Let’s review being incarnational

Last weekend I taught a two hour seminar to writers on “Becoming an Incarnational Writer.” The point of the workshop is to help writers think about their readers and not just the words they wrote. In my pre-field training we looked at the incarnation as a model for how we could enter into our new host cultures.

It was good stuff! But I thought I knew far more than I actually did. How hard can this incarnational stuff be when you go in the name of Christ and carry good news? Right? (Ha, oh sweet ignorant Amy.)

Incarnation means “was made flesh.” In particular, that God was made flesh and entered humanity as Jesus. Whether you are preparing to go to the field, in your first term, or been on the field for a lifetime, what do you notice about the incarnation from these key phrases from scriptures:

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

“In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Galatians 4:4-5

“Christ came into the world that he might save sinners . . . Christ might display his immense patience as an example.” 1 Timothy 1:15-17

He comes “lowly and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah 9;9

“He humbled himself by becoming obedient, even to the point of death.” Phillpians 2:8




What stood out to you? I was struck again by how integral dwelling and humility are to an incarnational approach . . . and how long they take!

Humility means to “have or show a modest or low estimate of your own importance.” Because this is read in so many locations and by such a wide range of experiences, no one way to be humble exists that is the same for each of us. But the work of having a low estimate of our own importance starts internally and is manifested externally.

It also works not only in your host country, but in your passport country too. Many A Life Overseas readers may not actually be living overseas as you read this. Perhaps COVID or family needs or visa policies have brought you to a land that you do not feel deserves the humble touch. You may be right, I don’t know. But I do know that incarnational living isn’t just for when we go to the field.

Which brings me to the second core concept that stood out to me: dwell. Being incarnational involves dwelling. I found three definitions that helped unpack what true dwelling involves:

—to live in or at a specified place

—to linger on

—to think, speak, or write at length about

What convicted me was not that concept of dwelling, but the focus of my dwelling. Maybe it’s the same for you. What do you linger on in your thoughts? What do you chew on in your conversations like a cow with her cud? Venting is fine! Having real emotions and reactions to hard situations is healthy and good. But choosing to dwell instead of process and move on is perhaps not the patience or obedience of incarnation.

Here are five principles or nuggets I noticed about the incarnation that I hope encourage you:

1. Jesus was a helpless baby. He started out as a baby! We do not have to know everything. Whew :)!

2. Jesus grew at the same rate as everyone. It’s true that he was teaching others at the ripe old age of twelve. You too will have some areas you excel in. But overall being incarnational means that you too will have to “work the program.” You’ll have to grow and achieve step-by-step.

3. Jesus built community. He had family, friends, and co-workers.

4. Jesus communed with God. We know that Jesus pulled away and spent time with God. Building community and spending time with God need to both exist in an incarnational life.

5. Finally, Jesus stayed focused on his “assignment.” Just like us, Jesus had many opportunities vying for his time such as healing the sick, addressing political messes, instructing the masses, building furniture, and on and on. While he did all of those things when the intersected with his God given assignment, they were never out of proportion in his life.

As you’ve read this post and thought about your own incarnational experience, and in particular wherever you happen to be right now, what stood out to you?

Photo by Olivier Chatel on Unsplash

Why Do We Assume Western Theology is Superior?

by Tamie Davis

When asked about the value of African theology for Western Christians, the late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako said, “Well, Christianity is thriving where we are, and it’s waning where you are, so maybe there is something that could be helpful to you all.”1 It’s a gracious invitation with a little sting in the tail, reminding us that for all the seminaries and books and libraries in the West, Western churches are still heavily in decline. Bediako’s point was not that book learning or academic rigor are not valuable – on the contrary, he was a significant contributor to both, teaching at universities for a good part of his career. But the perceived theological riches of the West are not mirrored by growth in the church, which might get one asking how shiny they really are.

Theology fuels the church, and it fuels mission. In 1792 when William Carey wrote his famous essay about the use of means, he was responding to a theology in which God’s sovereignty was so great, a Christian’s obligation to share the gospel was effectively removed. Carey deconstructed this theology, arguing that evangelism has always been part of the church’s witness and that using means – like ships to sail to India and money to fund missionaries – was not at odds with God’s sovereignty but rather an outworking of the Great Commission. He was part of the modern Protestant missionary movement, a tradition in which many of us find ourselves today. Theology matters, and it can contribute either to the decline of the church or to its growth.

My aim here is not to critique Western theology or to start laying blame for the decline of the Western church; it’s to ask if we have the humility to listen to theology from the Global South. After all, as we note the growth of the church in Africa, it would make sense to suppose that theology has played a role in it.

I often hear concern from my fellow missionaries about the kind of theology which has fueled this growth. They say things like, “The church in Africa is a mile-wide and an inch-deep.” The assumption is that the kind of growth we are seeing in Africa is like the seeds sown on the rocky soil without strong roots, or the ones that look good to start with but then get choked by the weeds of the world. I hear that Africans, with all their talk of prosperity, do not have a well-developed theology of suffering or perseverance.

And yet, as Marilyn Gardner reminded us recently, the church in the Global South is well-practiced at suffering, whether it be a result of religious persecution or socio-economic circumstance. Knowing what it is to live without safety and security, Africans may have fewer faulty theological assumptions that need to be unpacked than those of us whose lives are more comfortable and less precarious. As my Tanzanian friends assure me that ‘God is able, just pray and have faith,’ I ask them, ‘But what if it doesn’t work out? Is that a sign that my faith is poor or that God is not able?’ And they laugh. They laugh! Because my question seems ludicrous. They say to me, “Tamie, you know God is still God, right?” How’s that for a theological statement!

And theology is carried out in bodies and practice as well. When someone dies in Tanzania, very little attention is given to blame, but for three days or more everyone gathers and just sits together out of sympathy. And these sympathy visits continue well after that period. I was once visiting an older mentor whose husband had just died, when someone else turned up. Her husband had been a church leader, and the visitor was a pastor who had worked under him. This pastor had driven for two days to sit with her in her grief. He listened, and they cried and prayed. It was a couple of hours. Then he ate a meal and drove the two days back the other way. I can only imagine his weariness, but Sunday was coming and he needed to be back with his congregation. Tanzanians may not have a theological answer to ‘why God?’ – it may not be the question they’re asking – but I think they’ve understood a great deal of the compassion and self-giving of God. We must grapple with the fact that these practices are profoundly theological.

The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in Africa, growing Jesus’ church. Why would we think that as he was doing that, he was focused only on numbers or only on endurance? We can recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in growing his church numerically in Africa; why are we so reluctant to think he might be doing it theologically as well? It doesn’t have to look the same as ours to be true, because it’s responding to a different context.

In championing African theology, Bediako did not think that African theology ought to be transplanted into the West. He spoke of African theology and Western theology as “overlapping circles, sharing in their overlaps certain common elements and features, which . . . give them a ‘family’ air.”2 That makes sense: Western and African Christians share a brother and a Father yet contend for their faith and are grown in very different places. Like a family, there are times when we need each other. The song ‘Waymaker’ became a bit of an anthem for 2020, bringing hope in a global pandemic and becoming a prayer for breakthrough as the US grappled with racial violence. It’s an African song, penned and sung by Nigerian worship superstar Sinach. In 2020, it was African theology that people found they needed.

