Team or church?

Erin and I had an interesting conversation about our church planting team along these lines. Is there a difference between team and church? We often assume the two play by different rules, but is that how God sees it? Something changes in my mind when I start calling our team our church instead. I find it easier to want the Spirit to lead us rather than grasping for control.

I have a hunch that one day when we know how God sees things, we’ll be surprised. I think we’ll find He never saw a team when He looked at the group of us in Mexico, He only saw a church. I bet we’ll find He never saw Young Life or Campus Crusade or Jews for Jesus, either. He only saw churches.

I can’t think of who to credit (can anyone help me?), but I know I’m not the first to say this: One day, the current church/parachurch distinction we have today will be viewed as an anomaly in church history.

Going a step further, when God looks at our family, does He see a church? What changes if I think of my family as my first and most important church body?

I’m enjoying looking at everything through the lense of church. I’m not talking about the big institution, I’m talking about two or more gathered with Christ as the head and roles and gifts of the Spirit distributed according to the Father’s will.

How about you? What groups could you consider churches? What changes if you see them that way?

This is church

A few nights ago our team got together.  We sat around on couches in our living room.

We caught up on things that are going on in each of our lives.

We examined passages of Scripture together.

We were greatly encouraged as we shared different visions and prophecies that God has been giving.

We prayed together.

We took communion together.

We encouraged, prayed for, and prophesied over a team member who was trying to discern God’s will in difficult personal circumstances.  God gave her direction and she has since acted according to it.

Our time together didn’t incorporate every possible expression of church life, and it’s not nearly the only model for church.  It is church, though.  Church is not a building, and it’s not a meeting – it’s who we are.  I love the edification that takes place when we meet together with our church family.

The importance of economics

I’m increasingly convinced economics are a key to the spiritual transformation of our region.  A few thoughts:

  • The Bible talks more about money than any other subject except love.  It talks more about money than about heaven and hell combined.
  • The indigenous people here are in bondage to a spirit of poverty.  That doesn’t just mean they’re poor.  It means they stay poor because they have very little belief they’re capable of helping themselves.  Five hundred years after the Spanish conquest, they’re still a conquered people.  They largely have a mentality that other people owe them something.  Instead of taking initiative to improve their situation, they wait for handouts from the government and from charitable groups.  It’s a spiritual bondage.
  • In many villages, 50% (or more) of working age men are in the U.S. because the villages have no economy and most jobs in towns like ours don’t pay enough.  The men stay gone for years at a time.  This is having a devastating impact on the region.  Wives are trying to support and raise families as single parents, and thousands of kids are growing up without fathers.  Very young kids are being left at home alone for hours at a time while Mom works.  In many cases, a husband starts a new family in the U.S. and never returns.
  • This area has a wealthy class of small business owners who are doing quite well, but they don’t pay their employees enough to live on.  This is a spiritual problem (James 5:1-4).
  • What economy this region does have (because it’s not in abject poverty) is a house of cards.  It is entirely dependent on outside sources, those being government handouts and money earned in the U.S., Canada, or other parts of Mexico.  When the world economy collapses, our region will take it on the chin unless it begins to utilize its own natural resources more effectively.  (This is difficult, because the government owns rights to most of the natural resources.)
  • The villages are built on agriculture, but the agriculture is not doing well.  Corn is the king crop, yet villages are buying corn grown in other places from the government at subsidized prices.  The agriculture must improve.
  • Most churches in the region gravitate strongly to a model of having paid clergy (which is perfectly biblical).  The trouble is pastors aren’t getting paid nearly enough to support a family, so they’re leaving their churches to work in the U.S. and the churches are then falling apart.  One issue here is the churches believe they can’t be obedient in giving due to their poverty – another spiritual problem.  See the example of the Macedonian churches, whose “extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:1-4).
  • The other issue is the churches thinking their pastors should do all the work of the ministry since they’re being paid.  This is NOT biblical (Ephesians 4:11-13).  While churches are growing in obedience in giving, pastors could get more people involved in ministry and remove a huge stumbling block for the people by supporting themselves – IF they had good jobs with which to support themselves.

