Category Archives: Missions

Missionary fog

When we lived in Stockdale, Texas, there was a fruit and vegetable stand on the highway outside of town. Travelers would stop to buy the fresh fruit and vegetables sold there. When someone would ask where he got the produce, the owner would point vaguely and say, “Back there.” Back there was a nearby supermarket, but he didn’t see any need to share that information with his clients.

That sort of thing happens in missions, I’m afraid. Donald McGavran, known as the father of church growth studies, used to call it “missionary fog.” There was a preacher in our area who used to talk about his mission work in Thailand. I asked a friend who worked in Thailand, and they replied that nobody really knew when or where this man had been there. As best they could discern, he had been on a mission trip or two.

There is a Christian sister who corners me from time to time to tell me about the dozens of churches that have been started in Cuba by a radio ministry she is on the board of. I know the skepticism shows in my face, because the last time she added, “I’m sure they are in areas that you aren’t familiar with.”

I know the man giving her the information. I was present when he claimed that many churches were started through a radio effort I was a part of. When he called on me to confirm his assertion, I could only stare in shocked silence. We did radio programs at a time when the Matanzas church was planting new churches. Coincidence doesn’t mean causality; that church planting program was well underway before we ever broadcast anything.

That fog seems especially strong where the Cuba work is concerned. Everyone wants to take credit. “It’s our preacher training.” “It’s our materials.” “It’s our radio work.” “It’s our conferences.” “It’s our Bible distribution.”

Shame on anyone who takes credit for another’s work. Feel free to praise the work of the Cuban Christians. Feel free to give the glory to God for the growth that only He can give. Stop pointing to yourself and your work.

Let the fog blow away. Honor those who deserve honor. Give glory to God.

Cuba and the future of missions

Tony Fernández at a morning activity for the elderly

I went to Cuba this past weekend with Steve Ridgell from Hope for Life (Herald of Truth) as well as Karene Neill from the Southern Hills Church of Christ plus Rosario Gibbs and Yukari García from the University Church of Christ. We mainly went to carry in some supplies that were needed there, but also went to observe and encourage.

Our time there reinforced my belief that our churches need to adapt to a new reality in much of the world, the fact that local Christians are seeking partners more than patrons. We need to learn to come alongside rather than dictate from afar.

More and more, I think we need to do what UCC has done: sponsor churches in other areas rather than sponsoring individuals. Don’t pay the preacher for the foreign church; provide the funds to the church so that they can pay their preacher. Don’t dream up new projects for them; get behind the projects that they have.

This obviously doesn’t work in places where the church is new. But I look at what has gone on in the province of Matanzas, and I can’t help but be excited. They are continually pressing forward and growing, dreaming of the future, preparing new teams to work in areas that are more distant. Tony Fernández, the Herald of Truth representative in Cuba, is the minister for the Versalles church and has led so much of this church planting movement.

Some things we saw:

  • The Versalles church, the one that we partner with, is seeking to replicate itself in other parts of the province. I don’t just mean planting churches; they’ve planted about 40 or so over the last decade. I mean that they want to equip some of those congregations to be hubs for new church planting efforts. They have identified three other cities in the province, in the north, the south, and the east. They are going to help a family of evangelists rent a home, give them a budget for transportation, and send them out to the surrounding communities.
  • Cubans continue to be hungry for God. They desperately need hope, and many are turning to God to find that hope.
  • The Christians are anxious to see the church grow. Tony told me about one of the mission teams that has begun working in the next province to the west. The leader told Tony that they were about to start in a town called Madruga. Tony asked him to wait since he knew that some ministers sponsored by a group here in the States are planning to eventually work in that town. The leader replied, “Wait? We can’t wait with the gospel. When those guys get there, we’ll turn the work over to them. But we can’t wait.”
  • The church is taking steps to reduce dependency on the U.S. For years, some of us who work in Cuba have talked about how to reduce the costs of the annual conferences in Cuba. While we talk, Tony and the Christians in Matanzas have taken steps toward doing just that at the farm the church owns. Their conference center will be up and running while we’re still debating the wheres and hows of the project.
  • The Christians are having to work around some of the things brothers from the States are doing. They won’t interfere, but they won’t but their hopes in ideas dreamed up abroad. It’s a bit sad to see how much money is poured into frivolous things, but Tony and his crew don’t complain about it. They’re too busy preaching.

