The Missionary Life Cycle (in Five Stages)

Like any really good assessment, these five categories are totally made up.

There are no peer-reviewed studies parsing these five stages of cross-cultural work. There is no quantified, objective data set; still, please feel free to say you’re in “Stage 3 – Wing 4.” That would make me happy. And remember, if you say anything with exactitude, we’ll all think you know what you’re talking about.

The lines of demarcation between these stages are blurred, and in some cases overlapping. Just roll with it. And remember, this isn’t the Rubicon, so feel free to cross back over to an earlier stage if you’d like.

Are you ready?

We’ll look at the two options within each stage, we’ll list some common statements you might hear from folks taking each option, and then we’ll look at some primary goals for each stage.

This is more Wiki than Webster’s, so please add your thoughts, explanations, arguments, additions, or funny jokes in the comment section.

Idealist/Ignorant – Pre-field

You know the idealist, right? If you’re on the field, you probably were one. Once.

We need the idealist. Often, the idealism of youth or new belief motivates people to the field in the first place; that’s not bad. In fact, idealism is a fantastic place to start; it’s just not a fantastic place to stay.

Idealism is not what’s dangerous; ignorance is.

The main difference here is that the ignorant person doesn’t know what it is that they don’t know. And it’s a lot. The idealist knows they don’t know everything, so they’re safer. The idealist is a day-dreamer, aware of the reality around them, while the ignorant is lost in a fantasy dream world at night, unaware that their sick child is vomiting in the bathroom down the hall and their wife has been up three times already and the dog just peed on the clean laundry. Yeah, ignorance is dangerous.

Things you might hear the idealist say: “This is all so amazing! God’s going to do amazing, new, prophetic things in this glorious season of fresh wind. He is calling the nations to himself and he’s calling me to the nations. Will you donate?”

Things you might hear the ignorant say: “I don’t need a sending church or org or agency. I read a book and I feel super called! Also, I served a person once on a short-term trip and now I’m going to save the world. Will you donate?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Don’t be ignorant.

  2. Protect your ideals, while purposefully listening to the reality of some who’ve gone before you. You’re not the first person God’s called across cultures, and you won’t be the last.

 

Learner/Survivor – Arrival to Year 2

Landing in a foreign land will sometimes feel like just trying to survive. That’s ok. But if the functional goal for your first term is just to survive your first term, you’re a survivor, not a learner.

A learner is an idealist who’s landed. They don’t know stuff, but they’re super excited to find out. They don’t know how to even ask for stuff, but they’re going to find out. They don’t know who’s who and what’s where and when’s good, but they know how to breathe, ask around, walk the street, and…learn.

The learner’s goal is to figure stuff out, to learn about a culture, a history, to meet new people, to make new memories.

The survivor’s goal is to not die.

Things you might hear the learner say: “I don’t know where to buy milk; let me find someone to ask.”

Things you might hear the survivor say: “I don’t know where to buy milk, but as soon as I find out, I’m buying 9 gallons so I don’t have to go back out on the street again for at least a week… SHOOT! SHOOT! SHOOT! Where do I buy a refrigerator?!”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Learn as much as you can (about language, culture, workers who’ve come before you, the state of the local church before your arrival, etc.)

  2. Recognize your need for mentors, and find some (expats and nationals).

 

Established/Workaholic (Year 2 to Year 7)

Getting established in a foreign field is quite an accomplishment. You know the language and you’re driven to finally start doing the work you’ve been called to do.

At this stage, folks start to realize that they can’t do as much as they thought they could. Folks start to get overwhelmed by the complexity of the culture, because now, they’re starting to really see much more of the culture. The established will face a crisis, and the risk is that they respond by turning into a workaholic, shouldering all the responsibility for all the souls all the time.

Things you might hear the established say: “There is so much work to be done, we should get involved in mobilizing local believers.”

Things you might hear the workaholic say: “There is so much work to be done, and if we don’t do it all, who will?”

Goals for this stage:

  1. See the task for the S I Z E that it is, without succumbing to depression or despondency.

  2. Disciple others into the roles to which God’s calling them, remembering the axiom that the “resources are in the harvest.”

 

Experienced/Pessimistic (Year 7 to Year Infinity)

(What? You know you’ve met missionaries who’ve been on the field f o r e v e r…)

The experienced are those folks who’ve got tons of knowledge. They’ve been around the block and they’ve seen a lot of folks come and go. They’ve probably had ministry initiatives succeed and they’ve probably had more fail. But they stayed. And they’re relatively happy. Their words are nuanced and balanced, and the people themselves are fairly enjoyable to be around.

To the pessimist, however, everything new is bad, and everything old is bad, because everything is bad. These folks are a little harder to be around, unless you are them. Then they’re easy to gripe – I mean chill – with.

Things you might hear the experienced say: “Well, that could work, but the few times we tried it that way it didn’t work. Want to talk about some alternatives?”

Things you might hear the pessimist say: “$#@!@#(*!!! [or “gosh darnit” if they’re Baptists] Sure, try that. It won’t work, just like what we tried didn’t work. Because nothing will work. This ground is rocky and hard and I want to leave but I’m too worried about what people will say about me, and I haven’t saved enough to retire.”

Goals for this stage:

  1. Nurture the idealists.

  2. Mentor the learners.

  3. Caution the workaholics.

  4. Avoid the pessimists.

 

Learner/Know-it-all

If you’re in this stage, you knew we’d come back to this. If you’ve been around long enough, you knew the earlier discussion about being a learner was too perfunctory. Congrats.

You know a lot more now that when you started. But if you’re healthy, you also know how much you don’t know. And so, you’ll still be a learner.

Someone who’s been on the field a loooong time without being a learner is dangerous. They have a LOT of experience, but it’s dated. Some of it will of course still be accurate, but it won’t be tinted with the wisdom that combines age-old knowledge with present-tense reality.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2012 someone told us that you couldn’t get fresh milk in-county. So, for the first month we drank UHT milk, which is an abomination.

I’ll never forget the day, a few months in, when I went to the grocery store and saw rows and rows and rows of fresh, refrigerated, amazing milk. Skim, whole, 2%, and chocolate!

Even if you do know everything today, you won’t tomorrow. (And you don’t know everything today.)

Goals for this stage:

  1. Be willing to ask questions, even of the younger people, and even if you’ve been on the field for longer than they’ve been alive.

  2. Share your wisdom and experience with those who will listen. There will be some who will listen. Find them and offer yourself.

  3. Don’t be a jerk.

 

Conclusion

Whatever stage you’re in, welcome! And might I offer a few pieces of advice that I think would help this whole cross-cultural life and ministry thing to be more enjoyable and more effective?

  1. We need to nurture the Idealists while cautioning the ignorant. Don’t treat them as the same, because they’re not.

  2. We need to mentor the Learners, helping them to find milk and refrigerators. It’s not their fault they don’t know stuff. (Help the survivor too, but add a little encouragement that survival is possible, and thriving is possible too.)

  3. We need to encourage the Established. They’ve been on the field long enough to know the size of the job, but they might not have been around long enough to see the resources at their disposal, which might include you (whether you’ve been on site longer than they have or less than they have).

  4. We need to listen to the Experienced. As the saying goes, Get experience as cheaply as you can, for many people have paid a high price for it and will gladly give it away for free.”

  5. And lastly, we need to keep Learning. All of us, all the time. If this comes naturally to you, awesome. Please help others. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, you might want to do some pondering on the phrase “growth mindset.”

This missionary life of serving others and sharing the Gospel is too hard, too good, and too important to forget these things.

May the Father of all light continue to lead us all out of the darkness, into the dawn, and straight to his heart.

 

All for ONE,

Jonathan T.

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to be able to experience cross-cultural confusion without having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. During a coup, his team’s vehicles were commandeered by the military, so Thiagarajan and his colleagues stayed in their compound, passing the time playing Euchre. Born in Chennai, India, Thiagarajan had learned how to play Euchre after moving to Bloomington, Indiana, and as his Liberian coworkers hadn’t played it before, he gave them a copy of Hoyles Games to read up on the rules. The trouble was, after their crash course, they all came away with different interpretations of how to play. Rather than clear up the arguments, though, Thiagarajan let the players work it out, and after three hours, the group had settled on their own unique version of the game.

“This interesting episode presented me with a blinding flash of the obvious,” writes Thiagarajan in Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes. “Serious conflicts arise not from major, obvious cultural differences, but from unrecognized, minor ones.”

From this, Thiagarajan developed Barnga, one of 120 simulations and games that he has created during his career.

The concept of Barnga is simple. Each player is handed directions for a card game called “Five Tricks.” The participants have a few minutes to familiarize themselves with how the game is played and then they give the rule sheets back. During play, they are told, they won’t be able to talk or write out words but must communicate only by using gestures and drawing pictures.

While learning new rules and facing difficulties in communication seem like the point of the game, there’s another twist (don’ read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want to find out what it is)—unknown by the players, there are slight differences in the rule sheets they’ve studied, so they’re not all the same.

After the cards are dealt, the results are many and varied. There’s confusion and frustration. Some think that others are cheating or just can’t understand the rules. Some assert authority or claim superiority, while others give up or give in. Some love the game. Some don’t want to play any more.

Yup, sounds like culture stress to me.

The instructions for Barnga include not only how-tos for the simulation and printouts of the rules but also guidelines for directing the follow-up discussion—wherein lies the real meat of the experience. It’s when people are allowed to talk and share how they feel about the game, and about each other, that the shift is made to the realm of cross-cultural interaction. Though it’s possible with as few as four players, the simulation works best with about 20 to 40, allowing for numerous interactions through tournament-style play, and more voices for the follow-up conversation.

Possible uses for the simulation are numerous: as part of a class on cross-cultural issues, for pre-field orientation, for teams visiting overseas workers, as a preparation for receiving international students or other foreign visitors, or for supporters of missionaries or those involved in member care.

The 25th-anniversary edition of Barnga comes with rules and discussion guides in English, French, German, and Spanish and includes updates to the original publication. Copies are available from several sources, including Thiagarajan’s website, The Thiagi Group, and Amazon.

I’ve participated in Barnga and I’ve facilitated it, as well. It’s always interesting (and entertaining) to see how players’ attitudes change as the simulation progresses. And even if some figure out what’s going on, they have to make decisions about to how to deal with that knowledge. When it comes to culture stress, it’s not just the differences you face, but how you and those around you react to them. And dealing with that, regardless of the setting, can show and tell us a lot about ourselves.

This post is adapted from “Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules.”

(Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, with Raja Thiagarajan, Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes, Intercultural Press, 2006)

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” and other reasons I love my life overseas

Sometimes I get bored with my life overseas.

I still enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, it just loses the sizzle every now and then. The exotic allure of the “overseas” part gets pushed out by the humdrum realities of the just plain “life” part.

And then I hear myself talk and I’m like, “Who gets to do this?”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday” is my sentence of the week.

True story. He did.

We got up before the sun to go drive beside racing camels, honking our horn and yelling as if we had bet the farm on number six.

Carl yelled the loudest.

It was great — but maybe even greater was hearing the sentence roll out of my mouth and remembering —

I love this life.

I couldn’t even have imagined combining those words to form a thought in other stages of my life.

Like, maybe, if it was game night and we were playing some kind of speed round where you have to draw random words out of a bag and make a sentence before the sand runs out.

“Ummmmm.”

“Frank threw Bob and Sue over the purple airplane on St. Patrick’s Day!”

“Uhh! Uhhhhh!”

“Simon jumped on slimy watermelon at the birthday chicken!”

“Ahhhh! Hurry! Hurry!”

“John took Carl and I to the camel races before church on Friday!!”

“TIME!!”

“Ok, I’ll give you the airplane one but there’s no such thing as a birthday chicken and dude . . . who goes to church on Friday?”

Turns out . . . a bunch of people . . . all over the world. Which I never would have known apart from this life overseas.

And camel racing is a thing. Who knew?

And John and Carl — they’re like brothers. Would have missed that too.

And pausing . . .

Just for a moment . . .

On the exotic overseas bit . . . makes me remember how much I love the humdrum realities of the just plain life bits too.

I just told my daughter goodnight.

I love this life.

How about you? What’s the sentence that is true now that you never could have imagined as a younger you? What’s the single thought that resets your sense of overseas wonder? What’s sitting right in front of you that if you paused . . . and thought about just for a moment . . . would remind you just how much you love this life?

The End.

When Life Gives You a Chicken

by Emily Raan

The day started out so normal. The kids even slept in! Leftover-rice porridge for breakfast and then off to town for some quick shopping.

“Quick shopping” quickly turned into two hours, while we made connections with our friends around town. One man, in particular, stood out. He somehow had lost, or possibly never had, the use of his legs. Without a wheelchair he was forced to scoot around on his hands and beg for money. We were starkly reminded, amidst the mundane “normalcy” of our daily shopping, just how harsh the realities are for so many. And there set the tone for the rest of the day.

As soon as we returned to our house, our night guard arrived at our gate with his son. We were so happy to see him, since he’s been gone in the village for a week visiting his family. Having been in the village, he brought us back a chicken for a Christmas gift. Yes. A real. Live. Chicken. Figuring out what to do with that cute little thing so that our dog didn’t kill it before we could was yet another challenge for the day.

However, our night guard’s reason for visiting wasn’t just a casual social call. His son was covered with jiggers on his feet, an infection on his legs, and fungus on his head. He had been living with his grandfather in the village and, I guess, the grandpa, how ever good-intentioned and loving, wasn’t able to care for the boy in the way that was needed. My husband rushed them to the best clinic in town and stayed with them for a while. He made it back just in time for lunch and our power outage – which lasted the whole rest of the day. When it rains, it pours! And the day was only half over.

Also on this day a young lady, “Grace” (not her real name), who has become dear to our family was visiting us. We’ve been paying her to help out with our kids and clean our lunch dishes one day a week for some extra income for her family while on her school break. But I could tell that this day was different. Something was not right. The first clue being that she brought her six year old brother with her this time.

While she was washing dishes and I was beginning dinner prep for our supper that night, I started asking questions. Though hesitant at first, I finally got the story out of her. Grace’s mother has left them to go to a hospital in the capital city to be with her auntie while her cousin is hospitalized with, presumably, poisoning from their local witch doctor. The poor girl’s dad had recently died and now she is sick with the same thing. Grace’s mother has now told her that she doesn’t know when she will return. Confident that she is safe and being taken care of in her current situation after more questions and conversation, I sent her and her brother home with enough money to last for a while.

The struggle is real and the need is great! And in the midst of all of this, our sub-leasers moved in to our back house, friends were in and out all day, my husband had yet more meetings and errands to do in the afternoon, we had to hang another line for drying laundry in our backyard, dinner took a long while to make, and we have a two-month old that needed nursing. And that was only part of the needs that were presented to us this day. There was another situation that also needed tending to, which, for privacy reasons, I’m not able to share.

Yes, this is a true story. And, yes, this all happened in one 24 hour period.

Life gave us a chicken, and I made beef stew. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out; I’m too tired. For now I am choosing to take joy in the God that says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Emily and her husband currently live in Uganda with their three kids, but they’ve also lived in India and traveled to six other countries on four continents. Once upon a time she was a high school math teacher, but now she’s living the life as a stay-at-home mom and loving it.  After several years of youth ministry, college life that went on far too long, and a year-long internship, they finally made it to this life abroad that they love so much.

Help build your own stool at the watering hole

When I was in high school Cheers was a popular television show. If you’re not familiar with Cheers, it was a comedy set in a local bar where the regulars shared their lives, grew together over time, and in many ways were family to each other.

But what solidified it was the theme song. Read through these lyrics (or listen) and ask yourself if this doesn’t also sound like the church:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name

Obviously, the church would be centered on God. But guess what God loves? People. Cheers was long running because it was funny, tackled complexities of life, and fostered belonging. The name of the theme song is “Where everybody knows your name.” God is a God of belonging, of wanting to know us and wanting us to be known.

We know this and this is why we have heard His heart for the lost and responded to the call.

And over the years, places like A Life Overseas, Velvet Ashes, and Taking Route help us know we are not alone, challenge our thinking, and provide spaces to share our stories.

Which of these have you experienced on the field:

—Burnout

—Boredom

—Overwhelm

—Losing touch with yourself

—Not having the skills equal to the task

—Being used up and spit out by the missionary machine

—Fearing you will be exposed as a fraud

—Feeling you are out of your depth

—Stagnated

~~~

I know you see yourself on somewhere on the list. Even if you are in your first year, and all is new and shiny, boredom has knocked on your door a time or two. I am dreaming another space for us, a space that doesn’t make you choose between tending your own soul (being) and building skills to help you do the work you are called to (doing). In order for the new space to meet your real needs, would you help by taking this survey? 

A couple of months ago I asked for your help and you participated in another survey. Your answers have enhanced the book I’m writing for people in their first year on the field beyond words. You inspired me so much I want to find ways to have your input in more areas. If you wondered if I read and use the data, here is a picture of the data printed out and poured over. (And the cards in the upper left-hand corner were used to write thank you’s to supporters).

So, thank you for taking this survey and helping to build a place that points us each to Jesus and each other.

Humming wit you . . .

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name {and worships God}.

Thanks for your help! Amy

Welcoming Broken Missionaries Back

John Chau’s death in November raised a complicated and important conversation about the role of Christian evangelism. I’m going to let that debate rage on Twitter and the New York Times and the Failed Missionary podcast. I want to launch a different conversation. I believe Chau’s dream, work, and death forces the church to consider what the push of evangelism will require not of those who “go” but of those who “send.”

There is a missing piece in that go-send picture because the one who goes out will eventually come back. How will be they welcomed back? What kind of support systems are in place? Who will be the “receiver” of the returned missionary?

This question is especially relevant in the context of evangelism among what are known as unreached and unengaged populations like the people on the North Sentinelese island, (“An unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) has no known active church planting underway,” the Joshua Project) because missionaries who go to these places are also often missionaries who return broken. How will they be supported?

There is a reason groups of people are unreached or unengaged. They are sometimes hostile to outsiders, remote, living in places of poverty or disease or isolation. They tend to live in areas not considered comfortable, beautiful, or safe. They may speak languages that are not written down, difficult to learn. Their cultures might be radically different from the Western culture out of which many missionaries come. They want to be left alone.

Reaching these people is hard. Slow. Discouraging. And it comes with risks. There may be bodies buried on beaches, like Chau’s. There will certainly be brokenness, pain, and grief. Those who have gone out rejoicing will return weeping. I’m not sure the sending church is ready for that.

The call of the church to raise up Christians who will go to the unengaged is not a triumphal call for heroes. It is a call to suffering and death and brokenness. Churches which actively promote this kind of mission work need to be prepared to receive their people back, along with all their sorrow, pain, and anger.

There needs to be strong support systems in place to help those who return.

Counseling, intensive therapy for all members of the family, marriage help, help in finding jobs, financial advisors, medical assistance, physical space in which to recover, nonjudgmental and safe ways for them to ask all the deep, hard, scary questions about God and faith that rocked their world while living abroad, opportunities for them to be angry. Time. I don’t mean a week or a month. I mean maybe a year, depending on what a person has walked through. Community, people willing to welcome the returned into their families and holiday traditions and Bible studies, even though that person doesn’t have a shared history other than a yearly visit or monthly newsletter.

And grace to recognize that while living abroad, the person sent out from the church has changed. Is the Church ready to welcome that kind of changed person back into their arms with tenderness and acceptance?

I have seen missionaries ask for prayer as they grieve the death of their child and the prayer request is rephrased as, “Pray for their work.” I have seen missionaries told to move on quicker after a family accident or to stop being afraid when death threats or sexual harassment bombard them.

The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

People who live abroad get broken there. Then they come home and their wounds go unacknowledged. They are heroes. They are brave. They are warriors.

Fine (sort of). But guess what? They are also weak, lonely, confused, shattered. Their marriages are damaged, their children have depression, their bodies are fragile and filled with parasites, their resumes have unexplainable holes, their job skills fail to translate. They are lonely, their faith has been pushed sometimes to the breaking point. They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I certainly see churches ready to send people triumphantly out.

Please, dear Western Church, be willing and ready to welcome them brokenly back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Written by an anonymous worker

Into the Battle

I recently watched a video of a talk we gave on our last furlough. For an entire hour we shared with our home church all the glorious things we witnessed during our first term overseas.

Bible translation projects were completed.
For the first time in history believers had written songs to their Creator in their own language.
Local churches sent out missionaries to surrounding groups.
A church began in a new people group.

I could not hold back the tears as I listened to my two-years-ago-self share story after story of lives changed and bodies healed.

Although we live in that same town and do the same work with the same people, it’s almost as if that first term was a completely different place. The victory feels almost unrecognizable now.

Persecution.
War.
Domestic violence.
Addictions.

The weight of sadness felt towards our town can be overwhelming. For the first time in five years I have pervasive thoughts of leaving.

“Just because we’re in the battle doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.” My pastor tells me.

A battle rages for hearts, for minds, for healing, for wholeness, for salvation – not only for the people we came to, but for ourselves as well.

My thoughts are quick to betray me: I can’t do this anymore.

But scripture calls me home:
This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.’
2 Chronicles 20:15

I am tired of fighting.

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Exodus 14:14

I am not enough.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
1 John 4:4

These hurts are too painful.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Romans 8:18

These problems are too big.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

I am afraid.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
Deuteronomy 31:8

I am lonely.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, You are with me.
Psalm 23:4

I don’t know what to do.

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Proverbs 2:6

Yes, the grief and the hardship are real, but we are not powerless or alone. In both the victory and the loss, God is with us- Faithful, unchanging, loving, giving, working.

Into the battle we go. To God be the glory. Amen.  

Clenched Fists and Heart’s Desires

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It’s a New Year here at A Life Overseas and as I type I’m looking out at the barely visible mountains that surround our home here in Northern Iraq. On clear days, you can see the snow-covered mountains in Iran and they are beautiful. Today as I look, the entire area is covered in milky fog and you can barely see their outline. On those clear days I want to live here forever; during this fog, I want to pack my bags and say “Well, we gave that a try….!”

It’s during the fog that I need to remember the story of how we ended up here and speak out loud the works of God, because it is a story about desires, confession, and release. It’s a story about miracles of the heart and it has changed me.

For years I had longed for an opportunity to return to the Middle East. My longing was unspoken, but deeply embedded in my heart. But except for short trips to help with humanitarian aid projects, our lives were centered in Cambridge and Boston and the rhythms of the seasons. The few times that I dared to be honest with God, I begged for “Just one more chance”  – just one more opportunity to live and work in a part of the world that we love so deeply. We had left Cairo, Egypt over 20 years before and though our lives were full and rich, both of us involved with refugees and immigrants at home and work, I longed to go back.

I had been birthed and raised on the “delight and desires” cause and effect teaching of Psalm 37:4. When I was a child it all seemed so easy. Delight myself in God and I’ll get my heart’s desires, which as a child basically meant I would get what I wanted. I didn’t begin to really think about what delighting in God meant until much later in my life. But a child’s theology, if not challenged to move beyond, stays child-like instead of growing into a greater understanding of faith.  Somewhere along the journey the roots of delight, desire, and all that meant got lost and mixed up with hurt and disappointment in what life brought to me.

Somewhere along the journey, too, I began to stop voicing my desires and began to hold them in a tightly clenched fist. I could hardly bear to hear of others who were living and working in the Middle East, and felt almost pathological envy when I saw or heard about their lives.

It was a year ago when my dear friend and sister-in-law, Carol, challenged me on desires in general, challenged me on bringing my desires to God. I remember hot tears filling my eyes. “I don’t trust myself to voice my desires,” I said, the tears leaking into my throat. “I know I will just be disappointed. I know that it does no good. What’s the use of voicing my desires if I’ll only end up disappointed?” I don’t remember how Carol responded, but I remember that soon after that I ended the conversation. I began to cry. For how long, I don’t know. The tears came from such a deep place in my soul that I could barely breathe.

Soul confession tears are difficult to describe, but anyone who has experienced them knows them. They root out far more than your initial thoughts, and clarity comes with the confession and the crying. You begin to feel what perhaps David felt in his profound confession in Psalm 91 when he cries “Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness…. against you and you only have I sinned and done what is wrong in your sight…wash me and I will be clean.” The entire Psalm eloquently captures soul confession. I don’t know about King David, but at the end, I was so tired. Confession and purification are humbling and necessary – they can also be exhausting.

I had so long clenched my fists and held in my desires that I didn’t know what it would be like to finally release them. I didn’t know the relief that I would feel in finally giving up. I didn’t know what it would look like to no longer be trapped in my head. But after that day in Cambridge my life changed in invisible ways. I began to see meaning in my friendships and my work that I had previously not noticed. I began to relax in ways that only I could know. I began to understand contentment and gratitude and I longed for the time I had previously wasted to be redeemed. The interminable New England winter was no longer a time of depression and anxiety but of slow growth and peace.

In her book, Teach Us to Want, author Jen Pollock Michel says We prefer the not wanting and not having to the losing.” This had certainly been my just-below-the-surface thought for a long, long time. To have this slowly replaced, not with resignation but with soul-deep surrender, was new for me. I slowly began to honor my struggle instead of simply enduring it. Michel also talks about struggle being the “prerequisite to surrender”  – perhaps the greater the struggle, the greater the surrender? I don’t know. I just know that in the great mystery of delight, desires, struggle, and surrender, I was at a different place.

The emails and phone calls from Kurdistan began last March and went largely ignored. Then came more phone messages, and more emails, and then more. They continued on until May. It seemed there was a university that wanted to hire both my husband and me in Kurdistan. We laughed as we ignored these messages.  We finally paid attention when they told us a visa was waiting for us at the Baghdad Embassy in Washington D.C. We responded in late May. In June we took a whirlwind trip to visit the university by way of Qatar, and three short and crazy months later we landed in Kurdistan.

I don’t know why God finally answered my unvoiced, but long-held, prayer to be back in the Middle East. I don’t think I “delighted in God” any more or any less than I previously had. As I said earlier, I find my delight and desires, my struggle and surrender to be an ongoing mystery. As I continue this walk of long obedience, delight and desire ebb and flow. There are times when my heart is centered and focused, when the alignment of my heart is sure and straight. There are other times when my heart is bent toward whatever joy or crisis is going on in my life. I don’t know why suddenly we had this opportunity to move to Kurdistan, to work at a university, to learn how to live and love well in this country. I will never know why. And I do not know how long we will be here. We are at the mercy of a place where we are guests. But that is not what’s important.

In truth, my life began to change many months before when, on my couch in Cambridge, I opened up a tired fist, full of desires and tension and anger and disappointment, and finally held it out to an invisible God.

In turn, he took that fist in his almighty hand, and as the tender, faithful father that he is, clasped it in his own.

10 Life Lessons That Leading Worship 600 Times Taught Me

It just sort of happened.

As a teenager growing up in an a cappella church with an a cappella youth group, I sang a lot. In a non-instrumental church, any guy who can loosely carry a tune will be asked to carry that tune. And so I was. Over and over. And over. No guitar skills necessary.

In college, our inter-denominational student ministry needed a band leader. I still lacked all guitar skills, but no matter, they tagged me and I became the de facto leader for our Thursday night gatherings.

And then I actually started working for a church, leading the youth and worship ministries. I led worship nearly every Sunday for about six years. And that’s how we get to 600 plus.

I recently sat down to ponder what life lessons those experiences taught me. And as Elizabeth and I enter our 8th year of living and ministering across cultures, these “life lessons” have begun to look a lot like “cross-cultural ministry lessons” too. So I hope they are an encouragement, a blessing, and perhaps a challenge, to you as well, wherever you find yourself on this great planet we call home.

1. It’s not about me. 
Whether I’m standing before a group of 15 or 500, it’s not about me. It’s about the struggling mom of littles, the financially-strapped couple wondering how to make ends meet. It’s about the widower who feels his loneliness deep in his bones. It’s about the teen who’s trying to figure out who she is — and who God is.

Of course, it’s not about me.

And of course, it’s not primarily about them either. It’s about the Father who is longing to connect with his beloved people through moments of communion and community. It’s about the presence of the only One who is worthy; it’s about what the Spirit is saying to his Church.

 

2. Sometimes, you just have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it. 
When you do anything over and over and over again, even if it’s a good thing, there will come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. Well, what’s a worship leader (or missionary) supposed to do? Is it inauthentic to stand before people when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep, or when you’re in the middle of a big fight with your wife, and pretend that things are OK?

I really had to wrestle with this. Every Sunday is not a glorious day, and there were many Sundays where the last thing I wanted to do was go to church, much less lead people in worship.

Showing up and doing your job, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t inauthenticity. It’s actually maturity.

One question that continues to help me with this is, “Who is benefiting from my NOT revealing everything?” Am I hiding my true self from people in order to protect myself? In order to avoid intimacy? Or am I not revealing EVERY THING IN EVERY SINGLE MOMENT to get myself out of the way and help people meet with God? Is it for me or for them? If it’s for them, then it’s probably OK. (Of course, this assumes that at some point, and with some people, the leader will be authentic and vulnerable.)

God is worthy of worship whether I feel like it or not, and sometimes I need to stand before him and worship not because of my feelings, but in spite of my feelings. This is true about leading worship, and it’s true about leading life.

 

3. Smiling matters. A lot.
Effie was a kind old lady who became The Great Encourager of my 16-year-old self. When I was just starting out, someone told me, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.” I looked at Effie a lot.

It’s pretty good life and ministry advice too, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.”

 

4. Eye contact matters.
I’ve seen worship leaders who never look at a single person in the audience. That M.O. can look super-spiritual, and maybe it is. Maybe they’re lost in total adoration, caught up in the moment. Or maybe they’re just super disconnected from the people their leading.

In life abroad too, I’ve seen people who never notice the people in front of them. So look at people, look at their eyes, wonder about their stories, ask about their stories. If you do, you will impact people very deeply; for when it comes down to it, we are all longing to be seen, even if we’re desperately afraid of it.

 

5. Church people are the worst.
Some people at some churches hated me. They disliked my style, my music, and maybe even my face. It’s just the way it is. Some people will not like you no matter what you do. That does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong or bad, but it does mean that you (and they) are humans.

 

6. Church people are the best.
It was church guys who painted our house when my mom was sick with terminal cancer.

It was the “casserole ladies” who fed us.

It was inter-generational trips and Bible studies that showed me how to be a Christian adult, not just a Christian teen.

It was a man, a leader in the church, who came to my side when I couldn’t finish leading God Moves In a Mysterious Way. The cancer-induced tears were drowning me. He stood with me, shoulder to shoulder. We were two men at the front of a church, one young and crying, unable to voice anything. The other, older, an elder, choking tears and singing through empathy.

I will never forget that moment, because in that moment, standing vulnerable before God and his people, I was not alone. I was joined by a man thirty years my senior, and I was saved.

 

7. Complainers complain.
It’s what they do. But it is possible, sometimes, to maintain a positive relationship with complainers. And when it’s possible, it’s also extremely valuable.

