Think like a missionary

One of the best parts about being home on furlough is getting to spend time with dozens of different pastors. I’ve enjoyed asking them questions about their ministry and seeking their advice on issues I am facing. This time has deepened my gratitude and respect for pastors in America. The pastor’s work is not easy, and I am amazed at the perseverance and faith of the men with whom I have spent time.

All of these conversations have led me to think about the similarities and differences between my work as a church-planting missionary in Portugal and the work of a pastor of an established church here in America. Mulling this over, I thought, “What are some missionary practices that are sometimes overlooked in an established church and pastorate?” “What is something that a missionary does that could be helpful to a pastor?”

Now before I continue, I want to be clear about a couple of things. First, I am no church-planting or ministry expert. I recognize that most of the pastors I have met have far more experience and wisdom than I do. Also, I understand that the reality of ministry in an established church in America is very different from planting a church on the mission field. The American pastor faces expectations, entrenched practices, and hurdles to change that most missionaries never face. Nevertheless, here are some observations that I believe may be helpful and relevant.

1. Help your church reach the point where it doesn’t need you.

As a church-planting missionary, my goal and dream is to plant churches that become healthy and autonomous. I want to work my way out of a job. While most pastors would rather keep their jobs (though maybe not on some Monday mornings), the principle is similar. You want to see your church thrive and grow so that the entire congregation is ministering and serving. You want to see others grow in leadership.

At first, helping your church reach the point where it doesn’t need you may seem counter-intuitive. After all, many leaders are addicted to feeling needed and being the center of all decisions. But, the true test of the strength of an organization or a church is seen when the leadership leaves. When Steve Jobs died, people wondered if Apple would survive. It did, and it continues to succeed brilliantly. On the flipside, there are countless churches and organizations have stumbled and faltered when there was a change in leadership. A strong, dynamic, hard-working personality can cover a lot of gaps, but when that person leaves, the whole show falls apart. If a church lives or dies based on one leader, it will eventually die.

How can you help your church reach the point where it doesn’t need you? Here are some hard questions I have had to ask myself:

Are there ministries in the church that you are doing that other members could do? Then work hard to share the load and teach others to do these things. I am not above picking up kids for church, cleaning the building, making the bulletins, or making sure the nursery is staffed. I’ve done, and still do, a lot of these things as a church-planter. But my goal is to see other brothers and sisters sharing in ministry. In theory, we all agree with this, but the reality is a lot more complicated.

Sometimes we don’t give people the direction and guidance they need. Equipping people for ministry takes time and patience. Other times we micromanage and feel that nobody can do as good a job as we do. I have felt this often and have to fight against it.

Are you the only one in your church capable of leading a Sunday service, preaching, or leading a Bible study? If so, make it your mission to disciple people in your congregation so that they eventually are able to do these things. Often pastors invite outside speakers to come and preach while they are away. That is good, and the church can surely benefit from that, but do your best to include other people from within the church.

 Are you the only voice of leadership within the church?  One of the big responsibilities of the pastor or lead pastor of a church is to put a voice to the church’s vision. The pastor must speak courageously, decisively, and clearly about the church’s goals and vision, but it is also important to include others in this communication. I quickly found that when I spoke about an idea in church, the people saw it just as my idea. But when I had other people in leadership speak about an idea or plan, the church began to see it as “theirs.”

2. Network with other churches and pastors

As a missionary, I am “forced” to do this. I depend on dozens of churches here in America in order to serve as a missionary in Portugal. Again, the reality of a pastor’s life is different from that of a missionary, but I have noticed that it is easy for a pastor to get buried with everything that is going on with his own church and staff. However, time spent with other pastors is a worthy investment and mutually beneficial.

Some of the best pieces of wisdom I have received have been from other pastors. Some of the sweetest times I have had in prayer have been with other pastors. Some of my most creative ideas began with conversations I have had with other pastors. Seek out these relationships. Take the initiative, encourage another pastor, seek to bless another church in your area.

3. Write a prayer letter and chart your progress

I am convinced that writing prayer letters is one of the most important activities a missionary does. If it is true that God works and moves in result to prayer, then I want people praying for me and for the work I am doing. How can they pray and participate if I don’t communicate? The same is true in church. Now most churches I have been to have a long list of prayer requests printed for the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer time. This is good, but writing a prayer letter is not just writing a list of needs. It is communicating the big picture and story of what God is doing and what you as a church hope to see accomplished. Another benefit of writing a prayer letter is that it helps me stop and evaluate what is going on:

What are obstacles that I am facing?

Who are people that need special prayer?

What opportunities are before me?

What is something amazing that God has done recently?

These are just a few of the questions that I ask as I write a prayer letter, and they are questions that anybody in ministry should contemplate regularly.

How does writing a prayer letter translate into the life of a pastor? It could be beneficial to write a prayer letter to yourself occasionally. Over the years, these “prayer letters” can serve as a record to what God has done in your life and ministry, and it can help you stop and think about where you are at.

Furthermore, communication with the leadership in your church is vital as well. If you are training others and leading together with the leadership of the church, they need to hear about the progress you are making and the challenges you are facing. Beyond that, the congregation as a whole needs to have a sense of what is happening. Most people at church on Sunday are so entrenched in the weekly routine and schedule of church life that they often fail to “zoom out” and get a panoramic look at what God is doing. Be a visionary of what God could do in your congregation and communicate that vision.

Be an historian of God’s grace in your church and ministry. People are quick to forget the progress you are making and are often unaware of the challenges the church as a whole is facing. Be bold and loving in communicating, regardless of the form it may take.

One of the sweetest moments I have as a missionary was when I made a “year in review” video for our church’s first anniversary. It was precious to see our church celebrate the victories of the past year, laugh together, serve together, and thank God for his goodness. It gave our church a view of the story that God is writing in our lives together. If you look hard enough, you may be surprised by all that God is up too in your church.

Wherever you are today and however you are serving God, I pray that God would strengthen, inspire, and encourage you.

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Some recent pictures

We stayed at this church's mission house during January. Very grateful to have a place to call home while on the road.
We stayed at this church’s mission house during January. Very grateful to have a place to call home while on the road.
Abandoned church in Tennessee
Abandoned church in Tennessee
She ate all she could.
She ate all she could.
At the children's museum in Chattanooga.
At the children’s museum in Chattanooga.

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Walking bridge in Chattanooga
Walking bridge in Chattanooga
Hiking and "bear hunting" with Laura.
Hiking and “bear hunting” with Laura.
It's always good to see good friends
It’s always good to see good friends.

 

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João’s story: February prayer letter

Two summers ago, an eight-year-old boy named João began coming to our outdoor Bible club. He had a speech impediment, learning disabilities, and poor behavior. Most of the time, he would distract the other kids during the lesson or stare off into space with a glazed look. When he discovered that we had church on Sunday, he asked if he could come. At first, I put him off and said that we would have to get permission from his parents. I am ashamed to admit it, but at the time, I felt that we had enough badly behaved kids coming to church. I was hesitant to add one more to the mix. But João kept on asking, and finally I relented. Just as I had expected, he created problems from the moment he arrived. He spoke during the service, was rough with the other kids, and was often disrespectful. He got on my nerves, and several people in the church complained about his behavior. But he kept coming. Every Sunday he was waiting for me to pick him up in front of his rundown apartment building.

Fast forward two years: since we have been home on furlough, João is the big news we keep hearing about every time we talk to someone from the church. His behavior has dramatically improved. He is remembering the Bible stories he learns in children’s church. He’s started bringing his little brother to church as well. He begged some of the people in the church to pick him up to come to Wednesday night Bible study. They explained that it really wasn’t for kids, because it was a small group of adults doing a short Bible study and praying, but he kept insisting. Now he comes on Wednesday nights as well. What is truly sweet to see is how the people in the church are taking João under their wings and helping him. Genilson and Meire had him and many other kids in the church over to their home for dinner. Mario Duarte sits by João on Wednesday nights, helping him find passages in the Bible and letting him read out loud. There is a feeling of joy and wonder in the changes in João’s life.

This furlough is flying by with less than six weeks before we return to Portugal. While furlough is not exactly a vacation, we have experienced many wonderful moments that leave us strengthened for our return to the field. Last month, we got to visit Sarah’s family and introduce them to Samuel. We have shared sweet moments with friends. Churches and individuals have generously opened their homes to us, asked about the work in Portugal, told us they pray for us, and given our kids and us goodie bags. We are overwhelmed by your love and encouragement. We have enjoyed our time in the good ol’ USA, but our hearts and minds are looking to Portugal. Laura keeps asking if she will ever see her room again, so she, too, is ready to head back “home” to Portugal.

We are praying for God’s guidance us as we prepare to begin our second term in Portugal. These are four big goals we have as we return.

  1. Strengthen the church plants (both the hearing and Deaf church) and help them grow towards maturity and autonomy.
  2. Begin new works. As the hearing church strengthens, we hope to eventually begin new Bible studies and works in other areas without churches. With the Deaf, our goal is to begin having weekly services and see more Deaf saved and baptized.
  3. Train more leaders. During our first term, our big priority was to meet new people, but now we hope to spend more of our time this term training leaders.
  4. Lead more people to the Jesus. God is control of this, but each time we are able to lead someone to the Lord, it makes us hungry for more. It took us until almost our third year to finally be able to lead someone with whom we were directly working to the Lord. But since then, we have seen almost a dozen people profess faith in Christ. We hope this number will grow greatly in the years to come. Thank you for your part in helping us reach people like João with the gospel.

In Christ, David and Sarah

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