Monday, January 30, 2017

Missions and the Middlegame of Chess

During the holidays our friends, the De Kruijffs, came to Montepuez for a visit.  At one point, I sat on the couch while Arie was teaching one of my daughters how to play chess. He described how there were three parts to the game.  There’s the opening - where you get your chess pieces in position.  The middlegame - where you work to add pressure and attack weaknesses.  And the endgame – where, as multiple pieces have been removed from the board, the players are able to focus on the main objective.

The middlegame is often considered to be the most difficult because… well… there are more opportunities to mess up.  Musgrove observes that in the middlegame there is “always the possibility and probability of overlooking a sharp tactical line or a subtle strategic move.” A common piece of wisdom about the real challenge of this stage is that one “must play the middlegame like a magician and the endgame like a machine.”

As I listened to Arie’s descriptions, I was first hit by the significance of “middlegame” awareness at the personal or micro-level - one’s own life and ministry. As Handley 
notes: “Those of us in this middle season of life,” need to be sure to “get our game face on and do well during the Middle Game. That way, as we lean on Christ, we will finish well.”

But it also struck me that understanding the middlegame is also extremely important for appreciating what's happening at the macro-level as well.  Much of missions training focuses on the opening game (the incarnational aspects of learning language and culture when moving to a new context) and the endgame (the goal of missions to cultivate healthy communities of faith that will continue to grow and flourish), but in many important ways - where the contest is actually won or lost is in the middlegame - that messy part where the “ideals” of strategy often give way to the “reals” of confusion amidst the whirl of regular activity.

Reuben Fine’s book, The Middle Game in Chess describes the three key elements of the middlegame: force (or material), mobility (or freedom of movement for the pieces), and King safety (p. 3). These aspects are not necessarily of equal importance and a major advantage in any one of them can benefit or strengthen the position of the others.

Here, in the 13th year of my ministry in Mozambique, it seems that we are somewhere between the middlegame and the endgame.  And as I reflect on our team’s own “middlegame” season of ministry in Fine’s terms, here are some of the ways I believe we’ve addressed his three middlegame essentials:

1. Force (or material – pieces that are equipped to engage the enemy) – I’ve written about the “Giants” here and here.  The Giants of Drunkenness, Magic, Unfaithfulness, Poverty and Ungodly Leadership are the forces that work to oppress the Makua-Metto people.  Naming them, talking openly about their destructiveness, and teaching on how to deal with them has been a way to bring them out of the shadows and equip the church (God’s local mission force) to engage them effectively. 

2. Mobility (freedom of movement for the pieces) – A few years back we had a consultant visit that helped us see the need to intentionally address how the churches were organized (what they called “Structures of Continuity”).  The leadership structure of the churches at that time was not arranged in a way that allowed the local leaders to serve and lead effectively.  They didn’t have the space or mobility to use their gifts well.  That recognition and the removal of a toxic leader, liberated us move to a different and very rewarding model of leadership.  For more about how the leadership structure among the churches is working, changing, and where it is hopefully heading, see this post.  

3. King safety – Making disciples of Jesus is the great co-mission that we have been called to (Matt. 28).  For more on discipling in our context see here, here and hereBy making real disciples of the King, the work is fortified and strengthened in a way that is unassailable to the forces of Darkness.  The safest way to protect the King in the middlegame of missions is to make as many copies of the King in as many places as possible.

As I was doing some research into the idea of the middlegame and missions, though, I came across a quote that led me to a different line of thinking. Hosen poses a question about how to notice the difference between an endgame and the middlegame?  In response he says, “Let's call it, ‘When the King becomes active.’” Ultimately the point of the middlegame is as a setup for the endgame…  And that’s where my analogy for missions and the middlegame breaks down.  Our King is always active and working towards his endgame throughout every single stage in our own personal time as a piece on the chessboard.  That’s the real, meaningful connection point… where our middlegames blend into God’s endgame.

