I was 23, fresh off the plane, fresh out of language school and fresh with naivete when she approached my office in the upstairs portion of the orphanage. My director came up and told me that the following day, she and the other senior missionary were going to Arusha and would be there the whole day. I was new at the orphanage and was pretty novice about missions in general, but my response was chalk full of implication.
“So I’m in charge then while you’re gone?”
The question mark there is how I said it, but it was more of statement than a honest question. I was ready, or so I thought, to be in charge.
She, smirked and replied, “well you, and Eli, and Baba Pendo.” Meaning, “not really, that’s not needed and there are Tanzanian staff who have been here much longer, are more informed and more invested.”
Despite being the youngest staff, despite having a tenure of weeks, not months or years, despite the integrity and knowledge of local staff, I assumed that I would be in charge. I assumed that authority based on two truths, I was the American missionary at an American-run orphanage. I’m grateful for my director slowing me down. At best, I would say that was a starting point for me on this journey in partnership with national Tanzanian leaders, but at worst it was blatant paternalism.
Who should be in charge? There is a lot of nuance within this subject, but it’s one that we must be willing to look at and engage. You have to take into account the calling of missionaries, that there was something that drove them to be wherever they are serving. You have to take into account equally the locals that have an equal calling on their lives. You have to take into account the authority and insight that locals have over their own culture. You have to take into account the resources (and not only material resources) that westerners might bring to the table. How do we determine who the boss is?
One of the difficult things that I’ve run into with the format of Kingdom Families is this question, how are you going to get parents to adopt children and make that huge sacrifice? How would they do it of their own volition with the best of intentions? How do you know that they’ll treat the kid well? From a western mindset, it’s a lot easier to just do all the work yourself and establish an orphanage of your own or just adopt however many kids you’re able to. This is seen as safer, because then you don’t have to worry about how solid the people are that you work with or you can gloss over that which you don’t understand culturally.
However, the more that I live and work in Tanzania, the more I realize that some of the best people I know are Tanzanian pastors and church goers. They’re just as human as you and me, but they’re good people and worthy of trust. As a now 30 year old missionary, my view of many of the leaders within our network has increased, I’ve realized that they are the heroes that this country needs.
I’ve of course voiced my frustration over the common institutionalization of impoverished kids in Tanzania and other countries. A lot of this is based out of an understanding of what’s the best situation for a kid to grow up in. But a whole other element is that the Tanzanian authority, the Social Welfare office, is opposed to institutionalization. One of the assistant commissioners in Dar-es-Salaam told me face to face that “family based care is the direction we want to go” and the the regional director here in Kilimanjaro told me that the government “wants to abolish the orphanage system.” Now, it is nonetheless common here, the government itself doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure and man power to implement the family-based care that they desire. Orphanages are the system in Tanzania although all but one are privately owned and operated (there’s a government orphanage in Dar-es-Salaam, I hear).
Part of the paternalism comes into play when westerners come over and open orphanages without consulting or submitting to the social welfare office. The idea is that they aren’t coming to the government and the churches and saying “how can we serve you?” Instead they are coming with an idea that is contrary to best practices, contrary to what the government wants and instituting whatever they want completely aside from government oversight. The government is then forced to either try and shut down the orphanage after the fact which can be tough when they’ve already taken in kids, or forced to try and monitor something that they never asked for in the first place. Do you see the problem in this?
In Moshi there was recently several orphanages shut down and only five remain. Does that inform us about the governments desire? Part of Kingdom Families’ positive relationship with social welfare is because we’re able to engage them and just say we want to support their initiatives from the NGO sector. That’s called honoring national leadership and it’s a lot more comfortable than trying to accomplish something against the flow of their office.
There is this other element to the story where we talk about the churches that we partner with. Our view often concerns how do we raise national leaders. I learned something though about leadership, in my view, leaders aren’t raised, they’re recognized. If someone is a leader, that means others will naturally follow. You’ll see their following, their demeanor and talent and recognize that they are a leader.
When I think about a couple like my friends Clint and Esther, who are bravely adopting from Tanzania currently, I see leaders. They aren’t pastors, they don’t work for my ministry or any other, but their character and drive causes me to recognize that they are leaders. Undoubtedly, there have been people that have fed into them over the years, just as with anyone else, but God puts that flame in them. For those others, we just sit and recognize the leadership anointing on them. I could say this about a lot of Tanzanians that I know, within the clergy, within the congregation and within the government.
When it comes down to it, if Tanzania or any nation is going to change for the better, there’s only one entity that can cause that change: the local church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our role as immigrants to this country is to support the leaders within this movement that God has anointed. Just as Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses, that’s what we need to be doing as guests in our nations.
“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11
This past Sunday I preached at a little red church in Los Osos, California. A few days prior, as I was preparing the sermon on Romans 8:12-17, a passage I’ve preached on many times, I realized that a lot of what I gather and teach on is self-evident. A simple text that is so profound.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
I asked the congregants at the church what the difference is between an orphan slave and a son or daughter of a king. Their answers put flesh and bone on what Paul was describing in the text.
The chasm between these two realities is vast. The beautiful thing about the gospel is that God takes us from one extreme to the other in an instant. It’s passages like this that capture my heart and imagination for the spirit of adoption.
In any journey, whether it takes an instant or a lifetime, it has to start at the beginning. Our beginning was as orphans. I often reflect on Jesus’ words in John 14 when He says that he will not leave us as orphans. Jesus knew that the life of an orphan is dire. He knew the realities and the feelings that such a slave endures. He wasn’t content to leave people in this state.
In our redemption, we go from death to life. Enemy to friend. Slave to free. Orphan to son. Orphan to daughter. Yet, as much as that’s our reality, our discipleship takes a bit longer to turn into Christ likeness.
Discipleship, is monkey say, monkey do. It’s follow the leader. Discipleship is we love, because He first loved us. It’s be holy, just as the Lord your God is holy.
