Together?

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Together is a word many of us love.  We enjoy being together, doing together, talking together, worshipping together.  But our Western idea of together is a very individualistic understanding: a voluntary, non-committal, temporary association in a shared activity which doesn’t compromise our individuality.

The church, despite its language and possibly even its hopes, has a tendency to reflect this individualism, and so can mission training establishments and sending agencies.  As a result, our mission workers are often in the same mould, and may struggle to appreciate the community dynamics of some of the cultures where we minister, in which tribe, community and family are more important than the individual.

I have had several conversations with mission workers expressing frustrations at the demands local believers place on them – yet those demands often stem from their different understanding of the nature of church, which we encourage by our use of words like ‘family’ and ‘brother’, which can mean so much more in their culture than they do in ours.

In many ways, such cultures are far closer to the Israel of Bible times than they are to ours, and if we think more corporately as we read the Bible, we will see less of the western personal salvation which we are accustomed to, and more of a community being saved.  For example, Paul’s revolutionary theological revelation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  As westerners when we read that, we tend to assume it means “Christ in me”, which is indeed compatible both with our understanding of our individual personal salvation and the subsequent verse 29 where Paul goes on to talk about God’s power working in him.

But the culture of that day, and the people to whom the letter was originally written, would have been far more likely to read that as “Christ in us”.  In those communities, where people were regularly in and out of one another’s houses (Acts 2:46), understanding themselves as part of a body (Romans 12), and experiencing profound love for one another (Colossians 1:4), an individual expression of their faith must have been unthinkable.  They were a new nation, a new family.  Christianity may have supplanted their previous commitments but didn’t change their understanding of how they fitted into community and family.

Perhaps we would have more impact on such cultures if we intentionally adapted our thinking so that our understanding of “together” was a binding, permanent, committed, irrevocable sharing of all that we have and are with our new family.  Maybe then they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because they will see our genuine love for one another (John 13:35).

 

Removing the rocks

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I have blogged before about sowing in hope and about sowing what we will not reap.  As mission workers we sometime need these encouragements when it seems that ours is a thankless task bearing little fruit. Some of us are working hard and faithfully in places where it is hard to be in faith for even one person to express an interest in the gospel, let alone a mass movement to Christ breaking out.

Recently a retired mission worker told me that in his youth he had met an elderly mission worker who was hard at work but apparently achieving little.  As young enthusiastic recruits are liable to do, he asked the old man what he thought he was achieving.  “I’m not even planting the seed of the word,” came the reply.  “I’m still moving the rocks out of the field”.

We need to be aware that wherever we are ministering, we might inadvertently be placing rocks rather than removing them.  If we do not live like the locals, dress like the locals, eat like the locals, we may be unintentionally building barriers rather than bridges.

So what does removing rocks look like?  We should be asking ourselves – and our local contacts – what we communicate about Christianity that might actually put them off listening to our testimony.  So if we can address those issues, we may stand more of a chance of being seen as religious people they can engage with.  Part of their misconception about Christianity will be that they assume what they see in western media is Christian.  We ourselves are only too aware that television and movies seldom present Christianity well, but Christians are often perceived as decadent or immoral by others for whom this is their principal way of seeing the West.

Some of the things we could think about doing which might remove some rocks could include:

Prayer.  We pray so constantly and naturally that we hardly notice it.  We hold regular prayer meetings which take place in the privacy of a home or office so others don’t see it (Matthew 6:5).  But in some cultures where prayer is much more obvious or regular, they don’t necessarily realise we pray.  So if we very obviously and regularly stopped to say a prayer, they may well realise that we too are a people who take prayer seriously.  Moslem people might be more impressed with our faith, for example, if they knew we stopped to pray 5 times a day!

Fasting.  Some cultures, notably Islamic ones, make a big thing of fasting at certain seasons.  They do not see us fast, even if we do, because we try to keep it secret (Matthew 6:16).  But if we made more of an obvious effort to keep Lent, it would be a great opportunity to show people that we take fasting seriously.

Giving.  In line with the passage in Matthew quoted above, we try to keep our personal giving quiet as well.  But our giving is not only financial, but in our support for the needy.  Jesus also taught us to let people see our good deeds so that can glorify God (Matthew 5:16).  We are understandably reluctant to trumpet our acts of charity like Pharisees, but we do need to let them be seen.

Furnishings.  I have blogged before about how western architecture and décor don’t necessarily communicate spirituality to people of other cultures.  Even something as simple as having book stands to keep our Bible off the floor will show that we are people who treat it as sacred rather than just another book.  Removing our shoes when entering a place of worship might communicate something about reverence as well.

Clothing.  Much debate has taken place over how we should dress in order not to give offence, but just fitting into a local culture is a start.  This is the reason Hudson Taylor wanted the CIM missionaries to adopt Chinese dress.  I am known for preferring shorts to trousers, but in the Moslem community in which I currently live, I never wear shorts outside even for a quick visit to the shops.  Similarly, when I worked in Thailand, I shaved off my beard because Thai people don’t grow them, but grew it longer when living among people who do grow beards.

