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?

A new spring?

WP_000678Spring is a beautiful time of year in northern Europe.  Its early signs come well before its culmination in all its vibrant colours.  Snowdrops peep out of the frozen ground, followed by crocuses, daffodils, primroses and bluebells.  Deciduous trees grow bright new leaves and the dull grey clouds break apart to allow patches of blue sky and bright sunshine.  A wide variety of shrubs and flowers burst into blossom.  The days lengthen and the air grows warmer.

This season lifts the spirits of those of us who have toiled through a long, dark winter, and the joy is expressed in ancient festivities which have become Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost).  The drama of this transition embedded itself deep in the psyche of the Europeans who have recycled it in art, literature and religion.  C S Lewis used it to good effect in describing the change on the landscape that came when the frozen winter kingdom of the White Witch thawed into the realm of Aslan.

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

We even use this imagery in our history – The Dark Ages is the name we give to the period following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when the pagan winter engulfed ‘Christian civilisation’.  Areas we now know as France, Italy, Spain and Britain were occupied by Franks, Goths, Vandals and Saxons – the names of some of them passing into posterity as those hostile to ‘civilisation’.  The so-called Christian empire was overrun, leaving just a few isolated monastic communities to keep the light of faith burning in the sea of darkness.  But those communities did not retreat into their bunkers and look inwards; they went out to their hostile neighbours and spread the word of God, often paying with their lives.  Men like Boniface, Aidan and Columbanus ensured not merely the survival of Christianity, but its dominance, as pagan Europe turned into Christendom.

A thousand years later, the process was repeated.  Christendom, already a decaying empire, fell to the ‘barbarian’ hordes.  Humanists, secularists, nihilists and many other tribes overran it, leaving the population confused and vulnerable.  By the 20th century many had consigned Christianity to history.  It was just another primitive civilisation which had collapsed.  Yet the faithful continued to keep the flame burning brightly.

The 21st century is a second missionary era, when the saints once more are called to go to the postmodern ‘barbarians’ and take the message of God to them.  People come from across the world to bring us the truth that so many have forgotten.  All across Europe missionary endeavour is bringing enlightenment to the lost.  Many churches are experiencing significant growth.  People are turning to God in numbers not seen for centuries.  A new spring is upon us.

The importance of retreat

We have mentioned in several blogs the importance of retreat – to get away from it all, recharge the batteries, and seek God in prayer.   This is an important part of maintaining our emotional and spiritual health – to withdraw for a while from the busyness of our lives and responsibilities and to stand and stare:

What is this life if, full of care,

we have no time to stand and stare?

W H Davies’ whimsical poem Leisure cuts straight to the heart of our busy responsibility-laden lives: – if we don’t create time to re-connect with God, the natural world around us, our own emotions and the natural rhythms of our lives, can we really said to be living?  How come the very people Jesus has given abundant life to are running around like headless chickens offering abundant life to others but somehow failing to enjoy it themselves?

Saint Aidan and his seventh century co-workers (see our blog from July 2010) set up their monastery on a remote island, whose only access was via a causeway which was submerged at high tide.  Accordingly they developed a rhythm to life which was governed by the tides: time on the island which they spent in prayer and contemplation, and time on the mainland when they engaged in mission.  Many contemporary mission workers have forgotten the importance of this rhythm, and enthusiastically do mission work without making time to restore their spiritual resources.  Small wonder that they struggle with exhaustion and burnout!

We recommend that as part of a strategy for maintaining spiritual health, missionary longevity, and human wellbeing, every mission worker should develop a personal rhythm involving daily, weekly, monthly and yearly times of retreat, contemplation, prayer and reflection.  To help with this we have provided a page listing some good places (mostly in the UK) where retreats can be organised.  These can vary from space to find individual times of prayer to fully-led times of retreat.  They can be done silently or not, in groups (better for the extraverts!) or in solitude.

We realise that regular retreat may imply five days away once or twice a year, and for many people, particularly those with families, this is not always practical.  However it is possible for one partner to give another a free day once a month to spend time with God, or even for busy parents to grab five minutes of peace and quiet in the bathroom to read a psalm and say a quick prayer.  It is not the quantity of retreat that is important, so much as the regularity.

Whichever way of doing retreat works best for you, we strongly recommend that everyone makes sure that in their busyness they don’t squeeze out of their lives the God who longs to have more of our attention.  It was Mary who was commended by Jesus, not Martha.

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?

Too busy not to pray?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I’ve recently been reading a biography of Saint Aidan, the founder of the Holy Island monastery and the man who brought Christianity back to Northumbria in the seventh century.  There were many impressive things about this celtic missionary to the pagan Angles, but what struck me most was his commitment to prayer.

He regularly spent hours in prayer, often alone on a small island.  He prayed as he travelled, and of course, as a monk, kept regular times of prayer throughout the day – and the night.  When he was first given the island of Lindisfarne to build the monastery, faced with the task of starting a farm to become self-sufficient in food, building a church, setting up a school and building shelter for the brothers from the bleak north sea weather, Aidan and his team spent 40 days in prayer instead.  They wanted to build on firm foundations.

I wonder if you are so committed to seeking God’s will for your endeavours.  I certainly am not.  When I set up Syzygy six years ago, of course I prayed, often, but not for 40 days.  I doubt that you did when you set out on your ministry.  We’re all too busy.  Yet Aidan realised that he had so much to do, he couldn’t afford not to pray.  Like John Wesley, who apparently spent three hours a day praying, and justified it by saying that he was so busy he couldn’t possibly pray less.  Like Jesus, who regularly withdrew to a lonely place to spend time with his father.  Time he could have spent teaching, or healing the sick.  He obviously thought it was important.

Perhaps our independent spirits lead us to be Marthas rather than Marys.  Of course, if it were left to Mary Jesus would never have got his dinner, but somehow I don’t think he’d have minded that much.  Are we so busy doing stuff for him that we don’t have time to sit and be with him?  Maybe that’s why so many of us are stressed and burnt-out.

I have decided to engage more in prayer, particularly in the workplace.  I pray at my desk before I start work, and  continue in prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.  Well, when I’m not too busy.