Thinking Through the Missionary’s Influence in a New Church
Pastor? Elder? Member? Outsider? Leader? Leadership Developer? Discipler? Shadow Pastor?
What role should cross-cultural church planters play in a new church plant? This question is complicated and the answers vary according to both the context of the church plant and the gifting of the church planter. In a context with high persecution and low gospel exposure, the question becomes even more complex.
First and foremost, it’s foundational that everyone have an unswerving belief that every church plant is God’s. He is the one who has called the people out of darkness to glorify him. This newly formed and forming flock is dear and precious to him. He will care for and mature it. Each member is important and has been gifted by God to serve and to be served. God has chosen this church to make himself known among these people.
The same Spirit who brought you, the missionary, to salvation the same Spirit who guides and continues to guide you, is also at work among these people. His creative work will glorify the Father through an expression of praise that’s true to the culture.
The Spirit is the rightful leader from the beginning. We’re the ones who are expendable servants. Our role is to help lead the church into maturity by investing in the members, seeking to develop leaders, and promoting a ministry DNA that sees the Bible as its guide.
Even if we’re not a formal part of that new church, our words and actions carry special weight. The church planter is seen as the mature believer, the one from a “Christian” country. From the beginning, we must exercise great care with that influence. We must not set leadership precedents based on our gifting, nor on our cultural bias of what a leader should do or how he should lead. We must instead seek to immerse new believers in God’s Word, letting the Holy Spirit convict and counsel. We must recognize our lives will be living models of the application of these truths.
THREE WAYS TO EXERCISE INFLUENCE
Practically speaking, how can we more effectively exercise our inevitable influence over this young church to grow them up into maturity? Three things come to mind: develop Bible-based decision making, use questions in instruction, and live a wise and quiet life.
1. Develop Bible-based decision-making.
Missionaries should want to leave behind local leaders who have been trained to look to the Bible for wisdom, correction, and nurture. It’s important to build a foundation in biblical understanding, but we often overlook our own example as we engage both new believers and church leaders in decision-making.
We must be careful to not short-circuit the development of good decision-making in the lives of new leaders by quickly giving personal opinions based on past experience rather than pointing them to God’s Word. We want the church to depend on God’s Word, not us. We want new leaders to be trained both to ask what the Bible says about an issue and be willing to do the work of seeking biblical fidelity in areas that are either not as clear or counter to the resident culture. The best way for new leaders to learn this pattern is to bump into it in their daily interactions.
2. Use questions and stories to teach.
Jesus often responded to questions with another question as a way to serve his listeners. Asking questions that lead the listener to growth and maturity provides an opportunity for new leaders to be creative and grow in their ability to discover answers to difficult problems. This is an art that takes practice and divinely given wisdom.
3. Live wisely.
While our words as church planters will have influence, our lifestyles and application of biblical truths are our best training tool. Planting churches where there are no churches means working with church leaders who have likely never witnessed a Jesus-following dad or mom. They’ll wonder when and how you pray. They’ll watch how you deal with government officials and ungodly neighbors. Parenting, handling money, home life, time management, and work habits are all areas where the church planter teaches and trains, even when you’re not aware of your influence.
Knowing this, how do we make lifestyle decisions― about homes, transportation, children’s education, pets, job, relationships with nationals, etc.―in this context?
Since our lifestyle will influence local believers, we cannot make these decisions simply based on what we can get by with. For example, I once asked my office worker, “Is it okay for my wife to ride a bike to work?” He said, “Sure, no problem at all. Ladies ride bikes here all the time.” Then I asked, “Does your sister ride a bike?” He turned red in the face.
To me, both questions should help me to know what he thinks about women riding bikes. But to him, these questions were very different. The first question was about what will be forgiven or overlooked when done by a foreigner, guest, or outsider. The second question was about appropriate behavior for someone who wants to live as a respectable part of the community (1 Tim. 3:7).
Unfortunately, cross-cultural planters sometimes respond poorly to the need to make these decisions sacrificially. They might respond with defensiveness, denial, or anger. How can those who have sacrificed so much be expected to give up their kid’s dog in order to exercise hospitality? How can those who are just edging out survival in a new place be expected to give up the very comforts that help them get through the day?
Missionaries must remember: both the young church and nonbelievers are watching. Often, the lines of protection we draw around ourselves are actually chains of bondage to self-interest. What we do will either confirm or drown out what we say. As we lay down our own convenience for what will serve others best, we’re modeling the kind of sacrificial leadership Jesus himself showed.
Every gospel-preaching church belongs to Christ―not us. In planting churches cross-culturally, we must be intentional in the ways we teach and model biblical leadership in order to help develop strong leadership within the church. This is crucial, especially in places where there’s high persecution and low gospel exposure.