by Timothy Michaels
Four lessons emerged as national co-workers talked about their primary desires for partnership.
Question: What do you get when you mix friendship, vodka, money, and the gospel?
Answer: Relationships which are messy but real, with bare-wire contact between Jesus and human beings.
I discovered this interesting “recipe for relationships” when I evaluated the work of our ministry team in Central Asia. I work as part of a team of Americans and Central Asians who are partnering together to make disciples among the lost. I began by interviewing eleven nationals who had been involved with us over the past decade. Translating the recordings of our conversations produced a thick stack of pages filled with single-spaced text. What you are reading springs from that data. For those of you who are also missionaries in relatively poor folk-Islamic countries, I hope the following thoughts will stimulate you to think about how to improve partnerships with nationals in your own context.
Conducting the interviews put me in a great position: I was a listener for those hours with my friends. When I asked them how we could partner together more effectively, they talked about things that mattered to them—things I hadn’t listened to very well in the past. Hearing them patiently express themselves, I sometimes suspected they were thinking: “What do I have to do to get this through this guy’s thick head? How many times have I said this—and in how many different ways? Well, here goes one more try…” Many lessons emerged as our national co-workers talked about their primary desires for our partnership. In this article, I’d like to highlight four of them.
1. We Want Relationship!
All of the nationals I interviewed have a strong desire for human relationship. Although this finding was not surprising, what did surprise me was how often and how passionately they expressed it. The Central Asian people don’t just enjoy hanging out in relationship—they absolutely need it. I can just forget any type of lasting impact here unless I am willing to embrace them as close friends with no strings attached. At the same time, I believe God sent me here with a task to accomplish. My ongoing challenge is to pursue that task while giving my friends genuine relational freedom. At forty-five, I am only now beginning to realize the wonder and value of friendships. I may have attributed common traits to the nationals collectively, but listening to each person individually defied those generalizations. Each man and woman has unique experiences, beauty, and gifts that amaze me. Each one is a vast jungle of mystery to be explored. As I get to know them, I am inspired because, in some ways, they are already more like Jesus than I am.
So I want to build relationships; however, my capacity is finite. One of my Central Asian teammates made the following point:
It depends upon what you want. Do you want us to be really close friends? Or co-workers? Really close? If you want to be close friends, then you participate with one another’s families a lot. But, can you do that? Are we ready for that? It’s difficult. You need to consider ahead of time, “Am I able to build relationships with this many people? Can I bring my family?” If you can’t, then don’t even start.
Practical application. So I need to consider my capacity before jumping too deeply into a relationship with a national friend. Not only that, but as a family man, I would be a fool not to think of my wife and children, as well—our relational capacities, our need for solitude, our emotional and physical limits, and the other demands on that capacity. Part of discipling for me is an ongoing negotiation with my family over how to spend our time and energy. When I was younger, I imagined I could build as many relationships with nationals as I could talk my wife into. Now I realize that all of us (including me) have relational limitations. Wisdom teaches us how to live within them instead of violating them.
• Going deeper and maintaining the margin. I need to do what I can with the capacity I have at the present moment and in the context of my family. Being present with and engaging my wife and children at each stage of life is God’s will for me and his blessing for me. When our children were in diapers, caring for them took an enormous amount of time and energy; one day, when they are off and married, parenthood will take another form. However, it is a permanent calling and an invaluable gift from God. At times, I may have to run outside the margins, but over the long run I would be foolish to push my family and myself beyond our limits. When I try to do too much or build relationships with too many people, I end up causing grief to everyone concerned. Proverbs 18:24 reads: “A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The key is to go deeper with a few nationals and maintain the margin in my life to do so.
• Being intentional. But what about the work of making disciples? How can I work on that calling while not defrauding my friends? Clearly, I cannot use the people God has given to me in friendship. Just as certainly, I cannot be aimless in those relationships. Intentionality is a mysterious art. The best I understand at this point, I need to lay out my calling with my national brothers and sisters, to put it on the table and talk about it, then to invite them passionately but without pressure to join me. Something like: “I don’t know about you, but I do know that God has sent me to do this. Will you come along with me for a while?” As my friends and I walk forward together, I expect we will see God lead us more communally, exceeding my expectations.
• Seizing opportunities among strangers. There is also much that can be accomplished without requiring deep relationships first. For example, Paul the apostle, Philip the evangelist, and Peter the preacher influenced many strangers for the kingdom. So although I want to be intentional with a few close friends, I also want to seize opportunities to convey the gospel by word or deed among strangers. I want to partner with others who work more like Paul did, running here and there. This variety of relationships offers fertile soil for me to routinely sow more gospel seeds here.
• Putting Jesus first. I do this remembering that the most important relationship I need is with Jesus. It is the same for my national friends. Therefore, I want to persistently point them to him and lean on him myself. This reality takes some of the pressure off of me in my relationships. It is okay to let some of the friends go, it is okay when I fail my friends’ expectations, it is okay when I need time alone, and it is okay when I can find no human friend to comfort me. Jesus is the one who is enough for each of us.
2. Don’t Forget the Vodka!
The better I get to know nationals here, the more I understand their joys and struggles. One struggle affecting many here is alcoholism. One of my national co-workers stated it this way: “But the truth is that our lives are very hard…vodka difficulty, financial difficulty. Because we drink, don’t work, and run out of money, the family suffers, and in the end the wife leaves.” This sums up a prevalent cycle here. Hard liquor is cheaply available everywhere; many people are addicted, including some of those I interviewed. It is not going too far to say that everyone here either is an alcoholic or has a close relative who is one. This was not a surprising fact to me, but I must admit that I have yet to seriously engage this pervasive problem.
One of my national friends is an alcoholic. He may not drink every day, but he often falls into periods when he cannot stop drinking with his friends. Over the years, this has caused much pain for his wife, children, and himself. One day, after a period of repeated drinking when he was sober and repentant, several disciples and I laid our hands on him and prayed for healing. He became very tired during the prayer session and went straight to bed. After that, he stayed away from vodka for a long time. I was full of rejoicing at this miracle of healing; however, a year later he fell back into some drinking. Currently, he is in a sober period. The striking thing is that this man is a serious disciple of Jesus. He seems to have more genuine love than I do and is a courageous believer. Nevertheless, part of his life is this struggle with alcohol.
Practical application. So what would it take to seriously engage the problem of alcoholism?
• Support the efforts of others who specialize in addiction healing. Find out what the needs are and try to help those dealing with addiction recovery as they pursue their calling to fight addictions.
• Learn more about alcoholism and how to incorporate appropriate elements into our discipling. Take the initiative to talk and pray about it with local friends and teammates, rather than letting this important issue be neglected because of other things we may see as more urgent.
• Explore the spiritual roots of addictions. God is the only source of true freedom and salvation, so when we turn to other things in order to numb the pain or distract ourselves from our unresolved issues, it is a form of idolatry.
3. Show Me the Money!
The poor economy here is another difficult reality. One of my friends reported: “My salary will buy just one sack of flour. That’s it. No sugar, no salt, nothing else, just the one sack of flour. In fact, there’s not enough even for that these days.” Although I have grown used to the poverty here, for Jesus’ sake I cannot afford to become calloused toward it. I know there are sound reasons why I should not loan or give money to my national friends (such as the risk to our relationship and the loss of their dignity, thus leading to dependence). However, somehow all that complexity and worry must not tie my hands from keeping Jesus’ commands to give generously and expect nothing in return.
Practical application. We must listen to the Holy Spirit as we go through all the opportunities that come up.
• Paying close attention to the economic situations of host friends. The key is love—to empathize with national friends facing economic uncertainty and (whether or not I give in a particular case) to WANT to help. Recently, our team changed from being an American-only team to being a 50/50 mix of Americans and host people. Different members of our team have widely varying income levels and standards of living. This difference naturally creates a certain tension between us. However, one national teammate I interviewed said this:
So not all of us will be rich. We have to accept this, that some of us will be low, some in the middle. We shouldn’t be discontented. God is giving blessing to us all. Whatever country you went to, you’d find the same system.
• Being yourself around national teammates, whether hanging out at your place or theirs. In the American homes of some of our supporters, I have felt the economic disparity in reverse: they have much bigger homes and fancier cars than I do. But in either case, our economic differences do not need to hinder our friendship. In the context of those relationships, I want to be open about my own financial struggles, as well.
• Taking the financial needs of friends seriously and partnering with them. Philippians 2:4 reads, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I am not talking about taking on the financial well-being of a whole country, but about having concern for the few teammates God has brought alongside us. While I am surely not the final answer to their financial needs, I am their friend and their partner in the gospel. Therefore, I should at least give serious thought and discussion to their legitimate interest in a home to live in, college and marriage for their children, and security in their old age. Currently, our team is investigating and experimenting with projects that combine business and disciple-making. While there is some progress, we are learning mostly through our failures and from others with more experience. Although the going is slow in this new territory, we must step out. Meeting the lost in the workplace is strategic because that is where they live. Furthermore, earning and managing an income is an essential part of the life of a disciple of Christ.
4. Seek Jesus with Us!
If the gospel is anything, it is Jesus himself. The final desire expressed by my partners was to seek the Lord together.
Practical application. Communal worship in itself is a powerful unifier. Furthermore, it is richest when we all approach God as learners together.
• Studying the Bible together. My many years of studying the Bible sometimes, ironically, holds me back from looking at it afresh today. However, when I take scripture at face value, I discover I’m still a long way from having it all figured out. So are my national friends. We both need to search the scriptures with awe and wonder.
• Helping friends understand Jesus better. Studying the Bible together is important for another reason: when analyzing the interview data with my American teammates, we became concerned about our host people’s perception of Jesus. While there is prevailing reverence for him, there is no consensus about Jesus’ identity among the local people with whom we work. One national co-worker expressed her own struggle this way:
We reach God through Jesus. Some people say that Jesus is God. But if so, then these two statements conflict. We reach God through Jesus. Okay. Because we do. But if we also say “Jesus is God,” that’s different. I think about this a lot, and don’t understand when others say “Jesus is God.”
Let’s face it. Jesus’ identity was as controversial an issue in his day as it is today. This confusion about the identity of Jesus is due in part to our evangelism approach, which focuses first on Jesus’ work and then on his identity. It may also be partly due to an objective mystery as to who Jesus is. This ambiguity in the faith of our believing friends carries with it the significant risk that they may pass on sub-biblical beliefs regarding the very center of our faith. On the other hand, some, like me, who come from an evangelical background, may assume we understand the identity of Jesus more clearly than we really do. Both of these risks motivate me to continue seeking Jesus humbly along with my friends, to read the Bible together honestly, to pray and to worship together before the throne.
Below is a quote from a friend I interviewed. He talked about the meetings of believers he leads. To me, this is a picture of indigenous biblical fellowship, a fruit of partnering together, by the grace of God. These people see each other often in their daily lives, scraping out a living as neighbors in a village:
We run our own thing now, meeting every fifteen days, or, if we miss one day, then we’ll meet just once that month. We pool our savings. This saving thing is one of the reasons we meet. [I asked, “Is that all you do in your meetings?”] No. We share how our lives are going. And we read from God’s book, from the Injil and Torat…. We read about who was who and what works they did. And we pray to Isa the Messiah, to the Lord. Our aim is not only to pool our savings, but to share our lives with each other, share what difficulties we’re having, and give each other counsel.
Looking back over the process of evaluation of our Central Asian ministry team, I would like to recommend it to others who are fortunate enough to live and work among folk-Islamic people—or anywhere among any people so fascinating and so deeply loved by their creator and real Father. Periodically, it’s a good idea to stop, listen, and see what’s really been going on and what adjustments need to be made. I survived it, anyway, and came out with some valuable lessons. Living them out may not be easy, but neither will it be dull.
Timothy Michaels (pseudonym) and his family have lived and worked in Central Asia for fourteen years.
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