by Tamie Davis
We’re probably in the back half of our life overseas, and we’ve started asking ourselves what we hope to accomplish before we leave. What will be achieved by the tremendous muster of financial, emotional and spiritual resources that keep us here?
We know the stories of those who did not see the fruit they had hoped for. There are the missionaries who spent 10 years mentoring people in local language to become very fine leaders themselves, and are now dismayed to see that these people have no idea how to pass the baton of leadership to the next generation. There are the others who raised up a successor who would be exceptional, but the Board installed a lesser leader who trashed everything they’d worked for. There are the ministries that were super fruitful 20 years ago, but as urban life and education have exploded in Tanzania, have simply not been able to keep up, and now have significant quality control issues that grieve their pioneers and builders.
Our story could end up like these. No one can say what their legacy will be. The Holy Spirit’s plan is big and mysterious, and way more complex than we can see. It’s hard to judge what is ‘successful’ and what’s not. Something that looks good today may fall tomorrow, and something that looks very humble now may bear great fruit in a different season. So what will we say if we get to the end of our time and something like this happens? Was the money our supporters put to good use? What about the connections our children now may never have with our families and culture? Could we have been doing something more fruitful with these years we have spent in Tanzania?
In the face of these kinds of questions, it’s commonplace to encourage us to pursue ‘faithfulness, not success’. It’s not your job to bring fruit, but the Holy Spirit’s, we’re told. Your job is to love your spouse if you have one, be good to your kids if you have them, be kind to those you meet, pray, read your Bible, confess your personal sin, keep a positive attitude, seek personal holiness, work hard at your (ministry) job. You have no control over what God will do with your efforts, but you can remain close to Him.
It’s meant to help us to persevere when we are tempted to despair, though even this list seems kind of a big ask to me who knows herself to be unfaithful, self-seeking, unloving, unprayerful, unholy and negative. I take it that I am not the only one whose life falls short (Rom 3:23)! If fruitfulness as a measure of ministry success is replaced with the spiritual vitality of the minister, I don’t find that very encouraging at all!
But the question that really haunts me is this: even if I was that super-Christian, wouldn’t it be possible to have that wonderful spiritual life and still misstep on ministry practice? I could be a super loving parent and working really hard in a ministry, and still be in a role that a local person could also do. Or I can be very kind to those I am working amongst, but ignore the structures and institutions of Christ’s local body instead of honouring and working with them. The faithfulness paradigm ends up being too individual and personal. It misses that there are more overarching ways in which we can love one another. If we are to remain in Christ and in His love (John 16:9-10), this must involve more than just how I interact with my family and my ministry, and take into account the broader body of Christ. The faithfulness paradigm needs to be amended to include the honouring of Jesus’ people in my location.
And I find myself reluctant to abandon the measure of fruitfulness. After all, Jesus had quite a bit to say about fruitfulness. In fact, in the same passage where Jesus talks about remaining in his love and loving one another, he comes out with pearlers like, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (16:5) and “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (16:6).
A lack of fruit, or not receiving what we ask from the Father is not a sign of not remaining in the Father’s love. Remember that Jesus asks for the cup to be taken from Him (Luke 22:42) and that is not granted, and it’s in that moment that He is dwelling squarely in the Father’s will! Those who are in really difficult or pioneering contexts may find that an encouragement.
The Father is the one who brings the fruit, but his chosen way of doing so is as we love each other and remain in His love. Without love, there can be no fruit. This gives us reason to consider good ministry practice as part of the faithfulness paradigm alongside personal holiness, because honouring Jesus’ people in my location is essential to the Father’s bringing of fruit.
Placing ourselves under local leadership may not be the most efficient way to get something done, but the Father’s fruit comes from love, not speed.
As I listen to a Tanzanian preacher, the sophistication of what he says may escape me, and not because of my Swahili! But as I allow his words to infiltrate me, I come to appreciate further how this branch of the vine has been lovingly tended by the Father for his good purposes in this place.
As I accept the care and concern of local people though it is uncomfortable for me, I find that this is how I know and remain in the Father’s love as well.
I don’t know whether our time here in Tanzania will accomplish what we hope. The fruit is God’s to bring, when and how He chooses, if at all. As I consider my part, yes I’ll be heartened to come out knowing I’ve loved my kids and have an in-tact marriage, but incorporated into my self-reflection will be questions of how I’ve loved my Tanzanian brothers and sisters, not only in the one-on-one interactions, but in the broader dignifying sense as well. I want to be faithful in that way too.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com.