Leaders Who See the Lowly

My wife has always maintained that those going into ministry should first work a few years in food service. Her main point in this claim is that you will never treat that server, barista, or otherwise unimpressive worker the same after you’ve known what it’s like to be in their shoes. My wife worked her way through college, picking up countless shifts in the campus cafe, serving at banquets, and working in the cafeteria. She finished her undergrad with no debt at all, a feat that her future husband was unfortunately not able to replicate.

Most of my wife’s jobs were on the campus of Southern seminary, where she attended Boyce college. Over the four years she worked on campus, her brief or repeated service interactions with students, staff, and visiting leaders gave her a unique window into the character of each. This is because the way we treat those with supposedly unimportant jobs always says something about our humility. Seminary can be a heady place. World-renowned scholars are teaching and being made. Current leaders rub shoulders with future leaders. Famous pastors preach in chapel and visit to give prestigious lectures. In other words, the temptations of fear of man and showing partiality are regularly present, made all the more slippery in that everything is set in a context of preparation for ministry. After all, why slow down and engage the college kid behind the counter in a black apron when standing right over there is the author of your favorite theology book?

These dynamics meant that my wife and others working service jobs always noticed the ones who would indeed slow down and truly engage them as people and fellow heirs of the kingdom. And of course, they would also notice when students or leaders didn’t extend even basic Christian courtesy. Now, everyone has bad days where we are lost in our thoughts or discouraged and forget to make eye contact or interact genuinely with the person behind the cash register. The issue is not what happens as a one-off, but what is the pattern of our lives and interactions with those in everyday or lowly roles around us? Do we truly see and value those around us whom the world deems unimportant? Do we ever slow down and genuinely engage them, seeking even to delight in them? Pay attention to those who do this well, for they are the kind of leaders worth following.

In the field of leadership training, some authors speak of the “waiter principle,” the idea that how a leader treats a server speaks to whether that leader is truly a leader of integrity or not. A true leader will understand that every role in their organization or company matters, and this will affect how they treat those in even the lowest roles. In Central Asia, it’s not so much the restaurant servers who get treated poorly, but the cleaners or the chai boys. When we’ve taught leadership seminars in local universities, we’ve learned to slow down and focus on this principle, because in a patron-client hierarchical society, the culture says that it’s actually shameful for leaders to treat the unimportant with respect. While Western culture is a little stronger on this point, the temptations toward showing favoritism toward the important are really universal. No matter where you live, our sin natures want to judge by appearances, honoring the rich, talented, and important, and belittling or ignoring the poor or average among us.

Somewhere like seminary can illustrate why it can be downright foolish to judge by appearances. That foreign exchange student making your sandwich might in a few years be leading a thriving church overseas and show up on a 9 Marks podcast (as took place in my earbuds this week). The guy doing landscaping may end up planting a church in one of the hardest cities in North America. The gal making your coffee may become a well-known author, or, in my wife’s case, serve faithfully on a frontier church-planting team in a region overseas where many others would never even consider raising their families. Basic wisdom tells us to honor even the lowly because we cannot predict if or when they will be lifted up to a place higher than ours – and if that someday happens, then our honor or shame is tied to how we treated them before.

But this strategic wisdom really shouldn’t be our primary motivation to show respect to those who appear unimportant among us. It still assumes that it’s the potentially-powerful who are worthy of more honor. Instead, the deeper motivation should be that God has welcomed the lowly, honored them, and even delights in them. We need to remember the upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30). Jesus welcomes little children and rebukes those who don’t (Mark 10:14). He befriends the outcasts (Mark 2:16). He pronounces blessing on the poor and pronounces woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). Not many of God’s chosen are rich, powerful, and important in this world (1 Cor 1:26-31). The sick and the poor are the true treasures of the church, and every person we interact with has a fascinating story that overflows with God’s glory, and the potential to themselves be eternally glorious – to even be a judge over angels (1 Cor 6:3).

Being reminded of the nature of God’s kingdom can help us live in such a way that we become believers and leaders who truly see the lowly. Picturing that service worker resurrected and remembering that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3) can transform our everyday interactions with those around us – and give life to those who often feel invisible. And if seeing and delighting in those deemed unimportant becomes a pattern in our lives, then we are well on our way to developing this character trait of a true and trustworthy leader ourselves.

