by Frank W. Allen
Like the thousands of Iraqi landmines strewn across the desert, potential booby traps can blow up in the faces of church-planting teams that take to the mission field with high enthusiasm but little knowledge of the territory.
Like the thousands of Iraqi landmines strewn across the desert, potential booby traps can blow up in the faces of church-planting teams that take to the mission field with high enthusiasm but little knowledge of the territory. To avoid disaster, I’ve addressed some key issues that too often fail to appear in our church-planting seminars and literature.
Most missionary candidates today realize they will have to work under national leaders. But what will the team face when it sets foot on foreign soil?
1. Lack of leadership training. Most likely, the national team leader has no leadership training. Often, he is younger than the missionary and does not have as much formal education. It’s a false assumption that he can be a good leader because he knows the language and the culture. The team either bypasses him or the work stagnates, and both the leader andteam are frustrated.
Young, untried missionariesneeddirection. If the mission cannot provide it under a national leader, it must quickly remedy the problem. To ignore it is to risk casualties.
2. Leadership styles. Expectations degenerate into conflicts because of misunderstandings over leadership styles. Leadership styles are neither sacred nor fixed in concrete. They vary from culture to culture and from place to place. People from other countries note how much Americans are chained to Roberts Rules of Order in our business meetings. Sometimes the nationals, whom we have taught, are even more badly addicted to Roberts, and meetings can be run into the ground over parliamentary distinctions.
Some leaders grow up with a hands-off leadership style. This is just about as frustrating as working under a leader who lacks training and experience. In other cultures, the team leader is an autocrat who makes all the decisions and the team knuckles under, or else.
Obviously, we cannot simply criticize different cultural leadership styles. Rather, we must recognize that they exist and that people preparing for team ministries must prepare ahead of time to face them. Unless we clearly understand and accept distinctive cultural dynamics, we may be programming our teams for unbearable frustrations and eventual failure.
3. Nationalism. Until more recent times, missionaries have not encountered full-blown nationalism, which can be either wholesome or destructive. It’s no use fighting it or rejecting it; it’s a fact of life.
Wholesome nationalism is essential to the selfhood of any people and to the growing churches. If we fail to prepare missionaries for it, they could fall into some huge difficulties. Here are some guidelines to avoid the booby trap of nationalism:
(a) downplay our own ethnocentrisms; (b) learn to more fully appreciate the host culture; (c) encourage rather than criticize national leaders; (d) bow out before resentment sets in.
Missionary team members can respond positively to nationalism by:
(a) remembering they are servants; (b) avoiding defensiveness; (c) reminding themselves that much resentment is aimed at their nationality, not at them personally; (d) acting in love; (e) speaking biblically, if nationalism degenerates into bitterness and hatred.
Team membership carries with it certain economic implications. Team members frequently encounter life style questions. The lower living standards prevalent in many countries may demand a much simpler life style than most missionaries are used to. The close relationships within a team often exacerbate economic disparities.
Therefore missionaries must be willing to deprive themselves of some things that may be right and proper in other circumstances. We cannot continue to rationalize the differences, given the economic facts of life.
Our Western concepts of teaming are not necessarily understood or appreciated in some cultures. For example, prior to our mission’s going into Hong Kong, we strongly backed the team concept to Chinese pastors and other church leaders. Their response was less than enthusiastic. They couldn’t see all the supposed advantages we talked about.
That’s probably true in other cultures as well. Some pastors and leaders see our team concept as a threat, not as a help. Therefore, we must assure them of our desire to be servants, and of our willingness to modify our plans and procedures.
Our American team ideal doesn’t fit in some societies. We’re supposed to be pals, equals, and enjoy first-name status with everybody. But in Japan, for example, leaders expect to be addressed formally. These men are used to listening to team members and then deciding unilaterally.
In some teams, where several missionaries work under a pastor, the pastor’s major relationship is with one of the missionaries. After a team discussion, the Japanese leader decides on his own and passes down the word through the one missionary he is closest to.
InSpain, pastors welcome missionary teams, buttheAmericans soon meet some subtle nuances peculiar to Spain. When we think of a team, we think of a number of people working together. But the Spanish pastors, like those in Hong Kong, see so many needs that they can’t conceive of several people bunching up in one place.
In some countries, where anti-Americanism may run high, the presence of too many foreigners in one place makes the pastor uncomfortable. He also worries about too much of his work—and perhaps his authority?—being taken over by missionaries. He sees them cutting his own members out of their ministries.
Some pastors resent having outside teams assigned to them. They rightly want some time to assess these people and to build trust and friendships with them. In the end, the team’s success or failure will largely depend on relationships, not on skills and training. This fact should be stressed on our U.S. campuses, where there is such a keen interest in church-planting teams.
ROLE OF WOMEN
We must recognize the roles that women have in team leadership. In our mission we have many women with high leadership abilities. I believe our teams would be stronger if we accepted the fact that the Holy Spirit has given women all of his gifts, just as he has to men.
If we continue to ignore gifted women on our teams, and if we place ungifted men in leadership roles to the exclusion of gifted women, we risk losing the women on the team and the work will be handicapped. Not all men are willing to work under women and problems arising from this attitude must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Some members’ personalities do not always neatly mesh with others. Personal idiosyncracies become irritants. More aggressive types can easily aggravate consensus types. Conflicts arise and team members must be shown that there are ways of solving them, other than "grin and bear it," or "pray about it."
Team leaders must be taught how to resolve conflicts. The mission itself must be prepared to act if the leader either does not recognize the conflict, or is unprepared to handle it. The mission must plan for possible changes in team leadership and in the team’s make-up, for the sake of harmony.
On a recent trip to Asia I discovered once again how much trouble springs from national differences. In one conference, during our discussion about objectives, it became clear that not everyone agreed on the process of setting objectives and goals. One non-North American couple felt that objectives should grow more out of prayer than out of discussion.
Prospective team members must realize that respect for national and cultural differences is absolutely essential. Being different is not the same as being wrong. Thus far, our approaches to multinational teams have been far too simplistic.
We need to be clear about our teams’ basic purposes. Are they doing evangelism and church planting, or church maintenance? From my perspective, the greatest service we can render to the churches is to make sure that our teams are leading them outward in new ventures of evangelism and church planting. When we recruit students for our teams with the dream of evangelism and church planting, we have to make sure that this is what they do when they get to the field. Sadly, sometimes that fails to happen.
We have to accept, of course, that sometimes our new teams arrive with unrealistic expectations. So on the home end, we have to do as much as we can to prepare them for those awful booby traps. Part of their preparation should include not only lectures about the potential pitfalls on the field, but also some real life experience working through mine fields at home.
Unfortunately, some teams arrive on the field like rookies. They haven’t had much experience in evangelism and church planting at home, and, for the most part, they have never lived in such close quarters with other people as they will be doing on the field.
Therefore, weneed to develop more"practicefields," or prefield internships in team living and evangelizing, even though this might mean a longer preparation time. We might put new teams under apprenticeship to older, more qualified leaders on the field.
Our mission has used teams successfully, especially in Kamuning, Quezon City, and Makati, Metro Manila, the Philippines. Over the last decade or so, many students have flocked to this concept, but they have not been forewarned about some of the booby traps and failures. In the interests of working together more effectively, we have to call for perhaps fewer, but better qualified team members.
EMQ, Vol. 27, No. 3. Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.