The Toddler’s School of Missiology: Everything I Needed to Know about Church Planting I Could Have Learned from My Children
by Andy Johnson
The author, a church planter in Burkina Faso, details how child-rearing and church planting can reveal similar lessons.
My wife and I live among the Dagara people of southwestern Burkina Faso. Being a relatively new father of two (a son adopted from our host country and a daughter born to us), I daily find myself reflecting upon how I am raising my children. Additionally, as our team of four families has passed the midway point of our initial commitment to the Dagara, I have also found myself considering what it means to plant churches among this people group. Oddly enough, many of the lessons I have begun to learn in the one apply to the other. Below are five of these.
Lesson #1: Not Everyone Wants to Follow My Schedule
Parenting. My son is an amazing sleeper. From the time he came into our lives, he has slept through the night and has taken two naps daily. Our newborn daughter, however, was an entirely different story. Over the course of her first few weeks, she quickly settled into a regular pattern, albeit not the one we would have chosen: one night, she would sleep three to four hours at a stretch; the next, she would not sleep for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
Church planting. This lesson applies universally when it comes to church planting. I sometimes feel I should write a modified suggestion of James’ words in James 4:15 at the top of every page in my daily planner: “If it is the Lord’s will, Monday…If it is the Lord’s will, Tuesday.” I am regularly frustrated by what happens to my finely-tuned schedule. For instance, the Dagara have 3-day long funerals. When we first began ministry, I would become quite irritated when I rode into a village, sweaty and tired, only to find a funeral in progress—an event which inevitably translated into no teaching time for me. After all, I had scheduled this lesson series to end a month from now. With time, I began to understand that these funerals were an opportunity for me to show respect, cement relationships, create new ones, and show that Christians are compassionate and care about more than their daily planners. Many Christians even use these funerals as an outreach opportunity. During a funeral, while various pagan rituals are going on, Christians will gather together to sing, to ask for God’s mercy, to take up a collection to help the family defray the costs of the funeral, and to pray for those who do not yet know the Lord.
Lesson #2: Lifelong Patterns Are Difficult to Change
Parenting. Our son was four months old when we brought him home from the orphanage. Over the course of his young life he had understandably grown accustomed to a certain way of life. My wife and I had been told at the orphanage that he was an unusually calm, easy baby. In fact, through the hustle and bustle of making it back to our home, he indeed was quite calm. Once we arrived and settled in, however, he began screaming any time he was alone with the two of us. After trying all the standard tactics, it dawned on us that he only screamed during quiet times. With forty other children in his orphanage, he was accustomed to noise of one kind or another every minute of every day. Loud music calmed his crying fits and brought on sleep. As an active toddler today, if there is not enough noise to suit him, he gladly supplies it himself.
Church planting. The process of salvation happens in an instant. There is that moment when our sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. Beyond that, however, our lives are a continuing process of redemption. As Paul told the Philippians, we can be confident that “he who began a good work in us will carry it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). This requires much patience on our part; however, I am slowly realizing that it requires even more patience on God’s part as he watches his children work out what it means to be saved. Paul did, after all, tell those same Philippian Christians that God’s good work would not be finished next week, but only on the day of Christ. One of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of our work is walking alongside new Dagara Christians as they discern how to honor God within their culture. Marriages, how they plant their fields, what they do at funerals, how they treat their children—all these must be reconsidered. It is a slow, painful process that sometimes seems to involve four steps back for every five forward. Despite that, God is redeeming his people.
Lesson #3: Being Adopted Provides Equal Sonship
Parenting. Our son had been with us a couple of months when I found myself preparing to feed him a banana for the first time. I was suddenly struck with panic, afraid I would send him into anaphylactic shock. I am mildly allergic to bananas, and I was worried he could have inherited my food allergy. Several minutes later, it dawned on me that the likelihood of my adopted son inheriting my food allergy was slim to none. This was indicative, however, of how he had become my son. I no longer thought of him as my adopted son. He was, simply, my son.
Church planting. All Christians have been adopted by the Father in Christ, heirs together with him, true children, complete with all the rights of sonship. All of us are branches that have been grafted into the tree. We were all dead in our sins, but are now made alive in Christ. Although I know these things, at times I have struggled to trust this when it comes to the Dagara Christians. Given the fact that we have more training and more experience interpreting God’s Word, the very same Spirit that indwells the members of our team indwells the newest Dagara Christians. We must remember that, as heirs of the promise, the Dagara are gifted by the Spirit just as we (the missionaries) are. Increasingly, I am trusting them to be led by the Spirit.
The village church of Mutori had an interesting problem in that while there were more than twenty women in the church, only one man had come to the Lord. They committed to asking the Lord to call the men of Mutori to the Body of Christ. After a period of prayer, they believed the Spirit led them to throw a party to commemorate their baptisms. They felt called to invite the entire village at the cost of spending every last bit of money the church had collected. My immediate reaction to “wasting” the entire church treasury on one party was to dismiss it as a terrible idea and poor stewardship. Feeling led to trust, however, our team kept silent and watched with anticipation the results of this rather unique evangelistic outreach. While the party did in fact take all the church’s money (and more on top of that!), it also served to increase their standing in the village and to rekindle interest in what God was doing in their village. The financial burden of this party was well worth it, as this church now counts among its members not only more than twice the original number of women, but also a number of men. As he has on so many occasions, the Spirit proved to be already living and active in these newly adopted children of the Father.
Lesson #4: Live in the Present
Parenting. I have often wished my son were just a little older. When he was so little that he could not even hold his head up, I found myself looking forward to watching him sit upright. When he began crawling, I wanted him to walk so he would not get so dirty (a fact which illustrates how little I knew about toddlers). Now, as he learns to speak, I am wishing fluency on him. So many parents have warned me not to blink—that before long I will be dropping my son off at college or walking my daughter down the aisle. Yet, I still find myself nudging them onward to the next milestone. I have begun intentionally living in the now, enjoying my son’s almost-intelligible baby talk and getting excited when my daughter turns her head toward my voice.
Church planting. I believe I have the best job in the world. Every morning, I wake up in an exotic (well, at least, different) place, with the job description of planting churches and telling those who have not heard about Jesus his good news. I get to ride my bike to work. I live an hour from elephants in the wild. I have a 4-wheel-drive truck in a place where I actually need it from time to time. On good days, it is hard for me to believe I get paid (albeit not well, but paid nevertheless) for what I do. Despite that, I have recently found myself obsessing about the end of my time in Burkina Faso. Our team has been very intentional about keeping our eventual phase-out in mind. We have never sunk our tent pegs too deep. Additionally, this past September marked the midway point of our initial commitment to the field. The end is hopefully at least five years out, and yet I am already job hunting!
One of my goals for the coming years is to relish what a great thing it is to plant churches. I will remember that look in someone’s eyes when, for the first time, it dawns on him or her that even he or she can be forgiven. When I am there for someone once named “The gods’ love” to publicly change her name to “God loves,” I will live in that moment. When an old man draws water from a well (most definitely woman’s work) to fill a 55-gallon drum in order to be baptized during the dry season, I will not think about my next career move. And when I see thirty people get on their knees in order to be baptized in six inches of water and mud, I will thank God for putting me there for such a time as that.
Lesson #5: I Knew More about Parenting and Church Planting before I Started Doing Them
Parenting. Prior to having children, I would often return home after a party or church activity and pontificate to my wife about what a poor job such and such was doing with his kids. When I saw a boy who would not eat his veggies or who hit another child, I judged the parents for not knowing what I, in my child-free brilliance, already knew. Now, however, it is my own son trailing sand throughout my in-laws’ house because he stuffed his diaper full at the playground when I was not looking. My pride and joy is now the one running up to his playmates at church, hugging them gently, kissing them on the cheek, and shoving them to the ground. It is my boy, the one who will carry on the Johnson name for future generations, whose favorite, most comfortable position involves his thumb in his mouth and his forefinger in his nose. As it turns out, I did not know nearly so much as I thought I did.
Church planting. Leaving university life, equipped with my lovely bride at my side and my masters degree in missions in my back pocket, I felt confident I knew what I was getting into. Now, six years into full-time ministry, I feel as though I am finally beginning to get a handle on the things that I need to start learning! This turnaround is due not to forgetting what I knew back then, but rather to the Lord developing two things in me: humility and trust. First, I have begun to understand that truly humble people do not have a low self-image. They do not go through life convinced they are incompetent or unable to get anything done. It is not about a low self-image; rather, it comes down to no self-image. Truly humble people have no self-image because they focus entirely on the character of God. They focus so much on becoming Christ-centered that their personal opinions of themselves fade into the background as of no importance. Second, I am learning to trust God. Despite saying most of the things I am supposed to say about this mission being the Lord’s, as I left for the field, it was something I was going to do. It did not take long, however, for it to dawn on me that this task was far too great for me and that there was no way I or my team could possibly get this done.
Thankfully, following close on the heels of that panicky revelation, came the assurance that the work is the Lord’s. He calls us to be faithful, but promises to do the heavy lifting himself. According to the promises in his word, he will fight for us—we need only to be still. We need not let our hearts be troubled; we trust in God and can also trust in Jesus, knowing that he goes before us to prepare our places in eternity. It is thrilling to know that some of those places are now prepared for Dagara children of God. Perhaps, when my time to return home finally comes, I will be blessed by the Lord to have my place prepared next to one of my good friends and brothers in Christ from Burkina Faso.
Andy Johnson has been planting churches among the Dagara of Burkina Faso since 2002. He is married with two children and a third on the way. Andy received his masters degree in missions from Abilene Christian University.
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