While I didn’t have too many jobs in food service (Stints at Jamba Juice and Jimmy Johns showed me my hands could never seem to move fast enough), I have often experienced a similar dynamic because I don’t present as physically or interpersonally impressive. I have a pretty average appearance and bearing and I find myself not very good at first impressions in a Western context. This means that those I’m briefly introduced to often quickly move on to those who appear more interesting. I can’t help but notice that there’s often a very different sort of interest shown later – once they learn about my ministry and story. This means that those who show a kind engagement before they know about my background and ministry accomplishments truly stand out. Their posture toward an unimpressive person has shone a light on their character. Without knowing it, they have outed themselves as humble and trustworthy.

I’ll never forget the time I met a very well-known pastor and author during my first week as a green, 25-year-old missions pastor. This leader was a regular speaker at T4G. He had published numerous books and spoken to tens of thousands. He was at our church for an important meeting with our senior leadership, and I was somehow invited to sit in, even though I was the brand new kid on staff. Yet in the hallway, as we made cursory introductions, this leader didn’t quickly move on to talk with the more dynamic leaders like I was used to. Instead, he slowed down and turned to me, deeply interested in the couple of details that my lead pastor had told him about me. Looking me in the eyes, he seemed to be fascinated by what he had heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, I hear you’re just beginning a new role as a missions pastor. I am so excited about your ministry.” I was so taken aback by this kind of focus that I have no idea what I said in response. It was qualitatively different to be seen in that way. And it made me desire to be the kind of leader who would see others around me, even when they haven’t achieved enough to “deserve” that kind of focus. It also made me want to repent for the times I was guilty of ignoring the unimpressive.

Leaders who see the lowly and unimpressive are the kind of leaders worth following – and the kind of leaders we should want to become. This is because how we treat the lowly is truly a window into our character. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we meet someone who doesn’t appear that important. And if God is calling you to go into ministry, then follow a wise woman’s advice and consider first working some years in food service.

Photo by Steve Long on Unsplash

A Song on Vanity and Meaningful Work

“The Storm” by The Arcadian Wild

There are some serious echoes of Ecclesiastes in this song that explores the drudgery of work, the things that all men long for, and the meaning of a life well-lived. Lyrics below.

Making a living has a way of killing men
The lungs keep breathing, but the soul suffocates within
There is nothing new under the sun, it's all the same
Need revival 'cause survival's a losing game

Am I fighting the good fight? Am I on the run?
Am I chasing vanity or doing what needs to be done?

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

I've seen an evil that overcomes us all
The backs of good and wicked men are both against the wall
What then shall we do when we are destined for the dust?
Dig our feet into the earth and roll them sleeves up

No matter our station, wages, or trade
Our labor is loving, it's a worthy way to spend all our days

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

This life's a vapor that quickly escapes
My love, my hate, my memory will soon be erased
So let's breathe in this vapor and drink this sea dry
To do and dare greatly 'til our last day arrives

A man must always have something to conquer
A woman to fight for, a war to be waged
We are born for the storm, we risk all and rebel
To live hard and die well is why we were made

How Central Asian Yogurt Took Over America

My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.

“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”

I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.

We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.

“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”

I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”

Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.

In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.

Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.

The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.

Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.

Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.

Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.

Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.

The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.

*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.

Photo by Jainath Ponnala on Unsplash

Scalable Platforms

Many missionaries in the 10/40 window live in what’s been called creative-access countries. In these countries there are no missionary or religious visas available to cross-cultural workers, so they need to have “platforms,” whether business or non-profit, in order to maintain legitimate access. I’ve written in the past about the importance of doing tent-maker/platform work that 1) results in an excellent product that brings value to the community and gives God glory and 2) leads to gospel opportunities and relationships with locals.

You want your platform to be strong and valuable enough to provide some cover when locals start coming to faith and others potentially start complaining about you. Of course we can’t guarantee we won’t get kicked out even if we have the ideal platform, but we should still do the best we can so as to protect access to the unreached.

Now that I’m some years into the creative-access gig and working under my fourth platform, one other very important principle is emerging – that of a platform’s scalability. This principle is important not because of dynamics among locals, but because of dynamics among us foreign workers.

Ours is a lifestyle of high and costly transition. We’ve recently been joking that we should give up on annual goals in favor of quarterly ones due to the sheer amount of transition that we experience. It feels like we are always saying goodbye to workers leaving the field, or welcoming new ones, adjusting to others who have left for furlough, or taking in the news that others will be significantly delayed in getting back to the field. This can make maintaining a solid core of platform workers quite difficult.

