Wednesday, March 1, 2017

There is a Season: Discerning the Rhythms of Mission Work

Before we moved to Mozambique, I served as an intern in a campus ministry at the University of Memphis.  I was in grad school and it was a blessing to get to serve in ministry at the same time under Tim Stafford.  One thing he said that has stuck with me and shaped the way I approach our work even today had to do with appreciating the seasons in campus ministry.  Tim believed that by going with the grain of the school calendar, the campus ministry could encounter students where they were instead of merely where we wanted them to be.  So, we organized our efforts this way: the Fall semester was for evangelism, the Spring semester was for discipleship, and the Summer was for mission.  Makes sense, right?

That way of thinking gave me more appreciation for the way seasons shape the life and ministry of the church.  In Mozambique we have one rainy season where everyone is busy in their farms. If we plan a lot of activities for that time period, we are setting ourselves up for failure – people have to be out in their fields a lot because monkeys and elephants in the bush that will eat their crops!  So, our team tries to fit our ministry with the ebb and flow of life.  Right now it’s the rainy season and we don’t travel as much.  Besides an increased danger of getting our vehicles stuck in the mud (!), we realize that people just aren’t as available.  While we still keep worshiping with the churches and having some scheduled meetings, our team is mostly using this year’s rainy season for construction (building a wall on our property) and for curriculum development and translation.  After the busyness of the farming season (Jan-Apr) is over, we enter a time of evangelism and equipping (May-Dec).

This dynamic is often hard to appreciate for short term workers who have come to Mozambique.  They arrive in Africa and expect big things to happen conveniently during their own short stay.  But what they may not grasp is that they may have come at an inconvenient time.  Western culture is no longer an agrarian society, so we may not naturally think in seasons much anymore.  But this forgetfulness is not only a western phenomenon - we know Mozambican church leaders who forget this dynamic and have caused frustration and discouragement.  Just as there is a proper time to plant and sow in the agrarian calendar, we need to be keen observers of the field God has placed us in to work with the church to discern the activities in their proper season.

Getting in Rhythm with the Rhythm

Bruce Miller’s helpful book Your Church in Rhythm: The Forgotten Dimension of Seasons and Cycles has been a blessing to me as I’ve wrestled with this dynamic in Mozambique.  Honestly, I sometimes feel frustrated at the changes in activity level that happen during different times of the year.  Miller’s counsel has been helpful:
“The Bible calls us to both Sabbath rest and sacrificial service.  God’s people are to stop working at times, and we are to work sacrificially at other times.  We are to set aside time to rest and we are to take risks for God.  We are called to be, at times, both Mary and Martha (see Luke 10:38-42).  We sit at Jesus’ feet to learn and we exercise hospitality by “washing feet” to serve (John 13).  The point is not that rest and work are to be kept in balance, but that they are to be in rhythm over time.  Churches are to fast and to feast, but not at the same time!” (p. 142)
“Consider creating an ‘oscillation graph’ for your yearly cycle.  For each month, circle the number that indicates the level of intensity or renewal from a zero point of average energy expenditure and renewal to a high point of five in either direction with intensity at the top and renewal at the bottom.  When do you most intensely expend energy and when are you most fully renewing?” (p. 148)
“There are times to lead your church full blast and times to drink deeply from the water of life to renew strength for the next battle. Oscillate intensity and renewal in each cycle so you yield a large harvest year after year without wearing out before your time is done.” (p. 160)
While some argue for finding balance in ministry.  Miller argues that balance is not the goal. He says,
“The concept of balance is flawed because balance happens in a frozen moment. Yet you cannot pause life to weigh its balance. Your ministry never stops; it is always moving and changing.  There is no DVR remote that will pause church.” (loc. 347) Instead we should try to discern the proper rhythms. “If you ignore rhythm, you can hurt your church by wasting resources on concerns that don’t fit this time in your church’s life. For instance, if you’re a church planter in the early days it’s not the time to develop policy manuals or refined processes.  Much stress and guilt often come from attempting ministry that does not belong in this stage or season. In contrast, if we employ rhythm strategies, we can materially improve the quality of our ministry by releasing pressure and increasing focus.  Churches that seize unique opportunities in a particular ministry rhythm find they increase their impact by focusing on what is timely.” (loc. 301)
Discerning the Rhythms