To come back to the digging analogy—for all our depth, it’s possible those of us who’ve dug a mile deep have somehow found water rising around us. If our African sisters and brothers are standing at the top, offering to hoist us out to see the progress they’ve made on their hole and learn from that, wouldn’t that seem like a good idea?

I am not advocating for an uncritical acceptance of African theologies, or any other theology from the Global South. To be sure, some are faulty, just as there are many false teachers in the West. But those of us who ‘live overseas’ are rarely in danger of uncritical acceptance; many of us are here to give, contribute, teach and train. Indeed, we are used to hearing about poverty and famine in Africa, and it’s easy to assume that this is true theologically as well, that somehow all the ‘good theology’ got concentrated in the West like the world’s capital. We may even be told this by local people who are beholden to our greater monetary wealth or who are used to thinking of that which comes from the West as better. But Jesus spoke time and again of how wealth warps theology, and that ought to give those of us from wealthy countries pause about the quality of our own theology.

The kingdom of God is growing in Africa; are we sufficiently poor in spirit to be inheritors of it, together with our African sisters and brothers?

 

References

  1. Quote appears in various places attributed to Kwame Bediako, though the original source is unclear. It can be accessed here.

  2. Bediako, Kwame, “African Theology as a Challenge for Western Theology.” In Christian Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Martin E. Brinkman and Dirk van Keulen, 8:52–67. Studies in Reformed Theology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

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

Tamie Davis lives in Tanzania with her family and is doing a PhD looking at the theology of prosperity of a group of Tanzanian women.

I Used to Laugh at Ghosts

by Katherine Seat

“Aren’t you scared while your husband is away?”

“I’ll lock the door at night, and the windows have bars on them.”

“Locked doors can’t keep out ghosts.”

I don’t think I actually rolled my eyes or laughed out loud, but that was my attitude. In my early years in Cambodia, we lived next to a house full of Christian women training for ministry. When my husband was away, they worried about me. They didn’t seem to believe that I was genuinely unafraid, and I could not understand why they were afraid.

I didn’t know if I believed in ghosts or not. But what I did know was that because of Jesus, I had nothing to fear. I told them that the God of the Bible is stronger than any possible evil spirits, ghosts, or demons. He is the creator of all things, and Jesus has already conquered death. I felt satisfied that I’d given them the right reasons for why they didn’t need to fear.

I’m not the only Australian who gives off vibes of disbelief when Cambodians talk about the spirit world. My Cambodian husband Soeun also faced this attitude. When he was in Australia, he tried to explain some of his childhood to an Australian seminary student. Soeun’s friend was asking him about life in Cambodia. They were talking about all sorts of everyday things like rice, fish, and evil spirits. The conversation was progressing normally until he got to the evil spirits. It was surprising for Soeun when his friend’s tone of voice became incredulous.

“So people see a head floating around?”

His friend thought seeing spirits sounded like a crazy idea.

 

The Chasm
A huge chasm lies between Cambodian and Australian culture. The unseen world is part of life for Cambodians. In Australia, ghosts are more at home in a movie or book. As an Aussie married to a Cambodian, I find myself staring across this huge chasm. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years, I’m realising I haven’t been taking enough notice of this difference.

It’s unbelievable that people actually believe in evil spirits—that was Soeun’s friend’s response. This view might be typical of Westerners. But zooming out, we see that Westerners are actually the odd ones. Many, maybe most, cultures around the globe have an awareness of the spirit world. And if I understand correctly, throughout history most people also considered the unseen as a regular part of their life, including in Biblical times.

Our Western culture only stopped doing so recently, around 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Since then we have used science to explain everything. Using science is all I’ve ever known, so I felt surprised to realise I’m in the minority from a worldwide and historical point of view.

 

My Current Life in the Chasm
My family and I only moved to a village a few years ago. We are near an area of historical and spiritual significance, and visible reminders of history are everywhere. We are daily surrounded by the local animism that’s mixed with Hinduism and Buddhism.

My husband keeps noticing that people here live under fear more than anywhere else he has lived in Cambodia. For example, they might not go to a peer’s funeral. Some avoid using their own name in phone calls near temples at night, and we know of one family who moved house within 24 hours in response to a dream.

One day two pythons slithered into our yard. I was surprised that the neighbours didn’t want to kill and eat them. Instead they advised us against capturing the snakes as it would anger the Neak Da (territorial spirits). Pythons are believed to be Neak Da’s pets. To keep ourselves safe, we should have honoured the snakes by spraying perfume on them and letting them go free.

Our neighbours were surprised to see that Soeun isn’t afraid of Neak Da. They know we are Christians, but they did not know that would have any bearing on how we interact with the unseen world. Perhaps their knowledge of Christianity came from foreigners who wouldn’t appear to believe in Neak Da anyway.

As far as we know, there were no other Christians in our immediate area before we moved here. So we were very excited when a few neighbours decided to believe in Jesus. In the days and weeks that followed, some strange things happened. People had dreams. Evil spirits were seen flying around our house. People heard strange noises at night. It looked like the new believers had disturbed the spirit world. It was as though the spirits weren’t happy. They had had the place to themselves, and now some people had ruined it by following Jesus.

We, along with our prayer supporters in Australia, had been praying for our neighbours. I couldn’t wait to write a newsletter and tell them the good news! But when I went to write the newsletter, another strange thing happened. I found myself staring across that chasm again. Talking about flying heads had seemed so matter-of-fact when I was talking to my husband. But when I imagined Australians reading about it, it seemed crazy. I toned the news right down so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable seeing the chasm.

 

Living Under Fear
Something else has happened since we moved to the village: my mental health has become worse. Not only do the locals here live under more fear than in other places, I do too. It could be a coincidence, of course, and some might say it’s related to the spirit world. I do know that from a scientific understanding, my brain is tricking me into feeling fear when the rational part of my brain knows there is nothing to fear.

A counsellor explained to me that those fears are actually my brain reliving feelings that I’ve had in the past. The “smoke detector” part of my brain is supposed to alert me when there is danger. But mine is sending danger signals even when I am safe. It’s a post-trauma response from events that transpired a decade ago. Somehow it has come to the forefront of our lives since we moved here four years ago.

Psychology has helped me learn about how my brain works, and this awareness has been so helpful. And hearing and reading God’s word is a constant part of my life. But for me in this season, those things have only reached the rational part of my brain. I know the correct answers, but I still feel stranded in yesterday, always in danger.

The right answers haven’t brought me relief from the recurring dread. The only thing that makes me feel safe is God’s people —praying friends and pastors who seem to represent the presence of God.

It makes me think back to the right reasons I gave my concerned neighbours. Did it really help them as I had thought it would?

 

Learning to Listen to the People We Serve
When my family moved into a fearful neighbourhood, I began to experience my own fear. It has debilitated me in some ways, and it definitely makes life harder. But it also helps me to understand the people around me.