The goal of our platforms is to serve the church planting strategy, not the other way around. But we have also experienced seasons where the needs of the platform are so demanding, often due to staffing shortages, that it very much feels like we are serving the platform – and the church planting work is taking a back seat. This is a tension we live in, hoping that a season of investing in a solid platform can later result in greater freedom for ministry. Sometimes you just have to hold the beachhead until reinforcements arrive.

However, what would happen if we built the reality of worker transience into our platforms from the very beginning? Rather than being blindsided by the next unexpected departure of our staff, what if we anticipating it and planned accordingly? For several years now I have been chewing on the idea of a platform designed to be scalable. On the one hand, one person working part-time could keep it running if he had to. On the other hand, it could scale up to accommodate a raft of new personnel who arrive in need of visas and a legitimate work identity. What kind of businesses and non-profit models might be this flexible?

My current non-profit platform serves as a potential example of this. For the past year we’ve been providing training several times a week to a small group of students. The teaching load is manageable because we have several staff who share the load. But it would be a lot for only one teacher. On the other hand, the group is too small to justify bringing on many more staff. However, this group of students recently graduated from the program and since then we’ve started experimenting with modular trainings in partnership with other organizations.

Now that we only have a few modular (1-3 day) trainings per month, we are finding ourselves really enjoying the increased time in our schedules for relationships and ministry. We have also stumbled into a model that is unusually scalable. If we have more colleagues join us, we can always increase the number and kind of modular trainings available. If everyone is gone or on furlough and only one worker is left, he can scale the trainings back to a pace that is realistic. This gives us hope for greater sustainability, even as the modular trainings give us access to a broader scope of the community.

Now, the content we are providing is masters-level stuff and our partners are able to gather decent crowds for our modular trainings, so that makes a pared-down schedule doable yet still very respectable. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of situation.

Yet the transience factor is not going away. As missionaries, churches, and organizations wrestle with how to keep workers in creative-access contexts for the long-haul, the scalability of platforms should be considered. Scalability means sustainability, because the worker remaining on the field doesn’t have to be crushed by the platform work created by that recently departed or arrived coworker. The platform can grow or shrink according to the needs of personnel and the ministry.

That kind of flexibility may sound idealistic, but the potential is worthy of some experimentation. If platforms became more scalable, that would help assure that they are truly serving the missionaries, and not the other way around.

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

A Proverb for a Lazy Worker

For fear of day labor he became a musician.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb is for the person who shuns hard work and seeks out the easier tasks. One young man was hired to help paint our house when we moved in. There was a ton of work to be done, but I kept catching him watering the trees. He really liked watering those trees. Or perhaps he just really didn’t like painting.

I didn’t know this proverb at the time, but it would have been an apt one to use. Needless to say, the painting only got ninety percent done. But the garden trees look great!

Photo by Ben Albano on Unsplash

An Idiom Defending Hard Work

What? You say I’ve just been peeling onions for five years?

Local Oral Tradition

This is an idiom to pull out when a friend seems a little too surprised that you’ve actually been productive or gotten a lot done. “You were expecting something else? Whaddya think we’re doin’ round here?”

I have in fact not been as consistent blogging this past month as I had hoped. Our move to our previous city and the time it took finding and setting up a new house was more work than I expected. But we have been working hard! No peeling onions going on around here, I can assure you of that. I am however looking forward to a more steady schedule now and a return to more consistent writing. After a year of blogging almost daily, it was interesting to have a few weeks where I wasn’t. I truly missed it. And that itself is clarifying and reassures me that this was not just a good one year experiment, but something I’m supposed to give myself to for the long haul.

Answered Prayers and Their Reckoning

There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.

We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.

None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.

Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.

No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.

Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.

Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.

As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.

If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.

Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

The Importance of Permission

A local friend just struck a major deal with a big media company here. As a friend and possible participant in some of his projects, I was invited into a couple of the meetings. It was fascinating to observe because the method of how to pitch an idea here is the exact opposite of the way Westerners typically do it.

In the West, we make sure our research and proposal is in order, then we might do a small pilot project and try to build things from the ground up and to provide a demonstration. We do the research and detailed prep first and that’s how we get the credibility and approval to go official. It’s a process rooted in meritocracy. Here, you meet with the important potential patron first, gain their trust relationally, then once they give you the go ahead, you go and figure the details out. You can’t begin your research until someone with some societal clout has given you permission to do so. It’s a process rooted in patronage.

A few years ago I visited a ruined Christian monastery with a local friend. I was curious about what the locals in the nearby town knew about this historic site. I had stumbled upon some recent archaeological research claiming that this was a monastery and citadel built around the year AD 500 and destroyed about five hundred years later. First, we visited a local religious leader, an important mullah. Even though his mosque was just down the road from this site, he knew very little about it. Most locals believed it to be an old Zoroastrian or Islamic site. The mullah did know that a few years previously a team had dug up two bodies which had been buried facing Jerusalem, not Mecca. He said that strengthened the case for it being a Christian or Jewish site.

Next we paid the mayor of this small town a visit. With it being a sleepy summer afternoon, I didn’t think anything of dropping by this government office to introduce ourselves, have a cold cup of water, and ask a few friendly questions. After all, my friend and I were respectable English teachers, an honorable profession in this part of the world. The mayor knew even less about the site than the mullah did, but we had a seemingly friendly conversation nonetheless. Still, it amazed me that the leaders of this community had no idea about the important historical site that sat right next to their town. I indicated that I hoped to do more research on the site in the future.

Upon leaving, the mayor motioned to us,

“Let me give you some advice. The next time you go around asking questions, make sure you have an official letter saying that you are approved to do so.”

His comment caught me off-guard. Approval to ask questions? Isn’t it my right to ask questions and do research and hold off on the approvals until I’m actually ready to commit to something? Not in Central Asia. Here you have to get permission to even ask the questions.

I saw this same dynamic working out this week as my friend met with this company’s CEO. Once he earned his trust and gained approval, the sky was the limit. He had secured a patron, so my friend wasn’t concerned about cost or details. There was abundant time now to figure that out. The most important piece was in place – the relationship with the CEO.

My friend’s team, a motley crew of very young and diverse Westernized locals, were nervous about the lack of detail. Interestingly, they had assimilated enough to global culture to understand the steps of the process to be backward – as I had with the monastery. But having gone through that experience with the mayor and run it by a good many locals for understanding, I was able to calm the team down. My friend and the CEO were operating in a tried and true Central Asian process, almost a dance, where a potential patron and a client explore forming a new working relationship. That relationship now agreed upon, the cornerstone for all the other work was now in place.

Now, they had their “letter.” The patron had been assured of their loyalty and of the potential for them to do good work. He had promised them his full backing. So now, they could go get to work on the details.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

How Paul Worked Night and Day

Paul worked very hard at Thessalonica at his profession (tentmaking) so that he would not be a financial burden to the church while he was there. The church at Philippi had sent Paul financial assistance when he was working in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15); perhaps the financial assistance from Philippi was at the beginning of his ministry, functioning as “seed money” allowing Paul to rent a shop and purchase raw materials. Although shops sometimes were open in the late afternoon for more leisurely browsing, the average Roman merchant worked intensely in the six hours before noon and then closed the shop. Daylight was the main requirement for conducting business; hours would be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Paul reminds the church that he even worked when most places were closed for the evening. By using the plural “we,” he implies that Timothy and Silas worked with him. This would have been a good model of Gentile-Jewish cooperation for Thessalonian believers and may have been part of the reason the Jews in the city were upset with him. He also may have “outworked” the competition, and financial envy perhaps contributed to opposition to the apostle.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1779

Living in Central Asia, where the bazaar/market is a prominent feature of every city, Paul keeping his shop open after the others have closed is a vivid picture – and a challenging example. These notes on this passage (1 Thess 2:9) are helpful biblical background when considering the issues of contemporary tent-making and supporting locals.

Photo by Esteban Castle on Unsplash

The Reputations of Tent-Makers

A local friend of mine invited me to his birthday party a few years ago. I was excited to get the invitation, since this was a good friend who had once professed faith, but had sadly been drifting away for years. He was one of many young men in our Central Asian city who had eagerly identified as a Christian in the first wave of house churches planted, only to grow cynical after they imploded. Many of this first generation of believers have fallen away and no longer claim faith in Jesus. Others hold out, but are determined to never gather with other locals again. Such is the devastation wrought when new churches are destroyed by domineering leadership, outside money, power conflicts, and prosperity theology. The foundation wasn’t deep enough when the missionaries (eager to not be paternalistic) went home. Little today remains of that budding movement of house churches once touted as a great success.

Right as things were falling apart, a new group of missionaries arrived and got to work opening an English center. They were to become close partners for my team when we arrived some years later. The birthday party I attended took place after about a decade of steady labor by these partners, a point that I think should not be lost in the account to follow. In the wake of the collapse of generation one, our partners faithfully taught English, learned the local language, and told people about Jesus. When this birthday party took place, I had probably only been teaching at that particular center for two years. I have since realized just how well set up I was by the labors of this partner team.

Our local Central Asian people group is very much into Instagram-worthy birthday party celebrations. At this particular party (where everyone was dressed seemingly for prom) they included candles that were essentially fireworks and a gorgeous cake that tasted like cardboard – the norm, sadly. While the smoke was still hanging in the air and the world-conquering “Happy Birthday” song had been sung in our local tongue, one of the guests approached me.

“So, you teach at the _____ English Center, right?”

“Yes, I do! You have heard of it?” I asked.

“Of course I have! All over the city people say that there is no better place to learn the English language. Tell me, what’s your secret?”

“Well,” I said, “All of our teachers are native English speakers, so that’s part of it. But our teachers also have a culture of spending time with their students, even outside the classroom. It’s normal for us to go to the tea houses with our students and to go on picnics with them. This kind of relational and conversational way of learning English has a big effect. We’re not like some other foreigners that you only see in the classroom, but not in the bazaar.”

“I see,” my questioner said, narrowing his eyes and leaning in. “But I also hear that you can learn about Jesus there.”

I wasn’t sure where this man was coming from. Could he be a seeker? A Salafi? Unlikely in his spiffy suit. A member of the secret police? Thankfully, I don’t remember my anxiety spiking, as sometimes happens when it feels like someone is trying to “out” our work as missionaries in a country where it is illegal. This time I felt a welcome confidence and a clear mind. Perhaps it was the effect of the gunpowder birthday candles, or just a simple Spirit-given calm.

“You are right that all of our teachers are followers of Jesus, true Christians. And this makes a huge difference in how we teach, because we genuinely love our students as God has loved us. When teachers truly love their students in this way, of course their students are going to learn well.”

My new friend smiled and seemed to accept this answer. I invited him to visit our center soon, but I’m not aware that he ever took me up on the offer. To this day I don’t know exactly where he was going with his questions, but I’ve often remembered that conversation as I’ve thought about what it means to do “platform,” or tent-making work, well as a missionary – or even how to work any job for the glory of God.

This man may have not intended this, but he paid our English Center two huge compliments, all the more so because many would view his observations as being in opposition to each other. Sometimes we are faced with a false choice – either work excellently and leave the witnessing to non-business hours, or we just do what it takes to get by with the platform, focusing instead on sharing the gospel. Because it could be used by the secret police to shut us down, we tried not to share the gospel too explicitly in our English Center, but we also had a softball policy. If someone lobs you one, hit it out of the park and trust God with the consequences. Plus, even though not always sharing explicit gospel, we labored to model Christian character and alluded to God’s word as much as we could in the classroom and in our discussion groups.

To be known all over the city as offering an excellent product and to be known as a place where people can learn about Jesus – that’s just about as ideal a reputation as you could ask for when running a business or NGO among an unreached people group. Our partners had truly done some great work. And my fellow guest at the birthday party may never know it, but he has helped me better frame my goals for my new team’s current and future platforms: How can we offer an excellent product that gives glory to God? And how can we be the subjects of good gossip as those who can help others know more of Jesus? We don’t have to choose one over the other.

I remember NPR doing an interview with a coffeeshop in our home city in the US. The owners were Christians and NPR showed up because, along with winning national awards, this coffeeshop had a steady presence of Christians and those becoming Christians. Some locals murmured about it being “a front” for evangelicals. There was suspicion that conspiracy was afoot.

The owner responded to the NPR interviewer with wisdom and truth.

“We are Christians, so we are motivated by the glory of God. Of course, that affects the quality of each drink that we make and the care we put into it! And this naturally leads to good conversations about our product and about who we are as well.”

Exactly. No conspiracy. Just good Christian work, done to the glory of God – and the kind of reputations that follow.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash