On Not Neglecting the Internationals in Our Churches

A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.

This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.

It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.

Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.

What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.

First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.

The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.

My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.

Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.

Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.

We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.

But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.

What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.

Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

The Table Grace of Brigid

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings. 
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven. 
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, 
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast, 
For they are God's children. 
I should welcome the sick to my feast, 
For they are God's joy. 
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, 
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor, 
God bless the sick, 
And bless our human race. 
God bless our food, 
God bless our drink, 
All homes, O God, embrace. 

-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175

This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”

This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?

In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

A Christmas Party and the Birth of a Church

We had the hardest time getting local believers to gather for a house church service. Sure, they would meet (somewhat) regularly for one-on-one Bible studies with us. But meet in a group with other locals? Not happening. Our first year on the field was full of conversations with our team and locals about this frustrating reality that would have to change if a new local church was ever going to be birthed.

However, when we invited a group of individual local believers to a picnic or a party, they would come. We also had several come on a weekly basis to an English-language study of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. This evidence showed us that locals would indeed show up and be exposed to others when they wanted to. But there was something about an invitation to church, to sing, pray, and study the Bible in a group with other locals that kept them from being willing to actually attend. True to an honor-shame culture, many would commit, only to back out last minute or simply fail to show at all. Most of it seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t trust the other locals, but believed they were mostly spies, frauds, or just bad unknown people. We were also pretty sure that a lack of experience in the joys of gathering as Christians meant that their spiritual appetites for gathering were barely existent. Their lack of appetite kept them from gathering, and not gathering kept their appetites from developing. They were stuck, and many a team meeting was spent arguing about how to get our local friends unstuck.

These dynamics and disappointments caused many missionaries to give up attempting to gather mixed groups at all. Instead, they felt that the only way churches would ever be planted among our people group were if we were content to gather only those who were part of a natural household network together. This “oikos” network of family members and close friends would have some level of familial trust for one another, therefore they would likely be more willing to gather and do something risky like study the Bible and sing songs to Jesus.

But we had several problems with this oikos-centered model. First, there was precious little fruit to be shown for a decade of oikos-promoting work among our people group. Even if we were going to be purely pragmatic, the oikos approach simply wasn’t working either. Second, we knew a sizeable network of believers who were alone in their faith in their network of friends and relatives. Some had even tried to gather a group of friends and relatives to study and had been rebuffed or threatened. When it came to the household-only strategy, they were actually prevented from gathering with others by some of the foreigners because the only other believers in the city were not part of their natural network. Most seriously, we believed that the nature of the church is that of a new household of faith, where those from disconnected and enemy households and networks are visibly part of a new family with one another. Especially in a culture so prone to division, treachery, and racism, we wanted the church to be a picture of a new humanity – and that from the very beginning.

Our locals are very concrete in their thinking. Yet all of our conversations with them about church were still in the realm of the hypothetical – inviting them to partake in something they had never seen. So we wanted to find some way for them to experience church without having to call it that. Christmas provided the perfect opportunity.

As in most of the non-Western world, Christmas as a secular holiday is making major inroads into our area of Central Asia. Locals are fascinated by this winter holiday with its celebrations of lights, gifts, and music. Some vaguely know that it’s connected to the birth of Jesus, but most think it’s basically a way to celebrate the new year. Yet every time we had invited a local to something Christmas-related, they not only came, but eagerly came. Some of our teammates had learned how to leverage Christmas-time hospitality so that family after family would hear the gospel as they munched on sugar cookies and listened to a description of tree ornaments that together told the story of Jesus.

A plan was hatched. We would invite all of the isolated local believers that we knew to a Christmas party. Along with eating a festive meal together, we would also include a time of singing, teaching from the Word, and prayer. Since this would be their first Christmas party, they wouldn’t know that we were smuggling elements of a basic church service into it. This would give them a chance to taste and see the goodness of corporate worship, which might make some then willing to keep gathering with us in a similar way.

We divided up the responsibilities for the party. Mark*, the only one at that point able to teach in the local language, would teach on the magi from Matthew 3. I would help with some songs in the local language, my wife would make some coconut curry, Mark’s wife would prep the sugar cookies and chai, all of us would pester our friends about coming.

The day of the Christmas party came, a bright, chilly December day. The team all sat around in Mark’s dining room, wondering if anyone would show up. The dull crackle of the propane space heaters filled the air whenever the conversation fell silent. Suddenly, we heard the door bell. We looked out the window and saw Harry’s* head peeking over the gate. Yes! We would have at least one guest. Harry was one of our language tutors from a very conservative family and had come to faith a couple of years before. After a few minutes Hamid* appeared, one of our English students and also a newish believer. Then came Joseph*, an English-language scholar who lived isolated in a city three hours to the south. Then Maria*, a single woman from a neighboring country. Finally, my close friends Hama* and Tara* arrived, and close behind them a brand new believer named Marlin*, one of the members of our Prodigal God study group.

Lunch was a hit. Apparently coconut curry is a good choice for a Christmas meal with Central Asians (though mild, not spicy). We dipped freshly baked local pita loaves into it and had fun cutting up over the meal. Hama could always bring some welcome laughs to any gathering, although true to holiday meals in our own country, Hamid kept wanting to corner people and bring up politics.

