August 3, 2012

Don't Do What I Did: Mistake #1 I Made in Church Planting

I mentioned in my last post that we're quickly approaching our fourth anniversary in church planting and that it has me reflecting on where I've been and where I'm going. When friends back "home" ask me how things are going or what the past four years have been like, I summarize these years like this: "Church planting has been the hardest, craziest thing I have ever done and also the absolute best thing I have ever done because I have seen that God is faithful and it has completely changed me." There are a whole lot of details and stories behind those words but that is the gist of it.

When I look back at year one or year two, I am grateful for where I am now, for how radically God has transformed my heart and still is transforming me. But I also look back and cringe at who I was or how I responded to the difficulty of church planting. I made mistakes and, at the risk of humiliating myself, I'm going to share them with you in my next few posts, in hopes that you won't do what I did and in hopes that God will somehow redeem my failures.
I made my first mistake before we even moved, but it followed me into our new city and our plant: I had an us vs. them mentality. I believed that we were, like Superman stepping out the phone booth, coming into save the city, as if God wasn't already there and as if not a single church was preaching the gospel. I spoke with certainty about what we would accomplish, and I fully believed that our little church plant and our missionary efforts would produce immediate results. After all, we were the answer for them.

In addition, I attempted to bring the Christianity of my former culture, a culture I couldn't actually see until I left it. My new culture didn't fit in the same box as my previous culture, and I plotted how to make it fit. Instead of learning a new one, I talked incessantly from my homesickness about my former culture. Again, the us vs. them mentality.

I like to think that this stemmed from my zealousness, from the depth with which I felt the calling to go. But it probably stemmed more from my naivete, from the belief that church planting is an occurrence rather than a process.

But I wasn't careful. Rather than listening, I was talking. Rather than learning a culture, I was trying to change a culture. Rather than letting things unfold according to the Spirit, I tried forcing things. Rather than respecting what God was already doing in the city, I had a Savior complex. I didn't yet understand that this wasn't about me or what I could prove to God.

I recently saw a glimpse of my former self when we had visitors from a different cultural context. They pointed out the things I had seen when I first moved here and proceeded to advise us on how we should change the culture. The advice was pointed and, frankly, offensive to the Virginians present. I was embarrassed, not because of our visitors but because I had once been that brash.

Please don't do what I did.

The us vs. them mentality is a rookie cross-cultural mistake. What prevents it?
  • Think of yourself more as a learner than a missionary.
  • Reach out to others who are already there doing a similar work. Ask questions with an ear to learn the culture and where God is at work. Be respectful.
  • Be careful with your pronouns. You are a "them" now.
  • As often as possible, remind yourself that you are a "sower" not a "grower". God takes responsibility for the results and the heart transformation. You are responsible for your faithfulness to do the work He has called you to.
  • Earn the right to be heard and to influence the culture. This takes years.
  • Know the difference between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.
  • Know that this church plant is for you just as much as it is for them.
  • Before you understand a people and a culture, don't make assumptions.
Reading Bruchko recently, a story about a man reaching the Motilone Indians, whose culture was untouched by modern civilization, the author spoke to this mistake:

"I thought of the Indian Christians I had seen at the missionary compound. They had been taught how to dress in clothes with buttons, how to wear shoes, how to sing Western songs. Is that what Jesus taught? I asked myself.  Is that what Christianity is all about? What does the good news of Jesus Christ have to do with North American culture? In Bible times there was no North American culture."

"I could love the Motilone way of life, but when it came to spiritual matters, I thought I had the only way. But my way wasn't necessarily God's way. God was saying, 'I too love the Motilone way of life. I made it. And I'm going to tell them about My Son My way."

He will do it His way in all of our cultures, in all our churches, and in all of our lives. What a great relief.