ever anticipate. We may not be able to give decades, but could we give a year or two or five? It’s a worthy thing to wrestle with.

Photo by Lukas Allspach on Unsplash

Lessons Learned: Living Room Baptisms

We had been living in Central Asia as a family for seven months. At last, I was hanging out regularly again with my dear friends from my gap year, Hama* and Tara*. This fun-loving couple had come to faith back in 2008 as we studied the book of Matthew, saw God miraculously answer prayer, and as they experienced God’s faithfulness during their six month ostracism from their family. When their son was born at the end of that year, they had named him Memory, so that they would never forget all that God had done for them.

I had done my best to try to hand off my relationship with them to others when I had returned to the States for seven years, but this can be a tricky thing. While one believing European friend stayed close with Tara, no one had been able to regular invest in discipling this couple, in spite of the fact that a believing husband and wife are a rare and wonderful thing in a people group where nine out of ten believers are single men. This lack of steady discipleship meant they had never been baptized, something I was eager for them to pursue.

Somehow, on that summer evening in their apartment the topic of baptism came up. As I shared how important it is, and showed them passages like Matthew 28 and Romans 6, Hama and Tara were suddenly convinced.

“Let’s do it then!” said Hama, “How about tomorrow?” Tara was beaming as well.

I was a bit taken aback by this spontaneous decision, and observed that when it comes to areas of difficult obedience, our people group have an interesting long-term resistance that suddenly breaks into a desire for immediate action – which often catches us westerners a little unprepared. Given all of the hesitancy around baptism and its costs in an Islamic society, my sense was to try to help Hama and Tara move fast, now that they were at last ready to move. I did not want the spiritual clarity and excitement for obedience they were currently experiencing to fade away again. Plus, this was a long time coming, seven years without taking that first crucial step of discipleship. This was an answer to prayer.

“Can we do it at your house?” they asked.

“Well,” I replied, “I’d have to figure some things out for that to work. Are you sure you don’t want to drive to a lake or river? The weather is nice and hot.”

“No, somewhere like your house makes sense. It would be private and clean. And we could do it fast, without having to plan a whole picnic.”

Our locals take their picnics very seriously. And no baptism outing to a lake or river would be permitted without some kind of a half day or full day picnic program also happening, which takes a lot of work and planning. There are picnic sites to argue over, food responsibilities to be debated, and logistics to be hammered out. Knowing how exhausting even just planning these local picnics could be, and that it was still too early for the cooler autumn picnic weather, I was happy to agree to something simpler and within the city. Plus, at that point we didn’t have a natural location that we knew could work well for baptism, and this would take some research.

“Right, then,” I continued, wanting to make sure they were OK with some other believers (my teammates) being present, “Let me see if I can make it work for tomorrow evening, and connect with some of my colleagues that you know. I’ll text you in the morning if it will work.”

This plan agreed to, I left Hama and Tara’s apartment full of excitement. My dear friends were ready to follow Jesus in costly obedience. And our team would get to experience their first baptisms with locals. I couldn’t wait to tell them. But first, I had to figure out if we could even pull this off in the living room of our second floor duplex home.

I had seen inflatable kiddie pools for sale on the sides of the road in recent weeks. I had also seen cheap hand-pumped siphons for sale in most neighborhood stores. A plan began to come together. I would buy a kiddie pool, inflate it in our spacious living room, fill it up with water from the porch hose, then afterward be able to drain it out to the porch drain with that same house and a siphon. We had no bathtub, something that is quite rare in our area, and I had read that some Muslim cultures have negative reactions to something representing cleanliness, baptism, happening in an area of the house that also has a toilet, or a squatty potty. No, I thought to myself, to get both privacy and respectability something like a kiddie pool is the way to go.

The next morning I embarked on a mission to find my needed supplies. Not too far from my house I bought a large inflatable rectangular pool, long enough for an adult to lay down in and deep enough to make sure they could get fully immersed, if they began by sitting down. I took the pool home and used my wife’s hair dryer to inflate it. So far so good. It fit perfectly in our living room alcove, backed by windows that looked out on the southern mountain range. It felt like it a took a very long time to fill the pool up with the slow stream of water from the porch hose, and it was early afternoon before I had achieved proof of concept. But there it was, a functional baptismal in my living room. This could actually work.