Eventually it was time for the “service.” We moved to the living room and Mark opened up Matthew 3 and taught on the coming of the wisemen. Like other Central Asian languages, ours still has a word for magi, a linguistic descendant of the once-dominant Zoroastrianism of our area and the broader Persian world. The tallest mountain looming over our city is even named after a magi. So this topic easily held the attention of our local friends, drawing a connection between their ancestors and the birth story of Jesus. Mark finished up his lesson by tying it all to the gospel, and we sang some songs together in the local language, including one from Psalm 133 that celebrates the goodness of brothers dwelling together in unity:

Together, toge-e-ther,

Lai lai lai, lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai

Behold how good and how wonderful it is

When we dwell in unity together

After this it was time for prayer and for passing out the chai and cookies. Our wives made the rounds, passing out the caffeine and sweets to grateful replies of, “May your hands be blessed,” and responding with, “May it be to the health of your soul.”

“This was great,” Marlin said, munching on a Christmas tree-shaped cookie. “Why can’t we do this more often?”

We tried not to choke on our chai when Marlin said this. The irony was rich. We had been inviting them to do this ad nauseam.

“We do this every week,” responded Mark.

“You do?”

“Yes, every week we get together and learn from God’s word, we sing, we pray, and we eat together. Just like this. It’s called church.”

We waited to see how the locals would respond. While we couldn’t read some of them, several were leaning in, processing what Mark had just said. They seemed excited, like a boy who had beforehand been deathly afraid to try the waterslide, only to afterward admit that it was actually quite fun.

Mark decided to go for it. “Let’s do this again, then. Next week. Right here, just like we did today. Who’s in?”

Almost all of the locals agreed that they would like to come back. We could hardly believe it. We had smuggled in a basic church service in the guise of a Christmas party… and it had actually worked.

Today, six years later, a small church exists in Central Asia as a direct outcome of that Christmas party. Of the original guests, only Hamid is still there, having recently come back and reconciled after a long absence. Hama and Tara and Harry have fled the country due to persecution. Marlin no longer professes faith. Joseph is still living in relative isolation in the south. Maria’s family were outed as actual spies. Mark and his family are still on the ground, and every year when Christmas comes around he teaches on the magi, from Matthew chapter 3.

God uses many things to get new churches started. Church history has seen it happen from revivals, forcible displacements, and power encounters. Our sending church was started when a bunch of German Catholic immigrants met in a brewery to sit under the preaching of seminary students.

Our little church in Central Asia? Birthed by a Christmas party.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Nicholas Safran on Unsplash

In Need of a Harvest Collective

The first neighborhood my family lived in when we moved to Central Asia had two names, the formal name and the name everyone used. I first came upon the formal name when I learned to read the street signs (which everyone ignored). It was not a word I heard anyone using, nor was it a term every local was familiar with. Eventually, I found a friend who was able to translate it for me. Even then I realized that there was no direct English equivalent. This is true of many individual words when learning a new language – you can translate them with a descriptive phrase but not with an individual equivalent word. In fact, releasing the assumption that every word must have a direct translation is an important step in the language learning process.

The name of the neighborhood translated to something like “harvest collective.” It was a village term, hence some of my city friends not knowing it. The villages in our corner of Central Asia are wise enough to know that no household can handle harvest time all on their own. Or perhaps wise enough to know that even if they can, they really shouldn’t. So, there is a rotation, a harvest collective, when on an appointed day the whole village shows up in a specific household’s field in order to provide them with the needed manpower and motivation to gather in the crops.

I liked the concept as soon as I heard of it. It reminded me of our newborn days when I realized that my young wife and I really couldn’t handle that season of postpartum and exhaustion on our own – and yet the very way society around us was structured encouraged isolation and often prevented receiving help from extended family or community. I remembered when our oldest two were toddlers and the never-ending household work my wife struggled to get to unless another mom in our community group came over to lend a hand. Or more recently, as most of my peers have become home owners, hearing about the difficulty these dads are having in fixing up their homes on their own.

While healthy churches in the West and community group structures are providing an avenue for some of this kind of collective help to happen organically (and praise God for this), my sense is that more robust structure and schedule is needed in order to push back against the overwhelming isolating tendencies of life in the individualistic West. We may have good and godly intentions to help that struggling young mom or that busy working dad, but those intentions may need an actual structure in order to translate into reality. Or to provide the kind of help that is less a one-off and actually serves for the long-term.

The idea would be for healthy church communities to borrow some cultural wisdom and implement “harvest collective” structures, where they recognize the kinds of labor a household can’t or shouldn’t do alone, and seek to regularly share that labor together. For example, a group of six men from the same church agree to become a collective together. One Saturday a month they agree to all show up at one man’s house in order to help him make some solid headway on his repair or renovation projects. That would mean twice a year each man is receiving help from five other brothers. Even if only for one day, that kind of help could go a long way. Young moms struggling with loneliness, fatigue, and the never-ending needs at home could set up a collective where they are regularly showing up to help one another, helping with not only the labor but also with the discouragement so prevalent in that season.