May God use our middlegame to bring about His endgame – the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Times They are A-Changin': Leadership and the Church among the Makua-Metto

I spent this past weekend in Balama with my fellow American and Mozambican missionaries along with another dozen or so deacons and church leaders.  Every other month we meet together to pray, plan and process what is happening in this network of churches.  The missionaries and deacons (that were chosen to serve in the area of communication and collaboration for their respective church clusters) have been meeting like this since the middle of 2015.

This past meeting, we arrived at about 1pm on Friday and met until 8pm that night and then started up the next morning at 7am and finished at about 11am for everyone to go home.  We end up covering a big range of topics and issues facing the churches.  This weekend, for example we…

  • heard a confession of sin by one of the deacons who was then given encouragement and counsel by other deacons
  • looked at maps of each district with the locations of all the churches (the network has grown from around 50 churches to over 70!) and decided together how to divide up the current clusters and form new areas (once this all takes place we will go from 11 clusters to 18 or 19!)
  • discussed the current state of church registration
  • learned how two different areas make their own communion bread
  • committed to and discussed how each church cluster (typically 3-5 village churches) would meet and worship together every month
  • discussed how to handle a donation of mosquito nets
  • processed through a problem with a new couple’s marriage and how it should be handled
  • heard the story of ongoing problems with a rogue church leader and how one village church is handling it.

My part in the program was a presentation I’ve called: “When Having a Bad Leader is Good.” I shared what I had learned from interviews with church leaders about the rogue church leader and what we as a group have learned from watching his negative example for so long. We processed how paying attention to his negative example can make us better leaders.  The group explored the difference between “worldly leaders” (who are focused on staying on top) and “servant leaders” (who welcome the help of others to lead and serve the church). Ellie’s drawings were a big help and a huge hit!

And we finished by looking at a timeline of different leadership stages or seasons in the life of the church in Cabo Delgado.


Right now we are in the second season: shared leadership between the deacons and the missionaries. Our current structure is working pretty well, but it is not how we want to be long-term.  We keep pointing to the day when the churches will have their own elders.  That will change the role of the missionaries and move us into a different kind of engagement.  It is exciting, encouraging and sometimes a little scary to experience changes in church leadership, but it has been a blessing to have a front row seat to what God is doing all over this Province.

May God bless the church with godly leaders and keep changing and transforming how we work together for the good of His Kingdom!

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Happy New Year from the Tropics

Happy New Year from the Tropics!

November and December have been HOT, and the rains started almost a month late, so if you’re too cold where you are, please come visit us over here!  It’s a busy ministry time since it is the end of the dry season; sometimes there is a feel of a rush to the finish line to squeeze in certain visits or studies before some roads become unpassable because of mud. 

Alan has continued his normal ministry activities with visits out to churches and meeting with the deacons that are collaborating the work on the Provincial level.  Our teammate, Jeremy Smith, organized a census of the churches, and while these numbers are still being finalized, the network of churches we work with has added about 20 new faith communities over the last year or so. This is of course both exciting and challenging as we work with church leaders to both encourage and disciple them well and to empower them to encourage and disciple others. 

The Sustainable Agriculture program went well this last year; Alan, Gonรงalves Ignacio, and Jessica Markwood recently visited the strongest 10 farming associations in this ministry.  They were able to see their collaborative sites and encourage the members to implement the practices in their own personal farms. The most exciting report was from the church in Mutota (Chiure) whose farming association produced enough last year to buy tin sheets and lumber to put a metal roof on their church building (instead of the temporary grass roof). While visiting the three farming associations in the district of Balama, they also dropped off copies of the recently printed “Seven of Paul's letters” (Ephesians, 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), in the Makua-Metto Bible translation that is in process. The groups were excited to receive both kinds of “seed;” it's great to have more of the scriptures translated and printed, and we look forward to even more in the coming year.

In our last newsletter, we described the inaugural “semester” of our Bible School; the final numbers from 2016 added up to 84 total course completions, consisting of about 45 different students from six different denominations.  We are thankful for such a great start, and our team is currently planning for 2017.  The goal is for the school to aide deeper church growth, and over the next few weeks we will schedule out the classes for this year’s semesters and decide on what construction projects to undertake to help with the school logistics. 

As many of you know, in 2014 Alan worked together with our friend and Peace Corps volunteer Will Zweig to build a pedestrian bridge over the Montepuez River. Over the past two years the bridge has blessed many, many people; at least once a week someone stops Alan to comment about it.  Will came back for a visit in October, and he and Alan discussed some minor maintenance the bridge needed (varnishing the boards and putting a permanent slab on the larger of the two ramps).  In December, then, Alan worked with a crew to get the maintenance finished before the rains made it too difficult to get down to the bridge site with a car.  The crew was able to mix all the cement and pour the whole slab and then a few days later open the bridge back up for pedestrian traffic (a lot of people were anxiously waiting).

Since our last newsletter I had several women’s ministry events as we wrapped up the dry season.  My teammate Martha and I went with a handful of women from Montepuez for three days to two locations in the Namuno district to worship and teach and learn with the women in churches down there.  It is so healthy and fruitful for women from different villages and towns to get together; the fellowship and dialogue they share is deeply encouraging as they tell their own stories of beginning to follow Jesus, learning to leave their old lives behind, breaking off practices of witchcraft, and even some experiences of persecution from their families.

We invited the women from the churches in the Mirate Post (who I study with regularly through the dry season) to come down to Montepuez for an overnight “retreat” time together. 37 women from north of Montepuez came down, along with 10 women from town, to worship and fellowship together.  We had to improvise our plans a bit since that afternoon was our first rain of the season; I had to stop my teaching session since no one could hear over the thunder, and later after the meal when I finished the lesson I ended up preaching in the rain, which was a first for me.  So we were all already a little wet, and then as it was getting dark the power went out, and after that of course the generator broke.  But electricity isn’t required for worship - everyone had fun singing together in the dark and partly by flashlight, even though we were damp, and we were all dry by the next morning.

Martha and I also went with women from town to meet with women from churches in the Balama district for two days for worship and fellowship and teaching time.  The Namuno and Balama districts have experienced a lot of growth in the past year – a handful of new churches and several hundred baptisms – and it’s mutually encouraging for groups to get together, meet each other, worship together, and share stories – especially women since usually they don’t get to travel as much as men.

Thanks to so many who have been praying for our team’s residency documents; all the confusion that the toxic ex-church leader caused was making our process more complicated.  Thankfully, even though we have not received a formal declaration that we are in the clear, our team’s documents are being stamped again.  Paraphrasing what our teammate Martha Smith noted, “God may not have given us a bakery (an announcement that we have been officially cleared), but God continues to give us our daily bread (renewed work permits).”

It seems that the network of churches is moving into a different phase.  While we have dealt with a couple of painful cases of unfaithfulness or setbacks among close disciples, overall the majority of the movement and its leaders are trending towards maturity and stability.  There have been several situations recently where church leaders met on their own to resolve complicated issues without input from our team, and these are good signs about the faithfulness of God in their lives and the progress of the work.

Celebrating holidays in Mozambique is a little different for our family than when we were in the US.  For starters, it’s crazy hot, and Christmas isn’t really celebrated much in this culture, so there aren’t a lot of reminders like elevator music in stores or advertising with holiday themes.  So we try to make it special – we went to the beach for a weekend, decorated Christmas cookies, worked on ridiculously hard puzzles, ate Christmas cookies, and went hiking with spunky friends in Balama.  This year our family started a weekly Advent worship during December to focus on the season of the world’s waiting for the Incarnation of Christ, and we exchanged gifts with our teammates during our annual Christmas Eve party.  We were sad to be so far from family when Alan’s grandmother passed away the Tuesday after Christmas; in the same week I came down with my first case of malaria, and also our dog died suddenly.  While we ended 2016 with some sadness, we look forward to seeing what God will do in us and in you this year.

Please pray with us:

  • for depth for the church members – that believers who have said yes to God and chosen baptism to not stop there but to daily commit to following Jesus as a disciple
  • for leaders to disciple those in their care
  • for healthy rains to grow healthy crops

May God’s love transform us all deeply,
Rachel and Alan