I now have some experience of what it is like to live with fear. When I see the people around me changing their behaviour according to the unseen, my thoughts and feelings are totally different from when I saw it in my earlier years. The intensity of their emotions can’t simply be dismissed or argued away.

Locals live with the fear of the spirit world. If I want to have deep connections with them, I need to be aware of what it is like for them to live with evils spirits as a real part of their everyday life. When we minister to people in situations like these, we must have an awareness of their needs and worldview.

For many of us from the West, our church traditions are heavy on studying the Bible with a focus on rational thinking. Sometimes a truth might be applied to correct our thinking, when in fact it’s not a “thinking” issue. While correct thinking is vital, we sometimes miss the role that emotions play in our life with God.

All of this makes me wonder if an emphasis on cognition hinders our ministry to those from the Global South? My husband’s Australian friend just totally dismissed the whole idea as being crazy. If he had wanted to show respect and build rapport with Soeun, he would have needed to take the ideas seriously.

I made the same mistake. I thought I was taking it seriously. I didn’t completely dismiss my neighbours’ fear of ghosts; I explained why we don’t need to fear them. But just because I know different worldviews exist doesn’t mean my “right” answer will fix people’s problems. Curiosity and compassion are a better first response. We should listen before we speak. This is easier said than done, of course. Dismissing an idea because it sounds crazy, or thinking that you have the answer to something you barely understand will be counterproductive to sharing God’s good news.

My own struggle with fear has led me to re-evaluate my response to the neighbour women who were so concerned about my safety. I now regret that I gave them the right answer of why they shouldn’t fear, without stopping to realise that they were afraid. Now I know that even if I have the right answer to counter my own fear, it’s possible to still feel afraid. I know what it’s like to have people try to help me without acknowledging my fear. When that happens, their help feels more like harm.

My prayer is that the next time I’m faced with concerned neighbours, I will seek to connect with them emotionally rather than thinking I can quickly correct their thinking with an out of context Bible verse.

I pray I will stop to listen and seek to understand the other person’s perspective first.

I pray I remember that God was here long before me.

I will pause and ask, “What is God already doing in this person’s life, and can I join in?” rather than “How can I fix this?”

I pray these things for the sake of his Holy Name. Amen.

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Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t

My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.

As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.

The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.

God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.

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God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.

Deep in unfathomable mines

 Of never-failing skill,

 He treasures up his bright designs

 And works his sovereign will.

I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall, and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.

Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less checkbox-like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).

What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.

Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.

And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.

His purposes will ripen fast,

 Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

 But sweet will be the flower.

Who’s Flying This Plane?
David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.

For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.

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Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, they added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”

I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”

God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that — get this — require faith.

If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?

There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?

 

Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)
The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:

“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”

In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.

How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.

And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.

 


photo credits: flightaware and unsplash
Originally published at A Life Overseas on January 1, 2015

When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

It starts off innocently enough. In your months or years leading up to your move overseas, you pick up a few books at the library and start reading to learn a little bit more about the place you are going to live. You watch videos on YouTube about the culture and food and the language you are about to enter in to.

You attend cross-cultural missionary trainings where you learn how important it is to seek to understand the culture in which you are about to go live. They teach you practical things like how to dress and what to cook, how to shake hands and how to drive, but they also help you to better think about the perspective of others and how they might view the world and the gospel.

You move abroad and at first, these adjustments are “easy” to make. Easy in the sense that you’ve been expecting them, so they don’t feel like a huge shock or burden. You gladly pull on the baggy skirt and head out the door and you stop and say hello to each person that you pass no matter how long it takes. It doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, because this is what you’ve been waiting for, preparing for…a chance to move here and demonstrate the love of God.

Soon though, the honeymoon phase with this new culture wears off a little bit. No matter how much you study, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, you will make mistakes. You’ll offend someone by reaching out to greet them with the wrong hand, you’ll use a seemingly harmless phrase that’s common in your passport country only to watch in bewilderment as your colleague explodes in rage at your insensitivity. You’ll be criticized for the way you planned an event out of order, or you’ll be shamed for accidentally letting your knee show as you knelt down to help a small child. Often times, it’s in these moments of “failure,” pain, or confusion where our hearts start looking elsewhere for solutions that seem, on the surface, more attainable, more logical.

For many of us, the answer our flesh immediately offers to us is to just “work harder.” For some, they’ll dive deeper into trying to understand every single intricacy of the culture, believing that that’s a feat they can actually achieve in one lifetime. They’ll pride themselves on what they are learning, and they might even start to shame other foreigners for their ignorance. Somewhere deep within them is a fear of messing up and a desire to be seen as the expert, the one who “gets it.” At times, though, they may be tempted to elevate the role that culture plays in evangelism, so much so that it keeps them paralyzed from sharing the good news because they aren’t quite sure how to present it perfectly yet. They see understanding culture wholly as the magical key to unlocking the heart of man, as if the Holy Spirit himself no longer has any role to play.

What started out as genuine desire to learn or to be “all things for all men for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22), has perhaps started to become idolatry.

Martin Lloyd-Jones describes an idol as “anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that is central in my life, anything that seems to me essential. An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves, rouses and attracts too much of my time, attention, energy and money.”

How exactly does one person’s culture become another person’s idol?

It happens just the same way anything else becomes an idol in our hearts–by weaseling its way in, often masquerading itself as something good and harmless, meanwhile taking our attention away from our one true love, master, and purpose.

Understanding and adapting to culture in and of itself is not wrong– it is a good thing. It is something we are called to do, a tool for showing the love, kindness, and compassion of our Savior in deep and unique ways to those who need it most. But sometimes it’s not an issue of what you are doing, but why you are doing it. What are your motivations? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Is it a _________________:

  • Desire to be liked by everyone that you meet and interact with?
  • Desire to have it (or force it to) be reciprocated to the same level?
  • Desire to accomplish or “win” the expat integration game with your outward appearances?
  • Desire to learn/understand, to solve the cultural puzzle or web, so to speak, and to have all the answers?
  • Desire to avoid messing up (cultural taboos) and having to live in that shame temporarily?
  • Desire to protect oneself from being called out or surprised with a new rule?
  • Desire to meet obligations that others have put on you, whether that’s supporters back home or people in your host community?

It’s a delicate line to walk: being in this world and yet not of it, honoring and respecting culture, whether theirs or your own, while not allowing it to consume you or control you.

Culture — either theirs or mine — was never meant to be an idol, and yet we idolize it when we give it such control in our lives and space in our hearts.

What started out harmlessly enough became an all-encompassing obsession. Whether it’s the hollow pride of proving that I’ve mastered this and am better than everyone else, or whether it’s the internal battle that is raging within me and shackling me down with chains of bitterness and resentment, their culture has taken a hold of me, and the next thing I know I’m bowing down before it. Bowing down and asking for approval, acceptance, protection, praise, acknowledgement, security–you name it. All those things that God has already given me through adoption into his royal family, I’m seeking after elsewhere.

When we worship anything or anyone over the living God, we will be disappointed…over and over and over again. When we attach our self-worth to other people’s acceptance of us, we become controlled by people-pleasing behavior, and our peace, joy, and contentment are dependent on the ever-changing waves and nuances of culture and human whim rather than the solid rock of Christ himself.

What happens, then, when even after all your strivings, they still don’t accept you, or you still fail? If your self-worth and ability to share the good news of salvation is tied up in their culture’s approval of you, how then will you respond when those efforts go unnoticed, unappreciated, criticized, or unreciprocated? Maybe you will just dig in and try harder, mustering up more of your own strength as you strive to please a false god with impossible expectations. Or perhaps you will start to resent every little thing about that other culture, elevating your own passport country’s culture as The Way, The Truth, The Light? When this is our relationship with culture and the people of that culture, how then will we be the salt and light of the earth? How can we love like Jesus did when our very purpose and identity is washed away and extinguished by even the subtlest breezes of opposition?

It may not be as obvious as the golden calf, but it sure does have the same effect. So how then are we to interact with our host culture? What then is the Christian’s relationship with culture? How do we balance becoming all things for all men and being in the world but not of it? Where exactly do we draw the line?

Again, in the end, it’s not so much about what we do…whether we eat or drink or wear long baggy skirts or don’t…it’s more about why we do it. What is the heart behind it? Are we doing it to earn love from man? Are we doing it out of fear of man or his obligations? Are we doing it to prove we are right and they are wrong? Or are we doing it for the sake of the gospel, out of freedom, for love of lost souls so that they might truly know salvation to its fullest extent and experience the same grace that we ourselves have received?

Paul was not compelled to adapt to the culture and give up his rights by a desire for the approval of man, pride, or perishable rewards (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 9:15-16, 25-26) nor by the obligation of any law (1 Cor 9:19). Rather, he was compelled by the unbreakable, unconditional, never-ending, overflowing, powerful love the Father had given him for the lost “so that I may by every possible means save some…. because of the gospel, so that I might share in the blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If I speak human or angelic tongues, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I might add this twist: “Even if I speak the language perfectly, carry out all the cultural customs according to what’s expected of me, have cultural and/or biblical wisdom greater than all the other expats here, and outwardly play by all the rules, but don’t have love…I am nothing, I gain nothing.”

 

Was Afghanistan Worth It?

 

In the frigid winter of 2008, my husband and I touched down in snow-covered Kabul, Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what to expect in our first year of life on the field, but we knew that it was where God had asked us to go. Young, eager, and probably quite naïve, we and many other Christians went to Afghanistan with our wills written and signed. For some of our dear friends, their time in Afghanistan ended in their untimely deaths.

As we grieved the loss of both Afghan and foreign believers, many of us did not realize that Afghanistan would become our new family, the siblings who would grieve with us when heavy losses hit close to home. We did not realize that Jesus would show up in the form of Afghans comforting us in our loss and grief with their own understanding of the same searing trauma. And perhaps none of us realized that, from the day we first stepped foot in the Kabul airport, Afghanistan would forever be a home to us, a place that would prove to be a far better teacher of the lessons of Jesus’ sacrificial love than any seminary or Sunday school class could ever be. 

Afghanistan was our home for nearly seven years. Our two children began their lives among Afghans who trained them in the art of generous gift-giving. But in 2014 as the country grew increasingly unstable and our oldest approached school-age, we knew the time had come to say goodbye. Leaving the rugged beauty that is Afghanistan was perhaps the most difficult parting we have ever experienced. Afghanistan was rarely in the news those days. But today, bloody images, heart-wrenching reports of abuse, and Afghans’ desperate attempts to flee their country are in the headlines almost daily. News and heartbreak have caused people around the world to ask the question: “Was all of this mess worth it?” Our friends and family have been asking this question as they consider the many soldiers who died or sustained life-altering injuries in Afghanistan. 

Like all things, the answer is nuanced. But Christians should be willing to consider more than just the governmental expense and military loss of life. Prior to the Taliban’s fall in 2001, there were several Christian organizations working in Afghanistan to care for the poor and needy. God’s people had been working in the harsh land of Afghanistan for many decades prior to military intervention. Organizations like IAM, SERVE, and Shelter Now International had been bringing hope and help within the borders of Afghanistan and also to her refugees in Pakistan. They served Afghans with health programs and educational projects. They dug wells, set up hospitals, educated children, and helped rebuild a country ravaged by decades of war. They worked under Taliban rule and sought their permission to implement aid projects.

These Christian men and women came from all over the globe to learn a new language, culture, and way of life very different from the ones they had left behind in their home countries. They came armed only with sincere faith in the God who called them and with the hope that their lives and work would bring some sliver of light to a troubled land. Before the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, God was at work. And when the country fades from headlines and the world moves on, our Father will continue in the work He started there.   

When the Taliban fell and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan, it brought a new sense of stability to the country. Very quickly, women were given new freedoms and children gained educational opportunities that had not been available during the Taliban regime. International aid started pouring in, and with it came a new wave of Christian workers who would implement new projects and programs and help to start businesses. It was not only Christians, of course. Professionals from many backgrounds, countries, and walks of life came flooding into Afghanistan; some because it paid well, others because they felt compelled to do something to help this struggling country. 

As Christians, we must not fail to miss that the past twenty years of relative stability allowed for a massive number of Afghans to encounter Jesus for the very first time. This happened because of Bible translation projects, media production and broadcasting, and the simple fact that Christians were present and able to communicate the gospel in the heart language of Afghans. This is not to say that stability is a necessary precursor to making Christ known (history proves the opposite is true), but the amount of media coverage Afghanistan received during the past two decades placed it on the world’s collective conscience and in the hearts of Christians around the globe. It’s hard to know just how many Afghans are following Jesus today, but Afghanistan’s long-persecuted Hazara minority has reportedly been the most responsive to the gospel.[1]

While the church is right to grieve the many losses of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, we must also lament the fact that so many innocent Afghan lives were lost as well. Men, women, and children were slain for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were simply people on their way to a wedding or at home sleeping in their beds.[2]  This loss of life should grieve us just as much.

Perhaps what the church in the west has failed to recognize is how much there is to learn from Afghanistan.Afghan Christians who remain in their country are now living out true humility, sacrifice, and obedience. They are enduring daily harassment, threats, and persecution from the Taliban. Many young Christians depended on the guidance of older believers, but the older believers had to flee the country. These young Christians are weak by the world’s standards, but they are growing strong because of their complete dependence on the help and sustenance that comes from Spirit of the Living God. While we Christians in the west are prone to following the strongest and trendiest in our orbit, Afghan believers are displaying the power of God in their fledgling faith as they follow Jesus with joy, boldness, and trembling hands. 

A military invasion that led to senseless carnage and corruption also gave way to more opportunities and human rights than Afghanistan has seen in my lifetime. The presence of both foreign interference and foreign aid paved the way for thousands of Afghans to meet Christ-followers and to hear the truth about Jesus. Could this have happened without military intervention? Of course. Our God is not confined by the will of the rulers and authorities of the kingdoms of this earth. But we cannot deny that God builds his kingdom in ways that confound us. He can use any circumstance for his glory. The eye of the Father has never looked away from Afghanistan, and I believe that one day the world will marvel at the vibrant church that takes root and thrives in a place that was long notorious for its bloodshed and violence. Perhaps on that day, we will dance around the throne of God and know without a doubt that our God and His kingdom are indeed worth it. 

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/august/afghanistan-christians-taliban-sat-7-farsi-dari.html

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17334643

 

 

Led by the Global South

“A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European.”

(from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity)

This was the quote that jumped out at me recently when I saw a graphic called “The World as 100 Christians.” The graphic was created by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity , a research center located at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  

Like most infographics, the graphic is a way to help people grasp an idea and give them the desire to learn more. In my case it worked, and I began to look at something that I have known has been happening in Christianity and missions for a long time.

I’m asking you to track with me as I go back to 1982, when Oxford University Press published a landmark reference book called the World Christian Encyclopedia. Written with scrupulous detail, it was 1000 pages of detailed surveys and statistics on Christianity throughout the globe. At the time, Time magazine praised it as “a benchmark for our understanding of the true religious state of the planet.” This publication became the first of what are now three major publications released in 1982, 2001, and 2019. The 2019 edition was published after extensive updates of statistics and narratives by research staff from Gordon Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Their website says this about the volume:

“From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the World Christian Encyclopedia includes quantitative information on every world religion and Christianity down to the denominational level.”

Significant to this discussion is the change of Christianity from being dominated by North America and Western Europe to the rise of Christianity in the Global South. As someone who grew up in a part of the world where the struggles that Christians faced were monumental, where to be a Christian meant that you faced discrimination, inequities, and potential persecution, this change is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold.

The important thing to recognize is that white, affluent Americans and Europeans are not the main voices that should speak – or be listened to – for Christianity or for Missions today. Instead, we must recognize, listen to, and open our hearts to be led by the Global South. If we do not already realize this, it is time that we pay attention.

What does it mean to be led by the Global South? We have been given the mic for a long time. What does it look like to pass it and to not try to grab it back? Those are big questions, and I can’t do them justice. What I can do is offer some areas where we can learn from Christians in the Global South.

The Global South knows what it is to suffer. When I talk to Christians from Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, I am always humbled by their understanding of suffering, by their grace in the midst of suffering. I know little about suffering for my faith; I know little about suffering in general. I will never forget a meeting years ago with some Egyptian Christians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When one of the students in our study abroad group asked them if they had suffered, they looked at the students in astonishment and replied with a simple, “Of course.” The simplicity and strength of the response was profound. No other words would have been as powerful. As Christians we have never been promised fame, riches, good health, healthy kids, or any of a number of things that we tend to put into our “blessed by God” buckets. What we have been promised is God’s presence no matter what happens. 

The Global South knows what it is to live without safety, security, and physical comforts. Our barely conscious quest for safety, security, and physical comforts are hallmarks of Western Christianity, and we try and build up that safety and security in every country we enter. We pack large suitcases full of things that we don’t want our kids to miss. Our chocolate chips melt as our massive shipment stands for hours in the hot sun waiting for a customs official to let them go, and our taco mix sometimes gets eaten by rats – but by God, we will fill our suitcases or die trying. And I am the first to tell you that my suitcases are full of chocolate chips and that my taco mix did indeed get eaten by rats! I love, love, love my physical comforts. There is nothing wrong with comfort per se. There is nothing wrong with loving beauty and wanting to create a home, but we must be ever conscious of our motivation behind these things. If we go overseas only to recreate the homes and lives that we left, then we’d best look in the mirror and figure out our purpose and motivation.

And then there’s the safety piece. I’m struck by how often people from the west say to me as I travel, “Be safe! Be Careful!” It’s said out of kindness and concern, but perhaps there is also a distorted sense of what safety is or should be. Rachel Pieh Jones, long a favorite writer and friend of mine, has penned the truest words I know on safety in her longform essay, “The Proper Weight of Fear.” At one point in the essay, she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course, we were safe. Of course, we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”

The Global South knows what it is to live in collective community. To live in collective community is a Biblical ideal. We are called to live not for self, but out of responsibility and love for each other. This collective community isn’t about finding who you like and deciding to form a team with them. It’s about working toward relationship with the people who are in your lives. Western Christians are great at being in community with people they like, people who agree with them politically, spiritually, and materially – but when disagreement enters, we are quick to absolve ourselves of the same community we spoke so highly of. It reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Since I was young, South Asian and Middle Eastern Christians have modeled community for me – community that doesn’t exist out of sameness, but out of love of God and neighbor.

How do we, how do I, respond to being led instead of leading? To giving up my belief in my own expertise, instead opening up to the wisdom of others?

With cultural humility – Cultural humility is a term I use all the time in my workshops. If it is true in healthcare, it is even more important and true in missions. Cultural humility gives up our right to be experts, releasing that right and being willing to be a student. In the school of suffering, safety, security, and community, I know I am not a teacher. I am a kindergartner. I know so little of any of these things. Cultural humility also emphasizes healthy self-reflection and self-critique. Not to be absorbed by self, but instead to willingly analyze and bring that analysis to God. Cultural humility also asks that we be aware of historical considerations and take them into account as we honor new leadership from the Global South. 

With a focus on partnerships – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this looks like. Partnership brings to mind a picture of relationships, service, and commitment to a long-term goal. All of those are impossible without a commitment to cultural humility. We want to walk beside, not in front of, people. Partnerships may look different depending on if the work is focused on education, medicine, business, or church.

With grateful hearts –  What an incredible encouragement to know that so many places in the world are coming to understand the love story at the heart of the Christian faith! To grow in understanding the love of God and how this love compels and leads to new mission endeavors is a gift we have been given. What a picture of a creative God whose spirit moves in ways we can scarcely fathom! There is no better response than a heart of thanksgiving, a heart that humbly acknowledges God’s ways as higher than ours. It is with a grateful and awe-filled heart that I welcome these changes.

To be participants in God’s good work in the world is a gift. To be front row observers and called onto the stage of God’s glory being made known brings wordless humility. To step back and humbly be led by a new generation of Christians around the world – this is what it’s all about. May we stand back in awe and step forward in obedience. Amen and Amen.

Moving Abroad Will Fix All Your Issues. . . . and Other Lies

Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery.  That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?

The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT.  Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”

I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.

(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)

I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:

    • Issues can fly
    • They expand when they land

The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.

Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:

If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.

If your marriage is in the toilet —  You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.

If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.

Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).

Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.

Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.

But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.

If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.

    • Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
    • Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
    • Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.

If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.

    • You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
    • Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
    • Become a master of seeking wisdom.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.

And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.

    • Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
    • Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
    • Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
    • Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.

 

(Originally published at thecultureblend.com.) 

Power Dynamics on the Mission Field

Power is a dirty word for Christians who want to follow a life of humility, right? In church, it feels like we’ve been conditioned to not talk about power unless we are talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. To talk about power and how it plays out among mere human beings feels like a risky road to start walking down…almost like the one that James and John stepped on to as soon as they asked Jesus whether they could be granted the seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 10:35).

