This post was prompted by a few things that happened over the past few days. I’m part of a mens’ prayer group meeting every Wednesday morning at five (and those who know me, will also know that this is a huge sacrifice for me, to be up at five!) This past Wednesday a number of the men who had attended Angus Buchun’s Mighty Men Conference shared their experiences of this meeting. This morning an article was published in one of South Africa’s newspapers which has as its heading: “On the way to become an atheist because of fellow-Christians.” Those understanding Afrikaans, can read it here: http://jv.news24.com/Beeld/Opinie/Briewe/0,,3-2085-73_2508841,00.html
In this article the author blames Christians for having easy answers for every problem. And he blames the church which has allowed people to think about God in this way, creating, as he puts it, a god for every need of mankind, be it a need for rain or a need for sunshine. He also attacks the “Angus-men” for the nonsense they speak.
In my recent post on The Angus Buchun Phenomenon, I asked the question what it is that is causing so many men, the vast majority whom are White, to attend these conferences. I believe that people are looking for solutions: solutions for South Africa’s political, economic and crime problems and many are also looking for solutions in their personal lives: marriages that are failing, men obsessed with having to prove their masculinity in a all spheres of live, families that are falling apart and hundreds of other reasons. With this I can find no fault and I consider anyone blaming people for attending these conferences in search of answers as being unfair.
Furthermore, all followers of Christ have certain emotional experiences which they refer back to from time to time, experiences which may not be explained in a rational way, but which has special meaning for them. I can think of quite a number of such experiences in my own life: church camps while still at school and later as a student, a mission outreach which I led in 1981, a celebration service at Coral Ridge (Fort Lauderdale) in 1996, a very special experience with God on a bus, traveling between Rotterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands in 2005. However, considering the hundreds of hits I had on the Angus Buchun post, it made me feel just slightly uncomfortable when I blogged the next day about Fighting the demon of Racism and had less than 4% of the number of hits on this post than on the one the previous day. And I maintain that, if we want God to change South Africa, then we will have to fight against racism. But I’m not sure if people want to hear this. I’m not even convinced that people who had attended the Mighty Men Conference, want to hear this!
Listening to the people sharing their stories on Wednesday and reading the article in the newspaper today, made me think of the episode in the Bible which happened on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). Peter, John and James were there when the face of Jesus was changed and His clothes became as white as lightning. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Jesus. Now, I can imagine, in spite of what people experienced at the Mighty Men Conference, that this episode was much more spectacular and emotional. No wonder Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters–– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
And then God spoke audibly to them: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” In other words, God didn’t want them to remain there, but to return to their normal lives and to obey Jesus in their daily lives.
Knowing human beings, I realise that thousands of people who had been to the Mighty Men Conference will, at least emotionally and in their mind, remain on the farm. In two weeks time they will still be speaking about their experience this past weekend. And, unfortunately, next year they will still be speaking about this past weekend. But in their daily lives, very little will have changed. (Now, I do realise that there are thousands whose lives have changed radically after last year’s and this year’s conferences. I’m not speaking about them and I’m truly thankful for the changes in their lives!)
The only answer that we can give to anyone who responds in the way in which the person writing in the newspaper responded, is to tell him: Evaluate the lives of those who had been to the Mighty Men Conference. Are they living differently? Do they radiate more genuine love? Can you sense that issues which they have struggled with before have been overcome? If nothing has changed, then we probably do have the right to ask the question why people attend these conferences.
I’ve just finished reading Alan Hirsch’s book: The Forgotten Ways. It’s a great book and highly recommended, but be warned: It’s not easy to read. I do most of my reading when I go to bed and I really struggled to work through this book, But it is worthwhile reading it.
In short, Alan wants the church to rediscover it’s true purpose, what he calls mDNA, or the Missional DNA of the church. At the core of the church of Jesus Christ is the desire to reach out to the world. Churches which are not doing this, are acting contrary to how God has wired the church.
I have obviously done a lot of reading on this topic, therefore I can’t say that I had many “aha!” experiences while reading the book. He does however emphasise many things and says it in a way, which, as I read it, I just wished that I could share this with everybody I know.
On page 235 he says something which I have suspected for some time but which he is convinced is the truth. Gordon Cosby, the leader of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., noted somewhere that in over sixty years of ministry, he has never seen that groups which are formed around a non-missional purpose (prayer, worship, Bible Study, etc) ever ending up becoming missional. It was only those groups which intended from the start to be missional (and usually embraced things like prayer, worship and Bible Study) that ended up doing it.
This corresponds with my own experience. It is impossible to calculate how many people have contacted me over the years with a request to get involved in our work in Swaziland. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Hi, we are a cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group from xyz congregation and we have heard about your work in Swaziland. We feel that it is important for us to reach out to others and we would like to visit you to find out how we can assist you.”
Being a fairly positive person, I always invite them to come, but at the back of my mind I know that there is a more than 90% chance that nothing will come from the visit. The reason is simple. To be part of a cell group or Bible Study group asks a small investment of your time: 1 – 2 hours per week. And let’s be honest – these meetings are fun. Coffee and cookies are served. There’s a lot of time for interaction. And after worship and prayer you feel revived and ready to tackle the rest of the week.
Involvement in mission asks much more than that. On most Sundays I leave home at 8 in the morning and return home somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And that’s just for a church service. Anything happening during the week involves a lot of driving – two hours at the very least – entering places which may make you feel uncomfortable, seeing things that are not nice to see, walking in the scorching sun. After their visit these groups have a lot to say about their experience and always promise to come back again, but more often than not we never hear from them again. They will return to their cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group and will probably never return to Swaziland.
If I have to say why this happens, then it boils down to a lack of vision. A group that is formed without a missional vision, will never be able to become missional. They will merely follow their vision and if it is not a missional vision, they will not become missional.
Is there a solution for the hundreds of thousands of cell and other groups meeting all over the world with the main intention to feed themselves (pun intended)? The only solution I can imagine is that the leader of the group make the decision to change the vision. That should not be to difficult as most of these groups do not have an official “vision”. They just follow the leader. But if the leader could convince them to determine their vision (which can be as simple as to answer the question: Why are we meeting every week?) and then convince them that the true purpose of the church lies in its calling to become a light for the world (or whatever other missional metaphor he or she wishes to use), it is possible that, over time, a group like this could really become missional, using their normal weekly meetings to build themselves up so that they could do more outside the church.
But that’s my optimistic side speaking. If I have to be realistic, I doubt whether any significant number of church groups will ever become missional.
Probably one of the most traumatic experiences a missionary can face, is to be informed that his or her support is going to be terminated. It is my guess that this will be happening again as the impact of the global financial crisis starts having greater effect on the income of missionary organisations and churches. Over the past week or so, I’ve received three messages from missionaries or mission support organisations, all mentioning that dark days may be lying ahead. Things like a global financial crisis or a depression are more or less out of the control of the church. I was reading a post today of someone who described how their church had kept on sharing their funds in spite of severely hard times that they went through. People who make faith decisions like this need to be honoured. It is also understandable that individuals who had supported missionaries in the past, may now be faced with the harsh reality that they need to decide whether they will continue with their support or not.
I do not know of a single missions organisation that do not need financial support. Long distances that need to be travelled, the harsh circumstances under which most missionaries are working amongst people who more often than not are themselves barely surviving, the lack of proper schooling, sicknesses and many other issues have the result that finances are needed to support those who are working as missionaries. When it comes to the point of support, I can think of a few things which need to be kept in mind if the work has to continue over an extended period of time.
First of all I think that it is not wise for one individual or one organisation to fund a missions project on their own. Supporters lose interest. Financial circumstances change. A variety of things may occur which makes it impossible for the individual or the organisation to continue with their support. What happens if the supporter dies unexpectedly? What happens if the supporter’s source of income falls away? If a potential supporter is convinced that a missions project is from God, then they need to discuss it with other partners and get them to invest financially in the project in order to establish some form of sustainable support.
Secondly, new projects need to be considered prayerfully and not emotionally. Now, this works both ways. I’ve seen many a project being started due to the convincing arguments given by a missionary. But if such a project is from God and the supporters are truly living in a relationship with God, then God himself can convince the supporters to fund the project. Gather people together to hear whether the new project is really from God. But the argument also has another side to it. I’ve seen many a missions project stopped because the supporters or supporting organisation used equally emotional arguments why the project could not be started. Sometimes a new project has to be started as a leap of faith. As long as we are convinced that it is what God wants us to do, we need not fear to take the next step.
Thirdly, supporters need to realise that they are working with people’s security when they make decisions about support. I once attended a meeting in advisory capacity where the future support of missionaries working in Asia was discussed. The congregation was not going through a particularly tough time, but they did need to do some renovations to their own property. They then suggested that the missionary’s support be cut by 50%. I had trouble to control myself, asking the meeting where they wanted the missionary and his family to cut on their own budget. Their rent was fixed. Water and electricity was fixed. School fees for the children were fixed. The only place where they could cut, was on their monthly groceries. By cutting their subsidy, this family was effectively being told to eat less if they wanted to remain in Asia. The sad news is that the cut was approved. The good news is that individuals then started supporting the family with even more than the reduction in the subsidy.
Financial support for missions is an extremely sensitive issue. I am aware that some missionaries misuse funds. But on the whole, most of them are stretching the funds to cover much more than would ever be possible on the home front. Whether you want to start supporting a missionary or whether you are starting to feel the pinch and considering to withdraw your support, don’t do it without seriously praying about this and discussing options with Christian friends you trust.
I’m recovering again after a hectic week – the reason why my blog-writing has been pushed to the back for a while. On Sunday I flew down to Cape Town where I had been invited to attend a capacity building workshop co-hosted by USAID. Flying back to Pretoria, I stepped into another meeting with representatives of a Christian trust and after driving home I spent a few more hours in another meeting with a NGO which is showing some interest to partner with us in Swaziland.
Up to now I’ve never really been bothered with capacity building. I have more or less a feeling that things are going fairly well with our home-based caring ministry in Swaziland. We have money (not quite enough, but we manage) to do the basic things and I would be satisfied if we can keep this up. So I wasn’t all that eager to attend the conference. But then, before I left for the conference, a friend told me that God might be setting us up for something larger than we have been doing up to now and that we may need more resources to do what He wants us to do. (OK, so that’s not quite what I wanted to hear!) But it changed my attitude to attend the conference with a more open mind.
The overwhelming feeling I had was that most people presenting conferences like these have no idea how rural Africa looks. In most cases the people we work with in Swaziland have no electricity, no water (sometimes a communal tap, but not always), no telephone (although more people are using cell phones), little food (some homes have three meals a week instead of three meals a day!), and a large portion of the people in the rural areas are illiterate.
But then, at the conference, we heard stories of Christians and congregations who are aching to become part of the solution to the world’s problems. People living in affluent communities who feel that they want to start investing their money in ministries deeply involved with the world’s problems – bringing hope and light to those communities. And as I listened to this I realised that there must be a way for those with the resources and those doing the work on grass-roots level to connect with each other. It doesn’t seem right that people are eager to get involved with God’s work on a greater scale and others are looking for ways in which to increase their influence, and these two groups cannot be connected.
But after this conference and the hard work (and we worked really hard in smaller groups), my favourite topic kept coming into my mind: partnerships! In rare cases it may be acceptable for someone with a lot of money to write out a cheque. But that’s not the ideal. We need people to come and look and feel and smell and taste the reality and then sit down with us to think of ways to have an even greater impact on this country – to think of long-term solutions.
So: This is an open invitation to get involved in Swaziland. If you’re part of those people aching to do something outside your own community, send me a note. If you belong to a church longing to do more than merely keeping those inside the church happy, send me a note.
During the recent Courageous Leadership Award ceremony, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, spoke off the cuff when asked to announce the winner of the award. Gathered in the room for the celebration dinner were senior members of the Willow Creek staff, members of World Vision, the three finalists and then quite a number of business people. He said some very inspiring things, challenging each and every person in the room to make a commitment to visit at least one “place of pain” (as he calls it) within the next twelve months. It is true that one has to be confronted with the real need of the world before one can really become inspired to make a difference.
But then he said something which really stuck. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this: “If someone with a keen mind (from a resource church) could link up with someone with a passionate heart (usually in a frontline church), amazing things could start happening.” As I listened to these words, I realised that this may well have been one of the “a-ha!” moments in my life. It made so much sense to me when he put it like that.
People with keen minds are usually focussed on finding solutions. They see a problem, analyse the immediate need, find a solution and very often even supply the solution. Unfortunately, however, this may not be a long-term solution. Very often the solutions involve not only a huge amount of money but also a lot of maintenance. I remember how a group of well intentioned people once visited Swaziland, found that someone they had grown to love had to wash each night in a zinc tub, then built him a shower, complete with petrol pump to transfer water from a container on the ground into another container on the roof of the house, so that he could shower. When I saw this, I just shook my head, knowing that this would only work until the petrol is finished. Or until the pump breaks.
I have often had people coming to visit us with great ideas how the people could start some kind of small business through which they could generate money. But the moment I ask the question to whom they will be selling their products, the answer comes: “To their neighbours!” Well, the only problem with that is that the neighbours are usually as poor as they are. And in the end all that is happening is that the little money within the community is being circulated amongst them. This is not a solution.
The people on the frontline with the passionate hearts are also looking for solutions but are mostly hindered due to a lack of resources. But I find also that we are hindered by a lack of ability to look objectively at a problem. We are so closely linked to the needs of the people on the ground, that it takes great effort to stand back for a moment or two to view the problem objectively and to possibly find a new or better solution. But what would happen if the people with the keen minds could come together with those with the passionate hearts, where both groups interact to find the best long-term and sustainable solutions for the people in need?
Finding ways in which the people could effectively and economically grow their own vegetables, makes sense. But this is a long-term project in which a lot of time will have to be invested if it should work. But people with keen minds may be able to do this effectively. Teaching people basic skills to build and maintain their own homes so that they do not need to pay professional people to do the work, makes a lot of sense. But people with keen minds need to get involved with this. Even setting up a small business makes sense, as long as plans are also in place to sell the goods produced outside the community so that money can come into the community.
Perhaps we need to start praying for more people with keen minds to get involved in finding solutions, not on their own, but together with us who have the passion for the people in need.
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.