May the Force be with you…

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Star Wars is back!  This week the eagerly anticipated resumption of the epic double-trilogy starts with episode 7 –  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the biggest-grossing film of all time.

Since the ground-breaking arrival of the first film in 1977, Christians have argued over the content and symbolism.  Those in favour will claim that the Force represents the power of the Holy Spirit, Obi Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice and apparent survival beyond death (kinda) is a significant nod to Jesus, and Darth Vader is a clear manifestation of everything we think of as evil, from his character to his stereotypical dark clothing, and even he can be redeemed.  Others will argue that the Force can be used for good or evil, which is not part of a Christian cosmology.  There is no clear redeemer figure and no communication of the love of God or the depravity of humanity.

But the real issue is not whether the films reflect a Christian message or not, but the fact that they reflect a postmodern worldview which Generation X and Millenials have bought into in a way that an older generation can’t comprehend.  Millenials in particular think in a way that is in line with the underlying assumptions of the Star Wars galaxy, for example:

  • There is a spiritual aspect to life which we do not understand but we can tap into if we choose
  • Trade corporations are inherently evil and not to be trusted
  • Most politicians are selfish and will easily turn to the dark side
  • I have the ability to achieve much more than simply being a cog in the system

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not antagonistic to Christianity (as long as it not prejudiced and bullying).  They are suspicious of organised religion but open to personal spirituality, and are open to following Jesus if he is presented to them appropriately.  The success of many vibrant, new church networks is partly due to numbers of millenials attracted to a warmer, livelier, less-structured style of church that helps them feel that they belong and are significant.  These movements often intentionally plant (or re-plant) churches that look in very different ways to tradition ones.

The problem is that most millenials have not heard of Jesus.  Unlike previous generations they were not taken to church or Sunday school as children, religious assemblies in school are discouraged, with the result that this generation is the least evangelised European generation for 1500 years.

Some of us may be aghast at that thought.  But the flipside of it is that they are also the least prejudiced.  They haven’t been bored to death by stories of Noah’s Ark and Goliath.  They haven’t been made to follow a lot of life-crushing rules.  They come to Jesus with a completely clean sheet and no preconceptions.  They don’t have problems with the existence of an unseen world or a benevolent force pervading the universe.  Ironically, this is probably the generation most open to the gospel in over a millennium.

May the Force be with you as you tell them the good news.

Spectre

SpectreSpectre, along with the rest of the Bond franchise, thrives on the unique character of James Bond.  Although he is well-equipped with gadgetry, supported by incredible technology wielded by a highly supportive team, the success of the franchise is built around Bond’s own skill, versatility and ability to improvise.  This image portrayed frequently in the genre of espionage movies is quite possibly far from the real truth.

The image of the mission worker as a lone agent battling skilfully and heroically against incredible odds, is also far from the truth, but like Bond, it persists.  Churches talk about ‘our mission worker’ while ignoring the possibility of developing a relationship with the agency, team and local church the mission worker serves alongside.  The mission worker talks in terms of his ministry rather than that of the team or agency.  Candidates head off overseas independently of a sending agency and without having involved their church in the decision-making process.  And when an agency asks someone to lay aside their personal vision and work somewhere else for the good of the team, the mission worker resigns and carries on her work independently.

Such occurrences are not the norm in global mission, but nevertheless are far too prevalent, and Syzygy spends more time than we’d like helping people pick up the pieces after they discover that they’re not 007.  There is also little Biblical precedent for people ruggedly going it alone.  Jesus sent his followers out in pairs (Luke 10:1).  Barnabas and Saul set off to Cyprus as a pair (Acts 13:2), and when they parted they both found new partners (Acts 15:36-40).  Paul went on to build up a large team of co-workers including Luke, Timothy, Titus and several others (2 Timothy 4:-12).  Peter did not go to the house of Cornelius alone (Acts 10:23), and was quickly held to account for his actions by his church when he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2).  In fact the only successful ‘lone ranger’ in Acts is Philip (Acts 8), and he only went on a short trip.

While pioneering mission may involve periods of solitude, particularly when working in creative access nations, agencies should always seek to send teams wherever possible.  Churches should remember that mission workers remain members away on secondment who need to still be included.  Mission workers should always bear in mind that no matter how individualistic and pioneering they are, they should always be part of a team comprising sending church, family and friends, sending agency and receiving church and agency if there is one.  This team is there to fund, pray, advise, assist and hold accountable.  Failure to put this team in place can result in too much burden falling on the shoulders of the mission worker, who consequently burns out, with bad results for themselves, their family, and the people they were working with and witnessing to.

It might seem spiritual to claim that one person plus God is enough to meet any challenge, but the New Testament church clearly did not believe that.  God calls us to live, serve and go as part of community.

Moving Round the World

Inside-Out-21Following on from last week’s blog inspired by Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, we return to the same film this week to reflect on the upheaval which led to story developed in the film.  Apologies if you haven’t seen it yet!

The action occurs because a family moves from a very happy and settled life in Minnesota because the dad has got a new job in Los Angeles.  Their 12-year-old daughter reacts badly to this change, causing her some emotional damage.  Yet we were able to see some very elementary mistakes which the parents made which resulted in the situation being much worse than it needed to be.  TCKs will be only too familiar with some of these challenges.

The reason for the move seemed to be more important than the family.  Whether it’s ‘work’ or a ‘ministry call’, many TCKs grow up being resentful of the God who tells them to keep moving.  Parents should know how their children respond to change and adapt their decision-making process to make sure it works for the child.  This is a time for a family to do lots of fun things together, build happy memories and ensure the child feels loved and valued.

The parents have not involved their child in the decision.  This disempowers the child and could make her feel vulnerable.  The whole family needs to be involved, even though some children may be too young to grasp all the issues involved.  Their fears need to be addressed.

There was no preparation for the transition.  The child clearly doesn’t know what to expect.  It would not have been hard to look at photos, find local amenities on the internet, or even to make an exploratory visit so the child has a better understanding of the new home before moving.  Even saying such things as “Next Christmas we’ll be able to have a barbecue on the beach!” will help a child envisage their new life and become excited about it.

There was no emotional support for the child.  Once in the new home, the child was immediately expected to function normally in a different world.  Ideally there should have been some time allocated for the family to explore their new city together and find fun things to do so that she will feel more positive about the new home before taking on challenges like school.

The furniture didn’t turn up and the child ended up sleeping on the floor in a strange house.  Things like this are not uncommon in missions, and making them an adventure can help.  How we deal with the unexpected is a significant part of thriving as we experience change.  The whole family sleeping together on the floor as if they were camping out would be better than sending the child to bed alone in an empty bedroom.

There are many resources available through the internet for helping prepare families for moving, and we particularly recommend these:

Families on the Move.  Marion Knell’s excellent handbook for taking the whole family abroad.

Preparing Families for Life Overseas.  This one-day course for the whole family is run every April at Redcliffe College.

Sammy’s Next Move.  This is a storybook about a snail who travels the world with his parents, carrying his home with him wherever he goes.  Ideal for young children.

Do you know yourself “Inside Out”?

InsideOut3DThis year’s summer children’s blockbuster is Inside Out, the latest animation from the Disney/Pixar studio.  With an approval rating of 98% on popular review website Rotten Tomatoes it is well in front of Frozen (89%) and streets ahead of summer rival Minions (54%).

Inside Out follows the story of five different emotions – fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy – as the 12-year old girl they live in and influence moves house from Minnesota to Los Angeles.  The idea is not necessarily new, having already been seen in Numskulls, Herman’s Head, and Meet Dave, though focussing the attention on the emotions as the primary “head office” staff is new.  The concept originated with Director and story writer Pete Docter who envisioned it having made his own childhood move abroad and subsequently watching emotional changes in his daughter as she grew up, and the scenario is based on the work of psychologists.

Seeing it caused me to reflect on how many mission workers are unaware of the emotions inside them causing them to make knee-jerk reactions to situations and conversations without a full understanding of how key life events, core memories and psychological frameworks interact to affect who we are and what we say and do.  This of course gets even more complicated when we are part of a multi-cultural team whose members probably have very different assumptions about the way the world works and whose emotions are triggered by things they feel strongly about which might not affect us at all.

dark portraitNow add into the mix the fact that most of us are operating under high levels of pressure which can reduce our ability to act or speak rationally, and we can quickly find ourselves being dominated by a negative emotion, or finding ourselves responding negatively to someone else who is.  That one emotion can start to define us and our responses.  This can lead to inter-relational stress, tension and burnout, and ultimately people leaving the mission field because they can’t cope with it any more.

