by Trent Rowland and Shane Bennett
It may seem simplistic, but we’ve identified ten church-planting “events” in which missionaries must demonstrate a measure of competency in order to last and be effective.
In 1992 the gold medal hopes of the United States track team (as well as the financial hopes of their sponsor, Reebok!) were firmly pinned on one superb athlete, Dan O’Brien. Through the first seven events in which he competed he was on a world-record pace. When it came time to qualify for the decathlon, though, he failed to clear his opening height in the pole vault. Hopes started to fade. In the end, Dan didn’t even make the team.
To participate in the decathlon, an athlete must qualify in each of the ten events the contest includes. Therefore, it is not a sport just for the superstars or absolute best in a particular event. Decathlons are for those who can do better-than-most in a combination of many events. Since O’Brien’s pole-vaulting skills were relatively strong, he didn’t attempt a vault until the bar was fairly high. Then he missed on all three tries and his hopes of a gold medal were buried in the sand pit where the bar fell.
In the lives of fellow church-planters in parts of Asia we’re beginning to see similarities to O’Brien’s setback. The pathways to ministry in certain areas are more defined than they were a few years ago, but they are by no means thoroughfares. The bar is high. Only the tenacious actually make it to the field. Those who do make it usually arrive with several strong abilities and gifts. Trouble arises, however, when church planters who excel in some areas fail to even qualify in others.
It may seem simplistic, but we’ve identified ten church-planting "events" in which missionaries must demonstrate a measure of competency in order to last and be effective. There may be others to consider. Fail to meet the minimum standard in any one of these ten areas and you may find yourself returning home, as many have before you. Achieve the minimum standards, and you have a good chance of making the team.
EVENT NO. 1: LANGUAGE AND CULTURE LEARNING
The third time you reach the point of despair and seriously consider giving up, you’re probably approaching the "end of the beginning" of this agonizing and essential process. A thousand urgent issues and important items will rise up to distract you. You must not abandon the fundamentals.
Minimum standard: Plan to spend most of your first two years working on this event. Don’t give up until locals stop telling you how well you speak. Aim for fluency in the local heart language. This poses difficulties in the unreached world where language schools, skilled teachers, and bilingual books are rare or non-existent. But that doesn’t change the necessity to master the local language, both speaking and writing.
Common mistakes: Looking for a jump-start, many begin to minister in English, through translators, or use a less appropriate trade language. Why not have a policy of no ministry except in the local language?
Mothers caring for young children or home-schooling have the biggest challenge. They’ll have to have a slower learning pace and need facilitative help from their husbands, teammates, and agencies. But if they don’t learn it in the first few years, they probably won’t. Staying long-term only gets harder for those who cannot easily communicate.
EVENT No. 2: IDENTIFICATION WITH THE HOST CULTURE
John’s gospel begins "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Paul applies this principle to himself and to us in 2 Cor. 9:22 when he says, "I have become all things to all men." For us, God took on flesh. For the Gentiles, Paul let go of his Jewish privilege. For unreached people groups, we’re called to relinquish our rights to our home cultures and its lifestyle to become like those whom we endeavor to reach.
Minimum standard: Tom and Betty Sue Brewster have thrown down the gauntlet for our generation of church planters. They’ve admonished us not to ease into the new culture but to jump in with both feet. Bonding, they say, happens much better when we immerse ourselves in the local scene. The upshot? Spend your first several months living with a local family. This was so important for us! We strongly recommend this, and have seen it reap rewards in the lives of the team members who’ve followed us to our city.
Having bonded, or at least begun the process, we must continue on in our effort to identify with our hosts. With Jesus and Paul as his models, Hudson Taylor sets a fine example for us in living a life of identification with his chosen people. Taylor worked hard to dress, speak, and act the part of an honorable Chinese man. For most of us, identification is likely to include some measure of simplification of our lives, decreased reliance on technology, and increased reliance on relationships.
Common mistakes: Obviously, this issue is more complicated than simply, "Live on the level of the people you’re trying to reach." Identifying with your host culture can be complex and likely will be difficult. There are often many subcultures that present conflicting models.
While not trying to address all the issues, let me point out two areas that threaten our most sincere intentions. A reluctance or refusal to give up your home culture is the first. God calls all of us to some measure of sacrifice. Those who take the gospel to a new culture, and in doing so let go of their grip on their home culture, sacrifice more than most of us can imagine.
Secondly, we must be careful to treat as righteous what our host culture sees as righteous. Don’t get nervous here. I’m not saying, "Serve idols, if your host culture believes that to be righteous." It’s more like, "Don’t serve Spam, if your host culture views pork as unclean." Behave as honorable and reverent men and women.
EVENT NO. 3: TENTMAKING
Like most things in life, this event calls for balance. Because most unreached peoples live under governments who decline to issue missionary visas, tentmaking has increasingly become the strategy of choice. Missionaries around the globe have responded by starting businesses, teaching English, and engaging in other occupations in addition to their ministry as church-planters.
Minimum standard: Find a balance between work and ministry which insures long-term credibility and viability in your city, while allowing sufficient time for evangelistic friendships, language and culture learning, and team relationships.
Common mistakes: We may feel the necessity to invest so much time and energy to maintain our visa and establish credibility that we become a "residential non-missionary," unable to make contact with the target group, learn their language, or establish relationships with them. On the other hand, if we don’t take our tentmaking role seriously enough, we may fail to honor God through our efforts. This could also result in local friends and authorities smelling a front for an undeclared purpose which they fear is spying, or worse.
EVENT NO. 4: STAYING FOCUSED
Many issues and responsibilities vie for the attention of a beginning (or veteran) church planter. Missionaries often find themselves in areas where great needs abound, needs they have the resources to meet. Compounding that are the extra stresses of living in a cross-cultural setting and the tendency of Christians everywhere to hold meetings. You’ve got to work hard to focus on your work. This is further exacerbated by the failure of many missionaries to articulate a clear and measurable plan for ministry.
Minimum standard:Write down what you will do and how you believe God wants you to go about doing it. Determine your goals and prayerfully place them on a timeline.
Common mistakes:Without a clear-cut, compelling strategy, we can float from one good thing to the next, failing to accomplish work of long-term value. Or we might try to do every good thing, which will make us mediocre at all of them. Realizing this, we are tempted to despair. Our physical limitations further complicate the situation, leading to exhaustion. Don’t lose sight of your goals.
EVENT NO. 5: EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP
Non-believers almost always become mature followers of Christ through the costly life-on-life investment of Christian friends. This means that a key part of a church planter’s life will be telling the story of Jesus, persuading people to follow, and helping them grow strong in the faith.
Minimum standard: When plotting your weekly schedule, consider how many hours are both available for, and scheduled as, relationship building and sharing the Gospel. What time is devoted to one-on-one discipling of believers? Guard this time.
Common mistakes: Greg Living stone, founder of Frontiers, once said, "We talk about resistant lands. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of ‘little sowing, little reaping.’" We can mistakenly think, or hope, that fluency in the local tongue and good contextualization will automatically result in established churches. We may, because of timidity or distraction, do everything but talk to folks about Jesus. We fill our hours with work, get tired, and wonder why we aren’t seeing churches planted. Don’t forget why you’ve come.
EVENT NO. 6: CONTEXTUALIZATION
While it’s lovely to think, "Beneath our skin, all people are really just the same," in reality, beneath our skin, we’re all so radically different, it’s amazing we haven’t completely killed each other yet! These differences between people groups reflect the wonderful complexity and creativity of God. When we consider the hurdles the gospel has already overcome, they speak of his great power and commitment to his purposes. Church planters must keep in mind these differences and work with them to maximize their efforts.
Minimum standard: Church planting decathletes must have the wisdom and capacity to conform their presentation of the gospel to the minds and life experiences of the people they are ministering to. But it’s not enough to simply speak appropriately (even as complex as that may seem), they also must envision a contextualized church that grows up thoroughly biblical and thoroughly like the target group. And they need to determine to rely on the insight of the Holy Spirit through the lives of early local believers.
Common mistakes: We may think through our presentation carefully while we diligently learn the heart language, but fail to think about what a relevant church for our target people will look like. Failing to consider this, we are prone to default to working toward the church models we grew up with, except for the nice buildings and Xerox machines.
When we do give thought to contextualizing the church, we may be susceptible to two additional errors. The first could be called "my way or the highway." We fix on a particular degree or style of contextualization and will neither budge nor waver, even in the light of clear wisdom and veteran experience. The second could be called "The latest and greatest." We’re susceptible to jumping on the latest trend, moving from one plan to the next as fast as we hear about them. Ask God for wisdom in this.
EVENT NO. 7: EMOTIONAL STABILITY
Some of the world’s greatest history makers, missionaries included, have gone insane. Today’s church planters have, in addition to chemical treatments unavailable to our ancestors, two tools to help us stay closely linked to reality. The first is more a freedom than a tool. It’s now okay to consider how you’re dealing with the stresses life is throwing at you. It really is, even for the most spiritual of missionaries. It is okay! Secondly, today’s emphasis on church planting in teams allows individuals the increased strength of a like-minded cadre.
Minimum standard:To succeed in this event, pay attention to, but don’t obsess over, your mental health. At a minimum, ask yourself this question, "Is there one person on my team who is honestly helping me assess my mental health?" Further, aim to grow in your ability to receive from your team and to edify them in return. The Bible is full of admonitions and advice, warnings and threats in this area. God is very concerned about the way we relate to one another. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that others would recognize them by their love for each other.
Common mistakes:Lack of balance is the defining characteristic of failure in this event. Some individuals, usually men and often team leaders, decide they don’t need anything from their comrades. Moreover, they don’t even need comrades. This approach, seldom seen in the Bible, can wreak havoc on a team and-is dangerous for the individual.
On the other side is the team member who has enslaved himself to his feelings. Try as they might, his comrades cannot emancipate him. This makes life difficult for the team and can sidetrack, or hinder, the work of the team. Teams can also face trouble when they lack common agreement as to what it means to be a team. Take pains to articulate these issues early in team formation.
EVENT NO. 8: MARRIAGE
A disclaimer: Not all church planters among the unreached are married, and those who aren’t have unique concerns all their own. However, most are, or will be, or will serve on teams with married people.
As probably the most intimate and intense relationships in a situation characterized by intimate and intense relationships, marriages on a church planting team need special attention. Marriage has a unique capacity not only to bring joy and stability to church planters, but also to cause havoc and even disqualification for otherwise gifted missionaries.
Minimum standard: On the vast sea of good marriage advice, three things bob to the surface as especially important for the church-planting couple. Fail to heed these at peril of sinking! Make your relationship a priority: Plan time for it. This may mean time taken from worthwhile ministry activities. Listen to each other: This will also take time. Living and working in a new culture stresses people in ways that cannot be communicated in a single brief conversation.
Finally, avoid competing with each other: One of you is bound to be better at learning the language, as well as the rest of these events. You will both struggle with almost everything to different degrees at different times. Do your best to carry one another through the dark times.
Common mistakes: What if one member of a couple begins to feel they simply can’t continue on the field? By all means, be a good Christian, adjust your shield of faith and press on! No, there is more to it than that, isn’t there? God values your marriage above your contribution to a ministry. Drop back, pray, re-evaluate, and make the necessary adjustments.
EVENT NO. 9: ENDURANCE
When my seventh-grade gym class held a pentathlon (same as a decathlon, but only five events), hardly anyone signed up to run the mile. It wasn’t hard to figure out why: The mile hurt, and for longer than the other events. Today short-term missions are the rage. While I’m all for short-term missions, one reason for their popularity is the presence of a return ticket. Staying is hard, but essential. Churches that last are rarely planted quickly. This is especially true for the remaining unreached peoples.
Minimum standard: Plan to stay at least five years. In many places this is the minimum amount of time required to learn the language and minister well enough to disciple early converts. A church in Phoenix, Arizona, approaches endurance this way: To protect the investment they’ll make in the members of their church planting team, they only accept candidates who are confident that God is calling them to give ten years of service on the team. Team members understand that once on-site, there is ample grace to leave the team if things simply aren’t working out. The result is that people go with the mindset to stay.
Common mistakes: Many of us and our organizations have followed the lead of our culture in redefining "long-term" as "more than six months." We (at least those of us native to the U.S.) also live in a time when an amazingly high value is placed on having multiple, attractive options. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a decision to spend three years learning Tadjik, for example, severely limits one’s options, and not only for those three years. How many different things can one do with a mastery of Tadjik? Not many, certainly, but such a person can do a few things better than most others on the planet.
Church planters need to avoid falling prey to these cultural patterns. Even though we have sufficient funds for an unscheduled trip home (and there’s never been more money available for missions than today), we need to face the pain and loneliness and press on with the work. Planned endurance increases our likelihood of working with solid teams that will plant reproducing churches.
EVENT NO. 10: PRAYER
Prayer serves as the anchor event of the church-planting decathlon. It calls forth from God the grace, wisdom, and strength needed to compete successfully in the other events.
Minimum standard: Carve time out of your ministry schedule for personal and team prayer. Guard this time. Pray for your work, but also continue to pray for the rest of the world.
Common mistakes: When the battle heats up, we sometimes focus our blame on something other than the real source of our problems, such as our team, the agency, or the local, municipal, regional, provincial, or federal government. Remember whom Paul says we’re really fighting against (Eph. 6:12) and pray accordingly.
Without becoming timid and mousy, we must avoid being either arrogant and cavalier toward evil, or naive and rationalistic. The balance can be difficult to find. Keep in mind the model of Jesus, whose attention was overwhelmingly directed toward the Father, with only occasional directives to demons.
This article is not a treatise on how one person can act as the whole body of Christ. God has given us teams to work with so others might cover areas where we are weak, and our strengths can cover the weaknesses of others. Nor is it a call to focus on well-roundedness so that we do nothing really well. Unreached people groups will not become Christian through comfortable mediocrity. Excel in your strengths, but mind your potentially disqualifying areas. Meet these minimum standards so you can qualify for and stay with the team.
I invite you to do the following. Read this article with someone who knows you well. Ask them to tell you which five events they believe to be your strongest, and which three have the potential to sink you. Ask them how you might be further released in your areas of strength and how you might grow in your areas of weakness.
A final note: Rarely does disqualification last forever. After failing to make the 1992 Olympic team, Dan O’Brien went on to win his next 11 decathlons and remains one of the world’s top decathletes to this day.
Trent Rowland (a pseudonym) is seven years into leading a church-planting team in Asia. He is the author of a rookie team leader’s manual for those planting churches in pioneer situations, soon to be published by Caleb Project. Shane Bennett is a popular traveling speaker and consultant, also with Caleb Project.
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