Missions is messy, Part II

Day 10, July 26. Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Yes, missions is messy. Yesterday I talked about the messiness of culture, language, germs, heat, and accommodations. But there is more on this topic of messiness.

Take the case of Andy Warner, American missionary with Pioneers, who runs an internet cafe and computer game room as well as writing computer code in order to finance his ministry here and supplement his support.

Andy oversees the UNA festival in Slavonski Brod (locals call it “Brod”) and, believe me, there are a myriad of details involved in running that event. The team is made up of Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Roma (gypsies), and Americans. Not only does this mix create linguistic problems and confusion, but the idiosyncrasies of each ethnic/political group are on display.
This strange ethno/linguistic/political mix requires Andy to adjust the running of the festival to the vagaries of the various understandings of how time works (punctual, a little late, or hours late?), issues of control (who’s in charge?), questions of being slighted (are we treating all groups equally?) and how do we all follow the same plan? In order to corral and control over 100 rambunctious children, the festival must be carefully planned and led. This requires preliminary training and orientation to get all of the team leaders on the same page. Imagine Andy’s frustration when some of the leaders (Americans) decided this training was optional and chose to not attend. To compound this problem, some who were supposed to be leading (Americans) didn’t show up at all. So much for Andy running a smooth operation.

Arrival at the festival began on a contentious note. A pastor from a different ethnic group had arrived before us and was already leading a large group of children in singing. This seemingly innocent start was actually very upsetting to Andy, who had very carefully planned how the event was to begin and when the children would learn the “UNA song”. (I later learned that this was not merely a matter of misunderstanding; rather this Croatian pastor, supported by a large, missions-minded American church, had issues of control and was making it clear that he would play by his own rules. I wonder how much his home church understands about what is going on in Croatia.) Before the festival began, Andy was already getting derailed, and I had to pray with Andy to get him back on track. As a goal- and task-oriented person who likes to lead events that are finely tuned, I fully commiserated with Andy’s frustration.

Later, after an intense afternoon at the festival, as we were preparing to head to an event that evening in a church where I would teach on the error of Jehovah’s Witnesses (“JWs”), I was trying to unlock the door to Andy’s shop to pick up the brochures that I had written and that had been printed specifically for these meetings. Surprise, surprise. The lock broke and we couldn’t get in. Nina was expecting a very important call from Holland that evening, but her cell phone was locked up in Andy’s shop. A corollary to the first principle (“Missions is messy”) is a second axiom: “When messes happen, pray and just move on.” So we prayed, and moved on to the meeting minus the brochures and Nina’s phone.

After a wonderful evening at the church where I taught on the error of Arianism (the JWs heresy), Andy brought us back to our guesthouse in his large bus-like van. Then he returned to the village with Roma passengers he had transported to the meeting. I learned the next morning that Andy’s van’s security system locked up in the village and he had to leave the van there overnight because it wouldn’t start. Andy was having a very bad day. I hope that, in his missionary training, someone had alerted him to the fact that missions is messy.

At the same time that I learned about Andy’s truck problems, I also heard that his phone had automatically reset itself and he had lost all of the phone numbers stored in it. Missionary training seldom includes a course called “What to do when your phone erases its directory in a foreign country in the middle of a very busy project 101”.

Nothing highlights cultural differences quite as much as perceptions of time. Americans are accustomed to things starting at the appointed time. Other cultures are more cavalier about punctuality and starting times. The Tuesday festival started 90 minutes after its announced starting time, but no one seemed phased by that (besides me, an American who is obsessive about doing things punctually).

On Wednesday I went to speak to a full church about the dangers of the JWs (more on that below). Though we were over an hour late in arriving, those who attended waited patiently as if this were normal. I think in America we would have all gone home to watch TV and lodged a protest at our embassy in the morning.

Finally, missions is messy because there is a smorgasbord of cults and false religions to wreak havoc on unsuspecting new believers. On Paul’s first missionary journey, he ministered to churches in the area of Galatia. No sooner had he left the Galatian region than “Judaizers” (devout Jews who believed one had to keep the law to be saved) arrived in Galatia to discredit Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.

This is precisely analogous to the presence of JWs in Roma villages. Their denial that Jesus is fully divine is an abominable heresy, and yet the JWs are having tremendous influence among the Roma. They are literally saturating the nearby Roma village with large numbers of workers who eagerly teach their false doctrine. Bob Hitching told me that the largest non-Muslim religious conference in Turkey was a JW conference that attracted 400 Turkish JWs at a time when it was estimated that there were only perhaps 10 true Christian believers in all of Turkey.

Roma and Croatian believers who were hungry for biblical truth showed up on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to pack two different church buildings to be taught the biblical truth about the deity of Christ. My curiosity makes me want to ask: Why are there hundreds of JW evangelists spewing forth their despicable lies about the Bible in Roma villages while there are so few true believers who are evangelizing and discipling the Roma in the basics of the Christian faith?

The Christian life, church life, ministry, and missions is messy. Nor are the messes restricted to Croatia or more backwards countries. I have been in fulltime ministry for over 40 years in the USA; it didn’t take me very long to become engulfed in the messiness of church life. There is surely an ugly enemy who hates the Good News and who has his fingerprints all over the junk that happens.

And yet the Gospel goes forward, God is glorified, people are saved, disciples are made, the church grows. All around the world. Amazing. Simply amazing.