I’m convinced it’s time to give more power to local Christians in other places. God has blessed Christians in this country with many resources. We need to do what we can to get those resources into the hands of faithful Christians… no strings attached. We don’t have to call the shots. We don’t have to make all the decisions. We just need to prayerfully partner with them.

Churches partnering with churches

For the last four years, the University Church of Christ in Abilene has been partnering with a congregation in Cuba to aid them in the outreach efforts. It’s something I’m very proud of, largely because I think it’s the type of mission effort that we need to see more of going forward.

We’re used to a model where a church in the United States supports an individual, typically a preacher. At one time, these were mainly missionaries from the United States. Now I’d guess that more locals are supported than foreigners. I think that, as we come to recognize the maturation of churches outside the United States, in many cases the best course of action will be supporting a congregation rather than an individual.

In this case, UCC partners with the Versalles Church of Christ in Matanzas. This congregation was started by Tony Fernández and his parents, and Tony continues to lead the church today. Over the last 10 years, the Versalles church has planted over 40 other congregations. They also have their own missionaries working in other provinces.

They have the know how. They have the manpower. They lack the material resources to continue to expand this church-planting ministry. UCC has the funds (thanks to a generous donor) and shares them with the Versalles church, no strings attached. We visit them, participate with them, listen to reports about what they are doing, but do not control their efforts. The church leadership makes the decisions about how to best use the funds they receive, and they’ve done a much better job of that than any outside church could have done.

Tony works fulltime for Hope For Life, a ministry of Herald of Truth. All of his funds, personal and work funds, come from this ministry. I’m in a funny middle position. Sometimes I carry funds to him from Hope For Life. Sometimes I carry funds to him from UCC. Sometimes I have both.

Tony makes a clear distinction between the funds. Those that are brought for the church are given directly to the church leadership. If possible, Tony doesn’t even touch them. The funds from Hope For Life go to Tony, for he has directed the Hope For Life efforts in Cuba since 1991. He, like me, responds to the board of directors of Hope For Life for the use of those funds. But in Cuba, he is responsible for the administration of those funds.

A lot of people at UCC have the mistaken idea that we somehow support Tony. I hate that, because I think they are missing out on the fact that we are part of something unusual and highly significant. Direct partnership between two congregations is an exciting prospect not only in Cuba but around the world. Our experiences over the last four years lead me to encourage other churches to do the same. In places where the church has already been established, don’t fund an individual; fund a church. Come alongside your brothers in Christ and say, “Here are the resources you need. Go do God’s work.” And put no other strings on the money.

I think you’ll be amazed at what God can do.

Debriefing short-term trips

debrief-001-001Whether we see our short-term mission trip as primarily an educational experience or mainly an evangelistic outreach, we should try to help participants process what they’ve seen and done. Research has shown that intentional debriefing of short-term workers helps them experience long-term changes based on the trip. (See Gary Green’s Now What for insights into this)

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some basic questions to ask:

  • What was the best thing about the trip for you?
  • What was the hardest thing about your short-term experience?
  • What would you have changed to improve this trip?
  • What did you learn…
    • …about yourself?
    • …about the people you visited?
    • …about the church overseas?
    • …about God
  • What do you plan to do about the things that you have learned?

Taking time to process questions like these and make specific plans about what to do with what was learned can make a short-term trip have long-term effects.

Short-term missions, long-term relationships

short-term-relationsAn e-mail comment reminded me of something that needs to be discussed as regards short-term missions: relationships. What happens to the contacts we make while on these trips?

First off, if your short-term mission trip doesn’t involve contact with people in the host culture, it’s really hard to consider it a mission trip. If such contact doesn’t come naturally, it needs to be planned for.

Secondly, we need to recognize cultural differences when it comes to friendships and relationships. Americans tend to be quick to make friends and often expect little of those relationships. In Argentina, for example, people were more particular about who they called friend; if someone was your friend, you would communicate with them regularly, visit them with possible, and treat them pretty much as a family member. Can you see how that would create conflict when an American would come for two weeks and make fifty “friends”?

When dealing with relationships in the church, this can be a critical issue. After many mission trips, the main church contact that some new Christians have is someone from another country. (NOTE: This is one of the BIG reasons why I do my best not to baptize when in another country; they need ties to the local church, not to me) If that contact is someone who doesn’t stay in touch with them, that doesn’t concern themselves with discipling the new Christian, the effect can be devastating.

There is an implied commitment when we go on a short-term trip. If we aren’t willing to invest in people long-term, we might do better to consider another form of ministry.