Allen’s thoughts align very well with what God has been teaching Catalina and me. While we are organized, goal driven, intellectual, philosophical, theological people – God has put those things asunder time and time again. Those things we love, which can be great goods if we make them a means, are terrible ends. But all too often, we end up placing the aforementioned things before God and believe that we are implementing them and using them for him. In reality, we end up subverting God’s means and ends so that we can maintain our methods and our control.
1. Discipleship and connecting individuals to the church is the focus. We want to pursue that which will build and edify the church. Whatever ministry we choose should connect individuals to the church.
Right now we are looking to pursue either university ministry or mercy ministry. Both of those have some pros and cons as far as connecting individuals to the church. We have talked with a lot of people about university ministry, and one of the main problems there is that turnover is high. If you introduce someone to the church when they are a freshman, assuming they aren’t from the immediate area, you will only have them as a part of the local church for four years. Certainly our goal is the church universal. We don’t need to pad the stats of our local church. But at the same time, a big part of discipleship is growing your community. We have a responsibility to those whom we disciple and don’t want them to just leave after four years without our influence. We also have a responsibility to our local church to ensure that we are investing in something that will build the community – in depth and size. If many congregants are leaving after a few years, this makes community difficult.
On the other hand, mercy ministry is strong where university ministry is weak. While university students are very transient, it seems that those in financial need here aren’t nearly as mobile. Though a large number of Romanians do find work in other parts of Europe and send money home to Romania, this work is often short-term, and their support base is located here in Romania with the core of their family holding down the fort. But while transiency isn’t as much of a concern with mercy ministry, the opposite can become a problem. Those in need may often attempt to find a cash cow that can sustain them with as little effort as possible. You may be able to draw into church those who have needs if you provide for them, but their motives may not be appropriate. Of course improper motives can be a problem with anyone, but when you’re figuring out how to allocate funds and programs, how to best help the needy community, how to protect the church, and how to disciple and hold individuals accountable – such an undertaking can be quite difficult, and draining on the church with little edification. And above all, we want to take Allen's cautions to heart here and avoid making secondaries the primary focus. We want to help those in need, but we want to keep the gospel at the forefront. How do we meet needs while emphasizing the gospel as primary?
2. Connecting the national church to the ministry is vital to a vibrant church.
While making disciples is the main goal, it is important that we disciple individuals in the context of the church. The church is the body of Christ to which all Christians are to be connected. As we seek to make disciples, then, it is imperative that we don’t just go do our own thing. Whatever ministry we pursue would ideally be more organic. It would either directly support or piggyback on a ministry that already exists in the church, or a passion that is present in some congregants. Now you might say, “but you are a part of the local church, so whatever ministry you do would originate from the church.” While that is true in a sense, you have to remember that our goal is to plant self-sustaining Romanian churches. We want to connect Romanians with other Romanians and we want this church to thrive without our presence. When we return to the States on Home Ministry Assignment, or when we leave to plant another church, we don’t want our ministries to fizzle. We don’t want to leave those being discipled stranded. The only way to do that is to make sure that our ministry is really the national church’s ministry.
3. Figuring out if ministry means supporting the body or outreach to unbelievers.
Here is one of the real conundrums we’re facing at the moment. One of the things that excited us the most about full-time missions was that our schedule could be set around ministry. One of our big frustrations in the states was that we would spend 9 hours at work, three hours with our kids before they went to bed, then a few hours doing any extra house work or school work before we went to bed. Once we had kids, we had so little time for each other that it was hard to scrape together any time to be actively focused on ministering to others.
So now we’re full-time missionaries. Our job is to minister to others. We want to come alongside members of the church and get to know them as we support them in ministry outside the walls of the church. The problem is that right now, many in our church are tapped out. There are some pretty big external events going on in the lives of some of the congregants here. For them to think about taking time out of their schedules to get to know us, show us the ropes, and then do ministry they’ve already had to cut back on significantly – it’s just too much. Now we have the time but others don’t.
We’re faced with a dilemma. Do we move forward and do our own thing – which as I stated in #2, seems like a very bad idea? But at the same time, I think the notion in the minds of most who are supporting us is that missions and ministry here means sharing the gospel with others. That’s the primary job of a missionary. So what do we do? Do we move forward with our own ministry even if it’s not connected to Romanians in the church and if our leaving would strand the disciples? Or do we patiently wait to move out in ministry to the lost, focusing more on stabilizing the church? Perhaps focusing on ministering to those in the church who are in a difficult season would be the best course of action. Right now, we just don’t know. We have a few months to really sift through this before we have to take any major steps, but it is a difficult choice. Please pray for our wisdom!
4. Forgetting our gifts and passions and identifying the gifts and passions of those in the church.
I find it rather amusing now that our whole initial presentation prior to moving to Romania was about how our passions and gifts fit with what we thought were the needs here in Romania. While what we said was totally true, what we failed to understand prior to being here is that ministry has much less to do with us than we thought. I remember having a conversation with Derek Ebbers just a few months ago where he essentially said the same thing – that pretty much all God had gifted him with in the first 30 years of his life meant nothing over here. All Derek does is serve the church, do what they need him to do and be where they need him to be.
I certainly think that our background may have a future impact on our ministry. But at least in this season of the church, our giftings aren’t really what is needed. Right now we have some congregants who really need to feel God’s love and joy as they face difficulties in their lives. It is a hard season for them. They need to feel the peace of God’s presence. We a couple sets of new parents who need patience as they figure out how to navigate being a parent in this culture, through the financial concerns children bring here, etc. Right now we have several beggars who know us who constantly ask us for things. They need us our kindness to them – to look them in the eyes like nobody else will, and recognize the image of God in them, even if we say “no” to giving them things. But they also need our goodness – our gifts of mercy and grace and our example of Christ. They need us to give them a chance. To stick with them. To offer them work or to sit down with them and get to know them. They need us to do this with gentleness, as their upbringing and their run-ins with those outside their community have likely been hard and has made them calloused. And finally, we need to have the self-control to structure our lives so that we can move out into the world with all of these God-given qualities. We need to be bathed in prayer and scripture. We need to reign in our desires in discipline. We need to have a Kingdom minded focus all the time.
It’s funny, but sad, that our initial, primary focus on our qualifications and call to serve here in Romania was on who we were. While I don’t think looking at the needs of the world and taking into consideration our gifts and passions is bad, how much better would it have been for us to focus on the fruits of the Spirit? Our theological background, our educational background, and our love for the mind may come in handy at times. But in the day to day battle for souls – our own included – it really has so little to do with the external.
In his book, Allen really pushes back against our emphasis on doctrine, programs/methodology, and morality. Those are all fantastic things. Doctrine helps us to understand who God is, though we tend to divorce doctrine from experience and make it about what God is and how God works. While “what” and “how” may sometimes be within the scope of doctrine, true doctrine is always about “who.” We serve a personal, living God to be known, not an object to be dissected. We often discourage others from getting to know the person God because they don’t yet know our preferred structures and categories. God becomes knowledge.
Methods help us to identify targets, sowing our seeds opportunistically and bypassing those who may not be as open to the gospel or our incentives to hear it. Its focus is efficiency. While we need to be good stewards of resources, we often teach people through our methods and programs that God is powerless without human intervention. Based on probabilities, God can or will only save certain people through the use of certain tactics. Where we inanimate God with our doctrine, methodology castrates God. He becomes an impotent figurehead for our own endeavors. We don’t need the Holy Spirit when we have statistics and marketing.
Finally, our emphasis on morality is well-founded. While we understand that we are saved through God’s grace, the Bible is clear that those who endure to the end will be saved. Our works are evidence that God is truly transforming us. They are a sign of spiritual life. But the morality to which we hold others is often a contrivance of our own culture, and/or an expectation devoid of the very grace and mercy that saves us. All too often we hold others to a Western standard rather than God’s standard, putting a fence around the law of God and Pharasaically placing the shackles of the law back on the freedmen and women of God. And where we do hold to God’s standard, we often expect immediate conformity to some of the laws that are most in conflict with the culture to which we go. Often, our strict conformity to God’s standard ironically makes us opposed to his standard, as we implement the letter and miss the heart.
Catalina and I love doctrine, methods, and morals. We came to Romania to do ministry thinking that we had a lot to offer in helping others through all that we had learned. But what we are learning now is that what is likely more needed of those in ministry – of all Christians who seek to push back against the curse in the world – is that we make sure we are stepping into a relationship with the living God. The things the world needs most are the fruits that only a deep relationship with God can produce in us. And as God equips us to love his church and to be his body, others will fall more in love with this God, and those who don’t know him may come to know him. Only when that happens will we be able to use the gifts God has given us to describe this encounter with the person of God.