Westerners faced with this idea might feel an internal objection along the lines of “but we’re supposed to be able to handle this stuff on our own.” Yes, that is the overwhelming message communicated by Western culture, one which we have ingested from our youth. And it comes with a quiet side of shame for those who wrestle with why they can’t seem to figure it out – which happens to be the majority. An honest look at the loneliness, overwork, and rates of depression in Western culture just might indicate that we have some structural problems that require creative structural solutions. Non-Westerners might respond with, “But that’s the job of the extended family.” Yes, the extended family has played this role in many parts of the world. Yet the world is rapidly urbanizing, and with that comes the breakdown of the extended family’s ability to provide the same kind help it has in the past. Even more important than this is the fact that the Church is supposed to be the household of God, the new extended family for those kicked out of theirs because of their faith – or for those raised in a culture in which only a shell of the extended family remains. My Central Asian friends are the former. Many of my friends in the West are the latter. I would not be surprised if this kind of a group even lent the church an evangelistic power. “Wow, look at how those Christians take care of each other in the areas I feel so very alone in.”

The expressions may look very different than I have suggested here, but I believe the principle is sound. Like Central Asian villagers, believers would be wise to collectively serve one another in those kinds of labor which a single household can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to handle on its own. In societies that relentlessly drive towards an individualistic life, this will require intentional structures. And some humility to ask for help in ares the culture says we should be able to handle on our own.

After all, it’s not like the harvest collective in Central Asian culture has been there forever. At some point some exhausted farmer was probably sitting around drinking fermented yogurt water with his buddies and blurted out an honest confession that the harvest was simply too much for him and his kids to handle. At which point his fellow villagers must have come up with a wise plan. The kind of plan which just may be due for a revival of sorts.

Photo by Mathieu Bigard on Unsplash

A Proverb On Betrayal

When the axe handle was a branch of our own, we have come to the destruction of our home.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks of betrayal from a group member using the imagery of an axe cutting down a tree, when the handle of the axe is, in a perverse turn, shaped from a branch of that same tree. This is actually pretty good imagery for what betrayal feels like. This saying also acknowledges the great fear and destruction likely to come upon a family when betrayed by one of its own. It is one kind of danger to be attacked by outsiders. It is another thing altogether to have the attack come from within. Anyone in ministry who’s ever dealt with a wolf among the sheep knows this danger, and likely shudders when recalling it.

Tragically, our focus Central Asian people group has quite the history of betrayal and treachery. It is one of the besetting sins of the culture that will need to be weeded out by the new gospel culture established by the Church. In the meantime, it is one of the thorniest factors often preventing churches from taking root. It’s hard to keep a group going when group members are regularly tempted to sell one another out for money, influence, or other personal advantage. The presence of actual spies – regardless of who they are working for – really doesn’t help either.

I’m not a huge fan of the “Why didn’t I learn this in seminary?” complaint. Seminary isn’t designed to cover every specific problem that might crop up in ministry. However, I will say that those heading into ministry could certainly use more training in how to deal with betrayal of the church – a practical theology of wolves, as it were. At least as Westerners, we are so optimistic and believe-the-best in our bearing that we can get caught woefully unprepared when a divider and traitor emerges. Betrayal from within doesn’t have to mean “the destruction of our home” as the proverb says, but if we pretend it won’t happen to us we greatly increase the chances of this indeed being the outcome.

When faced with a traitor, we have the great advantage of having Jesus’ example as he was betrayed by one of his closest followers. The presence of Judas, and Jesus’ interesting toleration of him, helps us know that betrayal is not only to be expected, but can be overcome and even used in God’s glorious plans. The church in Ephesus is also a helpful case study of dealing with wolves (Acts 20, Rev 2). If we let these examples inform our expectations of ministry, that will help. They can steady us in the great fear and disorientation caused if a betrayal occurs. And keep hope alive that no matter the level of destruction caused, treachery will not have the last word. The tree, as it were, may be cut down by the axe, but its downed fruit may just plant an orchard.

Photo by HamZa NOUASRIA on Unsplash

As Slow As It Takes

When we came to the field we thought that we were already on the slow track when it came to leadership development. Many popular missions methodologies advocate handing over significant authority to new believers very quickly, within a matter of weeks or months. Some even have unbelievers facilitating and leading Bible studies. These methods teach that the upfront direct leadership of the missionaries keep the local church planting work from multiplying and keep it dependent on the expert outsider. So, the direct involvement of the foreigner is kept to an absolute minimum, and leadership responsibility is handed over as quickly as possible. What of the biblical qualifications for elders/overseers/pastors? Often a new title is used to skirt these requirements, such as “house church leader.” It’s true, Paul never explicitly says that a house church leader/facilitator/trainer can’t be a new convert. Alas, play with language enough and you can get around just about any otherwise clear verse of scripture.