So, without spending years in counselling, what can the average mission worker do to become more emotionally aware?  Here are some tips:

  • Ask yourself which emotion dominates you? Is it one of these five, or is it another one?  (we were rather disappointed that there was only one positive emotion featured in Inside Out, and thought love and hope were sadly missing).
  • If you experience a sudden emotional outburst during the day, ask yourself what may have led up to it. Reflect on whether it was an appropriate response to the incident which triggered it, or a sign of something deeper going on inside you.
  • Discuss the above with a trusted friend – he/she may know you better than you know yourself!
  • Be aware of your emotional state and get to know the warning signs if you are about to lose control. Find ways of defusing your anger and fear, and that of others.
  • Spend time thinking and praying about what may have caused one particular emotion to become dominant in you, and whether it’s right to do something about your past such as repenting of an attitude or choice or trying to restore a broken relationship.
  • Ask God to bring healing into the brokenness of your life, and pray that the Holy Spirit will grow more fruit in you (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23)

And while we’re using movies as the inspiration for understanding our emotions, remember the words of a wise old sage:

Fear is the path to the dark side: fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

(Yoda)

Circle of life?

Does John McLane's 'mission' typify the experiences of many of us?

Does John McClane’s ‘mission’ typify the experiences of many of us?

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph relates how a US scriptwriter says there are eight key  elements of any story which guarantee that the film or television programme which uses them will be a best seller.  Stories which fit the mould include such diverse productions as Frozen, Sex and the City, Last Tango in Halifax, Die Hard, Father Ted and Breaking Bad.

Dan Harmon describes the elements as forming a circle which brings the protagonist back to the starting place, but having changed along the way.  The appropriate elements are that the lead character:

  • is introduced
  • wants something
  • enters a new world
  • adapts to that environment
  • gets what they want
  • suffers as a result
  • returns to their previous world
  • changes as a result

And of course, if it’s a Hollywood production, there’s a happy ending.  This scenario could equally be, instead of a movie, the life cycle of a mission worker:

  • we want to serve God
  • we go abroad or into a new culture to do it
  • we learn (slowly and painfully) to adapt
  • in the process we are serving God
  • but it costs us
  • eventually we return to our previous world
  • we have changed as a result of the experience we’ve had

For many of us, the changes we have experienced and the lessons we’ve learned help us to become more Christlike.  Despite the hardships, the overall experience has been enriching and worthwhile.  But for some of us, the fact that we have changed along the way makes it hard to enter our previous home.  In fact it’s not home.  We are overwhelmed by reverse culture shock.  Moreover, some of the changes may have made us angry, bitter and resentful.  We don’t feel comfortable alongside our old friends.  We relate differently to our family.  We feel we don’t fit into our church any more.

For those of us who haven’t experienced the Hollywood ending, there is hope.  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop to help us process our experiences and unpack our emotions.  You can find out more about it by clicking on Crash Landing?

Avatar: a metaphor for Generation Y?

avatarThe movie Avatar which came out a few years ago was a milestone in cinema history, not merely for the technology developed specially to produce the effects, but because it was one of the first blockbusters to reflect a postmodern view of the world.  We’ve blogged before about Generation Y, the first postmodern generation, but following a recent conference at which I addressed these issues I thought it would be good to revisit how Generation Y is entering the mission field and impacting their agencies, and to do it using a suitably postmodern metaphor.  To refresh your memories, Baby Boomer represents people born from about 1945-64, Generation X: 1965-1979, and Generation Y those born from 1980-2000.  Obviously, these are extreme generalisations and individuals each have their own personality and giftings which may not collate precisely with these generalisations.

Avatar, if you haven’t seen James Cameron’s epic film, is based around two groups of people, one a tribe – the Na’vi – living on their traditional lands, and group of human invaders who prize the mineral wealth beneath the land.  Its central characters have the vision to reach out to each other across the divide.  While this story has been filleted already for its postcolonial, anti-racist, pantheistic and environmentalist metaphors, it can also be seen as a representation of the potential conflict between Baby Boomer leaders and Gen Y recruits as Gen Y start to enter the mission field in significant numbers.

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Gen Y, is this your leader?

Who do the characters represent?  The humans, particularly their leader Colonel Quaritch, represent Baby Boomer senior management, supported by their Gen X workers.  Their lack of compromise in their pursuit of results and their willingness to ignore the needs both of their own people and particularly of others in order to achieve results can represent the uncompromising approach of certain types of mission leaders, fixated on an end goal.  The Na’vi, on the other hand, represent Gen Y, and have many typical Gen Y traits: they value community, are connected not only with each other but with other lifeforms and the planet they live in a harmonious relationship with.  They are clearly spiritual and have a desire to work things through rather than fight things out.  The hero of the movie, Jake Sully, represents an old-style leader who has the courage to change and learn new things, and his love-match Neytiri represents Gen Y who don’t simply give up on old ways but collaborate with Baby Boomers to create a better future.

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

Gen Y: feeling a bit out of place in their agencies?

What is the outcome?  The humans are defeated and driven from the planet, not merely because the Na’vi unite and fight back, but because the planet itself turns against them.  This is a metaphor for the unsustainability of the old way of life, but we know the humans will be back.  Whether they will come with more troops or a trade agreement is not made clear – the future is left deliberately uncertain so that we can decide it for ourselves.

What does this mean for us?  In the mission world the situation is reversed – Gen Y is invading (peaceably) the world of the Baby Boomers.  They may well receive an uncompromising welcome, and be told “Things have always been done this way.  Deal with it.”  Their likely response will be not to deal with it but to move on to a more adaptable agency.  This is bad news for the first agency:

any agency unable to welcome significant quantities of Gen Y is ultimately doomed to being unable to recruit new workers.

Jake Sully represents the Baby Boomer/Gen X leader who has the courage to realise that the organisation’s values and processes need to be adapted if they are going to welcome Gen Y.  This means recognising that values different to their own are valid, and that Gen Y can quickly make a significant contribution to the agency’s mission if they are welcomed, listened to, mentored, and allowed to learn and grown through their experiences.

Generation Y are by nature collaborative.  But they too are uncompromising.  They will not wait around to earn the right to participate in the decision-making process.  If the prevailing culture excludes them, they’re not going to wait 20 years till they’re senior enough to change it.  They’re going to start something new.  Some of the newer mission agencies will be inherently more adaptable, while older ones may have more resistance to change.  We have already seens some exciting mergers between old and new (e.g. AWM and Pioneers), and this may be the way forward for other agencies too.  Some form of change is inevitable.

The mission leaders who want to lead their agency into a fruitful future will be bold enough to make room for Generation Y now, before somebody else does.

Moving Staircases?

Recent years have seen much change in the world of missions, and for nearly all of us it feels like the change is relentless.  Factors affecting this include the current financial situation, the changing relationship between agencies and churches, new paradigms of mission, technological innovation, the rise of Generation X and now Y, the decline of the West and the change of the centre of the global church’s gravity towards the south/east, and indeed many more.  It feels stressful just to list these things!

Many of us don’t feel at home in this fast-paced and rapidly developing world.  It shakes our security in the way we’ve got used to doing things, and it can be disturbing when the mission field becomes flooded with people who do things very differently.  Some of the changes afoot at the moment threaten our own long-term futures in mission unless we are able to adapt, and even the survival of some well-established mission agencies may be in doubt if they cannot embrace the necessary change.  This is, quite frankly, alarming.

It reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter movie (is it ok to reference Harry Potter in a Christian blog?) where the children discover the staircases can move by themselves.  All of a sudden, they can’t get back to their rooms, and have to find a different way.  They have to duck quickly as several tons of hardwood comes flying over their heads to a new destination.  They have the challenge of working out how to get to their lessons by a new route.

‘Keep an eye on the staircases – they like to change!’

For some of them it is a, well, magical experience, full of awe and wonder at this marvellous spectacle, but for others  it must be bewildering and frightening, as they find their security challenged and their assumptions about life questioned.  I wonder if you can sympathise with them as you see the change going on around you in the mission field.

Yet, when the staircases have settled down, it’s still possible to find your way to your destination.  It may take a bit of time to explore, experiment, and come back from dead ends, but in fact many of us will already be experienced at doing that.  For most of us, that’s part of life, and part of our calling.

The church, despite often being conservative, and preserving many practices and traditions handed down from its earliest days and even before the time of Christ, is no stranger to change, and the first generation of believers must have had the hardest time of all, adapting their worldview to believe first that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for even though he wasn’t what they were expecting, then having to cope with his suffering and death, followed by his resurrection and ascension.  Then they had to face ejection from the synagogues and hostility from Rome.  Just when they thought they had it figured out, and that he’d return within their lifetimes, he didn’t come to rescue them when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

A picture of the church – migrants not settlers?

So what might they have to say to us about change?  Peter tells us that we are aliens and sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), not citizens or residents, but migrants who won’t be staying around.  John warns us not to get attached to anything in this world (1 John 2:15) because it’s only temporary – and so are we.  They were very much aware of the transient nature of our existence, and chose to focus instead on our eternal heritage.  Peter reminds us that we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13).  Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and the Hebrew writer challenges us to emulate the saints of old who lived by faith, and walked away from all this world has, seeking a better country (Hebrews 11:16).

In the midst of their changeable, temporary, transient world, they looked to the One who is the sole source of stability, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), who will one day take us to a home of unchangeable glory.  We cannot do better than to follow their example.