Discipleship is we adopt, because He first adopted us. >>tweet this<<
From my experience as a family-man, I’ve learned that the relationships that God’s given me play the most critical role in my discipleship. I’ve led street evangelism in Newport Beach, I’ve worked at churches and non-profits, I’ve preached in English and Swahili and yet all of these play such a truly minuscule role in my discipleship. I learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by being a husband and father.
It’s not merely understanding the theological parallels to being the bride of Christ, God being our Father, God adopting us. Much more, it’s the fact that the people in my family bring out the best and worst in me. For me to become like Christ, the worst and deepest sin of mine is going to have to come out if it’s going to be changed. Adopting my son has brought out the worst in me at times. That’s just being honest. His insecurity has scratched, clawed, beat and pulled out my own insecurity. His trauma has traumatized me. His orphan spirit has brought out all the areas in my life where I still feel like an orphan. Somehow, Melissa and I stepped out in adopting an orphan and in the process feel like we’re worse people because of it. There are many times when we feel we have ruined ourselves and wrecked our lives.
The craziest things is that through Kingdom Families, we’re trying to lead people down this same path. What would drive us to do such a thing?
As I preached Sunday, the passion for the fatherless stirred up in me and the understanding of the difference between an orphan slave and a son or daughter shed light on why we keep going. Thank God for hope. I have hope for my entire family that God will bring us forward.
As difficult and traumatizing as the adoption process has been, we know that our son is better off for it. One of my favorite bloggers, Jason Johnson, says it well when discussing the difficulties. “Let’s not talk about what it will cost us if we do foster or adopt without also considering what it will cost these kids if we don’t.”
The truth is that at this point, my love for my son Moses only drives me so far in pursuing orphan care. Because Moses isn’t an orphan anymore. My drive is motored by my love for the orphans still back at the orphanage or on the street. I’m thinking about Justice, I’m thinking about Maria, I’m thinking about Awadhi. These orphans with faces, stories and personalities. Faces that are blurred, stories that are untold and personalities that are suppressed. Orphans that up to this point have been left as orphans. Children that are waiting for
The goal of our Kingdom Families Conferences is to empower the Tanzanian church to be the godly spouses and parents the Lord has called them to be. At the same time, we are advocating for the needs of orphans within our midst in Kilimanjaro, foremost by encouraging the church to adopt and foster children in their own homes. For this conference we partnered with Pastor Zacharia Olo in Majengo district in Moshi at the church Yesu Anaweza Center. Grateful for the Kingdom Families team that jumped in for the conference. Ryan helped teach, Peter helped with some translation and Patrick and Leah took the photos.
My director Ryan and I were meeting at a local restaurant recently just talking and catching up on life. As we sat there, a guy that Ryan knows approached us. He asked if we would be there for a little while as he wanted to go get his boss to come speak with Ryan. The boss was visiting Moshi and was staying in one of the rooms in the adjoining hotel. We weren’t going anywhere just yet, so ten minutes later the man came up with his American boss. He was eager to speak with Ryan about a plot of land Global-Effect owns in a village about a hour away. He asked Ryan about title deeds, working with government offices and the like. He asked what Global-Effect is going to use the land for and so on. He’s interested because he has also bought land in the same village. Ryan, in turn, asked them what they plan to do with their land.
“We’re going to build an orphanage.”
My heart sank. Ryan swallowed deep and smiled at him then gave me a concerning look. In an area where Global-Effect has begun empowering the community and an orphanage-less village can quickly capture a biblical model for orphan care, another American wants to establish another orphanage in another African village.
You want to hear something offensive? Kids shouldn’t grow up in orphanages. >>tweet this<<
Does that offend you? One of the hardest things for me to bear in my ministry is living out that statement alongside SO MANY people, friends of mine, that have started or run orphanages in Kilimanjaro. It can be very uncomfortable at times. I am not writing this to put anyone on blast, because these are great people, people that I look up to. As I followed up and emailed that American gentleman, I made sure he knew that I appreciate his heart in wanting to help. I really do.
The difficult thing is that we’ve run out of imagination. We’ve been establishing orphanages for so long, we don’t know what else to do. I’ve spoken with government officials in Tanzania that have told me placing children in families instead of orphanages is a new approach. Granted, it’s not actually new, kids have been raised in families since the dawn of time. But as a response to the modern poverty and AIDS-induced orphan crisis, this is a new approach.
I’d be lying if I said that paternalism doesn’t plays a role in all of this. Tanzania was previously a German, then a British colony. Over the last 55 years since independence, Tanzanians have been sovereign, but many of the perspectives between Tanzanians and westerners have changed very little. We have westerners that say, “oh, I should take care of that child” and Tanzanians that say “oh, they should take care of my child.” That happens. That happens often.
Remember that movie, Field of Dreams? It has that classic line “If you build it, he will come.”Kevin Costner gets this divine calling and knows that he must begin the irrational task of building a baseball field in a cornfield. In so doing, ‘he’ will come. Thereafter Shoeless Joe Jackson, a bunch of Hall of Famers and ultimately his dad show up as ghosts and play on the field. I think of that line, when it comes to orphanages.
If you build an orphanage, you will be able to fill it up with children. You can get that institution up to capacity in no time. I’m not saying the kids should be there, I’m just saying they would come. The welfare office might send some, the community will send some, relatives of a child will send some. You’ll fill it up in no time.
Let me share a story that’s close to home for me. It’s about Moses.
My son was fatherless at birth. Whoever his biological father was, he never stood up. Tragically, Moses’ biological mother passed away from meningitis when he was only a month old. His family of origin, three days after his mother’s passing, brought Moses to the social welfare department. The social welfare department signed off and boom, he was in an orphanage. The relatives signed that they would come and take Moses on his third birthday to return to his family. But eight years after he was dropped off, Moses remained at the orphanage and experienced all the heartbreak of being an orphan left in an institution.
