Monday, July 30, 2007

Missionaries - Made or Born?

In the thirty years I have been a part of the mission industry I have worked with and observed people who have voluntarily taken on the profession of a missionary. I know some who have lived in the same country for forty years and have no plans to retire. I’ve met some who served overseas for ten years and then left the field for no apparent reason having no desire to be involved in cross-cultural work again. I know some who have been very successful with flourishing ministries and I know some who have lived overseas for decades never accomplishing anything of significance. Some of the personalities I’ve met live inspiring lives, which are dedicated to their profession. Others I’ve met seem to be trapped - they would like to do something else but time has passed them by and they don’t have job skills to make a living in their home country. When it comes to missionaries, not all are equal, but they have some common traits. I wonder, are people made or born to work overseas?

CALLING - Though I am skeptical of those who say they are called of God for overseas work there is little doubt there is a sense of mission for all those who desire to be missionaries. Sometimes people get caught up with the glamour or adventure of living in a different country, but for most of those who take on this assignment it’s because of a sense wanting to make an impact on the world with the Gospel. Unlike the vast majority of Christians who sit in the pews, who see the Great Commission as something someone should do, these cross-cultural servants embrace the command as something they should do. It takes an unusual mindset for a person to make the decision that they will leave their home country and family to pursue living in another culture. Maybe missionaries are wired, or born, for this profession.

ADAPTING - It’s one thing to volunteer; it’s an entirely different matter for someone to actually stick with it. I’ve met people who live in four room concrete houses in the desert, folks who live in hot and humid climates, others who live in cold countries where there is only four hours of sunlight in the winter. Some live in noisy modern cities while others live in quite rural villages. Some of these people send their kids to boarding schools, others spend a considerable amount of their days home schooling. Missionaries are not martyrs, some of them live in very nice houses, have maids and drivers. But even in the best of circumstances they still must cope with people who speak a different language, who have vastly different worldviews and who are often times resistant to the missionary’s message and ministry. Adapting to another culture does not come naturally for most people - it takes effort. For that reason I think that to be a successful missionary one is made, they conform to living overseas.

EFFECTIVENESS – I admit, I am often confused with the issue of missionary effectiveness. My culture measures everything by the yardstick of production. Church planting is not like manufacturing rubber doorstops. Yet people are sent out to accomplish something for the sake of Christ, not just to survive in a foreign country. It was seven years before William Carey saw his first convert; yet the legacy of Carey’s ministry continues to bare fruit today. Though mission historians like to tell Carey’s story, not many mention, or even heard of his companion, Joshua Marshman who translated the Bible into several Indian languages and who died on the field. Carey and Marshman lived on less than $1,000 a year whereas today’s missionary commands $60K or more a year. In today’s mission world efficiency has a price tag and we expect to see something in return for our investment. Some missionaries are born to produce, others become efficient through guidance, training and through trial and error.

In my role as teacher/trainer and mentor of cross-cultural workers, I look for clues on those who might have the right stuff. I know passion is not enough, but essential. Commitment is crucial, but doesn’t make anyone effective. In the end I have come to the conclusion a missionary is a mixed bag, they are both born and made. But isn’t that true with most professions?

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Matter of Degrees

“I don’t make the rules, I just learn what the rules are and learn to play by those rules.”

This is a statement I often make when talking to students about learning the rules of culture. It is an axiom of many things in life, whether it’s biblical principles, rules of government or business. Bob Beford makes a similar comment in his book, Half Time.

"There is no such thing as a life without authority. You can choose the game, but you can't choose the rules...And whether you like it or not, the rules govern your behavior. Follow the rules, and your chances of winning are greater. Break the rules enough times and you won't even get a chance to finish the game."

In academic circles there is a hierarchy that sets the rules of what is a legitimate education degree. The highest degree is a PhD. I have a DMiss (Doctor of Missiology), which is a teaching degree, not as prestigious as the PhD, but higher than a DMin (Doctor of Ministry), which is not a teaching degree. Following the doctoral degrees, of course, are the Master level degrees which is higher than a Bachelor’s degree, which is more prestigious than a high school degree.

In addition to the hierarchy of degrees the education industry has established a system that evaluates how those degrees are attained. They have determined that educational institutions, colleges and universities are the legitimate brokers in granting degrees and those institutions of higher learning are regulated by a standard for education excellence. Not only must the school have a credible library, professors with higher degrees and required credit hours, they must be, for the most part, be resident studies. If the institution does not meet these “rules” the degrees are deemed unaccredited.

On the bottom of the academic food chain are distant learning or extension programs. Though some extension programs are rigorous and the work done by the students are often extensive, it doesn’t matter, the distance learning degree is of limited use in academic circles.

So why do people opt for non-accredited degrees? Three words: logistics, time and money. Logistically many people, especially people who already have a career and must work to make ends meet, just can’t pick up and move to another city to attend a university. Even if there is a college in the same city they find it difficult, if not impossible, to work around a work/class schedule. A distance learning degree is also much cheaper than enrolling in a resident program. For many people, who want to continue to expand their knowledge and gain recognition for the work they have put into their study, a non-credited degree is enough.

What can a person do with an unaccredited degree? They can use their credentials to teach in other unaccredited institutions around the world. It is doubtful that a unaccredited school will ask a teacher where they received their education, but you can bet anytime you meet someone with a PhD from a recognized university they will inquire where you received your degree.

When people ask my opinion about their education future I try to steer them to a recognized degree program. Educationally I believe a person gains much more through the interaction of a classroom and lectures from experts in their field. But I realize that non-accredited degrees have its place in this world of distance learning. As with everything else, there are some distance learning studies that are quality programs and there are others that are not much more than “paper mills” (send $50 and get a doctor’s degree). No matter where one receives their degrees through an extension program, it will never be considered, in the academic world, as legitimate. I don’t make the rules, I just know the rules and help others know those rules as well.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Are North American Missionaries Still Needed?

Malcom asks, "Could you comment or post on what you see as the modern role of the North American church in global missions. To play my hand a bit, it seems to me that the NA churches biggest and most influential role could be in relinquishing its grip on needing to GO to the missions field and focusing its energies (primarily in financing) on the nationals already there."

I am in agreement that many Western mission organizations and denominations do need to retool for today’s mission reality. Their “grip” in global outreach has less to do with paternalism and more about finances. The unsavory secret in missions is that many mission boards rely on recruiting and sending people out to regions beyond, not because of any great missiological strategic plan, but for their survival as an organization. Sending agencies rely on the percentage of each missionary dollar (ranging from 10% to 25%), donor support to the organization and special projects and foundation money to stay in business. I predict that in another 50 years U.S. mission sending agencies will be as outdated as unions in the workplace.

Having said that, I do not believe that the role of the North American missionary is over now or will be 50 years from now. I do believe, however, that if we are to have a role in the future we must be better defined in our task and that we work smarter. Right now I am serving overseas in a capacity that few nationals can do and that is teaching the national missionaries how to serve cross-culturally. As the church outside the US becomes more aware of missiology they will take more of a lead in this area of ministry as well. Though the Western missionary’s task of frontline evangelism is diminishing, there are ministry specialist that I believe is unique for North American personnel, in the field of education, technology, medicine and in general support roles (administration, maintenance and construction). These ministry functions are vital in some parts of the world, but they are often not looked upon as doing the real work of evangelism or church planting.

As I write this post I feel compelled to remind myself, and others, not to despise the small things of ministry, i.e. the importance of support ministries. Much of Western work will continue to be in aiding the machinery of the Gospel worldwide. Though being a teacher at a MK boarding school or digging a borehole in a remote village is not as riveting as a national church planter who boasts that he has started one hundred churches, that does not mean the work of the American is not valid or needed.

Missiologically, the education and wealth of a Westerner place them in a socio-economic position that allows them to serve where many nationals cannot. The caste system in India is a barrier that prohibits many nationals from working among the middle and upper class people of society. If an American supporting church is just going national, they may feel they are getting more bang for the buck, but in reality they may be contributing the perception among others in society that being Christian is synonymous with illiterate and tribal.

The key in creating a well-rounded mission program is to recognize that as the world continues to change we must be current in our thinking as well. That means casting off the old that is outdated, yet not throwing away that which is valid for the sake of being trendy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Breaking Through The Mission Maze

Malcolm from NY asked two excellent questions in a recent post,
Starting Mission Projects. Malcolm asks,

“[For] a church that desires to actively engage in cross-cultural ministry AND wants to begin making a primary focus on working with nationals in ministry, where does one begin and how do we find the research necessary to make informed decisions?”

Evaluating ministry is often subjective and a matter of preference. The best I can to do is tell you what I look for, which ministries do or do not impress me and what standards I look for in determining whether I will support or partner with a national ministry. Here it goes…

Research Tips

Find people in the country that can evaluate national ministries. In any
research I ask at least five people in my attempt to get the best information. If someone has a ministry in Egypt, or my church is interested in working in that part of the world, I would begin my research by getting a copy of the Mission Handbook ( I have never been to Egypt, no nothing about ministry there. I have the 18th edition (2001-2003) and count that there are 20 organizations working in that country. I would call those organizations listed and find the contact persons in that country as a starting point of my research.

Research is usually a long process, so be patient as you correspond with missionaries and other nationals. Once you have zeroed on a ministry of interest ask five people, from missionaries in different organizations and nationals living in the country what their assessment is of that ministry?

My view of missions, in some ways, is like the stock exchange. Long-standing effective ministries are blue chip stocks; they hare tried and true and worthy of investments. Startup companies are a risk; that may be the next greatest investment or they may be a shooting star that fizzles in the night sky. I'd recommend that you put most of your resources into those who have a track record of integrity and a sound ministry plan.

It is my belief, Malcolm, that if you are going to partner with national church leaders you will need to make, at some point, overseas trips to assess national ministries. I know of a foundation in New Zealand that only funds seminaries. They have a list of several recommended schools and visits them to determine their financial involvement. To me, this is the type of research that is vital if any church is going to have a quality program.

The critical issue for you, and others, is that you are equipped with the knowledge of how to do that assessment. This is true with all mission personal and organizations, not just nationals. However, national missionaries shouldn’t ’t get a pass on accountability. You might be accused of being paternalistic, even racist, but that’s okay as that is an indicator that perhaps you shouldn’t partner with them.

In a couple of days I will give you my opinion from your second question, “the role of the modern North American church in global missions.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

His Own Great Heart

"You know that I am but a dog, yet you have decided to honor me! O lord, you have given me these wonderful promises just because you want to be kind to me, because of your own great heart."

This morning I am sitting on the back porch, in the middle of eight acres of wooded land in rural Arkansas. As the sun comes up behind me, red cardinals fly from bush to tree, a couple of rabbits chew on the green grass, fresh with the morning dew. I look for the deer that often wander close to the house and, though I can’t see them, I’m sure, peering from behind bushes, they can see me.

With coffee cup in hand I read the words of David who just received word that, though he will not be allowed to build the Temple, Jehovah promises that He will honor and bless his lineage, that his name will be honored throughout history. Humbled, David returns a prayer of blessing with a thankful heart. Caught up in my surroundings and reading the words of the ancient king, I close my Bible and paraphrase David’s prayers, “You have blessed me Lord, just because you want to be kind to me, because of your own great heart.

In one week I will be back in New Delhi. Deer and rabbits will be replaced with screaming hawkers walking down the narrow streets in overcrowded and polluted city. The only birds I will see will be crows and kites. Chances are the flight pattern will shift and jumbo jets will descend a couple of thousand feet above our second story flat. Well, I will enjoy this peaceful setting for another week and will at least have this morning as a cherished memory. But even in the noise of the city I will still be able to say, “You have blessed me Lord, just because you want to be kind to me, because of your own great heart.

Being a follower of the one true living God is a blessing within itself. God is good to me, not because I go to a shrine to entice him to show favor to me, not because of some empty ritual I perform or mutter some meaningless chant. David, no doubt, saw the religion of idol worshipers when he said, “O Lord, there is no one like you – there is no other God. In fact, we have never even heard of another god like you!” I have visited forty countries, observed the religious practices of millions, and, I agree David, there is no other god that is like the God of heaven.

Of course, it was through the lineage of David that the Messiah was born. Through Christ, a gentile dog like myself, has access to the eternal promises of God. I am granted favor, grace, not because of my birth, nor my good works, but just because I believe in the son of David, the Son of God. And this promise of God’s favor is to anyone, not because they are good, but because He is good.

I’m not sure I will ever get back to this serene back porch again. Life has a way of throwing a curve when you least expect it. Well, the whole world is unstable, isn’t it? But I won’t dwell on that today. Instead, I dwell on David’s concluding words knowing that it transcends time and space, “for when you grant a blessing, Lord, it is an eternal blessing.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Guidelines For Starting Mission Projects

The other evening I met with some people who are on their way to Kenya to explore ministry opportunities. Since they read my blog, what I have to say here is not much different than what I told them over supper. I am sharing my conversation with them because I believe it is pertinent information for many people seeking counsel on how to proceed in doing work overseas. No matter what the project may be, starting an orphanage, building a school, launching a training program, here are some tips for consideration.

First, you might have a passion, there may be a need, but is that the greatest need the people have? In the early ‘80’s there was a European NGO group that was concerned with community health in the villages in the Turkana district of Kenya. They built literally hundreds of first class brick outhouses so that people could defecate in designated spots rather than in the bush in and around the village. The outhouses were even culturally designed, with a hole in the ground instead of western style toilet seats. The Turkanan’s used the outhouses only a few weeks. Why? Because no one maintained the maintained the project. The Turkanan’s were not use to “hitting the hole,” so the inside toilets became a place to avoid rather than place to squat. It was a good idea, but they needed to invest some money in hiring people to maintain the community restrooms.

Second, is your project already in operation by some other group? One of the reasons there are more missionaries in Kenya, per capita, than any other country in Africa is because it is a nation that has a stable government as well as a friendly people. In countries, like Kenya, missionaries and NGO’s tend to cluster in places where there is easy access to water, electricity, good roads and receptivity. My advice is always to ask this question, “Who is working here and can we partner with them in what they are already doing?” We don’t to reinvent the wheel if the area already is being served.

Third, find the area of need. Drilling a borehole so people will have access to water within a one-kilometer walk is admirable, but there may be many places in the country where there are no wells at all. Yes, there may be a need for a new church plant in Kenya, but there may be a greater need in places like Mali or Chad. Quite honestly, one reason some countries and peoples are neglected is because it’s harder work. When I started working in Pokot and Turkana there were no good roads and difficult to travel into the area. In the northeast it’s still tough work because the climate is oppressive and there are roaming bandits. I’m not suggesting that people risk their lives to work in unsafe areas, but if the goal is to be salt and light or to help people with humanitarian aid, the areas of greatest need are often places where the hardships are greater and the fruit of the labor is not easily attained.

Fourth, work with tried and true nationals. Because I work with nationals, primarily Kenyan’s and Indians, I have met some marvelous dedicated men and women. They work and serve in areas few westerners’ can or want to work. I have also met some opportunist’s in my time. Several years ago a church in the states met a man from Burkina Faso who said he wanted to establish a church in his city that was mostly Muslims. His pitch was that if he had the money he could start a bakery that would sustain his family and he could serve effectively as a bi-vocational evangelist. The American congregation poured thousands of dollars into this project and he started his business making a good living, but there is no evidence that he has any ministry. My view is when partnering with nationals it should only be done with those who have a track record of integrity and doing ministry.

The role of the North American Christian in cross-cultural work is always evolving. Zeal, while important, without knowledge can cause more harm than good. Good research, asking the right questions, will insure that passion is rewarded with a quality project.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Influencing For The Great Commission

In a couple of days I will be traveling to visit a school here in the U.S. to discuss the possibility of a position within their education program. I will not be an employee and will not receive a salary, but I will act as an advisor and coordinator for their overseas distance learning program. It has the potential of being a good fit for me as I will maintain my autonomy, will continue to serve in the capacity as a trainer in India, Kenya while at the same time expand my ministry to other parts of the world.

This university provides non-accredited degrees. Some of my friends have questioned why I would want to be involved with a school which offers MA’s and PhD’s that are not recognized in educational circles? I must admit, I am uncomfortable with people who hold degrees from schools that don’t have the same criterion as that of accredited institutions. I worked hard in getting my academic credentials and feel that if a person wants to use titles they need to meet the standards of education for that privilege. So why would I want to be involved in a non-accredited training program?

First and foremost I believe education and training is important at every level, especially for national church workers. It’s estimated that of the 2 million pastors in the world only 5% have any formal education. The church puts a great deal of emphasis on church planting and evangelism but is weak in stressing the importance of training. I learned many years ago that a river will only rise as high as its source. Over the thirty years that I have been working internationally, I’ve been appalled in the lack of spiritual depth in most congregations. 83% of the evangelical community will live outside the West by the year 2025. The need to train and educate church leaders is greater now than ever before.

Secondly, it is the act of pursing a degree that is most important. Any program that compels a person to read more, attend lectures, receive guidance on how to serve Christ more effectively, for me, is a worthy endeavor. Most people do not study new things just for the fun of it. One motivator for learning is a carrot, which for schools is a diploma or degree. If a distance learning program, accredited or not, causes pastors to read and write papers, to expand their intellectual and spiritual growth, then it is a project worth pursuing.

Of course I have another agenda for training and that is introducing cross-cultural studies to national workers and missionaries. If only 5% of pastors have formal training, I would guess .001% has ever been exposed to issues such as contextualization, worldview and people group strategy. My hope is that I can be an influence in training others for the Great Commission.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Truth Is Not Ugly To God (Bono)

I seldom read novels. I never read poetry. I am probably intellectually poorer as a result of it. I’ve never heard of Charles (Hank) Bukowski until yesterday. I went to the local library and picked up a DVD documentary on his life. Not sure why I checked it out, probably because it was a story of a writer. I watched the short film of his life last night and went to sleep depressed. Not just for the gloomy life of Bukowski, but the seemingly meaningless life of most of humanity.

Bukowski is interesting to me for many reasons. He was born the same year of my father, 1920. My dad is still living, Bukowski died in 1994. Hank, not his pen name but the name he preferred, spent most of his life in Los Angeles, the city where I spent the first fourteen years of my life. Though he was the product of the preceding generation than my own, I identify with him more as a contemporary. He came into his own during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the years of revolution and turmoil, a time of political upheaval which altered the course of our nation.

Bukowski’s life started out miserable and ended the same way. He grew under the thumb of a harsh father, drank, smoked and never had a meaningful relationship until late in life. He was depraved, irreverent, irresponsible, though not necessarily reckless. He cared for little in life except for writing. In one of his poems he states that he smokes and drinks too much (he calls alcohol the blood of cowards), but can’t write enough. His motivation for writing was not for fame or for riches, but out of a sense of pain. Bukowski wrote about the things he loved and hated as a means of escape from the agony of his existence. He was brutally honest in his assessments, which played well to his audience in the era of Vietnam, Watergate and the Carter years.

