Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

The Role of the Church in an Unjust Society

Those who have been reading my blog regularly will know that I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. As was the case with most Afrikaans-speaking people of my parents’ age, they also supported the policy of Apartheid, not because they were intentionally racist, but because they believed, as so many others, that Apartheid was the only workable solution in a multi-racist country like South Africa. Although I never considered myself to be racist, it was only while busy with my PhD that I really looked at the system in a critical way and realised how absolutely bad and sinful this policy was. My PhD promoter and I spent hours in discussing these issues. He was a supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) while the party was still banned and Nelson Mandela was still in prison.
One of the issues we often discussed was the role of the church in an unjust society. Was the church allowed to support an armed struggle? (We differed on that issue.) Was the church supposed to speak prophetically against injustice? (We agreed on this.)
One of the people he often referred to was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was imprisoned during the Second World War and accused of being part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. And the question was raised: If a person or system is so corrupt that millions are suffering or dying because of one person or one system, does the church have the right to keep quiet? Many clergy, including such prominent people as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naudé put their lives and their occupations on the line because they believed that they could not refrain from doing something to change the situation in South Africa.
Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Florida, FL, in which he asked, on the grounds of the atrocities taking place in Zimbabwe at the moment – of which you can read more on http://www.sokwanele.com“It’s such a shame. Why can’t anyone just take Mugabe out? I guess they said the same about Hitler.” This morning I received a message on my mobile phone from a Christian: “Robert Mugabe has challenged God by saying that only God can take him out of office. Please pray that God will do this.”
There is, of course, another side to the argument. In my research on the book of Revelation, it is accepted by most New Testament scholars that John, the author of the book, wrote the book in the time when Domitianus was the emperor of Rome. He not only challenged God. He openly declared that he is God! Although Revelation is full of promises that the Roman government will eventually come to a fall, the church is nowhere called to bring about this fall.
The specific task of the church within an unjust society is still not quite clear to me. Perhaps someone would like to add to this discussion. What is the task of the church when confronted with injustice, such as that experienced by the people in Zimbabwe? What can we do to bring about change?

Friday, June 27, 2008 Posted by | Church, Eschatology, Hope, Mission, Partnership, Theology | 6 Comments

2008 Courageous Leadership Award

A few hours ago I received a phone call from Chicago. Our church had been chosen, together with two others (whose names I do not know) as the finalists for the 2008 Courageous Leadership Award presented by Willow Creek Association together with World Vision. Last year, the first time that this award was presented to churches impacting communities suffering from HIV and AIDS, we received an honorary award for the work the people in Swaziland are doing. You can read more about it here. I was invited to send in a report on our work this year and today received the news that we had been chosen as one of three finalists and that I will have to be in Chicago on 6 August in order to receive the presentation.

This award is important for us for three reasons: 

  1. There is quite a substantial amount linked to the award which will do much to help us in the work we do in Swaziland, mostly in buying food and medicine but also in erecting permanent structures from where we can feed orphans daily
  2. The recognition which comes with a prestigious award like this is important, even more so because we are a fairly small church. This recognition has nothing to do with pride, but rather with the fact that we had proved that money and power is not a prerequisite before something can be done to bring change within a community
  3. The plight of Swaziland needs to be made known all over the world. I know that there are voices going up to tell us that the world should stop spending money in combatting AIDS. I maintain that the church needs to do more – much more – to fight this disease and to help those affected by and infected with the disease.

Friday, June 20, 2008 Posted by | Bill Hybels, Church, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Mission, Partnership, Social issues, Support teams, Swaziland, Theology | , , , | 5 Comments

The Second Chance

While at a missions meeting last week, a friend of mine told me about a DVD with the name, The Second Chance. I was able to get a copy of the DVD and our family watched it on Saturday. The story is about a pastor, Ethan Jenkins (played by Michael W Smith), the minister of music at a suburban mega-church called The Rock, and Jake Sanders, a pastor of an urban church called Second Chance. He has a nice church and his salary is sponsored by The Rock. Once a year pastor Sanders is invited to The Rock to give a three minute talk on how things are going at Second Chance (and to thank the people of The Rock for their help!) On one such a morning, he tells the people of The Rock that they should keep their money if they were not willing to become personally involved in his ministry amongst drug addicts, prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, dysfunctional families and worse. Obviously the people from The Rock are greatly upset by these words and pastor Jenkins, who had invited him to speak, was blamed because he was not able to restrict pastor Sanders to the prescribed three minutes nor did he coach him properly on what to say. And so pastor Jenkins is seconded to Second Chance to teach him a lesson.