All of a sudden, God puts it on Melissa’s heart and subsequently mine that Moses is to be our son. He should no longer be an orphan. We got the process started with the orphanage directors who had faithfully prayed that Moses would get into a family. We’re so thankful for them. After that, we contacted a lawyer and we were on our way. One of the important pieces we needed was the consent of the family of origin. I thank God that we have a good relationship with the majority of Moses’ biological family, but that part of the process was the most maddening.
In the process of adopting Moses, we visited with various family members in four different homes in the area. Of those homes and the people that resided in each, I would say that three of those homes would have been more than suitable for an elementary boy to be raised. In fact, there were already kids there, relatives of Moses.
It was Moses’ destiny to be a part of our family and I would never have it any other way. But on a systemic level, this is very upsetting. Moses is not the only one either. I know other children that live in orphanages that have biological family that are able to care for them. And yet it doesn’t happen. That sin, unless confessed and repented of, is on those families. But it comes back to us as well, if we are feeding into a system that exacerbates fatherlessness.
From an American standpoint, this orphanage building is rather mind-blowing. Don’t you find it ironic that we go overseas and build and run orphanages, when in our own country we don’t allow them anymore? There was a time in our country’s history when there were American orphanages, but people realized it wasn’t a good system and did away with it. Wouldn’t it, then, make more sense to promote fostering and adoption in the majority world?
In wrapping up a blog like this, I feel as though I’m obligated to give some sort of disclaimer or caveat about all this, but it’s my unapologetic view that no child should grow up in an orphanage. There is foster care, adoption, kinship care and other alternatives that are not only more natural, but they are better in every way. Instead, of celebrating every time an orphanage is built, we should celebrate when an orphanage is shut down because all the kids got into families.*
*Further reading: I highly, highly recommend Orphan Justice by Johnny Carr, specifically his chapter on orphanages. I definitely pulled from his work in this post, specifically the last line and the final two paragraphs. It is my favorite book on orphan care and will alter unbiblical and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors we have concerning orphans.
A big part of what we do is advocating for orphans in our communities and strengthening the families of the local churches. This past Saturday I led a Kingdom Families conference at our friend, Pastor Evarist’s church in Bonite village. (Pastor Evarist is pictured in black and white). Grateful for my wife, Melissa, for coming up with this idea, as well as Brian, Patrick, Leah and Peter who filled out our team. This is how we affect change in Tanzania, we call on the church to rise up.
My son has nightmares just about every night. On a normal night, I get out of my bed, walk across the hallway and into his bedroom 1-3 times. On Monday night because the power was out and he’s also afraid of the dark, I went into his room nearly a dozen times. Ever since the adoption, my nights of good rest have been few and far between.
In our dreams, our subconscious works out the emotions, thoughts and fears that we aren’t aware of in our waking hours. With that in mind, it concerns me that every time I ask Moses what his bad dream was about, he tells me the same thing over and over. “I had a dream where I was running and crocodiles were chasing me and one bit my arm off.” Translation: “I don’t feel safe. I’m insecure. I’ve been trying to avoid serious danger my entire life.”
I know that this is residue in his spirit from spending the majority of his life as an orphan.
When a child grows up fatherless, the most immediate and constant issue is the lack of a felt-safety. The most natural instinct between a father and his child is the innate understanding that he will protect them at all costs. I see this with my own children, when they feel scared or unsure about a situation, they cling to me. It’s natural. I, for most intents and purposes, am a pacifist. I’ve never been in a fight and I am morally opposed to it it. But when I feel that someone is a threat to my family, all my philosophies go out the window and I’m ready to throw down. It’s also natural and in many ways is one of the key traits and responsibilities of a father. I protect my children.
But what about an orphan?
They become afraid and turn to a parent that isn’t there. It pains me to think of my son sleeping in a bedroom at the orphanage, having a bad dream and calling out to thin air, because I wasn’t there and Melissa wasn’t there to go in and comfort him, secure him and help him go back to sleep.
Children, by God’s design, are smaller and more vulnerable. In an ideal family situation, this is a good thing. It’s a good thing that my one year old son, Shepherd, isn’t as big as me. If he were, I wouldn’t be able to carry him away from dangerous situations or pick him up after he hurt himself learning to walk. It’s also a good thing that my daughter, Promise, is vulnerable to me and my wife. It’s with that soft heart that we’re able to mold her, guide her and disciple her into the wonderful, loving and kind woman that she’ll be.
However, given these truths about children, when they are detached from family and don’t have a parent looking out for them, fear and insecurity are the natural inclination. It’s a survival mechanism. Orphans are always in survival mode. What a stressful state to live in. I wish that I could say it were just a feeling too, the feeling of insecurity. I wish that I could say that they aren’t actually susceptible to such dangers, but they are.
Orphans are most likely to be abused sexually, physically, verbally and socially because there’s no one to protect them. Are we okay with this? >tweet this<
I know that there’s no shortage of reasons that people give to not adopt, to not foster, to not become a protector of orphans. “We haven’t been called to that.” “We don’t have enough money.” “My heart wouldn’t be in it.” “I’m not ready, I’ll do it when I (fill in the blank) first.” Meanwhile, orphans remain at-risk of serious danger on every front. Meanwhile, orphans are dying. Dying physically, dying emotionally, dying spiritually. This is real life, people.
At what point do we allow their drastic needs to outweigh our own? When do we decide that we are the ones that can make them secure?
I was reading in the book of Ezra the other day and though I’ve read the book several times, I came across a story in chapter 3 that really struck me like never before. The Persian king Cyrus had commissioned a large group of Israelites to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few generations prior. As the captives that returned to Israel established the foundation of the new temple, a time of worship broke out in the community.
“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout and the sound was heard afar off.”