In this kind of atmosphere, we knew that we were in the minority with our conviction that we needed to spend three to four years pouring into local men before they would be ready to lead. This conviction came out of the desire to be faithful to leadership standards laid out in 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They also came out of ministry experience in our own culture where it really took two to three years to truly know a man’s character. We added on a year or so to account for the difficulty of “seeing” character through a foreign language and culture. Our context in Central Asia had also already experienced several waves of church planting implosions. One dynamic that was present in all of them was local leaders who were given position and authority apparently before their character could handle it. The Central Asian tendency toward domineering leadership combined with a Western missionary culture terrified of being paternalistic and the toxic brew that resulted poisoned many a promising church plant. We came to believe that three to four years would be necessary to push back against this tendency toward domineering leadership and to model instead a humble, servant leadership. If we were viewed as paternalistic by other Westerners, then so be it.

The fascinating thing is that even our slow track was not nearly slow enough. A couple years ago I heard a Central Asian pastor from a nearby country being interviewed. He was speaking of the tendency Western missionaries have of giving a church planter salary to local believers way too quickly, and in a way that sidesteps the local church that might already exist and may have important insight into why that brother is not in a position of leadership yet. This pastor spoke of the slow labor of love it is to see a Central Asian new believer mature to a point where they can handle leadership in the local church.

“In our years of ministry here, we have seen it takes about seven years for a new believer to be ready to lead,” he said.

Then he continued, smiling, “It took Jesus three and a half years with his disciples (and they were still a mess). Why should we in Central Asia be surprised if it takes us twice as long as it took Jesus?”

This pastor’s experience and logic stuck with me and I began interacting with veteran workers and other faithful pastors from Central Asia and the Middle East on this question of timing. What I found was a general agreement among long-term workers (usually those who had experienced a church plant implosion or two) on the wisdom of this kind of seven-year perspective. The response from local pastors was even more vehement.

“Yes! Foreign workers always appoint men as pastors and leaders who are not ready! This is damaging the church severely. Please take the time necessary, perhaps seven years or even longer, to make sure these men are faithful.”

This feedback fits with our own experience in our local church plant. By three to four years in, the men who came to faith out of Islam were indeed growing tremendously in their biblical knowledge and even in their ministry ability. But it was the character piece that kept emerging as a red flag. Tragic immaturity in interpersonal conflict, a willingness to lie when convenient, a buckling under persecution, a tendency to excuse certain cultural sins – these sorts of issues kept putting the pause button on our team discussions about moving these brothers into more leadership.

We could see these things because we were interacting with these brothers in their local language and involved with them in a life-on-life discipleship. Had we taken a more hands-off approach (non-residential, not in the mother tongue, Westerner not leading) advocated by much of missiology, we would have been unable to see these character issues clearly. And we would have appointed these men as pastors or given them pastoral authority, perhaps without the official title. As so often happens, we would have promoted a man in the “potential leader” category to the “qualified leader” category prematurely. And we would have put him in an extremely dangerous position.

Instead, we learned that for the sake of the church, we needed to go twice as slow. Has this been frustrating and discouraging at times? Absolutely. Many of us cross-cultural church planters are more gifted as evangelists and starters and find ourselves now in temporary pastor-shepherd roles that feel a lot like two-to-three-years for a decade. But what else is to be done? Shall we continue to take shortcuts around the biblical requirements for a leader’s character so that we can get back to the ministry we feel more gifted at? Should we continue the pattern of appointing men who are not ready, only to see their lives implode and their churches fall apart? What of the pressing demands of lostness around us? Can this kind of time-consuming investment in the local church be justified?

We must be willing to go as slow as necessary in order to see faithful local leaders raised up. We can only do this by trusting God with the timing, the adjusted expectations, and the weight of the lostness around us. We need to remember that the existence and health of Christ’s church is not in opposition to his plan to reach all peoples. In fact, the healthy local church is God’s means of reaching all peoples. Or are we imposing our own arbitrary timelines on God’s plan to reach a people group? The promise, after all, is for a believing remnant from each people in eternity, not that we will saturate a people group with the good news in our own generation. Should we aim for gospel saturation? By all means, but not as a promise and not at the expense of laying solid foundations for the local church. To do so would be to try to fight a war and to ignore the need for supply lines. As those who study warfare say, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. An army is not judged by its ability to make a strong initial attack, but by its ability to sustain that attack until victory is achieved. And that involves a lot of less-than-exciting long-term planning, training, and preparation.

It may take a minimum of seven years to see faithful leaders raised up in Central Asia. It may take less, or more, in another unreached region. Are we willing to surrender our own expectations and dreams to see faithful men entrusted with the truth? May we not only be willing to go fast for the kingdom when necessary, but also to go slow, as slow as it takes.

Photo by Bogdan Costin on Unsplash

Not Coming Nor Leaving as Christian Individualists

We don’t need anyone coming to the mission field – nor leaving – as Christian individualists. By Christian individualists, I mean those who decide on massive life/ministry decisions without a healthy involvement of their church, mentors, family, and believing community. The problem with Christian individualism – especially when it comes to missions or ministry – is that it baptizes lone ranger decisions with the nigh-untouchable “God is calling me to…”

Thankfully, many sending churches and organizations have realized the danger of Christian individualists going to the mission field. The occasional Bruschko may end up working out, but the more likely scenario is a missionary who goes abroad while still unqualified, unfit, or at least woefully unprepared. This can cause untold damage to missionary teams, local believers, and the reputation of the gospel itself.

