by Robert J. Yackley
We all have pictures of the past indelibly printed on our minds. Sometimes we wish we could simply forget those images. Other times we’re thankful we can’t.
We all have pictures of the past indelibly printed on our minds. Sometimes we wish we could simply forget those images. Other times we’re thankful we can’t. Twenty-five years ago I saw something that I haven’t thought about in many years. I’m grateful for the memory now, because the image of what I saw that day serves as a vivid reminder of something we must avoid today.
It was an unusually cool spring morning, and we were all in the family car following our usual route to church. As I peered out the back seat window onto a local pasture, I noticed that something was wrong. Normally that field was filled with grazing sheep.
“Dad, how come all the sheep are sleeping?” I asked. “Son, they’re not sleeping. They’re all dead,” he said.
His answer pierced my heart. On that cold misty morning I looked at an entire pasture covered with frozen sheep. Thousands of sheep had fallen prey to an unseasonable cold front. They were the innocent victims of a rancher who had simply sheared them too early. In his haste to bring his product to market, the aggressive, yet naive, rancher had sacrificed an entire flock.
As I looked at the piles of carcasses, I remember crying, and feeling confused. “Grown-ups are supposed to know better, aren’t they? Why didn’t somebody say something? Why did this have to happen?” Those were the reasonable questions that raced through my mind.
SHEEP AT RISK
Today, I find myself asking the same questions as I observe the myriad of ministries descending upon the former Soviet Union. Only this time it’s not the sheep back in my hometown that are at risk, but the sheep of God’s pasture. Both the sheep who have entered the gate, and those who have approached it, risk being sheared and left in the cold. The sheep are all those who have just recently been exposed to the message of the kingdom. Regardless of where they stand now, it is safe to assume that they’ve all come from a field of despair. A field where their earlier “shepherds” had used them and then neglected them. A field where promises were easily broken, and hopes were always dashed.
Unless we saints, who are currently marching in en masse, begin to act more like caring shepherds rather than hasty ranchers, the fields of Russia and the new republics will soon be littered with carcasses of sheared sheep who were unable to fight off the cold. Sheep who were promised the world, but were left abandoned in their homes.
I know full well I’m walking on thin ice here. The former U.S.S.R. is the recipient of a Western missionary zeal that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the church. Tens of thousands of Christians are now going on short-term trips each year to evangelize and to preach the gospel in these previously restricted lands. I applaud their enthusiasm. I commend them for the sacrifices they make to go. But sadly, very few will stay long enough to make disciples. Because that takes time. And time is one of the greatest sacrifices we can make.
Across the table from me sat a missionary who had just returned from a two-week ministry project in Russia. He recalled the moment he said good-bye to his translator, a beautiful young girl who had just surrendered her life to Jesus after translating the gospel for all the others to hear. My friend finished his story with these words: “As we left, I looked back and saw her standing there holding the red rose I had given her, with a tear in her eye, and I wondered what would ever happen to her.” I wondered about her, too, and about the thousands of others just like her.
Nurturing the lambs of Jesus and shaping them into disciples of Christ may not be the stuff of exciting reports or promotional videos, and it may not even be considered expedient or cost effective. But making disciples is exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.
The missions blitz we see in Russia and some of the other new republics is not really new,it’s only new to these republics. For six years I lived in Budapest, where I directed the work of Church Resource Ministries. I lived there three years prior to the 1989 revolution, and for three years following it. During the “bad old days” we had to work quietly and personally with individuals. We ministered behind the scenes, focusing on individual relationships, discipleship, spiritual formation, and nurturing. The environment wouldn’t permit anything else.
But after 1989 the political and ministry landscape changed, and the blitz began. Churches and movements descended on Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland by the hundreds, if not thousands. National pastors and church leaders would often run themselves ragged trying not to miss out on something special. And they were always very sensitive to never disappoint a Western Christian. One Czechoslovakian pastor reported hosting nearly 100 American guests in one month. While most of those guests had come to serve him, it is no surprise to learn that he, like many Eastern European Christian leaders, carried the lion’s share of serving. And it hasn’t been their own flock that they served. It’s been the Westerner who “has come so far to help.”
Many of the short-term missions and visits have been effective, some even catalytic. Most have been neither. After the hype, when the dust settles, there is generally little left for the indigenous church to build on.
STILL SEEKING, NOT SAVED
The most recent recipients of our missionary zeal, the churches in Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics, have already concluded that the vast majority of those who get “saved” through visiting Westerners are really still seeking, and it is not always faith that they are in search of. Many are raising their hands out of pure desperation. They are acutely aware that the West can greatly help to alleviate their vast poverty. Many others are responding out of an almost desperate curiosity for something new. Especially for genuine relationships. But they often feel defrauded and reject both the messenger and the message when we abruptly leave before they’ve experienced what was promised. Some are simply raising their hands to confess the sins and wrongs of their land. It is a collective confession, not uncommon to an Orthodox people. It is not necessarily an admission of personal failure, but rather the confession of an innocent victim. It has little to do with personally, or even collectively, accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior.
BROKEN AND DESPAIRING
We must recognize that the people of these nations are a broken and often despairing people. Their wounds are deep. Their hearts have been severely scarred. That must affect the way we serve, the way we speak, and the way we come. We must come as patient, healing shepherds, ready to go the distance. Not as naive ranchers with a hasty agenda.
It would be foolish to doubt that many are genuinely coming to Christ as a result of the unprecedented short-term push into the C.I.S. The sheer volume of witnesses will generate converts regardless of the sensitivity or the efficiency of the approach. But most of those who raise their hands, who step onto a platform, or who fill out a card will likely end up like the sheep from my hometown, hastily sheared and left out in the cold to die. The Great Commission demands more than that. Simple Christian compassion demands more than that. We can, and we must, do more than that.
Throughout the former U.S.S.R. today, the potential of short-term ministries to distract, disappoint, and even unconsciously deceive Russian believers is perhaps even greater than it was just a few years earlier in the former Eastern Bloc countries. Already Russians are forming opinions of Western Christianity that are less than healthy, and perhaps even destructive. Russian believers often describe Western Christians as “people who come to give us money,” or as“people who come to show movies,” or as “people who come to preach in our pulpits.” We are typically described by something we do. Rarely are we described by who we are.
A colleague of mine was unfairly lumped into one of those narrow categories for some time. Not because of his behavior, but simply because he’s an American. And for many Russians, the people described above are the only kinds of American Christians that exist. But for nearly two years now Bill has listened, and learned, and loved. He has studied the language of their heart. Bill and others have sensitively searched for cultural clues to better understand the nationals and to connect them with Jesus. And now, two years later, his friends are beginning to embrace Jesus. They’re embracing a savior they know. A savior whom they have now seen, if only dimly. They are not raising their hands before strangers who make strange requests of them; they are surrendering their lives to Jesus in the presence of a loving and trusted friend.
And Russian leaders are noticing. One Russian pastor enthusiastically expressed, “As I have watched you, I have finally concluded that there is another kind of American Christian. A kind we didn’t know actually existed before. The kind of Christian who comes to be with us, and to become one of us. You have shown us this. And this is what we need.”
What that Russian pastor observed is sometimes called incarnational ministry — identifying with the people in order to serve them. It’s not new; Jesus modeled it for us many years ago and then asked us to serve as he served. It seems as though we’ve forgotten it in our enthusiasm to go and in our fear that the door may close. We may eventually pay a heavy price for our haste.
Despite the potential harm that may come from the tens of thousands of Christians who will visit the former U.S.S.R. in the next few years, I do believe that the pros of short-term mission projects can still outweigh the cons. Short-term workers can provide a healthy momentum boost to an ongoing project. First-hand exposure is still one of the best means for enhancing both prayer and financial support of missions efforts. And there are very few individuals who will commit to long-term missions today without some short-term experience. For these reasons and others, short-term missions are here to stay.
STEPS TO INTEGRITY
Three simple practices would add immeasurable integrity to our short-term work.
1. When promoting short-term trips, we should be honest and realistic with our words. Many “ministry” trips may more accurately be described as “vision” trips, “exposure” trips, or “come and see” trips. Those can be very beneficial, especially in rallying prayer support and recruitment of additional laborers. Perhaps if more people traveled abroad for such stated purposes, there would be less of a tendency to create potentially ineffective ministries for the sake of the guest.
2. For those who are prepared and equipped to minister, short-term projects should be structured to maximize the time that an individual Western believer will be in contact with an individual national. One or two weeks spent with the same person, or with the same group, 24 hours a day, is far more effective for genuine ministry than the “Ten Cities in Ten Days!” type trips. We need to be good news, as we speak Good News. The more time we have together sharing our lives as well as our hope, the greater our influence and impact will be.
3. All short-term trips should be intimately connected to long-term resident ministries. There should always be some vehicle in place to continue to answer the seeker’s questions following any evangelistic effort. (Especially since most “decisions” are actually expressions of interest.) For those nationals who do embrace Jesus through the ministry of the short-term work, there should be nationals trained and ready to nurture and disciple these new believers and assimilate them into the body of Christ. Without these critical support systems in place before we visit, we will inevitably fail to serve as loving shepherds would serve.
It is past time for all of us who travel into Russia and the other republics to begin showing that there is a different kind of Western Christian—Christian with the heart of a pastor. A Christian who will not be satisfied to skate along the surface of society oblivious to the ethos and the needs underneath. It is time we all seek to change our approach to ministry in these newly accessible lands before it’s too late.
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