I had to get out my commentary to confirm why I thought the old men were weeping over the foundation. Mr. Halley agreed, the old men in remembering God’s design for Solomon’s temple, wept that the temple they were now building would not match the grandeur of God’s design for the house of worship. Many people shouted for joy as formal worship of the LORD was being restored and there was all kinds of hoopla, yet still there were those that remembered the superiority of God’s design and in some ways were disappointed that the community was no longer at that level.
As I’ve journeyed with caring for orphans in Tanzania, I feel as though I’ve aged. It’s been five years now since I accepted the job at Treasures of Africa. When I first started I exuberantly told everyone, “this is my dream job.” I was one of those worshipers that when the foundation was laid, I rejoiced and shouted and worshiped. I was in love with working there and knew that it was where God had called me. It absolutely was where God had called me for the three years I was committed there. I grew in faith and I grew in love. I’m so grateful for the leaders that gave me such an opportunity. I was given an insightful look into these kids’ lives, their backgrounds and their specific needs as they came out of traumatic experiences. By welcoming them to the children’s home they were shown love, they were provided for and were able to rest and recover from the blows that orphan life had left them.
Beyond learning about the needs of the kids, I also had an insiders view of how the best orphanage in Moshi was run. I say it’s the best not only because the physical needs of the children are met and they have a clean, safe environment in which to grow up, but because the leaders of the orphanage were very godly people. The kids heard and received the gospel, which to me is most important.
From that insiders view, I have also learned the downsides to the orphanage system. It would be easy for me to look at government orphanages in Eastern Europe or the poorly funded, poorly supervised orphanages here in East Africa, but I’ve actually seen the downsides to the very best orphanages around. I’ve aged. I’ve become one of those old men that weeps as the foundation is laid and remember that God’s design was and is far superior.
As I’ve been working through all these things in my head over the last year since we’ve returned, I find myself needing to temper what I say. I personally invested so much in the orphanage system and even more so because I have close friends that are currently ministering in orphanages and most importantly I have a group of twenty-six kids that I love a whole lot that live at a children’s home. The difficulty in navigating what I write and hence other people read is that in critiquing the orphanage system of orphan care, I am critiquing the most common form of orphan care in the world. In many contexts, it’s the only form of care for these kids. Because of all this, it tends to be the type of ministry that you, me and everyone else has supported if you’ve been involved in the biblical mandate to care for orphaned children.
There are two designs here that I’m looking at and I in no way want to come across as heavy-handed, pugnacious or cold. I feel the exact opposite towards the orphanage system. I think that it can have it’s role in caring for orphans, but we often see it as the end all in millions of instances and I don’t think that’s good. So the two designs, I humbly submit, is God’s design (Solomon’s temple) and man’s design (the temple in Ezra 3).
So, in a nutshell, what are those two designs? As Johnny Carr says “man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” Now that is a pretty strong opinion, I confess. What I’d like to do today is just look at a few themes that we see in the Bible concerning this conversation.
The first thing that we must understand is the fact that the Bible, both testaments, speak a lot to caring for orphans. In the giving of the Law to God’s people in the Old Testament, caring for orphans was something that was expected of each and every individual. In Deuteronomy, God hammers a group of people into the minds of the Israelite community: the widow, the stranger and the fatherless. It was God’s chosen people that were expected to care for the needs of these people. If you read chapter 24 in particular, you’ll see God commanding Israel to preserve justice for the fatherless and also provide them with food from the people’s own crops. It was a commandment, not an option.
God demanded that of His people, because they are to be His reflection and hence maintain His own character. They were to administer justice for the fatherless, because He administers justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18). They were to help the orphan, because He is the helper of the orphan (Psalm 10:14). And in keeping in step with who He is, God’s people are to father the fatherless, because that’s who He is (Psalm 68:5).
In the New Testament, we see a core spiritual truth about who we are in Christ applied in these same terms. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father’ and in Romans 8, Paul teaches us that we have been adopted as children of God. If we were adopted by God, that means that there was a point when we ourselves were orphans too. God was gracious and brought us into His family.
In Christian practice, just as I spoke to a moment ago, what we see God do, we ought to do ourselves. We love because He first loved us. We are commanded to be holy just as the Lord is holy. We give, because He gave it all for us. So if God in his generosity, compassion and righteousness, adopted us orphans into His family, what does that mean for us when we consider these kids that also need a family?
In the beginning, God established the family. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply (read, have lots of kids). This was God’s first design, He had a family in mind as the ones that would take care of the earth and expand the garden.
This is just a really quick overview of what the Bible says in regards to orphan care and God’s design for adoption and family. Nonetheless, we can gather a few things from just understanding this text. If you were to read the Bible, then be presented with the plight of millions of orphaned children, would you gather that all you need to do is establish an orphanage? The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t do that and it wasn’t until the legalization of Christianity a few centuries after Christ, that Christians started to do it.
I propose that there is a better way. God’s original design was for children to be in families. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can get back to that design and see orphans receive what they need most of all, the love of a godly father and mother.
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Click here to read Part 2 where we’ll talk about some of the practicalities and difficulties that are presented through both the orphanage system and the families model. If you found this post interesting and something to be considered, then I’d appreciate you sharing it. These are conversations within the church that need to take place and every single one of us has a role to play. Not all are called to adopt, but all are called to do something.
I suppose a good life ought to give you moments when you say, “am I really doing this right now?” I had one such moment earlier today.
I wore slacks today. I rarely wear slacks and when I do, it’s on Sunday, not Thursday. But today I did. I also wore the only pair of dress shoes that I own, which I bought at JCPenney for my junior year homecoming. So that’s 12 years ago. If those hush puppies were actual puppies in 2002, they’d be dead now, as my shoes ought to be. Such a rarity this outfit, Melissa was inclined to snap a picture.
What a dweeb, and why am I folding my hands like that?
I don’t normally dress this way, but Meshak and I had a meeting with a regional officer at social welfare to talk about our ministry’s introduction letter to the department. I was dressed to impress, quite literally.
As is the custom, we arrived later than planned and still waited a while outside the office on a rickety wood bench. As we sat, we talked about Meshak’s church and their involvement with Kingdom Families. We talked about American sponsorships, vocational training, parental training and all this other stuff regarding our ministry. We talked. There are a lot of times where we talk about stuff that we haven’t yet done and don’t necessarily have experience in. Talking is pretty easy.
At last, Mama Mboya, the official we were meeting with, calls us in. We sat down and exchanged the normal greetings. She looks at me and introduces herself and I remind her that we’ve met before as I previously worked at Treasures of Africa. She smiles and says (in Swahili of course) “oh yes, I remember you. Your beard is bigger now.” My trademark. I am “mzungu na ndevu” that is “the white guy with the beard” that’s my remembrance.
As we begin conversing we share with her about Kingdom Families and what we’re doing. Now, we do already have five kids in our program, but in most respects the project is still in it’s infancy. Hence why we’re introducing ourselves to the regional office in the first place. She shares with us her thoughts, a concern or two and gives us several items that we need to include in our introduction letter for opening a file at social welfare. After fifteen minutes or so of talking, Meshak and I tell her goodbye and walk out to the parking lot. There, we converse some more about the letter that I’ll be writing this weekend and then part ways.
When God first called me to Tanzania, I knew that at some point my wife and I’d be running an orphan care ministry and now that it’s happening, I’m like “what’s happening?” I just told an official in welfare that we’re going to be responsible for children that are not our own. We’re going to try and match them up with families that we believe will love them and care for them. We’re going to find sponsors for all these kids, provide oversight to make sure they’re taken care of, train the parents that bring them in. And we’re doing all of this by faith. We have to believe that God is helping us, we have to believe that we’ll get kids that need families and we have to believe that out of their own goodwill, Tanzanian couples are going to open their homes to these children for the next dozen years or so. What’s happening? And why am I wearing these 12 year old loafers today?
I’ll be honest, I’m in uncharted territory. I wound up here somehow. I don’t have to be in Tanzania. This is my choice. I didn’t have to go and tell a regional officer of Kilimanjaro that me, Melissa and Meshak are going to start putting orphans into Christian families and then supporting that family. This is my choice. This is a largely thankless job most of the time and that’s totally okay. Orphans shouldn’t have to say thanks for being my dad or thanks for finding me a dad, because being a child should just mean that you have a dad. It’s supposed to be the norm. It’s our choice to be here. We’re here because by faith we believe that God said something to us years ago about caring for orphans in Africa and we by faith decided to walk towards that.
Faith. That’s the currency of Christian life. By this world’s standards, I’m wearing 12 year old loafers and a second-hand button up shirt. But I want to be a rich person, that’s my aspiration.
Over the last few days, I’ve been diving into some thoughts on short term missions. Up to this point, I’ve only spoken about some of the problems that we, as American ministers, often commit in our attempt to help. Its been a little rough at times, but I think that a proper diagnosis and analysis of the situation is important for us as we move forward towards something better that God has for us. If you didn’t see the previous posts, I recommend you head back and get to reading them. The first was on discipleship and effectiveness, then the second was on money and perceptions.
Today, I’m looking forward to talking about something that I am much more excited about. Despite what you might think from the previous posts, I believe that there is a lot to be excited about in the missions movement of recent years. The fact that so many people are wanting to get involved shows so much promise and I believe that as we pray and move forward, God is going to do more and more to see the global harvest come in. Below are some things that I think can help get us there, this list is far from comprehensive, but I think that it can get us going in the right direction.
MAKE THE TRIP ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE TRIP
This is something that I hammer on whenever I get the opportunity. A two week trip is too easy to be that effective and there are so many blind spots (some of which I spoke of in the previous posts) that can make the trip, in fact, detrimental. When we decide that we are going to make more of the trip than just going for a couple weeks (or the six months of preparations), we are saying ’yes’ to be a part of what God wants to do in that place for the long haul. Perhaps, that means the Lord is calling you to a long term mission in that city, but even if He’s not, I believe He still wants us to extend our involvement in that place.
When I first felt God calling me to Africa, I made a point to apply forwhatever short term teams my university was sending there. I applied for Tanzania and Mozambique and was accepted for Tanzania. When I found out that we would be working at a small orphanage called Treasures of Africa, I felt the Spirit incline me to do something beforehand. I decided that I would sponsor a child at the orphanage. That child ended up being Awadhi and that relationship, that sponsorship, radically changed my life and propelled me into a deeper discipleship and calling. It was a simple enough decision. I decided to send $100 every month and pray for this little boy. But God used it to open me up more and more to making the short two weeks into something far more.
When missionaries follow Jesus’ calling to a particular nation, they realize that this calling is going to take of their own time, effort and finances. While they may not know how long they’ll be there whether it be a few years or a lifetime, they nonetheless know that it is going to take time. Short term missions trip offer an opportunity for those that the Lord wants in the US to make a similar commitment to missions in another country at the same time. What would it look like to make a multi-year commitment to one ministry in one country and have that be the country that you visited?
This will inevitably take more sacrifice. Sacrifice of potential other opportunities. Instead of hopping to another country and another ministry every summer, you put one spot on your map for however many years and say, “I’m going to bless the socks off of that ministry. I’m going to pray for them everyday. I’m going to encourage the church leaders and missionaries there through letters and emails. I’m going to advocate for them stateside. I’m going to give money generously and sacrificially towards the Kingdom-work that I see them doing.”
Commit yourself to believing in faith, then seeing with your eyes that God is doing something there. You can then feel assured that you are fulfilling your calling to those nationals that become disciples of Christ.
