Success or Faithfulness?

It has not been an easy week here in Kurdistan.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are far more difficult than ours. Yet I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This felt and continues to feel helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation.

Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will face the daily 8 hours of no electricity without complaining. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet.

It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

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Author’s Note: This piece was first published on Communicating Across Boundaries.

How Should We Measure “Success” in Missions?

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

Failed Missionaries and “But God…”

When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. We continued living as expatriates in Egypt, just as we had in Islamabad, connecting with the international church and the broader international community. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally using my nursing background in maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

An Honest Analysis

When we look back at our time in Pakistan, at our “missionary failure” we can now see it for what it is. There were valid hurts. We hadn’t been placed in the right jobs, instead we worked in areas that didn’t fit our skill sets. We hadn’t been given a proper orientation or mentorship. But, we had also acted out of immaturity. We had rushed into the position, knowing it wasn’t a good fit, because we wanted to get overseas so badly. We weren’t willing to go and ask for help, instead it reached a point of crisis, and we felt there was no choice but to leave the mission.

Missions is Messy, People are Messy. 

Missions is messy, because people are messy. Missions is messy, because the Church is messy. Missions has wounded people and failed people, because institutions and people have the power to walk outside of God’s love and care for the world, imposing their own rules instead. Missions and those in missions leadership should always be in a process of “quality improvement” – asking what is going well and what needs improvement, not defining success by western measures and adherence to western cultural values. Missions should continually look at history and historical inequalities and wrongs perpetrated by the church, asking forgiveness and seeking restoration, no matter how long it takes. Worldwide, missions institutions should see themselves as imperfect servants who seek cultural humility and care about the least of these, not gate keepers to a Christianity based on western cultural values. Yet, God still loves this imperfect, flawed, institution and he still uses it for his glory. That is not to say we should not continually look at the need for change and improvement, because that is necessary, but it is to say – it will never be a perfect institution because imperfect humans, who struggle with pride and insensitivity, ethnocentrism and misplaced ideals are at its core.

BUT God….

If I can go back to my own missions story for a moment – for all the mistakes of the institution, and for all our own immaturity, there were so many “But God” moments, where the plot changed because God is still God, and he is not defined or confined by human or institutional failure. Throughout Scripture, we see God intervene – sometimes in dramatic ways, but normally through quiet faithfulness. It does not give license for us to wound people, either through our own actions or the actions of our institutions, but it does offer immense hope when we are wounded; it does show that God will rescue, restore, and make new. “But God” does not excuse sin, but it also doesn’t call for dismissing an entire world-wide movement. My friend Sophie wrote this a few years ago, and when I think of my response to being a failed missionary, I think of her words.

The most powerful testimonies are the But God moments in our lives and so often we wish them away…..He takes up what humanity have screwed well and truly up and he rescues us, restores us, makes us new again.”

“He takes ashes and gives you a crown of beauty, he takes mourning and gives you oil of joy, unlimited and in abundance, he takes a spirit of despair and he gives you praise to wear instead.  It’s not just that the Great Exchange is your life for his, although that in itself is mind-blowing, but he totally transforms your life afterwards as well.- Sophie Blanc

As for this community, and the organizations we represent – we are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that, but we make mistakes. We are a people who constantly need to critique what we are doing, and then walk in faith, trusting the outcome to God. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.


For more reading and articles from our ALOS Writer’s Team:

To the ones who think they’ve failed
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling

I have nothing to prove

Sometimes I think I must be a fool.

Of course, I know that much of my cherished wisdom is foolishness to God. And sometimes it’s foolish even in my own eyes. But what makes me feel quite foolish sometimes are the opportunities I’ve let go of.

If you’ve given your life to missions and ministry, maybe you can relate.

After college and graduate school, awards and accolades, degrees and dreams, we went into ministry. At first it didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice; our friends in other fields of work were also just starting out, taking risks, living like paupers. But after a decade or two, the difference between us is stark. They’re rich. They occupy positions of economic and social power. They have long lists of achievements attached to their names. And those are great opportunities to serve God.

What have we done? Survived, even thrived, in a foreign country or among a new people? Learned a new language? Preached and taught falteringly in that new language? Made fruitful friendships? Learned how to live very simply? Rejoiced and wept with people? Opened our home and practiced hospitality? Launched a church? Started a business or organization? Made disciples who make disciples?

What are those things worth? Are they enough?

At first, there’s the “cool” factor of missions: it’s “radical” to live in another country. But after a while the luster wears off, and we’re just people who have given up our own ambitions to serve Someone Else’s. It’s simply not logical in the eyes of the world.

Sometimes a sneaky feeling darts into my heart and makes me want to prove that even though I’ve chosen ministry, it doesn’t mean I couldn’t do those other impressive things. I decide to show that I can succeed with the best of them, and I labor over a project for entirely the wrong reasons: to prove that even by the world’s standards, I’m worth something! If I’m honest, part of me still hungers for that approval.

But ministry does not consistently give us that approval. Even if you started a business for missions that’s thriving, achieving all the goals you set, and becoming a fixture in the community, it’s not the same. It’s not the same glory as building a successful business in the developed world that brings millions of dollars along with social and civil positions.

If we feed our self-worth with accomplishments, missions won’t give us enough. In fact, nothing will.

If I take on the perspective of eternity, I know that being approved by the world is a poor, stingy substitute for God’s pleasure. I know what I must do: set my eyes and my joy on Christ, fulfill my calling with excellence, and be glad in what my brothers and sisters are doing. It is literally true that being faithful to God is genuine success.

And in my imperfect way, I can live this out. My husband and I, we make decisions based on eternity. But in some of my bad moments, fears and insecurities creep in, tempting me back toward that merciless treadmill to prove that I’m enough.

But I don’t have to prove a thing. I know for whom I live: He died a supposed failure, yet He lives again and rules the universe. I will neither die His death nor live His glory. And yet, in a way befitting the creature rather than the Creator, I will. I die to sin and self. I will rise again to an imperishable body and the glory of the adopted children of God.

He has proven all that needs to be proven.

The Measure of Success

The year I failed algebra for paying more attention to boys than the teacher, mom and dad grounded me for the entire summer. Freedom on one condition: I had to take algebra summer school and achieve an A in the class.

I worked my rear end off. I puzzled out each equation in the math book, stayed after class for tutoring, and turned in every imaginable form of extra credit. No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t break the B+ glass ceiling. On the last day of summer school, I finally hit an A- for the class by scoring 100% on the final exam which, by the way, I didn’t actually earn. My teacher learned of my plight, saw how desperately hard I worked, and in the end gave me an “A for effort”. With two weeks of summer break remaining, I finally earned my freedom.

That summer sucked, but it taught me two really important things –

  • No boy is worth summer school.
  • Struggling and failing are not the same thing.

Failing was simple. Smile and pass notes with the boys. Ignore the teacher. Get lazy with homework. Justify the uneasiness in your insides: You’re just not good at math, so why bother trying?

Struggling? That’s completely different.

At the end of that algebra filled summer, Mom told me, “If you’d worked as hard as you did over the summer and still didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have been proud.”

Fast forward 20 years.

I live overseas and, in an odd way, life is pretty comparable to that summer of algebra.

Perhaps there are people more naturally gifted at living overseas who sail through with minimal amounts of effort. I’m not sure such a person exists, but even if they did, I’m definitely not one of them. Life here for me is fraught with difficulty and it’s easy to feel like I’m failing. I’m still the struggling summer school student.

Despite how I feel, the good news is that struggle does not mean I’m failing. Let’s replace struggle with a synonym and you’ll see what I mean. Thesaurus.com gives us some great words and phrases for struggle like: strive, endeavor, go all out, make every effort, plug away, and try one’s hardest.

Ok, so maybe you’re reading this and saying, “I am trying my hardest, but I’m still failing!”

I’d like to challenge that.

Are you neglecting something important? Have you been lazy or idle? Do you ignore instruction? Are you justifying actions you know are wrong? No? Then shake off that guilt. You aren’t failing, at least not at what really matters.

Before we go on, I should point out that struggle also does not guarantee success as we see/define it. No matter how hard you try, you might not ever really learn the language. People will still reject you. Projects will be left unfinished or fall flat. You may never be fully funded. You’ll still get sick, have awful experiences, and probably need counseling. You may have to leave your overseas home.

The point is this – Sure failure and success matter, but not to the extent we credit them and probably not in the way we tend to define them either. What really matters is how you answer the question: Am I faithful?

I love the passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus tells the story of the master who went on a long journey and entrusted three servants with different amounts of money. When the master returns home and asks for an account the first and second servants report their success doubling the money, but the third servant makes excuses and says he dug a hole and hid his money. The master commends the first two servants, but reprimands the third.

You might be tempted to think this story is evidence of the high importance of results. It’s not. This story is more about character than it is about success or failure. David Guzik’s Study Guide for Matthew 25 puts it this way:

Well done, good and faithful servant: This shows that the master looked for goodness and faithfulness in His servants. Whatever financial success these servants enjoyed came because they were good and faithful. The master looked first for these character qualities, not for a specific amount of money.

Did you get that? Success is great, but it’s not the first thing. God is looking for goodness and faithfulness.

When it comes to children, we all know that’s the truth. We celebrate the child who works hard no matter what level of success they achieve. We are proud and pleased when they make every effort with what they have. Our heavenly Father does the same.

So let’s shirk off this guilt and fear of failing. We aren’t lazily burying our gifts; we’re investing and working hard. May success come, but may we also recognize that it’s the quality of our character, the condition of our hearts, that matters most to God.

God,
You know me. The life and talents you’ve given me are no mistake; they are not too much or too little. You know my fears, difficulties, and disappointments. It’s true that I would love success, but even more than that, I want to be found faithful with what you have given me. I want to be pleasing to you.
Amen.  

Dangerous Stories

Sometimes the stories we tell of those we minister to can become dangerous.

I’ve been at this missions thing for 23 years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

I often reflect on things I did in the past and cringe. Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps others can learn from my mistakes.

One mistake centers around how I have reflected the stories of others to my own supporters and sending churches / organizations.

One of the things our organization does is partner with nationals who are also involved in missions. We attempt to raise monthly support for them and use our network to assist financially.

We often highlight one of these nationals in our periodic newsletters. We share what they are involved in and add something like, “your support to Project Grace helps this individual/or family to accomplish this work…”.

This approach seems harmless enough, but there are several dangers involved.

We realized this when years later, one of these people who had since moved on, contacted us and confessed that they had harbored bad feelings to us for how we represented them. He felt we were “using” him to show how great our ministry was. This dear friend carried this hurt for years till he finally was able to express it. We were so grieved and set about attempting to restore the relationship.

There are some lessons here. We can share dangerous stories without even intending to. There is an appropriate sharing of stories which must happen. How can we guard against the danger but still share to the glory of God?

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5 Signs You are Telling Dangerous Stories:

1. Carefully consider your words. If the person were standing next to us, would we reflect our stories in a different way? There is always a temptation to embellish poverty, lostness, or a person’s state of need.

2. Avoid any hint of superiority. This is rarely intended, but so many sharing times promote a “they are so primitive, we must help them see the light” mindset. I’ve sat in far too many testimony times where people ignorantly share how horrible a foreign land was, not thinking that there are nationals from those very places present!

Sometimes, the people we are attempting to show the gospel of grace to, walk in massive grace with us!

3. Ask their permission. This was the biggest mistake I made in the above story. This helps you cut through any misguided motivations in a hurry.

4. Share in the blessings. If you benefit materially from sharing a story, it would be good to extend a blessing to the friend or co-worker you shared about.

Imagine what this scenarios seems like for a national:

  • They know you are sharing their story.
  • Often we as missionaries live a higher lifestyle than those who’s stories we share.
  • Even the most noble of people would have a question or two about the use of funds which was in part gained by their story.

Sharing the resources promotes open communication. We’ve receive donations and when sharing the blessing, told our friends, “We told your story and people were blessed. They ended up blessing us so we wanted to pass some of this on to you.”

5. God must be honored. Are stories shared in a way which is honoring God or us?

Do we become savior, rescuer, and the lifter of people’s heads or is that place reserved for Jesus?

No one sets out to say this, but our words can convey this if we are not careful.

Attention Life Overseas Community!

I am sure we have countless stories and mistakes made in this area among us. Let’s share and learn from each other!

What pieces of advice would you add to the five I have mentioned? How can we avoid Dangerous Stories?

Photo credit: Seyemon via photopin cc

Avoiding Mission Drift

We’ve seen Christian organizations publicly wrestle with change in recent times.

InterVarsity is facing this pressure to allow non-Christians to be a part of their leadership. This is resulting in them being banned from certain campuses. Will they change some of their core values?

World Vision battled with adopting new policies, leading to a back and forth battle as to whether this caused them to drift. Unfortunately this happened in full view of millions.

Even pawn shops have drifted. They were founded by the Fransicians as an alternative to loan sharks, designed to help the poor. Over time, pawn shop owners lost their identity and drifted from their purpose.

Could this ever happen to our charities?

Tale of two organizations:

Two organizations were founded by Presbyterian ministers to help sponsor children in need. One drifted.

Child Fund, formerly Christian Children’s Fund has nothing to do with Christianity anymore, while Compassion International has remained mission true.

Both Harvard and Yale started as Christian educational institutions set on developing Christian formation. Neither are today.

Mission drift is inevitable if you do nothing to prevent it.

We must take steps to actively prevent it. It is the natural course for organizations without focused and deliberate steps to stop it

Peter Greer is the president of HOPE International, a global faith-based microfinance organization based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He recently spoke at the Catalyst Conference I attended.

He has written a fantastic book, Missions Drift, which I highly recommend. All of the above examples are detailed this book.

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Missions True Organizations

“In its simplest form, Missions True organizations know why they exist and protect their core at all costs. They remain faithful to what they believe God has entrusted them to do. They define what is immutable (unchanging): their values and their purposes, their DNA, their heart and soul.”

This does not mean Missions True organizations do not change, adapt, or strive for excellence. Jesus’ ministry looked different for different folks.

Young life started with barbershop quartets as an evangelism strategy. These would not be nearly as efffective today, so they adapted while maintaining their mission.

5 Things Missions True Organizations Do:
1. Recognize Christ is the difference.
2. Affirm that faith sustains them.
3. Understand that functional atheism is the path of least resistance. (becoming Christian in name only)
4. Be willing to make hard decisions to prevent drift.
5. Differentiates means from mission – changes to reinforce core identity, not drift from it.

The book details countless examples of this and how organizations can give themselves check-ups.

Greer lists 7 Steps to prevent drift (these are all entire chapters in the book.) I’ve detailed these to a greater extend on my website, NoSuperHeroes. Click here to read, 7 Steps for Preventing Missions Drift.

The book is a very encouraging read to those of us in faith-based missions and development. He shares an incredible quote from Matthew Paris, a confirmed atheist, who wrote the following in the British Times.

Now as a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGO’s, government projects, and international aid efforts. The alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Staying Mission True in our lives will bear fruit!

The concept of drift is not isolated in our teams. It happens organizationally, but also on a personal level. Countless marriages start out well and then drift, finding themselves in a entirely different place. Our personal walk with God and mission is not exempt either.

If you believe you are immune then you are the most vulnerable.

Let’s not be naive and bury our heads in the sand. Ask the hard questions.

In what areas of life and organizations are we at risk for drift? Where has it already occurred?

For more on this interesting topic, please visit missiondriftbook.com. Remember to stop by NoSuperHeroes for further discussion from Peter’s book on the topic of Missions Drift.

photo credit: Bev Goodwin via photopin cc

Missing God in Missions

Over the last twenty plus years in missions I have learned we go through seasons. We are currently on a furlough, and it is times like these where you can see things in a way which brings greater clarity.

There is something which slowly and subtely was missing from my missions. I was not misusing ministry funds or walking in immorality.

But my focus had drifted.

Not even to bad things.

If our focus is on our product, numbers, programs, or fundraising strategies, we are not practicing missions. Our efforts may be closer to business or entrepreneurial endeavors.

Often when we feel consumed by these things, we remind ourselves that the focus should be the people. We look to serve, to bless, to lift out of poverty or rescue out of injustice.

While these things are good, and in many ways a better focus, this still is not truly missions.

After awhile our mission begins to look like any other humanitarian organization. What is different from us and the Red Cross or the Red CrescentHow is our care of people unique to those in any other NGO or non-profit group? Are we the peace corp with a fish sticker on our bumper?

Are we guilty of missing God in missions?

The Apostle Paul is perhaps the greatest example of a life lived for God and doing it in a sold out manner. He was the greatest missionary in history, having suffered shipwrecks and multiple forms of persecution.

The mission was important for Paul, but it was not the core.
He created great programs and products.
His life influenced the masses, people everywhere were blessed.

But these were not the focus.

Focus

Paul’s primary focus was God himself.

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”   Phillipians 3:8-9  ESV

This passage was written while in prison! Being in prison, on mission, paled in comparison to knowing Christ!

What makes missions unique from entrepreneurial efforts or humanitarian causes is its focus first and foremost on the Creator. Missions must flow out of this.

Mission can become an idol. In other words, when living on mission replaces God; we have a problem.

I share this from a personal place of being stuck on this concept for months. A sabbatical or furlough is designed for this.

Refreshment, rejuvenation, but most of all Refocus.

Much of this post has been inspired by Skye Jethani’s book, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. This is a fantastic, thought-provoking book I recommend to all.

I’ve blogged extensively on this in the last weeks and months. It is the place where God has me and is not letting me “move on.”

I wanted to share it with our Life Overseas community.

It is so easy to get busy.  Without even realizing it, we find ourselves in a place of missing God in missions.

This challenge / encouragement does not come from a place of constant success.

Instead, I ask you to consider this from a fellow sojourner. From one who sees even more my need to keep my walk with God first and foremost in my missions endeavors.

Does this resonate? Do you disagree?
Other than an “official” furlough or sabbatical, how do you build in check ups to see how things are going?

Photo by By Nicola Perantoni

Reflections of God

Many times in missions, we speak of the difficulties with greater frequency than the good things.

We talk about racism.
We speak of our various phases of culture shock.
Stories of being hurt by those we work with abound.
Even at times, we venture into difficult topics like trauma or loss.

What of the positive?

I don’t mean newsletter stories of lives changed or projects completed.

What do we love about the people we work with?
What traits are present in the cultures or nations we work in which serve to glorify God?

Since all human beings are made in the image of God, there are glimpses of the Almighty which shine through in all peoples, cultures, and nations.

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We can easily point out the negatives of a culture, but what of the positives?

When people meet me as an American, they are quick to point out all our deficiencies and failures as a nation. But, what of Americans generosity and value of human life resulting in simple things such as customer service, free speech, and freedom of religion.

It is so easy to see all you do not like.

Can we take a moment to pause and see the hope and treasures our nation or people reflect of God?

In South Africa, I work in a land rift with horrible crime statistics, corruption, and an all too often broken family structure.

But as a land, South Africa and her people reflect these traits of God as they are made in his image.

– A peaceful transition to democracy.
– A land of opportunity and hope for all of Africa.
– It’s people have incredible abilities in the arts, such as art, writing, and most of all singing.

People will often look at the development here and say, “This is not real Africa”. Essentially we are saying Africa can not develop and must remain poor. This nation reflects a God given ability to “take dominion” and make things better. I love that about South Africa.

And its natural beauty in many areas is second to none.

How about you?

The only rule here is – only positive things!!! (and no criticizing or critiquing others positive statements- no one can debate what I love about America because it is how I see God through her people and my nation)

So let’s go!

Share.
Rejoice.
Learn.
Worship.

What do you love about the people you work with? How do they reflect the image of God?

What are your favorite things about the cultures or nations you serve in?

Photo By Sylwia Bartyzel

Succession

Missionaries are good at many things. We are adaptable, we are frugal, and we often carry a global perspective.

In my experience, one area we are weak in is in planning for the future. Our strength lies in our ability to respond and change, but at times this keeps our focus on the here and now, rather than outward to what is to come.

This is evident in our finances (but this is for another discussion), our relationships, and often in our ministries.

We are the ones who boldly proclaim retirement is not in the Bible.
We wrestle with whether it is appropriate for us to store up future funds when immediate needs are so great.
We often struggle to travel home to maintain valuable relationships due to the immensity of work which needs to be done on the field.

These are generalizations I realize. But, let’s pause for a moment to consider succession in our ministries.

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Some rights reserved by Trinidad-News.com

I seem to meet many in ministry who have no plan for the work to go on when they are unable to continue.

Why is this?

When our family moved to South Africa eight years ago, we desired to build something which would outlast us. I think this is a common goal and dream among ministries and missionaries.

Why is it so difficult to accomplish?

Sometimes we wonder what we will do if we pass things on.
Fear sets in as we question whether our supporters might assume we no longer have a ministry.
Often we won’t hand our “baby” off to someone who is different than us.
We can’t imagine giving things to a younger leader (wanting to protect them from the same lessons we learned in becoming a “seasoned” leader.
It is even possible to assume the right person will only come at the end of our journey.

What if that “right” person shows up earlier than we expect?
Would we be able to accomplish more things if we actively thought of succession?

The objections to this issue are fair and need to be considered;
It’s too soon.
They are not ready.
The timing must be right.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin.

Passing things off earlier rather than later enables us to:
Release local leaders who likely will be more culturally relevant than ourselves, perhaps taking the ministry even further.
Be present for the growing pains of transition in a coaching and mentoring way.
Allow younger leaders some of the same opportunities we were afforded at their stage.
Ensure that ministries or teams are not based on us.
Set a godly example of leadership which is not power based or title hungry.

And all of this does not reduce our personal fruitfulness, but increases it. We have the freedom to pursue new opportunities and see even greater impact in the nations we serve. We can join the “cloud of witnesses” cheering our successors on through support and encouragement.

Even if our work does not include a team or organization, we should be asking if we are reproducing ourselves and our hearts?

This discussion of handing over our teams or ministries does not have a one size fits all answer.

But, I cannot see any damage in thinking of succession more frequently than we do.

We’ve seen transition done poorly. Longevity of a team or a project is so key, it is worth our consideration.

What are your thoughts or experiences in the area of succession?

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes

The Shame of AIDS

One of the leading issues in many of the nations we live and work in is HIV/AIDS.

The statistics from South Africa on this issue are shocking.  Conservative estimates place infection rates at 10% of the nation, or over 5 million cases.

You would assume with these facts, the signs of this disease would be everywhere. Only they are not.

The shame of this disease hides it from the public eye, keeping it as a private issue. It is illegal to ask someone their status. The numbers alone make it a reality that many we work with will have this disease, but often we do not know this as a fact. In my eight years in this nation, I have met two which have declared their status or confided in me. A young South African man who grew up in the impoverished townships says he too only knows of two.

By: Anthony Easton
By: Anthony Easton

Two people! Many others hide alone in shame.

That number increased to three recently.

I met Musa Njoko.  She was well-known for her gospel music, but now her fame comes from her Aids activism. She has shared the stage with President Bill Clinton promoting awareness.

As she told her story, several things stood out to me.

Her courage As secretive as this disease is today, when she came out it was an isolation sentence. She dealt with this through her faith in God and her sense of humor.

Musa related the story of swimming at a public pool. As her and her family were enjoying the water, she noticed the pool was quickly emptying for fear of “catching” the disease. She joked, “well family we have the whole pool to ourselves! ”

Her recognition of progress – South Africa has come a long way in HIV treatment. Leaders in the past declared the disease a myth or a creation of the West. They advocated going to traditional healers (witch doctors) or taking vitamin B12. The former head of the AIDS commission willingly had unprotected sex with an infected woman, feeling safe because he showered afterwards. This man is the current president of South Africa! There was even a myth circulating which said the remedy was sleeping with a virgin. This only made things worse.

Today anti retroviral drugs are available for free.

Her faith in the future Musa says South Africa has one of the best prevention programs in the world now. As she still lives in one of the most vulnerable communities, She sees change.

My prayer for South Africa is for a greater openness. Unfortunately, the people who hurt Musa the most were in the church. They called her a slut and a whore. I would love to see more people like Musa, declare their status. But, more than the infected coming out, I would like to see less affliction. The church must change their mindset.

From what we see of Jesus, the HIV positive people are exactly those he would spend time with. They may be similar to the lepers in our midst today whom Jesus loved.

Do we?

What about your nation? How is progress being made on this global epidemic? What is the attitude of the church towards those infected in your country of service?

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes