The phrase “losing control” tends to have negative connotations. We often use such a phrase when describing someone under the influence of anger, drugs, alcohol, or stress. When we are no longer in control, we tend to gravitate towards disorder or destruction – of ourselves or of others. It is only our maintenance of control that guides our steps along an appropriate, productive path. I would like to suggest, however, that “losing control” gets a bad rap. In our self-focused humanity and our independence-focused culture, I think losing control is actually of the utmost importance.
Up until a few months ago, it really felt like God had helped Catalina and I to relinquish control in just about every sphere of our lives. But then he hit a nerve that hadn’t really been touched before – our children. After moving to Romania, this area of our lives began to get pummeled. Elin struggled so much emotionally and mentally with the move overseas. Our kids have been sick all the time. We had to take Atticus to the hospital for a fever that approached 105 F. Denton was in the hospital for a little over a week for breathing issues, which were particularly significant given that he was only four weeks old at the time. Without having a deep understanding of the culture, the language, or the medical field, we had to deal with this onslaught on our children in an absolutely helpless manner. Yes, we had wonderful teammates, church members, friends, and acquaintances who were able to help us, but our experience was still unnerving at times. We often felt isolated and helpless. That never feels good, but it feels far worse when the feeling of helplessness is about your kids – those precious lives you are tasked with protecting and loving with all your being. When you don’t feel like you are equipped for that job, it tears your heart out.
Nevertheless, this loss of control has been one of the best things God could teach us. My mom’s favorite verse has always been Proverbs 16:9, “The mind of man plans his ways but the Lord directs his steps.” It is very easy to intellectually assent to such a thing, but it’s much different to make your heart actually believe it. God has truly been taking us on a journey that has not only shown us how we have lost control (or more accurately, how we never truly had control), but how we can relish in that loss of control. When we have been in the greatest need, the greatest despair, and the greatest times of helplessness, God has shown up in miraculous ways. Whether it was God providing funding for us to come to Romania, God lifting Catalina out of depression and using that for his glory, God erasing our immense debt through his longstanding plan and timing, God providing for us through the prayers and encouragement of his people, or God providing for and healing our children – God has shown us that he has been and always will be in control regardless of the circumstances and regardless of the outcome.
Though we need to be reminded time and time again, God has shown us how it is an impossibility to rest in our control because we really don’t have any. When we rely on our control, we are dependent upon the perpetual maintenance of our control - a state we can’t ever assure. At one time or another, everyone’s control is destroyed. That is a guarantee. The only rest we can truly find is when we lose control and relish in God’s sovereignty and goodness. It may be true that recognizing God’s control doesn’t assure us that we will always be comfortable or that things will always work out as we desire, but our assurance rather rests in the fact that God is always in complete control and everything he does will ultimately work out for our good (defined as our conformity to Christ) if we are his children.
I’m not at all writing this to declare that losing control is easy. Nor I am attempting to say that if you lose control you will always feel happy and get what you want. What I am saying is that when you lose control, you will find that your sense of peace, rest, and stability tend to increase greatly. It’s hard to avoid such an outcome when you transfer your faith and hope from yourself, a mutable, finite, imperfect creature, to a God who knows all, can do all, and a God who is love.
I believe that Catalina’s and my anecdotal experience is a wonderful lead-in to discussing our pursuit of ministry here in Romania. We came here with the intent to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we can move out to help others, when in reality we have been sidelined time and time again, depending wholly on the grace and help of God and others. We have been ministered to and have done very little ministering. Six months ago, I would have gone crazy. My plans and intent were foiled. I am not making the progress I want to make. I am not doing what I want to do to the full extent that I want to do it. I’ve been taking resources from others and not being of much help. But God has placed us on a path that has continued to humble us and show us a different way.
Right before we moved to Romania, we were introduced to a book in one of our trainings. This book has been transformative for me. In the next few posts I want to describe to you a philosophy of ministry that this particular book highlights – a philosophy to which our anecdotal experience of losing control underscores and affirms. At the core of the proposed philosophy is this notion that God is in control even over our ministry. We must depend fully on him both for the means and the ends of ministry. Ministry is not, at its heart, something we are doing for God, but something God does through us. We often attempt to hijack God’s work in an attempt to put a notch in our belt, but that is not how it should be. As I delve into more details on this philosophy of ministry, we would love for those who pray for us and those who financially support us to understand our experiences thus far, understand some of the intricacies of ministry we’re thinking through, and understand what we are considering pursuing in terms of specific ministries. We’d love for your feedback, your prayer, your encouragement, your wisdom, and your assistance as we continue to work through the specifics of what God is trying to teach us and what he has called us to.
