I am presently putting together a “max-flex” course on Missions History for a Bible College in the United States. I am using “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” by Ruth Tucker (2nd edition). It utilizes a biographical approach primarily, with themes and chronology taking on a secondary role. I have mentioned my concerns about biographical histories— especially the risk of supporting the “Great Man Theory” of History. And then, even if that is avoided, there is the risk of “hagiographic” biographies— idolizing and idealizing missionaries. Ruth Tucker avoids both temptations quite admirably. That is one of the main reasons I want to use her book.
But it also got me thinking. I really love Missions History, but I rarely blog about missionary lives. I also don’t give a lot of reporting or commenting on missionary news. It got me thinking about why that is.
I guess that there are several reasons:
#1. I don’t want to violate confidentiality or private matters. The most interesting things about missionaries are not typically the things that show up in newsletters. They are rarely the “Praise God!!” moments. They are usually the “Oh my God…” moments. These however are private and are not really to be shared.
#2. I don’t really want to disrespect other missionaries. I don’t really want to judge their behaviors and strategies generally, just as I don’t really want them to judge me or what I do. I rarely know the whole story so not only should I not be one prone to judge (as Jesus has stated), I am commonly not competent to judge. Consider the case of John Allen Chau who was killed going to North Sentinel Island. In my mind, it was an ill-conceived plan poorly carried out. On the other hand, I respect his passion. And (who knows?) perhaps God was calling him to go to North Sentinel Island and he was faithfully doing so just as God wanted. Success is not necessarily the proof of faithfulness. I may or may not be competent to pass some cautious judgments about certain aspects of his mission, but I am most definitely not competent to judge him. (And, frankly, I would refuse to take seriously any attempts by John Chau to judge my very much non-pioneering mission work if he was still alive to do so.)
#4. Biographical writings on missionaries is not always helpful. No missionary deserves to be a superstar or celebrity (including/especially myself). Their message is to point people to God, not themselves. Paul may have said to use his own life as an example, but I am certain that did not imply to look to himself rather than Jesus. Missionary stories can be inspirational, but the ones that get shared often are atypical, or misleading. Most missionary stories probably would not be that inspirational to the average person. Focusing on success stories can give people the wrong idea. At the other extreme— organizations or publications on the struggles of missionary don’t always do a service. Ones that focus on those who have been killed in missions or church planting work, can cause people to lose focus on what the story is supposed to be about. The martyrdom of Christ was a love story to all mankind, and yet for centuries far to many Christians used that story to figure out “Who’s to blame.”
Anyway, I hope you do take time to read up on missionaries and what they have done in obedience to the Great Commandment (and to a lesser extent, the Great Commission). And I hope to share some more biographies in the future… but I think I will always (and wisely) be cautious.
<I put this on my other webpage… the missions page of my wife and mine. But it is relevant here as well… so here it is.>
One of those things that is considered “normal’ in the mission field is getting robbed. It is simply presumed in many cases that since one is moving to a developing country one must be constantly vigilant because you know just know that you are surrounded by people in great need who will steal from you if they can. Moving to the Philippines, we had no reason to question that perspective. Most houses have bars on the windows, and when possible, there are courtyards with walls with sharp things (wrought iron commonly, but sometimes broken glass) embedded in them. I became so used to this I was afraid that I would feel freaked out by the windows and lawns in the US that welcome home invasion. In the Philippines, all but the smallest businesses have guards who appear to be well-trained and friendly, but have deadly-looking weaponry on them. Cashing a check is so difficult in the Philippines as almost any imperfection is a sign to the bank that it must be fraudulent. So much of the way things are handled in the Philippines just screams, “This is a place where criminals are everywhere.”
Despite this, in just over 17 years I have never been robbed. Well, maybe once or twice. One time I dropped my wallet without knowing it. Even then I got my wallet back. There was 500 pesos missing (about $10). Since that would be what I would have given the person for finding the wallet, it hardly seems like a robbery. One time I was shaken down by a member of the police for P2500 for some alleged traffic violation. Yes, I do consider that to be a true robbery… but thankfully the vast majority of my interactions with the police in the Philippines have been positive.
Not all have had this experience. One friend of mine, an American missionary who lived a few kilometers from us, got his house broken into numerous times. Since that individual had anger management problems (definitely a “No-No” in the Philippines) my suspicion was that the break-ins were not so much ‘we want your stuff’ and more ‘we want you to leave.’ Another missionary related how his house was robbed, and how the police put up obstacles in the investigation, only moving forward with an arrest after that missionary had actually worked the case and found proof of who the perpetrators were. Even then he actually had to go over the head of the ones assigned the case. His theory was that the local police received money from the gang who were doing the break-ins. No idea if that was true. Yet another missionary experienced a very well-orchestrated home invasion… and would have most likely suffered a second if one of the compound guards had not happened upon one of the members of the team during his rounds.
For me, my problems have not been in the Philippines but in the US. The only house robbery I ever experienced was in the US, as well as the only car break-in. Most recently, we had a different sort of crime here in the States. We had to buy a (used of course, does anyone actually buy new?) car. Knowing the reputation of used car dealers, I get pretty nervous. Renting a car was clearly out of the question. The cost of a decent used car was about the same as the renting the cheapest car available for around 3 months (a different form of crime I suppose). We started researching online. Eventually, we had narrowed things down to about four or five cars that looked good on Carfax. We went to the first place— I will call it “A Used Cars.” I will admit that the people who ran it (brothers) were pretty friendly and accommodating. However, I felt that there were some reasons to think that MAYBE I should not trust them. Anyway, there were a couple of cars that looked pretty good, but nothing that was PERFECT for us. Then we went to the second place “B Motors” (still protecting their names even though I suppose I don’t really have to). They were also friendly and had cars in our price range. One car, however, seemed about perfect for us. After a test-drive and a bit of research we decided it was just what we wanted. We got a loan approved with our credit union, filled out the paperwork, decided to get a used car warranty insurance for it, and within four days of first seeing the car, it was now ours with temporary dealer tags. We were told that we will be given a call when the regular tags and registration show up.
Thirty days later we heard nothing from “B Motors.” I give them a call, but their number was not working. I check them on the Web and it says that they are “Temporarily Closed.” It was Thanksgiving Weekend. I figured them may have shut down for a few days. After that weekend, I tried to call again, and the phone was still not working. I check the Web and now it is supposedly “Permanently Closed.” That is not good. Despite what Google says, their website suggested they were open, so we sent a direct message to them through their contact page, but got no response. However, now Google was back to saying that they were open. Between that and the fact that we were busy turning the new house we bought into a home, we did not take things too seriously. However, when December came with no permanent plates and no word from our dealer, we realized that we had to act.
We drove to the dealership finding, NOT to our surprise, that there was a totally different name on it— now it was, I shall say, “C Autoworld.” I went into “C Autoworld” and found, again not to our surprise, that the people running the place were entirely new. We talked to the lady who appeared to be in charge. She said that we are part of a whole stream of people who have been coming to their place about “B Motors.” According to her, “B Motors” had been owned by a guy who had a history of scamming. He would set up a dealership under a false name, and then steal from customers. It seems like the stealing was not in terms of actual cars, but in processing fees and DMV (department of motor vehicle) charges. Anyway, DMV shut them down. She did not know how to get hold of any of them, but gave us the number of the Virginia department that oversaw car dealerships. We called the number and then turned in a complaint. That department appears like it will be helpful, even though the timetable they gave us is pretty slow. Not sure if we will have to repay some of those fees. We shall see. That got us thinking. We bought a used car warranty insurance. We had actually carefully investigated before and found that this particular warranty insurance has a very good reputation (not all of them do) so we got it through the “B Motors” dealership. We went online to check on the status of our insurance policy and found, yet again not to our surprise, that they had never heard of us. The auto dealership had pocketed our money.
It does appear that we have a legal car and a car that works well. That is a blessing. However, we were robbed in terms of insurance money and the official paperwork from the DMV. It looks like this can be fixed without too much pain. It, however, is slowing down our return to the Philippines.
It is human nature to profile. Some profile based on nationality or race or economic status or others. Most of us, I think, feel that people who are like themselves are less likely to cheat them than people that are different. Over and over I have found this not to be true. Criminality is more a case of the heart than of other factors. Sure, desperation may apply pressure on someone to do wrong, but from my own experience, I have only been cheated by people who did it because of greed, not economic desperation.
The first car dealership, ‘A Used Cars,’ the one I felt a twinge of concern about, they are active, doing well, and on the NICE, not NAUGHTY, list at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I would say Lesson Learned, but some lessons one must learn again and again. I remember a guy who was in Brazil who had a pickpocket come upon him. The thief reached into his pocket but made a mistake and was caught as he removed his hand. Money went flying all over the place and he ran off. Immediately, other Brazilians hurried over to the where the American tourist was and began grabbing the money. Then they brought the money to the tourist and apologizing for what he went through. They want to be thought of as a safe and moral nation. It is all too easy to remember the pickpocket and see that as ‘the norm.’ However the REAL norm was the Good Samaritans (Good Brazilians) who sought to help the tourist in his time of need.
Sometimes as Christians we talk about the idea that this world is not our real home— heaven is our real home. One of my favorite gospel songs as a youth spoke of this. The first verse said,
“This wold is not my my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do.
The angels beckon me, from Heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
It is a fun song. It is not totally accurate, of course. The Bible speaks of Earth as our eternal home— Heaven on Earth. In effect, this is our one home.
But as missionaries, we typically have two homes. One is in our home country, and one is our in our country of service. For years that wasn’t really important to me. We sold our house in the US and moved into our house in the Philippines. We spent 90% of our time in the Philippines, and the plan of my wife and I was (is?) to retire in the Philippines. As such, the US was not our home, but a place we visit on occasion.
However, this has changed somewhat. Our three children are now grown up and have chosen to live in the US. Additionally, one of them has some health needs that have required us to be a bit more involved in helping her along. Our old solution of just coming over and staying with relatives and friends has not worked. Additionally, short-term and long term rentals of houses and of cars have proven to be prohibitively expensive. We were actually pretty desperate for awhile. Thankfully, do some truly divine grace, we were able to work out things to have a house (with mortgage of course), and car (with loan of course).
This did remind me of the rope metaphor used by Ryland and Carey back in 1792, where Carey expressed willingness to explore into the unknown (like as into a deep pit or cave) as long as his friends back home would “hold onto the rope.”
It is hard to serve as a missionary when the rope is cut back in one’s birth country. This can be in terms of financial support. But this can also be in terms of a “home base”— a place one can call home when “home.”
Things are a bit different, perhaps, for people who serve with a full-service mission organization. However, most of the people I know in missions are independent or semi-independent missionaries. I have known some who have been completely cut off from their home base. Several of them did eventually have to return to their sending country and start ‘from scratch.’ Another got stranded in their home country during COVID, but have been able to move in with their son. Another such family had similar things occur and they moved in with their parents. One lost contact with their home country, but another country and associated church adopted him and that helped him serve. Another married into his missionary country, and as such has set quite deep roots in his service country. However, one never knows when the lack of a second home may cause issues.
As much as we may focus on the Philippines being our new home, times change. We don’t know the future, and we cannot assume that God’s best for us aligns with what we think is best.
We now have a home in the US that is our home when we are home. Two of our adult children live there year-around. We cannot afford to be homeless when back in our sending country, so this is a great blessing. We also have a home in the Philippines… perhaps it is our home until we die. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is our home.
When we return to the US, we can say it is good to be home. When we return to the Philippines, we can say it is good to be home.
We found that we needed an anchor point in both countries— we did not for 17 years, but we do now. It was a tough decision to take preciously collected savings to put into a house in the US (especially during a time of ridiculous housing prices). However, God has been good, and we found something pretty close to the perfect place (for us). Now we can go back and forth between our two countries much easier— between our two homes.
Extra thought—- In English we have two different words— house and home. They are overlapping words. A house is a building that people live in. A home usually is a building, and it has to do with where people live. But there is an emotional side to home that is not in house. The word home has a deeply emotional sense of belongingness. In Tagalog, there is a similar equivalent. The word ‘bahay’ means house— building to live in. But there is another word as well, ‘tahanan.’ It has a similar sense as home… a place of belongingness. I wonder how many other languages have this equivalent pair of terms?
It is strange that I have been involved with full-time Christian missions for 17 years and have been teaching Christian missions for 13 years and yet I have never found definitions for “Christian Missions” and “Missionary” that I like. Some are too narrow. For example, some definitions for missionary limit to those who are commissioned or ordained by a sending church or agency. For me that is a too… vocational… understanding of the term. Others think of missionary in terms of calling. That would be okay I suppose if everyone shared the same understanding of what calling means. (Hint here… there is NO common understanding of what it means to be called by God.) In terms of Christian missions, some definitions focus on churchplanting, or pioneering, or being international, or being ‘cross-cultural.’ Those definitions I think were always too narrow, but in this time of globalization, I think they have easily reached the point of being— well — pointless. Other definitions are so broad that every Christian is a missionary and everything the church does everywhere is Christian mission. I must admit that there is a part of me that likes broad definitions. However, there are distinct features of Christian missions and serving as a missionary that deserve their own labels and training and study. Watering terms down too much make them essentially meaningless. They become like what has been happening with the term “worship,” where in emphasizing that everything we say and do is worship, effectively, nothing is distinctly hallowed in terms of worship.
So I thought I would try to throw out a couple of definitions today.
Christian Missions is the intentional work of the church to go outside of its normal boundaries to join God’s work where the CHURCH IS NOT, where the CHURCH HAS NOT, or where the CHURCH CANNOT.
Yes, this definition is pretty broad still, but I think it has key elements.
It is intentional work. This is service… the expenditure of time, energy, and effort.
The focus of missions is on the church. In other words missions is defined in terms of the church rather than culture or national boundaries. In terms of organization, missions may be built within a sodality structure or a modality structure, but in terms of organism, it is about the church— the assembly of the faithful.
It involves going outside of its normal boundaries. That means it reaches beyond its own membership, its own community, its own normal sphere of influence. It is a sending out and going out.
It is joining God’s work. As the saying goes, God is at work (everywhere) and invites us (the church) to join Him in that work.
It may be in terms of where the church is not— where churches don’t exist. It would involve evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, and leader development. This is pioneering
It may be in terms of where the church has not— churches may exist but are not functioning well in some ways. It involve inspiring and training churches, church organizations, and individuals. This is empowering
It may be in terms of where the church cannot. Some places churches may lack the ability, long-term, to do certain types of ministry work. This may include such things medical care, missionary member care, Bible translation, or radio ministry. This is a work of specialization.
Missionaries are people who intentionally embrace their role in Christian missions and identify themselves in terms of that role.
This definition also sounds pretty vague, and is essentially meaningless if not tied to the definition for Christian missions. Additionally, the term notes:
It is people. This is obvious but when we say that Christian missions is about ‘the church,’ there is a risk of it becoming abstract. Christian missions may be related to the church, but it is carried out by people… individually and corporately, joining God’s presence and efforts in the field.
It is intentional. It is intentional in the sense that avoids the “everything you and I do is missions”-sense. Individuals identify that what they are doing is Christian missions as is defined earlier. As such it has the characteristics listed earlier.
The individuals self-identify themselves as missionaries. In other words, if you don’t identify as a missionary, in a very key and important way you are NOT a missionary. In a broad sense this has to do with calling. I am not totally sure that every people in missions has to have received some big unambiguous Isaiah 6 sort of calling. But there should be some sort of recognition that they have joined a brotherhood and sisterhood that is unique in focus and role within the church.
Are these definitions perfect. Of course not. In fact, I am not even sure if I fit into the definition of missionary that I have written. Maybe it is better to describe myself as a “Cross-cultural Minister.” Regardless, I do think that the definitions at least establish a more real world foundation for discussion of these topics.
I suppose the term “Strength” is a bit of a loaded term. Very commonly what one may consider a strength another could consider a weakness. A strong desire to lead or dominate can be seen as a strength. When we think of great leaders in history, we think of their drive to lead as part of what makes them great. However, many of those with a great desire to leader lack competence, or have an unhealthy faith in their own wisdom. On the other hand, those with a “need to lead” may be in a position that does not allow them to exercise that quality— the trait expressing itself in insubordination.
Additionally, one strength can create a weakness in another area. One of the greatest basketball players of all time was Michael Jordan. He was also very good in baseball, and solid in golf. Perhaps he could have been truly great in baseball or in golf if he had not focused on basketball. Of course to some extent work in one athletic sport can help with other sports… but such focus in one would likely prevent reaching one’s potential in another. Even further, I doubt Michael Jordan is strong in Nuclear Engineering or Missiology. It is not to suggest that he couldn’t be (he seems like a smart guy) but his intense focus on basketball and other athletic endeavors ensured he would not be great in those other areas.
So I have been undermining the idea of “Strength” as it pertains to qualities or abilities in people. But that is not really to focus of this post. The point I am working toward is that STRENGTH IS A PERSONAL PERCEPTION.
We each identify in ourselves certain qualities or abilities as strengths.
It is these perceptions that open up temptations. A person who believes that they could never cheat on their spouse is open to manipulation, and ultimately falling. The person less likely to cheat is one who knows that he or she can cheat and determines not to. That person is more likely to establish personal taboos and boundaries to prevent it. Con-men and demagogues give their message in the language that speaks to the perceptive strengths of the target population. For demagogues, commonly they say something to the effect that, “What you think about yourselves and your greatness is correct. But you are being held back by ______________ (government, class group, racial group, political group, etc.)”
It is okay to identify strengths in yourself. It is okay even to identify strengths incorrectly. What is dangerous is to identify strengths in oneself without realizing that this opens to door to temptation and manipulation.
In missions this can be a common and serious problem. Some missionaries have a “Messiah complex.” They see themselves as hyper-capable and others as hyper-needy. This can develop dependent relationships. And that is one of the ‘better’ results. More seriously, this missionary may see themselves as indispensible. Some missionaries identify themselves as great leaders. Many see others as “born followers” in turn. These missionaries may not prepare for their own retirement or mortality. They may not train others up. They set up their work for failure. Some may see themselves as great preachers or evangelizers. Yet, in most cases, locals are actually better at reaching their own people. Focusing on doing all the work themselves, missionaries can hamper their work.
I hope I have made the point. One’s strength is one’s temptation. The fix for that is not to self-deprecate— to reject the idea of personal strengths. Rather, it is to be self-aware of what one’s strengths and weaknesses actually are— and to realize the strengths in terms of potential weaknesses, limitations and the potential as a temptation or area of manipulation.
So I was talking to a friend of mine named Tom (his name is NOT Tom) who is a minister in an Asian Country where Christians are a tiny minority. He was talking about mission work in his country. He noted that missionaries had brought a lot of good things to his country… such as hospitals, church buildings, and community development projects— among other things.
However, he said that one way missionaries haven’t been that helpful have been in terms of Evangelism. He noted that foreign missionaries are not all that good at evangelizing people in his country… because they are foreign. He noted, that in some rural areas, they have had some success in gifting the poor with things they need and these poor respond, converting and joining the church. Later, however, when the missionaries are gone, the gifts stop or slowly break down, and the people drift back into their community’s majority faith.
Of course I have heard this before… even here in the Philippines where many Filipinos are comfortable with English, and the there is commonly enough Bible literacy so that the American-style gospel presentations are effective. (I will not address the question of whether these presentations lead people to Christ, or bring people who are already saved to a different denomination.) It is well understood here that Filipinos are better at evangelizing than foreigners. Foreigners are not that effective even with other religions. I mean, even the American Mormon boys (and girls) sent to the Philippines to proselytize their own message are more and more often matched up with Filipinos. It is entertaining to listen to American youth stumbling through the Mormon message in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano, but it is simply not that compelling. The biggest mosque here in our city has worked very hard to fund local boys so that they can train them to evangelize their Tawhid to others here. There are many foreign Muslims here… but few if any have any impact in the presentation of their faith.
But if Christian Missionaries are not good Evangelists, is this a new thing? No. Apparently, Occam (a Native American) was a much better evangelist to Native Americans than Wheelock (a European) in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Karen Evangelists were more effective in sharing the gospel than their American counterparts. Of course, one may go back to 1st century missionaries, such as Philip and Paul and Barnabas in hopes of finding something different. However, in these cases, these missionaries were reaching out to people who were not that different from themselves (E-1 or at most E-2). Paul and Barnabas were Hellenistic Jews from Asia Minor and Cyprus, who reached out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Asia Minor and Cyprus. Philip, presumably a Proselyte to Judaism before becoming a Christian, reached out to Samaritans (who shared the language used by the Jews, and almost all of the beliefs of the Jews), and a (presumably) proselyte to Judaism from Ethiopia. Their effectiveness, outside of divine empowerment, was linked to the commonality of language and culture.
So let’s look at it a different way. Consider three settings where a Missionary can Serve.
#1 is Where the Church IS NOT. (No viable church within the region, or culture)
#2 is Where the Church HAS NOT. (The local church may be weak or young and needs help to empower them to carry out its work.)
#3 is Where the Church CANNOT. (The local church may be strong, but still lacks unique capacities such as ability to support radio transmission, publishing, medical services, and so forth.)
So what should the role of Missionary as Evangelist be in these three situations?
For #1. Of course, The missionary is an apostle in the classic sense— sent into a place where the church is not. As such, his (or her) role is to proclaim God’s message of love, and draw those who seek to follow Christ to come together as church bodies. Yes, such a missionary pioneer should evangelize, but really should focus on training new believers to evangelize and then move to new roles of discipling and leader development so that the missionary (as soon as possible) is not needed there.
For #2. Maybe. The Missionary MIGHT be needed to evangelize occasionally— especially if the local church has not embraced its role as a proclaimer of the gospel in its area. But such a role should be very temporary and cautious. After all, even a young church can have young believers who can effectively evangelize. Thus, if it is not happening, having missionaries do the job can easily maintain an unhealthy dependence on missionaries. In fact, that unsatisfactory condition may exist because missionaries as pioneers focused too much on evangelizing and not on encouraging that role to be passed on to locals.
For #3. No. Every church can evangelize. The local church may not be able to establish a publishing house, or operate a counseling center, but they can share their faith with others. Missionaries doing the evangelism in these settings is unhealthy… except as simply a fellow participant with local Christians.
Tom when noting all the good things that missionaries brought to their country noted one thing that they really did not bring. They did not establish seminaries. Mission groups come over to evangelize, and they come in to teach locals how to share their faith like a foreigner. But they did not help establish schools for locals to be trained to contextualize/localize the Christian faith… and remove their scholarly dependence on foreigners.
A few years ago, I was investigating joining a major mission agency. At the time this agency was moving away from theological education and developmental ministries, and seeking missionaries who had a strong “evangelistic spirit” and focused on rapid church multiplication.
On the surface, this seems so right… but I think it is flawed. Most countries don’t need a bunch of foreign evangelizers coming in with big dreams of saturation strategies and CPMs. Are these things wrong? Probably not. However, Big Dream Missions (DAWN, AD2000, and other such missionary-driven movements) promise much but tend to deliver little. The biggest movements come from small groups of local Christians faithfully doing small things to transform their small places.
So should Missionaries be Evangelists? Sometimes, but few if any should have it as their primary passion. The vast majority should be passionately motivated to empower local Christians and local churches to reach their Spirit-empowered potential.
When I was young, the word Nautilus made me think of one of my favorite books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” And this corresponds with one of my favorite movies (of the same name). Then when I was in the US Navy, the Nautilus made me think of the USS Nautilus (SSN-570), the first nuclear powered submarine in… well… all of history. I trained at the nuclear plant that was a copy of the one on the Nautilus. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the actual submarine, although long-since decommissioned.
Today, I don’t think of either of those things. I think of the animal, the chambered nautilus. At our counseling center, we use the nautilus shell as a symbol of growth and transformation.
In its living form I think provides a metaphor for the church and for ministry.
How does a nautilus grow. It gets bigger…. a pretty common implication of growing. And as it grows, it outgrows its previous home. Different creatures have different ways of doing it.
Many animals shed their skins. This includes those with exoskeletons… but also animals like snakes. Hermit crabs move from borrowed lodging to a new borrowed lodging (much like humans do).
The Nautilus doesn’t do things this way. The nautilus starts very small in a small chamber shell. As it grows, it creates the shell that slowly spirals outward. As it moves out, it closes off the area in the shell it was once in.
It can seem like a bit of a waste. It is not efficient to carry those old chambers it doesn’t use, and cannot use. But in truth, it does use these chambers, but in a different way. The chambers have air in them. The air provides a couple of things. First, it provides neutral buoyancy. That actually makes it move MORE efficiently, not less. Second, it provides orientation giving it more stability. It maintains this orientation giving it better control as to where it goes in the water.
I would argue that in the church, there is wisdom in this. Some churches seem to get stuck in a space that doesn’t fit it. Sometimes they embrace tradition a bit too much. But things go the other way as well. Some churches are so focused on being “current” that they lose their touch of history. I have been in groups where people get a bit giggly if one uses a song in worship that is more than 20 years old. I used to be a member of a church where the pastor stated publicly that he would change the decor in the church every couple of months to ensure that things would not become stuck in a long-term tradition.
This is too bad. The church I was raised in has a building that it 124 years old, and had existed as a congregation before that. Our sending church is 165 years old. As a Protestant, I am part of a movement that is at least 500 years old, and as a Christian, I am part of a movement that is almost 2000 years old.
The humans that make up the church (whether local church or universal church) are ephemeral. They are like soap bubbles… some bubbles endure for awhile, while some are barely present before they are gone… but all are relatively brief. And this thing we call the present (“The Now”) is even less enduring. It is more like a a bit of sunlight that glints off of one of those soap bubbles.
The church that rejects traditions and symbols are likely to lose identity… and can often careen off course.
While traditions, rituals, and symbols can hold back the church… shackling it to a past that has lost relevance, they can also give stability that leads to good direction. I have seen so many churches that have hired new pastors. These pastors don’t know the DNA of the church, and have no sense of the history of the church. In fact, arguably, the church members hardly know the church’s own identity themselves. When these pastors come in… they bring in their own novelties. Sometimes, these novelties are good and valuable. Often, however, they are simply bringing a tradition from a different church to replace the one that already is embedded in this church. And sometimes, it is worse than that. Sometimes the pastor saw a Youtube video, or went to some conference, that is marketing some innovation in theology or practice, and that pastor buys into it. Often the logic is, “Hey, it seems to work over there, so it must work here!”, without consideration of what differences in setting may mean to this (and often hardly considering what “works” mean in terms of the church vision and mission).
There needs to be a balance of embracing tradition and embracing change. There needs to be wisdom. Years ago, I was at a church council meeting. They were looking into searching for a new senior pastor. I suggested that we need to set up a pastoral search committee, get a list of possible candidates, and then do background checks in terms of their theology, track record, and behavior. I was told that this is not the way this church does things. Their method is this… the church council gets together and perhaps one of the members says that they know that “Ptr. A” is available and seeking to pastor a church. Then a member of the council contacts that pastor and invites him (since this was a church where the pastor would always be a ‘him’) to preach. If the preaching goes well… the church calls him. Interestingly, this is a tradition to reject tradition. It is tradition in that “this is the way we have always done things.” It is a rejection of tradition in that there is nothing in the process to ensure that the pastor is the right fit for the church. There is nothing to ensure that direction of the church is affirmed and maintained. I would argue that in this case, to honor the tradition of the church, one needs to reject some aspects of the tradition. Maybe my suggestion was not good, but if so, neither was their tradition in finding a pastor. The church could easily become like a nautilus without air in its shell and so moves more like an anemone that has broken free of its anchor point (awkwardly with little control of its final destination) than of a healthy nautilus. I have seen a lot of churches that have been DESTROYED by bringing in a new pastor with a radically different vision. I am thinking of one right now that lost most of its membership when it hired a pastor whose beliefs and practices were WAY out of line of church. After he left, members said, “Oh, we did not know what we were getting!” However, that was hardly an excuse since he had his own website that clearly articulated his views and practices that were in many ways in opposition to the church that brought him in.
Of course, this is not simply about churches. This applies to parachurch organizations as well. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp for five years. The first three years it was led by a director who had been there for many years. He was, perhaps, a bit set in his ways, but he understood how the camp worked, and kept it successfully doing its intended mission. The director retired and was replaced with a pastor who took over who had long been associated with the camp. He kept things pretty much the same. Was the camp “stuck in the past.” In some ways, probably Yes. But much of what they did was good and worked. The first year there, they hired a new director from a different camp. As we entered the camp schedule a pattern emerged. An issue would come up and one of us from the staff who had been around for awhile would give a response to the situation based on what was done before. The new director would then pipe in and say, “Oh yes… that is the way we have always done it.” He would say it in a funny voice as a sort of verbal meme. Then he would decide to do things in a different and innovative way. Eventually, I found out that what he was doing was NOT innovative. Rather it was simply what he did at the camp he used to be at. He was simply replacing traditions.
I can’t remember how many years he served there as director… but he eventually got in trouble by mocking the board of directors for making a decision that he did not agree with. Truthfully, I am not sure whether I agree with the director or with the board in the issue (that I won’t share here). However, the board decision was very much in line with the roots, traditions, and support structure of the camp. The director was removed and replaced with a friend of mine who had worked there many years, and did (I believe) a better job of innovating in a way that honors the DNA of the organization.
Innovating in ways that are in line with this DNA actually makes change happen easier, normally, than simply diving in and trying to force change. This is like the nautilus where the extra baggage it carries gives it neutral buoyancy… making it easier to move rather than harder.
I think I will stop here. If there are other things that one can learn from the nautilus, feel free to share it in the comments.
Jackson Wu recently wrote an article— “Why I Left the SBC and IMB.” It is a very interesting read. It is well-thought out, and he focused on reasons that he had direct experience with rather than the “A friend of mine told me that…”
As a member of the SBC, I feel pushed two ways in the article.
In terms of sadness, Jackson Wu is one of my favorite theologians, and so I liked the fact that he was SB. There are not many SB theologians that I am particularly drawn to. On the other hand, his reasons for leaving I find perfectly valid, and I respect acting according to conviction.
My home sending church is SB, and one of the two churches I am a member of is SB. I teach at an SB seminary… well, sort of. Technically, I teach at a seminary tied to the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines have relationship ties to the Southern Baptist Convention… but legally are independent. I am not IMB, but my wife and I did apply with the IMB, and if that organization had not run out of money back in 2003 (and if I was a bit less chubby), we might have been part of it… at least for awhile. I have known and worked with many IMB missionaries. In almost all cases, the IMB missionaries I knew were class acts. Most of them are no longer part of the IMB— because of refusal to sign a doctrinal statement, or because of relocation, or forced retirement. I certainly have had some concerns about the organization.
The idea of moving missionaries out of theological education really seemed inane at the time. For the IMB, I still think it was ill-advised. Positively, it did force locals to take up the slack in terms of scholarship and training. The majority of professors at the school I teach in are locals now. That is a good thing. So is the policy shift bad or good? Both. But overall, I think it was bad because it crippled one of the strengths of the IMB (training world Christian leaders) and replaced it with a task that IMB missionaries are permanently less competent at (foreign missionaries are not as good at evangelizing and churchplanting as local ministers). Why hobble your strength to empower something you will always be second best at?
In Wu’s article, the one thing he mentioned that I had not heard of, was the signing of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) of missionaries leaving a few years ago. Talking about NDAs would be a violation of the NDA, perhaps? What would I have done if I was told that my pension (which, for lack of a better word, I “earned”) was contingent on me keeping my mouth shut about things inside the organization? When I was in the Navy, I was (and still am) required to not disclose (sorry but there is no actual rule against split infinitives) things that are classified (very happy to say that I don’t have any more such classified materials in my head after 30 years). However, I don’t recall having anything like an NDA to sign… tied to GI benefits and such. I am hoping there is another side to this story with the IMB. However, as one involved in Missionary Member Care, I have seen secrecy and CYA used to protect an organization. In the end, however, it tends to perpetuate problems— especially abuse.
In the end, a missionary (and a theologian) serves the Kingdom of God. To the extent such faithful service can be honestly done, and even be enhanced, within a denomination or a mission organization, it is a good thing. To the extent that the SBC and the IMB are faithful to that calling, and don’t fall into the common traps of power, money, and status, they are a blessing.
How such organizations stay on the straight and narrow are voices, both inside and outside, who challenge and hold accountable. Sadly, such people are often seen as problems not blessings.
I finally had a chance to watch the documentary “Many Beautiful Things.” It is on the life of Lilias Trotter. She was a missionary of the early 1900s in Algeria. I connect with the story. Like me, she was a missionary who was not sent out by a traditional mission agency or society. But I suppose the differences far outweigh the similarities. She was a missionary who had potential for great fame as an artist but chose obscurity in a very dry and barren (literally and metaphorically) mission field. Curiously, because of the documentary and the research of Miriam Huffman Rockness, Lilias Trotter has gained a considerable posthumous fame. It is possible that in the years ahead her fame may eclipse John Rushkin, the one who was trying to develop her to be a reknowned painter. While I have long been familiar with John Rushkin, today he is far from a household name. Time will tell.
I strongly recommend perusing the website, www.liliastrotter.com. It has lots of resources including the documentary.
The question in the documentary was whether she had made the right choice. Was it better to embrace her gift or embrace her sense of calling. Or maybe her gifting was evidence of her true calling. There is a bit of a similarity here with the story of Eric Liddell (“Chariots of Fire”), where his gifting as a runner appeared to be at odds with his desire to serve as a missionary.
For some people, the answer is simple. One must accept God’s Call no matter what. But recognizing God’s Calling is… challenging. I have seen people go into missions who I was pretty sure should never go into missions. On a few occasions, things seemed to work out for good (I can easily be wrong) but other times I felt that my concerns were confirmed. I don’t believe that God’s Call is only one way. That is, God’s Call is not always towards formalized mission work or ministry. God’s call could theoretically be to be a great painter, or a great runner. I was an Officer in the US Navy, and then later a Mechanical Design Engineer. I think it safe to say that I was not meant to spend my adult years in the military, but I am not so sure regarding civilian engineering. In college I talked to a missionary about my uncertainties of missions or engineering. He believed that God can call people to engineering as much as He may call people to missions. The important thing is to serve God faithfully whatever was one’s vocation. I spent the next 19 years of my life pursuing engineering, and then I went into missions. The change of path does not necessarily mean my first path was wrong. And if my first path was right, it doesn’t necessarily mean my later change was wrong. God’s calling is a path, not a destination.
I like the documentary “Many Beautiful Things” because it doesn’t really give answers. That Ms. Trotter’s desire to establish a “visible church” in Algeria did not happen (until decades after her passing) may draw into question her calling. Or maybe it doesn’t. It is for us to decide. It is like the movie Silence (2016) that asks serious questions about Christian missions, without giving trite answers. I enjoy the movie Candle in the Dark, on the life of William Carey. It spoke of his many struggles along the way. But it ended with a seeming pronouncement of victory. Carey chose the right path after all. But things are not that simple… even for William Carey.
Trite answers abound. The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has often been used to support the idea that one must choose the path that the crowds ignore. It suggests a certain praise of individualism, or perhaps following God. But then I heard people say that it meant the opposite. It really did not matter which path is taken. However, when I read the poem again, I felt it said neither. Each path goes in different directions. The poet later will interpret his life as being radically changed by that choice— but there is no way to verify this because it is impossible to go back and try the other path. In the end, we don’t know. We cannot know the results of paths not chosen.
Did Lilias Trotter make the right choice? What about Eric Liddell, or Fr. Rodrigues (in Silence), or John Rushkin, or myself? Did we make the right or wrong decisions? Did we follow the will of God or not?
I believe that I have. I have felt God’s sustaining grace along the way. I have seen good things happen in our work here. But is that proof? No. Lilias Trotter had at best only modest success in missions. Eric Liddell’s life was cut short, in part, because of missions. It is possible that my wife and I could have had greater impact if we stayed as engineer and nurse in the US. We don’t know.
But God is faithful in our uncertainty. We don’t know what happens on alternative paths. We are not supposed to know. We are to seek God the best we can, and follow Him as best we know how.
Faithfully following God, as uncertain and tentative that following may be is the important thing, “And,” quoting Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.”
A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.
Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”
I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.
One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.
Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).
I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”
I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”
It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.
But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?
I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.