Now it was time to share the good news with the team. I sent them a picture of the pool and a pecked out a message with my thumbs.

“Last night Hama and Tara told me they are finally ready to be baptized! And they asked if we could do it at my house. I wasn’t sure if it would work, so I got a pool to test it out. But look, it works, and they said they’d be ready as soon as tonight! What do you think?”

The message I got from our team leader was not at all what I was expecting.

“We need to talk. This is not happening. I’m coming over.”

I was stunned. What was going on? Where did this kind of response come from? Clearly I was missing something big.

My team leader came over to our place and we proceeded to have a pretty tense conversation, one where I was scrambling to figure out where I had gone wrong. I had clearly stepped in something. It had all seemed so simple to me. We were there to make disciples, baptize them, and form churches in a city where there was no healthy church. What was the holdup? Why the resistance?

It quickly became clear that I had to contact Hama and Tara and tell them that we couldn’t move forward with their baptism. Our team, for some reason, was not on board. Over the proceeding weeks I began to figure out what gone wrong. The issues really boiled down to a failure of contextualization, both me toward my team and my team toward our local context. By contextualization here I mean using methods that are both faithful and appropriate for a given context and culture, taking universal biblical principles and implementing them skillfully with particular people and in particular places.

My team had responded to me so negatively because I had failed to operate within our culture as a team and organization, which was still very new to me. When I had been in the same city on my gap year, I had served with a different organization, and on a very disjointed team where we more-or-less coordinated on platform projects, but had a lot of autonomy as far as ministry decisions. But the new team and organization I was with was very different. Leadership of the team and strategy in church-planting were taken much more seriously. Ministry decisions were not rushed or autonomous, but approved by the team leader and hammered out over a long period of (hopefully) consensus-building conversations.

Comparing things to my previous season serving as a church elder in the States, I remembered once hearing the principle of “never surprise your fellow elders.” But this is exactly what I had done. I had very much surprised my teammates and my team leader, and not in a good way. In fact, they felt that the timing of my communication, after having set everything up, was somewhat manipulative, put them in a bind, and was at the very least out of order. They were stunned that I would proceed in this manner. For my part, I was struggling to understand why this kind of decision would be controversial at all.

Turns out our team had been at an impasse regarding local baptisms for a year or more before we had even arrived. A few single men had come to faith and desired baptism, but the team couldn’t agree on whether or not it was appropriate to baptize these men if they were not yet ready to tell their immediate families about their faith. Nor could the team decide on how to baptize them into a church if no healthy local church yet existed. They were also committed to westerners not doing the baptisms. Tensions had run very high around these conversations, unbeknownst to us. And into the simmering tension surrounding these ongoing debates, I, the new guy, had quite suddenly inserted myself and Hama and Tara.

Understanding this context wisely, both of team culture and of team conflict, should have led to a very different process as far as how I approached the whole baptism conversation. But in my excitement for my local friends, I had failed to contextualize well toward my team.

But there was an unintentional upside to my mistakes. I had forced the conversation. Two local believers were eager and ready to go under the water. A baptismal kiddie pool was sitting there in my living room. Nothing was stopping us from moving forward other than our own inability to agree with one another as a team. And so we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of delaying locals from obeying Jesus until we could get our stuff together. Though sometimes necessary, this is the kind of place any missionary should want to avoid. When the locals are ready to obey Jesus, we need to make sure that we are ready to facilitate this – though this is often easier said than done.

But the team, still all pretty new to Central Asia, had also failed to contextualize well to our specific situation.

The team was committed to no missionaries doing baptisms, because missionaries in Somalia had found this could result in baptisms performed by locals being viewed as second-rate by local believers. And missionaries in Latin America had found that barring foreigners from doing baptisms was an important principle in what is called shadow-pastoring. In shadow-pastoring, the missionary is never seen actually leading, but is always coaching a local leader from the background. But we weren’t in Somalia or Latin America. We were our unique city in Central Asia – which had no mature local believers able to do these baptisms. And where we had no local data yet to suggest that locals would elevate baptisms by foreigners as somehow superior, or that they would respond negatively to a foreigner directly modeling local church leadership in this way.

The team was also committed to baptism being done into the local church, a sound biblical principle. But once again, in our particular unreached context we had no local church for Hama and Tara to be baptized into. They would have to be the first local believers that would become the church for others to be baptized into it in the future.

Finally, the team was committed to baptisms not happening in kiddie pools in our homes, but in more idyllic natural settings. This final commitment seemed to be more of a personal preference or idealism, one which curiously went directly against the desires of the actual local believers we were working with. The sense among the team was really that it would be a bit of a tacky precedent to set.

In all of these things, it was not merely the biblical principles, but also their foreign applications and expressions that were being asked of our local friends. In this sense, things were backwards. Yes, good contextualization should be informed by how the global and historical church has expressed biblical principles, but it must also ask the important questions of what certain choices and expressions mean in their unique, local focus culture and people group. As far too often happens, our team was taking expressions and methodologies developed elsewhere, and imposing them upon our locals as some kind of inflexible missiological law. Hama and Tara were excited about being baptized in a kiddie pool, by me, in my living room. We were saying no to this. Why? Because of Somalia, Latin America, and our own personal baggage with indoor baptismals. Just as I was failing to contextualize to my team, my team was failing to contextualize to our local believers.

Biblically, there is nothing wrong with a foreign missionary baptizing local believers in a kiddie pool in their living room, in a private setting with a small crowd of believing witnesses. There is nothing wrong with those who are the first baptized becoming the church that others will be baptized into because no church yet exists. In fact, there is no way around this latter reality when planting the first church in what is sometimes called a zero-to-one context. But methodological commitments were prematurely denying us some of our biblical options – and doing this without any local evidence for it.

Thankfully, the ensuing conversations as a team were fruitful, and we were able to find a good compromise for Hama and Tara. The team had come around to us baptizing Hama, as long as he joined us to baptize his wife afterward. But the kiddie pool in the living room was still something they couldn’t bring themselves to agree to. It just felt tacky, and it would take many more local believers insisting that it was fine and respectable for it to become an option that all of us were OK with. Hama and Tara humbly decided to go ahead and plan a half-day picnic and for our sake to be baptized in a slow-moving greenish stream.

“The Bible says I need to go under the water, but does it say it has to be such dirty water?” Hama joked with me at one point as we surveyed the slime at the edge of the stream. I smiled at him sympathetically, wishing I could tell him about all the dynamics that had led us finally to be permitted to dunk them in that lazy stream in late summer.

As for the kiddie pool, it remained filled up in our living room for the next several weeks. “Might as well let the kids enjoy it!” I said to my wife. Plus, having the kids use it actually helped us deflect our language tutor’s repeated questions as to why exactly we had a pool set up in our living room (The picture at the top of this article is of two of our kiddos very much enjoying a splash on a summer afternoon with no electricity).

Though it quickly developed leaks, we actually got to use the same controversial kiddie pool for several baptisms the following year, one in a local’s courtyard and one in a local’s garage. It was still too soon for the whole team to be comfortable doing it in our houses. But by the end of our first term, Darius* was being baptized in a kiddie pool in our team leader’s kitchen, dunked by a local on one side and a foreigner on the other, and into what was now a fledgling local church. Considering the level of tension around baptism a few years earlier, the symbolism of this event was not lost on me.

What had changed? I had learned how to contextualize to our team, and all of us on the team had learned how to better contextualize to the locals. God had answered a lot of prayer, and all of us had shifted significantly in how we understood what methods were both biblically faithful and locally appropriate. We were more committed than ever to biblical principles, but some very good adjusting had taken place as we sought to wisely express them for the unique people and culture around us. We were still informed by missiology from the outside, but it had become the servant to local contextualization, not the law.

Study your unique team and leadership. Study your unique local friends and their culture. You’ll likely find you have to make some significant adjustments in your assumptions, approaches, and your methods. But this is what good missions work looks like. One hand holding on tightly to fixed, unchanging biblical principles. The other hand with a looser grip, tweaking, prodding, and poking at your methods, striving for the best way to apply and express those principles in a way that is faithful, wise, clear, and compelling.

*Names changed for security

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

Making The Best of Imperfect Systems

Want to know one of the seldom-mentioned keys to staying healthy on the mission field? The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. A kind of practical trust in God’s sovereignty that results in patience, kindness, and flexibility when confronted by broken, different, or merely imperfect systems. These systems might be local ones. Or they might be the systems of your team or organization. Regardless, none of them are perfect. Some of them are frankly bad, and even the good ones can have glitches – just enough to send you over the edge on a day when your culture shocking is beginning to smell like a 110 volt appliance plugged into a surging 220 volt outlet. Is something burning?

Since our return to Central Asia we’ve spent abundant time in government and private offices as we’ve sought to renew our visas and lease as well as help teammates with their own paperwork. These systems and processes are not very efficient. They don’t always seem logical. They are unpredictable in a hurry up and wait kind of way. If we let them, they could be a considerable source of stress and anxiety.

But how exactly am I advancing the kingdom of God if I let the frustrations of these systems send me into a rage, or even into a judgmental smolder? If the Central Asians are even frustrated by the system, wouldn’t it better commend Christ if I can model a radical patience, joy, and cooperativeness in these sorts of situations? But these blasted local bureaucrats are keeping me from being able to do the ministry work! I know these thoughts well. But what if the open door to do the work will actually come through my membership in the new humanity being on display in the midst of a creaking and broken system?

Sometimes we make it through the local systems admirably, not only holding it together, but even displaying Christ-like kindness and patience. But it takes a toll. Then we get that email from a coworker. Someone at the home office requests something that feels out of touch or unreasonable to us. They should know better, those blasted Christian Westerners! Can’t they see this is so inefficient or redundant? Turns out we can spend all our grace on our local friends, and then become downright curmudgeons with our teammates and organization. We vent our wrath at the language system, the mentoring system, the financial system, the lack of a system, etc., etc.

We live in a broken world, full of broken systems. How are we to do God’s work in this kind of place?

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:14–18, ESV)

Yikes. Not my natural response to imperfect systems, but absolutely what it is needed. But where does the power to live like this come from, to actually be patient with them all and give thanks in all circumstances?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28–30 ESV)

Imperfect systems, even broken systems, are encompassed by the phrase “all things.” Even they are a part of God’s good plan for your day, for your ministry – for your glorification. A practical trust in God’s sovereignty means that when you spend an hour to get across town in traffic and the office manager is randomly not in today, or it’s some obscure holiday no one told you about, or your water tanks at home are inexplicably empty, that you lean into that frustrating situation as a good gift from your father. Practicing sovereignty means you are gracious and flexible when the organization’s deadline is not a good fit for your unique situation. It means these frustrations are melted away by the warmth that comes from meditating on our eternal brotherhood with Jesus, or the unbreakable chain of God’s good plan for us in our salvation (foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified). These kinds of meditations will not only power healthier responses. They are the only effective fuel for healthy system reform.

The ability to make the best of imperfect systems. Not in some positive-thinking shallow way. But the kind of flexibility that’s rooted in God’s sovereignty and spilling over in patience and thanks – this can save us from burnout, or worse. It’s a seldom spoken of virtue of those who last overseas in a long-term and healthy way. For those of us on the field, we need prayer to grow in this way. For any considering missions, begin praying this way for yourself. There are many things I’m learning about lasting on the field and what makes a healthy team. This one, simple as it may seem, is growing year by year in its practical weight and implications.

Show me a worker who is able to make the best of imperfect systems, and I believe you will have shown me a person who deeply understands the grace and patience of God.

Photo by Ruben Mishchuk on Unsplash

A Few Reasons Why I Love Having Singles on Our Teams

We may have been a little odd, but alongside of the 1997 Star Wars Special Edition VHS set, my ten-year-old friends I loved watching the film, Gettysburg. This film is based off of the novel, The Killer Angels, itself heavily based on the historical events of the battle.

One of the contrasts drawn out in the film is the performance of the Union cavalry vs. the performance of the Confederate cavalry. The Union cavalry, led by John Buford, was ahead of the Yankee infantry as it pursued the Rebel army, as it should have been. The cavalry came into contact with the Confederate infantry columns at Gettysburg. Buford, recognizing the strategic terrain of the area, ordered his cavalry to dismount and to keep the Rebs engaged until the Union infantry could arrive. Buford’s men took heavy losses, but by going above and beyond their duty like this, they held the good ground and contributed to the eventual Yankee victory at Gettysburg.

The Confederate cavalry, by contrast, was off doing its own thing. Led by J.E.B. Stuart, the cavalry was not in close enough proximity nor communication with the infantry. They effectively left their army blind, which became engaged in battle on ground the enemy had chosen. By the time the Confederate cavalry arrived late on the second day of the battle, it was too late.

What does the cavalry and infantry of the American Civil War have to do with singles on missionary teams? Well, I am no military expert, but a good army needed both cavalry and infantry. Cavalry provided speed and flexibility and powerful short-term attacks, in addition to crucial reconnaissance. The infantry provided the stable fighting force, slow, yes, but also mighty. Both existed in a complementary relationship and both needed each other. It can be like this with the families and singles on our teams.

I served as a single on the mission field for one year. Since then I’ve been a part of two teams that were a mix of singles and married families. I have come to greatly appreciate the dynamic of these mixed teams which are able to draw on the strengths of singles as well as families. Every believer has individual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. But in addition to these gifts, there are general gifts or freedoms that often hold true to certain seasons of life or callings. Speaking in broad brushes, if I had to summarize one of main gifts of singleness, it would be flexibility. Pivoting to families, I recognize the gift of stability. Every team needs both.

Families, free as they are to invest in their marriage and in their children, are often less free to invest in locals in the same way that singles can. Singles can work hard and then crash hard, staying up until 3 a.m. sharing the gospel with their friends and catching up on rest over the next couple days. Families have to maintain a higher degree of schedule stability since the kids will lose their minds if they’re that sleep deprived and the parents will not be able to take a two hour nap the next day – because, again, the kids are losing their minds. In addition to schedule, relational capacity is different. Busy homeschooling moms can have a hard time making new local friends, while a single might be overwhelmed at the sheer number of friends she has. In these ways, families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility in relationships.

As a single on the mission field, I was always taking trips to this city or to that friend’s village. Singles often have greater freedom to travel and research. For our family of five, every night where we are somewhere new brings with it a whole bunch of complications. While we still love travel and research, our ability to actually do it has decreased significantly. It just takes a lot to plan an overnight these days. But the singles on our team can fill the gap for us in this area, and they do, driving off into mountain villages on the regular. Families can lean on singles and their greater flexibility for travel and research.

Married folks with kids are just plain busy, and this makes spiritual friendship hard to come by. In addition to the ways in which we have found complementary effectiveness in ministry with singles, I have greatly valued the friendships that God has given me and my wife with singles on our teams. It has been very good for our souls to have these friends who are in a different station of life or who have a different long-term calling. We were kept sane during difficult seasons of ministry in part through the game, Settlers of Cataan, as the two single guys on our team came over regularly to simply have fun together after our toddlers were asleep. I benefited from their availability to sit and have long conversations over chai and coffee and they in turn benefited greatly from my wife’s baking skills. Simple as these things seem, the gift of friendship that singles have to offer to tired ministry families is a mighty one.

Families, for their part, can also meet crucial needs for the singles on their teams. Because families are gifted with stability, we can help provide more of that for busy ministry singles who might need more structured community. One single in our organization shared with me how her team leader’s family had her come every every single Thursday night for dinner and to do whatever she needed to do. If she wanted to hang out, read like an introvert, or sleep, she was to feel free to do so. This invitation gave her a stable appointment every week so that if her Central Asian friends were pushing her to hang out, she could honestly say she had a previous commitment.

