Raising up Leaders in Cross-Cultural Settings (Part 2)
In my previous post, I discussed the necessity of Christ-like character for those who would be leaders of Christ’s church. In raising up leaders cross-culturally, we don’t need seminary education or quick and efficient “results,” but to foster Christ-like character.
So, how do we raise up biblical servant-leaders in those cross-cultural contexts?
Here are four basic points that I believe the Bible commends to us.
1. Discipleship must be grounded in the church.
The first principle in raising servant-leaders is the need for life-on-life community in the context of a healthy church. Paul’s classic passage on the topic of discipleship is 2 Timothy 2:2: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
True discipleship flourishes in the context of the local church—not outside of it, like some platoon of Special Forces. Biblical community is the incubator for disciples. The Bible makes no distinction between normal Christians and super-Christians. All disciples are to “obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded” (Matt. 28:20). In fact, the only pronounced distinction amongst Christians in the body pertains to various spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4:11–13). Strong, godly examples of believers carrying out their various gifts within the body helps build the character that eventually produces servant-leaders, regardless of the culture.
2. Investment in the local culture enables deeper unity.
A second principle involves standing together in the midst of trials. One Sunday morning recently, my wife and I wept with a Central Asian believer who is very much like an apostle Paul to his people. As he told us about the attempted suicide of his oldest daughter, we all reeled from the shock and carefully counseled him from the Word.
Slowly and painfully, he and his wife are walking through their daughter’s struggles. As “Azat” finished his time with us that morning, he hugged me and said, “Thanks, Todd, my brother, I don’t have anyone else I can share these things with.” Azat serves with field workers who speak the nation’s official language, but not his heart language—which is the language my wife and I spent many painstaking years learning with almost no books or resources.
Some in the world of missions today ask the question as to whether learning the heart language is a necessity. That day with Azat, I learned my answer to that question.
After all, doesn’t loving one another demand that we go the extra mile? Even well-established local leaders need the support of others in the body. They’ll feel lonely and confused during trials. And it’s in these moments that cross-cultural workers are afforded opportunities to build deep and lasting trust. Learning language and culture can only help with that.
3. Investment in the Word produces maturity.
Third, raising up effective servant-leaders involves digging deeply into the Word. I’ve seen promising evangelists and church planters leave seminaries because they couldn’t pass a course like Church History and Christian Ethics; they simply couldn’t grasp the concepts as they were taught to them by Western professors through a translator. I’ve also been told that, because most of the Central Asian people I work with are semi-literate, I should just tell stories from the Bible to help them gain biblical knowledge.
But both of these scenarios fail to accomplish the goal of helping emerging leaders gain a thorough knowledge of Scripture. They may have their place, to be sure, but nothing replaces simply exhorting others to read and digest the Bible on a consistent and disciplined basis.
I recently began a Bible study with a young couple, “Azim” and “Nazrul.” Azim oversees a house church. They’ve been Christians for 15 years and even attended Bible school. The Bible study involved reading the text every day for a week and asking some in-depth questions. We started with the first chapter of John’s Gospel. After the first week, Nazrul said, “Todd, I used to always get a little squeamish when I would hear pastors say that Jesus was God.” This is understandable, since the whole concept of the divinity of Christ is under constant attack in her Muslim culture. She went on, “But now, for the first time, after reading John 1 very deeply, I can truly say that Jesus is both Savior and God!”
As we progressed in our study, Azim and Nazrul encouraged the rest of their house church to read the Gospel of John the same way they did. When Christians read their Bibles, they grow—and when Christians grow, they pass on the things they’ve learned to others.
4. Accountability fosters integrity.
Finally, the Bible is clear that the Christian life is one lived under the mutual accountability of other Christians. In the study I mentioned above, many life applications came to light through our discussion of the text.
Azim asked about how to deal with a wayward member who had fallen back into drinking and sexual immorality. We discussed the dangers of the prosperity gospel. Azim himself has been challenged to try and share the gospel personally with 100 people this year, to grow in his own personal evangelism. Every time we meet, we ask ourselves questions about both the text and our lives. Once, after a very busy week, Azim and Nazrul had failed to complete the study. So I canceled the meeting and said we would do it next week. Azim felt so badly that he called me twice to assure me that they were working on their study for our next meeting. Leaders need to learn to be accountable to their commitments because spiritual growth is fostered by deep, loving relationships. This is true regardless of culture.
Academic settings may impart knowledge; pragmatic approaches often do an excellent job building a particular skill. While both may be useful within the worldwide church, Christ-like character is the rail on which the church most effectively carries out its mission. We’re all called to live lives “worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). This should be the first goal of raising up leaders, in any context.
Raising up Christ-like leaders―while primarily a work of the Holy Spirit―happens in the context of healthy churches full of loving relationships, all of which take time. The cross-cultural worker who tries to take short-cuts to this goal will reap a poor harvest that will stand neither the test of time nor of trial.
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Editor’s note: Read Part 1 of this article here.