EMQ » January–March 2023 » Volume 59 Issue 1
By Luke P[i]
Two and a half years ago, our team landed in a sprawling, noisy city, thousands of miles from home. Our eyes were drawn to the foothills of a mountain range in the distance, and I remember watching the desert plain fall away as we wound our way up into them. Our ears still rang with the echoes of prayers and commissions from our families, our churches, and our sending agency.
On a heart level, I believe we understood nothing would happen here without the power of God. We were aware that without abiding in Christ, we could not bear fruit. And we knew that we must prioritize prayer. But my head was also swimming with ideas – ideas about how to maximize that fruit in the most efficient way.
I’d read lots of books about mission theory and strategy, and studied the experiences of others. Many knowledgeable missionaries commended particular strategies to me, and urged me to explore them. I thought that surely in the alphabet soup of acronyms – like DMM (Disciple Making Movements), DBS (Discovery Bible Study), T4T (Training for Trainers), and CPM (Church Planting Movements) – the key must exist that would unlock kingdom expansion in this closed part of world.
As a medical doctor, I was drawn to diagnosis and treatment, algorithms, and research. These missiological methods seemed to offer that same feeling of scientific certainty – follow these steps and watch the results follow. Moreover, the vast amounts of evidence of their success working in other parts of the world seemed to prove their validity. It even appeared like these approaches improved or even corrected the perceived mistakes of missionary generations past. Finally, and most importantly, good biblical arguments supported them.
I would soon find out, the Lord still had other things to teach me.
Lessons From Failure
As my family and I settled into our new lives in the mountains, I set about applying, or rather, preparing to apply these methods. Yet over the first two years, I found that the reality on the ground overwhelmed the theories. For one, language learning and cultural acquisition went much slower than I had anticipated. The long slog of daily language lessons and unending mistakes and corrections left no room for thoughts of methods. They had to wait until they could be put into words.
However even as our team reached conversational proficiency, the steps of the methods remained elusive. I pursued a potential person of peace, only for the relationship to grow dry. Another relationship seemed to get awkward after suggesting studying the Bible with family members. Efforts to do a Discovery Bible Study (DBS) with the few scattered believers were easily derailed by tangents.
Disunity and mistrust plagued relationships between believers, both local and foreign. Our own team had to work hard to grow in trust and love for each other. Most painfully, deep areas of selfishness and jealousy were unearthed in my own heart that felt paralyzing as I tried to settle on a vision for ministry methodology. I never felt more deeply the truth that the Lord disciplines those whom he loves (Hebrews 12:6).
Now, to be clear, this happened during my first two years, and I was not yet well-versed in these methods. I’m sure I made many mistakes along the way in attempting to implement them. But several missionaries who were on the field much longer than me in this part of the world detailed similar experiences when attempting to implement various methodologies.
And yet, I was left wondering if the issue wasn’t with any particular strategy, but rather with the prioritization of strategy itself in missionary thinking and training, especially early in a missionary’s career. We are well-intentioned in scouring the life of Jesus to discern and replicate his strategy, but are we missing the life out of which that strategy grew?
Christ’s life was one devoted to prayer, at all hours and regardless of convenience. His was a life of communion with the Father. We see hints of this abiding life at the root of many of the great disciple making movements across the globe. Jerry Trousdale, after surveying many DMMs in his book Miraculous Movements, concludes that the first paradigm shift needed in mission strategy today is “to make intercessory prayer the highest priority.”[ii]
David Garrison, in his seminal Church Planting Movements, lists prayer as the first of ten universal elements that he found in every movement he surveyed. He writes, “Prayer typically provides the first pillar in a strategy coordinator’s master plan for reaching his or her people group. However, it is the vitality of prayer in the missionary’s personal life that leads to its imitation in the life of the new church and its leaders.”[iii]
A survey of three hundred missionaries from thirty-four agencies identified prayer as one of seven key “themes of fruitfulness” that led to communities of believers. The authors of the study write, “Prayer is not an afterthought. It is essential to every aspect of the process of forming faith communities. Fruitful workers are known as people of prayer, individually and corporately.”[iv]
All these sources identify various aspects of successful strategies around the world, but prayer stands out as the central theme of fruitful ministry. Why is this? When we think about it, the prayerful life is by necessity the abiding life. The abiding life emulates Jesus’ life, and this flows into a radically dependent strategy. This is summed up in Christ’s own words when he says in 5:19 that he can only do what he sees his Father doing, and then in John 12:49 when he explains that he can only speak what his Father commands him to say.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we often wish for a clear-cut series of steps to see God’s kingdom grow. Deep down, we know the kingdom doesn’t work like that. Only the Father’s strategy succeeds. So we will only be successful by participating in what he is doing in our place and time. Jesus is clear that the Father’s strategy is only accessible through the abiding life: “…apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5b). The branches cannot be cut off from the root and still expect to thrive and bear fruit.
This abiding life is marked by death: death to self, death to operating and making decisions in our own strength, and death to our own wisdom (Proverbs 3:5-8). Making time for abundant prayer means dying to other things that may feel more productive. Asking God for his strategy and waiting for his guidance means dying to making quick decisions in our own wisdom.
After I’d had a few spiritual conversations with my neighbor, he expressed interest in reading the Psalms in his own language. I soon got a copy from a nearby city and prepared to march over to his house to present it to him right away. But something made me pause, and I began to pray about it. I sensed the Lord wanted me to wait, even though that seemed completely counterproductive.
But wait I did. A few days later as I was leaving my house, I noticed that he was standing outside. The street was completely deserted, which was highly unusual for that time of day. I quickly got the Psalms and gave it to him, and, because no one was around, we were able to have a deep conversation about it without him feeling nervous.
This seemed like such a minor thing, but death to our own wisdom must start in small decisions. The Lord Jesus promises that this death leads somewhere: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 ESV, emphasis mine).
Follow God’s Leading
When I recall landing in this country for the first time, I think differently about what I needed. Here’s some advice I wish I’d heard back then. Don’t arrive on the field with a focus on techniques and methods. Be diligent to equip yourself with practical ministry tools, but don’t make these the priority.
As soon as you sense that first call to the mission field, think of yourself as a seed. Plant yourself deeply in prayer and communion with the Father. When you arrive, spread your roots firmly in God’s love when language and cultural barriers press in around you. And as you wait deep underground, listen for the voice of the Master Sower. Push your green shoots into the sun and the air toward his voice, and grow in the direction he tells you to.
When we follow his leading, I have no doubt that we will use the tools and methods we’ve learned, branching out in all directions. Most likely, to the observer, our ministries will bear many of the biblical hallmarks of the various strategies we find in books and articles. But follow the source of the fruit back up the stem and branch to the trunk and down, down into the soil, to the very root, and you will always find the tiny, spent husk of a seed, broken open and buried deep in prayer and communion with the Father. Only the tree planted and abiding by streams of living water will yield its fruit in its season.
Luke P is a family physician and cross-cultural missionary in the Middle East. He grew up in the Middle East as the son of missionaries, and, after completing medical training, returned to the region to work with a charity focused on caring for refugees. He is married to J, an amazing woman whose heart is to reach the women around her with the gospel, and together they are raising three wonderful kids.
[i] Pseudoymn used for security purposes. Author photo is representative.
[ii] Jerry Trousdale, Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus. Thomas Nelson, 2012. (page 180)
[iii] David V. Garrison, Church Planting Movements (Booklet). International Missions Board, 1999. (Page 29)
[iv] Eric Adams, Don Allen, and Bob Fish, “Seven Themes of Fruitfulness.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2009, (page 76)
EMQ, Volume 59, Issue 1. Copyright © 2023 by Missio Nexus. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from Missio Nexus. Email: EMQ@MissioNexus.org.