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?

All you need is…

Beatles

The Beatles: all you need is love

We were represented at a recent International HR Forum in London.  As 60 people representing sending churches and agencies discussed selection and recruitment criteria, one of the speakers introduced us to this quote which he had found on the internet*:

The only required characteristic for being a missionary is that you have complete and utter faith in the Lord.  God does not choose the equipped… he equips the chosen.”

On the surface, this might seem very reasonable.  Surely that is all we need.  After all, most of the people we read of in the New Testament seem to have had very little formal training, if any, and Jesus actively discouraged his disciples from being too thoroughly prepared (Luke 10:4).

On the other hand, as Gentiles started joining the Jewish church in Antioch (Acts 11:22-26) Barnabas appears to have sought out Saul for his cross-cultural experience.  Although Jesus did send his disciples out lightly equipped, they had already spent quite some time in his company, watching him heal and hearing him teach.  They had been mentored by him.  And we wonder if John would have headed home early from Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) if he had been better prepared for the experience.  Perhaps he was homesick, or maybe he had culture shock.  Or was Paul too hard a taskmaster?  Some better member care may have helped him.

So is it really true that we can go into complex, different and often dangerous situations without some sort of preparation?  Is it still a world in which the likes of Jackie Pullinger can just get on a boat and do effective mission wherever it stops?  Or is it a more prudent, risk-averse world in which churches and agencies will stop us doing anything risky because they have a duty of care? (See our blog from two weeks ago for more on this issue)

We asked some mission workers what they thought were the qualities mission workers really needed.  Here’s what they said:

  • A sense of calling
  • Patience
  • Humility
  • Stamina
  • An ability to laugh at themselves
  • Recognition that God is more interested in what he can do for them than what they can do for him
  • Realistic expectations
  • Ability to cope with disappointment
  • Realisation that who they are is more important than what they do
  • Understanding that God has called them to be faithful, not successful
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Experience of coping with hard times at home before you leave
  • Compassion
  • The ability to ask for help

We don’t disagree with any of these.  They are all really valuable qualities, which most of the mission workers we asked are recommending with the hindsight of their own experience in the field.  What interests us most is that without exception all these qualities relate to character and life experience.  Not one of them is a skill, qualification or competence.  Nothing that was learned in a school, management development course or Bible College.  And we didn’t specify that we were looking for character qualities.  It seems that, as one of them commented, it really is more about who you are than what you do.  And as we concluded in our HR forum, the most important character quality is Christlikeness.

So perhaps the anonymous author of this dubious quote is right, in a certain way.  Perhaps God does equip the chosen.  But it would appear that God equips them before they are chosen, as well as after, using the difficult times we have encountered throughout our lives to make us look more like Jesus.  That, perhaps, is all we really need.

* It has been observed that you should never trust anything you find on the internet.  Except on this website, obviously.

The accidental mission worker

Growth-Engineering-Vision-MissionMuch effort goes into careful planning of mission, as we seek to determine God’s plan, we pray about who to send where, and we set up, train and support teams.  Few would argue that this diligence is excessive, and we would be rather scornful of those who don’t plan carefully.  We expect them to have all sorts of difficulties, and when they do, while we don’t rejoice we may have a smug ‘I-told-you-so’ moment.

Yet it seems that much mission does in fact happen by accident.  I’m 20 years into my life as a mission worker, and I just intended to take a year out.  I’m sure the same is true of many others.  Noah was probably just getting on with his life when God made him a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:5).  Lot would appear on the surface to have been only interested in his cattle (Genesis 13:11-12) but he ended up being a missionary in Sodom (2 Peter 2:8 says he was a ‘righteous man tormented by their lawlessness’).  One of the Bible’s most successful missionaries, Jonah, even tried to run away from his new calling.

tumblr_m6r1lk0T7G1rpk1ppIn the New Testament, Philip was minding his own business when God sent him to tell an Ethiopian about Jesus (Acts 8:26), and Peter was on a ministry trip visiting the church in Joppa when he was invited to preach to a Roman centurion (Acts 11).  Barnabas and Saul were in a worship meeting when they were spontaneously sent (Acts 13:2).  Paul and his friends had to walk through Turkey trying out various options before they realised where they were supposed to be working (Acts 16:6-10).  And in the modern era, many of our famous mission workers didn’t end up where they thought they were going to be, or just went, like Jackie Pullinger, on the prompting of the Holy Spirit and got on with it when they arrived.