Those are some scattered thoughts; things that burden me as I look at our region and things that are affecting what we do.  If you’ve wondered where projects like a well drilling business fit into our church planting ministry, the above points are some of the pieces to the puzzle.

corn field

Books for beginning missionaries

I’m hardly a seasoned veteran yet, but I’ve now spent over five years learning some of the basics of mission work and helping a lot of new apprentices on the field.  In that time, I’ve developed the following working list of books I think are great for new cross-cultural church planters to read.  This list doesn’t represent an exhaustive library of missiology, and I think certain vital elements are better taught through discipleship than books, but I think these are a great start, hitting on many of the most important issues:

  • A Vision of the Possible by Daniel Sinclair – This is a good book for a team to read before going on the field as it gives a great overall roadmap for cross-cultural church planting.  It’s very practical, dealing with such issues as team formation and leadership, preparation, entrance and residency, language learning, spreading the gospel, discipleship, raising leaders, and church multiplication.
  • Bonding and the Missionary Task by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster – This one should also be read before arriving on the field.  If there is any book I want a new missionary joining us to read, it’s this one.  This short booklet gets straight to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes missionaries make – not bonding with the local people and culture – and gives practical direction on how to bond effectively.
  • Language Learning IS Communication IS Ministry by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster – The companion to the Bonding booklet, this one presents language learning as the first important ministry the missionary should have in the host country.  We don’t learn language so that we can minister; rather, our language learning communicates powerfully to the locals and is itself an important ministry.
  • Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan – This excellent books deals with what the job of a cross-cultural church planter is and isn’t.  Through Donovan’s personal experiences as a Catholic missionary to the Masai of Tanzania, he casts a wonderful vision for mission work.  The vision is that missionaries should carry out the simple task of delivering the gospel message, trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the gospel’s application, make disciples, and then do one of the most important things they’ll ever do – leave.
  • Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen (available free online from Google books) – This book, overlooked for decades, has gained popularity in recent times.  Vincent Donovan was heavily influenced by it, so it’s a great read after Christianity Rediscovered.  Christianity Rediscovered casts the vision, and Allen’s work lays out the framework of thinking behind that vision – getting rid of extra baggage and simplifying our work to the type of ministry that allowed Paul to establish churches all over Asia Minor in just a few years.
  • Organic Church by Neil Cole – Organic Church gets at the heart of what the Church is in its simplest form and how God intended it to reproduce organically.  I like our new missionaries to read it to give them a clear and simple vision of Church, because complexity kills.
  • Church Planting Movements by David Garrison (either the full-length book or the concise booklet available free from the IMB) – Based on research of movements on several continents, Garrison’s work lays out characteristics common to every movement of rapidly multiplying churches as well as discussing factors that hinder them.  It hits on important topics such as the importance of prayer, broad sowing of the Word, lay leadership, and avoiding restrictive, authoritarian structures.
  • Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement by Roland Bunch – I recommend this book not because I think missionaries have to do agricultural development, but because its principles carry over very well to church planting work.  Two Ears of Corn deals with important issues like dependency, reproducibility, and simplicity.

What do you think?  If you were making your own list, is there anything you would add or subtract?  Those of you helping new missionaries entering the field, what are you recommending to them?

The need for Scripture recordings

I’ve tweeted a fair bit lately about Scripture recordings and the need for them.  Our area is home to many indigenous tribes, speaking dozens of different languages.  In our district, people in most villages speak Spanish as a second language.  (This was not the case where we were last weekend, however, where not many people spoke good Spanish.)  Some thoughts on the need for recordings:

  • The tribal people of this region are oral learners.  They best assimilate information by hearing it, not by reading it. This is a very important point.
  • Those among the tribal people who are educated have learned Spanish as their second language.  Scripture is much easier for them to understand in their first (heart) language, though.  If you’ve ever somewhat mastered a second language, which language is easier for you when talking about deep things and matters of the heart?
  • In light of this, any effort to get Scripture into the first language of tribal people is a worthy undertaking.  Wycliffe has been diligently working for decades in our region to get written Bibles translated into the tribal languages of our region.
  • The limitation with written Bibles is that most tribal people learn things much more effectively by hearing them rather than reading them.  Indigenous people here who read tell me they have a much easier time reading Spanish (their second language) than reading their tribal languages.
  • An example of the difficulty oral learners experience with written texts was given me by an indigenous pastor in the area who is helping with a Bible translation.  This man is quite educated.  Mixed People language is his first, but he’s also fluent in Spanish.  He spent several years in a Spanish-speaking Bible school and reads well.  He told me that when he’s helping translate into his (first) Mixed People language, he can’t tell if something is correct until he hears the entire passage read back out loud.
  • As best I understand, then, these are the main ways tribal people in our region can learn the Word of God, in order of effectiveness:
    1. hearing their tribal language spoken
    2. hearing Spanish spoken
    3. reading Spanish
    4. reading their tribal language (for the very few who become proficient in reading their tribal languages, this probably jumps up to second or third)
  • The Wycliffe folks are doing a nice job making audio recordings of their translations, but much of their work remains unrecorded.  Some dialects in our region have not had any translation work done in them yet.  The problem of Scripture access is two-pronged: 1) languages not being translated, and 2) Bibles that have been translated sitting in warehouses because those who don’t read their indigenous language (almost everyone) can’t use them.
  • The strength of oral learners is not reading a passage of the Bible and analyzing it, but they are great at remembering stories they have heard.  Playing to this strength is the idea behind the OneStory Partnership.  Their vision is to help people produce sets of 40-60 Bible stories that can be transmitted orally in their languages.
  • The Proclaimer in useFaith Comes By Hearing has produced a really nice piece of technology, the Proclaimer.  The Proclaimer is a device for playing audio recordings of the New Testament.  It can be charged by A/C adaptor, solar power, or hand crank, making it very useful for people in underdeveloped areas.
  • A long-time national missionary in the area and our team were discussing the need for more recordings.  Our thought was that a trained person could rotate living in different villages two or three weeks at a time, helping produce a couple of recorded stories each time.  While those newly recorded stories are propagated through the language group of one village, this recording facilitator can move on to other language groups to do the same.  Every few months, new stories could be produced in each language group being targeted until an adequate set has been produced.
  • Many Christians are very set on our Western ideal of each person having a full printed Bible in hand in their own language.  While this isn’t a bad goal, being on the mission field with illiterate people who don’t have Bibles in their heart languages tends to make you more pragmatic.  The Church was able to expand greatly across several continents for many centuries without people having written Bibles in their hands.  The current (largely) underground church movement in China is said to be the greatest in history, outpacing the growth of the early church in the book of Acts.  In this movement, many examples exist of churches feeling blessed to have one written Bible or of individual Christians owning only one page of Scripture which they periodically trade with other believers.  Obviously, it’s possible for people who can’t read to know the Word of God and for believers to grow mature even without a written Bible.

Please join us in praying that God will make His Word easily propagated in the heart languages of all Mixed People and Tree People in our region.  We believe recordings are a key to this, but God may have other means of which we haven’t thought.

Update on last weekend’s outreach trip

Thanks to those who prayed for the medical outreach last weekend in “Rivertown”, a village across the border in our neighboring state.  Here are some thoughts and quick hits from the trip:

  • Rhonda and Sarah joined (if I’m remembering correctly) three doctors, two dentists, and two other nurses giving consultation.  The group saw a combined 670 patients Saturday and Sunday.
  • The village, as promised, was part of a group of communities that is very isolated.  It only ended up being a 10-hour drive to get there (not the 14 we were expecting), but that for a village only 50 miles from our town as the crow flies.  (I love the things I can find out with Google Earth.)
  • People came from probably 10 surrounding villages.  Trucks brought many of them, while others walked several hours to come.  Sarah’s doctor had one lady who wanted medicine for her daughter who was sick and had a fever.  The lady then mentioned she had three more sick kids at home.  When the doctor asked why the lady didn’t bring her other kids, she responded that it was a three-hour walk from their village, the kids weren’t strong enough to walk, and she couldn’t carry them all that way.
  • The people of the area are noticeably poorer than those in our district (and the villages in our district aren’t exactly rolling in dough).  Many people don’t wear shoes, and some kids were running around naked or only halfway clothed.
  • The people are also much more monolingual than those in our area.  Kids about age 10 and up and men in their 20s-40s were generally the only good bets for speaking decent Spanish.  We had six Christians from another village in the same language group with us to translate.  Those translators were absolutely vital, as many times it was impossible to figure out what someone was trying to communicate without them.
  • On the way to Rivertown, we really enjoyed meeting a missionary couple in a market town two hours from where we live.  He’s Mexican, she’s American, and they’ve been working in their town for 10 years.  They’ve planted a church and have several neat outreaches going.
  • I loved working with the local drug rehab ministry that organized the outreach.  It was great getting to know them and their ministry better.  They really have their ducks in a row!  Learning more about their ministry (they’ve been very successful in this country in ways few others have been) gave us some good ideas we’re praying about for our work.
  • It’s possible the villages we were in are nearly devoid of gospel witness just because they’re so isolated.  All of us felt like they’re in great spiritual bondage, though.  Pray God opens and frees Rivertown and the villages surrounding it.
  • A real need exists for more and better audio resources in the languages of our region.  I’m amazed how much literature well-meaning Christians are handing out to illiterate people.  We’ve got to find a better way, realizing that our Western way of evangelizing others just doesn’t work in much of the world.  (One can raise the question of how well it works even in our own part of the world.)
  • Getting to know some of the Christian brothers and sisters of that area was a great blessing.  They’re a neat group, and they’ve had to endure some tough persecution.  We also had the privilege of meeting an American couple who have been doing Bible translation over there since 1983.  Their humility and genuine love for the people was evident, as has been the case with all the Bible translators I’ve met around here.  Pray Ephesians 1:17-19 over the local believers as well as the missionaries working with them.
  • I’m really glad we went on the trip, even though it hit at a busy time for us.  We learned a lot, saw a new area that’s very needy spiritually, shared the gospel, prayed, laid hands on the sick, and served.  I have an even greater burden for our area now that I’ve seen more of it firsthand.

Here are a few photos:

Rivertown, where we did the outreach

Rivertown
The second day they put me to work cutting hair. I gave 20 haircuts!

Chris cutting hair
Rhonda and Sarah give an IV to a man very sick with pneumonia

Rhonda and Sarah attending man
People pile in for a 1- or 2-hour ride back to their village

Villagers loading into truck
Me on the left with Dave, Rhonda, Sarah, and Nick

Our team

Cool medical outreach opportunity

Pray for Dave, Rhonda, Nick, Sarah, and I as we head out early Thursday (today) for a weekend medical outreach.

I’m excited about this opportunity; we were invited by a long-time missionary in our town who set up the outreach for a local Mexican organization. The outreach will take place in a group of Mixed People (pseudonym I use for them) villages just across the border in our neighboring state.

This group of villages is rated the poorest municipality in all of Mexico, and it is also one of the least-reached with the gospel. The villages are very isolated. Though they are only about 50 miles from our town as the crow flies, it will take a 14-hour drive to get there.

The people of the area to which we’re going are much more monolingual than those in our own district. Where we are, all but the oldest and youngest villagers speak Spanish along with their tribal languages. A number of people speak only Spanish. In the Mixed People villages we’ll be serving, though, many people only speak the Mixed People language. We will have some bilingual (Spanish and Mixed language) Christian brothers along to translate for us.

The way we have things scheduled, it will take us Thursday and Friday to get to “Rivertown”, the village where we’ll be set up. Saturday and Sunday will be the days of medical consultation. Monday we’ll make the long trip back to our town, hopefully arriving late Monday night.

Please pray for safe travel on some tricky roads to and from the outreach. Pray God’s kingdom comes and His will is done in Rivertown and the surrounding villages, just as it is done in heaven. Pray for extra grace for Erin as she takes care of the girls by herself for five days.

If you would like to receive prayer requests/reminders while we’re doing the outreach, follow me on Twitter.

Thanks so much for your partnership through prayer! I’ll let you know how things went once we’re back.

Update: You can read my report on the outreach here.

Fruitful Practices: What Does the Research Suggest?

The International Journal of Frontier Missions published an article discussing seven practices that were shown to produce fruit in church planting among Muslims.  Their information came from surveys and interviews with 300 church planters in the Muslim world, representing 34 different agencies.  They identified the seven practices by looking at what those workers who had planted the most churches were doing.  Though we are not working among Muslims, I found much of the information in the article pertinent to our ministry as well.

Here are the seven practices:

  1. Ministering in the heart language of the people, rather than in a trade language.  Having at least one team member who is highly fluent in that language.
    These were the two strongest associations with fruitfulness.  Much of the world speaks two or more languages.  This is true in our area, where the indigenous people speak their tribal languages as a first (heart) language, and their second language is the trade language (Spanish).

  2. Sharing the gospel orally through Bible stories.
    Much of the world also learn things and transmit information far more effectively orally than in written form.  Storying is something I’m trying to move into doing more of.

  3. Living out the gospel through an exemplary lifestyle adapted to the cultural values of those one is trying to reach.  Living in a way that shows obvious love and respect for their culture.
    In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says he became like whoever he was trying to reach.

  4. Using a transformational rather than an attractional model.  In other words, not trying to gather scattered people who have no prior relationship or trust with one another into a church.  Instead, working through already-existing networks of relationships.  When a person/family accepts Christ, help them then reach their family members and friends.
    Does anyone think the transformational model would result in healthier, more reproductive churches in the West, as well?

  5. Using a variety of creative means to communicate Scripture.
    Examples in the article included culturally relevant storying, radio and video dramas, oral and literate inductive studies, incorporating Scripture presentations in festivals, lifecycle celebrations, everyday use of proverbs, interactive websites, and phone texting.  What did NOT work were most of the Bible study packages from the West, which were culture bound and not relevant to local believers.

  6. Intentional reproduction.  Making spreading the gospel to other people part of new believers’ DNA from the very beginning.
    This is one of the main reasons we’re currently trying to win new believers more than we’re trying to work through existing churches.  We need new DNA in believers here, DNA that includes winning others to Christ.

  7. Fruitful workers are known as people of prayer, individually and corporately.
    Need I say more?

Current ministry plans

Right now is a bit of a regrouping time for me and the rest of our church planting team.  Last year, up through early summer, we went through a lot of turnover as many of our apprentices finished their time with our team.  The rest of the summer was largely a time of internal focus in preparation for GFM moving to the U.S.

Erin’s and my role with the team is now shifting into an actual focus on the church planting work, rather than on discipling other young church planting apprentices.  I mapped out some plans/goals for myself for the months of September through November.  I chose that time period because we’re planning on being the the U.S. for the month of December.  Here’s what I’m working on doing between now and then:

  • My top priority for September was doing anything needed to help get Grant and Jenn on their way to Atlanta.  This consumed most of the month for me.  Now I’m focusing on the following goals.
  • Network with every significant worker/leader in the region, getting to know them and what they’re doing.  I’ve made several great contacts already in recent months, including getting in touch by email with some missionaries who served here around the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  I still have a list of 8 or 10 people to meet with in the next few weeks.  I don’t want to proceed much further in ministry without a good idea of what’s happening in the region.
  • Develop a comprehensive list of written Bibles, recordings, and other ministry resources available in our region.  What languages, what translations of Spanish, where to get them, and how much they cost.  I’ve found most of the information I need already in recent weeks.  When I meet people from different villages, I want to know off the top of my head what resources are available in their languages.
  • Develop significant relationships in the hill community and the airstrip community through at least bi-weekly visits to each community.  These are very strategic places because they are made up of people from a bunch of different villages.  The primary goal of these relationships is to look for people who are receptive to the gospel who I can disciple.  A secondary goal, which keeps Immigration happy, is to identify together with the people ways I can serve them through community development, create action plans, and implement them.
  • Develop a Vision and Strategy Paper and Memo of Understanding for our team.  The VSP will describe who we’re working to reach, what the goals of our work are, and how we intend to work and what big steps we must take to accomplish our goals.  The MOU is an internal document for our team that establishes mutually agreed-upon guidelines for our work and how we’ll be accountable to one another.  These two documents will be born out of discussions with our newly solidified team in the coming weeks.  We got the idea for the VSP and the MOU from Daniel Sinclair’s book A Vision of the Possible, which is more or less a textbook for pioneer cross-cultural church planting in teams.
  • Help our team solidify their roles and implement ministry plans within our Mexican nonprofit.  What we do through our Mexican nonprofit is what gets us approved with Immigration to be in the country.  I’m currently helping David work through the implementation of a well drilling rig he has spent months building.  I’m also working with Rhonda, Nick, and Sarah to get a more established ongoing medical outreach rolling in area villages.  I hope to blog more about these activities soon.
  • Coach new church planters in the region on language learning and acculturation.  Erin and I are currently working with our new team member, Sarah.  I have also been communicating with a new church planting team that’s arriving tomorrow in a town two hours from us.  I’m helping get them settled in, and I’ll be visiting them every couple of weeks to help them get rolling in Mexico.  We’ve benefited tremendously from those who have helped us along the way.  Though we’re far from experts after only five years, I enjoy the opportunity to help others by passing on things we have learned and tips based on our experiences.
  • Implement my tribe building plan.  I have a passion to use modern technology to help connect those back home to the work on the field better than has ever been possible.  My tribe building plan currently consists of my online presence and communication.  I have a number of improvements planned, as well as a couple of entirely new things that I intend to roll out in the coming weeks.
  • Do one hour a week of voice recorder drills to work on my accent, inflection, and fluency in Spanish.  I get along very well in Spanish, but I need to continue to push myself to improve.  The only time I should ever relax about my Spanish ability would be if I reached the level of a native speaker.  I think these drills are one of the best things someone learning a foreign language can do.  I’m pulling them from Language Acquisition Made Practical by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster.
  • Read a local newspaper at least once a week, learning words, expressions, and constructions I’m not familiar with.  I think reading local newspapers is also a great exercise.  They’re written at a level a junior high or high school student can understand, they use everyday language common to the area, and they cover a wide range of topics, including many that don’t often get touched in conversation.  Newspapers are a goldmine for new, useful vocabulary.

Our transition from discipling church planting apprentices to focusing ourselves on church planting is in full swing.  As you can see, I’m currently focused on a lot of setup work to get us in a position for good church planting work.  My current ministry plans are a little light on connecting with villagers.  Coming back in January, though, we’ll be well-connected with other leaders in the region, knowing exactly what’s going on and where the areas of greatest need are.  Our team will have a plan of action in place.  We’ll be armed with the best available resources for our work.  I’ll have a system in place for connecting with friends back home and taking you along on the journey.  I’ll be in a rhythm of ongoing Spanish practice.  So from January on, I expect my time to be weighted quite a bit more heavily towards direct connections and discipleship with villagers.

We love sharing the ministry with you, so your comments or questions are welcome!

Advice from Grant and Jenn

Recently, our church planting team sat down with Grant and Jenn Haynes to get their parting words of advice based on years of ministry in southern Mexico.  Here are some of the points they shared:

  • Be really careful whose house a church meets in.  Because there are so many divisions and gossip around here, choosing the wrong house can cause a lot of problems.
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.  Don’t latch on to one person too fast when they become receptive to God.  Keep working with a few different people.
  • “We’ve never seen it go well when money gets involved with anyone.”  Be extremely careful about finances being any part of your relationship with someone.
  • As much as possible, never do anything by yourself.  Always have a Mexican on your hip.
  • Discipleship in small groups (say, 3 or 4) is better than one-on-one around here, because with a couple of Mexicans present a person can’t lie about what they’ve been doing.  In one-on-one situations, people are often tempted to lie in order to save face.
  • It’s time for a season of broad scattering of the seed of the Word among many people.
  • Don’t get too married to any one model of church or ministry.
  • The goal is to see the gospel spreading through people’s natural relationship groupings (oikos is the Greek word).  The problem around here is that people’s oikos are small because of divisions and gossip.  Most people don’t have many good friends.  Really pray against that stronghold of gossip.
  • Keep hanging out with God and getting His perspective.  Only talking strategy and looking at the size of the task can be depressing.  Look at the Promised Land, not at the giants.

There’s a lot of good stuff there!  I’m glad we got that time with Grant and Jenn before they leave.