Towards the end of the movie the leadership of The Rock meet with local developers who want to build some stadium in the area, but in order to do that, Second Chance church will have to be demolished and the church will have to be relocated about five miles away. And this was the part of the movie that really touched me personally, as I saw the leadership of The Rock making decisions without consulting the leadership of Second Chance, planning a wonderful new campus for Second Chance and after everything had been finalised, only then calling in the people of Second Chance and informing them of the plans.

What was clearly shown in this part of the movie is how often people in the church (those with the money) can make decisions on behalf of those with less money. Very often the decisions in itself are not bad. Usually the decisions are for the good of others. But because the decisions had been taken without consulting those mostly affected by the decisions, huge mistrust and accusations are bred between the two groups and in the end, instead of working together, they work against each other. And I couldn’t help wondering how often I may have done the same thing – with good intentions – but still, breaking down relationships instead of building them.

Monday, June 16, 2008 Posted by | Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Dependency, Giving, Meetings, Mission, Partnership, Racism, Sustainability, Theology, Tithing | 5 Comments

Supporting a Vision

Mission and money go together. That’s inevitable. Yesterday I had a meeting with the three largest supporters of our ministry in Swaziland. They are fortunately committed to the work in Swaziland and therefore we spend very little time speaking about money issues. Most of our discussions focus on the work itself.
In all the years that I’ve been in Swaziland there was always a need for more money. Local people were getting poor salaries, buildings needed to be repaired. But somehow it seemed as if very few people were ever really passionate about helping people get higher salaries or seeing buildings re-roofed or painted. From time to time a cheque would arrive in the post, usually given to buy Bibles. But even these were small amounts. Since we started with our ministry amongst people infected with HIV and AIDS, we experienced a change in people’s attitude. For the first time I find people getting excited about our ministry. Tuesday evening I had a meeting with the missions board of a macro congregation in Pretoria and after showing them a short DVD (which you can also watch on Youtube by clicking on this link), I sensed an excitement amongst the people.
The same thing happened yesterday during our meeting when I also showed the members the DVD about our ministry. On my way home after the meeting I had many hours to rethink what I had experienced and I asked myself the question what had changed? Specifically, why are people more open to support us now than a few years ago?
A few years ago I read a number of books on vision. One was George Barna’s book: The power of Vision and the other one was Robert Dale’s excellent book: Keeping the Dream Alive. It may have been in one of these books or it may have been in one of many other books that I read at the time, that someone wrote that people tend to support a vision rather than supporting a program or a person. Throughout the years I have tried, time and again, to link groups of people with one of our church leaders in the hope that this would lead to a good relationship and where they may eventually support the leader with specific needs. It never worked. We have had groups coming to Swaziland with the intention of helping us in some kind of building project. Many of these groups did great work, but few of the groups ever came back to Swaziland. It was as if they felt that they had accomplished their task.
Perhaps I’m starting to experience what I read in one of the books. Supporting a person or supporting a project may feel like a bottomless pit into which money is thrown. I’m not saying that this is correct – merely that people may experience it as such. Supporting a Godly vision is often more encouraging because results can be seen and therefore it may feel as if the funds are really being utilised in a responsible way.
I’m not sure whether I’m correct. But over the past few years I’ve seen people feeling excited to be involved in our ministry whereas in the past I often felt that people supported us only because they felt obliged to do it.
I still need to think this through. But I have a gut feeling that I may be correct in my analysis.

Thursday, June 5, 2008 Posted by | Building relations, Cross-cultural experiences, Giving, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Meetings, Mission, Partnership, Short-term outreaches, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Vision | Leave a comment

Working with Short-term Outreach Teams (3)

When I started blogging, one of the first topics I wrote about was partnerships in mission. If you click on this link, you will find everything I wrote about partnerships. One of the reasons why I believe that partnerships often stop functioning effectively, is because most partnerships in mission are one way roads where resources are channelled from the “haves” to the “have-nots” which are only too glad to receive all kinds of gifts. But this usually leads to a very unhealthy relationship and eventually the people handing out the gifts get tired of doing this and then the relationship often stops.
I can’t remember where he wrote about it, but I recall that David Bosch once mentioned that both partners in a mission relationship should be giving. Obviously, the poorer of the two can hardly support the richer partner financially, but in most cases they have other things which they can give. What needs to happen is for the richer partner to realise that they have a need for what the poorer partner can give to them. One example of this would be the caring spirit that is often found amongst poorer communities – something which I have heard time and time again really touches people from richer communities who live in circumstances where they do not really need to take care of others.
In the past, when hosting short-term outreach teams, the team would greet me at the end of the time with the words: “When we came, we prepared ourselves to give to these people, but it feels as if we had received more than we could give.” Nowadays, when hosting a short-term outreach team, we prepare ourselves to give to them. We know much more about the culture than the visitors know. We know much more about the needs of the people. We know much more about ways of taking care of people, using the minimum resources. We have much more experience in taking care of people in need, of encouraging the sick and the dying. In most cases we know much more about HIV and AIDS. The list goes on. What the visitors have to offer we receive gladly, but I inform them beforehand that we are going to expose them to situations which most of them have never experienced, but we do it on purpose to help them better to understand what we are doing and in such a way equipping them to use their newly acquired knowledge in other places.
No longer do we have to feel guilty or ashamed because of what we are receiving. We are thankful for everything that is given to help in the ministry, but at the same time we are sharing our experience and our example with others, so that we can truly be equal partners in accomplishing the task God gave us to do.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 Posted by | Building relations, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, David Bosch, Dependency, Giving, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Mission, Partnership, Short-term outreaches, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment

Working with Short-term Outreach Teams (2)

I’m still trying to determine what causes one short-term outreach team to “work” while another team seems to “fail”. Since the 10th of May, I’ve been hosting a short-term outreach team from the Palm Beach Atlantic University, Florida (USA). This has possibly been one of the best groups I’ve ever had in Swaziland. However, if anyone should ask me why this team worked so well, I would not be able to give an exact answer. The team consisted of nine students, all female. This may have played some role in the group dynamics, as they slept in an old farmhouse on their own and had ample time to bond (and I think women may bond slightly easier than men.)
It also became clear to me that the students joining this outreach are carefully chosen. Which criteria are used, I don’t know, but it wasn’t merely a case that anyone wanting to join would be allowed. Although one should be careful not to restrict a mission outreach to an exclusive group of people, as if those people are on a higher spiritual level than others, having people in a group like this with too many unresolved personal issues, becomes a great burden to the rest of the team and inevitably hinders the work.
I spent a few hours with the group last night, doing some informal (or less formal) debriefing. What I heard was that great effort is made by their missions trip coordinator to prepare these groups for their cross-cultural encounters. Although I always spend time with a group upon their arrival to brief them about Swazi culture, to enlighten them about the reality of HIV and AIDS and to prepare them for what they can expect, I believe that the fact that they had already been properly prepared for something new before they came, played an extremely important role in the success of the group. And what definitely helped was that they were apparently told, over and over again, that the local people know better than they what needs to be done and therefore they have to submit themselves to the local authority (which they did!)
Instead of communicating with me directly, this group used Operation Mobilisation (OM) as go-between, them working with the office in the USA which communicated with the office in South Africa (with whom I already have a good personal relationship) and them communicating with me. It may sound as if this would make communication more difficult, but in effect it helped as OM has a lot of experience in handling international groups. Furthermore, being a parent myself, I can assume that for parents whose children want to go on a short-term outreach, it would be comforting to know that a large international organisation is also involved to ensure that their children will be safe.
But I think, if I have to say what caused this group to function so well, it would probably be because they were willing to learn from us. Previous groups very often came with the question: What can we do for you? Obviously, this is an important question to ask. This group came with the question: How can you use us? I believe there is an important difference between these two questions (or at least in the attitude behind the questions), but that would be the topic of a next post.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Posted by | Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Mission, Missionary Organisations, Partnership, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland | Leave a comment

Working with Short-term Outreach Teams (1)

Since 1985, when I first arrived in Swaziland, I’ve been working with short-term outreach teams. Usually things worked out fairly well, but at other times it was terrible. A certain university in South Africa had a long-lasting relationship with Swaziland and up to 1996 we received four teams from the university during their annual winter break. Each year, after the team left, my wife and I tried to analyse the visit, trying to find out what was good and what was bad and more especially why certain teams worked well and others not.
One of the amazing discoveries we made after all the teams that we had received, was that the team leader played a fairly insignificant role when it came to the success of the group. This does not mean that the team leader is not important. Obviously, someone has to take responsibility. What we did find was that the team leader had a much greater role to play when it came to creating a feeling of unity among the group than in real leadership. The best leader we ever had (two years running) was a student who had virtually no typical leadership characteristics. When problems occurred within the team, he would go around, give each member a bear hug and tell them that he loves and cares for them, and afterwards everyone smiled and apologised for saying bad things about others and then they went on with their work.
The worst leader we ever had was a student with exceptionally strong leadership capabilities, even being one of the elect few among almost 20,000 students who served on their university’s Student Representative Council. However, in spite of his exceptional leadership qualities, he wasn’t able to create a feeling of unity among his team and because he himself was not willing to accept authority, it became one of the worst teams we ever had in Swaziland. The day they left, we breathed a sigh of relief and said: Hallelujah! 😉
Much more thought needs to go into the issue of short-term outreaches. After 1996 I had a discussion with representatives from the university from which the students came and my advice to them was that they needed to rethink these outreaches and perhaps, after more than twenty years, they had to ask themselves the question why they are coming to Swaziland. Was it because of the traditional bond between the university and Swaziland, or was it because they were really making (or undergoing) a difference?
Eventually a decision was made to stop these visits.
Looking back at those times I often wonder how we could have done things differently. Our biggest problem was that many of the students created the impression that they had come to Swaziland on a fairly inexpensive vacation. Anyone willing to come, was accepted gladly on the team. Their costs were minimal. However, when they arrived in Swaziland they expected expensive meals. In fact, they ate food that we would rarely if ever eat in our own home. (This changed later after we had a long and deep discussion with the students about this.) Their work consisted mostly of visiting schools (which I had to arrange beforehand), meeting children before school during assembly, introducing themselves, singing a few songs, perhaps doing a short skit or a puppet show, selling Bibles and then driving off to the next school. During the afternoons they would go to the local market and mix with people.
I also had the impression that they mostly considered the children standing in front of them to be unbelievers. During the skits and the puppet shows they were always sharing the news about Jesus who had died for their sins (granted, this is amazingly good news) but the next year they would visit the same school and bring the same message as if they had never spoken to these children before. This also got me thinking about the purpose of a short-term outreach.
I’ll continue with the topic tomorrow, but I would be glad to get some feed-back from people who had possibly been on a short-term outreach or who had received such teams and how you feel about them.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 Posted by | Building relations, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelism, Mission, Partnership, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland | 4 Comments

Keeping Mission Supporters informed

When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985, we were four missionaries working for the same mission organisation ( www.swazimission.co.za ) and one of the tasks which I was instructed to do was to write a newsletter once every four months to keep our supporters and others interested in the work informed about things happening. The other missionaries wrote during the other three months. 1985 was BC (Before Computers) which meant that we had to type a newsletter on an old typewriter (my kids don’t even know what a typewriter is!) and then this document had to be posted to an office in Pretoria in South Africa where it was retyped, duplicated, put into envelopes and posted to a few hundred people.
With time the system changed. Of the four missionaries I was the first to buy a computer in 1986 and we then started doing the newsletter on computer, in those early years using a program known as Wordstar and later progressing to other wordprocessors which enabled us to make the newsletter slightly more attractive. As my fellow missionaries left Swaziland, either to work in other areas or to retire, I eventually ended up having to write a newsletter every month. Getting the newsletter duplicated was not too difficult, but it became a family affair once a month to fold hundreds of newsletters and to get them into envelopes.
And then the next big step came when I started sending these newsletters via email. At present I have less than twenty people still receiving their newsletters via snail mail. What an improvement! But up to today I am glad that I was forced, in those early years, to discipline myself to send out newsletters to our supporters. As I receive and read newsletters from a selected group of missionaries that I am involved in, I realise the importance of these newsletters. All people supporting a ministry, be it morally, financially or through prayer, need (and have the right) to know that their support is making a difference. As missionaries we depend upon those people and therefore every missionary has to discipline him / herself to keep those supporters informed about the work.
As I went on my first short-term missionary outreach to Russia in 2001, a great number of people prayed for me. (Frankly, I suspect that many of them did not think that I would return home.) Stories of the persecution of Christians in Communist countries were still fresh in our minds. As I kept these people informed almost on a daily base as I prepared to go to Russia, I made a decision that, once in Russia, I would try my best to send out regular emails to all of these supporters. I was mostly thinking of sending out prayer requests but this became much more a personal diary (my first “blog” even before anyone else knew about blogs 😉
Mission is teamwork. One missionary needs a large group of people giving all kinds of support. The missionary has the responsibility to ensure that all these people are well informed of the “successes” as well as the needs. For many missionaries this may feel like a waste of precious time, but it is time well invested in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, May 22, 2008 Posted by | Mission, Partnership, Prayer, Russia, Short-term outreaches, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Swaziland Newsletters | 1 Comment

Once more about planning, trusting and commitment

I have a group of people from a church in South Africa helping us at Dwaleni. The group consists mostly of highschool children (two boys and two girls with three more boys joining today) and then my youngest son and my daughter also joined them on this outreach. They are accompanied by their youth pastor (female), her parents who are helping with the cooking as well as coordinating the work that needs to be done and the chairperson of their church’s missions committee and his wife. One of the things happening this week which I’m really glad about, is that our church is being plastered. The building is over a hundred years old (it used to be a store) and does not give a good impression, as you can see on this photo:.
But all of this is just the background for some conversations I had yesterday. With the exception of one of the children, none of them had previously had any contact with anyone who is HIV-positive. Yesterday I arranged that some of our home-based caregivers take these children with them to visit people at their homes. For all of them this was an eye-opener. Even my own son, who hears about this work every single day in our house and who sees photos and videos of our work, was amazed when he saw what the home-based caregivers are doing, mentioning afterwards to the youth pastor that even he had never realised the extent of the work that the home-based caregivers are doing.
Over lunch the chairperson of the mission’s committee made the remark that he would really like to see something similar start in their own church in South Africa but that it would not happen this year. I then asked him what would prevent them from starting with such a project this year and received the answer I expected: It had not been planned and budgeted for! I’m all for planning. I’m all for calculating the costs. But I’m not convinced that God only works from financial year to financial year. And even if there is nothing on the budget for such a project in the current financial year, what would prevent us from at least getting people together and starting discussions on the issue? This can be done at no cost.
Which probably all comes back to the issue of commitment which I mentioned a few days ago: “Not planned for” and “Not on this year’s budget” are legitimate excuses for not getting involved and not committing to projects. But I think this is an easy way out. What about: “Not planned for and not budgeted for, but let’s pray about this and if this is what God wants us to do, then let’s do it!”

Saturday, March 29, 2008 Posted by | Culture Shock, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Mission, Partnership, Prayer, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology | 2 Comments

Commitment in missions

I have a friend who says that he has “tickability”. I’m not sure whether non-Africans have experience with ticks. (Perhaps someone can tell me whether ticks are known in the northern hemisphere with its extremely cold winters.) In any case, a tick is a small insect which bites onto an animal (or a human) and sucks out blood and it really takes some effort to get them off the animals, at the risk of breaking of the ticks head and it causing further infections. My friend claims that he has “tickability”. Once he’s committed himself to something, he won’t let go – no matter what!
I’ve just returned from Dwaleni where a group of people from a congregation in South Africa will be busy with a short-term outreach until 3 April. I know the youth pastor of this congregation very well and she has been looking forward to this outreach for many months. What was extremely disappointing to her was, once everything had been finalised and quite a number of school kids had committed themselves to come for the outreach, to find that one by one the children cancelled their plans. Eventually the team turned up today with four young people (three more will be joining them on Friday.)
I won’t say that this lack of commitment does not disappointment me anymore. In fact, it does. I’m probably just getting a bit immune against it, because it happens so often. The problem does not lie with the children. One could probably say that the problem lies with the parents who should tell their children that you should not make a commitment unless if you intend to follow through with it. But the problem lies even deeper than this. Very few churches seem to have the ability to make a commitment towards mission. This is one of the most-heard arguments used when discussing involvement in mission: “We don’t want to commit ourselves towards supporting this project!” Why not? Why can’t we commit ourselves for a mission project? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that people will become dependent upon us? Or are we afraid that we will become tired of doing good?
I was thinking today that I have had pastors arranging with me to bring a group from their congregation to Swaziland for a short-term outreach and then, as the days come closer and I don’t hear anything from them, I eventually have to call to confirm whether they are still coming, only to find out that the outreach had been cancelled and the pastor did not even take the trouble to pick up a phone to let me know. This, I would describe as a lack of “tickability”.
I’m busy working through the book of Acts together with a group of people and Paul’s commitment, his “tickability”, is probably one of the greatest characteristics in the life of this missionary. I’ve just read today that the number of missionaries in the world has increased significantly over the past few years. This is good news. From my side I hope that these missionaries possess a good douse of “tickability” and that those congregations who have sent them and who have committed to support them, pray for them, visit them also have enough “tickability” to continue with this. Mission and commitment go hand-in-hand. This is true for the missionary as well as those who support and encourage him/her.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 Posted by | Church, Dependency, Disappointments, Mission, Partnership, Prayer, Short-term outreaches, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology | 7 Comments