Raising up Leaders in Cross-Cultural Settings (Part 1)
“I’ve wasted eight years of my life!” he said, through tears. We were in a Starbucks with our Bibles open in a remote corner of Central Asia, a part of the world most people can’t identify on a map. A few weeks prior, my Central Asian friend “Timur” had called to re-establish contact with me. I admit, there was a level of skepticism as I listened over the phone as he told me of his return to the faith. His third wife had just confessed Christ, which prompted his own return.
Timur had once been our “all-star” leader. We’d trained him in various forms of church planting; sponsored him in a business-as-mission endeavor; coached him in the finer points of both accounting and evangelism; and taught him how to craft a faithful sermon. Yet I clearly remember the day he walked out of my house, leaving behind a wife and adopted child whose adoption our stateside church had raised funds to facilitate. Rather than first thinking of the tragedy and pain of this prodigal walking away from his heavenly Father (and a child left without a father for the second time), my thoughts and disappointment turned inward. My nicely crafted Church Planting Movement hadn’t happened—and it was all Timur’s fault!
CHARACTER > SKILL
I was crushed. The hopes and dreams I had pinned on having a national partner for gospel growth were shattered. Yet after the dust settled, I humbly went back to actually listen to what the Word of God said about such things. Often with a tinge of disappointment, I was reminded that our Lord is sovereign even over this. He had clearly spoken in his Word that when it comes to the servant-leaders of his church, character always trumps skill and knowledge.
Here’s a reminder, from 1 Timothy 3:1–7:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Those who lead God’s church need a certain level of knowledge of the gospel and the Word of God. How else would they be “able to teach”? However, if they lack character, they completely disqualify their ministry and defame the name of Christ.
Paul understood this as he exhorted both Timothy and Titus to appoint elders in their respective fields of service. If you combine the character lists from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, 23 of the 24 qualities reflect the character of Christ.
WHAT SEMINARIES OFFER TO THE CHURCH
Yet in our heavily academic seminary training, imparting knowledge is usually paramount. This training might provide an impression that knowledge is paramount for church leaders, a trend that’s unfortunately been adopted throughout parts of the world where Protestant evangelicals plant churches. While some have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to provide spiritual formation classes and the like, the basic purpose of a Bible school or seminary is to transfer information. Success for the student, then, is based on how well they reproduce acquired knowledge. One of my earliest experiences as a field worker in Central Asia involved seeing a brand new Muslim-background convert have a Bible school application thrust in his hand by a well-meaning visiting worker.
To be sure, seminaries can provide much value to the church. However, they shouldn’t be the frontline of discipleship. That distinction must be reserved for the local church itself.
Seminary-educated leaders aren’t a necessity for the advance of the church around the world. This needs to be reiterated again and again. However, in many situations overseas, there’s been an over-reaction against this so-called “academic” emphasis which has resulted in the promotion of philosophies such as Church Planting Movements. These are often driven by pragmatism and a call for rapid results.
This over-reaction uses the buzzword “training” or “training-for-trainers.” In reality, it’s often a skill-based evangelism method, whose basic follow-up for converts is a short-term inductive Bible study. In this approach, success is gauged by how quickly new Christians—or Christians who show interest in the training—can share the gospel and see response. In fact, relational discipleship is frowned upon due to its slowness and inefficiency. Trainees who fail to immediately implement the program by sharing their testimony or the gospel should be cast aside in favor of spending time with those who actually produce results. Interestingly, very little is said in relation to the development of character or a deep knowledge of Scripture.
Despite my criticisms of both highly academic and overly pragmatic leadership models, every serious missionary or church planter wants the same thing: the establishment and advance of the kingdom in the hearts of the lost for the glory of God. May the Lord raise up those who answer God’s call to invest in language and culture, not merely for the sake of evangelism, but to see the discipling of godly leaders who can teach others also.
So, how are biblical servant-leaders raised up? My next post will discuss some common themes and approaches the Bible commends. Such approaches can be applied in any cultural setting, as long as missionaries are willing to go through the suffering and struggle of learning the target language and culture.
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Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of this article here.