There is a trend of missionary-sending processes that increase the involvement of the local church. This is a very healthy development, one which pushes back against a previous tendency to outsource the assessment process to missions agencies. In fact, a healthy local church should be the primary place where a prospective missionary is assessed, affirmed, and sent. The church members and the leadership should be able to wholeheartedly vouch that the candidate’s character, knowledge, skills, and affections align with that of a qualified missionary-in-training. Individuals who do not meet these standards should be kindly redirected toward a different timeline or a different vocation.

Praise God, there is somewhat of a consensus – in reformed evangelicalism at least – on the need to not go to the field as individualists. This is a remarkably good thing given the militant individualism of Western culture. The difficulty of someone actually getting to the mission field without some degree of church and pastoral backing testifies to how the Western sending church is pushing back against its own culture with biblical wisdom.

However, we seem to have a blindspot when it comes to those who leave the field. Often this decision to leave is made with barely a fraction of the counsel, input, and testing that went into the decision to go in the first place. Sadly, many who come to the field, sent by their community, leave the field as Christian individualists. When wresting with leaving, they think and pray in private and then unexpectedly drop the bomb that God is calling them to leave the field, much to the dismay of their local friends and colleagues. Often, even if counsel is sought, the decision has already been made.

Several things make these dynamics understandable. Sometimes missionaries are simply too beat up or too burnt out to feel like they can handle the inevitable disappointment and pushback that comes when they float the idea of leaving. It can feel safer, or at least more bearable, to process privately and then try to go out quickly and quietly.

Leaving the mission field also means moving from a vocation that requires higher qualification, back to a lifestyle that does not require that same level of assessment. Leaving the role of a cross-cultural church planter to return to that of a church member in one’s native culture is a step back in terms of the leadership standards one must be held to – though basic standards of Christian faithfulness remain the same. So it makes sense that leaving would not naturally result in the same kind of robust processes and conversations.

Yet there’s also a lot of shame attached to the thought and reality of leaving the field. Does this mean failure? Are we leaving when just a little more pushing would have resulted in things changing? How can we let our colleagues down when they are already overwhelmed with life and ministry? How can I make sense of this to the local believers? I’m convinced that this sense of shame keeps the conversations from happening as openly as they might otherwise.

So the pattern repeats itself. Family after family announce their departure, rather than allowing it to be a decision which is not made until robust counsel has been sought and weighed. We revert to our enculturated individualism, and in our Christianese we tell ourselves and others that God has called us to a new chapter. Perhaps he has. But why have we not confirmed that calling in the same manner as we have in the past? What does that discrepancy mean? What have we been so afraid of?

I write this post in a season where we are very much wrestling with our family’s future on the field. Medical conditions have continued to pile up for our family, and in several weeks we will be returning to the US for yet another medical leave – one which may last quite a while. Will we be able to find the diagnoses and healing we need in order to be back on the field in a healthy place in six months? Or ever? We’ve not yet experienced this level of uncertainty regarding our future ministry in Central Asia. And it’s very sobering.

We are, however, trying to live out our convictions on this point of not living like Christian individualists. We have attempted to invite many into this process with us, so that they might pray for us and give us their counsel. If there is anything we are missing, we want to hear it. We will wait to make any big decisions until we can do so in the light and wisdom of many counselors. At the same time, I feel more than ever the pull of wanting to privately make a decision on our own, to protect myself from the uncertainty and the emotions of my friends’ responses. It is a very strong pull, even with my cross-cultural upbringing that slightly tempers my individualism.

Practically, I do have the spur of having advocated publicly for healthier departures from the mission field – and that means I now have the chance to eat my own words. This is a gracious thing on the hard days.

Our coworkers, leadership, local friends, and family have all been very kind counselors as we’ve tried to process this upcoming leave and its possible implications. Similar to confession of sin, I’m so glad we’ve been open about this. Whatever God wants us to do, we are hopeful that when clarity comes, it will come with the assurance that God’s people are actively speaking into the hard decision to leave, or the hard decision to stay.

Perhaps this is an area where churches and organizations can develop helpful structures and processes. Given the rate of attrition from the mission field, I wonder if an intentional and robust process which helps struggling workers wrestle with their desires to leave the field might not help clarify those who should indeed leave, and those whose calling has not changed, worn out though they are – some kind of a track that is the inverse of those used for mobilization, i.e. “So You Wanna Stop Being a Missionary?” I wonder if something like this could offer some protection from the dangers of subjectivism that come from being prone toward Christian individualism. Even after years of discipleship, we can be so adept at reverting to our human culture and playing cards that make our decisions almost unapproachable.

I believe we need to continue strengthening our commitment to not have any come to the mission field as Christian individualists, but rather with the backing of a healthy sending church and sending org. I also believe we need to awaken a commitment to not leave the field like Christian individualists, but as those with a spiritual family – churches, colleagues, and local brothers and sisters.

If leave we must, this won’t make it necessarily easier. But it will make it healthier. We would still grieve, but it would be good grieving, with less regret and less shame.

