It’s Eggnog Season, and in [our country], that means that it’s “My-wife-makes-eggnog Season.” Each year, I swear off the drink as I inevitably have too much of the sugary-sweet concoction and can hardly stand the stuff by, say, the 23rd or 24th of December each year. I know that I like eggnog, but when I have too much, I quickly lose my taste for it.
Ok, so this is a poorly thought-out, blatantly opportunistic analogy that attempts to tie together the current Christmas holiday and my actual point for this letter, but I digress…
In [our country], missionaries are like eggnog, and, unfortunately, the church is drinking way too much of it. When we first moved here, we weren’t exactly sure what our “ministry” would be. Of course, our highest calling is to proclaim the name of Christ, disciple believers, and see healthy, replicating churches planted – as is every Christian’s mandate from Matthew 28. However, with those larger goals clearly before us, we weren’t exactly sure how we would fit. [In Europe in general], and [our country] in particular, are a deeply complex collection of family tribes, brutal conflicts, nationalistic agendas, deeply held suspicions of Americans, and a tightly aligned church and state. We knew from our years working with colleagues from this region that we didn’t even begin to understand the complexities of life in here, and it would be a mistake presume that we did.
So, we came to this country (supplied with much prayer and support from you all, and equipped with a small amount of personal experience, biblical training, and business development ambitions) with the hopes that we might grow to understand how exactly we could best serve the church and the purposes of the gospel here. After some years of living here, our role in the church seems to be slowly taking shape and, amazingly, we’ve found ourselves constantly defending the church from well-intentioned missionaries and organizations.
How do I mean?
Let me give you a pretend scenario…
Let’s say that an international missions organization, we’ll call it Convert the Heathens International (or CHI for short), looks at a map and sees that they don’t have any presence in [this] country. They also find out that [our country] has one of the smallest number (and percentages) of evangelical Christians in Europe (and most of the world.) Now, CHI has a very tried and true ministry using camps to build relationships with locals and then establish home-group Bible studies using CHI’s standard methodology, which faithfully introduces participants to reading the Bible, the essentials of the Gospel, and the faithful life as a follower of Christ.
The new CHI missionary’s job is to establish this ministry, find a local believer who can be hired as CPI’s local ministry coordinator, and encourage as many people as possible to attend the CPI Bible Studies (held weekly).
Sounds pretty solid and straightforward, right?
Now think about the city in which we currently live, and the fact that there are maybe 40 known local believers in this city with 3-4 tiny fellowships. What a need for the gospel!
Also…think about that scenario and multiply it by the 20 or so ministry organizations currently trying to accomplish some semblance of the above scenario, all from within our tiny pocket of believers, and you get a church that is absolutely fragmented and overwhelmed by the good intentions of foreign workers.
Nearly every month we have a foreign guest speaker at the church representing their ministry, nearly every week we have new guests from some organization exploring service or stopping by on their short term assignment, nearly every day there is a ministry activity that is being sponsored in our small city by a different missions organization. Nearly every mature member of the church has been approached (with a strong salary offer) to be a local ministry leader. With most locals being desperate for a job, how could they refuse?
Another week, another evangelism seminar, another leadership seminar, another theology seminar, another method that is most certainly the best way – all from foreign (usually American) speakers. [With America’s recently demonstrated military might in the region], polite listening should never be confused with strong agreement in this part of the world.
Meanwhile, the church is trying to develop leaders (but they are quickly being hired away by other organizations), the church is trying to set up prayer groups (but the timing conflicts with another organization’s schedule), the church is trying to teach independence and generosity (but the foreign organizations are giving more than enough funds to cover the church’s expenses). Worst of all, there’s an almost-impenetrable shell of apathy by local believers who see the never-ending train of foreign ideas, foreign movements, foreign funding, and foreign missionaries. They politely listen to our ideas, clean up after we leave, and then prepare to politely listen to the next person’s ideas.
It’s not just losing your taste for eggnog, it’s full-on eggnog poisoning. Managing missionaries, short-term groups, and missions organizations has become the full time job of our tiny local church–to the detriment of its health.
It’s a big problem with a number of ripple effects. Each organization says that they support and partner with the local church, but how do you submit to church leadership and vision when your organization has it’s own vision and method? How do you develop local leaders in the church when they’re offered money to spend their time elsewhere? How do you ever stop the overflowing tap of foreign money and rely solely on the meager earnings of your tiny congregation?
The answer to the above questions, I’m afraid, is also the exact solution to see healthy, sustainable, replicating churches planted here. We keep repeating to ourselves here: “Nobody has a greater responsibility to evangelize [this people] than this [local] church.” And to that end, we have been hard at work helping the church establish not only a vision for self-sustainability (financially AND spiritually), but also to establish a filter to help manage the tsunami of good intentions by foreign churches and ministries – all for the sake of the gospel.
It’s a role that requires a lot of patience and wisdom, both towards locals and foreign workers, and we would covet your prayers to that end.
Merry Christmas [from the Eggnog-loving missionary].