Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Macro and the Micro

I don't really understand church planting.

There.  I've said it.

Church planting is a big part of our mission here, one that we've spent a lot of time doing.  So, you would think I would have the process all worked out.  And yet, I still don't get it.  Why one church plant thrives while a different one fails to survive boggles my mind.  There have been times when I've pointed to positive signs in a new church plant, feeling confident that it would take off and grow...only to find it fizzle out a short time later.  And then in other villages, churches have begun in ways so precarious that I've assumed there'd be no way they would make it.  But to my surprise and joy, they've continued to stick it out.

The main factor in the establishment of a church is certainly the Holy Spirit.  But beyond that there are a host of factors involved in whether a church plant makes it over the long haul.  There are countless variables that affect the long-term sustainability of a church.  And most of them are way beyond my control.

There's a village in the district of Chiure that has a solid church.  They have a good leader, they have young and old members, and they built a sturdy church building...but their village is slowly dying.  People are moving away to bigger villages along the main road - villages that have schools.  These are sociological factors that none of us predicted.  One regional leader told me that in five years this village, and by extension it's church, will probably be no more. 

A few weeks ago, my friend Havara passed away.  The church in Ncororo had been meeting at his house.  This Sunday, his widow told us that she was moving to the city to be close to family.  So now this small house church has lost two of its most stable members.  Will anyone step up and lead this body of believers?

Even when I discuss this topic with Mozambican church leaders, people who have planted and led faithfully the body of Christ for years, at some point eventually we all throw up our hands.  There are too many variables.  Success in church planting is a mystery.

Trying to get a handle on this topic takes me back to classes in college - not classes on evangelism and church planting - but my business classes in economics. 

I remember taking Microeconomics.  Now here's a class that makes sense.  We looked at finances on a small level and how faithful management of resources is a good indicator of success.  We named good practices and habits that help individuals or organizations be good stewards. 

But Macroeconomics was a different story.  In this one we tried to understand how complex industries and national economies functioned.  I left that class under the impression that no one really understands macroeconomics.  While most people could grasp economics on a micro level, I came away convinced that only a select few would even come close to being able to consistently predict economic trends on a macro level.

So this is the rubric I've been using lately to help me understand the complexities of church planting - Disciple-Making is to Church planting what Microeconomics is to Macroeconomics.  Or if we put it in the form of an analogy on the SAT test -  

Disciple Making : Church Planting :: Microeconomics : Macroeconomics 

Making disciples is what we've all been commissioned by Jesus to do (Matthew 28).  It is the micro level of discipleship.  We are all called to replicate ourselves and pass on the passions, principles and practices that had been entrusted to us to the people in our sphere of influence.

But, church planting is the outworking of disciple-making on a macro level.  It is the union of followers of Jesus in a specific time and place.  Therefore, it is understandable that not everyone may be called to plant a church, but all of us are called to make disciples.  We may never understand the "macroeconomics" involved in planting a church, but all of us should be able to "get" Kingdom work on the micro level, making disciples - that's the commission that Jesus gave us.
So, while it is frustrating and depressing to think about churches that I have watered that may eventually cease to exist, James Bryan Smith offers this helpful perspective. 

"Churches come and go, but the kingdom is eternal.  Their life, power and reason for existence are in the Kingdom of God, and it will never falter...Communities become other-centered when they are steeped in the narrative of the kingdom of God.  They know that their community is an outpost of the kingdom of God, a place where grace is spoken and lived for as long as it is needed.  The value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love.  The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community." (The Good and Beautiful Community, p. 72-73)

 I appreciate this quote because it reminds us to focus on the big picture as well as on things that we can actually control.  God's kingdom is the big picture.  When we apply that wide angle lens, it helps us not give in to despair when pieces of the picture may not be progressing as we would like.  And Smith  also reminds us to focus on what we can control.  We cannot control how large a church gets or how long a church exists.  But what we can control is the amount of love and service we pour out to those around us.  We can't control the macro, all that we can control is what we do at the micro level.

It is certainly good to study church planting and adapt best principles and practices, but we will never be able fully wrap our minds around discipleship at this macro level.  My conviction is that all of us who involve ourselves in church planting will eventually come to the point of throwing up our hands.  Hopefully, though, when we throw up our hands, it will not be in a spirit of frustration or as an indication that we've given up.  Ideally, when we come to the end of our own understanding of church planting and we throw up our hands - we'll throw them up in worship.  Celebrating the mystery and giving all our confusion and amazement to the One who reigns over all.

May we be a people who faithfully live out the Kingdom life (even if we don't understand it!) on the micro and macro levels.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Heart of Ministry

Over the last few months, there have been a couple of leadership issues in the church that have been very painful for me.  During that same period, as part of a Bible study with a young man I've been discipling, I worked on memorizing 2 Corinthians chapters 2-6.   At one point a few weeks ago, I perceived a real connection between those two things - those leadership issues and that Biblical text.  So, in order to work it out in my mind, I tried my hand at writing a section of Paul's letter from my perspective.  I took the text of 2 Corinthians 6:1-18 and re-wrote it, from my own vantage point and out of our experience in ministry among the Makua-Metto.

As one fellow slave of God to another, I'm begging you not to throw away the generous gift of grace that God has entrusted to you.  As God has said, "When the time was right and you needed it most, I answered the call to save you."  Let me tell you that now is the time - today is that day - the day of salvation.

We've worked hard to not put any barriers up for anyone, conscientious and careful so that this work will not be disqualified in God's eyes or your own.  As good slaves we've tried every approach, every angle to reach you.  In doing so we've had to put up with a number of challenges.  We've struggled to learn your language and culture.  We were falsely accused by human authorities and lived in exile for over a year.   We've endured sickness and sunburn, malaria and dysentery.  And all of it has been for you.

We've been robbed and held at gunpoint.  We've endured scorn and been looked down on by fellow church leaders.  We've had to leave behind family and friends.  Fellow missionaries have abandoned us and trusted colleagues have fallen into sin.  We've worked hard and done our best to bless you.  All of it has been for you.

Although we have been misunderstood and mistreated, through it all God has been faithful.  He has provided for us, fully equipped and sustained us, even in our weakness and imperfection.  By his grace, we have stuck it out.  All of it endured because of you.

And now we are speaking freely and openly with you - don't shut us out.  As a parent might reach out to a child, I implore you, keep your hearts open and soft to us.  Don't abandon this path and join up with Satan.  We are confident in making this request of you because of our firm belief that the life God has to offer is infinitely better and richer. Please, whatever you do, hold on to what is true and real!
For many years, this passage from 2 Corinthians has been a sustaining and life-giving text for me.  I memorized it as part of a Bible study back in college.  And at that time, the testimony of Paul about his ministry gave me a perspective to strive for.  Reading it now, though, after spending over a decade working with our friends here in Mozambique, I resonate more with Paul's desperation and deep longing that the believers he is writing to will hold firmly to what is true.

In this text, I am reminded that the story of one's ministry reveals the heart of one's ministry.  Knowing and claiming that story is a powerful tool in both sustaining oneself as well as uncovering the credibility we possess to minister to the ones that we are called to serve.  

Thanks for reading - I hope this text is a blessing to you, too.

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 2014 Newsletter

Greetings from Montepuez!

The weather here is warming up and the green mangoes dropping onto our tin roof from the tree in our backyard are getting larger and larger - sure signs that a new season is upon us.  We've started using fans at night to keep cool under the mosquito nets and we know that it will only get warmer...  If you need a break from the bitter cold in the northern hemisphere this winter, please come sweat with us in Mozambique!

Life for our African friends has been "hotter" in other ways as well recently.  Just this week, Mozambique held its presidential elections, and leading up to that important event there has been a lot of activity and campaigning.  We've been praying for peace and encouraging our friends to pray for peace, and we have been thankful for relative calm so far as the results have started coming in. 

Over the past few months, Alan has continued to be involved in his regular studies in village churches.    The churches in Chipembe, Nkunama, Omeringue, Ncororo and Namuno clusters continue to study the series of lessons on leadership, and Alan has enjoyed very positive feedback from the series on poverty in Nakuka, Nekhwaya, Khambiri, and Balama clusters.   He has also made a few overnight trips out - he had a great visit to Cuamba to visit Armindo, a young man he has been discipling who is in his first year in college (you can read more about that here), and Alan's visit with the church in Maxoka was positive as well.  The classes he is coordinating with Jeremy for leaders in the Chiure district are starting back up and we're excited about their commitment to disciple and train emerging leaders in those congregations.

Another recent highlight has been Alan's experience of memorizing a large section from the book of 2 Corinthians with Cruz.  This young man is going to secondary school far from his home and Alan has been discipling him for a number of years now.  He has helped start a small church in the village where he is living and it has been enjoyable to watch him grow in maturity and commitment to Christ.  He has a talent for memorizing scripture and Alan does his best to keep up with him!  Memorizing and walking through that text was a great way to help Cruz explore the Apostle Paul's heart for ministry and apply it to his and our ministries as well. 

We also have had some sad news lately.  In the past few weeks two older men who had become Christians in churches in Mirate passed away.  Raimundo was one of the first members of the church in Chipembe and that young body of believers met at his house in the early years.  A loud and colorful character, we have clear memories of Raimundo insisting that he be baptized.  Though his story took a sad turn in the last couple years as serious health problems and conflict with his wife caused him a lot of pain, we were proud to see the church step up and minister well at his funeral.  We lost another friend, Havara, just last week.  His wife had attended Rachel's study in Ncororo for over a year and they both were baptized on the same day back in January.   Havara was a man who exuded calm and was well respected in the community; he had served for years as a school teacher in the village and a few months ago the church moved and began meeting at his house.  Havara was someone we had grown to love and appreciate and it is hard to imagine the church in Ncororo going forward without him.  Since he didn't have any blood relatives in that village, he was buried here in Montepuez, and because funerals are so important in this context, we were really grateful to see the church here in town help out and bless his family even though most of them had never met him.  These events are a great opportunity to show the love of Christ and often other plans have to be put on hold to respond appropriately.  Alan and I figured out that in a span of three days we spent about 15 hours at the funeral or helping out the family.  We are grateful for the way the team and teachers helped out a lot so both of us could be there for Havara's wife Susana; please pray for Havara and Raimundo's family.

A few other projects have been using more of Alan's time lately.  In coordination with the Leprosy Mission, he helped design and develop a series of recorded conversations in Makua-Metto sharing over 50 Bible stories in ways sensitive to a Muslim audience.  Alan was only minimally involved in the recording process, but now that most of them are done, he's been spending his Fridays (while I'm out in a village) listening and marking places that need correction.  We know that the recordings will serve the leprosy self-care groups as well as being a great resource for the churches for many years to come.

The construction of the bridge near the village of Bandar is under way and Alan has worked closely with Will Zweig, a Peace Corp Volunteer and engineer who is heading up the project.  Thanks to generous donations we are fully funded and will hopefully complete the bridge by the end of November (just in time for the rainy season!).  Alan's role has focused on community relations, organizing the labor and transportation of supplies.  Chad and Jeremy have been a big help too, taking cement to the site and lending their construction experience as well.
Not all of our projects to bless our Mozambican friends involve so much of our time, but they can have a big impact.  This year's round of sustainable agriculture seminars is finishing up and participants are getting ready to plant once the rains begin.  The goals of the project are to form 10 associations of farmers using these principals in their communal plots with the end goal of seeing 100 Mozambican families implement them in their own personal farms.  We've heard a number of good reports lately that indicate we are well on our way to meeting those objectives.  Praise God! 

People from Alan's parents' church in Germantown, TN collected reading glasses and sent them over with the interns back in May.  For the last few years, donations of glasses have been a big blessing to our Mozambican friends in the churches and the community.  It is a joy to be able to give away glasses to people and help them be able to read and see well.  We received about 50 pairs and they were quickly given out to friends and neighbors.  About once a week we will have strangers come by the house or stop us on the road and ask us if more glasses have come in.  One of the church leaders commented on how Jesus' power to give sight to the blind continues to be evident as his people share what they have to help others see again.  Giving out glasses is a simple way to bless our friends and they very much appreciate it.  If you would like to know more about helping out in this way, let us know.

At the end of August, we had a meeting of church leaders from all over Cabo Delgado to share the suggestions from our consultant visit by the Huffard and Cox families.  That meeting went well and it was agreed that all of us need to move forward with a plan to recognize deacons in the churches all over the province.  It was also decided that our team should meet regularly with three Mozambican missionaries who serve in this area.  These men and their families come from the "Bible belt" of Mozambique and while we have worked well with them in some ways, there has continued to be a lot of tension in our relationship, mostly regarding one of the men and issues related to finances and support.  We committed to address this issue with them and lay out a process for naming deacons in the near future.  Please pray for the churches in Cabo Delgado.  It seems that we are entering into a new stage of development that is very exciting...albeit one that we want to see bathed in wisdom and unity.     

The three women's groups that I study with are going well; the Chipembe cluster is studying through a booklet of Jesus' teachings and parables, the Newara cluster is studying through a booklet on Jesus' healings and miracles, and the Nekwaya cluster is studying through the Sermon on the Mount.  We've got about two months to go before we pause our studies for the planting season in mid-December.  I love these women and their children, and my prayer is that their roots are growing down deep, like a tree planted near the riverbank. 

Abby, Ellie and Katie are doing well and we are all really enjoying getting to know the new team teachers!  Rosemary Perry and Amber Roe have begun settling in to life in Montepuez and it has been very fun to have them living next door.  We've been talking more with the girls about our extended furlough to the U.S. next year to live in Searcy, AR and serve as the Visiting Professor of Missions at Harding University.  While the three of them are excited about seeing family and making new friends, they also have shared how they'll miss their teachers here and the other team and neighborhood kids.  While we've spent over a decade now (gulp!) dealing with the reality of living far from family and friends in the States, it will be a new experience to have a long stretch over there missing everyone over here in Africa!

In other news, it looks like we will to take a quick trip to South Africa next month.  Abby and I were already planning to go to continue her orthodontist treatment/dental work, but just a few days ago Alan cracked a lost a big chunk of a tooth.  Thankfully he is not experiencing any pain at the moment, but we'll be glad to get that taken care of sooner rather than later.

Thanks so much for partnering with us in this ministry - there is no way that we could do it without your encouragement and support!  

Please pray with us for:

  • God's Kingdom to keep coming here in this place
  • team transitions an relationships
  • Mozambican leadership to be service-oriented
  • good, healthy rainy season starting in December

Grace and Peace,
Rachel, Alan and the girls