Choking Missions with Red Tape

I recently wrote about how difficult it is for pastors to pry their fingers off of ministry and allow the entire body to function. If it’s challenging to relinquish control in our own cultures, it makes sense that it would be even more difficult in cross-cultural ministry—and even more necessary. Whereas many missionaries speak of the need for training nationals for ministry, I’ve not heard any do so as boldly as my friend Steve Hafler, a former missionary to Kenya and Zambia. In this excellent article, published by Frontline Missions, Steve kicks (and cooks) a few sacred cows, urging missionaries to humbly and aggressively implement exit strategies, allowing Zambians to pastor Zambians, Brazilians to pastor Brazilians, and so on.

“In Gospel-saturated areas, the best thing we can do is extract ourselves completely from long-term occupation and let the nationals lead.”

Give it a read, then chime in with biblical thoughts regarding this sort of risk-taking reproduction.


9 Responses

  1. I love the picture Chris! So glad Oscar was able to meet up with you guys there in Mbale. He was deeply affected through meeting you all and the ministry of the Word.

  2. Yep, that’s a helpful and provocative perspective. I found this book by David Sills to make similarly helpful insight. Steve, if you’re reading here and familiar with it, I’d love to see your thoughts.

  3. Here’s part of the conversation that took place under a FB link to this article:

    Arlyn Ubben: Wow. Wonder what that would look like if we tried it in the USA? How many people do we have sitting in our pews that should be ministering in their culture the same as we would expect in another culture? Powerful.

    David Hosaflook: Great point, AMUbben, and that is part of the reason missionaries aren’t doing this with success overseas — we learn by imitation, and if we’ve never seen this really modeled for us in the USA, we can’t be expected to know how to do this in Timbuktu.

    Steve Hafler: These very concerns stem back to what Chris addressed in his article – the tight gripped control benevolent dictators keep when building their kingdoms. We do not involve others meaningfully because we are threatened they might not place the block where we want it (the micromanagement Chris referred to). We shun the social misfits because they are a poor reflection on our middle-upper class so-called gospel. We foster a fortress mentality rather than a community outreach mindset b/c we fear being “a friend of sinners.” I also wonder if we do not kill member creativity because we are so concerned about preserving a “movement” and our own celebrity status within that circle. Our eye is on what others think of us individually rather than what God intends for the entire assembly “the body” in its local context. In the end it is a one man “show” fueled by the fear of what others think hidden under the sham of “separation” and “preservation.” Be sure this same peer pressure exists when missionaries’ support is on the line with “observing” stateside pastors who are holding their checklists and performance charts.

  4. (Ross*) exemplifies this I think. I’m thankful to see this is catching on more and more and actually becoming a reality around the world. Hafler makes a great point about fear, checklists and performance charts. The mere thought of those things makes me cringe.

  5. I would whole-heartedly agree with Steve’s desire to see the Nationals take over. I can say I’ve been to quite a few places where American missionaries have stayed long term, written great prayer letters, sent gripping pictures and are doing what I believe to be a great work for God. From what I can tell, these missionaries are not glory seekers looking for ministry paradise. I know Steve would agree that missions work if not a “one size fits all” proposal.

    Thanks for the great article, Steve. Thanks for linking to it, Chris.

  6. What about the US ministry where the pastor serves for over 29 years and when he retires there are no deacons, no elders and no male leadership in the church? How about the man who delights in the fact that his church members have become dependent on him and they cannot do anything without his counsel and approval? How about the man who jealousy guards his pulpit and never develops anyone to preach or teach in the church? . . . and when asked about his church of 50 says, :we had between 1 and two hundred last Sunday. It is good to be faithful where we serve, but we must multiply in order to advance the gospel. Paul did it with Timothy, Titus, Apollos and others. We must do the same.

  7. Here are some more thoughts on this idea, Arlyn, along with a great August Strong quote on the very issue you’re describing:

    Matt, I agree that it’s not a “one size fits all” issue. And of course the problem isn’t letters and presentations. It’s a sense that the missionary (or pastor) is essential, not expendable.

    When I asked for biblical data, I think of the leadership transitions in Acts. The church at Antioch lost two of the best leaders in the history of the church (Paul & Barnabas), yet continued to thrive. Paul & Barnabas handed off leadership in new churches at a very rapid pace, especially at the end of their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). There has to be caution, of course. But they encouraged local leadership much more swiftly than we would.

  8. Unless we thingk that the church of Crete was established by those present on the day of Pentecost, the gospel probably came to this island with Paul’s visit there in about 62AD after he was released from prison. Paul wrote to Titus the next year to encourage him in his work. One of Titus’ tasks was to appoint elders in every city. If my dates are correct, not much time had elapsed between the starting of the churches on Crete and the appointing of elders. Titus was then replaced, probably by Tychicus and the churches continued to grow – even without Titus there. The handover was completed quickly and efficiently. Good biblical model. We could also see that in Ephesus, there was probably only a small handful of years between the book-burning incident and the time Paul spent with the elders in Acts 20. That is a very short time to develop elders and to commend them to the grace of God. It worked in the first century and it can work today.

  9. I am chiming in a bit late, but wanted to respond to comments above. Matt, in answer to your observation I agree there are American missionaries doing great work in saturated areas. I personally know many on the continent of Africa. With any “broad-brush” statement there are exceptions (like I stated in the article). I would say, however, that the majority have no exit plan and are not aggressively working themselves out of a job – at least regionally. Most western missionaries embrace the idea of not “Americanizing” the nationals but “Christianizing” them. The real problem is not in accepting that statement, but really understanding the difference. Most continue to import American traditional Christianity – whether it fits or not. Since we have difficulty finding an African or Asian or Brazilian to take over what we have introduced as Christianity (the Gospel plus all the American accouterments) we stay until we have “Americanized” our hand-picked pastor. We refuse to move until we teach them not to clap or shuffle their feet or use simple traditional rhythm instruments. That is often why when the missionary pulls out the work fails. Not because the national could not lead or was not trained, but because he could not continue to prop up all the programs introduced by the foreigner and because the American cash flow had come to an abrupt end. This is why I support the Bible colleges and rural Theological Education programs which let the national lead while providing him with solid training. These institutions are not immune to these dangers but face them in different ways – (that will need to be another article). At least for now, we are beginning to let the nationals pastor their own people. The best person to pastor a sub-Saharan African is a sub-Saharan African.

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