by Floyd and Christine Schneider
Marshall was a fellow soldier who liked to boss people around. Because I outranked him by a few weeks, he informed me that he hated me. I avoided him after that.
Marshall was a fellow soldier who liked to boss people around. Because I outranked him by a few weeks, he informed me that he hated me. I avoided him after that. A few weeks after we arrived in Vietnam, we were ordered to lead our squads in taking a village from the Vietcong. Within the first few minutes of the battle, men were dying all around us. Although no words passed between us, I remember the look in his eyes: “If we’re going to come out of this alive and complete our mission, we have to set aside our differences and work together.” I nodded.
During the entire battle, Marshall protected my back, while I and my squad pushed forward. The losses to our entire platoon were appalling. But although Marshall and I never became close friends, we learned on the battlefield that sometimes we have to set aside personal differences in order to accomplish our job.
Ever since Paul and Barnabas argued about a coworker and their missionary team consequently fell apart (Acts 15), missionaries and their sending agencies have been trying to “work in unity.” Although a worthy enough goal, many of these attempts to avoid conflicts between coworkers have failed miserably due to nonbiblical definitions.
Christians often confuse organizational unity with spiritual unity. Bringing missionaries together through organizational unity does not automatically lead to spiritual harmony. Too much organizational unity can be counter-productive if it keeps us from spending enough time with the unsaved.
Two things are vital for spiritual harmony. First, we need to have similar goals. We hope that we all want to see people get saved. If we insist that everyone submit to our authority and evangelize “our way,” we have overlooked spiritual gifts and replaced evangelism with uniformity.
Second, we need a supportive attitude toward one another. Speak good of the other missionaries. This is crucial for the spiritual harmony (not organizational unity) which Christ spoke of in John 17. If we cannot sincerely say something good about another work, then we should say nothing. Nowhere in Scripture do we read that Paul or Barnabas criticized one another, or one anothers’ ministries even after their disagreement. Later on, Paul’s evaluation of Mark changed to praise, even though Mark had been the center of the controversy. Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). He doesn’t need our help.
Achieving unity is not easy, especially when ideas, methods, personalities, and even results differ. People are not robots, and the creativity of a starry-eyed beginner can be the spark to begin a vibrant new ministry or to blow up an old one. In contrast, the steady faithfulness of an incumbent missionary can be the glue which holds a team together, or keep it from moving at all. An even more sensitive issue is achieving some sort of a working relationship between mission boards. They probably have the same goals—to win souls—but they also have their theologies, traditions, and darlings to help them reach their goals.
How can missionaries—both the incumbents and the starry-eyed beginners—peacefully work alongside one another in their separate church-planting ministries? Perhaps these guidelines can help.
Guideline 1: Communicate with other missionaries who live in your city or region about your plans.
Paul tells two believing women in Philippians 4:2 to “live in harmony.” He did not command them to necessarily agree with one another. If we do not agree with other missionaries, but we desire to live in harmony with them, then we must have open lines of communication; we must let them know what we are doing. Find out what is already being done in the area you want to work in. Don’t condemn what others have or have not done, and don’t offer suggestions for improvements unless you’re very sure the incumbent missionaries or other mission boards will appreciate your viewpoints. Exchange information. You might even modify your plans and choosea different method or different segment of society to work with.
As time and energy allow, visit and pray with missionaries from other groups. This may be difficult for a missionary to do if he or she has lots of contacts and friends among the unsaved, and if you want to spend as much time as possible working with them. Beware of forming a Christian clique, but do your best to nurture peaceful coexistence with other missionaries.
Guideline 2: Gain an understanding of the concept of “neighborhood” in your mission field.
Anthropologists usually define a neighborhood in most Western countries as a specific segment of society, instead of exclusively as a geographical area. Each person has his or her own “neighborhood”: a unique set of acquaintances, bus lines, local grocery stores, school, work, and recreation areas. Look for people who are open to the gospel, regardless of where they live. Then concentrate on their specific “neighborhoods.” With this mindset, even missionaries who live near one another will work in different “neighborhoods” and will be supportive of one another.
Arguing over who “owns” the people in a given area is wrong. When problems sprang up between the herdsmen of Abraham and Lot, Abraham—with more rights, and yet with more wisdom than Lot—asked Lot to choose an area for himself and leave. The reason: “The (unbelieving) Canaanites and the Perizzites then dwelt in the Land . . . (and) we are brothers” (Gen. 13:7, 8). In some cases the best way to avoid a conflict with other believers is to spend less time together. The more mature brother will not demand his rights from another brother for the sake of their testimony before unbelievers.
After I had been in Austria for a few years, a missionary from another mission board moved into the same city. We met and he wanted to assure me that he didn’t want to “step on my toes.” I told him that we had been trying to lead our next door neighbors to the Lord for four years and had had no breakthroughs. If he could do so, we would be overjoyed—and he was welcome to begin a church in their apartment. However, I reserved the right to do the same with his neighbors. He laughed and heartily agreed.
Guideline 3: Don’t steal sheep from other churches.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation” (Rom. 15:20). In most countries the unsaved far outnumber the believers. Missionaries don’t need to fight over a handful of people. There are enough people to go around.
In many cities in Europe, many of the missionaries are working mainly with believers and have little, if any, contact with the unsaved. Given this situation, sheep-stealing is an obvious problem.
Keep friendly relationships with any other churches and agree to inform each other when church hoppers come to visit. When believers from other churches come to you, tell them that you would rather they attended their own churches. Say something like, “It was nice that you came today. Please greet your pastor when you return to your own church next week. I’ll be calling him this week, and I’ll mention that you dropped by.” Then contact the leaders of the other church and inform them. If the people still want to change churches, ask them if they have spoken to their church leaders. They may be under church discipline, or perhaps everyone involved wants them to change churches. Find out why. Remember: Church hoppers are sometimes problem children, and they will bring their troubles with them into the new church. A church planter is far wiser to evangelize the unsaved and build his church from them than to accept sheep from other folds.
Guideline 4: Work together in various public evangelistic efforts.
Paul tells the Philippians to be like-minded, having the same love, of one accord, of one mind (2:1-3). He then goes on to talk about the Lord’s basic attitude of selflessness and humility. The Lord esteemed others better than himself, but he did not always agree with what others did. Paul is not advocating that believers always agree with one another, but that they recognize God’s built-in worth of each believer. This attitude can greatly improve our chances of working together, especially in joint evangelistic efforts.
Here are some ideas for such efforts: (1) Invite a speaker for a city-wide evangelistic campaign. (2) Show a film at one of the churches. (3) Pool financial resources for a special evangelistic project that would be too expensive for one church alone to handle. In every case, the members of each church are responsible to bring their own friends and relatives and follow them up afterwards.
In the winter of 1993 the 400 evangelical believers in Graz, Austria, came together and rented Austria’s largest movie theater for the purpose of bringing Billy Graham’s evangelistic messages via satellite to that city of 300,000. The cost was over $20,000 for the theater. The few churches involved were not all in agreement in every point of theological doctrine. The Lord was glorified, however, in their cooperation and he allowed the theater to be paid for completely in advance. Many unsaved went forward every evening at Billy Graham’s invitation. What a magnificent testimony to the unity of the Spirit in the midst of diversity.
Guideline 5: Pray for the unity of the Spirit at all times.
Praying for it will remind us of our own attitudes and motives in touchy situations, and maybe we can at least avoid a conflict, even if we can’t work in unison. Pray with others from other mission boards and ministries and you might make friends for life, and together—in different ministries—you may see the Lord bring many to himself through you both. “Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor. 3:8).
Missionaries are in a war with much more at stake than the political fate of a few people living in a Vietnam jungle. We should never forget who the enemy really is. Surely as we struggle to persuade immortal souls to abandon Satan’s kingdom, we can put the Lord’s mission first and our personal feelings last.
Copyright © 1994 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.