Pray for families like ours facing uncertainty on the field. Even in the midst of the strangeness of these conversations, pray that we would honor Jesus – and also honor his bride.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Involuntarily Sent

One crisis of this past spring hit our small local church particularly hard. Frank and Patty*, after five years of living in our city as asylum-seekers, were finally kicked out for good. They always had a tenuous set up here, patching together a life with the partial legality of official UN documents that said their case was in process. But five years of UN stalling, under pressure from the local government, itself under pressure from the powerful regime of the country next door, had never produced the official refugee status that international law promises.

What this meant was five years of not being able to legally rent a house, work a job, or send their daughter to school. Like many asylum seekers, they were able to achieve these things sometimes through the connections or goodwill of others, and mostly under the table. But several attempts to secure these basics of life legally also led to attempted deportations, sometimes barely averted by the last minute intervention of UN lawyers. It was not uncommon for us to plan church picnics outside the city accordingly, making plans to minimize the possibility of Patty and Frank getting arrested at government checkpoints on the road. The reality was and is that returning to their country of origin means certain imprisonment, and possibly worse. This is, sadly, normal for many Central Asian believers, the cost of following Jesus in a region where they are a tiny minority.

The final deportation came after Frank and Patty tried to legally rent a different house. The house they had been renting was suffering from rot in the ceiling plaster, which kept collapsing unexpectedly in various rooms. This was both messy and dangerous and the church offered to set up a workday where we’d chip all the plaster off the underside of the cement roof. But Frank and Patty were confident that this time they could get the coveted official permission. In fact they made it to the very last step of security police approval when everything went wrong. Someone high up in the local security apparatus must have had it out for them. A week of encouraging approvals led only to a sudden rejection – and a letter of deportation. “We are deporting this family on suspicion of being spies,” read one not very promising line of this letter.

Another lawyer scramble bought them a week and an option to flee to a neighboring province, to a city in the plains where we had lived for a period prior to moving back here to the mountains. We were actually out of the country at the time of their deportation so it fell to the rest of our team and the church to care for them in this crisis. Goods were sold off at great loss, many tears were shed, emotional discussions took place regarding how much of the church funds should be sent with them. Our role from a distance was to work our connections in our previous city to try to find some kind of a landing place while they waited, once again, to receive legal permission to rent their own place. Wonderfully, it worked out to have them stay with one of the pastors of the international church in that city.

So, Patty and Frank, the only believing local household in our church, the most consistent at attending, central pillars of our fledgling spiritual family, left. They had come to faith and been baptized in our church. We had labored to disciple them faithfully through the messy toddler years of being new believers. They had, at times, made us want to pull our hair out. Yet they had also enriched us greatly. Frank kept us laughing, fixed our electricity, and often led our church in prayer and Bible distribution. Patty served the church tirelessly, often hosting believers with a feast they really couldn’t afford, and she labored hard to memorize Bible verses in spite of being barely literate. Their teenage daughter taught our kids the local language and was one of the most articulate believers when it came to gospel clarity.

We had seen much transformation take place in their lives, but when the final abrupt departure came, it felt too soon. We were hoping they would be much further along in their spiritual maturity before having to leave. But all of the sudden, our time was up. We entrusted them to God and to the community of believers in their new city – and of course, promised to visit often.

Their four months of living with the pastor’s family were akin to Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness. God unmistakably provided for them through the sacrificial hospitality extended by this family. And the life-on-life discipleship that took place in those months of living together was worth its weight in gold. Still, they lived in limbo, in a wilderness of not knowing how the UN and the local government would decide, not knowing if in the end they would still end up being trucked across the border and promptly arrested. In the anxiety of this waiting and the trauma of yet another deportation close call, their faith was pressed to the limit, with Patty often expressing despair in tearful calls to my wife. Yet they clung to God and to their new community of believers, until one day the news finally came. They had been granted legal permission to stay.

We recently visited Patty and Frank, a week or two after they had moved into their new legally-rented house. The abundance of answered prayer was unmistakable. In addition to their new rental home, all three had found good work. They had recently become members of the international church and once again served as a pillar household around which other locals were able to gather in the new local-language service/church plant. Frank had begun sharing the local-language preaching load with the pastor they had lived with, who also headed up this ministry. And now their biggest concerns were what to do with all these immature local believers they were meeting!

My wife and I sat at their table nodding as they described their concerns for how few of the local believers they had met knew their Bibles or knew the gospel clearly, and how many seemed mostly interested in money or visas. They expressed concern that the load of discipling so many would be too much for the pastor and his wife. We encouraged them to take responsibility themselves for the discipleship of the other locals around them.

“But it will take years for them to grow as much as they need to! Can’t it happen faster?” Patty exclaimed at one point. I shot my wife a knowing glance, which Frank caught.

“Patty, dear,” he said, laughing, “how long has it taken us to get to where we are? Five years! Let’s not complain about others being slow to grow.”

“That’s not a bad point,” said Patty, thoughtfully.

This perspective was of great encouragement to us. Along with the sweetness of seeing how God works even the hardest seasons of our lives for good. Our two years spent in that city on the plains were not easy ones. Team conflict, culture shock, new-onset diabetes, Covid-19 lockdowns, and a premature departure had all left their mark on us. Yet God had used the love developed between us and other expat believers in that city to create a landing place for Frank and Patty. And more than a landing place. A healthy international church in process of planting a healthy indigenous one. Our seasons of suffering were bearing sweet fruit, as Frank and Patty’s were beginning to also.

As we prepared to leave, Patty and Frank offered to host us for the night, even though they had no extra mattresses. We graciously declined, prayed with them, and pulled our kids away from their 7th episode of Shaun the Sheep – a treat uncle Frank is always happy to bestow, getting a kick as he does from how much our kids cackle at the slapstick humor of claymation farm animals.

Patty and Frank’s departure had left a gaping hole in our small church plant. They will always be a central part of the story of these formative early years. Now they get to be a central part of the formation of another local church. They have, in one sense, been unexpectedly sent. Through their painful deportation they have been called to build up the church in their new city. And they are answering that call. May God grant faithfulness to them, and to any of us who likewise end up suddenly uprooted, involuntarily sent.

Photo by S. Tsuchiya on Unsplash

*names changed for security

A Central Asian Church Covenant

This summer our church plant began a process of adopting a church covenant. This is a brand new concept for this culture, so we spent many weeks teaching about the characteristics of a healthy church, church membership, and how a covenant can help us do these things more faithfully. We tried to write one from scratch together, but quickly realized we’d do much better to take an existing Baptist church covenant from one of the international churches in our region and to seek to adapt it. We spent a good amount of time with the local believers tweaking it according to the local language and supplementing the good historical statements that were there with some key areas of need in this particular time and place.

What were the items that were added? Many of them corresponded to our top Central Asian church killers: domineering leadership, money issues, lack of interpersonal reconciliation, and persecution. A line on the reputation of the gospel and our church also made it in there – a key concern both biblically and also in an honor/shame culture like this one. We added a paragraph on a faithful posture towards our cultures, since intercultural issues are a regular occurrence, not just between us and the locals, but also between the locals themselves, given their diverse backgrounds. Our hope is that this article on culture will set them up well to redeem, reject, and redefine their local culture, creating in this church a local and context-specific biblical culture with clear lines to both the Word and to its own region.

Hopefully in the next few weeks we will be ready to officially covenant together and move from informal membership to formal. This will be the first time this has happened in a church that worships in our local language. Then we hope to read and pray for one article of this covenant every week as we gather, in hopes that this steady exposure will make it a spiritual tool that will truly shape who we are as a church and how we live together. May God grant that to be the case.

Here is the text, translated back into English.

Having been brought by God’s grace and glory to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized and having agreed to the statement of faith, and by his Holy Spirit having given ourselves to Jesus Christ, we do now joyfully covenant with one another.

We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:3)

We will conduct ourselves together in the love of a spiritual family, exercising care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully encouraging and warning one another when necessary. We will be faithful and submissive in carrying out the process of confronting sin and making reconciliation. (John 13:34-35, Rom 12:10, Heb 3:12-13, 1 Thess 5:11, Lk 17:3, Col 3:16, Matt 18:15-20)

We will commit to appoint and support the leaders of our church according to the commands of the Holy Scriptures. Our leaders must meet the qualifications of the New Testament and like the good shepherd, seek to serve the church and not domineer over it. (1 Pet 5:1-4, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Tim 3:1-13, 2, Cor 1:24, 1 Thes 2:7-8)

We will prioritize our church’s gathering and not neglect to regularly gather together. (Heb 10:25)

We will not neglect to pray for ourselves and others. (Col 4:2, James 5:16)

Although we are sure that all power for salvation is in God’s hand, we will earnestly work to bring up any who may be under our care in the training and instruction of the Lord, and by a loving example and speaking the gospel, through the gospel seek the salvation of our family, friends and neighbors. (Titus 2:1-6; Deut 6:4-7, Mt 5:16, 1 Pet 3:15, Lk 5:19)

We will rejoice with those of us who rejoice and weep with those who weep, endeavoring with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows, even in times of suffering and persecution. (Rom 12:15,Gal 6:2; James 2:14-17, Hebrews 10:32-34)

For the reputation of the gospel and our church, we will seek God’s help to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly passions, remembering that we bear the name of Christ and now have a special obligation to lead a new and holy life. (Eph 5:15-21; Titus 2:12; 1 Pet 2:11-12; 1 John 2:15-17)

We will work together to maintain a ministry in this church that is faithful to the word of God and the gospel, the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the exercise of church discipline. (Phil 1:27; 2 Tim 4:2; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 11:26; Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:13)

Although each person has a unique culture, the kingdom of heaven is universal. Therefore we commit to build a gospel culture with one another. In this way, the positive aspects of our cultures will be redeemed and the negative aspects will fade away. We will seek to live in our cultures with humility, peace, grace, respect, and courage. (John 4:9, 27; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Cor 9:19-23; Revelation 7:9)

We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel to all nations. We will resist the love of money and will use the church’s finances transparently. (Matt 28:19; Luke 12:33; 2 Cor 9:7, Hebrews 13:5(

If we leave this church, we will leave lovingly and faithfully, and as soon as possible unite with some other Biblical church. (Heb 10:25)

In order to be most faithful to this covenant, we will read it regularly together. (1 Tim 4:16)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen. (2 Cor 13:14)

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Please Pass the Meat

The sermon was a rough one. The visiting American pastor never had us turn to a specific text. Instead, his half hour encouragement was a creative string of allusions to bible stories, anecdotes, and illustrations. Everyone in the gathering who had gotten out their bibles eventually put them away.

I sighed and looked around the room. Once again, half a dozen locals were attending the international church service. It was bad enough that the expat community was being served the equivalent of spiritual yogurt water (in case you’re not familiar with yogurt water, it’s not very much by way of sustenance). But locals tend to view Western pastors with a kind of awe, and often accept any content or form of teaching as faithful and worthy of emulation – simply because of the category of person who is delivering it.

I grimaced, seeing that a couple of our church-plant’s English-speaking local guys were in attendance, Darius* and Alan*. They seemed to be focusing intently on the sermon.

My wife and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably and I reminded myself that the mission field is merely a reflection of the state of evangelicalism in the sending countries. It’s not realistic to believe that our corner of Central Asia will somehow be isolated from some of the West’s more unfortunate Christian-ish exports. Joyce Meyer has already been translated into the local language, anti-Trinitarian cults have made their appearance (and are allegedly financing one of our former leaders-in-training), and the satellite TV channels are full of Benny Hinn-styled preachers. At least this sermonette’s main point was to encourage us to not be discouraged in sharing the gospel. Not a bad aim at all. But alas, the method and modeling were definitely lamentable.

After the service was finished, Darius made his way over to me.

“So, what did you think of the sermon?” he asked.

I bit my lip and half-smiled/half-grimaced, not sure what I should say. Darius has not always been the strongest when it comes to discernment, and tends to be quite drawn to the novel and the exciting. But he leaned in.

“That guy didn’t even have a text!” Darius whispered loudly, gesturing wildly with both his arms in the expressive body language of our locals (I have often maintained that our people group’s intonation and hand gestures make them the Italians of Central Asia). “He just told a bunch of stories… and he even added some details that aren’t there!”

My eyebrows rose in welcome surprise. Darius was not taken in by the creative delivery. Instead, his new – but apparently growing – convictions of ministry alarm bells had been going off.

“Darius,” I told him, “I’m very encouraged that you were concerned about that sermon. You’re right. He didn’t have a text he was explaining. He never asked us to open our Bibles. He did mess up some of the details of the Bible stories he told. Take note, when we have an opportunity to feed the people of God, we should attempt to prepare a feast, not merely pass out some snacks.”

Darius smiled and threw up his hands again. “What can I do? I learned from you guys about preaching.” Then he made his way over to the table where the sunflower seeds and chai were set out.

This final comment was particularly encouraging and humbling. My teammate and I who serve as temporary elders of our church plant are not eloquent preachers in the local language. Perhaps we will be five or ten years down the road, but right now we make it our aim to simply be clear, and to model basic expositional preaching in a second language – that is, preaching that makes the main points of the text the main points of the sermon and which seeks to faithfully explain the intent of the author. I’m still too tied to my manuscript. My colleague has more freedom in this way, but faces his own unique challenges while preaching in the local tongue from an English outline to our small group of believers. We often make comical language mistakes.

“We are insane,” instead of “We are not complete yet,” and “What should you do if you have a heart attack when you want want to give an offering?” instead of “What if you have a divided heart…?” have been a couple of our more recent bloopers. May God bless the long-suffering ears of these local believers who sit under our teaching week after week.

We have deeply invested in the simple method of steady, weekly, regular proclamation and explanation of God’s word. No flash, no bling. We sit in a circle of chairs and the preacher sits with another chair in front of him to serve as his pulpit. We took a couple years to get through Matthew and are currently taking a couple years to get through John, interspersed now and then by pressing topics or a recent series on the characteristics of a healthy church.

At times we are tempted to feel as if this steady sowing of God’s word is not accomplishing much. Much contemporary missiology calls into question the act of preaching altogether, alleging that it is a Western form import from the Reformation and not as effective as things such as DBS – Discovery Bible Studies. We don’t really buy those arguments though. Most of them betray a woeful ignorance of global church history (historically, preachers always, always emerge when new peoples are reached or awakenings take place), not to mention an under-baked understanding of the centrality of proclamation throughout the Scriptures.

The hardest doubts to handle have to do simply with how slowly people grow and change. After five years of this kind of unpacking of God’s word, how is it that more has seemingly not sunk in? How is it that character is not maturing more quickly and knowledge taking deeper root? Are we doing something wrong?

In faith, we believe that an unrelenting teaching and preaching ministry will eventually result in faithfulness and fruitfulness. But it sure is encouraging when we get to see a glimmer of that future. Darius noticed some very important things during that English church service. That noticing was evidence of growth in spiritual discernment. And spiritual discernment – that comes from soaking in the Word of God.

Preachers and teachers, keep on preaching and teaching, in season and out. And if by chance you ever get to preach on the mission field, please, for our sake, preach the Word. Don’t dumb it down either for the missionaries or for the locals.

Pass on serving mere yogurt water. Instead, serve them up a feast of some good solid meat.

*names changed for security

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash