This is Number 4 in the Called?! series of posts.
Ecc 4:9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
Ecc 4:10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
Luk 10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
When exploring call, one of the questions that needs answering is “with whom?” In the Bible, the minimum grouping for any activity is two, from “it is not good for man to be alone” as part of the relational creational order, through “every testimony must be established by two witnesses” for the sake of accountability and reliability, to Jesus sending out his disciples “two by two.”
Jesus never sends anyone alone. Somewhere, there are people for you to be joined with, to journey alongside, to be team with.
Team itself is quite a problematic word. It’s not a Bible word. It doesn’t easily translate into some languages. Like “leadership,” it is understood by different people to mean different things. For some, task orientation is prioritised. For others, family life is what is meant. What is meant by “team” is often cultural.
One of the major causes of missionary attrition is team failure. Sometimes, this is because a team is just a group of individuals trying to “team” it; but their sense of call and vision is primarily individual, so when team gets hard, there is no loyalty binding them in. Sometimes, people are coming from such different places in terms of theology, church background, and all the intangibles of cultural baggage that the differences are irreconcilable. And sometimes, team leaders are pioneers, highly task oriented, and don’t have the pastoral or “soft” skills necessary for creating a community where everyone feels safe and valued.
And the stakes are high. Because people have left home and country and paid a high price to be a part of this cross-cultural church planting team, every bump and friction feels important, and more serious disagreements can really induce major existential spins.
- Team for friendship
“It is not good for man to be alone.” Humans are primarily relational and social beings, even the individualistic West acknowledges this. But throughout most of history, and across most of the world, the individualistic outlook so widespread today in Europe and North America was alien. People viewed their identity as embedded – within family, village, tribe, nation. They lived, moved and had their being as part of a greater body.
What this means, in practical terms, is that personal preference was always subsumed within a greater whole. Community-embedded people are used to being wronged, offended, misunderstood, misrepresented, overlooked, undervalued. They have the tools to negotiate their place within the body, for the good of the body. This, we believe, is not suppressive or oppressive for the individual, but rather enriching, discipling, and profoundly Biblical.
One of the key ways this plays out is the difference in expectation between single team members and married team members. Singleness is a great gift to mission, as Paul wrote
And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. I Cor 7:34-35
Throughout the history of mission, and it is still true today, single people have made an extraordinary contribution, and are worthy of great honour. Yet often, within team life, the friendship needs of single people are underestimated, partly because team leaders are often married, and as many of their friendship needs are met within marriage, they don’t create the friendliest of team environments.
- Team for spiritual warfare
Jesus speaks of the necessity of plurality in various teachings to do with spiritual authority and faith.
Mat 18:19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
Mat 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Ecc 4:12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Jas 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
Jesus outlines that two or three gathered in his name can know his presence – an incredible comfort to tiny groups of believers meeting in homes across unreached cities. There is spiritual power in the agreement of two people in prayer. The Ecclesiastes verse speaks of the vulnerability to attack of “one who is alone,” whilst two or three can withstand opposition. And throughout the New Testament, eldership is plural, as in the James verse, where plural elders praying together for the sick person will see miraculous healing.
As with the earlier authorising of the twelve to go out two by two, with authority over evil spirits, in the New Testament, authority is always given in a plural context. Spiritual warfare, through prayer or witness or just withstanding, is done in a plural context.
Cross cultural mission among unreached peoples demands a spirituality, a prayerfulness, a wrestling with the darkness, and this is best done, indeed, is only done, in community with others.
- Team for extendable Christian community
The goal of mission is indigenous Christian community. Relational output demands relational input. A community manifesting the life of the Spirit within its relationships models and births, opens itself up to include, local people who come to faith and are added in. In this sense, the cross-cultural church planting team is a proto-community, a microcosm of the church that will come to be planted.
Among Paul’s catalogues of friends and co-workers named in the epistles, many are both recipients and carriers of gospel ministry. In fact, the line is often indistinguishable between those connected to Paul who are “on the church planting team” in various places, and those who are coming to faith in the church plants. There is a fluidity, because those who are saved and added, are added to a community on mission. This is as it should be.
At times, missionary teams have found friendship and community within themselves, in their native language, enjoying bacon or Christmas together, which is not in and of itself problematic. But then they have seen those whom they are reaching as “contacts” or “disciples” or “converts,” rather than extending Christian community to them on equal terms.
V.S. Azariah, one of only 19 majority world Christians among the 1,215 delegates at the 1910 world missionary conference in Edinburgh, famously declared in his speech to the all the seasoned missionaries gathered at the conference, “You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.”
Scripture speaks of people being “saved and added.”
- Team for diverse perspectives and skills
No one individual has all the requisite skills. Gifting aside, each of us is limited by our own worldview and perspectives. Old people and young people see the world very differently. Africans and Europeans bring complementary strengths to the table. We need each other. The more diverse the church planting team, therefore, the more rounded and holistic will be its life and ministry.
It does take a certain kind of leadership, however, to make the most of being in a diverse team. It takes a certain kind of younger leader to honour the older people on the team, and it takes a certain kind of white leader to truly value the perspectives of people of colour on the team.
The art, therefore, the ideal, is to see those whom God has added together as gifts, as being “for such a time as this.” If the team is too broad in terms of theology, philosophy of ministry, expectations, it will be very difficult to hold together. But if the team is too narrow, meaning most people are from a similar demographic, it will rattle around in its own echo-chamber and reinforce its own cultural blind spots. A homogenous team actually becomes narrower than the sum of its individuals, as it keeps reinforcing its own prejudices. This is easily observable to the outsider, when teams constantly otherise or complain about the people among whom they are living and serving; “these locals are always so…”
The value of diversity must be a matter of theological persuasion, cultural competence must be trained, and team leaders must be encouraged to make the most of the gifts God has given.
- Team as journeying together through life
Finally, cross-cultural church planting teams do have a finite life-span. There is an intensity during the years of language-acquisition, early church planting, maybe young children, the survival of multiple crises. These highly emotional experiences can forge life-long bonds between team-members.
But there will always come the dismantling of the scaffolding, re-entry for some, re-deployment for others, and friendships can find it difficult to survive the change in pace, or intensity. From living on top of each other, crying together, basically parenting each other’s children, to suddenly living in different countries, processing a sense of grief or betrayal or disappointment… friends on team need to talk about this, to prepare for this. Sometimes, the stronger the bonds formed in team mission, the greater the loneliness that follows.
We see that it is important for children who have grown up together to stay connected as friends with an irreplaceable shared experience. We see that opportunities to re-connect at conferences or on home assignment are precious. And we acknowledge that there is no bond like the bond formed by being on team together in cross-cultural mission for the glory of God!