Today, risk is different

If our single, all-embracing passion is to make much of Christ in life and death, and if the life that magnifies him most is the life of costly love, then life is risk and risk is right. To run from it is to risk your life. –John Piper [1]

There have always been great risks in following Jesus Christ and living in obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission. I think of missionaries like Jim Elliot … “Philip James Elliot (1927–1956) was an evangelical Christian missionary to Ecuador who, along with four others, was killed while attempting to evangelize the Waodani people through efforts known as Operation Auca.” [2] The story of Jim and Elizabeth Elliot has, indeed, inspired thousands who have gone from America, Canada and other western nations to serve “overseas” on the mission field.

Risk was right for them despite the loss of life. Many Waodani people have come to Christ, and God has been greatly glorified. Of course, over the course of church history, there are millions who have given their lives for the cause of Christ. I am humbled by the thought of it all.

But the world of missions has changed dramatically in the past generation. For one thing, the success of the world Christian movement has dramatically increased the cross-cultural missions efforts coming from many nations that were once “receiver” nations (nations that received missionaries from the west). Nations from the “Global South” such as Nigeria, India, China, the Philippines, South Korea, and South Africa come to mind as new “sending” nations. As Samuel Escobar says…

… despite the present shift of Christianity to the South, in coming decades Christian mission to all parts of the globe will require resources from both the North and South to be successful. Pakistani missiologist Michael Nazir-ali has expressed it well in the title and content of his book From Everywhere to Everywhere (Collins, 1990) in which he offers “a world view of Christian mission.” It is increasingly evident that responsible, mission-minded Christians today must work together in order to turn into reality the proposal of the Lausanne Covenant: “Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service” (par. 9). [3] [My emphasis in bold.]

There are those who look at partnership with indigenous ministries as a healthy mission enterprise, one that is not especially risky, and for whom the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.

There are others who operate out of a high-control, low-trust mindset relative to partnership with indigenous ministries. This post is for them, and the words for risk relative to cross-cultural partnership are: 1) wait and listen, and 2) trust and follow. Again, this may not sound too risk-laden to some of you, but for leaders who want to go fast, control outcomes and lead aggressively, it can be very risky, indeed.

Big risk #1: WAIT and LISTEN. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is fast my normal mode of ministry? Am I expecting my cross-cultural partners to operate in even half the same speed?
  2. Have we spent time in solitude before God—listening to his Word and Holy Spirit concerning the important issues regarding our cross-cultural partnership? Have we considered, What would Jesus do?
  3. Have we listened with our hearts to one another in this cross-cultural partnership? Have we taken ample time with the Christian leaders on the other side of the partnership to listen—really listen—to their hopes and dreams?
  4. Have we listened and gathered counsel from others in the body of Christ who are experienced practitioners in healthy cross-cultural partnership—in order to avoid making unnecessary mistakes and squandering resources?
  5. Have we spent any time together with the key leader(s) in this cross-cultural partnership—just getting to know one another as friends? To hear about one anothers’ families and stories, struggles and victories?

Why is “WAIT and LISTEN” such a big risk? Because many western Christian leaders have the general attitude of speed-it-up and get-it-done! You may discover that your own ministry peer group is not willing to wait before diving into a full-fledged partnership. Even if you want to wait and listen, your colleagues, ministry team members or donors want to move fast. They may even  think you are lazy, spending too much time listening, building relationships, waiting on God, developing friendship with your cross-cultural partners. The cultural pull of going fast—putting task ahead of relationship—is like swimming in a very strong river. To go against the flow of this river can be a big risk.

Big risk #2: TRUST and FOLLOW. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Having spent time listening with your heart to your cross-cultural partners, are you ready to trust one another? Do you have confidence that they will indeed have the wisdom and knowledge to best serve the community in which they minister—and that you can be trusted to come through on what you have promised?
  2. Do your partners have the confidence that you genuinely understand their ministry? Since the activities of this partnership are primarily happening in their nation and community—do you see that you are coming alongside their dreams more than them coming alongside your dreams? In humility, are you willing to follow Christ and serve their ministry vision, having mutually agreed-upon principles and guidelines for the partnership?
  3. What about money? Do you trust your partners to handle funds appropriately? Or do you want to control how funds are managed? This practice, though common, is offensive to the indigenous Christian leaders—it is like a father-to-son relationship more than brother-to-brother. Are you willing to relinquish control of funds—knowing there is appropriate accountability—willing to believe the best, and work through challenges with patience and grace?

Why is “TRUST and FOLLOW” such a big risk for some western Christian leaders? It challenges the prevailing attitude that we in the west know best. Many western Christians are simply uncomfortable with this. And if you challenge them, it may generate suspicion or conflict. Because of their success, many western Christian leaders only understand one approach: control and lead. Whether from the business or ministry environment, they simply have not developed the skills to build the cross-cultural relationships where this kind of cross-cultural trust is essential. Consequently, for you to move from a control-and-lead mindset toward a trust-and-follow mindset could jeopardize your relationships with influential people in your ministry team.

Risk is right for the glory of Christ, but risk—in the missions world today—is different.

I want to know: What do you think? Your comments are welcomed!

1. John Piper: Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway, 2003)
3. Samuel Escobar: The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (InterVarsity, 2003) p. 18

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