Where to send people

03 Nov 2023

Shane Bennett (editor of Muslim Connect, a brief, weekly, practical and occasionally humorous email that will help you better understand and connect with Muslims) asked me, “if you had 10 sharp young people to deploy in any missions role or location, where would you put them?”

Part of my answer to this question would depend on where these ten were from. Are they American, or non-American, for example? Their passports might help determine the parameters of the answer (see previous essay on Passport power). Setting that obvious caveat aside, I’d lean toward finding a way to place them with a handful of movements, for a year, to simply strive to find better ways to be truly servants.

It is easy to identify a few surface areas where a Westerner could ‘serve’ a movement—as a Westerner understands ‘serving.’ Instead, I’d like to have them go deeper, and use this striving and experimentation to begin to answer the question of how we in the West can better serve non-Western non-traditional Christian structures like movements, as a non-Westerner might be willing to serve.

I’d ask them to work on, ask about, listen, journal, reflect, consider — not on the tactics of service and collaboration, but the mindset and attitudes of true service and collaboration.

I’d want them to avoid the idea of “I’m serving you as a form of leadership” or “serving you so that you notice I’m serving and ask me to a higher table” or “I’m serving you as a sort of bucket list pilgrimage activity.” I’d ask them to pursue a real, honest mindset of truly serving with no intent of advancement. One in which they stopped “offering to serve” in specific ways, and decided to “offer their service” instead.

This is hard, but needed. The reality is the center of gravity of the Christian world has been shifting from the West to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Rapidly multiplying movements are exponentially growing throughout these same regions, increasing the speed of these shifts. Those who want to serve where the church is growing fastest, must generally serve in contexts and through Christian ecclesiastical and apostolic structures that are very different from what we experience in the West. The skills and capacities we normally think of when we “offer to serve” in a church are not necessarily needed here. Their daily lived reality presents very different questions, answers, paradigms, and modes of thinking.

There are men and women in Africa who are leading structures with hundreds of thousands and even millions of believers in them. They don’t need us to counsel them with best practices learned from churches that have some hundreds or thousands of people in them. But doing the hard work of demonstrating that we are sincere in our desire to serve, in whatever way is best, can take quite a lot of time. Many Westerners seem to be more interested in cutting to the chase and offering to partner with ministry leaders in Africa and Asia.

There’s nothing intrinsically evil about being a “partner,” but I’m starting to build up an allergy to the term nonetheless. I’ve seen “partnerships” founder on the shoals of poor cross cultural communications and impatience. I’ve seen them crash and burn on the spikes of ROI, efficiency, and forms of control presented under the guise of accountability and evaluation. “Partnerships” can take on difficult, relationally dangerous, dependent, even directorial-dictatorial forms.

I want our 10 sharp young people to humbly seek something that is, in my mind, a deeper relationship—to put some effort into exploring how that might be sparked or sown or fertilized. We want to “partner”; they ask if we will be brothers and sisters. How can we seek that?

A sibling or “cousin” relationship is very different from a business partner relationship. Questions of time, resources, money, authority and the like are viewed very differently through a familial lens. I’d ask our ten spiffy young people when, in the year, did they stop being whatever they thought they were, and start seeing themselves as someone with so very much to learn, someone who was willing to do whatever they were asked to do, someone who just wanted to serve this great thing God was doing in this place.

If they could do that, then how might we learn from the ten, and then put more people in a position to have the same kind of mind shift?

Maybe it’s too much to ask. One movement tells Westerners that if they want to work with their people, they have to be willing to obey, and willing to die. I don’t know that they’ve had any takers.