The point I am making is that (to paraphrase John Lennon) mission is what happens while you’re busy planning your mission.  Mission is how we deal with the people we sit next to on the train on the way to our mission meeting, or the people who want to talk to us when we are too busy planning.  Mission can take place in a variety of settings.  While you are sitting all day in a government office waiting for the man with the key to return from a funeral, are you just getting frustrated or is this God’s way of using you to be a witness to those around you?  When you are kidnapped, has your mission been derailed, or merely diverted?  Is this God’s plan for you to be a witness?

Earth boyMission is taking the opportunity to reach out to people wherever and whenever we are and all it requires is for us to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to prompt us (like Philip in Acts 8:26) and to be ready to tell our story (1 Peter 3:15).  It often happens spontaneously and unplanned, or so it appears to us, but in all those scriptural examples above, God was at work and it was all part of his plan.  It just wasn’t part of the people’s plans.  This is the essence of Mission Dei – that God is already reaching out to the lost and graciously allows us to help .

So when we are making plans for our mission, it’s worth remembering Proverbs 16:9 – We make our own plans, but the Lord decides where we will go.

Serving as singles

Several people have asked me recently to comment on the issue of being a single mission worker.  Singleness, obviously, is not confined to that group of people, but can be significant issue for them because the isolation and stress of having a missional vocation can be compounded by being single.  The coping techniques they adopt can be harmful or self-destructive and can lead to emotional damage, so it’s an issue that needs a lot of understanding and support – particularly from mission leadership and married co-workers!

There have always been single people in Christian mission.  Saint Paul may have been single – we certainly don’t read in the Bible about his wife, or those of Barnabas, Silas and Timothy.  Many of the mission workers in the middle ages were monks or nuns who had taken vows of chastity.  I’m not aware that Aidan, Patrick, Boniface, Francis or Ignatius of Loyola were married.  In the 19th century many men like Livingstone and Studd left their families behind for long periods, and while they were comforted by letters from home and memories of their family, they were effectively single for long periods.  At the same time many courageous and formidable women took the gospel to some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.  Some of the 20th century’s  most significant mission workers were single women.

Single mission worker Jackie Pullinger

Today, there are many single mission workers worldwide: unmarried, divorced, and widowed.  The significant majority of single mission workers are female, some estimates indicating that the proportion may be as high as 80%.  This reflects the overall gender imbalance in the church at large and in this context the single males don’t usually stay single for very long.

There are many challenges in being a single mission worker.  Finding friends who can take the same week off work to go on holiday with, being asked to share our homes with short-termers (“no pressure, of course”), or generally being expected to be more flexible about our work assignments than families (“It wouldn’t be fair to them; they’ve got the kids to think about”).  Conversations can quickly become negative as we focus on such issues, and yet there is much to give thanks for.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

There is a great flexibility which comes with being a single worker.  Having more time to devote to work, church and friendships is not the only advantage.  There is freedom to travel, and flexibility to manage our lives without the legitimate demands of partner and children.  It’s also significantly cheaper.  When I worked in Zambia, my colleagues were regularly amazed that I’d fly to Harare or Johannesburg for a long weekend, something that was completely unaffordable for a family of six.

Syzygy is going to do a series of blogs for single mission workers over the next year or so.  These will include a theology of singleness, avoiding becoming a workaholic and embracing our sexuality positively. The aim is not to have a pity party, or to help people stop being single, but to encourage single mission workers to concentrate on the One whom they serve, and to embrace the wonderful opportunity he has given them.  Most of all we will focus on Jesus, the archetypal single mission worker, who was tempted in every way just as we are, and yet is without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  If singleness was good enough for him, why should we complain that it’s unfair on us?