Who?

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.

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)

“Where you go changes who you become”

I recently came across this quote on the website of the Youth Hostel Association.  It sounds great, in its context of being adventurous and going places, and those of us who have travelled in cross-cultural mission will be only too aware how much we have changed as a result of our experiences.

We have taken on board aspects of other cultures which we have found valuable.  Learning to express ideas in another language has helped us appreciate different ways of perceiving the world.  Our dietary preferences will have changed – whether we love the food in our host country or are more enthusiastic for the food we grew up with.  We feel richer for the privilege of having stepped outside our own culture and embraced other cultures.

The downside of this is that by exposing ourselves to other places, we have become people who are not the same as we would have been if we had stayed home.

Mission workers don’t usually notice this until it’s time to return to their ‘home’ culture.  Then they discover that they don’t really fit in any more.  They can experience various levels of stress as the difference slowly dawns on them.  This is something we know as ‘reverse culture shock’, and the effects can include irritability, tearfulness and anger as they try to find an equilibrium in a world that doesn’t feel the same as they think it should.  It’s often been observed that reverse culture shock is worse than the culture shock experienced when first moving abroad, largely because it is so unexpected.

Particularly difficult issues which can contribute to reverse culture shock include:

  • feeling that a church is more concerned about apparently trivial issues concerning its Sunday service than it is about world mission;
  • hearing about friends plans for holidays, home extensions and new cars when they don’t appear to be at all interested in world mission;
  • finding people spectacularly disinterested in what mission workers have been doing for the last few years.

At this time of year, many mission workers are back in their sending countries on home assignment.  This is a period of a few months when their work is to reconnect with churches, agency and family while raising new support, promoting the work of their agency, and having routine reviews and checkups.  Their time here is often too brief for them to struggle with reverse culture shock, but it may impact some of them.  So what can we do to help them?

  • Remember that they may be disorientated by changes while they’ve been away. Ask them what’s changed, how they feel about it, and be ready to engage with any hurt or anger they’re feeling.  Explain changes that have happened recently and show them how to do things.
  • Show interest in what they’ve been doing. Even though you may not understand everything, remember that this is a vocation they feel passionate about, and they want to talk about it.
  • Recognise that they’re tired. Often they have been travelling around the country, sleeping in different beds, answering the same questions day after day.  Give them some space in which they don’t have to ‘perform’.
  • Understand that your country is no longer ‘home’ for them, especially their kids. When they first get back they may be longing for Sunday roast or Shepherd’s Pie, but after a couple of months they’re probably desperate for nshima or dhal.
  • Realise that as they’ve changed (and you may have too) the nature of your friendship may have changed. Work hard to establish common ground and interests so that you can maintain your friendship well.
  • Encourage them to talk about their experiences in a formal debrief, either with their church missions team, their agency, or an external debriefer like Syzygy.

Home assignment can be a great joy for mission workers, but it can also be hard work.  Let’s try not to make it any harder than it has to be!

 

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.

Heroes – Wilson Carlile

A recent visit to the Wilson Carlile Centre in Sheffield, home of the Church Army, prompted me to find out more about this remarkable evangelist.  A successful Victorian businessman who suffered a breakdown following financial ruin, he turned to Christ and, heavily influenced by D L Moody, discovered a passion for evangelism.

But unlike others of his day, his passion was for the people on the margins.  London, where he served his curacy, was full of soldiers, working class labourers, sex workers, addicts and the homeless.  Carlile concluded they would not go near a church because the feared they wouldn’t receive a welcome from the respectable Christians in them.  So he began to hold open air meetings to take the gospel out of the church and into the streets, but these got so large that he eventually had to stop them.

Resigning his curacy to devote himself full time to slum ministry, he created the Church Army to focus on outreach to the working class.  Not unlike the already-functioning Salvation Army, but with a crucial distinction that instead of becoming a separate church, Wilson determined to keep the Church Army within the Anglican church, as it still is today.

Carlile set up a school in Oxford to train working-class evangelists to reach their own class, thus avoiding the potential class-barrier that could hinder others in outreach.  Today the Church Army still welcomes and trains evangelists who might not be welcome in other places, but who are adept at forming connections with people on the margins of society.  They have ministries in 20 different countries.

My visit challenged me again with the problem of how to reach out to people who are different to us.  Many churches are monocultural even if they are multiracial, and tend to reproduce (if they do at all) in their own image, rather than adapting themselves to be genuinely accessible to people of other backgrounds – especially those who are already marginalised.

Some years ago, an urban outreach worker who lived in a very deprived area of the city but was attached to a church in the suburbs told me: “I’ve got a problem – a man on my estate just became a Christian”.

“Why’s that a problem?” I asked.

“Because I can’t take him to church.  They’ll reject him.”

Let’s hope things have changed in our churches.

Rethinking exclusivity

A Muslim man joined us recently for our regular communion service at the place where I live and work.  Which made me think hurriedly about how to do communion inclusively and build bridges rather than barriers.  I could of course simply have said “This is not for you, but you’re welcome to observe”, as indeed you might, but as part of a community that is trying hard to get along well with our ‘cousins’, I knew this wasn’t how we would want to treat a visitor.  So I improvised.

Communion can in many ways be one of the most exclusive things Christians can do.  It focuses on the death (real, not seeming) and resurrection (tangible) of Jesus the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  The introductory words we say often make it clear that this is only for people who trust in Him for their salvation.  Then we pray to him, and at the climax we may also drink alcoholic wine.  So for a Muslim person even to attend this event as a guest is an act of outreach to us.

For some of us, communion will be a non-negotiable.  It is only for believers, and we shouldn’t compromise it.  Others will not think it particularly important how we do it.  I think communion is vitally important, but I do value thinking through how we can make it more inclusive.  15 years ago I felt scandalised when a church I attended suggested that the ‘belong, behave, believe’ model meant communion wasn’t the final reward for completing the Christian initiation process but a part of that journey itself.  Today, I feel differently.

Someone once told me that if our mission is not stretching the boundaries of our theology, we are not stepping out deep enough.  So how do we do communion differently?  And indeed we need to think about other things too which are essentials of our faith but which may also alienate those enquiring.  Should we wear hats when we pray or take our shoes off when we enter a church building?  What posture should we adopt when we pray?

As we rethink mission for another age and multiple competing/complementary paradigms and worldviews there is a need for more discussion about what can be changed and what can’t, what is essential and what is cultural.  As you go through this week there will be many things that you do as part of your outreach/mission simply because you’ve always done them that way.  Why don’t you take the opportunity to ask yourself if there’s another way, different but equally good.

So in presiding over communion with our Muslim visitor, I dispensed with our usual liturgy and read the story of the road to Emmaus.  I explained that we are all on a journey, and Jesus walks with us on it, but we don’t always recognise him.  I shared the broken bread and cup of fruit juice as reminders of the meal he had in Emmaus, and said that perhaps we would see him better as we eat.  I pointed out that the meal mirrors the one he had with his disciples the night before he died, when he told us to eat it and remember him.  I said that he loved eating and drinking and would welcome everyone to eat with him, and he welcomes all of us too.  We don’t have to be perfect to eat with him.

And we all ate together.  After all, the essence of communion is reconciliation, isn’t it?

Preparing your TCKs to come ‘home’

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time of year many mission workers abroad are making plans to gohome for holiday or home assignment.  They will be excited at the prospect of meeting with parents, friends and church again, and going to places that hold happy memories for them.

At the same time their children may feel a sense of foreboding.  The place their parents call home is probably not where they call home.  In fact, they may be confused about where ‘home’ is.  It may be where their parents serve (or used to serve, if they’ve moved country).  It may be where they go to school, if they’re at a boarding school for missionary kids.  Or it could be the airport, which is where they probably feel they spend most of their time.

When they get to their parents’ home country, they’ll go to strange places, be left in the care of people they don’t know even though they might be grandparents or aunts.  Church may feel strange, as may the climate, customs and clothing.

So it’s worth paying attention to your children’s concerns and helping them prepare.  We’ve devised a short checklist of our suggestions of things you may like to do.  Please let us know if you have any more you could add to it!  You can also read a longer page on preparing your kids for home assignment as part of our Guide to Doing Home Assignment.

Travel well!

 

Make me an instrument of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

 

This much-loved text, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, is an inspiration to many.  Yet once we look beyond its beauty we find a brutal challenge to our fleshly and soulish ways of doing things.

As we go about our lives, work, relationships and ministry this week, energised once again by the thrill of the resurrection we have just commemorated, let us bear this challenge in mind.

As mission workers, church planters, member care workers, church leaders and agency employees, how do we conduct our relationships with one another and those we are reaching out to in the light of the sacrifice this calls us to?  A sacrifice which mirrors the one we celebrate as bringing us new life?  How do we communicate that new life to others?  Is our transformation deep or only superficial?  How do we tap into the grace which allows us to respond to every challenge with love and forgiveness?

As we are transformed by the grace of God, we offer the same hope to others.  He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)

Self-care

I have written in this blog many times about the need for mission workers to be actively supported by their church, agency, family and friends – all of whom are very important for the resilience and fruitfulness of the mission worker.

However, the provision of intentional, pre-emptive, supportive care does not absolve mission workers from caring for themselves!  With millennials in the mission field, who are accustomed to more attentive parenting, workplace nurturing and personal mentoring, there may be an expectation of higher standards of support than were previously considered appropriate.  We need to lovingly remind mission workers that they are not children, they have been selected for their ability to thrive in the mission field, and have been trained to withstand the challenges of life in demanding places.

We must therefore resist the attempt to treat them as fragile, wrap them in cotton wool and run around looking after them.  Instead we need to encourage them into self-care.  This covers every aspect of who they are:

Physical self-care – They need to be paying attention to how their diet, exercise and sleep are healthily maintained to keep them well.  They need to be aware of their own biological cycle, how they adapt in their body to changing months and seasons, the amount of heat and daylight available to them, and how they plan their life around their natural strengths.  At what time of day are they at their best, and can they adapt their working time around that?  Taking the full holiday entitlement, Sabbath days and weekends (where possible) will be part of this.

Mental self-care – maintaining mental well-being has two aspects to it: allowing the mind to unwind from stress, and stretching it to enable it to cope with more.  So regular academic study, distance learning on practical or theological issues to keep people’s skills up to speed is important.  As is the need to create downtime to give the brain a chance to switch off, particularly at night to allow more chance of good sleep.  Developing a physical hobby, perhaps a craft or a sport, will go a long way towards facilitating this.

Spiritual self-care – mission workers are selected for their ability to feed themselves from the Bible and thrive in hard places, but regular times of retreat, seeing a spiritual director and being helped through podcasts or discussion groups can contribute to their spiritual well-being.  So too can keeping regular hours of prayer, journaling, or using a personal liturgy to help with prayer.

Emotional self-care – often we find ourselves too busy to stop and reflect on how well we are relating to those around us: family, friends, church and co-workers.  How do we intentionally deepen our accountable relationships?  How do we live in ongoing repentance and stronger commitment to others?  This can be complicated by being in cross-cultural teams, churches or families – can we identify the facets of the culture we live in which cause us the most stress, and find ways of coping better, even to the point of thriving in them?

In considering all these different things they need to do to care for themselves, mission workers may want to consider inviting a friend to be an accountability partner, to ask searching questions about what they are doing to look after themselves.  Some people may feel that the idea of looking after oneself does not fit well with ‘laying down one’s life’, but like a good marathon runner, we are in this race to finish well, and in order to do that we need to pace ourselves rather than run the race like a sprint!

Love Across Latitudes

Janet Fraser-Smith’s helpful workbook Love Across Latitudes has been helping people build stable cross-cultural marriages for 25 years and is now in its sixth edition.

As two people try to build a successful marriage together they bring into it their unvoiced (and often even unrecognised) assumptions about how to relate to each other, and what they understand a marriage to be.  Occasionally there are serendipitous harmonies between these various assumptions, but more frequently one or both partners lives with the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations until an argument occurs and they realise their partner had no awareness of what was expected of them.  Such occasions occur more frequently when the partners are of different nationality, ethnicity or culture.

Janet’s workbook provides a valuable resource to those embarking on cross-cultural relationships (or indeed already in one!).  Written in helpfully accessible English with a recognition that as least one of the partners may speak English as a foreign language, and with plenty of personal stories and practical examples to balance the useful theory, it is design for couples to read together, and provides frequent questions as a tool for reflection and discussion.  It is intended to initiate intentional engagement with cultural factors which may impact on a marriage.

Sections specifically focussed on culture help to expose the unstated assumptions behind our understanding of relationship, marriage and family.  Others tackle issues like communication, tough choices, compromise and stability in relationships.  We heartily recommend this resource to anyone involved in a cross-cultural relationship, including TCKs in a relationship with someone of the same ‘nationality’.

What makes us distinctively Christian?

Source: www.blog.hotspot.com

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.

Fitting back in

Recently I used a familiar children’s game to illustrate the challenges of fitting back into our church, family and wider society as we return to our sending country.  However, just to increase the challenge, I made everyone play it blindfold!  Because that’s just what it can feel like on re-entry.  Not only are you unsure what shape you are, you are not certain where you fit in, and you don’t even feel competent to navigate the unfamiliar environment.  So let’s have a look at the strategies adopted by those who played the game successfully.

1. They started by working out what shape they were.  Having picked up a piece, they felt it carefully to make sure they understood it.  Many mission workers returning ‘home’ don’t stop on the way to reflect on how much they have changed since they first left home.  Their identity has become a mission worker, a foreigner, a church leader, and if it is not thoroughly rooted in Christ, they will be uncertain of their own identity once they are no longer mission worker, foreigner, or church leader.

2. They felt around in a careful and systematic manner for a place they could fit.  They did not randomly try to fit their piece into every hole they found.  They investigated each hole with their fingertips to see if it was right, and if it wasn’t, they moved on to the next.  On returning to their ‘home’ country, mission workers shouldn’t just assume they will fit back in where they left off.  They will have changed, and their home context will have changed, so we all need to be open to the possibility that we will need to find somewhere new to fit.  That might mean changing church, moving to a new town, recognising that some old friends have little in common with us anymore, and finding a new ministry through which to serve.

3. They didn’t get frustrated.  We have all seen a child trying to use force to get a shape into a hole which doesn’t fit it, and returning mission workers can be just the same as they grapple with the powerful emotions involved in re-entry.  But taking time, being persistent, and gently manipulating the shape until it is orientated correctly to slot in pays off in the long run.

Mission workers often underestimate the impact of re-entry and don’t prepare for it thoroughly like they prepared for going.  They either fail to recognise that it will happen to them, or they don’t expect it to last so long – in some cases several years.

Syzygy leads retreats and workshops helping mission workers through re-entry, and we also support mission workers on a one-to-one basis.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more information.

 

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

Cross-cultural church planting

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

 

A Plea from a Missionary

It has been really exciting to see a surge in church planting happening around the world. I believe that planting churches, or should I say, planting churches well, is probably the most effective strategy for reaching those without Christ that there has ever been. Now you know I’m pro-church planting, I’d like to share some thoughts and suggestions for those planting churches cross-culturally from the perspective of a missionary who’s seen the good and the bad. I’m particularly thinking of people church planting in the Global South (previously called the ‘developing world’) with their denomination or church network.

With more people than ever planting churches outside their own culture there’s a need for better training and preparation for cross-cultural mission. The kind of training that most mission organizations require of their workers. I’m pleased to hear this is being included by some church planting networks but it is often not the case. Church planting is too important to embark on without proper consideration of how to serve cross-culturally and how to avoid dependency on foreign influence and money.

So, in no particular order…

Stay humble. Take the posture of a learner who hasn’t arrived with a set of flawless principles and methods. Learn all you can about the country, people group, culture and religion before you go and continue to learn while you’re there. Listen well.

Study about serving cross-culturally before you go. Not all Bible colleges or church planting networks teach about working in other cultures but they really should as so many are now getting involved short or long term. Make sure teaching on ministering cross-culturally is part of your church stream or denomination’s training of church planters. Planting a church anywhere is hard work; doing it in a different culture to your own is even harder. The gospel challenges every culture but that’s no excuse for not aiming to be culturally appropriate in the way we minister.

Commit to learning the local language. Intentionally set time aside at the start to do this. Many get too busy too soon and write off the idea that they’ll ever be able to minister in the local language. It will be hard but the rewards and benefits are worth it as we identify with and show our love and respect to the local people in this way. Putting it bluntly, if the Mormons can be bothered, let’s make it a priority.

Learn from mission organizations. Some church planting networks tend to have little to do with mission agencies. Mission agencies have years of experience in planting churches and cross cultural discipleship and evangelism.

Learn also from organisations which have experience of community development and poverty alleviation etc. Wise up on effective ways to help the poor. Recognise that giving handouts is not helpful in the long run and much work has been done to understand better ways to walk alongside the materially poor or the oppressed.

Live in the town you’re planting in before you plant the church. No-one can specify exactly how long for but knowing a place and making relationships takes time. Planting a church just after arriving

communicates that we think we have a model of church we can just reproduce anywhere without knowing the place or its people. An exception to this could be when we start Bible story-telling or sharing the gospel in a community we don’t live in and this develops into a fellowship of believers.

Love the people. When we’re passionate about reaching a place with the gospel it’s easy to focus on all that needs to change and we can be quick to spot the many faults that exist. Look for things to appreciate. Determine to reject any tendency toward superiority over the local people. The hope is to reach people with the gospel; they know when they are a project rather than genuinely appreciated and loved.

Love the Church. Never forget the often huge price paid by local believers before you arrived. This must humble us. In many parts of the world believers have shed their blood for the cause of Christ or suffer for their faith in ways we never will. One church planted by foreigners made no secret of saying that the existing church in the area was boring. That is such a bad attitude and very ungracious.

Love local pastors. If there are other churches in the area get to know the leaders. Churches planted by foreigners are the source of much concern and often pain among many local pastors. Getting to know you and how God is leading you is very important. I know of one situation where almost whole youth groups, built up over years, have left locally led churches to attend a foreigner-led and funded church with lots of resources, free gifts and exciting programs. Not surprisingly there’s been hurt among local pastors.

Mind the money. Avoid building a building or equipping a building or funding a church’s activities or paying church staff using money sent from overseas. Better to start small with no building than to create dependency on foreign money. The hope is to plant reproducible churches. If what’s planted requires money and equipment that local people don’t have/can’t get it will never reproduce. Christianity is already viewed as ‘foreign’ in many places and using foreign money only compounds this belief. Seek to avoid dependency on foreign money and encourage the church to be self-supporting, giving sacrificially. A lot of churches in wealthier nations set up partnerships with churches in the Global South which mostly involve sending money and often lead to unhealthy influence over the activities, style and decision making of the local church.

Keep it simple. Avoid creating a model of ministry that looks foreign and can’t be replicated by local believers. Set only the priorities and let local people take ownership to decide later what extras they want. As others have noted, the book of Acts gives us some pillars to erect first: teach the Word of God, worship (in a culturally appropriate way), build a fellowship, break bread, be committed to prayer and encourage lives of service. From these pillars, more can be added slowly, together with local input and leadership.

I recently went to a new building in SE Asia that was ready for a congregation that didn’t exist yet. Built with foreign money, there were music stands, a drum kit, a sound system and a raised platform. This only exacerbates the view that Christianity is foreign and that ministry requires lots of money.

Make disciples that make disciples. I’m amazed that in all my Christian life I can recall only a few times I’ve heard anyone teach on how to actually disciple someone. We may get some people coming to our church but are they being discipled? Do they in turn know how to disciple other people? Obviously this is key to reproducing more churches. A healthy church takes responsibility for its part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

One last thing. It should be obvious but choose a name that works in the local language!

Alex Hawke

 

Editor’s note: Anyone thinking of going to plant a church in a different culture would also benefit from reading Syzygy’s guide to Going Alone.

 

 

 

Processing….

Source: www.freeimages.com

You are probably no stranger to that moment when you hit a button on your computer and nothing happens.  Perhaps a little icon rotates, or a dialogue box pops up that says “Processing…”  And you just sit there, uncertain whether to press the button again, or go and make a cup of tea.

Often the reason is the processor is overloaded with demands.  Perhaps it has to sort through a lot of junk to find the information it needs, or maybe you’re running several programs at once.  Sometimes there is a huge automatic download in progress (it’s usually Windows).  Whatever the reason, the demands on the system exceed its processing capacity.

It’s just the same with humans.  We don’t like to think we have limited processing capacity, particularly in a world where multi-tasking is so valued, but for mission workers there are often a lot of things going on at the same time.  Our heads are busy with the demands of operating in a foreign language, navigating traffic, managing family needs, planning for meetings, preparing sermons and liaising with co-workers.

Some of us are not equipped temperamentally to balance so many competing demands for our attention, and struggle to concentrate on any one of them because others keep surfacing at the same time.  In such circumstances it’s good to have times when we allow ourselves to close the office door or switch the phone off so that we can minimise the demands on our attention.

There may also be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we are aware of.  The pressure of living cross-culturally creates a lot of circumstances which we may think we are able to handle, but all add small amounts to the daily stress we suffer.  Did that person misunderstand me because my language is limited?  Did I fail to pick up subtle cues that I’m not used to?  Why do I have to wait so long in this queue?  Why do people drive like this?  Often these uncertainties create ‘feedback loops’ – situations that we keep mulling over, whether consciously or not, that also demand part of our processing power.

In order to deal with these issues which keep running in the background, we need to have a look at the task manager to get a better grip of what’s going on.  As we’ve remarked on previous occasions, regular retreat is an excellent way of doing this.  Even if we can only manage a day away at a quiet or spiritual place to reflect, we can still ask ourselves questions like:

  • How am I coping in this culture?
  • What are the stress points for me?
  • What are the ongoing issues in my personal life, team relationships and engagement with the local community?

This then equips us with a bit more knowledge so that we know which thought processes we can shut down.  We do that by reflecting on these issues and asking ourselves:

  • Why am I upset by this?
  • What can I do about it?
  • How is God equipping me to grow in this situation?

Many of these issues can be quickly dealt with once exposed.  One practice that is helpful to get into is to do a mini-reflection each night before going to bed.  We can ask ourselves simple questions like:

  • What upset me today?
  • Why?
  • Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from?
  • How do I resolve this?

But let’s not finish with the negatives!  We can also finish the day by reminding ourselves what brought us joy, what we can be thankful for, and where we saw God at work in, through and around us.

Just like our computers, a little bit of regular maintenance will help us to operate a little more effectively.

Multi-cultural co-workers

Source: www.freeimages.com

Multicultural teams are a key feature of global mission, and so too is the conflict and misunderstanding that they can bring!  In the past we’ve looked at different aspects of teamwork but today we’re going to look at some different characteristics that we can consciously look to develop in ourselves to help us contribute to the smooth running of the team.

When we think of multi-cultural teams it is often tempting to focus on nationality or heart language, but there are also many other factors that contribute to the cultures that individuals bring into a team, like ecclesiology, socio-economic background, gender, marital status, level of education and generation.  These all affect the often-unconscious assumptions people bring to how things should be done, and what is valued.

1) Humility.  Many, if not most, cultures bring up their citizens to have national pride.  This is only a small step away from a jingoistic belief that we are better than all the rest.  Which is patently not true – just look at how every four years the English think this is their year to win the football World Cup when in fact their team usually struggles to get past the first round.  Too often European and North American mission workers have been guilty of thinking “West is best” or “White is right”, but other cultures can also fall into the trap of denigrating others.  Humility helps us recognise that while our home culture may bring some strengths into the mission field, we have much to learn from both our host culture and our co-workers.

2) Self-awareness.  We build on our humility effectively when we understand the extent to which we operate within a culture we have grown up in, which subconsciously affects our values and thought patterns.  Armed with self-awareness we are better equipped to understand why somebody else’s choices and preferences annoy us so much, and why ours do the same to them.  It helps us to treat people as individuals and not stereotype them according to the culture we see them as belonging to.

3) Inquiry.  I am frequently amazed that some mission workers can complain loudly and frequently about the behaviour of others without stopping to inquire what drives that behaviour.  For example, when I lived in Africa I heard many (white) mission workers complain that “Africans are lazy”.  Anyone who has seen a grain lorry overturn in the bush and seen hundreds of people appear from nowhere and squirrel away tons of spilled maize into bags and chitenges will know that Africans most certainly are not lazy.  But those mission workers who think so have probably never tried to align their objectives with those of their employees, or motivate them effectively, with the result that the Africans don’t work hard – for them.

4) Love.  It covers a multitude of sins, and should be put on over everything else like an overcoat.   With genuine, sacrificial love like Jesus had, we are able to value individuals as Christ-redeemed brothers and sisters, inquire into their cultural norms and help them to feel honoured and valued.  Love helps us accept people for who they are, rather than simply trying to correct them for being wrong.

So next time we are tempted to grumble about tensions in our cross-cultural communities, let’s ask ourselves first how much more vibrant they would be if only we were able to let go of our own culture a little bit more.

Supporting retiring mission workers

RetirementFollowing on from our last two blogs focussing on transition, today’s blog focusses on retirement, which is also a transition.  We already have a blog for mission workers preparing to retire, and in fact we have an entire guide to retiring for them, so today we’re going to focus on how church can understand the nature of retirement for mission workers and effectively support them through this transition.

Every day people retire.  It’s such a common event that like many other transitions in life – birth, starting school, graduating, marriage, divorce and being widowed – it is an experience so common to humanity that we often overlook the potentially traumatic nature of this transition.  People often need support through the retirement process to help them come to terms with feelings like:

  • I’m no longer a productive member of society
  • I’ve lost my identity
  • Nobody values me
  • I’m just waiting for God
  • How do I fill the emptiness?

These may equally apply to mission workers, who also have to cope with the challenges of becoming part of a society they may not have lived in for decades, and which can feel very alien to them even though they feel they ought to belong.  They may have to cope with living without a sense of vocation, and need to integrate themselves into a church for which overseas mission is an optional extra in their range of ministries instead of the driving passion that the mission worker feels.  They may be struggling with guilt over leaving behind a struggling church or a needy people group.  All these factors can contribute to spiritual or emotional challenges which can make a retiring mission worker quite dysfunctional.

So what can their supporters do to help?

  • Understand that they are not naturally unhelpful; they’re just struggling with a major life transition
  • Introduce them to mission workers who have already successfully transitioned into retirement
  • Find a way for them to have a significant role in the church, without overburdening them with responsibility until they feel ready for it
  • Make sure they have a thorough debrief
  • Listen to their stories sympathetically even when you’ve heard them many times over
  • Recognise that they’re not really critical of the church; they’re just struggling to adapt to a different way of doing things
  • Help them navigate the challenges of benefit/tax/housing bureaucracy
  • Pay for them to go on a ‘Finishing Well’ retreat at Penhurst Retreat Centre
  • Provide pastoral support/coaching/mentoring/counselling as appropriate
  • Encourage them to continue to support mission work through their sending agency
  • Be practical about providing assistance with daily living
  • Talk them through things that have changed in your country since they last visited

And above all, please try to remember that they are (probably!) not naturally difficult people.  They are grieving, hurting people who are struggling to find their feet in a culture they don’t feel at home in, who will need support for several years before they really settle in.  It’s rather like the reverse of the process they started when they first went abroad, and the patience and support we gave them when they first went to a foreign country is exactly what they need now.

You can find more recommendations on how churches can support their mission workers effectively in our Guide for Churches.

 

You can never go back…

IMG_20160715_163854Recently I visited a village I had lived in when I was a child.  It was several decades since I had last been there, but I hadn’t expected much to have changed.  It’s a sleepy little village on the way to nowhere.  Our house was still there, though the big elm trees in the front garden had fallen victim do Dutch elm disease many years ago.  The two churches and my primary school were still there, the latter extensively rebuilt, the former completely untouched.  But everything else had changed.

The shopping parade had been converted into houses.  The post office had disappeared, together with the pillar box where I used to lean out of our car’s passenger window to post letters while my father drove past without stopping.  The large house at the bottom of our garden where the bank manager lived had become a housing estate.  Not even the village pub had survived.

I came away with the sad feeling that it’s a place I ought to have recognised, but didn’t feel at home in.  There were enough landmarks to orientate me, but not enough familiar sights for me to feel I still belonged.

This feeling may be familiar to many of us who have gone back to try to regain hold of the past, only to find it just beyond their reach.  This is what many mission workers feel when they return to their ‘home’ country, often after many years abroad, to find it has changed beyond recognition and they don’t fit in.  Many of us end up feeling more at home in our country of service, and wish we could go back – in fact some of us make so many return visits that we end up damaging our re-entry into our ‘home’ country, because we never really let go of the other one.

It’s an alarming feeling to be so disorientated, particularly because it’s unexpected.  We call this Reverse Culture Shock – and it’s a shock because we are often completely unprepared for it.  We prepare hard to go and live in a culture which is different to the one we grew up in, but we often fail to train to go and live in a culture which we think ought to be the same, but is different.

We have plenty of advice for mission workers in other blogs and in our Guide to Re-entry, but churches and families too need to understand this.  It’s not that returning mission workers aren’t delighted to see you, but so much has changed that they need time – often several years – to find their feet in their new ‘home’.  The reason they talk so boringly about where they used to serve is that it feels familiar to them, and they have a sense of belonging there which they haven’t yet found at ‘home’.  The reason they may be restless and grumpy is that they had a significant ministry there and haven’t yet developed one here.  And where they served, they were surrounded by other people driven by a passion for taking the gospel to the nations, and here they can’t quite understand why your new car, house extension or promotion are quite so significant to you.  Which can easily make them come across as arrogant, impatient, or judgmental.  They would hate to know you thought that, but it’s easy for them to create that impression.  So please be patient with them.  Friendship means sticking with them even when you don’t feel like it.  Allow them to talk.  Help them work out how to belong.  Connect them with other mission workers who’ve been through the same thing.  And please connect them to Syzygy, because we can help them – and you – battle through this to find a place where they can really feel at home.

Sadly, many mission workers struggling with re-entry lose friends in the process.  Some become estranged from family members and others end up leaving their churches and try, often without success, to find a church where they feel they fit.

We can never go back… but we can always go on.

Transition – safely from one side to the other

Kate on a bridgeIt has rightly been observed that the only thing that doesn’t change in the life of a mission worker is the presence of change!  Our lives are constantly changing as we transition between different countries, cultures, roles, relationships, agencies, cities, ages, homes, family settings and churches.  Yet for all the frequency of change, most of us do not deal with it well.

Change destabilises us emotionally.  It removes the certainties that we rely on to maintain emotional equilibrium.  We don’t know where to shop.  We don’t understand the language.  We’re not sure if people are staring at us simply because we look different, or because we’ve done something terribly wrong.  Sometimes we recognise and prepare for the big things that change, but often it’s the little ones that trip us up.  We can cope with eating different food three times a day but really miss our favourite brand of coffee.

Transition could be likened to crossing a wide river from firm land on one side to firm land on the other.  We might cross in a rickety raft or on a rope bridge, but we seldom cruise across on a concrete motorway bridge.  The journey feels scary and we become aware of our vulnerability as the safety of the familiar is swept away.

There are several things we can do to make this transition easier.  First, we need to recognise it for what it is – a big change that may well be uncomfortable even though it’s worth making.  We can express our feelings to our close supporters – partly so that we can acknowledge our feelings, partly so we can find prayer and support.  We can name our fears so that they have less hold on us.  We can discuss where we are in this process with other people making the transition with us, so that they know where we are on this journey, and why we can’t necessarily share their enthusiasm or sadness.

Second, we need to say goodbye.  Not only to friends, colleagues and community, but also places we won’t visit again: the bedroom where your first son was born; the church you founded; your favourite holiday destination.  And also say goodbye to the roles we once had, because we may be going from a place where we had significance and honour to somewhere we are just another stupid foreigner.  We need to leave well, not running away from unfinished business or leaving behind broken relationships.

Third, we need to be thankful for what God has done.  It may not have worked out quite how we expected, and there may well have been pain and disappointment on our journey.  But despite the challenging situations, we have also experienced God’s provision and blessings.  We have learned things and we have borne fruit.  We have started or maintained projects, or maybe closed things down, but each time we may have been part of God’s plan, even if it was only the part which makes us look a little bit more like him.

Fourth, we need some sort of ritual to embody the transition.  Research has suggested that people make transition more effectively when it is supported by rites of passage of some sort.  Some traditional societies make great importance of using ritual in transitions such as coming of age and marriage, coming and going, but we have lost much of this in western culture.  Having rituals of leaving and joining, such as commissioning services, goodbye meals, welcome ceremonies can be an important part of making as successful transition, so don’t avoid them out of embarrassment or false humility.  They also give old friends a chance to say their goodbyes, and new friends a chance to be welcoming.

And finally, let us remember that in all the changes of this life let us remember the One who does not change at all – our God!  No matter where we have been, he has been with us even if his presence has been hard to see at times, and wherever we go, he is already there.  Psalm 139 reminds us of this:

Where could I go to escape from your Spirit or from your sight?

If I were to climb up to the highest heavens, you would be there.

If I were to dig down to the world of the dead, you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings like the dawning day and flew across the ocean,

Even then your powerful arm would guide and protect me.

Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide in the dark until night comes to cover me over” –

But you see in the dark because daylight and dark are all the same to you.

 

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!