I suppose it is the impertinence of people like Bukowski that I am sometimes drawn. We live in a world that it dictated by the institutions of government, corporations and religion. Along with those structures of society are boundaries. Regulations on what is acceptable behavior, philosophy, even theology, are so prevalent that original thought is often seen by the mainstream as a threat. The only way to make it in life is to conform. People like Bukowski are intriguing, not because they are wholesome role models, but because they live with little pretense and who can articulate, in some fashion, what most people feel and think but are afraid to say. Based on the documentary, I assume Bukowski’s writing’s are a bit like Solomon’s last book, Ecclesiastes, in which the futility of life is highlighted. Of the many differences, Bukowski was profane and wasn’t looking for meaning in life and had no conclusion. His life ended as miserably as it began. Solomon at least had more to say than "all is vanity," and had a remedy.

On Bukowski’s tombstone is written, “don’t try.” Did he mean life is not worth the effort? Or, as his widow suggest, it means that life should not be lived trying but being? Most of my life is trying. Since all the truth is God’s truth, even if a godless poet pens it, perhaps Bukowski has something of eternal value to offer. Whether one is traditionalist or nonconformist, life is best lived being rather than trying to be.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Celebrating Nationalism

This Wednesday is July 4th. As a nation we will celebrate what we Americans call Independence Day. Most countries take note of special days in their history marking the birth of their nation through revolution or discovery; it marks a day for nationalists to commemorate who they are as a collective society.

In the words of a popular song, I’m proud to be an American, I’m grateful that God saw fit for me to be born in the U.S.A. Our greatest accomplishment as a nation is that we have maintained the rights of freedom for 231 years. In the course of time we have exported this philosophy and still champion the idea of freedom of speech, religion and self-determination. Not bound by caste, tribe or ethnicity, America can still boast that if one works hard and dreams big, they can accomplish whatever their goals might be.

I can’t say that I am always proud of being an American. Though we are a generous people, our nation is plagued with too much self-interest, greed and materialism. Capitalism has run amuck. Americans are burdened with debt and to keep the engine of consumerism oiled we make trade agreements with those who will provide us with the cheapest commodities, we offshore our labor force and make deals with governments that don’t hold to the same values we hold dear. Capitalism and big business is not the enemy, but they are not always our best friends.

Though I am seldom ashamed of being an American I am most embarrassed when I see my countrymen apologize for who we are. In the late ‘70’s, under the Carter administration, I cringed when Ambassador Andrew Young came to Africa, where I was living at the time, and apologize for our nation. One reason Carter did not serve a second term is because Regan was a voice of nationalist pride; Clinton served two terms because the nation felt good about itself. Policies are important and we have, without question, some policies that need to be changed, but policies need to be altered through national pride, not national shame. If I were to sum up the differences between liberals and conservatives it would be how they approach the need for change. One side believes we are good but could do better, the other side seems to suggest we should let the Hague, the U.N. and Amnesty International try us for crimes against humanity.

Like most people, missionaries have a hard time finding a balance in representing the face of America. Some are strong nationalists and fly the stars and stripes high without apology. Others, as foreigners in a foreign land, acquiesce to world opinion and apologize for who we are as a people. While I do not believe God is on our side in everything, I believe the sovereign Creator established our land and continues to use us for His purpose throughout the world. Observing the alternatives of socialism, communism and Islamists, I believe that it is right and fitting we celebrate the founding of our country.

I have visited over 40 countries and, though there are some aspects of other cultures I wish we would emulate, I cannot think of another country that still offers more hope to a troubled world than America. I am a Christian first and my total allegiance is to Christ above country. I am also, however, an unapologetic nationalist. If I had been born a Bolivian, Norwegian or Mongolian God’s love would still be available to me, but I may not have had the opportunity to hear of that great love. America, for all its negatives, is a country worthy of honor and respect. This week I will be filled with nationalist pride.