The need for family and community is a mutual need, but often singles on the field feel the lack of this keenly. Families can play a crucial role by inviting singles into family times, meals, holidays, and trips. Loneliness on the field can be quite dark and intense. Families on missionary teams can help provide community and family for the singles serving alongside them. It’s not enough to just be respectful coworkers. To truly flourish as a team, families and singles will need to become spiritual friends, and even spiritual family.

Like a good infantry and cavalry, families and singles on the field can do better work when they are working closely together. I like the imagery of infantry and cavalry because it also speaks to equality within diversity. Too often, singles are not valued as equal workers in the missionary task. In the age of Protestant missions, we have swung a little too far in that we have a hard time understanding Paul’s preference that believers stay single like he was. In previous ages of church history, the emphasis was reversed. You couldn’t be in ministry if you were married with kids, but had to be a celibate monk. How much better then to value both singleness and marriage as strategic components of the missionary team? Why not make Paul and Timothy alongside of Aquila and Priscilla our default? When we recognize that we need each other and that we have complementary gifts, this kind of equal footing is more likely to emerge.

So, singles, we need you. This Great Commission work can’t be done by families alone. We need the cavalry.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

What Four Years of Elders Meetings Taught Me About Team Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

The Humble Kabob and Team Unity

Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash

We recently moved cities and left our previous team. It was hard to leave because after three years of teaming together, things were good. Now, we had certainly had our seasons of team storming and conflict. Some of them were quite intense. Sometimes we wanted to pull out our hair in frustration at yet another miscommunication or disagreement over next steps. But as we left in preparation to come alongside a different team in a new city, it was hard because we were leaving more than teammates, we were leaving our friends.

There were many things that God was doing in us and in spite of us to keep our team together through those difficult years of seeing a small church planted in our previous city up in the mountains. Some would be unique to us and not reproducible. But there would be a few things that could be implemented by other teams of believers who have a vision to grow towards being a healthy team. Today I want to mention one eminently practical piece of team unity – the humble kabob. Well, not just the kabob, but the idea of regularly eating together as a normal part of team life and culture. As my former team leader put it, at the end of the day, we always enjoyed eating together. We ate together regularly as a team, even if we were just coming from a meeting full of intense debate, even when it was hard to make eye contact with the person you had just upset in the last discussion. We had a favorite local restaurant where we could always go and get a big plate of local spicy kabob and flatbread for around $3. Always followed by hot, sugary Central Asian chai. So yes, that definitely helped.

This principle of eating food regularly together is not rocket science, nor is it a novel idea. But when you dig into the theological significance of breaking bread together, you are wading in deep waters. Consider that the tree of life bore fruit, a meal which when eaten, gave eternal life. The fall into sin came by a meal shared at the other tree, that of the knowledge of good and evil. God enacted covenants with his people through meals, such as that at Sinai with the seventy elders of Israel, and he reminded his people of their covenant relationship through divinely-ordained feasts. God fed his people in the wilderness with miraculous bread from heaven and later we find out that Jesus is the true bread come down from heaven, the bread of life. Did you know that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle repeated in all four gospels? Then we are given the Lord’s Supper as a meal to remember Jesus and to look forward to his return, when history will be consummated with the marriage supper of the lamb. And this is just scratching the surface. You could even say that food is at the center of our very salvation, key to our reconciliation to God and to one another. So it makes sense that it would be an important part of team unity.

This kind of advice could be easily dismissed because of how simple it is. Yet I know from experience that some teams do not have a regular time where they are eating together. And they are worse off for it. I cannot parse exactly what is going on spiritually and relationally when we eat in one another’s presence, but it has to do with trust, peace, friendship, service, respect, and even joy. The mutual enjoyment of sustenance perhaps provides tangible common ground that can complement spiritual common ground, which can make all the difference when the relational side of things is feeling frayed. I find myself recalling a pastor from a more liturgical tradition once waving his hand in a service and saying, “This too is a mystery.” Indeed, a delicious mystery.

Is your team scheduled to regularly eat together? If not, why not? Why not use the restart which emerging from Covid-19 provides us to build in this kind of practice? Experiment. I’ll bet you some kabob that you will be a happier team because of it.