Over the past several years, Catalina and I have thought a lot about what it means to do ministry. Originally, the question began simply by focusing on how we were serving in our local church. As we built relationships and as we grew in our marriage and in our walk with God, we began to question ministry more as it pertained to our larger community. And as we grew more and as our passions and call developed, we began to consider this question of ministry as it pertains to the world. And now, as we have grown even more, we have finally figured it all out…
Not really. When people ask us what ministry we’re going to focus on here in Romania, it raises a small amount of anxiety in me. In one respect, the anxiety builds because as full-time missionaries, your ministry is how you tend to define yourself. It is how others will inevitably judge our success or lack thereof, and it is the place where our eyes will constantly tend to pull our locus for validation, as we struggle to keep our eyes on Christ and our identity in him.
But even before we decide how we’re going to set up shop, the question of ministry is difficult because it encompasses such an endless array of possibilities. How does one choose how to move forward with selecting a ministry? God has gifted us with a set of passions and skills. Do we pursue ministry that embodies these gifts? At the same time, this world and the location in which we currently reside has a specific set of needs. While there may be substantial overlap with some of the needs and our skills and desires, we’ll never find a one to one correspondence. Do we forsake how God has gifted us and go all in to address the needs of this particular community? There are also the gifts and passions of the church. We are not moving to Romania with superior wisdom or spirituality, so as we identify what the local church is already doing here with what they’ve identified as their community’s needs, and using their own corporate passions and gifts – what do we do if the church is doing ministry that doesn’t align with our gifts and passions? Are we to come in here and simply do what we want and begin ministries that aren’t really connected to any native Romanians in the church? Or do we put ourselves aside and attempt to support what the local church is already doing, even if that is a humbling experience, and one in which our perceived abilities and desires can’t meet without God’s help? But before we ever begin thinking about moving outside the walls of the church, there is the community of the local church that we are called to edify. While the church may have some overlapping needs with the community outside the church, they themselves will have their own unique sets of needs and circumstances. Is our ministry to seek the lost, or is it to edify, equip, and grow the church so they can be the hands and feet in the community? If our local church body is in need of edification that may prevent us from moving out because we may first need to strengthen the body within, is our first priority to minister to the body of Christ or to the lost? I’m sure that the answer can be both, but what balance should we seek here and now?
The question of specific ministry seemed much easier to answer from a distance. Now, it seems overwhelming. At junctions such as this, I think it is important to get out of the tall grass, regroup, and survey the landscape anew. I need to figure out what our philosophies and priorities are and what they should be. As we have begun that process, I thought it may be helpful to lay some of our thoughts out for you as you pray for us and as you may find it helpful as you consider how God has called you to minister in his world.
My view of God’s Kingdom has, for almost all of my life, been only future oriented. In one sense, this is a good thing. The future Kingdom of God is what we all look forward to. We want restoration. We want glorification. But at the same time, you can’t read books like Mark, Hebrews, or Ephesians without realizing that Christ didn’t just come to establish a kingdom in the future, he has brought his kingdom here, now. God’s Kingdom will come, but it has come and is coming even as we speak. Christ’s work is finished once and for all, his promised Spirit – which is one of the primary eschatological emphases of the OT - has been poured out on the nations, and even now, his enemies are being made his footstool. Christ reigns now – at this very moment. While I look forward to his final return, he is reigning in power now from his seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
If Christ is ruling in power as we speak, and if he is making his enemies his footstool right now, how has he chosen to do this? Sure, he could snap his fingers and make it so, but we know that God tends to work his ends through the means of his creation. He used a family and their lineage to bring salvation and blessing to the world. He used the mouths of prophets to bring judgment and repentance to his people. So how will God bring about restoration? He has begun to do this through his people by the Spirit of renewal inside of them. Unfortunately, we in the West have come to think of this in more individualistic terms. Because God’s Spirit is in me, what does God want me to do? How can I change the world? But just as God is several persons in one substance, so it is with his people at large. While the Spirit is in each of us individually, God works primarily through community, not individuals. He has chosen to do his work through the church – the hands and feet of Christ. Though the body is made up of individual parts, those parts separated from the body of Christ are nothing.
We need to understand that we are ambassadors of a King and that God’s Kingdom has been established. Our role is to advance this Kingdom in the world. God’s means to accomplish this advancement is the church. For most of us, such a revelation is not good news. We’ve seen, heard of, and have been in enough bad churches to know that if God is using a bunch of contentious, arrogant, fickle, hypocritical, and judgmental people to advance his Kingdom, then his Kingdom is doomed. But then again, such news should bring hope to us, knowing that there is room then for us to be a part of such a kingdom. God has always used foolish means to accomplish his purposes so that there can be no question about how success was brought about. A success through such foolish means as the church can only be attributed to God.
Our job, then, is to not forsake God’s chosen means of kingdom advancement. The building and edifying of the church is our primary focus as we do ministry. Part of this means that we should be seeking to grow the church numerically. We will be moving out into the community to grow the church as we help draw others into the Kingdom. The other part means that we will love and grace those inside the church, as we seek to help them not only remain in the church, but thrive in the Kingdom. While both angles are vitally important for the church and the advancement of the Kingdom, the important link is that all of this quantitative and qualitative growth must be done with the community of the church in view.
It is largely because of this major philosophical approach that we chose to go with our mission board, Mission to the World. We found their view of the church to be absolutely compelling. Every individual sent out into the world through MTW was sent as a church planter, or as one who worked alongside church planters to build the church. This means that wherever an MTW missionary goes, they don’t seek to convert as many people as possible and move on. They don’t just canvass an area for decisions, tally the numbers, and leave. They evangelize and disciple – the latter of which is actually the crux of the Great Commission. We are to make disciples, not decisional converts who profess Christianity for some time but have no communion with Christ or his body. While we agree with MTW’s doctrine and would never deny the importance of having solid doctrine, doctrine alone is empty. There are many agencies and individuals who have solid doctrine about everything under the sun, except the doctrine of the Kingdom of God. They want to accomplish what they perceive to be God’s ends – professed conversions and individuals that espouse a certain set of morals – but they are unwilling to use God’s means. Missions, at times, can become a numbers game. It becomes about the flare of awesome programs and activities. While programs and activities can be a fantastic way to draw individuals in to see a community, they are poor facilitators of a true, deep community. Most of us are fine with this surface level of development. We love our programs. We know that depth brings with it hard things. When we go deep with people, we will see sin and ugliness. We will be forced to choose mercy or hatred - grace or selfishness. We don’t want to be faced with such choices, hence our numeric, program-focused emphasis on conversion rather than discipleship. But it is only the community of the church and this doctrine of the Kingdom that makes all the other doctrines, programs, and activities meaningful, as it propagates them through the lives of converts who are discipled, by the means whereby God has determined that such things be done – his Church. We Christians have a tendency to forsake God’s means in order to better accomplish his ends. We must not forsake his bride that he deems beautiful.
So that answers the question we started out with, right? Our ministry is the church. But what in the world does that mean? Enter Roland Allen. I had never heard of this priest until he and his work (“The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church”) were recommended to us in our final training before moving to Romania. Allen had been a missionary for a short time in China and had become disillusioned with the way missions was done in his time. He not only found that missions tended to be inefficient, but that often times, missions was downright harmful. This view was not at all formed by someone with a liberal view that any attempt to change another’s culture is imperialistic. Rather, it was formed because Allen was so put off with how missions tended to take God and his Word out of the equation. Although the mission’s culture of today is much better in some senses, it is the same, or worse, in others. Though Allen wrote his work in 1927 – nearly a century ago – I found it extremely applicable and convicting for my life today. It has been extremely insightful and has helped as we think through what ministry will look like for us in Romania.
Allen’s main thesis is that the goal of Christianity is the “spontaneous expansion of the church.” Or as I call it, the advancement of the Kingdom through God’s means. While it would be wonderful to just lay out what such a thing looks like, Allen would likely argue that it’s all really pretty simple. You move as the Spirit leads. Unfortunately, such a statement would bring up more questions than answers, and we humans do a fantastic job of trying to fill in the gaps for God. We conflate our feelings and desires with the Spirit’s leading and we call our waywardness God’s calling in order to justify ourselves. So we need more than just this positive assertion of what we are to do. I think it best, then, to look at the negative picture Allen creates of what we should not do. By going that route, it can help us to discern whether the call we feel is the Spirit’s leading or our own leading. Throughout Allen’s book, his primary task is pointing out all of the ways we hinder spontaneous expansion via our means rather than letting the bride run free with her bridegroom. The scope of my writing, then, is to highlight the three major areas in which Allen identifies deficiencies in our missional thinking. Since Allen is eloquent, Oxford trained, British (though the accent doesn’t come through in writing), and from a century ago, I will be doing a lot of lengthy quotations from the book for your reference. What he says is much better than what I say. Even if you ignore everything I have to say, I strongly recommend you read Allen’s own words.
PART 2: OVERBEARING DOCTRINE