I don’t much trust stories that end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” That’s because experience has taught me that princes often turn out to be less than charming and fairy-tale princesses turn out to be, well, only in fairy tales. Of course, we don’t hear “happily ever after” a lot any more, not because we no longer hope for happy endings, but because our vocabulary has changed. Now, we’re more apt to end our stories with something more modern, more definitive, more in your face . . . something more like a mic drop. You know, that’s where you extend your arm and let your live microphone fall to the floor. It’s an exclamation mark with attitude. It’s the walk-off home run of speech making and story telling. It’s “Game over.” It’s “‘Nuf said.” It’s . . . “Boom!”
When it comes to mission work, are you looking for a method that will produce a mic-drop moment? Are you in search of a fool-proof plan that is the perfect answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” Are you hoping for a newsletter story that emphatically tells how you’ve unlocked the secret to soul-winning?
I don’t much trust those stories either.
And that’s because when it comes to mission strategies, after the boom of the microphone hitting the floor, you can expect some kind of a bounce and a clatter and a roll. Those are simply the sounds of real life.
If you’ve been in missions for any time at all, you’ve seen an array of new models for planting churches, presenting the gospel cross culturally, meeting physical needs, engaging people groups, and the like. Some are tweaks to what’s been done before, some are overhauls, some are complete changes of priorities. Some are touted as the new way, some as the purely biblical way, some as the best way, some as the only way.
You and your group may be on the cutting edge of the next big thing, or you may feel as if you’re playing catch up, always late to the party (or conference workshop, as it were). And what about you individually? Did you welcome the last big thing with open arms, or did it leave you saying, “Here we go again”?
In the field of marketing, there’s a lot of talk about the difference between trends and fads. Simply put, trends last, fads don’t. Trends are fads that have staying power. Fads are trends that fizzle out. The trouble is, it’s hard to predict which is which. It’s only in hindsight that we can know for sure. The field of missions isn’t marketing—though following marketing models has become something of a trend lately. (Or is it a fad?) But we, too, want to be able to discern between what will make a long-term impact and what will turn out to be a flavor of the day.
I remember sitting in a meeting several years ago, discussing with coworkers the direction we wanted to go in. Our main topic was a popular book that was making waves in the waters of church planting. I asked if what the book was presenting was a fad. The consensus was no, but with an air of (possibly too much) contrariness, I answered my own question with a yes; I thought it would indeed be a fad. It wasn’t because I thought the principles in the book would be short lived—I actually believed in what it was saying, and still do. It’s because I thought that if we weren’t careful, we, as part of the larger missionary community, would make it into a fad. We’d soon be moving on to a new book and a new method, with a catchy new title and new acronym. We’d soon be chasing something that we hoped would bring quicker and better results.
And that brings me back to that mic-drop thing.
If you are expecting to find the ultimate, never-fail, one-size-fits-all strategy, you are bound to be disappointed.
All of our efforts will not end with us dropping the microphone and walking dramatically away. So we need to be ready when the mic rattles into a heating vent and our feet get tangled in the cord. (Shouldn’t we be using cordless mics by now?) But all is not lost. Of course, all is not lost. That’s just the nature of ministry. When that happens, we shouldn’t throw up our hands in defeat because our version is messier than the case studies we’ve read. There are so many factors at play when it comes to effective ministry: prayer and God’s response to it, our own strengths and weaknesses, political situations, the uniqueness of our target cultures and the individual people in them. It’s simply too much to expect one plan to have all the answers.
Now I may sound as if I’m against change, saying stick with what you’re doing, no matter what. But that’s not my message. If what you’re doing isn’t right and true for you where you are, then you should change course. But if it is right and true, then don’t jump to something else just because the results haven’t matched your expectations. Keep moving forward as best you can, prayerfully evaluating and adjusting as you go.
If I could stretch this metaphor further, I think that we’re misusing the microphone if we just use it to announce our victories before we walk off the stage. Instead, we should pass the mic around. We need to share honestly and openly with each other about the full range of our experiences, our ministry successes and failures. There’s much to be learned from both. If we only report the highs without the lows, the two steps forward without the one or two or three steps back, then we contribute to other’s discouragement, and we miss opportunities to get the input and help that is so necessary.
We need to hear from the researchers and strategists and from the people who are putting ideas into practice. We need to listen to the fresh perspectives of new workers as well as the viewpoints of those with years of experience on the ground. Wisdom comes from many sources.
And, oh yeah, we need to listen to the nationals around us, with whom we’re sharing life day to day. Their viewpoints are invaluable as we shape and reshape our methods. They are the ones who might take the mic with unsteady hands and speak in soft, unscripted voices. But we need to hear their truths. They are where the plans come alive, in ways that can be messy and complicated and unpredictable . . . and glorious. Such is life. Such is ministry.
[photo: “Mic,” by Robert Bejil, used under a Creative Commons license]