by Gene Daniels
Seeing ministry as “divine art” greatly impacts the way missionaries mentor those in their care.
Many missionaries would agree that the Church in new cultures is in the hands of those who follow us. We travel to new lands and give of ourselves for as long as God desires, but as foreigners and aliens we must always remember that the day will come for us to leave. For this reason, it is necessary to think about mentoring the next generation of leaders from the time we arrive at our ministry setting. This was certainly the attitude of the Apostle Paul, who told his protégé Timothy, “The things you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Most missionaries I have known over the years would claim to be following this model. If this is so, we must ask ourselves this question: “Why is it that our results are not always so, shall we say, ‘Pauline?’”
Some would say that Paul was a unique missionary in a unique setting; others would say that the world has changed and that we can no longer expect the same results. There are also many other innovative reasons we missionaries use for not seeing the same results Paul saw.
While I do not wish to offer a simplistic answer to a complex question, the core issue seems fairly simple. The answer comes not from looking at the external problems in the world. It comes from looking within ourselves. The real problem has to do with our attitude toward those we mentor. A major reason we usually don’t see the same results as Paul, even when claiming to follow his advice, is that we often lack the mindset he had when sharing the gospel and discipling. We must be willing to ask ourselves, “With what attitude do we approach those who are developing in the ministry?”
In his book Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis makes this observation:
A work of (whatever) art can either be “received” or “used.” When we “receive” it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we “use” it we treat it as an assistant for our own activities. (1992, 88)
Before you object that Lewis’ thoughts are not relevant to the question at hand, consider for a minute what ministry looks like. Real, Spirit-gifted ministry is simply God expressing himself through a human heart. Christian leadership is not a job, but rather a projection of God’s own character. Ministry is divine art. It is heaven painting with very human brushes, or composing eternal symphonies through lives still present in this reality. Developing a new ministry is God’s art; we, as his aides, have the honor of holding his painter’s palette.
If this is true, we should pay most careful attention to how we relate to those maturing into ministry, especially those under our direct influence. Are we careful to listen for the divine rhyme and meter of their composition as if it were a masterful concerto? Do we thoughtfully reflect on the subtle colors and revealing shadows the master is using to enrich that particular canvas? This is the way of receiving a piece of human art in progress.
We need to see the person with a calling on his or her life as a painting still in the sketch, or a sculpture under construction, rather than raw material to be exploited. Or to again call Lewis to mind, do we see people as something to be used? Regrettably, it seems the latter is often closer to how we think and act. Perhaps we need to stop taking our cues from the international business world and go back to the examples we see reflected in the original pioneers of the gospel.
BARNABAS: RECEIVING WITH LOVE
Take for instance Barnabas, the man they called “son of encouragement.” This was the one who received a fiery, inexperienced preacher named Saul, a man whose ministry would soon eclipse his own. These were two very different men, yet there seems to have been no attempt by Barnabas to conform Saul-becoming-Paul into his own image; Barnabas was content for Saul to become a unique person before God. Nor did Barnabas try to suppress Paul’s rise in ministry. The “son of encouragement” graciously backed out of the way while one with a much larger gift fulfilled his destiny.
Years later, a now powerful and widely-recognized Paul chose to receive the sometimes timid and unsure young Timothy. Instead of using Timothy, Paul chose to nurture and encourage him. It appears that Paul learned well from the man who shielded him in the early days from the skeptics in Jerusalem. Paul became to Timothy the same kind of mentor that Barnabas had been to him. It is likely that Paul realized he might have never fulfilled his calling to the Gentiles if it had not been for the fact that Barnabas gave him the freedom to develop according to God’s plan, not humanity’s plan.
Paul and then Barnabas received the one under their influence for who they were, and eventually released them to fulfill their own calling. Both men, at the height of their personal success in ministry, demonstrated what it means to give oneself for the benefit of God’s purpose in another life. Both men demonstrated servant leadership in the very real world of missions.
LABAN: USING FOR GAIN
Unfortunately there is another way to approach art as mentioned by Lewis and that is to use it. Here again, we can turn to God’s word for an example of this. Consider that less-than-memorable Old Testament character, Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law. Laban’s actions form a graphic stage drop for the famous story of Rachel, Leah and their shared husband (Gen. 29). His actions also provide a clear illustration of using, rather than receiving the divine artwork entrusted to us by God.
Laban was the father of fair Rachel and the man for whom Jacob gladly worked seven years to receive his beloved’s hand. After Jacob’s service was completed, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah (his other daughter) first, and so indentured the young man to another seven years to pay the bride price for both girls.
This powerful story of love and betrayal shows Laban’s propensity to use others, which leads to immeasurable heartache for Rachel, Leah and Jacob. And this pain does not end with them; instead, it affects the generations following. Even the passage of time cannot cover the crass treachery and deceit that Laban showed toward Jacob. Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine this family patriarch defending himself. No doubt he could enumerate many good reasons for this abuse and say, with all sincerity, that his dealings with Jacob were really “for the very best of all concerned.”
Laban may have even considered himself Jacob’s benefactor, a kind desert sheik bringing a penniless wanderer into his household. The years that he took advantage of Jacob were, to Laban at least, only a trifling entrance fee to such a fine clan. In other words, the older man acted as though a young, hard-working Jacob was his resource to be rightfully used, not a son-in-law to be received.
Laban made no attempt to understand the work God was doing in Jacob’s life. It is doubtful that the thought ever crossed the Bedouin’s mind that Jacob actually had a purpose of his own, and that this divine purpose should have been cultivated and developed.
LESSONS WE CAN LEARN
Of course we should not expect too much from an idol-keeping pagan like Laban, but what about us? God often sends some wandering “Jacobs” to us because he has a purpose for them. Yet how do we treat them? Are we subconsciously like Laban, seeing them as a means to enlarge our tent or as free labor to build up our flocks? Do we use them and their spiritual gifts to further our ministry goals? Or do we act more like Barnabas, a man who allowed the handiwork of God in Paul’s life to develop into a unique piece of art? In Barnabas’ case there was no manipulation, no using. Even at the expense of his own preeminence in their shared ministry, he nurtured Paul to become the man he was destined to be.
When given the privilege of mentoring an emerging leader, we must strive to appreciate the person God is making that individual into and simply participate with God in that process. It is imperative for us to encourage the person to pursue the calling on his or her life, rather than using him or her to support the calling on our own. Perhaps only then will we be able to make room, even rejoice, when his or her gifts surpass our own. We must fight, at all cost, the spirit of Laban that lies latent in each of us. This is the attitude that is quick to see others as a resource to be exploited rather than as people with a calling all their own.
This matter is especially important to those of us serving in world missions. The majority of Christian missionaries leave wealthy, highly developed countries to work in poorer, lesser developed mission fields. Quite easily, the relative position of missionary to local Christian, especially as it concerns wealth and its power, can turn into a Laban-Jacob relationship. It is easy for the powerful to fall into the trap of using the weak. Therefore, we must be very careful how we relate to the young men and women God sends to us, to watch that we are not treating God’s servants as if they were our own. We must consciously receive them, marveling at God’s purpose and calling they display, and seeking always for its highest artistic expression in their lives.
We all remember the moral to the story of Jacob. His father-in-law was God’s chosen instrument in dealing with Jacob’s own scheming and manipulating character. Even so, this does not change the truth about Laban’s sin and blatant self-interest in dealing with the young man. Nor does it change the harsh judgment of history on this lamentable character. Like Laban before us, we may claim that what we are doing is best for all concerned, when in fact we are manipulating others to fulfill our desires. Yet, because our arguments are hollow self-deceptions, future generations will judge us more accurately than we did ourselves.
Herein lies the lesson for those on the frontier edges of the gospel. It may be true that from time to time God uses harsh measures to remove flaws from some of his artwork. This is the creator’s right. But who wants to be remembered as the foul, self-centered tool which was fit for that purpose? Who wants to be eulogized as a Laban? I think we would all like to better resemble Barnabas or Paul. Let us live as though this were the truth.
Lewis, C. S. 1992. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gene Daniels (a pseudonym) and his family have been serving among an unreached Muslim people group in Central Asia since 1997.
Copyright © 2006 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.