Deep roots for dry times

005 (3)Have you noticed that mission workers are often expected to be spiritually self-sufficient, able to sustain themselves by feeding on God’s word alone, with little or no access to relevant church or fellowship groups? Curiously, the people who assert this are often those who tell Christians that they cannot survive spiritually without regularly attending church meetings, Bible studies, home groups…. Why are mission workers expected to be so different?

The truth is that most of us are not different. We struggle to maintain our spiritual vitality without friends around us. Our spiritual disciplines can fail under the pressure of demands on us. We can become discouraged when we labour long in the mission field with apparently little result. We dry up inside, and our relationship with God can be little more than going through the motions.

So how can we, as mission workers, put down deep roots into the dry and dusty spiritual soil in which we’re planted? Often there is no easy answer – Psalm 1 might seem like a good place to start but who wants to Bible study night and day?

For most of us, it’s simply a case of hanging on and not giving up. And that’s ok. Because trees don’t put down deep roots when the drought comes. That’s the time to pause and wait. Deep roots are not developed during the hard times but in the good ones. When things are easier, perhaps we’re on home assignment, or a retreat, or at a conference, we can experience times of refreshing to see us through the dry periods.

This is such an important part of our early spiritual life, our training in church and Bible College, and our pre-departure preparation: building up spiritual stamina through regular Bible study, prayer and worship. These become habits that sustain us through the times of challenge.

But what do we do if we’re already in the middle of the drought and we didn’t take the time to develop deep roots before? How do we survive when it feels like we’re all dried up inside? That’s when we need someone to help water us! Make plans for a retreat or a conference. Invite someone to visit who can refresh you. Try a new church or a new version of the Bible that will bring things alive in a new way. Download some sermons or visit a cyberchurch. Hold a skype prayer meeting with friends once a week.

If you’ve tried all of these and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s time to re-evaluate your position – are you being effective if you’re that dry? How can you be a witness to the good news if it’s clearly not good news in your life?  Many of us are frightened of withdrawing from the mission field in case we’re seen as a failure, but what army doesn’t execute a strategic withdrawal when it realises it’s in an unsustainable position? It is better to leave the mission field than to lose your faith, which is what can happen if we just hang on grimly getting drier and drier without meeting God in the midst of our drought.

More burnout?

Battery Charge IconA retired mission worker was discussing with me recently that he’d noticed that people now in their 30s and 40s seem a lot more likely to suffer from burnout than people of his generation.  He gave two significant reasons: lack of preparation and lack of integration.

In these days when there are still 3-year residential courses at Bible Colleges preparing people for mission, studying such modules as missiology, contextualisation and linguistics, we would think we are well-prepared.  But my friend was referring to the selection process of the agency.

In his day, there would have been a protracted conversation which would have climaxed in a month’s preparation before departure, six weeks’ more training on a ship (yes he’s that old!) and finally three months’ orientation in the field.  That would have given him and the agency a lot more time together to get to know each other and understand the culture that they would be sharing for the next few decades.  Long timescales and long distances made sure everybody took preparation seriously because there was no easy way back.

Unlike today, when we spend much less time growing to understand each other, and recognise that if it doesn’t work out, there’s another flight home tomorrow morning.  Preparation is much shorter, and orientation may be as little as a couple of weeks.

So with a shorter lead time, how do agencies effectively communicate their vision and values, not just in theory, but helping people think about what that would look like in practice?  Agencies need to think not merely as an employer when selecting their mission partners.  There is more to selection than skills and abilities.  People have to cope with cross-cultural changes and fit into teams where there is already a strong prevailing ethos.  This is not always thought about: we might consider whether people buy into the agency’s values, but will they fit in temperamentally with the team they’re destined to join?  And how effectively will we support them through that transition?

How do we get to know them quickly?  By encouraging them to walk with us before they go long-term is significant: going short-term, acting as a homeside volunteer, going to conferences and prayer meetings, researching our history, reading our website, talking with our mission workers on home assignment.  This of course takes time and effort which many agencies no longer have, so we need also to rely on our partnership with their sending church to help us work out if they will be a good fit.  A visit to the place they are going to serve is recommended, to meet the team and see how the team operates.  And of course, much time spent in prayer by everybody, to determine what we understand to be God’s will in this situation.

We’ve already addressed the challenges of not integrating in an earlier blog, where we looked at how technology has made it so easy for us to stay in touch with our family and friends that we may never really leave, which means we may never fully integrate in our destination culture.  It takes time and effort to fully immerse ourselves in a different culture to the point where our language is fluent and we can discern those small cultural nuances and unspoken assumptions that allow us to be fully at home, and we may be facing a more globalised era in which that level of integration is no longer necessary, or even possible as a postmodern generation thinks not in terms of a life spent in the field but in a life lived missionally in a wide variety of ways and contexts.

But if my retired friend is right, ensuring that new mission partners are a good fit in their teams, and helping them to thrive in their host culture are two practical things that agencies can do to help prevent the build-up of stress which can lead to burnout and attrition.

Working with Generation Y

While many of us are still coming to terms with Generation X, Generation Y sneaks up on us unawares!  Leaders in missions will be starting to encounter this generation, and they’ll be starting to realise that Ys aren’t quite what they expected.  People working in short-term have been dealing with Ys for quite a while now, so will be coming to terms with the fact that they do things differently to previous generations, but these people are now coming through into doing long-term where their differences will be rubbing their leaders up the wrong way.

Generation Y is the unimaginative name given to the generation following on from Generation X, and consists of those born (roughly) from 1980 to 2000.  They’re also called Generation Next or Millennials, but I’ll stick to Y as it’s easier to spell.  These people grew up connected, having mobile phones and computers from their youngest days.  Their families may have been broken, leading to a highly important need to belong, but their parents will have invested heavily in them so they are used to getting feedback and encouragement.  They also grew up after the end of the cold war, so they were promised peace, but now find that their lives overshadowed by the war on terror.  This can lead them to distrust authority and value honesty, authenticity and integrity.

What are these people going to be like as your co-workers? Their workplace expectations are not that different from those of previous generations, but they are far more reluctant to toe the line in the way their parents or grandparents might have done.  Older people might think of them as lazy, uncommitted, overconfident, disrespectful and impatient, but those are the flip side of great strengths:

Lazy?  These people are digital natives.  Because they grew up in a multi-media world they are able to surf Facebook, send text messages, listen to music and get on with their work at the same time.  But they don’t live to work.  They’re flexible and will be more concerned about getting the overall task done than by being at their desk at the right time.  They might be working at home at 10pm, not because they’re workaholics, but just because it works better for them.

Uncommitted?  Well, they’re not committed to things just because you think they ought to be.  Duty is not a word that features frequently in their vocabulary.  But they will be highly committed to things they believe in, even though it may not look like it to older generations.  Their desire for authenticity leads them to reject much that is latently hypocritical, but when they find something genuine, they will embrace it.

Overconfident?  Because they’ve had a lot of positive parenting, Ys believe in themselves, and because they’ve seen through authority structures, they won’t tolerate spending ten years doing the filing before they’re allowed to have an opinion.  They believe they have a contribution and they don’t understand why they can’t make it now.

Disrespectful?  They respect people, not positions, so if you aren’t confident as a leader and hide behind your position, they’ll see through you.  They respect people who show that they care, make wise decisions, and don’t try to give them corporate flannel.  If they speak out of turn, it’s only because they can see a problem and haven’t had a good answer for it.

Impatient?   Ys were born connected.  They get the answers they want off the internet in seconds.  They instant message their friends.  They just want to get on with things without being held up.

So as Ys become your partners in mission, how do you need to treat them?

Teamwork.  Their whole life is made up of connections, so the idea of working alone doesn’t exist.  They’ll share problems, bring in specialists, and network with anyone they need to.  So create a flexible team structure in which they can thrive and don’t tell them they can’t talk to someone in another office just because you have a territory dispute with another manager.

Managing.  Top-down hierarchies don’t work.  These people have had positive parenting.  Create for them an environment in which they can learn and develop skills.  Feedback to them regularly.  Don’t impose rules, explain reasons.  Don’t manage the process, mentor the person.

Communication.  Give them all the facts and explain why you’ve made a decision.  They need to know the reasons before they can believe.  Your answer doesn’t have to be 100% logical; you can bring in emotions as well.  Let them ask challenging questions.  When they see you communicate openly and honestly, and allow them to be part of the solution, they will trust you and become committed.

Fulfilment.  In the secular workplace, Generation Y is more concerned to find a job they can believe in than one that pays well (although they expect to be fairly remunerated!).  This is true in the Christian world as well.  You need to ensure that they believe in what they’re doing in order to get the best out of them, and try to make sure they feel they’ve been treated fairly.

Obviously, these are huge generalisations, and individual personalities differ greatly, but this information may help to explain to you why people under 30 seem to think and act strangely at times.  These generational characteristics may not be so pronounced in Christians, since they have also been subject to the unique influences of Christian discipleship and training in church, community and possibly Bible College.  However, they grew up in the same conditions as non-Christians, were educated together with them, and used the same media, so will demonstrate similar generational characteristics.  Get to know them better, and you’ll all end up working better together.

 

Featured ministry: Soapbox African Quest

Earlier this month five intrepid young people flew out to Zambia, and found that seven of their bags of luggage and equipment hadn’t arrived.  Cue wry smiles all round among the experienced travellers.  “Welcome to Africa!”

This is all part of the training for young people on the Soapbox African Quest (SAQ) missions training course.  For six months they will learn the art of cross-cultural mission not in a lecture hall in England, but in situ, living and working alongside African people.  Experienced Zambian pastors will give lectures, eat meals with them, and work alongside them in their churches and communities, as the students develop and hone the skills they will need to function effectively as mission workers.

The course, which has been running now for 15 years and has dozens of graduates, continues to be a key part of preparing people for the mission field.  It is specifically designed to mix academic study, personal discipleship, field experience, and practical training in the skills needed to help them survive – including bricklaying and motor mechanics.

Many of the students have gone on to become full-time mission workers, and most of them have maintained a passion for global mission, made regular short-term visits, and been involved in missions on the home front.  Several students have returned over the years to become leaders and pass on to a new generation the experience and understanding of mission that they have had.  And for all of them, there is the long-term impact of SAQ on their spiritual lives, as the continue to unpack the significance of their training, experience and learning.

It’s not all about the students, though.  SAQ has left a legacy of people who have met Jesus through their ministry, not only in the environs of Ndola but in neighbouring districts and countries as well.  Their outreach programmes have touched thousands of lives, whether through the gospel presentations, relationships they’ve forged, or the buildings they’ve constructed.  Several church buildings, widows’ homes, schoolrooms and orphanages have been raised through the participation of SAQ.  They’re even responsible for introducing clean water supplies to a number of villages.

SAQ is based in a purpose-built accommodation block at Kaniki Bible College in Ndola, where they are able to meet, befriend and work alongside a number of future church leaders from several African nations.  The SAQ block includes dormitories for the students and separate accommodation for the leaders, together with a communal lounge, kitchen and study room.  Staff and students live and work alongside each other, which adds to the discipleship aspects, as experienced leaders share their lives with the students.  Tim & Gemma Mills, who have led the team for the last two years, describe the experience: It is a pretty intense program.  Each day we work alongside the volunteers visiting orphans, those suffering from HIV/Aids and doing practical projects together in various communities.

SAQ is run by the well-known mission agency Soapbox, and you can find out more about it at its website http://www.soapboxtrust.com/New/SAQ/Overview.html.  We particularly recommend SAQ for people looking to do something productive with their gap year.  They will have a great experience, blending personal development with practical service to others.  The programme runs from January to June, leaving several months after the end of the academic year to prepare and raise funds.  It’s not too early to apply for the 2013 intake though!

 

Featured Ministry: Chrestos Mission

Karen Bible College students in worship

First of all, it’s not a typo!  The name really is Chrestos.  It’s the Greek word for ‘kind’.  Founders Geoffrey & Pat Atkinson decided that they wanted to be kind to the people they work with.  They certainly need some kindness.  Based in northwest Thailand, not too far from the tourist capital of Chiang Mai, Chrestos Mission works with Karen people, a marginalised minority group who have suffered much, particularly at the hands of the Burmese military.  Many of them have fled from Burma across the Salween River into Thailand, where they are billeted in overcrowded refugee camps while they continue the interminable wait for asylum in western countries.  Without Thai ID cards, they can’t leave the camps for fear of being repatriated.

After a lifetime of work in missions in south east Asia, you would think that Geoffrey & Pat would want to retire.  But in 2002, already well into their 60s, God called them to start this work up from scratch.  It is a testament to their prayerfulness and drive that in such a short time they have managed to achieve so much.

Chrestos works extensively in these camps, supporting churches, orphanages and even bible colleges by providing food, clothing and medicine.  Through this support lives are saved, children are cared for and educated, and people meet Jesus.  Many of them go on to graduate from bible colleges and perpetuate a victorious cycle of taking the gospel to their own people.

Through the work of a number of mission agencies as well as the efforts of the indigenous church, the Karen church is the fastest growing in Thailand.  At its base in Mae Sariang, Chrestos runs its own bible college with some 75 students, training Karen believers to go back to their people with the gospel.  Chrestos also has a high quality recording studio which produces teaching, worship, drama and Sunday School lessons on dvd so that the Karen church is even better equipped to spread the gospel.  In the same town Chrestos also operates and orphanage called the Home of Peace & Joy.

When I visited Chrestos in 2008, one of their Karen leaders walked with me across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Burma at Mae Sot.  It was the first time he had been back to the country of his birth since he fled to Thailand as a child.  His father was subsequently killed by the Burmese army.  I find it very hard to forgive them, he told me.

  • Please pray for change in Burma so that the Karen can return to their villages and live in safety.  Praise God that there is ample opportunity for them to hear the gospel in the refugee camps.  Pray that they will respond to it, and take it home with them when they are finally repatriated.
  • Pray for the Atkinsons, that they will continue to have health and energy, and for God to raise up indigenous successors for them to run the Chrestos community.
  • Pray that the Karen will be able to forgive those who have made them suffer, and that this will be a testimony to the grace of God which will lead many to Jesus.

You can read more about Chrestos at http://www.chrestos-mission.org/

Story of the month – Salvation in Serbia

This cute little boy is Igor.  He wasn’t always so cheerful.  During the Serbian war, Igor and his family had to flee their home, and ended up with hundreds of others sleeping rough in a half-complete school building which became an ad hoc refugee camp.  Traumatised by the event, he withdrew, and became known throughout the camp as the child who never smiled.

Some while later, some Christians from Belgrade Bible School began a regular ministry to the refugees.  They built up relationships and helped whoever they could.  One day they asked Igor’s parents if they could take him on a children’s camp they were organising, along with his brothers and sisters and other children from the refugee camp.  His parents agreed.

When the children came back, people didn’t recognise Igor.  They thought he looked familiar, but they didn’t know him.  Only after a few days did somebody work out what the difference was – his cheeky grin!  When they asked him why he smiled so much, he told them that he’d met Jesus.

Belgrade Bible School has hundreds of similar stories of what God has done in the lives of Serbian people.  Since its beginning in 1996 amid the death throes of Yugoslavia, it has sent out church planters and evangelists all over Serbia.  They have endured much hardship and struggle, but the gospel is prevailing.  Please pray for them.  Supported by Oak Hall, the well-known organiser of Christian expeditions, the bible college is under Serbian leadership and continues to grow and develop.

Read more about Belgrade Bible College: http://www.oakhall.org.uk/

Visit the Bible College with Oak Hall: http://www.oakhall.co.uk/pages/summer10serbiaatom.asp

For your information: Redcliffe and All Nations – Star-Crossed Lovers?

For Your Information is an occasional series of reports informing missionaries abroad of the current state of church and mission in the UK.  Today we consider the on/off relationship between All Nations and Redcliffe.

Friends and family of ‘Just Good Friends’ couple Redcliffe and All Nations who have been out buying new hats will be disappointed to hear of another hitch in the turbulent  relationship between these star-crossed lovers.

They will remember how, many years ago, the couple nearly made it up the aisle before realising that they weren’t ready for everlasting commitment.  Last year the pair, who have remained on amicable terms ever since, delighted their many wellwishers with the news that once again they were engaged.  Yet despite many late-night heart-to-hearts, it seems that the course of true love is determined not to run smooth.

The unhappy couple, who clearly continue to be on good terms but whose compatibility is questionable, are believed to have been unable to resolve many differences, the chief of which was an inability to agree on where to set up the conjugal home.  Both have attractive properties, one in fashionable central Gloucester, and the other in delightful rural Hertfordshire, but clearly could not afford to maintain both properties.  Despite their evident desire to move in together, neither was willing to leave their home of many years.

So the posh frocks are going back in the wardrobe, at least for a few years.  It seems that the clock is ticking for the ageing singletons  who are reluctant to surrender their independence for domestic bliss – but are there any other potential suitors out there?  Apparently not.  Could they be dooming themselves to lifelong loneliness?

For never was a story of more tragedie

Than this of Redcliffe and of ANCC