Make the way clear!

I am accustomed to undertaking some fairly demanding walks in the Lake District, and this week while at the Keswick Convention is no different.  Yesterday, what should have been a reasonably easy walk turned into a challenging scramble up screes and rocks after I missed the turning.  On returning to the point where I had gone wrong, I realised that the principal route looked like a side turning and the ‘wrong’ and more dangerous path looked wider.  There was no signpost.  Since “the broad path leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13) and with the lives of future fellwalkers in mind, I made an impromptu arrow to show them which way to go.

There are obvious evangelistic applications to this point, but also ones for discipleship, as we show others less experienced than we are how they can live a Christian life.  But there is also an application in mission: too often I have met the injured mission workers who got lost or had an accident along the way, because there was nobody to point them the correct way.

Syzygy is pleased to be working ever more closely with mission agencies to help them guide their mission partners effectively.  But many of the people we help have no connection to mainstream agencies.  Perhaps their church has sent them, bypassing an agency, though the church may have little understanding of how to support them in the field.  Sometimes (like me when I go hiking) they think they know what they’re doing only to find out the hard way they had no idea.  Or maybe they have just gone off and done their own thing without considering the challenges, just like the tourists I see walking up mountains like Scafell Pikes wearing sandals and taking no water with them.

This is why Syzygy seeks to work together with sending churches, and churches of those independent mission workers who are not looking to be ‘sent’, to help train them before they go.  They may not even think they need training, but our experience of picking up the pieces tells us differently.  People we have helped testify to the effectiveness of this.  One mission worker remarked later: “All that stuff you talked through with us, it was so helpful, because it was things we hadn’t even thought about that we needed to do.”

So we need your help to link us into churches who would like more information about how to support mission workers more effectively, and to alert independent mission workers to their need for preparation.  On our website we have a guide for churches and a guide for people going alone.  We want to do everything in our power to point the way effectively for those who are going.  Then, not only can they have a great experience of mission, they can help make the way clear to those who follow them.

Cross-cultural church planting

Today’s guest blogger is Alex Hawke, a mission worker in southeast Asia. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexGTHawke.

 

A Plea from a Missionary

It has been really exciting to see a surge in church planting happening around the world. I believe that planting churches, or should I say, planting churches well, is probably the most effective strategy for reaching those without Christ that there has ever been. Now you know I’m pro-church planting, I’d like to share some thoughts and suggestions for those planting churches cross-culturally from the perspective of a missionary who’s seen the good and the bad. I’m particularly thinking of people church planting in the Global South (previously called the ‘developing world’) with their denomination or church network.

With more people than ever planting churches outside their own culture there’s a need for better training and preparation for cross-cultural mission. The kind of training that most mission organizations require of their workers. I’m pleased to hear this is being included by some church planting networks but it is often not the case. Church planting is too important to embark on without proper consideration of how to serve cross-culturally and how to avoid dependency on foreign influence and money.

So, in no particular order…

Stay humble. Take the posture of a learner who hasn’t arrived with a set of flawless principles and methods. Learn all you can about the country, people group, culture and religion before you go and continue to learn while you’re there. Listen well.

Study about serving cross-culturally before you go. Not all Bible colleges or church planting networks teach about working in other cultures but they really should as so many are now getting involved short or long term. Make sure teaching on ministering cross-culturally is part of your church stream or denomination’s training of church planters. Planting a church anywhere is hard work; doing it in a different culture to your own is even harder. The gospel challenges every culture but that’s no excuse for not aiming to be culturally appropriate in the way we minister.

Commit to learning the local language. Intentionally set time aside at the start to do this. Many get too busy too soon and write off the idea that they’ll ever be able to minister in the local language. It will be hard but the rewards and benefits are worth it as we identify with and show our love and respect to the local people in this way. Putting it bluntly, if the Mormons can be bothered, let’s make it a priority.

Learn from mission organizations. Some church planting networks tend to have little to do with mission agencies. Mission agencies have years of experience in planting churches and cross cultural discipleship and evangelism.

Learn also from organisations which have experience of community development and poverty alleviation etc. Wise up on effective ways to help the poor. Recognise that giving handouts is not helpful in the long run and much work has been done to understand better ways to walk alongside the materially poor or the oppressed.

Live in the town you’re planting in before you plant the church. No-one can specify exactly how long for but knowing a place and making relationships takes time. Planting a church just after arriving

communicates that we think we have a model of church we can just reproduce anywhere without knowing the place or its people. An exception to this could be when we start Bible story-telling or sharing the gospel in a community we don’t live in and this develops into a fellowship of believers.

Love the people. When we’re passionate about reaching a place with the gospel it’s easy to focus on all that needs to change and we can be quick to spot the many faults that exist. Look for things to appreciate. Determine to reject any tendency toward superiority over the local people. The hope is to reach people with the gospel; they know when they are a project rather than genuinely appreciated and loved.

Love the Church. Never forget the often huge price paid by local believers before you arrived. This must humble us. In many parts of the world believers have shed their blood for the cause of Christ or suffer for their faith in ways we never will. One church planted by foreigners made no secret of saying that the existing church in the area was boring. That is such a bad attitude and very ungracious.

Love local pastors. If there are other churches in the area get to know the leaders. Churches planted by foreigners are the source of much concern and often pain among many local pastors. Getting to know you and how God is leading you is very important. I know of one situation where almost whole youth groups, built up over years, have left locally led churches to attend a foreigner-led and funded church with lots of resources, free gifts and exciting programs. Not surprisingly there’s been hurt among local pastors.

Mind the money. Avoid building a building or equipping a building or funding a church’s activities or paying church staff using money sent from overseas. Better to start small with no building than to create dependency on foreign money. The hope is to plant reproducible churches. If what’s planted requires money and equipment that local people don’t have/can’t get it will never reproduce. Christianity is already viewed as ‘foreign’ in many places and using foreign money only compounds this belief. Seek to avoid dependency on foreign money and encourage the church to be self-supporting, giving sacrificially. A lot of churches in wealthier nations set up partnerships with churches in the Global South which mostly involve sending money and often lead to unhealthy influence over the activities, style and decision making of the local church.

Keep it simple. Avoid creating a model of ministry that looks foreign and can’t be replicated by local believers. Set only the priorities and let local people take ownership to decide later what extras they want. As others have noted, the book of Acts gives us some pillars to erect first: teach the Word of God, worship (in a culturally appropriate way), build a fellowship, break bread, be committed to prayer and encourage lives of service. From these pillars, more can be added slowly, together with local input and leadership.

I recently went to a new building in SE Asia that was ready for a congregation that didn’t exist yet. Built with foreign money, there were music stands, a drum kit, a sound system and a raised platform. This only exacerbates the view that Christianity is foreign and that ministry requires lots of money.

Make disciples that make disciples. I’m amazed that in all my Christian life I can recall only a few times I’ve heard anyone teach on how to actually disciple someone. We may get some people coming to our church but are they being discipled? Do they in turn know how to disciple other people? Obviously this is key to reproducing more churches. A healthy church takes responsibility for its part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

One last thing. It should be obvious but choose a name that works in the local language!

Alex Hawke

 

Editor’s note: Anyone thinking of going to plant a church in a different culture would also benefit from reading Syzygy’s guide to Going Alone.

 

 

 

International Student Ministry

Source: http://friendsinternational.uk/

This weekend I was at an event organised by Friends International and was reminded how doing outreach to international students is such a strategic ministry.

Many students come to this country from places it would be hard for us to get mission workers into.  We could spend a lot of time, energy and money recruiting, training and sending mission workers for Creative Access Nations, where they then may have to spend many years learning language and culture before they can be effective in ministry.

Or we can put resources into reaching the students God puts on our very doorsteps, who can be equipped to go back to their home countries and take the gospel quickly and effectively to their own people.  What’s not to like about that?!

There are over 400,000 international students in the UK, many of whom have little opportunity to hear the gospel in their own country.  Yet we have a small window of a few years when it is easy, cost-effective and legal to tell them about Jesus.  If every university in the country had teams seeking to befriend international students and lead them to Christ, this task could be accomplished much quicker.

Unlike overseas ministry which requires a lot of preparation, student outreach is readily accessible to ordinary Christians and churches.  It doesn’t take much special training to make tea at an international student café once a month, help an international student improve their English or cook a meal for a hungry student.  And it’s something that doesn’t require a great commitment of time, just an occasional availability.

So where do you start?

  • Contact an agency working with international students, like Agape, Friends International, Navigators or UCCF and ask how you can get involved.
  • Make a point of welcoming international students to your church and asking how you can help them
  • Download resources from the Friends International website.
  • Pray that God will send international students to your church.

Outreach to international students is an ideal ministry for people who care about world mission but can’t for some reason go abroad themselves.  It’s an opportunity to be part of taking the gospel to the nations – who knows how these students are going to affect their nations by their godly wisdom and actions and by leading their compatriots to Christ.

 

Friendly fire?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why are we still shooting our own people?

‘Toxic leadership’ is a phrase which buzzed around the mission world a few years ago, and then went away.  I haven’t heard it mentioned in a member care context for some time.  Perhaps we got bored with the issue.  Perhaps we thought talking about it for a bit resolved the problem.  Yet a number of incidents that have recently been brought to Syzygy’s attention remind me that, like Chernobyl, the fallout from one critical incident continues to have a devastating effect for many years.

  • Broken and hurting mission workers dealing with the pain of bullying and abuse, often for many years after the original incident.
  • Agencies losing good personnel for utterly avoidable reasons.
  • Churches grappling with supporting wounded mission partners who can’t easily be ‘fixed’.
  • People dismissed from their roles in circumstances that would count as unfair or constructive dismissal if they were UK employees.
  • Mission workers who have original or different ideas being victimised for challenging the status quo.

One influential member care agency uses the tagline “Because we don’t separate the Great Commission from the greatest commandment”.  Yet it seems that all too frequently in our eagerness to do the first, we don’t adequately care for our people, particularly if they have strong personalities or are not afraid to express their opinions.

A misguided model of leadership seeks to impose unity on a disparate group of mission workers  by demanding conformity, rather than building unity by valuing and affirming diversity.  Weak leadership imposes authority through domination rather than winning followers through serving.  Reluctant leadership abdicates, leaving the team without direction.  And people who speak out, complain, or even make constructive suggestions can be tagged as rebels, unfairly targeted, and removed from service.

In most cases, these situations result from structural weaknesses in our organisations rather than merely one or two poor leaders.  Often it’s not the result of deliberate;y abusive leadership but more to do with neglect of mission workers’ needs, lack of support or failure to intervene in difficult situations.   As Rob Hay wrote in 2012, “Mission is full of specialists and empty of trained, skilled and experienced leaders and yet up to 80% of people who go into mission not expecting to lead end up in some kind of leadership position.”  Sadly, it seems nothing much has changed in the last 5 years.

How do we resolve this situation which seriously impedes our efforts to fulfil the Great Commission?  First, sending agencies have to be committed to valuing the people they partner with.  Mission partners need to be seen as valuable yet often fragile people  who need to be nurtured and developed.  They are not an expendable commodity to be exploited.  Agencies invest so much money in the early years of mission workers – recruitment, training, support, language learning – that it is also economically foolish to ignore these issues.  If the agency were an international business, high attrition levels would not be tolerated.  These need to be monitored closely as they are often a sign that something is wrong.

Second, churches need to understand the difficult dynamics of cross-cultural mission and be proactive in supporting their mission partners and working with agencies.   They need to be willing to ask difficult questions, and challenge agencies when problems arise.  One of the most encouraging things I ever saw was a group of church members haranguing an agency leader at a public meeting because they felt the agency was letting down their mission partners.  I thought “I want those people on my support team”!

Third, mission partners need to be honest with their churches and agencies about the real issues.  Misguided loyalty to failing leaders and leadership structures needs to be exposed, or it will merely be covered up and somebody else will get hurt further down the line.  People who have been hurt by an agency can be tempted to slip away quietly and lick their wounds – but they need to be supported and helped to fight their corner so that they expose bad leadership and force organisational change.  And agencies need to determinedly debrief workers (preferably with the involvement of a third party) and be committed to frank exit interviews – the ostensible reason people give for leaving is often not the whole story.

Finally, agencies need to be committed to addressing the problem Rob raised, by committing to proactively developing the character development, leadership ability and management skills of all their leaders.  Often they appoint people to leadership who have strategic vision and fruitful ministries but little interest in pastoral care.  They don’t have to be pastors themselves, but do need to understand the need for in-field member care and take steps to facilitate it.

Resources that Syzygy recommends for dealing with the fallout from toxic leadership issues include:

  • The books A Tale of Three Kings and Honourably Wounded for mission workers wounded in action.
  • A personal debrief for mission workers still struggling with injuries inflicted in the field.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.
  • Space to rest and reflect while receiving love and acceptance.  Syzygy can provide several options for this, and also recommends Ergata and Le Rucher.
  • Mentoring by Rick Lewis for leaders in mission.  A completely confidential, personal service aimed at developing godly character at the highest level in churches and agencies.
  • Reading Rob Hay’s 2012 paper on the Global Connections website and the associated reading list.
  • Bespoke consultancy aimed at identifying specific issues within an organisation and tackling the causes of it.  Email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Being shot by one’s own side does not necessarily mean the end of a life of mission.  Given the right support, many people make a full recovery and are able to resume their lives and ministries, as I have done.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wound our own mission workers in the first place?

 

Jehovah Jireh

“God will provide.”

Those were my words as I explained to the two rather doubtful young men I prayed with each week that one of the Syzygy cars had died, and we needed a replacement within two weeks or we’d let some mission workers down.  “God will provide.”

I tried to sound more confident than I was as I asked them to pray.  I was aware this was an opportunity to teach them the value of faith, but I wasn’t sure I had enough.  But God, indeed, is faithful, and before the two weeks were up, somebody had donated a car to us and the mission workers were thrilled with it.  And God has continued to provide for the Syzygy car ministry, to such an extent that we now have three really good cars and our service has become so popular it is often booked up two years ahead!

And now we are looking to God to provide again.  We need another car to meet the growing need of large families, and we have plans to raise £10,000 to be able to buy a 7 seater like our Toyota Previa.

So just as I asked those two young men to join with me in faith for God to provide, I’m now asking you to join us.  Will you pray with us for the money for the new car?  Will you ask God if your donation might be part of the finances we need?  As we have remarked before, God is generous, but he keeps his money in other people’s pockets.  So to get this money raised, those people need to be listening to God, and willing to join in his generosity.

We are confident we can raise this money in time to be able to bless another family coming back to the UK this summer.  Please help us make their Home Assignment easier by helping us get another car!  You can find instructions on how to give at our Get Giving! page, or email info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

Crisis in member care?

Source: www.freeimages.com

A crisis has been brewing in member care for nearly a decade, which is still widely unacknowledged and has not yet begun to take effect, but when it does, mission workers across the globe will feel the impact.

Since the financial crash of 2008 mission agencies have experienced a significant drop in income which has required them to rethink their approach to doing mission.  This often takes the form of questioning whether structures and processes designed in the 19th century are still relevant today, and if not, how we can reimagine the future of missionary sending.

A major feature of this is the argument (which to be fair, precedes the financial crisis even though declining income has given it more urgency) that sending mission workers should be the responsibility of the local church rather than agencies.  This is a valid perspective, but for more than a century agencies have effectively told churches to give them their people and their cash, so that the agency can send them.  Now they want churches to engage more, but the churches do not always know how.

What is the impact for member care?  Over the last couple of decades member care has made great strides in putting the care of mission workers on the map.  Most sending agencies are fully committed to member care, and many have full-time members of staff coordinating it, even if they don’t always do it as well as they’d like to think they do.  But pushing the sending responsibility over to churches means that agencies are discreetly, possibly even unintentionally, looking to shuffle off their responsibility for member care too.

Churches, meanwhile, are in a similar situation to the agencies.  While many churches already do member care well, others are extremely challenged to care for their mission partners.  Falling church incomes mean fewer staff while longer working hours for church members mean fewer volunteers available to serve.  Yet the church members demand higher quality services and the public are generally more needy of the practical help churches provide.  Add to that, many churches have not been actively involved in providing the member care that will start to come their way.  How are they going to develop the vision, capacity and skills to deal with this situation?

Syzygy is uniquely placed to assist with this challenging situation.  We are able to:

  • help churches develop member care capacity by providing training, mentoring and partnership.
  • work with larger agencies to help them continue to provide member care well should they choose to do so
  • assist smaller agencies which are unable to do their own member care by partnering with them and providing member care ourselves

Over the coming months we will be actively promoting these services so that we are able to provide support to all parties in this situation, with the ultimate goal that mission workers are more effectively supported than ever.  Should your church or agency be interested in finding out more, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

 

 

Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?

Personal integrity

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?

This week we’re going to skip the Jericho success and march straight on to the battle of Ai and the sin of Achan.  I guess we could have made a blog on how if you keep going round in circles making a fool of yourself long enough eventually God will give you a spectacular breakthrough, but I don’t think that’s the experience of most of us.

To cut a long story short, the Israelite army was beaten – thereby endangering God’s reputation – because one man had a secret sin.  One man’s moral failure risked the whole invasion as the Israelites were demoralised and their enemies learned they that their God was not invincible after all.  With our Christian emphasis on grace and forgiveness, it’s easy for us to tolerate similar small shortcomings in our lives, but this incident makes it clear that God takes our personal integrity seriously.  And in case you’re thinking that’s just an Old Testament paradigm, remember Ananias and Sapphira (Acts chapter 5)?

So our behaviour is still important, even if we think nobody can see.  And when we talk of personal integrity, moral failure and secret sin, most of the time there’s an implication that we mean sexual sin.  But it’s more than that.  In both the biblical cases mentioned it was about covetousness.  It could also be anger, resentment, greed, secret drinking when we’re supposed to be teetotal on the field, or many other personal problems which we like to tell ourselves we have under control, but in fact, we don’t.  And wouldn’t it be terribly shaming to us and dishonouring to God if those sins were discovered and our entire ministry collapsed?

So what do we do about it?  Most of us know the answer already, but we tell ourselves sweet little lies like “it’s not harming anyone”, “it’s my way of coping with the pressure” or “it could be a lot worse” which blind us to the truth that we are putting the entire ministry of ourselves and our colleagues at risk, as well as God’s reputation.

In order to deal with this we need a radical awakening (which sadly sometimes only comes with downfall).  We need to ask ourselves whether we really are “walking in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).  Or, as a friend of mine put it:

If Satan wanted to take you out of ministry, how would he do it?*

Satan knows our weak spots, and we need to recognise them to and take steps to defend them.  Some practical steps we can take to do this include:

  • go on retreat and specifically pray about how God wants to develop our character and lifestyle;
  • have an accountability partner with whom you can be totally honest and confess sin;
  • keep a prayer diary – of successes and failures – to chart progress;
  • make a point of reading Christian books that directly address your weaknesses.

If a confidential discussion about any issues in your life would help you, get in touch with Syzygy by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’d be pleased to help you get walking in a worthy manner again.

Rick Lewis

 

Circumcision

A flint knife of the type the Israelites may have used (Joshua 5:2)

After first sending in the priests instead of storm-troopers, and then stopping to do the bronze-age equivalent of posting selfies on social media, the Israelites are still not going to carry out an invasion in the normal way.  They next thing they do is put every single one of their soldiers out of action for a couple of weeks following elective surgery.  It would have been a great time for the Jericho army to have attacked them.

In some ways, the circumcision of the Israelite men was like the consecration we have already talked about – it was an outward sign of dedication to God, reminding them of the covenant with Abraham.  The Israelites invading the Promised Land were far from being foolhardy in having surgery which would incapacitate them for a fortnight or so.  They were in fact demonstrating their trust in God to protect them and to fight for them when they couldn’t fight.  Much as we would talk about walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  And this group went on to trust God for their victories over the coming years, notably in the conquest of Jericho which they would soon go on to take without even needing to land a blow.

What would be the equivalent for us of being circumcised just as we enter a war zone?  What would that look like in the context where we work?  To follow God with a little more unpredictability rather than always trying to play it safe?  Hudson Taylor pointed out that if there is no risk in our ventures, there is no need for faith.  Yet in our increasingly risk-averse and litigious culture, it can be hard even to entertain the concept of risk when we feel we should be minimising it.

Life involves risk, mission more so.  The places where people don’t know Jesus can be some of the most dangerous places on the planet for us to go.  It’s not that we deliberately seek out danger, as if we were seeking a thrill to enliven meaningless lives, but if following in the footsteps of Jesus takes us into dangerous territory, we proceed in faith rather than turning back because the risk is too great.  We trust God daily for our income, our safety, our visa renewals (just about!) and many other things.  Let us reflect at the start of another year what else we can manage without organising for ourselves but by trusting God to take care of it for us.

 

Building a cairn

Source: www.english-heritage.org.uk

Every morning when I log on, Facebook greets me with “We care about your memories” and an offer to repost a photo from yesteryear.  It is evident from the reposting that goes on that some people enjoy using this utility, though I look in vain for the ‘go away and leave me alone’ button.

We like to remember.  We have photos of long-dead relatives on our bookshelves.  We hang pictures of our favourite places on our walls.  Our conversations are peppered with “Do you remember when…” as we laugh about situations we’ve been in.  Individuals and families do this well.  Countries build war memorials, or statues of great leaders.  Hikers build cairns.  But the world of mission is generally not good at remembering, and we certainly don’t build memorials or statues, because we want the glory to go to God, not people.

The first thing the ancient Israelites did after crossing the Jordan was to set up a memorial.  They built a cairn (Joshua 4:1-9).  One person from each tribe was selected to carry a rock from the bed of the dried-up river and build a cairn on the bank so that the people would always remember God had parted the river for them to cross over.  They turned memory into something physical so that they wouldn’t forget.

We need to remember because not only does it honour God to recount the things He has done (Psalm 145:4), it builds our faith to be reminded of his provision for us in the past.   David built his courage for fighting a giant by remembering that he’d already killed a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:36).

As we enter the Promised Land of 2017, how are we making arrangements to remember what God has done?  Here are some of our suggestions:

  • Have a photo gallery of previous co-workers in our agency.  We often honour the founders of our mission agencies, but do we remember the others who made a sacrifice to pass the founder’s baton on to us?  Do we honour the ones who gave their lives in service to God?
  • Celebrate anniversaries, not only of the founding of the agency, but peoples’ ‘birthdays’ in the mission field, the founding of a church or ministry.
  • Have pictures, artefacts or ornaments which meant something significant at one time, and make a point of telling newcomers why they’re important.
  • Keep an “on this day” diary, reminding you of when God spoke, or did something significant for you.
  • Make a point of reminding old friends and colleagues of situations you’ve been through together.  Ask older co-workers about their memories of people and places.
  • Research and write biographies of people who’ve inspired you – not just the great saints who are well documented but the unknown saints who laboured in obscurity to lay the foundations of where we are now.
  • Use ‘Blue plaques’ or a suitable equivalent on your property to remind yourselves of who was there and what they’ve done.

Remembering the past doesn’t mean living in it.  We remember it to give context to today and help us move into the future.  Not long ago, as a visiting speaker I got a (somewhat bewildered!) church to build a cairn in their meeting room.  I provided enough rocks for them and encouraged everyone to pick up a rock and build with it, each rock representing a commitment to tell a story to someone who hadn’t heard it, ask a question of someone who had been in the church a long time, and celebrate what God had done – so that they could build on their past as they embrace their future.

Let’s all find ways of doing something similar!

Crossing the Jordan

Happy New Year to all our readers!  It has become traditional in this blog to start the year with an appeal to join us in prayer for world mission, but this year we’d like to do something different – we’re going to invade the Promised Land!

Not in a literal sense, but we’re going to start the year with some meditations in the book of Joshua, with a view to motivating us for world mission and bringing more people into the Kingdom of God.

So when the time comes for the Israelites to cross over the river Jordan after 40 years in the wilderness (and many of us mission workers can identify with that experience!), the Israelites do a number of things very differently from the way we might, and these can be a model for fruitful mission.

First they sent out some spies – and I’ve never been quite sure why they did this since 40 years earlier they’d done this and it hadn’t worked out well.  But it is analogous for us to a vision trip, pre-departure research and training.  In other words, know where you’re going.  Don’t just jump in blindly and assume you’ll find your feet.  Careful preparation helps minimise the risk of culture shock, committing cultural offences, and disorganisation which can end a mission almost before it’s started.

The next thing that they did was to consecrate themselves (Joshua 3:5).  This is a technical term for making oneself ritually pure, an activity that in those days involved ritual baptism and clean clothing.  The whole point was to be made clean before God – not the sort of behaviour one would expect before an invasion!  We have lost much of this concept of ritual purity in the west but the purpose is so that one can be fully right with God before claiming God’s assistance in our enterprises.  As we start out on a new year of mission, how are we consecrating ourselves to God?

And then they sent the priests ahead of them.  They carry the holy chest which signified the presence of God with them, and all the people follow it.  During the wilderness years this chest had become a totem which brought the Israelites success in battle, but the significance for us is paramount – the people follow where God is going, a lesson they had learned in the wilderness when they were led by a pillar of fire and smoke.  For me, the key lesson from this for us is that so often we get on with something and ask God to bless it, rather than seeing what God is doing and asking if we can join in.  How can we follow God more closely in the coming year?

Permission to fail

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Onward and upward!

img_20161028_104636Walking in the Lake District last week inspired me with this final blog in a series examining how we react when it seems God’s plan for our lives isn’t working out.  That’s the experience of most of us who have tried to walk up a mountain.  The path doesn’t go where the map said it should.  It disappears from time to time.  Sometimes it’s rocky; sometimes it’s boggy.  Our legs ache, our feet are blistering and our boots are leaking.  The fog comes down and we can get no objective sense of where we are.  We can get cold, wet, frightened and confused.  Just another October day on Helvellyn!

Yet we persist!  There is something in our desire to get to the top that propels us onwards no matter how hard it gets.  Only injury or safety issues would make us quit.  Why?  What motivates us to slog, exhausted, up a steep rocky path?

For some of us it’s the sense of personal achievement, or the glory of the selfie on the summit.  Perhaps it’s the prospect of an incredible view, or another mountain ticked off the to-do list.  Or the gulp from our hip-flask which is our reward.  But it might just be that it links us in to something bigger than ourselves.

Christians too keep on slogging forwards even when the going gets tough.  Something draws us onwards and upwards and we can’t stop no matter how hard it gets.  St Paul wrote about this impulse, in a very dynamic passage reflecting his love of sport:

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus

Here, in Philippians 3:14, he expresses the same drive as the fell-walker not to be deflected by the challenges in his life, as he makes progress in his spiritual life.  He has a goal in sight and he is determined to get there.  It’s not dissimilar to his focus in the famous passage in Hebrews 12, which also references sport.

I once drove in a Swiss tunnel which took a road up a mountainside in a novel way.  It was constructed inside the mountain and was a spiral.  Drilled with precision, every 360 degree rotation raised the driver a few hundred meters until three complete rotations took the car to the top of the pass.  Sometimes this is what is happening in our spiritual lives while our circumstances seem unchanged.  So next time you feel like you’re stuck in a tunnel going round and round in circles, remember you may actually be going up!

The long and winding road…

img_20161014_144243Many of us will be familiar with the tortuous roads which wind up and down the hillsides in the mountainous countries where much of our mission work takes place.  We seem to spend a lot of time zigzagging up and down to get relatively short distances, often going in completely the wrong direction.  Once when in Nepal I took several hours to walk little more than a mile (on the map) going down a precipitous route into a gorge, and slogging wearily up the other side to a village which was within sight of the place I had set out from.

Changing the metaphor this week from rail to road, this is an image of the lives some of us are having to lead right now.  Appearing to go in the wrong direction, taking the long way round, burdened by our heavy load, instead of finding a cute Alpine cable car to take us across the valley to where we want to be.  In our busy, purpose-driven lives, we focus on the achievement, the goal, or the destination and feel frustrated.  Yet we often lose sight of the fact that the journey has a value of its own.  Like many of us who travel a lot, we don’t enjoy the travelling so much as the arriving, yet the journey itself has much to teach us.

In the Bible, roads feature a lot.  People are often travelling and we find that the stony, winding tracks of ancient Israel were places of encounter with prophets, wild animals, angels, armies, muggers, or estranged family.  Battles, funerals and processions took place.  Roads are places of revelation and teaching.  Many of Jesus’ recorded conversations took place as they were walking somewhere.  Just the phrase “the road to…” can be followed by Emmaus, Damascus, Jericho or Azotus for widely differing experiences.

At the moment, those of us who can’t get back to our designated field may feel rather like the traveller on the road to Jericho: beaten, confused, frightened, or vulnerable.  Not unlike the two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, and we know what experience enthused them so much that they went seven miles back to Jerusalem in the dark.  They met Jesus on the road.

Have you met Jesus on your particular road?  What is Jesus explaining to you that you didn’t understand?  What revelation do you have that can transform your mourning into joy?  And if you can’t answer those questions, what time have you made to listen to Jesus, even as you continue walking?

One of my favourite road events concerns a widow about to bury her only son (Luke 7:11-17).  As the funeral cortege leaves the village on its way to the graveyard, it meets a procession coming the other way.  It’s Jesus and his followers.  They, no doubt, are a happy crowd, telling stories of the amazing teaching and healing they have received.  For a moment both crowds stop, unable to pass each other without breaking formation.  An awkward quietness falls over the disciples, who shuffle to the side of the road.  Then Jesus steps forward, and with one sentence transforms the situation.  Joy triumphs over grief.  Life over death.  One journey is no longer necessary, and the procession suddenly has a lot more disciples as they flock joyfully back into the village together.

How is Jesus transforming your journey?

Diverted?

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

As a follow up to last week’s discussion (Derailed) here is a further reflection on the challenge of feeling that somehow we are no longer on the mainline.  This is a challenge for most of us mission workers who are more like Martha than Mary, because we have an urgent desire to be getting somewhere in our ministry.  Such is the impact of the Protestant Work Ethic on our thinking.

Even though we may wish to be thundering at full speed down the mainline, pulling a prestigious express full of significant people, God may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to stop us for a bit.  We find the experience frustrating, but we need to remember that it’s not all about us, and there may be other parts of the rail network having an impact on our personal journey.  So here are some reasons why trains unaccountably stop from time to time (other than to let Edward Thomas write a poem about it).

  • Filling up. Trains need to refuel and while it’s normally done at specific times (such as home assignment) it occasionally needs to be done at other times too.  Take the opportunity to go on a longer retreat than you might normally have time for, or have an extra debrief to make sure you’re ready to go when the signal changes.
  • Collecting other carriages. Sometimes the train I’m on waits at a station for another train to come in behind it and be coupled up to make one longer train.  Is this an opportunity for you to take new supporters on your journey with you?  Spend more time investing in your sending church and building relationships.  Maybe you can recruit some new team members.
  • Waiting for the line to clear. Sometimes the signal is at red because there is a blockage down the road that needs to be cleared.  I have experienced times when other things have needed to fall in place before I can get on with what I feel God has given me to do.  Or perhaps another train is coming through and we need to get out of its way or it would damage us.
  • Taking an alternative route. How often does God take us down a branch line for no obvious reason?  Maybe it’s just to enjoy the scenery, and pootle along at a gentler pace.
  • Routine maintenance. Well, now you’ve got the time, go and see the doctor, dentist, optician, counsellor, life coach…  Make the most of your pause and check all the moving parts are properly greased!

Finally, if you feel you’re stuck in the station waiting for the light to turn green, why not take the time to look around and see who else is in the station?  Maybe it’s time to make some new friends.

We can’t always tell why God shunts us into a siding at times.  Why did Jesus have to wait until his 30s?  David sitting in the desert on the run from Saul must have thought his calling would never happen.  Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness thinking he’d missed his opportunity.  What was Paul doing with his life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch?  But if we can learn one thing from this experience is that it’s God who is in the signal box, not us, and we have to learn to trust him to pull the right levers at the right time.

Derailed?

Sderailedeveral of my acquaintances in the mission world are struggling to return to their field of mission due to difficulties getting visas.  It prompts me to reflect on how people are facing the challenges of not being at home, having to homeschool children, not being able to do their work, and trying hard to support their colleagues remotely.  Often these people have also overstayed their welcome in family homes, inadvertently found they’ve become liable for UK taxation, and had to hand back the Syzygy car they’ve borrowed because somebody else had already booked it.

This situation has led to many feelings of frustration and confusion.  Some people struggle to connect with God, and some are angry with God, because they know they have a calling to do a specific work and God has not opened the door for them to do it.  They feel as if their life and ministry has been derailed, and the longer it goes on, the more confused they become:  “Why is God stopping me what he has called me to do?”

Paul appears to have experienced this problem too (Acts 16:6-10).  He and his team were trying to move on and couldn’t figure out where to go next.  It appears that they were prevented from going to several different places.  Yet at no stage does Luke attribute the blockages to demonic activity or human opposition – it is always God who has stopped them going somewhere.  One gets the sense that God was shutting doors that they were tempted to take in order to get them to take seriously the new one he was about to open.  That was immediately prior to the Macedonian vision which took Paul into Europe for the first time.

Some years ago I participated in a security briefing where hostage negotiator Phil Harper pointed out that our mission to reach out to other people with the gospel never ceases, even if we are kidnapped!  Many of us think in the narrow terms of our specialist focus, rather than broader calling we all share.  If you have a calling (for example) to Nepal but can’t get back there, why not think a bit broader?  What about seeking out a Nepali community in the UK and working with them?  Or going to India where there are many Nepali economic migrants?

Sometimes God shuts doors before he opens new ones.  Mission workers of the China Inland Mission, ejected from China after the communist revolution, realised for the first time that they could go to the Chinese diaspora instead, in cities like Bangkok and Singapore.  Then they realised that other Asian peoples needed the gospel too, and OMF came into being, now working in many east Asian countries and with diaspora groups globally.  This might never have happened if they’d all stayed in China.

If you know people with visa problems, please pray for this specific area of their lives, that God would open doors for them that nobody else can shut.  Even if they’re doors they didn’t expect.  Pray that they would experience clear guidance.  Pray that they will not feel ‘derailed’ but will take the opportunity to do mission work wherever they are.

 

Blocking meetings

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

We are all familiar with the concept of blocking.  Many of us grapple frequently with roadblocks.  Occasionally we have blocked drains.  Some of us suffer from blocked arteries.  A block stops something happening, and is generally considered a bad thing.  Particularly when they show up in our meetings, where sadly they are far too common.

I was on a course recently when the subject turned to people who block progress in meetings.  Much laughter ensued as we all regaled each other with stories of the different types of uncooperative individuals who, whether intentionally or simply as a by-product of their character, stop all progress at meetings.  And then this awful thought dawned on me – which one am I?

If so many of the meetings I’ve been chairing have been disrupted by someone, how often have I disrupted somebody else’s meeting?  How often have you?  And once you’ve realised which one you are, what can you do to make sure you avoid blocking behaviour?  In the missions world our meetings are often complicated enough – possibly led by people with no training or aptitude for chairing, many of the participants not speaking in their heart language, different cultures expressing themselves in different ways – that it can be hard enough to be effective without us bringing the unhelpful aspects of our personalities into the room too.

There are probably an endless number of the different types of blockers but here are a few you might recognise:

  • Diplomat – a person who’s so keen to avoid upsetting anybody that they end up talking a lot but not really going anywhere with it. Solution: You have an opinion, it does no harm to share it!
  • Reluctant participant – if we don’t really want to be in a meeting, we let people know. We may not be paying attention, using social media, or answering emails.  Solution: Pay attention and it will be over quicker!
  • Butterfly – this sort of mind happily touches down on the matter in hand for a few moments, before fluttering off to somewhere else. They continually throw out random suggestions which may take the meeting off on a completely different trajectory.  Solution: Concentrate!
  • Unprepared participant – these people come to the meeting without having bothered to read the sheaf of briefing notes. Solution: Respect others by not wasting their time explaining things to you.
  • NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”!) Nimbys are very defensive of their own territory, and will block developments that are of value to the agency if they adversely affect the Nimby’s ministry/team/personal opportunities.  Solution: Learn to see the bigger picture!
  • Campaigner – sometimes we have a fixation that there is only one thing that needs to be done to put the world to rights, and we bring it up at every opportunity even if everyone’s heard it before. Solution: Get over it!
  • Joker – some people can’t resist using humour, and the right amount in the right place can be just what is needed to lighten the atmosphere. But too much simply becomes a distraction.  Solution: Keep quiet!
  • Show off – some people love an audience, and a captive one is even better. But this may not be the right place to grandstand all your achievements.  Solution: Stay humble!
  • Bully – belittling and demeaning others in order to get your own way is not negotiating – it is bullying. If other people leave a meeting hurt by what you’ve said about them, you’re a bully.  Solution: Deal with your personal inadequacies somewhere else!

I am finding that asking myself a few simple questions before opening my big mouth can help contribute to a better meeting experience for everyone.  Asking myself questions like: “Is what I’m about to say going to move the meeting on?”,  “Have I already had my share of time?”, “Am I going to unnecessarily exasperate people?” can lead to me talking less, but saying more.

Those of you who know me will be looking down this list saying to yourselves “That’s him, that’s him….”  But let me ask you a more important question: which one are you?

In praise of prayer groups

prayJ O Fraser, missionary to China with OMF in the early part of the 20th century*, learnt much about prayer while reaching out to the Lisu people, coming to realize the vital part that the prayers of those back in the UK had to play in seeing fruit in his labours. To his main prayer support team he wrote:

I am not asking you just to give ‘help’ in prayer as a sort of side line, but I am trying to roll the main responsibility of this prayer warfare on you. I want you to take the burden of these people upon your shoulders. I want you to wrestle with God for them.

We are currently on ‘home assignment’.  One of the highlights has been visiting 3 prayer groups which are so kindly praying regularly for us.  We’ve been touched, humbled and blessed meeting with them. One of these groups has met in some form for 60 years and another for 40 years!  Two of the groups adopted us after we’d left the UK and met us for the first time recently.  They have faithfully followed our news and when we met together asked us great questions and prayed fervently.  They were precious times.  Reflecting back over the last two years we’ve become more aware of the spiritual battle we’re in and recognize more than ever the need to have people interceding both for us and the people we’re reaching out to.

If you’re in a prayer group or praying regularly for cross-cultural workers be encouraged that your prayers really have an impact.  Keep going!

If you’re not in such a group, could you join one or start one up?  Many mission organizations have prayer groups scattered around the country.

If you’re a mission worker make sure you’re sending specific prayer requests to your church or prayer groups regularly and let them know of answered prayer, something we’re often prone to forget.

OMF have a helpful booklet, ‘How to Pray for Missionaries’ and this blog post also gives some great points for prayer: http://seagospel.net/seven-things-to-pray-for-missionaries/

One final word from J.O. Fraser:

Paul may plant and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase; and this increase can be brought down from heaven by believing prayer, whether offered in China or in England. . . . If this is so, then Christians at home can do as much for foreign missions as those actually on the field. . . . What I covet more than anything else is earnest, believing prayer.

pray

Lost

IMG_20160805_091801Over the summer, I had a curious and (for me) unusual experience: I got lost.  No, it wasn’t the occasion when I was on a mountain in low cloud, when I had compass, map and GPS and was able to navigate the terrain easily despite not being able to see the landmarks.  It was on a lowish moor, under clear skies, when I could see the nearby lake and the town beside it.  But the path had disappeared.

Soon I found myself wading through bog, scrambling up rocks, pushing through heather, and fording streams to try to get to my destination.  Yet the whole time I knew where I was, but couldn’t find the way to where I wanted to be.

I felt on later reflection that the entire situation was symbolic of what we have been discussing in the last two blogs: it is possible to know exactly where you are, while being equally unsure whether you ought to be there.  Lost and not lost.  Which raises an interesting question: is it possible to be lost with God?

If we are walking with God, doing our best daily to put our hand in his hand, our feet where his feet have trod, to listen to his voice and follow the sound, can we ever really be lost?  Even in the midst of transition, when all we know is that we’re leaving one place and moving to another, possibly completely unknown, we cannot be truly lost.  God knows where we are, which direction we are facing and where we are going.

Which are all things we may be uncertain of.  Yet in our confusion and doubt we must trust the shepherd, whose gentle voice we have come to know, and even if we have no idea where we are, trust that he knows.  He is quite capable of turning us around, moving us in a different direction, or rescuing us should we really need it.  Just as Thomas Merton wrote:

Therefore I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost.

 

When we don’t know what God’s plan is…

Walking in God's footsteps?

Walking in God’s footsteps?

Last week’s prayer from Thomas Merton seems to have resonated with a number of our readers, so I thought I would follow up with an exploration of the confusion and doubt that sometimes runs beneath the surface of our otherwise confident exteriors.

Many mission workers exhibit an unwavering confidence in their sense of calling, and are utterly convinced that they are doing what God wants them to, and are where God wants them to be.  We rejoice in their faith!  They are people sought out by churches and agencies for their sense of calling.

But they also intimidate many of the rest of us who lack such confidence, who are prone to self-doubt and wonder if we are really supposed to be spending our lives doing what we currently do.  For many of us, life is less of a confident march of triumph into the Promised Land, and more a meandering wandering in the wilderness in the hope that somehow we’ll stumble on an oasis.  I suspect that there are many more of us in the latter group than in the former.

My own journey has reflected this division.  Apart from one or two occasions when I have felt very clearly guided, most of my ‘choices’ have been based on opportunities that have cropped up, to which I have responded by thinking “I’ll give this a go.  Maybe God will be in it.”  And invariably, God has been in it.

As Thomas Merton observes, it’s more the desire to please God than the actual doing of God’s will that is critical.  Despite Merton’s uncertainty he continues to walk on, trusting in a God he can’t see.  Echoing the words of the 23rd Psalm, he places his trust in a shepherd who knows what he is doing even though the sheep doesn’t.

For many of us, we don’t hear a voice saying “Go this way” very often, if at all.  It often comes afterwards, confirming for us that by godly instinct or divine happenstance we have stumbled on the right path.  As Isaiah said: ‘Your ears will hear a word behind you saying “This is the way, walk in it” whenever you turn to the right or to the left’ (Isaiah 30:21).  Sometimes it’s not even a word, just a retrospective recognition that God has been with us and things do seem to have worked out according to his plan.  Or as a friend of mine recently put it:

Just because I don’t know what God’s plan is, doesn’t mean he hasn’t got one.