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Read the third article in the mini-series of Enemies of Global Mission.
Desiring God’s website recently posted an article by Nik Ripken called What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries. You can read it here: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-s-wrong-with-western-missionaries A beloved missionary was appreciated more than all others by persecuted believers in an Islamic country. Why? He gave sacrificially to the poor and had to borrow money from them when he needed to fly home to bury his father. He was one of them, unlike the rich missionaries who never had needs the local believers could meet.
The story is powerful. It raises questions of power and weakness in ministry. It challenges those of us living and working in cross-cultural ministry.
Needy and Vulnerable
The hero’s sacrificial giving put him in a vulnerable position. The giving was so radical that it produced weakness, not power. Money can be used to curry acceptance, as a purchaser of power, which undermines the church by creating dependence. So, how do we navigate this minefield of ‘missions and money’? When are we giving sacrificially, and when are we buying friends? The answer probably lies in “weakness”.
What was Paul’s secret? “You know how I lived among you.” (Acts 20:18-19; 1 Thes 1:5; 2:9-10) He worked “night and day”. He didn’t arrive with a war chest of foreign money to invest in a business. He had to muck in with Aquila, no doubt working at local rates. He was needy. He had to ask for a job. He became an insider. His best friends would have been locals. However we do it, allowing ourselves to be needy - or weak - seems to me to be the key principle.
Financial Weakness: The hero of Ripken’s story set the bar high and I don’t claim to compare with his generosity. However, I’m probably the highest net-worth person in our church but even I can let other people buy the coffee, give me vegetables from their garden and tell them of the days when we were short of cash and we joined other missionaries to glean in commercial vegetable fields after the harvest. As for using my relative wealth, I have two options. I can give to our church, and thereby relinquish control to others (become weak), or I can give personally and directly, and become the powerful, ruling patron.
Relational Weakness: When we need money, we’re likely to ask our best friends, not strangers. This missionary’s friends must have been locals. Nationals. How did that happen? He almost certainly didn’t spend a lot of time in the missionary ghetto. The question I probably get most from sending churches is about “member care”. Who will take care of their missionary? Nobody wants to see missionaries burn out, but where is the evidence that our agency-delivered member care is superior to building local relationships? I suggest that “full service” mission agency thinking with a bullet-proof insurance and savings program tells the missionary that their security and connection lies outside of their local community. This mentality says that strength comes from resources delivered by outsiders. Have a relational need? The message is, “Call home,” (because, despite the rhetoric, home is not where you live). Member care can easily hinder missionaries from learning the privilege and blessing of being cared for by national believers (and non-believers, for that matter).
Spiritual Weakness. Do we readily sit under teaching of local leaders, even if their preaching style isn’t what they taught us in seminary? Does the Holy Spirit work through our national brothers, however new and untrained? Can a new convert minister to me through sharing the Word of God?
Strategic Weakness. Do we accept that our strategic plans need to be put through the mill by the locals or do we assume that West is Best when planning? I’m currently working in the background of a church planting initiative with a mixed team of Americans and Albanians. I’ve had an influence in the life of the team leader over the years. However, I couldn’t do what he’s doing. His strategy is better. He is more gifted. He is better connected. He sees opportunities and dangers miles before I do.
Partnership Weakness: By this, I mean learning to follow the lead of nationals. It isn’t always easy to follow someone from another culture. Missionaries have to be the weak ones to make it work. This seems nothing more than biblical - submitting and acting in humility. I’ve just been blessed by a meeting with the large, multi-site American church sending a family who said, “we’re going to send people, pray, and give, but we will never try to dictate the strategy to the (national) team leader”.
Weakness and Short Term Visits: It is almost impossible be “weak” on short visits. You are dictating the agenda (even if you say you’re fitting into theirs - they’re organizing life around when you booked your ticket). You’re visiting. You’re buying the coffee. You’re asking them to serve you by giving you a ride. You’re making them translate (and so you control the conversation). You’re the honoured guest getting deferential treatment. Beyond that, unlike a long-term missionary you’re never painfully lonely and never wondering for days and weeks at a time if God is using you. You’re rarely or never so sick that someone has to care for you. It is possible to develop a level of “weakness” over many short visits, to some degree, but you have to be intentional, and even then it is not the same. I know. I travelled to Albania for 11 years before finally moving here. That was a shift of great magnitude on the “weakness scale”.
Weakness and an Open Home: I am far from the best example of this but I do think community is key, and a big part of that is an open home. When we began hosting a Bible study in our apartment, it was fascinating to see how relationships with those people got closer. They sat in my chairs, washed dishes in my sink, saw some dirt in the corners, etc. People from out of town stay overnight with us. When we are away, the house is a free hotel for Albanian Gospel workers, because we live not far from the beach. The TV and washer get broken. Their kids write on the furniture. It is part of being community. We share. We make ourselves vulnerable.
How do we sum all of this up? Paul said it well. “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thes 2:8.) Creating legalisms about lifestyle and levels of cultural adaptation will lead us to discouragement, failure and, I believe, less fruitful ministry. Committing to sharing ourselves, which will reveal our true, weak, needy, broken, dependent self - that is a truly powerful ministry.