Tag Archives: leading a missions team

The Church And The Water Tank

What is a missionary? This is a question that my wife and I pose when we teach a class on missions. We get a variety of answers. Everything from teaching to building churches to giving food to the poor; the list goes on for a while. I think the answers we come up with come from both the roles we’ve seen others take, but also from how we see our relationship between those who are going and those we are going to see. I’d like to relay a story from a good friend of mine that I believe sums up the latter very effectively.

I have a friend that moved a long way from her family. She rarely saw them because of the distance, just once a year or so. She was bothered by the fact that her kids were not growing up knowing their grandparents very well. With the limited time available each year for them to see each other, she considered the time very valuable for her parents and kids to spend quality time together.

Her parents, on the other hand, would come to visit and were always concerned with what projects they could do. Despite her effort to get them to spend time with their grandchildren, they always somehow diverted to working on some project around the house. After a while, she finally gave up trying to get them to stop, and instead found herself focusing on trying to find them projects to do. Her parents never seemed to believe that she was content with the way things were, so to bide their time she sometimes found herself coming up with projects that were neither important to her nor actually needed to be done. Her parents were acting out of love, but they were also acting out of paternalism, which had traditionally been their role, but was one that never changed when their daughter got married and moved out. She appreciated their effort, but wished that they would take some of that time to strengthen the family bonds.

Now let’s travel to South Sudan and see how similar the story is. We went to visit a church plant we were supporting. I showed up a day before the other missionaries, so I had some time to talk to the local indigenous pastor. He told me about how important it would be for us to go visit one of the new churches they’d planted in a more remote area. In fact, he made this point several times over the next day or two.

The next day the other missionaries showed up, and noticed that the gravity shower we had built on a previous trip was broken. The water tank was cracked.  Fixing this became the first item of attention, and a significant amount of time and money were spent doing this. In fact, so much money was spent that we didn’t have enough left to be able to visit the church plant that was so important to the pastor there. The fact was, that the water tank had cracked because it rarely had water in it, and as the broiling South Sudan sun would bare down on the empty tank, it cracked. It simply wasn’t that important to them when it was built, and it wasn’t that important to them when we fixed it. They wanted to build relationships, we wanted to build STUFF. This relationship also had more than a sprinkling of paternalism. A paternalistic relationship says, “I’m from the rich country and I know what’s good for you better than you do.”

I learned a lot from that trip. Thinking about it made me think of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, as well as those of the other Apostles. What was the purpose of those journeys? There are so many answers to that question found in the New Testament that I’m not even going to narrow it down to any particular verses. They include evangelism, teaching, encouraging the body of Christ, dealing with problems within the churches, discipleship, raising up new leadership, and in one case taking up a collection to help another church that was in a region dealing with famine. Not once was the purpose to do projects. I understand that there are times when this is necessary, but if we go in with the attitude of “what can we build?” we frequently and completely miss out on the more important purpose of being there. That purpose is to expand the kingdom of God and to promote unity within the Church. There is no Western Church and developing world church, there is only the Church. We need to be aware that a Church is people, and not buildings and stuff. As it says in Acts 7,  “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?”

This is hard for Western missionaries, particularly Americans, to grasp. We are a very task oriented culture. We know that when we go somewhere, particularly if it’s a short-term missions trip, we have a limited time and we feel like we need to have something tangible to show for it. Most of the rest of the world though, considers relationships to be far more important. We need to keep this in the forefront of our mind when we go to see our brothers and sisters overseas. That project may be really important to you, but if it’s not important to them, you’re really not doing any good.

Missions is about building relationships.
Missions is about building relationships.
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Eternity Practice

Grossmünster in Zurich took 120 years to complete. They were on the right track.
Grossmünster in Zurich took 120 years to complete. They were on the right track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a bit of a hiatus from writing, I have begun to think about things related to missions again. I really felt like I needed a break after going to Africa two to three times a year. Now I have had five months of not traveling, and I am beginning to feel the call again. That call probably won’t be heeded for a while though, as my next trip to Africa is not scheduled until late fall this year.

I was reading a book the other day, and I came across some facts about a cathedral in central Europe that took 400 years to build. This might be something that would normally just make you say “wow” and move on. There was so much more to that statement though, that speaks volumes about how people thought in the middle ages as well as what they valued as opposed to how we think and value things now.

When I watch television shows about real estate in the western world, people are always looking for something new and shiny. If the kitchen hasn’t been updated in the past ten years, they want to tear it all apart and make it new. Furthermore, if the remodel is going to take more than four weeks, people get upset. So what does this have to do with missions?

Well, not to be crude, but when our level of patience is equivalent to “gargle and spit”, it has a huge impact on the way we go about everything we do. Missions, particularly short-term missions goes hand in hand with this way of thinking. When we raise money, we must come up with a “project” that we plan to do and complete, or people don’t feel right about supporting it. These projects often run counter to the cultures we’re dealing with, as well as the long or even the short term good of those we’re supposed to be helping. I know of one missions group that would go and build a new church for one particular group of people every few years. The rebels would come and burn down the church, and the cycle would continue. So why is this? Is it because we are not thinking of eternal things?

Now this is where I get the hackles up on the back of lots of well meaning people who have sacrificed time and income and probably a lot of comfort to go and do these projects. For that I’m sorry, but it doesn’t negate my point.

You see, five hundred or a thousand years ago, people understood that some of the things they did for God (build a cathedral for instance) would be things for which they would never personally see the results. We don’t think that way anymore, and we should. People don’t want to give money to, or engage in things for which they won’t personally see the results, even if those results are only short term. We need to work on things that are not just long term, but eternal.

Even Cathedrals, with lifespans in the hundreds or thousands of years, are not eternal things, but the people of the day with their understanding as it was were more on the right track than we are today. Matthew 6 says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is an amazing verse. Buildings and projects may last a long time, but they are not eternal. The soul of a man or woman is eternal. Working with people requires building relationships, and building relationships takes time. When we do short-term missions, we need to understand that we are building relationships that will hopefully last beyond this Earth. We are not myopic do-gooders bent on building a product to make us feel good. Rather, we should realize that the things we start now, we will likely never personally see the results of. If we do see the results, we should consider it a blessing from God that we were graced to see them with our own eyes.

Jesus’s words speak as true today as they did when they were spoken. “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Even then it was realized that someone else would finish the work that another person started. So if it’s true that eternity is in our bones, let’s fervently work toward things that we may personally never finish. We are eternal beings, so let’s practice being eternal.

Lots of New Firsts

The skyline of Nairobi, Kenya, taken near the mosque.
The skyline of Nairobi, Kenya, taken near the mosque.

 

 

 

 

 

I had a lot of thoughts on my mind lately; a lot of heavy thoughts. I decided to throw them all out and write about my upcoming trip to Kenya instead. After all, this blog doesn’t always have to heavy.

In just a few weeks, I leave for Kenya. This will be my eighth trip to Africa since 2010, and the frequency of the trips has only increased. It’s now at least twice a year. Nevertheless, this trip will be full of firsts. This will be the first time I am going to Kenya when I’m not either just stopping through on the way to somewhere else or taking a partial vacation. I will be doing ministry in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum.  Though I’ve been to Africa several times, this is the first time I will be leading a team. There will be three people traveling with me, and two of them have never been to Africa before. My wife has only been once. To be honest, it makes me a little nervous, because I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I am fine with nervousness though. Everything that is worth doing comes with some risk, and the rewards are eternal. I know also that my nervousness will be nothing compared to that of my fellow travelers. I am looking forward to seeing that look on their faces the first time they step off the plane in Nairobi to the sights and sounds, and ah yes, the smells of Africa. I am looking forward to this because I remember the first time for me; for the awestruck wonder usually reserved for children but nonetheless granted to me one more time. I’m excited for them because I have some idea of what’s in store for them even if they don’t. I’m excited for the life changing epiphany that awaits them if their eyes are open even a little.

This is also the first time I will be going to Africa when photography will not be my main function. Yes, I will still be doing that, but I will have to put the camera down a lot more and do tasks which I may not be accustomed to. A year ago, when I was in Ethiopia, an African pastor prophesied over me as he prayed, saying I would be given new skills that would be used all over East Africa. Now is that time, and I will keep that in mind when I feel I am being stretched past my limits. New abilities don’t normally just drop into your lap. They form when we are pushed past what we have already become comfortable with into the realm of what might be possible. There are no participation trophies. I am looking forward to what is hard, knowing that what is hard now will not be as hard later. I’m looking forward to becoming more capable, even if it involves making mistakes. As I read in a book recently, “God cares more about the worker than the work.” I think this is a true statement.

I intend to be giving updates on our upcoming trip while in Kenya, including pictures. Thankfully I will have good internet access in the evenings. I also hope to be able to write about my team members’ first impressions while they are still fresh. I’m looking forward to that. One last note, I wanted to congratulate my friend Peter in South Sudan, who’s wife brought a joyous new life into the world last week.

For those wishing to follow my travels, and see the parts of Africa the tourists never see, you can follow this blog, and you’ll receive an email each time there’s a new post. Until next time.