Attention to such simple things as how we appear to and behave with the people around us is the first step in removing the rocks.  St Paul summarises this strategy as:

I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I can save some.

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

Hope for Europe

It’s not often you get to meet with several hundred Christian leaders from all over Europe, but if you attend the Hope for Europe conference in Tallinn this coming October, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Syzygy is proud to be part of this significant event by helping the European Evangelical Mission Association to plan a missions track at Hope for Europe.  Featuring high profile mission leaders this track will address the issue of how the world’s least evangelised continent continues to engage in global mission, where our evangelistic confidence is shatterred and the need in our own countries seems to be so great that we can easily lose sight of the need for us to engage in mission worldwide, not just on our own doorstep.

The main theme of the track will be: How can we inspire Europe with a global vision?   We will cover topics such as:

  • Inspiring ‘hard places’ mission – How do we inspire people to do mission in hard countries, hard cities, ignored places, and with neglected social groups?
  • Inspiring an integral mission. How do we engage responsibly with taking the gospel to people, while helping with their physical, social, and psychological needs?  How do we address the practical situations without merely becoming Christian social workers?
  • Inspiring a humble mission.  What is the role of the European church in world mission? How do we overcome our own barriers from our colonial past?  Can the rest of Europe say something to the northwest?  Can the rest of the world say something to Europe?

To be part of this significant event visit the Hope for Europe website, and to be part of it you can register at https://hopeforeurope.org/registration/.

 

The right kit?

Recently I was hiking in the Lake District and had forgotten to take my hiking poles. Having used them regularly for several years the whole walk felt very different, and I noticed that my legs had to work a lot harder without help from my arms.

The right kit is so important. As a good organiser and a safe hiker, I make sure I carry a lot of things I will need: map, compass, water, gloves, waterproof clothing and more. I also carry things I hope I won’t need: survival rations, spare socks, emergency whistle and a space blanket.

Which is exactly what we tell mission workers to do. They take loads of stuff with them when they go and I’ve even seem some ship out containers with their belongings in. We also make sure they get properly trained in language learning, theology, cross-cultural awareness and many other skills they will need in the mission field – even hairdressing or motor mechanics.

In stark contrast Jesus told his first mission workers to take nothing:

Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way… Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you…

(Luke 10:3-4, 8)

The disciples were spectacularly unprepared in a way that any sensible agency or church wouldn’t tolerate in their mission workers today. So should we be sending people out on a whim, rather than putting them through recruitment and training processes which can take several years before we think they’re ready? No! For every successful Jackie Pullinger who just gets on the boat and gets off when it stops, there are hundreds of broken mission workers who have returned covered in ignominy because they were under-prepared for the challenges they faced.
So how do we explain what Jesus said?

I believe the point he was making, which is still valid today, is that when we have equipment, skills and learning, we can so easily come to rely on that rather than on God, and on the help of the locals. We turn up with all our gear and can establish ourselves as independent colonists in our host country rather than engaging with our new neighbours to find out how things work. Most of us will never, like Jesus did, have to ask a stranger for a cup of water (John 4:7). Many of us will cruise from place to place in our air-conditioned 4x4s and never know the thrill of getting to know our fellow passengers on a long bus journey. We won’t communicate vulnerability and need to our neighbours.

Stuff makes us independent. Independence can make us proud, and paternalistic towards our neighbours. Need communicates vulnerability, opens doors, and builds relationships. Perhaps we need to think about sending more mission workers with less stuff.

The direct route to God

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

I have blogged before about the “Highway of Holiness” which Isaiah prophesied about.  The point he was making is that it should be easy for people to come and find God, like using a Roman road going straight to its destination rather than the “Rolling English Road” of G K Chesterton, with its twists and turns and unexpected hazards.

Isaiah is fond of the image of a motorway running from Assyria to Egypt by way of Jerusalem.  Mostly it’s there to make it easy for Israelites to return to God (11:16, 35:8, 49:11) but it’s also there for the people of the surrounding nations, represented by the two superpowers of the day, to turn to the Lord – see 19:23 where the prophet has a vision not of the destruction of Israel’s enemies (as one might expect) but of them thriving as they turn en masse to God and are blessed.

God has been at work among the people of the middle east for a while now, giving them incredible dreams revealing the risen Lord Jesus to them.  For the last couple of years, he has been bringing them in great numbers to Europe, where it is much easier for Christians to meet them, show them the love of God and help them on their journey.  Some countries have tried to block this road but the people still come and the church, on the whole, welcomes them.  Christians are doing a fabulous job of helping in settlement camps, running welcome centres, and supporting the new arrivals to their neighbourhood.  But more can still be done.  I blogged about the opportunity the refugee crisis brings us over two years ago and nothing has changed.

Seventy years ago, the Windrush generation started to come to Britain.  Although many were enthusiastic Christians they were not universally welcomed into the principal churches, so they went and started their own.  Some of these churches went on to become vibrant, growing denominations which have experienced significant revival.  But the sad truth is that in most cases, we still have white churches and black churches, and very few genuinely intercultural ones.

Let’s not make the same mistake with people from the middle east.  Let’s welcome them with open arms.  In 70 years, we do not want to see God blessing a thriving muslim-background community of believers while more traditional churches continue to close their doors.  This is a wonderful opportunity for us to prove we have learned from our past mistakes and be genuinely inclusive towards those who are different.

Hinani

Many of us will be familiar with Isaiah’s enthusiastic response to the revelation of God he received: “Here I am; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).  You may well have used it as an appeal for mission workers.  But the first part of his sentence, “Here I am…” merits a little more unpacking.

This unremarkable statement acquires weighty significance when we look at it more closely.  “Here I am” seems a somewhat redundant response to a God who knows where we are.  But it is not a mere statement of location.  There’s a different expression in Hebrew for that, which is equivalent to saying “Present!” when the school register is called.  In this instance, hinani  in Hebrew indicates readiness and willingness.  It indicates being present, here and now, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but fully in the present, available to God for him to use.  It’s like a soldier snapping to attention and replying “Yes, Sir!” when an officer calls his name.  He instantly stops what he’s doing and listens for orders.

It is used notably by Abraham (Genesis 22:1, 22), Moses (Exodus 3:4) and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4) when God speaks to them.  Each time it marks the beginning of a new faith journey.  Abraham is called to make a significant sacrifice.  Moses is commissioned to lead his people.  And Samuel commences a significant prophetic ministry with words of doom to his predecessor.

Each of us had a hinani moment when we committed our life to follow Jesus, and most likely another one when we followed him into world mission.  Some of us may be able to identify several of them.  Sometimes they are obvious, like a clap of thunder in our consciousness (John 12:29); at other times they are much more subtle, like the still small voice after the storm (1 Kings 19:11-12).

But I wonder how many of them we have simply missed, by being busy, preoccupied or stressed.  Listening to God is an art which needs to be practised – in the present, in stillness of soul.  I was struck recently by something Elisha said – “the Lord has hidden it from me and not told me why” (2 Kings 4:27).  We might expect the opposite, that God would reveal something to us.  But Elisha, admittedly an anointed prophet, had practised listening to God so closely that he felt it was normal for him to have a prophetic perspective on what was happening (2 Kings 6:16).

Sometimes God shouts, but more often whispers, and if we’re not in a place where we can hear the still, small voice, we may risk not moving on when we should.  God doesn’t always set a bush on fire to get our attention, so we’d better be giving it readily.  Let’s make sure we create the time in our busy schedules to be able to do this.

Leonard Cohen drew on his Jewish roots as he used hinani in his powerful final album You Want it Darker as he readied himself to meet God.  He translates it as “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Are you ready?

Do mission workers need drive?

I was asked recently whether drive is a necessary characteristic for a mission worker.

My instinct is to say no.  I have seen a lot of drivenness in ministry, often expressed as a compulsion to succeed, to achieve, to prove others wrong, and in many cases is appears to stem from unresolved personal inadequacies.  Drivenness can lead to stress and burnout as we try to achieve things in our own strengths rather than trusting God for fruit in our ministry.  We have blogged many times about these dangers.

But drivenness is not the same as drive.  Drivenness implies something painfully pushing someone on, like a herder using a cattle prod to keep oxen moving forwards.  Drive, however, is internal.  A car has drive under its bonnet.  Without it, the car wouldn’t go anywhere.  Drive is less intense than drivenness.  Drive motivates us to get out of bed in the morning.  Without any drive at all, we would drift aimlessly through life.   In a positive way it stimulates us to fulfil basic natural needs to eat and sleep, and higher desires, which may be healthy or not.

And surely some drive is necessary for a mission worker.  If you were the leader of a mission agency would you recruit people with no drive?  Someone who just turns up and casually asks if they can join you, somebody who might drift through life on the mission field never initiating projects, not pressing forward?  They’d probably not get through the first round of recruitment – as someone who has been through that process myself, I know that drive is needed just to complete the application form!  So a certain amount of drive is necessary.

But drive has a negative side in that it pushes us to acquire a sense of belonging, significance, fulfilment and achievement, albeit less compulsively than drivenness, though in just such an unhealthy way.  Drive is the Freudian Id, or to use a Pauline expression, the ‘flesh’ which is not merely the healthy desire to meet natural needs, but the unhealthy demands that those needs are prioritised, even at the expense of others.  These are things which Christian thought tells us to die to.

So, to answer the question, let’s look at the life of Jesus.  Did he have drive?  Clearly, yes.  He talked about things that he came to do (Luke 10:19), and showed determination to achieve them (Luke 9:51).  He refused to be distracted from his mission (Matthew 15:24), and didn’t seek his own gratification (Mark 10:45).  Ye he clearly wasn’t driven.  He made time for people (John 4), and created plenty of time for God (Mark 1:35).

So I think the answer to the question is that it depends where drive comes from.  Is it a fleshly or soulish desire to have our own needs met, even if we express that desire through the vehicle of a productive-looking ministry?  Or is it a godly passion which drives us to ever more submit to God’s will in our lives in the pursuit of his greater glory.

After all, Jesus did tell us “Whoever seeks to save their own life will lose it, but those who lose it for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25)

 

Cricket in Crisis?

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Anyone who has followed the defeat of the England cricket team at the weekend, and indeed over the last winter, cannot escape the conclusion that English test cricket is in a crisis, as has so frequently been observed over the last 100 years or so.

The appointment of a coach who was selected for his track record in the shorter forms of the game (“white ball cricket”) as opposed to test matches (“red ball cricket) has only highlighted this problem.  Their defeat at the weekend by Pakistan only highlighted the fact that many of the England players, while being highly adept at the sort of aggressive fast scoring that is needed in white ball cricket, are woefully underprepared for the patient, slower building of a large innings over the course of several hours, like Alastair Cooke is so good at.

And why would they be?  Test matches last five days, and the players have no other experience of five-day cricket.  County Championship matches last four days, most other tournaments last one day, and in the shortest form of cricket a game is over in just three hours.  Now the cricket authorities in England are planning to introduce an even shorter competition to attract more interest.

A similar change is taking place in the missions world.  56 years ago, when first-class one-day cricket was introduced, the concept of ‘short-term’ mission barely existed.  Now the number of British people, mainly students but increasingly retired people, going on a short term mission trip number in the thousands every year.  Like white-ball cricket, it’s popular and accessible.

Unlike long-term mission, which is more like test cricket.  It requires a lot more training, time and commitment to get established.  The quick results that are needed for short-term are replaced by the disciplined and patient endurance that builds into powerful impact for the kingdom of God even if it’s not quite so spectacular.

How we can get the thousands of people who love the thrill of short-term mission to convert to the longer form is as challenging as making test match players out of T20 players.  We would love to see more of the short-termers coming back as long termers, and while many long-term mission workers started their vocation with short-term there is apparently little evidence that short-term engagement increases long-term recruitment.  Just as in cricket, they are two different forms of the game and there is not an automatic crossover from one into the other.

Many facets of mission need long-term commitment.  Quite apart from the challenges of language acquisition and cultural adaptation which need a significant investment of time, activities such as theological education, community transformation, and Bible translation don’t readily lend themselves to being done by short-termers.  So we still need more long-termers, rather than less.

Short-term mission can be justified in its own right, and has a place alongside long-term, as long as it is done well, contextualised, and done with cross-cultural sensitivity and respect (see the Global Connections Code of Best Practice for examples of how this might be achieved).  It is not merely a recruiting ground.  But there does also need to be a focus on maintaining and developing the long-term workforce that keeps mission going forward when the short-termers go home.

Just like England will never win the Ashes with a team full of IPL stars.

Everyday encounters and the mission of God

I’ve been noticing recently in the gospels how often healings, miracles or important teaching opportunities happened as Jesus was on his way somewhere or while He was in the middle of doing something else. Amazing things happened on the go, out and about and outside of planned events. It’s great to organize and prepare for specific opportunities but I’m trying to be more aware as I go from here to there of what God’s up to and how I can join in. Do I often pray for opportunities but forget that the everyday stuff of life contains plenty of opportunities already?

Also, Jesus never felt interrupted. Every encounter was an opportunity to live out his mission. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10) and they were all over the place. I want to love the one in front of me the way Jesus did and see what God wants to do in their life. What feels like an interruption might be the best opportunity that day to share the gospel or show God’s love.

On Easter Saturday, while we were at a swimming pool taking a break from the loud music and chanting coming from our neighbour’s religious ceremony, I ended up having a great opportunity to talk about Jesus with a very smart and inquisitive 11 year old Chinese boy on holiday here. My first ever conversation about Jesus with someone from China. In a way he was a bit of an interruption to some quality family time. But it was clearly a God-incidence (there are no coincidences) and I trust that God will use that encounter in this boy’s life.

So look out. We might be about to walk into something God’s planned for us that never crossed our mind. Are we willing to abandon our schedules and be available? Here’s a quick little prayer from Norman Grubb of WEC International that’s worth echoing as we start each day: “Good morning Lord! What are You up to today? Can I be a part of it? Thank You. Amen.”

 

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

The value of sabbatical

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As Syzygy takes a much-needed holiday this week, today we are going to pause and think about the value of stopping and reflecting.  Many times we have blogged about the value of retreat, and while we recognise that this can imply a time of solitude and silence which would be torture for some of our more extroverted readers, all of us can find value in withdrawing regularly from the busyness of life’s challenges and burdens to reflect on life and ministry.

Occasionally we may hear about people who have been on sabbatical, or maybe we have even met some of them, and wonder why we don’t seem to be able to get so much as a week off let alone a few months!

Sabbatical draws its principle from the Sabbath, the seventh day, and keeping the Sabbath rest is something that has marked Israel out from its neighbours over the millennia, and is also a custom the church followed until fairly recently.  Less famously the Old Testament law included a Sabbatical year – a year in which fields, fruit trees and vines were left unsown and unharvested every seventh year to allow them to rest.  And perhaps more importantly, to allow the people to trust that God would provide sufficient harvest for them in the sixth year to last them until the eighth year’s harvest came in.  Sadly there is little evidence that this act of faith and obedience was ever fully-implemented in ancient Israel, although the idea has continued to hold sway in ministry.

Not that we necessarily get – or even need – a whole year off every seventh year.  But to be free of ministry responsibilities for a significant amount of time once in a while is valuable in a way that short bursts of holiday or even the less-structured but nevertheless demanding time of home assignment can never be.

However much time we manage to set aside, there is value in stepping out of our daily routine to reflect.  Without doing so, we can get so stuck in the treadmill we don’t have time to think.  If we can break that cycle and get away, we can ask ourselves serious questions like:

  • Are we still true to our original calling?
  • What are we doing that is outside the will of God?
  • What work can we drop/delegate to someone else?
  • Is there a better way of achieving our goals?
  • What new things is God calling us to?
  • What else does God want to say to us or do in our lives?

Perhaps, if we took more time out to reflect, there would be fewer issues of missionary burnout.

(Syzygy Trustees please note I have now been in my current post for 8 years!)

 

Do we really need to receive overseas missionaries?

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Recently a couple of influential bloggers have published their thoughts on Do we really need to send missionaries overseas? and No, we shouldn’t send missionaries…unless.  Rather than go all panto dame and write “Oh yes we do” I thought I’d flip the question on its head.

It is clear that many churches in the UK see the size of the challenge in this country as so great that they are wondering whether we really need to be sending people to other countries when the need is so great here.  This is a question that is worth asking, and if the overseas mission advocates cannot answer it convincingly there will inevitably be a significant decline in overseas ministry as home needs prevail.

What is also clear is that despite the increase in focus on mission at home, there is not yet significant, consistent growth across the church in the UK.  Some individual churches are growing, and some denominations are growing rapidly.  But many others are declining, and we have not reversed the trend.

Which is why we need help.  By the same logic that we send people abroad to do things the local church cannot do there, we need Christians from Africa, Latin America, eastern Europe, the middle east and China to come to this country and help us do what we can’t.

Which isn’t simply reaching their own ethnicities because we can’t cross the cultural divide.  It’s reaching ours too.  Sometimes they are able and willing to go and live in places we can’t… or won’t.  Sometimes they are able to forge new connections: to have someone from another culture telling you about Jesus suddenly seems interesting after you’ve heard the same old story from so many Brits.

In his blog, Eddie Arthur points out that:

If we are not prepared to receive missionaries from the Global South in our churches, then we shouldn’t be sending missionaries to theirs!

In the 1950s a lot of Christians from the Caribbean came to Britain and found little welcome in the churches, so they often started their own.  Today these are some of the most vibrant and growing churches in the country.  We don’t want to make the same mistake again so let’s welcome the people from abroad who God sends to us, and help them be effective in the ministry they are called to.

Syzygy is developing a stand-alone training day for small groups of foreign mission workers new to the UK which includes an introduction to British culture and history, an overview of the current state of the church, and helpful tips on how to engage missionally in a way which won’t alienate your neighbours.  If you’d like to know more, contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

This is rapidly becoming a pagan country again, and if we need more resources to prevent that, why turn away helpers?

 

The Perfect Storm

In 1993, author Sebastian Junger was researching a book about the sinking two years before of a fishing boat in extreme weather off the east coast of the United States.  In an interview, Bob Case from the National Weather Service explained to Junger that conditions became unusually intense because of the freak convergence of multiple weather events creating a “perfect” scenario for catastrophic wind waves and rain.  From that conversation was born the term, “the perfect storm.”  You’ve probably seen, or at least heard of, the movie that followed.

Last week influential mentor Rick Lewis introduced a group of member care workers to his take on this.  He pointed out that the perfect storm for Christian leadership occurs where the systemic hazards in the church or agency they lead meet the vulnerabilities inherent in a leader’s personality.

By “systemic hazards” he is referring to the adverse conditions that coalesce around Christian leadership.  These conditions are sometimes simply a consequence of helping people deal with momentous issues of life, and sometimes they are dysfunctions of the communities that Christian leaders serve.  We all know that leadership is hard.  But it is made harder than it needs to be when systems function in carnal ways that are not reflective of the kingdom of God.  Very few Christian organisations are thoroughly hazardous to their leaders; but none are completely free of hazardous conditions.

By “vulnerabilities in a leader’s personality”, he is referring to those parts of the psyche that are still in the process of being brought into conformity with the image of Christ.  These are the weaknesses, old wounds, dark secrets, immaturity and foolish ways that quench leadership capacity.  All leaders – all people, in fact – have such vulnerabilities.  They are never entirely eradicated, but through the power of the Holy Spirit significant growth and healing can be achieved and the ongoing negative effects can be neutralised.

Leaders and systems form symbiotic relationships.  The individual and the community each affect the other both positively and negatively.  Human nature being what it is, the negatives tend to have an increasing effect over time, unless outside intervention is interposed.  The hazards in a system will exploit the vulnerabilities in a leader unless someone helps the leader to keep their feet while in the midst of the storm.  Mentoring helps Christian leaders navigate the perfect storm, leveraging their strengths to address their vulnerabilities so that the hazards present in Christian organisational systems are contained and systemic health promoted.

