Last week was the 10th anniversary of the day Seth began his work in South Africa.
10 years! That seems like a respectable amount of time to dedicate to a people not your own. I think we can officially be counted out of the “newbie” crowd now. 🙂 We have completed a full decade of missionary service. (Well, actually, if you deduct furloughs, all of those 10 years haven’t been here. It’s actually more like 9 years.)
Now the pressure is on.
You know, the first two terms people can excuse you mentally for your failure to produce a self-supporting church. It’s your first term! Everyone knows that the first term is kind of a wash in the end. Hopefully in your first term, you accomplished that huge job summarized in an inadequate phrase called “learning the language and culture.” Ha. After ten years, you know that although you can get a good start on those things in your first term, you never stop learning in those areas. So if you’ve got nothing really tangible after your first term to show for the furlough pictures except for a few converts and the pronouncement that you’ve “learned the language and culture,” then that’s pretty much all that can be expected from the first term.
And even your second term failure to produce an independent church can be excused because you’re still just getting going. Your church is just beginning. Your work is still in the baby stages.
But after 10 years, no more excuses. We should start hearing pretty soon that you’ve got a church standing on its own two feet, and you’re already starting your next one or two church plants. At least that’s how I feel. No one from the States really makes me feel that way. I make me feel that way.
Missionary work can be the most humbling job on earth. Every day, you receive new little reminders of how you’re not that great; or even if you think you really are, how no one else seems to see it. 🙂 (Why?! haha) Every day you make language or cultural bloopers; people in your host culture don’t know about or appreciate the gifts you had that were appreciated in America. They’re not only not grateful that you’ve given your life to them, but also seem everlastingly stymied at your purpose for being there. (And we haven’t even begun to explain homeschooling yet.)
And your churches in America have changed so much. People who cheered when their church took you on for support have moved or grown up or fallen away or died, and you’ve been forgotten by some. People who stroked your ego in the past about how gifted you were and how you would change the world are now quiet, outside of a soft question–“How’s it going? How’s the church?”
How to answer? It’s really the same…or a little better…maybe worse right now. Please don’t think we don’t like to be asked about our church. We do. We know you care if you ask! But we’re thinking, and wondering if our old supporter and friend is thinking, “After 10 years…how’s the church? When will it be done? Accomplished?” That’s what we’d all like to know, right?
Seth and I joke that we’re the Discount Missionaries. We are able to live in this area for 50-60% of the usual costs of missionaries in other areas. But sometimes we wonder if our churches feel the other way–like we’re the Discount Missionaries in output. You get what you pay for, you know!
When we first came here, we had a 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year plan. Oh, the wonderful things we were going to do according to that plan. (Did anyone else have a Dr. Suess deja vu moment there? “Oh, the wonderful things Mr. Brown can do!”)
Sometimes your disappointments can cause you to be disappointed in God Himself.
“God, I gave up my life for You. Now YOU’RE supposed to make me successful! I don’t have the power to save, to convict, to draw men to myself!” What can we do when His hand does not save? And how we long to see true change, revival in people’s hearts–the kind we’ve read about: the drunkard who sobered instantly and became a provider for his household; the seekers walking five miles to hear the Word. So when we aren’t seeing those things, whose fault is it? Ours, God’s, or the cultures? Or all of the above?
I’ve got a few thoughts on why that is so.
First, why would we think that it would be quick? We come from a culture that increased its wealth and power over centuries because of a Biblical worldview. Why would we think that anything of value would come quickly without hard work? Our culture has become hasty with all of its technology and time-saving devices. We expect quick, well-done work.
But even in the States, you don’t see too many churches experiencing explosive growth and revival. Most churches struggle to stay at about the same membership rate, fighting against attrition rates and love of this present world, trying to keep the youth, trying to encourage members to have a heart for evangelism–to get beyond needing marriage counseling and be able to have an outward focus.
Most church plants in the States take several years before they are self-supporting, even with all of the helps they receive through other Christian Americans who join their church to help start their membership or who help with advertising or come over to fill the pews or do music for a big-impressive kickoff Sunday service. Why would we expect things to move quicker in a place where there were no Christians whatsoever to hop over from a former church, where there is no Biblical worldview at all, and where literacy and education is lacking or under-valued?
If in the States, we’re bemoaning the lack of passion for Christ and godliness in our youth groups, why would we think a church built on youth in Africa, youth who have no Christian parents and none of the advantages of those youth in American churches, would be doing better, just for one example?
Secondly, think of the nature of growth. Trees and men take twenty years to grow strong. The Bible describes our Christian life with pictures of growth: babies desire milk, so you should desire the Word; but when you grow strong, you are able to eat meat. A church will be similar, because a church is made up of all those people busy growing in the way the Bible describes. It takes time to grow.
In the States there are many godly men who serve the church as laymen without feeling called to the ministry. But on the mission field, it seems like you should grab the first male church member you get and throw him into the pastorate. “Lay hands suddenly on no man.” On the mission field, in our eagerness to declare a church successfully planted, we put people into the ministry who would probably not have been considered worthy in the States. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unworthy. But even seminary training in the States takes 3-6 years, with the already-laid foundation of church background or at least a more Biblical worldview in the culture.
Think about how many youth recently left your church to go study at seminary in order to enter the ministry? If the percentage of people desiring the office of a pastor is small in the strongest Christian nation in the world, shouldn’t we expect it to be MUCH harder to find a man fitting the qualifications of a pastor in a heathen culture? And that it would take MUCH more time to train him to be fit to lead a church in a very dark culture?
When I read of Paul’s missionary journeys, I admit that I am baffled. He planted a church in three weeks (Thessalonica, Acts 17:1-2)?! How? But when I think about what the typical missionary in a pagan culture is up against, really, we should be amazed and encouraged at the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. There have been true conversions, and it is those conversions that give us special strength and encouragement.
Brethren, pray for us. Satan’s forces are strong, and the warriors for our side are few. In the next few weeks, I will share with you some of the verses that have been the most encouraging to us to persevere in the ministry–for 10 years! Praise Him.