But sometimes complainers are just toxic and keeping relationship with them is inadvisable. One key difference? If the complainers really want what’s best for you and for the church, they just really disagree with you, it’s probably best to try to maintain a friendship. If they’re out to control and dominate, manipulating through pressure and threats, to meet their own twisted needs, yeah, run away.

 

8. Every minute leading people requires two minutes NOT leading people.
At least.

The times that you’re NOT leading are more important than the times when you are leading. It may not look related, but sabbath has a direct impact on Sunday. Hong Kong news directory

 

9. Displaying authentic emotions, even tears, in front of people, may be the most “leaderish” thing you ever do.
We live in hard times, and my current job as a pastoral counselor has convinced me (again) that most people do not feel free to really feel their feelings. They feel societal, religious, familial pressure to “keep it all together,” whatever that means. By showing emotions, leaders can help change this. We must change this.

 

10. If at the end of the day, people only remember your skills (or skinny jeans), you’ve failed.
When it really matters, people won’t care about your vocal ability. People won’t care about your flashy .pptx or Prezi or Keynote. People won’t care about your hair style or flannel shirt or your perfect DMM strategy. At the end of the day, people will ask, “Did he care about us? Did he care about the Church?”

Basically, what matters when the sun sets are these three things:

  • Was I a person of faith, even in my doubts?
  • Did I demonstrate hope, even through my despair?
  • And in a world gone mad, did I love like Christ?

May God help us all to live towards that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As I drafted this article, I wept. I remembered my church, the Red Bridge church of Christ, and my breath caught.

You see, as I pondered, I realized something: I needed them way more than they needed me. That’s just the truth. I was in front of them, but they were leading me. I taught them new songs, but they taught me what Jesus looked like with skin on. I cried in front of them, and they joined their hearts with mine and embodied those beautiful people who mourn with. I got frustrated with them and I’m sure they got frustrated with me, and yet, we stayed friends. I’m so very glad we did, for those dear saints showed me what a “long obedience” could look like.

I’ll forever be grateful for the group of God’s people who invited a scrawny teenager with a pitch pipe to stand, to cry, to lead. They taught me so much, and I will never forget them.

 

Go Ahead and Criticize Missions (Constructively)

When raising children, we know that it’s only God who can draw their hearts to himself. But that doesn’t stop us from reading the best books and looking for the best advice. We search for the church with the best youth group and spend way too much money on the best camps.

When we’re sick, we know that ultimately it’s God who heals. But that doesn’t stop us from buying insurance, looking for the best hospital, and researching the best methods.

When we travel, we know that God is the one who protects us. But that doesn’t stop us from finding the safest car seats, getting our brakes serviced, and using only reputable airlines.

When we do evangelism and missions, we know that God is ultimately the one who saves souls. But why then are we supposed to check our brains at the door?

I am a firm believer in the Sovereignty of God–that God is in control of all situations and all hearts. I also have no doubt that God can take our worst failures, our biggest sins, or even downright evil, and use it for his will and his glory.

Of course, God can take the most abusive parent and bring forth the most kind-hearted child. God can take the most run-down hospital or ill-equipped doctor and bring healing. He can preserve and protect us despite a rickety vehicle or failing brakes.

But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking. We don’t go recklessly running after failure if a better option is right in front of us. So why then, when it comes to evangelism and missions, are discussions about best practices considered taboo?

I keep hearing things like this:

If God called her, then who are we to judge if she is qualified or equipped?

If God led them to do that, then what right do we have to criticize?

If just one person is reached with the gospel, then it’s worth any expense of time, energy, and money. It doesn’t matter if there could be a better way to steward those resources.

Whether or not his evangelism method was effective, that’s between him and God. We should just keep our mouths shut.

If she says God called her, then she must be doing the right thing. Whether she was a success or not is between her and God.

If their intentions were good, then that’s all that really matters. God only cares about the heart, not the end result.

We wouldn’t say that about anything else. If 90% of the people who entered a hospital ended up dead, we wouldn’t say, “Well, as long as one life is saved, why try to improve it?” If a car seat got terrible safety reviews, we wouldn’t buy it anyway and say, “Well, ultimately it’s God who will protect my child.”

Of course, there is a balance to keep here. For example, as missionaries, sometimes we do choose to live in places where medical care or road conditions aren’t exactly stellar. And in those times, it absolutely is our comfort and confidence to rest in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, when we’ve laboured hard on the mission field and seen very little (if any) fruit, we can lean heavily on the promise that ultimately it is God who saves souls.

But that shouldn’t shut down conversation on how we could do it better next time!

Remember, saying “God called me” can be dangerous. So yeah, you do have a right to ask the hard questions of the under-equipped young person who wants to go out and change the world. We do have the responsibility of evaluating the fruit of evangelism methods of the past. It’s okay to delve into the potentially harmful impact of the short-term team. It’s important to question the methods of a ministry strategy that may actually be hindering the gospel. Robust discussion, constructive criticism, and listening with humility are all ways God uses to provide checks and balances for what could be sinful inclinations or just plain foolishness.

So for all of us involved in local evangelism or overseas missions–whether that be as a short or long-term missionary, financial supporter, trainer, recruiter, or partner–we must ask ourselves:  Are we willing to humbly listen to our biblically-based critics? In light of that criticism, are we willing to honestly evaluate our motives and methods? As iron sharpens iron, let us make each other better.