We are not going to give away Rick’s material in this blog!  Suffice to say that here at Syzygy we have seen several instances where the way an organisation is structured and motivated coincides with a leader’s character weaknesses to set that leader up for spectacular failure unless some sort of mentoring intervention occurs to support the leader in growing and the organisation in changing.

Those who wish to know more can contact Rick via us by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk or buying his helpful book Mentoring Matters which contains more information on this subject.

What makes us distinctively Christian?

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I have commented before on the challenge of being distinctively Christian in an environment which requires certain legal and administrative practices of us (see Sleepwalking into obsolescence with due diligence).

Not only do we find ourselves forced to comply with legislative practices (often good) imposed on us by secular authorities, but in order to be seen to be delivering on that we often adopt secular business practices.  This is all too easy for those of us who were trained in management in secular employment before we joined the mission field.  And those of us who are already equipped with management and administrative skills are the ones most likely to be selected for senior leadership, which then reinforces further the use of secular practices in our organisations.

Not that those practices are necessarily wrong.  But they do diminish our distinctives.  Although we may have a distinctively Christian vision and ethos, the way in which we go about our day-to-day tasks often would have little to distinguish it from someone working (say) in a solicitor’s or a bank.

An example would be a typical Christian meeting, which will generally start with a prayer, and possibly a devotional.  It will then continue with a discussion which will probably include little formal acknowledgement of God’s presence with us, or seeking God’s advice and direction.

So let’s take a look at some of the practices of the early church which we might want to consider using:

  • They drew lots to select senior leadership from a shortlist (Acts 1:23-26)
  • They followed instructions given in dreams (Acts 16:9-10)
  • Corporate worship was part of the leadership practice (Acts 13:1-2)
  • They had discussions to decide policy but clearly understood that the Holy Spirit was involved in the conversation (Acts 15:28)
  • Disagreement was frank and public (Galatians 2:11-14) but apparently led to reconciliation (1 Peter 3:16)
  • They gave generously to the common cause (Acts 2:44-45)
  • Some organisational roles were filled by the choice of the people, not the leadership (Acts 6:3).
  • Lack of personal integrity was punished with termination (Acts 5:5, 10)!
  • They prioritised their spiritual activity (Acts 2:42)
  • People’s ‘private’ lives were clearly considered part of the person spec for leaders (1 Timothy 3:2-12, Titus 1:7-9)

You can probably think of more.  While some of these practices may not be an ideal fit for today’s society, it does for me raise the question of where we draw inspiration for our practices.  Yes, we have to keep accounts (and I’m sure Paul kept tabs on the money donated for Jerusalem) in a systematic and compliant manner, but the bottom line is (literally!) are we trusting God for the funds, or our fundraisers?  What is the role of prayer not only in our regular prayer meetings but in our routine practices?  How do we ensure that everything we do is ethical and faith-driven?

Let us determine to run our organisations in such a way that anyone coming in from outside will be struck by the distinctives not merely of our vision and ethos but also of our practices and routines.

Pray for Syzygy!

Prayer does not fit us for the greater work;

prayer is the greater work.

(Oswald Chambers)

It has become our custom in recent years to start the new year with an appeal for prayer.  We regularly remind our readers of the need for partners to pray for mission workers, unreached people groups, the suffering church and crisis situations, and we believe prayer is the key to releasing God’s power and presence into challenging situations.

This year we make no apology for another appeal to prayer, but with one change: we’d like you to pray for us.  Ever since we started we have had a small group of committed prayer partners who pray for our needs, and as we’ve grown we’ve depended on the prayers of these friends even more.

Last year we turned a corner in our understanding of the role Syzygy can play in supporting mission agencies with member care, and this was largely in response to seeking God about the future of Syzygy.  In response we have established a network of experienced member care workers in different parts of England (sorry, rest of the UK, we’re working on serving you too!).

Now we need to pray for the work for them to do.  In the past we have served around 150 mission workers each year through training, debriefing, advice and practical support – now we have the capacity to serve a significantly greater number but we need to pray for them to come to us, and for us to be able to help them.  You can find out how to support Syzygy in prayer through our Get Praying! page, but we’d particularly like to draw your attention to the PrayerMate App.  We send out a new prayer request every day for you to get on your phone.

Will you please pray with us that God will send these people our way, so that we can equip ever more mission workers to be effective and resilient?

 

Sowing in hope

Shoots of hope?

Officially, winter starts next week in the UK.  Yet at the end of November, when branches are bare, flowers have died, and leaves are turning to mud in the gutters, it feels like it’s already here.  Days are short, temperatures dropping and our moods drop too as we brace ourselves for the cold and damp.

But even in the midst of such gloom we carry out small acts of hope.  Autumn is the time for planting bulbs.  In November, before the ground freezes, we plant the bulbs which will start growing roots ready to burst into flower in the spring.  We know that in a few months our hearts will be lifted by the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips which will turn our drab winter gardens into a riot of colour.  We plant in hope.

Mission workers are no stranger to this feeling.  Most of us work in environments where we see little response, yet we carry on sowing the seed of the word of God.  As Alex reminded us a couple of weeks ago that this can often take years to come to fruition but we keep sowing it in faith anyway.

Sadly our supporters sometimes expect the harvest to come quickly.  “How many people have you led to the Lord this year?” they might ask.  Churches may threaten to withdraw funding if there is no evidence of people turning to Christ as a result of our labours.  This can put us under pressure, make us worker harder, pray harder, preach harder, even succumb to the temptation to coerce people into coming to church.

There is a short parable in Mark’s gospel which can encourage us in this situation.  Tucked away between the more famous parables of the sower and the mustard seed, this one is about the growth of the seed.   It’s short enough to repeat in full:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

(Mark 4:28-29)

He does not know how.  The growth of the seed is not dependent on the farmer.  He plants it, waits patiently, and reaps the crop in due time.  Let us not worry about the mechanics of what is going on in people’s hearts.  That’s God’s job.  We plant the seed, he makes it grow.  And we are privileged, in partnering with him in his mission, so be called his fellow-workers (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  So let’s concentrate on our part of the work, and leave him to do his bit.

Investigating ourselves

Conflict resolution? (source: www.freeimages.com)

Six months ago we commentated on incidents of ‘Friendly Fire‘ in our agencies.  Occasionally Syzygy comes across mission workers who feel they have been bullied by someone in leadership in their agency, and the agency didn’t take the issue seriously.  The situation has resulted in them leaving the mission field laden with negative emotions after they felt the agency has closed ranks against them when they raised this issue with management.  Such stress and attrition should be avoidable.

Perhaps these people were viewed as troublemakers.  Perhaps their perception of how they have been treated is not accurate.  Perhaps the agency didn’t think it was worth rocking the boat – we have occasionally heard it alleged that a particularly powerful individual within the agency was not worth challenging.

So how can agencies manage such situations well?

Principally, they should have a grievance procedure, and be committed to following it.  (A ‘grievance’ is the English term for the formal making of a complaint against an employer.)  The details of a grievance prcedure may vary from country to country according to local laws, but there should always be a procedure clearly laid out for mission partners to follow if an informal discussion with their leadership doesn’t resolve an issue to their satisfaction.  Unfortunately some agencies don’t have grievance policies, and confusion about whether mission partners are members/employees/self-employed can mean that processes like this which are mandatory in many countries are overlooked by agencies who like to think of themselves as a ‘family’.

A grievance procedure should outline a clear process which contains the following steps:

  • If a mission partner feels their complaint is not being taken seriously, they can put it in writing to their immediate leader (or their leader’s leader if the complaint is about the leader);
  • The mission partner is invited to make their complaint in person to someone who will investigate, having the right to take someone with them for moral support;
  • An investigation will be carried out with impartiality;
  • A written response will be given to the mission partner including information about how to appeal against the decision if they are not happy with it;
  • An appeal will be dealt with by a senior leader not directly associated with the field the mission partner is working in, or an independent third party if that is not possible;
  • External mediation is the final step,
  • If a grievance is made in good faith, but not upheld, the mission partner will not suffer any organisational backlash.

Throughout this process, the mission partner should be given confidentiality, and although complete anonymity may not always be compatible with a thorough investigation, the existence and investigation of the grievance should not be made known to people who are not involved in it.  It may be possible to offer the mission partner a temporary reassignment or leave of absence to remove them from a tense working environment while the grievance is being heard.

But as well as having a robust process for dealing with issues, the values of the agency should clearly include treating people well.  We claim to be a family, but we don’t always treat each other with the love that brothers and sisters deserve.  Whatever has happened, we must remember that all our mission partners are children of God, doing their best to fulfil the great commission, and that in line with biblical teaching we need to treat others with respect and deal with conflict in a godly manner in which the goal of any grievance should be the restoration of relationship.

A successful outcome would include:

  • reconciliation between the parties
  • recognition of sin on both sides, where appropriate, including structures within the agency
  • support for both parties to grow in followership and leadership skills

However, with the best will in the world, we may end up not being able to agree over an issue, and parting company, but if that is the case let us make every effort to ensure that people’s time in the mission field ends well, so that they do not nurse hurt, and can continue to be a good ambassador for our agency.

As an independent third party, Syzygy is happy to help any agency develop its grievance procedures or carry out a review of them.  Likewise, we are willing to listen to and support anyone who feels that their grievance has not been addressed.  For more information contact info@syzygy.org.uk.

Because even as we fulfil the great commission, we must remember to keep the greatest commandment.

Pruning

Continuing the horticultural theme we started recently with ‘re-potting‘, today we’re going to think about pruning.  All of us who are mission workers will be no stranger to sudden losses in our ministry.  Whether we are being evacuated, losing a work permit, finding a key supporter withdraws funding, losing a key colleague or having a ministry closed down by our agency, we all know what it is to find our plans thwarted.

The feelings of doubt, anger, loss and confusion that can go with such events can be reminiscent of the grieving we feel at the sudden death of a loved one.  We had no time to say goodbye, prepare ourselves for the change in our lives, or to celebrate the successes.  It’s suddenly all gone, and we’re left with a gaping hole where there once was certainty and stability.

In addition to these feelings there may also be a sense that God has let us down.  He called us to do this, so why would he allow it to be stopped?  Why didn’t he answer our prayers?  And if we feel like this, we may also feel guilty that we have such feelings, because we know we’re supposed to have faith and trust God in all things.

Reading the Psalms can help us at a time like this, as many of them are written by people in similar situations, grappling with the injustice of the world and the apparent invisibility of God when most needed.  The writers work hard to reconcile the truth that they know about God with the world they see around them which doesn’t always reflect that truth.

It can also help us to think of these situations as times of pruning, although we often don’t recognise God’s intentional hand in them until many years after.  The farmer growing a vine has learned from experience that he has to ‘be cruel to be kind’, and that hard pruning leads to more, and better, fruit.  The farmer will be cutting off some of the strongest, most vigorous growth, in order to prevent it producing too many leaves and twigs.  We all know the result: more fruit.

But the individual branches probably don’t know this.  They’re probably thinking “Ouch” and wondering why that branch which was growing so long has been so brutally lopped off.  Their favourite bits are now missing.  Some of their most lovely green leaves have gone.  But they don’t know what the farmer is planning, and what great plans he has for them to produce much fruit.

So when your fruitful ministry has been suddenly stopped in its tracks, as well as grieving (which is healthy) and stopping to consider what happens next, pause also to reflect on how God is redirecting your fruitfulness to bring even more glory to him.

Good leaders…

The biggest problem for many working people is that the actual work on their desks is the easiest part of the job. Nothing they are responsible for doing at work is especially challenging.  It’s only hard to do the job because of the politics, the stupid rules and the dark, fearful energy that flows throughout the workplace and bogs everyone down. A broken culture makes everything else harder, from organizing projects to getting critical approvals to move your work forward.[1]

In the above quote, Liz Ryan was writing about organisations in general, but she could just as easily have been writing about some of our churches and mission agencies.  On a previous occasion I wrote about the toxicity that lurks in some head offices, and while not wishing to repeat myself, I do want to ram the point home: I come across too many mission workers wounded by their own organisations.

Granted, some of these people may have been annoying, difficult people to work with (so good management starts with good recruitment) but in the kingdom of God we need to develop the desire and ability to work well with even some of the most awkward brothers and sister.

And that is the principal issue: no matter how abrasive or maverick these mission workers are, it’s the agency which has harmed them, at least in their opinion.  And we’ll come on to that issue another day, but we’ll stick with the agency for the moment.

So how do we recognise a culture which hurts people?  Three key characteristics are

  • rules become more important than people
  • doing becomes more important than being
  • results are more important than influence
  • decisions are imposed rather than discussed
  • debate is branded as dissent

The key to ensuring this doesn’t happen is to have leaders of good character.  They can be recognised by many characteristics but we think good leaders:

  • behave more like pastors than bosses
  • are open to hearing alternatives without feeling threatened
  • are emotionally intelligent enough to understand how they respond to others
  • put people’s wellbeing before the organisation’s
  • value people for who they are, not what they can achieve
  • are secure enough to recognise their own vulnerability and embrace it
  • are able to acknowledge and apologise for their own mistakes

How do we get our organisations to the place where this feels like real life?  Like any organisational change, it needs commitment from senior leaders who can recognise the need for change.  The people at the top set the agenda, and if they don’t, there will not be sufficient impetus for change.  This is not only the home or the field directors, but also trustees, and other influential people in the organisation.  For many of them this will need a change of mindset away from running a business to leading a community.  For want of a better model, many of us have adopted secular management strategies which turn our agencies into corporations.  These have the ability to subtly change our values to achieving goals, maintaining profitability and maintaining the reputation of the organisation, which although necessary, are not in themselves positive outcomes and can draw us away from biblical values.

Syzygy is happy to support agencies through implementing cultural change, and we recommend independent mentoring for all senior leaders to help them become the people God wants them to be.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/10/19/ten-unmistakable-signs-of-a-toxic-culture/#49a9f802115f

The growing Syzygy network

Source: www.freeimages.com

The world of cross-cultural mission in the UK is in transition at the moment as churches and agencies all look at our practices and processes and try to find new ways of sending mission workers which will replace the outmoded model originally developed in the 19th century.  This is given added urgency by the financial challenges many churches and agencies are experiencing.

In this climate, there is a severe risk that mission workers will suffer due to lack of member care.  Small agencies are not able to devote sufficient resources to it.  Larger agencies are looking to reduce central costs.  Agencies are expecting churches to do more to support their mission workers, but the churches struggle to find the vision, capacity and expertise to deliver this competently.

Syzygy is uniquely placed to ensure mission workers continue to be effectively supported during this upheaval.  We have already entered into arrangements with several sending agencies, both large and small, for us to provide member care for their workers.  We also are able to support churches to develop the vision and capacity to do more to support their mission partners.

In order to provide this level of service we have been expanding our own capacity and have developed a network of  member care professionals across the country who are conveniently located for the mission workers we hope to support.  The Syzygy representatives are able to carry out one-to-one pre-departure training, ongoing member care for mission partners in the field, and home assignment debriefs.

For more information contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk

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.