But the reality is, we all have power, whether we admit it or not. Power is not just a position, but instead it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Power comes in many forms and many types. Power can be either visible or invisible and sometimes we are aware of it while other times we are not. Power is associated with many words such as “power over”, “power to,” “power of,” and “power with.” Power can either be used or abused. Power can lift up and power can crush.

Power itself is not inherently evil. Seeking opportunities to influence is not a bad thing. God gives us opportunities to influence and sometimes even places us in positions of influence so that we can direct or point people towards His truths and His ways. Pastors are placed in positions to influence their parishioners, parents influence children, and teachers influence their students. In their healthiest forms, power in these relationships is being used to empower others by influencing and encouraging positive behaviors, but at other times this power can be used to abuse or oppress those with less power. The study of how the use of power plays out in relationships of those with varying degrees of power is called power dynamics.

If power dynamics exist within the church, within the home, and within the workplace, it’s pretty safe to assume that power dynamics exist within our ministry field. And if they exist, then we should probably be talking about them.

When and if we talk about power dynamics and missions, our focus is usually on the relationship between the missionary and host country nationals. The importance of talking about power dynamics and the potential effects on relationships as we live out and share the gospel is generally recognized, given the economic conditions and sometimes colonial heritage of many of the countries we serve in.

How often though do we talk about power dynamics between missionaries who serve alongside each other as part of a team? Are we not also involved in relationships with one another? Even if we are coming from the same country, does that mean power dynamics are not also at play amongst us? What is the likelihood that we are all entering into these relationships with the exact same understandings about what power is, who has it, how it should be regulated, and why it’s important to talk about?

Given that one of the most common reasons cited by missionaries for leaving the field is trouble with their own team members, maybe we ought to begin a conversation about this.

WHY should we talk about power?

  • Creates a unified language about power. We may not all have the same definition or idea of power and how it relates to our relationships, our roles, and our witness so it’s important to establish some commonality in language so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt.
  • It encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. By first acknowledging and then engaging in open and honest conversations about power and it’s origins and uses, we are able to reflect on our role and our use of power to determine whether we are honoring God with it or not. Power can be an amazing asset when used in the right moment and in the right context. But if we are unaware of the power that we are yielding, we just might end up walking around like a bull in a china shop, hurting and alienating those we love.
  • Helps create efficiency and ownership. Talking about power and who has it can help us identify areas where it needs to be either consolidated or distributed further. Consolidation of power can help when perhaps we are taking too long to make a decision because too many people are involved. Further distribution of power can serve as a tool for more people to feel ownership in decision making and the mission itself.
  • It can help to clarify roles and temper expectations. In talking with many missionaries, I know that one of the big challenges that comes along with saying yes to this job is the fact that often we don’t really fully know what we’re saying yes to! Nonetheless, we each come onto the field with our own expectations of what we will be doing and how we’ll be doing it. Although we may all have a shared mission, we have different ideas about how that will play out and how our power to influence should or shouldn’t be used which can lead to a lot of unmet and unrealistic expectations and bitter or resentful feelings when things don’t necessarily play out that way.

By being afraid or ashamed to talk about power or by denying it exists at all, we may be missing out on opportunities to equip our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their purposes. Power is not just something to be wielded, nor is it something to be ignored. Christian author Andy Crouch asserts that power is a gift because “power is for flourishing.” Power, or postures of influence, is what allows us to be image bearers for Christ in a world that is looking for hope and a Savior. We can use our power as a gift from the Holy Spirit as God intended it, or we can hand it over to the devil and let ourselves become ensnared within the throngs of jealousy and pride. Because power is a gift, we are called to steward it and use it wisely.

HOW can we leverage the gift of power among our team?

  • Facilitate a conversation about power dynamics and the ministry. Talk openly together as a team about this reality and both the positive and negative implications it has on your relationships with each other, with host country nationals, with partners, with the board etc. Talk specifically about the factors that influence power dynamics such as differences in roles, age, gender, experience, race, denominational views, education levels, subcultures, personalities, and of course money. How money is spent (ie how this “power” is used to influence others for the sake of the gospel) can be a huge area for tension. Don’t allow the devil to take that and use it to create division. Instead, take hold of the narrative through open and honest communication. Talk about power dynamics if you are just now joining the team and you don’t anticipate any problems or whether you’ve been a team for years and you’re looking for ways to grow stronger. Talk about it with each other, talk about this with board, and talk about it with partners, donors, and funders.
  • Personality tests or spiritual gifting tests. Personality tests and spiritual gifting tests are tools that can better help us to understand not only teammates, but also ourselves. When an organization or a team leader knows the personalities of those on their team, they can better understand the values from which each person operates and the lenses through which they might view a situation. When we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the members of our teams alongside those personalities, we can uniquely position each member of our team into a position where their giftings can flourish and create maximum influence for the Kingdom.
  • Set up an organizational chart for your team. A chart that shows hierarchy or spheres of influence can greatly help to empower each team member in his or her area. This helps to set up clear communication lines and boundaries so that each person knows to whom to talk, defer, or delegate. When there is less confusion as to who should be doing or deciding what, you are limiting the potential for misunderstandings and negative feelings about control. It can feel “icky” to have conversations about control/power because it’s a blurry line between looking like you are in it with selfish pride verses just craving structure that might help you and others to thrive. A (flexible) organizational chart can provide a foundation for those hard conversations.
  • Develop clearly written job descriptions for each team member. This goes in line with the organizational chart as it will help to further clarify the responsibilities (or areas of influence) of each team member. I suggest having these written up before a team is brought together, but as we all know, things never seem to work out quite exactly how we planned so perhaps make a point to revisit these job descriptions together as a team as roles or projects shift.
  • Pray for each other daily. Pray that God would give your teammates opportunities to use the power that God has given them to influence people for His kingdom. When we are continually lifting each other up in prayer, this act will naturally soften our hearts towards our teammates and rather than praying about how we can deal with this other person’s perceived power complex? perhaps we are instead praying about how we can help that person and ourselves grow in self-awareness, wisdom, and love within the unique sphere of influence that God has placed us in?

Let’s start the conversation of power within our ministries and our teams. Maybe you can start by just subtly dropping this blog to their inbox as a hint, but I think it might serve you better to be a little more direct. There are tons of great resources online and books that can help us facilitate these conversations in a healthy and God-honoring way. Talking about power dynamics will not solve anything in and of itself. It can however serve useful as a tool or framework for helping us evaluate our roles on the team and ensuring that each person has opportunities to use the gifts and talents God has given them to glorify God and live out their purpose through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe I Should Stop Asking God to Use Me

by Andrea Parker

We came to Kenya in January 2015. After four months of language school, we arrived at the mission hospital where we were to live and serve, just in time for a mass exodus of families. To put this in perspective, the expatriate community went from over 40 kids to 3 within two weeks of our arrival. For some, it was leaving the field for furlough. For others, it was a permanent departure. Regardless of the reasons, we arrived when many were leaving, and they left jobs that needed to be picked up. We were new to the mission field and eager to begin serving after years of preparation.

