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,

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