We have a church in Costa Mesa that took us on as missionaries last year. This is an Assemblies of God church and we are a non-denominational ministry. While this church is on the site of my alma mater, Vanguard, I personally never attended there. Nonetheless, they have circled Moshi on their map and decided to pour money and prayers into the Kingdom work there. Therefore, they support multiple ministries/missionaries in Moshi and are committed to seeing God exalted in that city. I think that’s pretty cool.
A couple days ago, I mentioned an email conversation that I had with a guy from a supporting church of ours and he brought up the standards that they are setting up for people that they would send on short term teams. They won’t send people that don’t have fruit on the tree in their own city. That is an important standard and brings us to the question of how is local fruit and global fruit related?
God’s Kingdom is at work in all places. He is in the process of turning people’s hearts back to Him and renewing all things. This takes place on every continent (yes, even Antarctica). God wants to do something in Thailand, Kenya, Uruguay, Bosnia and your city. He is no respecter of persons in that He is calling all to Him without discrimination. Kingdom work is Kingdom work. I mean this in the least cliché way possible, the Lord wants you to live on mission in your own city. You are a minister of the gospel all the time. Segregating our missions outlook between what we do overseas and what we do at home is detrimental to our spirituality and our witness, especially when you consider that you are going to be far more effective in your own cultural context of home. Allow your desire for international missions be the spark that ignites your passion for the mission opportunities in your very own city.
Furthermore, local fruit doesn’t mean only ministering to people that are just like you. It is quite easy in the US to minister cross-culturally to someone right down the street. For example, I am from California and throughout my life, there have been opportunities at pretty much every church that I’ve been a part of to go down and do ministry in Mexico. While those opportunities would come by from time to time, I rarely heard of outreaches to the Mexican community in the very city in which the church was in. I’m talking about Paso Robles, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, there is a considerable Mexican population in each of those cities. That is a blessed opportunity to get down to Kingdom work in our own backyard.
INTERNSHIPS AND DISCIPLESHIP TRAINING SCHOOLS
As you would gather from reading up to this point, one of the problems that I observe in short term missions is just that they are too short. A simple remedy to that would be to make it longer. Makes enough sense. My 2009 internship in Tanzania was honestly an integral part of my move to Tanzania just five months later. Internships of two or three months in the host country pack a lot more punch on both sides of the equation. The short term missionary intern is given a lot more opportunity to get into the pace of life of their host country and foster deeper relationships with the nationals they meet. At the same time, they are often put in a position where they can really aid a ministry during a time of need.
It also helps that interns come by themselves or in a group of two or three. That helps them become more self-sustaining and hence less of a stress to their host missionaries. They then get more of an opportunity to enjoy the relationships and learn from the missionaries and national leaders, hence aiding in their own discipleship.
Discipleship Training Schools (DTS) are similar to cross-cultural internships in the focus on commitment to discipleship. A DTS allows the short-termer to experience more of the culture that they’re in while being fed and stretched to grow spiritually themselves. This too takes more of a time commitment, but we shouldn’t shy away from commitment, because what you’re doing is putting down spiritual roots in your own life and advancing the Kingdom more effectively in other people’s lives. That’s worthwhile.
Possibly the most important way to make the most of any ministry opportunity is intentionality. This certainly goes for short term opportunities like a DTS or an internship. These opportunities present a better chance to really experience God and be effective, but it isn’t automatic. God calls all of us to live lives that are intentional. We must go into these experiences not only hungry, but laying it all out for God, striving for more of His Spirit and more of His kingdom. That’s how we make the most of any spiritual experience.
The path that we walk must be humility. Sad to say, many of our downfalls are caused by a lack of humility. I’m not simply talking about people that you can tell are proud and brash. Beyond that there are everyday mistakes that we make, because we assume that we know what is best. This stance is something that is bred into our culture and is silently lethal to not only missions, but our own spirituality.
The truth is that the center of Christianity has already begun to move, and in many people’s views already has moved, away from the west and has landed in the majority world. We go to these places expecting that we are going to wow them with our service, only to find that the people there are hungrier than us and their churches experience far more growth than ours back in the states. There is something to be said for that.
Jesus’ teaching is clear that it is better to serve than to be served and it is better to honor than to be honored. While we normally give mere lip service to the former, we hardly even consider the latter.
So what does it look like to walk humbly, to just serve and honor others in short term missions? Three little words will go a long way here. Listen. Submit. Acknowledge.
Unfortunately, we often come into short term missions with our own idea of how things ought to go. We know what we want to do, what we want to bring, how long we will be there, how many people will come and the like. That can make it very hard to accommodate within a ministry in the host country. Listen to the missions contact whether that be a national pastor or a missionary. If they say they need six people, don’t send fifteen. If they ask you to bring certain supplies for them, don’t waste all your space on personal items or things that are unnecessary. If you tell them that you want to bring a team of twenty people for ten days and they tell you that what they really need is two people for the whole summer, suck it up and see how you can help. Very likely, they may be more in need of prayers and money than a team of people at all.
The second part of this is to submit. The overseas ministry is the spiritual authority in this situation. Make sure that they know you’re behind them, regardless of whether or not you get to do exactly what you want. Too often, I feel, ministries are forced to take on a team or some service just because its better than nothing. They don’t feel secure in the relationship enough to say what they actually need, because they don’t want to miss out on the partnership altogether if the team decides to go in another direction upon hearing the ministry’s requests. This would be especially true for national church leaders that are in hopes of American partners.
The third part is really the attitude of the heart in submission, and that’s to acknowledge. The overseas ministry knows better than you and the team. What you think is a really good idea, might in fact be a really bad idea. Don’t be discouraged by that, but just recognize that God put this overseas ministry in your life to turn your compassionate heart into an effective expression of God’s kingdom. Acknowledge that they know best and submit.
So many of our missteps would be cured if we would just listen, submit and acknowledge the overseas ministries that we seek to partner with. In my estimation, this approach enhances our follow-up, our relationship with the local church/ministries and helps us become more culturally sensitive. It will also help us refrain from making poor judgments or expressing false perceptions. A person walking in humility will recognize that they don’t know a ton about the culture after only a short time and will hence hold their tongue from broad generalizations and rash statements.
BE WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IS BEST, EVEN IF THAT’S CANCELLING THE TRIP
I would be remiss to not take this all the way to its potential furthest extent. I’m not saying that short term trips ought to stop. I am not saying that. They can, if done properly, be a part of global missions. What I am saying is that some teams are better not sent and that could be a team being sent from your area.
What we ought to be after is growing spiritually and advancing the Kingdom. If a particular short term team or trip isn’t going to do that very well, it’d probably be better to stay home, donate that money to a worthwhile cause and pray for the nations. Over the last few days, you’ve read about different reasons that this might be the best option.
The elements that I’ve discussed in this blog are not either-or, but both-and. Its not enough to go for an internship, if you aren’t willing to give and pray beyond that when you return to the states. Its not enough to just cancel the trip, if you aren’t going to focus on local ministries while supporting global ministries with prayer and finances. The fact is that the Lord has endowed Americans with prayer, intellect and financial prowess to play an important role in His cause for every nation. Every Christian is called to fulfill the Great Commission both locally and abroad in one way or another. I invite and encourage you to play your part.
Like I said from the start of this series, I’m just a small voice in a sea of meaningful people talking about this important subject. Though this series is over, I encourage you to read more and more importantly, act. Your church does missions, both globally and locally. Be a part of that and make an impact for Christ and His Kingdom.
I also highly recommend a couple books that I’ve enjoyed and learned from: When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett is incredibly informative and thorough. This is a must read for those that are outreach minded (which all Christians ought to be). Read this book, you’ll learn so much.
Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan has been a widely circulated book that sheds light on missions in Asia, but can be applied to some degree to other majority world countries. The thing that I like about this is his perspective as someone from India and how that has translated to the way that he runs his organization. His views on money are to be carefully considered by American church goers.
Five years ago, I went to Poland. I raised nearly $3,000 from various friends, family and churches then boarded a plane with a group of students from my school. We spent 12 days out of the states and taught English while working towards some semblance of evangelism. A few Poles got saved and I figured that this introduction into global missions went about as good as they come.
In the midst of what I considered to be a unique-to-college experience, I didn’t realize that I was a part of something much bigger happening in the American church at large. A multi-billion dollar venture into a different take at global outreach, something on the short-term scale.
In my own thoughts and writing on short-term missions, I have felt as though, I must temper what I say, because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Perhaps, you or someone close to you has been in short term missions and really enjoyed it or really felt God in that time. I praise God for that and let me start by saying that I myself have been on multiple short term missions which have played a part in my walk with God to one degree or another. My purpose isn’t to tear down what God’s done in your life, nor belittle it, but rather to add to a dialogue that gets us to more effective, Kingdom-based ministry. Above all, I know that’s what we as followers of Christ want.
In a post that seems to have been in the making for a while, I decided to break it up into three parts. In this blog and tomorrow‘s blog, I’ll offer some critiques of the current way of things. The purpose of this is not cynicism (so forgive me if it comes off as such), but rather to point out some things that can be detrimental to one’s spiritual health, for ourselves or, worse yet, for those that we went to serve. It may seem a little rough at times, but I ask you to stick with me, because I believe God has something for us. The third blog (that I’ll post on Monday) will be some ideas that I think could get us going in the right direction. There are people with more experience and more insight on this and I’ll suggest some later on, but this is my two cents. I write out of things I’ve read, but more out of my experience doing overseas missions, long-term and short-term.
Throughout these posts, I ask for your engagement. Disagree, agree, share your experiences in missions. Tell me what you think.
In Jesus’ teaching and especially in His final address to His disciples, The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), He makes it abundantly clear that discipleship is THE way to change the world. It isn’t a facet of our spirituality, but rather the mode in which we actually become like Christ and love God. That is our main purpose in life. I’m sure that you would agree from your experience that discipleship is rooted in relationship and relationship happens over time.
Discipleship is about creating a lasting change and establishing an ongoing growth in the Spirit. The average short term trip focuses on a two week trip (if that). There might be a series of five or six pre-trip meetings and perhaps a reunion/debrief afterwards. The whole experience for the short-term missionaries may only be a small portion of their lives over a six month period of time. How much less would it impact those nationals that the Americans go to serve in that brief two week stint!
We like to think that we’ll stay in touch online or we’ll come back again next summer, but those rarely happen. Facebook messages and emails are quickly strained when wanting to talk with someone who speaks another language, has poor English and limited computer access (and don’t even get me started on substitute technological spirituality, because I don’t believe in it. Community is best served face to face.) Then, when the next summer rolls around we find that we want to go to another country instead or rather not go anywhere at all. If one does go back, he’ll probably find himself doing the same things he did the previous summer. Where’s the progress in that?
Furthermore, there is often a missing element of sacrifice on behalf of the short-termer in most cases. I am primarily referring to financial sacrifice. Let’s paint a typical picture of a short-term team. You plan six months in advance and begin fundraising. Most of your money comes through donations from friends, family and churches. So you get the time off work ahead of time, then travel overseas on someone else’s dime with a group of friends that you’ve really grown to like. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Is that a sacrifice of two weeks? I would say that is a pretty enjoyable two weeks. On a trip that would potentially cost two or three thousand, the individual pays much less, maybe nothing. Again, I’m speaking generally, there are of course instances that do require sacrifice and I don’t want to discredit that. Nonetheless, this must be a concern to be raised.
The last thing on discipleship is something that I’ll talk about more later in this series. We are often apt to send just about anyone. I was a part of a trip in 2006 through a big Orange County church where they sent several dozen high school students down to Mexico to build houses. I served as an adult leader though I myself didn’t have a real connection to the church. Many of the students that went weren’t a part of the youth group and clearly weren’t even believers. During the evenings, we would have worship and the majority of the students talked throughout the service acting as though they were at a bad concert.
You may be thinking to yourself, by the church offering school mandated community service hours to these students, that they make those unbelieving students part of the church’s mission field. To which I would say that that is a risky move considering that from that point on they are representatives of the church and hence Christianity to the Mexican community that we were serving. Not to mention, if the target of outreach is the neighbor down the street (which is so important), then evangelism is best offered in a cultural context that is actually relevant to them, their own.
I was emailing back and forth with Billy some months ago as we were in Tanzania. Billy is a staff member at one of our supporting churches and when Melissa and I gave him our thoughts on missions as they form their missions council, he articulated a very succinct analysis of the very thing that I’m talking about. “If the individuals who want to go on the trip don’t qualify for leadership in our church, then we simply won’t be interested in sending them. However if they are radicals disciples of Jesus with fruit on the tree here in Long Beach then it might be worth it to send them.” Agreed.
The reason that we do missions is to inspire worship of Jesus in other people/cultures that don’t yet know about Him. I would like to propose that if there are methods of ours that are missing the target we ought to examine those and make adjustments or drop them altogether. Here are some of the pitfalls that I see that lower our effectiveness…
There is a somewhat inevitable cultural insensitivity that happens in overseas missions. This happens at some level for short term teams as well as long-term missionaries. It’s a tough thing to get around and the only remedy is a gradual increase of cultural understanding which of course takes time to learn. The average two week team doesn’t have the time to learn the culture, appreciate it and act accordingly. For those short termers that make an attempt to learn some things they often learn second-hand from a long-term missionary that may or may not be off themselves.
When I was preparing to go to Tanzania for the first time in 2008 as a two week short-termer, we asked a missionary if tattoos were considered offensive, he said that they weren’t and we had nothing to worry about. I am the bearer of a tattoo on my right shoulder, a scripture from Isaiah 6:8. Well, after sometime talking to my good friend Eli, a Tanzanian pastor and co-laborer at TOA, I’ve learned that tattoos are indeed frowned upon. Having a tattoo is correlated with being a bad person, possibly involved in witchcraft. Tattoos are not Christian and Christian Tanzanians do not have them. Now, I won’t open the conversation of whether or not its on me to “open their minds.” That’s not my job. Before we ever get there, being culturally sensitive, not giving a reason for offense, and fostering a positive relationship with Tanzanian Christians (my partners) comes first. Therefore, my kids have never seen me in a tank top (nor do I were my earrings at TOA).
National Church Partnerships and Follow-Up
That last part that I mentioned about relationship with the national church is so important and often poorly done. Like it or not, white, western powers imperialized the third world – those countries that are often the focus of our missions. Tragically, a common attitude in missions is that we, as westerners, are still in charge. We come in with the best answers, top of the line resources and are placed on a pedestal, whether we asked for it or not. This then strains the relationship with local pastors and church leaders who are indeed far more knowledgeable and more effective in their own cultures. This isn’t to say that western missionaries don’t have valuable insight that they ought to speak into the cultures, that’s so important. But unfortunately, the nationals are often lost in the aggressive western style of leadership and they miss out on what God was wanting to do in that group. And when they miss, we all miss.
Another facet of poor relationship with the national leaders is that it makes follow-up all but impossible. Yes, that’s right, I said follow-up. Follow-up is so important in any ministry, not the least of which is global outreach. I’ll tell you that it is incredibly easy to get a lot of poor people to come forward to an altar call, especially one given by an American team. They do it often (I have even come up to three different altar calls myself, when I was younger. Getting “born again“ blew Nicodemus away, he‘d be totally thrown for a loop to find that I‘ve done it thrice). But what comes after that? Remember discipleship is the model, not conversion. Conversion is only a point in our sanctification, not the end all. It’s an amazing point to be sure, but its only the beginning of so much more.
How long does it take to become fully discipled by the Holy Spirit? An entire lifetime just to get to the next stage of our relationship with Him. How long does a short term team stay? Two or three weeks, maybe. The point is without follow-up, we aren’t making disciples. A good start is handing off follow-up to national churches, but are they fit to handle the hundreds of people that came to your crusade? Probably not. So what do you do then? Help them build a church or greater ministry? How is that funded? How do you partner with them in the ministry to see the flock is truly fed? Well, those questions are best answered in long-term partnerships at which point we realize that we’ve had to go entirely outside the short-term model.
Relief, Rehabilitation, Development
If you spend much time at all reading about outreach efforts in the majority world, you will quickly come upon the terms relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is coming to the emergency aid of people. You can think of natural disasters or the aftermath of a terrible dictator. Rehabilitation comes right after relief and has to do with partnering with the disaster victims to build their society back. Then comes development which is all about getting sustainable societal and individual growth over time. These terms are typically taken in the physical sense of how to generate sustainable living for those that we minister to. That is a huge part of it, but I think that it applies equally to the spirituality of those to whom we are ministering.
The vast majority of the majority world is in need of development. The vast majority of American church outreaches see their poverty and default to relief in countries that need physical and spiritual development.
If someone is in need of development, but receives relief, what does that create? Dependency. They don’t feel inclined to get up and work on their house, because they can wait for the next team of Americans to do it. They don’t need to pursue God or appreciate their national spiritual leaders, because they prefer when the American crusade comes through. Who can blame them? Hear this, its not about them being lazy. This is a learned activity. It is about us being lazy, because we haven’t put forth the time, sweat and tears to actually help them.
A little heavy for day one. I’ve got a couple more things to talk about in regards to pitfalls with our current system. That’ll come tomorrow so check back on the blog then. Once we all suffer through that, we’ll turn the corner on Monday and look at some positive changes that are attainable and just steps away from where we are currently. Thanks for following along and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.
Here’s to building better missions and partnering for God’s Kingdom…