Because of the paucity of people available, upon our arrival, my husband was asked to take over leading one of the training programs at the hospital. We were told that: (1) There was no one else available to take on this particular role that needed to be filled, (2) my husband was the obvious choice to do it (largely due to point 1), and (3) There were less than two days to turn things over to a new leader before the person currently running the program was leaving. 

My husband didn’t feel prepared, didn’t necessarily want to take on the role, and felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea of leading a training program as a brand-new missionary. Yet, he was available to fill the role.

And God brought us here to use us, right?

At the time, we didn’t think too much of the situation. After all, it was an anomaly. Surely, missions isn’t always like this?

 

Spoiler Alert
Over these past six years, we have observed that, unfortunately, our experience was not an anomaly. We’ve seen similar situations time and time again, for ourselves and others. New missionaries on the field, those returning after leave, expatriates, and Kenyans.

There is always too much to do in missions and never enough people to do it all. So, when our primary goal is to get it all done, our focus becomes how we and others can accomplish the work. This often and unfortunately means giving preference to the programs that we want to see succeed and the good things that we want to see achieved over the people with whom we serve, live, and work. This approach has increasingly grieved us as we’ve seen the damage done to those we care deeply about. It’s been one of the contributors to the burnout we’ve experienced over the past year.

 

Our Identity
In a recent time of cross-cultural worker debriefing, we learned to think about identity, or how we think about who we are as people, like a three-legged stool.

The three legs of that stool are:

  •       Value – who we are as children of God and as God’s image-bearers. This is inherent, immutable, and universal.
  •       Significance – what we do. This includes our jobs, roles, hobbies, and the positions we hold.
  •       Community – where and with whom we belong. This is our group, our tribe, those who know us, accept us, and give us our sense of inclusion.

For all of us, one or two of these tend to be stronger, but a healthy identity requires some balance of the three.

My husband and I realized through our time of debriefing and processing how much our identity is derived from our significance and what we do. Who are we? We’re surgeons, missionaries, parents, and educators. I’m a wife. He’s a husband. I’m the Assistant Program Director of the surgical residency. He is the Director of Research for the hospital. My work is important to me, and my identity is tied to doing it well. When my competency at any (or in some cases, many) of these roles is drawn into question, my sense of identity is rocked.

My idea of what it means to be a “good missionary” is often based on whether I or others perceive that I am doing enough and doing it well.

I don’t think we’re the only ones who form our identity from our significance. While I can’t say it’s uniquely American (I don’t have knowledge of enough cultures to make that claim), I do think that for many Americans, significance is the major component of identity. One only has to think about the typical questions asked in getting to know a new person. Right after the introduction comes the question, “What do you do?”

As American cross-cultural missionaries, we carry this cultural value with us. We not only derive our identity but define our success and, in some cases, justify our existence in missions based on what we do. How many patients do I treat? How many roles do I have? What am I doing? Am I busy enough? At times, we almost wear our jobs, our roles, and our busyness within those tasks like a badge of honor.

 

Our God-Image
“In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” Voltaire

I’ve heard this quote in various forms, attributed to several authors and thinkers, but this is the oldest version I can find. It strikes me as profoundly accurate. Each of us has a conception or an image of God. While we like to think that our idea of God most closely reflects the reality of who God is and what God is like, our image is shaped by our experiences. Often, this is the behavior of or messages we receive from those we trust or who are authority figures for us.

If my parents were perfectionists and had high expectations for my performance, I may see God as first and foremost holy, unyielding, and expecting my perfection. If I had a Sunday school teacher who taught me about God’s grace and forgiveness, I may come to see God as primarily loving. Sometimes, it is a cultural perspective that informs how I think about God. If my culture values a certain characteristic, I may come to see God as having that characteristic. The way we conceive of God informs how we imagine that God thinks of us. It also determines how we think about ourselves and how we relate to and lead others.

 

Godly grit versus godless grind
My American culture prioritizes significance and emphasizes an identity dependent on what I do. Because this is the case, it is easy to assume that God emphasizes the importance of significance in identity as much as I do. This has the potential to profoundly impact the way I view and treat myself. Do I reduce myself to the jobs I do, the roles I play, or my accomplishments? Or do I elevate my own identity based on those roles, jobs, and accomplishments? What happens if I apply that paradigm to others? Do I reduce others to their roles? Do I think of them more highly when they have more tasks? Or when they’re accomplishing great things?

If we reduce ourselves and one another to purpose, utility, roles, responsibilities, jobs, callings, tasks, and accomplishments, it becomes dehumanizing. The complexity of identity should encompass who we are as image-bearers of God and our belonging in community. A unidimensional idea of identity drastically diminishes the value we assign to ourselves and others. I wonder if this doesn’t augment the godless grind, the unpleasant and unholy cycle of just enduring that results in burnout, rather than promoting Godly grit, a divine perseverance and passion that allows us to thrive long-term.

 

Why would I not ask God to use me?
I’ve begun to wonder if, in asking God to use me, what I’m doing is asking God to prop up my identity by increasing my significance. Over these years of missions, I have found myself feeling guilty if I think I am not doing enough or if I think that others will think I’m not doing enough. If I see a role going unfilled, I have tended to ask the question, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

I fall into the patterns of comparison. If I’m not taking call every other day or leaving the hospital after dark when someone else is, am I really doing enough to earn my spot in missions? Unconsciously, I can turn that same attitude on others. Are my colleagues pulling their weight? If I see a role going unfilled, I may ask the question, “Why isn’t that person doing it?” At times, I conflate what I or others desire with what God desires.

Perhaps it reflects that I don’t trust God’s control if I constantly fill the gaps in my human effort, regardless of the consequences.

This has caused me to reflect. What if I stopped asking God to use me? What if, instead, I asked God to prune me or to grow others with me in community? Would that strengthen the part of my identity that comes from community? Or what if I asked God to give me a deep, transformative knowledge that I am God’s masterpiece and that those I encounter daily are God’s works of art? Would that strengthen the worth and value part of my identity? Would it help me understand God in a more holistic way?

I have a deep desire to be a part of what God is doing in this world. I want to participate in kingdom work. But my identity desperately needs more balance. I don’t want to create God in my image of hyper-valuing tasks. I don’t want to reduce myself and others to jobs, roles, and duties. I don’t want to dehumanize or devalue others. I don’t want to prioritize programs over people. I want my ministry to be holistic and life-giving.

I want Godly grit, not godless grind.

I feel like I’ve begun to have a sense of the problem, at least in my own life. But at times, fixing it seems impossible. I’m still learning how not to feel guilty about things going undone. I’m still learning how to approach my life in missions without a myopic focus on what I’m doing and how well I’m doing it. I’m still learning how not to view others through the lens of productivity and performance. But maybe part of it begins with asking God to help me know my worth and develop my community, but not to use me.

Originally published here.

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Andrea moved to Kenya with her husband and daughter in 2015 to begin serving at a mission hospital. As a general surgeon, she strives to show the love of Jesus through the provision of compassionate surgical care to those without the means to otherwise receive it. She also helps to train young Christian, African physicians to become surgeons and to disciple them in their walks with Christ. Even after writing this blog, she finds it difficult to express who she is without discussing what she does.

Finding Jesus in a Slum

by Rahma

Ten years ago, I moved to Indonesia with one suitcase and a heart full of hope. I planned to live in a slum, learn the language, and seek the Kingdom of Jesus. Of course, the first year had many challenges. There was so much to learn and adjust to: the language, washing clothes by hand, riding public transportation around the mega-city, eating rice three times a day.

The first year that I lived in a slum in Jakarta, the community received eviction letters. The news of eviction of course became the “hot topic” of conversation around the neighborhood. Conversations were not only about eviction — they were also about the danger of a fire. My neighbors knew from experience that letters of eviction were often followed by fires (because it is easier to evict people if their houses have already been burned down, right?).  As my neighbors had predicted, two weeks later there was a devastating fire. 200 homes were burnt down in half an hour.

For a week or two after the fire, those who had lost their homes slept under three large blue tents on top of the mountain of trash that bordered the community. The tents were provided by an NGO, along with some free meals and bags of donated clothing. Even though my home had been spared from the fire, I decided to spend a night under the tent with some of my best friends who had lost everything in the fire. We experienced the discomfort of mosquitoes, uneven ground, and the noises of lots of people. My heart joined in mourning with my neighbors who had lost all their earthly possessions. And more than just grief, I felt anger at the unfairness of it all.

One day not long after that, as I was reading the Bible, a passage from Hebrews struck me in a new way: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (Hebrews 13:12-13 NIV)

As I read this passage, the image in my mind was of the mountain of trash, with the cross of Jesus on it. And I knew that Jesus was confirming for me that He indeed was present there.

Slum areas are often on the outskirts of cities. Slums by definition are on undocumented land, illegal squatter settlements — or “dark land” as we call it in Indonesian. No land titles or deeds, no government address, and therefore often no access to most government services.  But Jesus suffered outside the city gate. And because of that, “let us go to Him.”

I live and serve in a slum community not just to “help people.” I live here because I want to meet Jesus here. Our lives are too short to spend them chasing wealth, “success,” or other lies this world offers. If we have repented and had our lives transformed by Jesus, Jesus is now our King. We are invited to give our lives in service of our King and His Kingdom. We are invited to share this good news of God’s great love with all we meet. Our lives are no longer our own; they belong to Him who died for us.

We must remember that our citizenship is in this New Kingdom, not in nation-states. We are only foreigners for the time we are here.

We are invited to “go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” We have to be willing to bear disgrace (NIV), to bear the abuse (NRSV), to bear the reproach (ESV). Or, as The Message says: “So let’s go outside, where Jesus is, where the action is—not trying to be privileged insiders, but taking our share in the abuse of Jesus.”

The slum area that experienced the fire nine years ago ended up being evicted. On the ruins of the homes of thousands of evicted poor families, a large shopping mall and apartment complex was built for the rich. Even though the process of eviction was extremely sad and painful, the Lord graciously led us to a new slum area — where we have gotten to observe the birth of a slum. It is now nearly nine years that we have been in this community. There have continued to be many challenges these nine years, but we are so grateful. We are grateful for each day that we are allowed to live and serve here, to be witnesses for Christ in this place that according to the world has no value.

We believe that those the world does not value are actually extremely precious in His eyes: For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight. (Psalms 72:12-14 NIV)

We long for more teammates to join us in this slum community. Not just because we want more friends to serve alongside with, but because we long to see more and more Christians experience meeting Jesus on the trash heap. Even though it is hard, even though this is a “disgraceful” place, even though there are many physical discomforts, following Jesus here is also full of joy. Full of God’s grace and mercy. Filled with amazing surprises from an amazing God.

Meeting Jesus here has changed our lives. It can change anyone’s life. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.

(Originally published at servantsasia.org.)

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Rahma and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org 

African Americans to Missions: “I Want to Join. But First, Change.” (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 3)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on the Future of Missions. Part 2 discussed deconstruction of missions’ past. Today we talk about the movement within the African American community to join missions—and call for reform.  

Less than 1 percent of American missionaries are black, by some reports, but that may be about to change. Or if you consider some little-known parts of history, it may go back to how modern missions began with African Americans playing a key part.

Young African American Christians are now more likely to decide to be missionaries than their white counterparts (61 percent versus 48 percent), according to the latest Barna research. The most recent (and first virtual) National African American Missions Conference drew almost five times the number of regular attendees, up from 500 to 2,300. And almost one-third of them were Caucasians interested in learning how to better include African Americans in their white-majority mission organizations. 

“Increased this year is a sincere cry from white congregations and predominantly white (mission organizations) wanting to understand institutional racism,” said NAAMC organizer and Pastor Adrian Reeves.

While young black Christians are interested in missions, they have reservations about its past. The Barna research shows that:

  • Fewer black young adults than whites (62 percent vs 73 percent) say they value missionaries’ work. 
  • Young adult black Christians are more likely than whites to believe that “In the past missions work has been unethical” (40 percent versus 33 percent) and that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism” (48 percent versus 39 percent).
  • 35 percent of young black Christians plan to give to missions (versus 56 percent of whites); however, more of them would support a missionary (65 percent versus 58 percent of whites). 

“A key takeaway, especially with our ethnic minority young adults, let’s not be afraid to have these hard conversations,” said Savannah Kimberlin, Barna’s director of published research.

Some majority-white mission organizations are starting to do just that. Webinars, conferences and podcasts on the topic of mobilizing African Americans have recently talked about fund-raising models, culturally appropriate ways to engage black pastors, and the opportunities African Americans have to reach the world in unique ways because of the trauma and oppression they’ve experienced as a community. 

“We can pour into others and say, we understand your trauma,” said Star Nelson, co-founder of Sowing Seeds of Joy, during a Sixteen:Fifteen Webinar. “And this is how you can be healed and only Jesus can do that.”

Majority-white organizations are also assessing their own cultures. 

“I’ve been asked….and am going through a process to join a white agency that really is trying to work through their race issues and wants to bring on board members who will challenge them in that way,” Reeves said. “I think we are open to hearing the hard truth and having those crucial conversations.”

Some things in missions culture may need to change in order to involve young black Christians, Reeves said. The definition of “unreached people group” may need to include people who don’t feel comfortable joining the established church in their town because of past church oppression of their ethnicity, for instance. Fund-raising models may need to change, as African Americans struggle to raise support in the traditional model. Reeves also sees that young black Christians are more interested in helping with shorter-term, defined projects versus longer-established programs. 

But also, African Americans can know, with confidence, that their culture has always played a part in modern missions, Reeves said. Some of the earliest modern missionaries from the States—Betsey Stockton, George Liele, William Henry Sheppard—were black. 

“We have a unique story that should be told,” Reeves said. 

With everyone reimagining so many aspects of life this year, this is a hopeful time for the church and missions, he said.

“I do see a genuine desire to come together, to work through this race thing together,” he said. “I’m very hopeful. We’re looking at how we can do missions differently.”

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.