A Lesson Learned on Ednor Street

The missional life and serving God certainly involve a large and regular measure of the unexpected. One typically sets out to serve God only to find efforts seemingly sabotaged as obstacles are encountered that appear to impede the work we believe God has called us to do. I have seen this happen far too many times to think it might be “coincidence.”

In the world of missions, workers often scratch their head as they mull over the possible reasons why things have not followed the anticipated course. Have I sinned and God has withdrawn his blessing? Is God completely disinterested in what is happening in my ministry? Did I miss my calling and am “out of God’s will”? Is God trying to teach me something through my misfortunes?

In the early 1990s, after nineteen years of fulltime pastoring, missions efforts, and vocational Christian ministry, I found myself mysteriously reassigned to the blue-collar world of oil rags and steel-toed boots where I would deliver heating oil to the homes of Baltimore, MD. Instead of preaching sermons and counseling the hurting, I daily climbed up into an oil truck to deliver 5,400 gallons of fuel to residences. 

It was time for me to learn the deeper significance of familiar biblical texts. As a child I had memorized I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know…that You are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body.” That passage was about to take on new significance.

One day I was pumping 200 gallons of #2 heating oil into the basement fuel tank of a rowhouse on Ednor Street, blissfully unaware of the colossal error I was making. As I stuffed the ticket into the screen door, I noticed the house number didn’t match the address on the ticket. My heart sunk and my stomach churned.

I stared at the ticket. How could I have made such a serious blunder? Since my employer’s policy required me to repay the company if I delivered fuel to the wrong home, I would owe the company $200 unless the residents of this house were willing to pay me.

Unfortunately, the house occupants were invisible and inaccessible. In spite of phone calls, letters, and repeated knocks on the door, I was never able to elicit a response. Already struggling to get by on a shoestring budget, I was now forced to pay for the oil that would warm another person’s house. 

In that desperate hour, I turned to God and prayed something like this: “Lord, I’ve told you that all I have is yours. So, I want you to know that this $200 is coming out of your pocket. If that’s the way you want to spend your resources, then I accept that.”

I waited uneasily for a voice from heaven to assure me that God was taking immediate steps to regain his lost funds for me. Now, almost three decades since that incident, I’m still waiting. And yet the answer has come multiple times in unexpected ways. God’s responses to our prayers are sometimes clouded in an obscurity that throws our theology of prayer into turmoil. Rarely is there the clear voice that tells us precisely what God is doing in his servant’s life. More often we are left to decipher a possible response out of the pattern and trajectory of our life. Kind of like a flashback that includes the realization, “Oh, so that was how God answered that request! I didn’t realize how he was at work in that situation.”

“You have been bought with a price…” Claiming what was rightfully his, God gave oil to strangers and refused to collect his lost funds and return them to my pocket. In the baffling darkness of my earthly journey, God was digging deeper into my already depleted resources. 

Since my assets were his resources and not my personal funds, he dipped into my checking account, took his capital, and gave those funds to total strangers! With infinite resources to replenish my empty wallet, the King of Heaven refused to fret over a measly $200 “squandered” on an anonymous Baltimore household. 

A deep anguish was stirring my soul. Did I truly believe I belonged to God? Were my resources merely temporarily entrusted to my stewardship? As a disciple of the Savior, was he Lord of the possessions he assigned me to briefly manage? And, of course, there was the larger question ever lurking in the back of my mind: How did I, a seminary-trained minister of the Lord, end up delivering oil to rowhouses?

I was learning to release my tight grip on my finances. And for all of us as pilgrims passing through this world, similar ongoing lessons await us along the way. It’s tough, isn’t it? And yet there is no other way if we are to grow and mature in the work God to which has called us.

Several suggestions to ponder:

First, don’t be dismayed by the inscrutability of God’s apparent silence. It only seems as if he is not listening to us when we need him most! 

Second, don’t allow the mystery of God’s purposes to distract you from trusting him. When we inquire as to exactly what God is doing in our lives, we can go to God’s Word where we find assurance that brings comfort.

Third, don’t let frustration prevail. Temptation to pursue our own plans will come. Fleeing to God’s Word for sanity and stability, we discover that the Master Teacher was himself confronted with the same dilemmas that we face daily. Jesus’ prayer, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), encourages us to just rest in God’s inscrutable purposes.

The pedagogy of Ednor Street is forever etched in my memory, for it was there that some invisible and anonymous “friends” were utilized to teach me to hold loosely to things entrusted to my stewardship but which actually belong to God. The principle of I Corinthians 6:19-20 must surely govern all that we possess. When all is his, we are freed from anxiety and the fear that someone might take something from us.

A footnote: as a further testimony to the inscrutability of God’s maneuverings, I eventually returned to fulltime ministry in the fall of 1993. Now I was wiser in the ways of God and better equipped with the lessons needed to experience increased effectiveness in my calling. I thank God for what he did that day on Ednor Street!  

If I were just hired… The Sequel (which actually should have been the Prequel)

Awhile ago I posted a blog entitled “If I was just hired to be a missions director at a church”.  It was pretty heavy on the resources, but it really didn’t give much info on specific next steps.  I recently received a call from someone who used to be involved at my local church but has moved to a new church plant and has been tasked with heading their missions efforts.  She was excited about the opportunity but really didn’t know where to start.  Below are some ideas I sent her that just might be helpful to others as well.  I edited it so it would apply to a broader audience.
“Delighted to hear about your role and what is happening at your church.  I wrote a blog awhile ago that you might find helpful.  It is fairly generic but will at least give you some resources to think about.  https://unmissions.net/2012/10/08/if-i-was-just-hired-to-be-a-missions-director-at-a-church/
The beautiful thing about where you guys are right now is that you are at the beginning, so you can start to form your missions outreach from the ground up.  As you know I am a big fan of focus and having a church do a few things well rather than doing many things.  What sometimes happens is that missions programs evolve at a church… a niece of an elder is going as a missionary to Buenos Aires, so the church supports her.  Never mind the fact that the church really doesn’t have much of a relationship with her or the fact that Buenos Aires, Argentina has, per capita, more followers of Christ than we do here.  So, you want to move slowly and prayerfully with things like that.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be so afraid of being scattered that you don’t do anything.  You want to be able to experiment and put your toes in the water.
So I asked myself, what I would do if I were in your shoes right now?
Some of this is so painfully obvious that I hesitate to mention it, but I will anyway.
1. Pray that God would give you a team.  Be praying about who you should  be approaching.  Of course, folks with missions background and interest are a good place to start thinking but you need to be careful.  Sometimes those who have been involved in missions for awhile have some biases and pet ministries they are very committed to and, when they serve in missions leadership, they will over-advocate for their particular areas of interest.
2.   I know that you are a fan of Perspectives.  (as am I)  Some churches actually require those who serve in missions leadership to have taken the class prior to joining the team.  There is a class that will be starting locally this January, so its not too early to be talking to folks about this.  If you are able to recruit a team now that can take the class together, that would be an amazing start.  One of the big benefits of this is giving the group a common vocabulary as well as helping them to be a bit more informed as to areas of priority.  For many, “missions” is defined as doing something good somewhere else than where you are right now.  If that is the primary criteria for what qualifies as missions, you’ll have as many opinions as to direction as to people on the team.
3.  Be thinking in terms of focus and help your team to be thinking in terms of focus as well.
4.  Be a student of the culture of your church.  I love that Kwast (from Perspectives) model of analyzing culture where the most outer concentric circle is “behavior” going inward to “values” to “beliefs” to “worldview”.  So, by analyzing the behaviors of your church, you will be able to discern the actual worldview of the church.  This understanding of your church’s DNA will help you as you decide where to focus as well as how to communicate missions to them. Though I don’t share this with everyone, I encourage Perspectives students, as they try to bring this back to their church, to think of their church as an unreached people group.  As a cross-cultural worker needs to know the culture of the people they are sharing with, so a missions mobilizer needs to know the culture of the people at their church.  Both are trying to change a way of thinking.
5.  Look for that local / global connection.  I worked with a church once that was considering adopting a particular unreached people group in Nepal.  One of the missions team members happened upon a Nepali store in the area.  We later found out that, at the time, the city where this church was located was the second most popular immigration destination of Nepalis after New York City.  So, there were lots of opportunity for local ministry that had a global connection.  There may be some group in the region with opportunity to minister that might lead to overseas opportunities later.  I have seen more than one of these divinely inspired connections being made between church and unreached group.
6.  Find out what others are doing.  I find my best ideas I have managed to steal from someone at least in part.  There are lots of churches doing lots of things… all of them different.  My guess is what you guys end up doing will look a lot different than what gfc is doing and perhaps different than what you are envisioning right now.  I can give you some different folks to talk to whenever you would like and will even do the introductions if that would be helpful.
7.  Take time to celebrate.  We are terrible at celebrating victories in the church.  So make sure you mark the milestones.
This can be an exciting process but can also be discouraging, particularly when you don’t feel that things are moving.  Please, let’s talk regularly.  I think some exciting things are coming!!!”

Falling apart?

There are a number of resources out there that folks in my business tend to go to for wisdom on a regular basis; websites, video blogs, conferences, twitter feeds, bloggers, etc.  Basically, if you were to summarize their logic it would go something like this;

1. Things are falling apart.
2. We are saying this because we are not getting the results we desire or even what we used to get.
3. The answer to this is we need to be flexible, empower gen X’ers and put the vision above commitment to the organization.

Is this the best way forward?  I wonder.  It is interesting to think of organizations that were at the top of their game just a few years ago and are now becoming irrelevant.  Blackberry maker Research in Motion comes to mind.  Is the explanation for their decline because they didn’t do the things on the above list?

I just wonder.  We are living in a time when the Christian world is changing very dramatically.  I served on the board of a small Christian school for a number of years.  I recently heard they closed.  I am good friends with a guy who had to close his church.  The statistics on church closures are frightening.

As pastors wrestle with the questions about what causes change in a person, I wrestle with what causes change in an organization?  Can it really change and if so, what causes this?  My very unscientific conclusions aren’t very encouraging, but I do think we need to grapple with them.  Often people describe an organization as having a culture.  As anyone who has studied foreign cultures knows, adjusting to a new culture is quite difficult.  I was talking to someone who has been living in the US for over six years after moving here from Asia.  It is still quite difficult for her.  A friend who moved to Asia from the US describes the first year in the new culture as being the same as the year of mourning she had after her mother’s death.  The advantage that these two people had was, they were forced to make this change due to a location change.  Organizations don’t have this added benefit.  The building, the people, the language… it all remains the same.  The only thing different is that someone said we were going to do things differently.

My partner and I went through a strategic planning exercise with a church and thought we had developed some fairly specific guidelines for future missions support opportunities.  I was shocked to hear their rationale for another cause they decided to support that met none of these guidelines.  Yes, culture does not change easily.  So, what do we do?  (You are not going to like this)

1. Start with the idea that it is best that we just let the thing die.  I am not kidding about this. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop and hope that something better rises from the ashes.
2. OK, now we have everyone’s attention.  So is there enough desire in the room to make the changes necessary to make the organization successful in the future?  Are we willing to start with a blank piece of paper with very few non-negotiables.  In other words, are we all willing to resign?
3. Enter a time of prayer and discernment, as a community to see what the next direction may be.  It could be that the best thing is to keep things as they are and let the slow process of decline continue but manage it in a way that honors God.  I really mean that.  Move to smaller offices.  Let people go. Try and focus on a few things to do well rather than doing a lot. etc.
4. If the decision is made to continue, be willing to be ruthless and experience the same dissonance that my two friends did when they entered new cultures.  Think about the vision in the morning when you wake up, when you eat your lunch, when you plan your day, when you go out for coffee, when you go to bed, when you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  Keep it on the forefront of your mind.  Check out now and then, of course, but my point here is to make sure your daily activities (all of them) feed the vision.

Now, having said all of this, let me make one last comment that will completely undo, at least in some people’s minds, what I have written above.  Realize that, over the course of history, God has done some rather surprising things for reasons that He alone is aware of.  He has allowed perfectly good ministries to fail.  He has allowed cultures that, at least on the outside, seemed to reflect the kingdom of God, to slide into sin to the point that they entered a period of exile.  Is this where we are right now?  I don’t think so, but it is possible.  The steps I mentioned above had to do, mainly, with what we could do.  But realize God is going to do what He is going to do.  The best thing we can do is believe this, live this and, as Job says, “though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him.”  Like Job, we may be surprised by the ultimate outcome.

Tell me if I am crazy here!

If I Was Just Hired to Be a Missions Director at a Church…

Missions Leadership in churches often changes, whether it’s the missions pastor or the group of faithful volunteers that keep it going, change is inevitable.  So I got to thinking, what are the best resources for getting replacements started in this new role?

My guess is, those of you who have been around awhile can guess my first recommendation; the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course.  Now I realize that the course is not offered everywhere at all times, but if there is anyway you could take this class, you have to do it.  There is a lot of reading but it is worth every moment you spend on it.

What about books?  Usually folks don’t have a ton of time to read a lot of books, so I’ll keep the list short.  I’m a big fan of  When Helping Hurts and it talks about a whole lot more than avoiding the pitfalls of dependency.  Loving the Church, Blessing the Nations is a great missions book but from the perspective of the local church.  Of course, The Global Missions Handbook is a one-stop shop for folks who are going overseas and what the steps are, so a missions director needs to know this information.  Piper’s Let The Nations Be Glad has been a classic for a long time, though I do like a little ditty that is a bit on the simpler side called 2020 Vision though I have never heard anyone else recommend it besides me (which probably tells you something about me).

What about news?  There are lots of resources out there.  Brigada is something you must subscribe to.  About every week you get an update of coming events, new things happening in missions, and lots of other helpful information.   I also subscribe to Evangelical Missions Quarterly which will really keep you informed as to the latest in thinking in missions.

What about organizations to join?  I would definitely hook up with MissioNexus.  They serve both churches as well as mission agencies as well.  They also do occasional conferences that are worth attending.

How about web-sites?  I hesitate to start writing here as this is a daunting list.  I will just say go to Links to Cool Places button at UnMissions.net and hang out there for a bit.  Its a dizzying list of different websites.  I do like the LearnCareGo site as a first stop though it can be dizzying as well.  Go to a coffee shop, bring your internet device of choice and just cruise around it for awhile, bookmarking the places that you want to explore further. Also, spend a bit of time at Catalyst Services.  They have some great articles.

Speaking of coffee, I would then Contact Dave and / or Contact Joe  and grab a cup of coffee.  That may be of dubious benefit, but we do offer comic relief.  Seriously, we will pray for you and are happy to do a free consult of what you presently have in place and talk about possibilities for what might be next.

Is there any resource out there that you feel would qualify for “The five things a missions director shouldn’t leave behind if going to a desert island?  Let us know.

Why start a new website?

Dave and I had been talking with our friend Jon Barnes, our very able technology consultant and cultural guru, about movements.  Yes, it seems that movements are happening around us all the time and we don’t even realize it.  Whether you are talking about the Arab spring or Kony 2012, these things are popping up everywhere.  How do they start?  Do they just suddenly appear?  Are there spiritual forces that cause them?  Is there a frustration tipping point where people have had enough of cultural inertia, or perhaps political, religious, and economic inertia, and a movement is inevitable?

We see things.  There are things happening in the world and specifically the missions world that both concern and delight us.  My guess is you are seeing some of the same things.  We are want to have a place where we can talk about these things… have discussions with one another on the virtual back patio or next to the virtual roaring fire in the fireplace or with an ale at the virtual British pub.  This discussion may happen on twitter or facebook or by replying to blogs here or even the occasional ooVoo meeting.  What will this discussion look like?  Sharing what we’ve seen and heard, ideas, prayers, even occasional arguments (hopefully very occasional).

We are calling the new website unmissions.net.  By adding the un prefix, we aren’t trying to undo missions.  We are just trying to get folks to think about it differently… how we mobiliize people, deploy people, engage unreached people, pray.  We want to think differently about missions and are convinced that there are a few people in our age group and a lot of people in their twenties and thirties that want to think differently about missions too.

We still have the gracextensions website and you will be able to go there for the links and other resources, but unmissions.net is going to be the place for the discussions and other interactions.  If the Lord is in it, who knows what it might become???