Once we have accepted the fact that we need to be in rhythm with the seasonal rhythm, we need to begin to appreciate the bigger picture.  Not only are there seasonal rhythms, there are also other stages or cycles at work in the life of God’s people that effect ministry. “Whereas stages are longer periods in the life span of an organization, seasons are shorter periods lasting a few months to a few years.  Churches live through both organizational life stages and ministry seasons.  For example, a stage might be the early years of planting a church; a season could be a capital campaign.  You will learn to recognize what time it is in your church, and then identify your own stages and seasons.” (loc. 422)

Miller uses two Greek words for time to help us understand what is happening.
“One way to understand the difference between kairos and chronos is to contrast the rhythms of the sea with the rhythms of the sky.  The ocean has patterned but unpredictable, noncyclical rhythms to it.  Sometimes the sea is calm; at other times waves crash onto the beach.  Even with all our modern technology, we still cannot fully predict the sea’s rhythm.  We can be surprised by a tsunami that destroys a coastline or by a wave that knocks us off our feet while we’re wading in the surf.  The sky is different; it has a rhythm to it.  The planets and stars move in cyclical, predictable patterns.  We can look to the sun to know what time of day it is.  The moon tells us what time of the month it is. The lengths of days and nights, tied to the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, tell us what season it is.  The stars tell us the time of year. We live rhythmically by both following the sky’s patterns, which form our chronos rhythm (cycles), and by riding the sea waves of our Kairos rhythms (seasons).” (p. 20)
I would add that beyond the rhythms of sky (seasons) and sea (church stages), there is also a third dynamic at play.  We need to appreciate what time it is in the life of the sailor/missionary.  The stage that the minister is in will also effect the seafaring as he or she discerns the appropriate place on the boat and how to be appropriately active in raising the sail or allowing other sailors (maybe some that are still learning their craft) to take the lead.  Appreciating all three dimensions, or times, can help us move forward effectively. 

We could switch metaphors here and think about the three hands on a watch. The “hour hand” stands for the time or stage in the life of the church, the “minute hand” is the season of life of the missionary, and the “second hand” is the season of the year currently.

Here are a few questions for missionaries to think through with local ministry partners in order to help accurately “tell time”:
  • Sea / “Hour Hand” - What stage is the church in?
    • What events in the past are currently shaping this community?
    • What potential events are on the horizon for this community?
  • Sailor / “Minute Hand” - What season is the missionary in?
    • What tasks are the minister physically and spiritually prepared for?
    • Are their potential personal transitions that should effect the way ministry tasks should be engaged at this time?
  • Sky / “Second Hand - Are their seasonal factors that inhibit or enhance ministry possibilities?
    • When would people here be most receptive to hearing the gospel? or participate in ministry training?
    • How are people available?  Are there certain times of the day or night that they would be more receptive?
    • Are there parts of the liturgical year that make people more receptive? For example, because of some of the historic Catholic influences in one of the areas we work, people may be more interested in joining the church around Easter…

As an aside, I want to note that Miller makes some great observations about the importance of liturgical rhythms:
“Liturgical Christians have long benefited from an annual rhythm built into the church year.  Whether they use these terms or celebrate on the same day with the same ritual, all Christian traditions recognize Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  In her wonderful book The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (2008), Kimberlee Conway Ireton contrasts the value of following the church year with our American cultural calendar: ‘Observing the seasons of the church year also helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s. Our culture’s calendar is grounded in capitalism, which requires consumption.  Back-to-school sales, day-after-Thanksgiving sales, the Christmas shopping season, after-Christmas sales, Valentine’s Day… The church year, on the other hand, is grounded in the story of Christ, which is the foundational story of our lives as Christians.  It tells the story of our faith-the grand and sweeping story of the God who came to live among us as one of us. (pp. 13-14)” (p. 130).
Serving in ministry cross-culturally means that we need to be even more sensitive to the ways that seasons and stages affect the life of the church.  That will happen best in conversation with local partners to understand how best to bless and serve the people of God.

May the God who has our times in his hands (Psalm 31:15) help us to “tell time” well as we minister and work for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom!

Grace and Peace,


1 comment:

  1. I love this post! I grew up on a farm and our lives were in total rhythm with the seasons. If we could all recognize the value of these rhythms and seasons in our lives it might ease a ton of frustrations. No one should go full tilt year round. This makes me think of waiting for the Spirit to lead us. This waiting should be a relaxed time of communion with our Father but we often make it a tense time of irritation. It is a lifetime of learning to put aside our own will and be true followers!