When I was a kid, during the summertime my Dad used to take the family camping or on day trips out to one of Michigan’s many lakes. We would bring the boat along and go tubing, swimming or just hang out and barbeque on the shore. On one of these occasions, we went out to Gun Lake, an exceptionally beautiful place.

Now, sections of Michigan lake bottoms can be thick with mud, which isn’t any reason to not swim there, but for eight or nine-year-old boys, stepping down into the cold, gooey sludge was not the kind of sensation that my brother or I looked forward to. So, my Dad bought us each a pair of water shoes. They looked a lot like these ones:

Since we’re twins, we agree on absolutely everything, and it was inconceivable that each of us should have different designs or colors of shoes. They had to be identical. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair. It should also be said that this principle of fairness often was in direct conflict with another unspoken principle we held–that each of us should fiercely protect our own possessions, bearing responsibility for only our own, meaning the only difference in our possessions was often an “E” or “V” added in Sharpie to the object.

Hence we each held responsibility for separate but identical pairs of cool blue water shoes.

I’d say we had used the shoes only a handful of times before our trip to the lake. It was a wonderful day–good water temperatures, fair weather–everything we needed to completely wear ourselves out with the fun. Docking the boat and loading it onto the trailer after use can be a tiresome process, especially as were all exhausted from the day. Nevertheless, we unloaded everything from the boat onto the pavement beside the docks. Dad and Mom grabbed the majority of the stuff, but asked my brother and I to help out. Dad tasked me with retrieving the water shoes and a few other things.

Following the the aforementioned principle, I retrieved my own shoes, and promptly forgot that I left my brother’s shoes on the pavement by the time we arrived home. A few days later, but not enough for my father to forget who he asked to grab the shoes, as we were preparing to go on another summer trip, we noticed that only one pair of shoes were there. My brother’s were likely collecting mold on the pavement an hour away.

Scolded, I was a bit ashamed at my selfishness but was assured by my principles that my brother was afterall responsible for his own shoes. With that satisfaction in my heart, I slipped my left foot into my water shoes, and then attempted to fit my right as well. It wouldn’t go on. Frustrated, I removed them both and studied them. Annoyance gave way to bewilderment, which slowly gave way to embarrassment as I realized I had two left shoes.

Mixed-Up Priorities for Missions

We sing a song based on John 13:35 that goes “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Awesome. Such a great sentiment, and true. However, the scripture with a bit more context goes as follows:

33 “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:33-35, NIV)

The message is that of a father to his children. It’s a family message, and it’s meant to cut us to the heart. For a bit more context, add in the preceding verses where Jesus discusses his imminent betrayal and resulting death by agonizing torture. Then add the following verses where Jesus tells his closest friend in life that even he will deny ever having known him.  It’s not the sappy vague sentiment of world peace achieved through Hallmark cards and “Love Wins” t-shirts. It means “the marker that you know the King of Kings will be your ability to show love to one another.”

Sometimes as missionaries, we get our priorities a bit mixed up, and it sends some conflicting messages to those we’re ministering to. When we preach, we tell people who don’t yet know Christ about this awesome thing called “the Church,” where we call each other “brothers and sisters.”

Brothers and sisters, for some time now, a deep conviction has grown in me that we don’t actually treat each other like brothers and sisters. In fact, outside of our preset meetings, the very people we call our family are visibly at the bottom of our priorities list–after our jobs, education, “ministry,” projects, home improvement, social media, emails, newsletter writing or a dozen other things.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with watershoes, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The Reality in the Field

Today's missionary attrition rates are higher than ever.

Today’s missionary attrition rates are higher than ever.

Twenty-somethings whose only missions experience was on a YWAM base or short-term trips may be a bit confused when I try to explain how it looks to be a long-term missionary. For someone who’s time overseas was spent in the community of dozen(s) of other young missionaries, it’s strange to hear that for the most part, traditional missionaries live separately, even as singles. Traditional missionaries typically work on separate projects, prioritize time spent with the locals, and see one another once a week on Sundays–maybe twice on a good week.

For what follows, it’s important not to read this as a criticism of traditional missionaries. Missionaries are among the most loving, self-sacrificial, under-appreciated, and over-worked members of the church. Like pastors, their responsibilities almost always way exceed their ability to carry them out. However, unlike pastors, missionaries have the burden of doing ministry in a culture that is not their own, in a language that is not their own without the support of a community, extended family, or the comforts of home.

With all this stacked against them, you would expect missionaries to bond together overseas despite differences in theology, age, sex, home-culture or personality. You would expect these conditions would inspire us to fulfill the command to love on another.

The reality however is quite the opposite. Missionaries, some who even share in the same visions, desperately cling to their own projects. They easily fragment. Missionaries are easily jealous for each others’ successes. Stuck in “survival mode,” we avoid service to one another and gravitate towards ministries that will give us the feeling or appearance of success. In Japan, I’ve noticed in some churches/groups an unhealthy obsession with numbers–attendees or salvations. In conjunction with that, I see unhealthy disinterest in “what is God saying,” or “how can we serve one another to help each other accomplish these goals.”

Today’s generation of missionaries experience attrition at greater rates than ever before. Studies site several reasons for this, but after simple retirement, the top reasons could almost always be attributed to other believers:

  1. Lack of Financial Support
  2. Interpersonal Relationships with Other Believers
  3. Disagreements with Sending Agency/Church
  4. Problems with Children

I submit to you that so many of these issues could be solved by entering in to true Christian community, rejecting selfishness, and becoming more dependent on one another and on Christ.

Depending on others is easier said than done–it’s a scary idea that other believers may hold the keys to our success or failure in their hands. Referring back to my story earlier, we’ve all had to manage disappointment with others like my brother did when he learned I had selfishly ignored his needs and left his shoes behind. It’s certainly easier and more secure-feeling to completely rely on ourselves. However, disappointments and letdowns are the cost of true familyDo you think my brother renounced me after I lost his shoes?

What most don’t realize is how much this type of self-preserving mistrust is a double-edged sword. Not only do we deprive ourselves of true communion with Christ’s body, but we also show an incredibly bad witness to those we’re ministering to. Who wants to a join a Church where life looks exactly the same as it did before? The Japanese don’t need or want to add another god to their pantheon, they want to experience the true love of Christ, something that was designed to be experienced as a community.

Need for a Cultural Shift

The command Jesus gives his disciples to is to be known by our love for one another. That means treating your brothers and sisters in Christ like your actual brothers and sisters. This isn’t anything new, but in our self-centered, individualistic western culture, it’s a radical suggestion. And it absolutely needs to take root for us to accomplish the great commission. We need to break the cycle of rejection, selfishness and self-obsession or we’re always going to end up with two left shoes.

There is a need for a culture shift in today’s mission fields, and there are already a number of groups leading the way. One of the groups I mentioned before is YWAM, which teaches a culture of honor, unity and forgiveness in their schools. Students of DTS schools are forced to get along through common projects and constant interaction.

Iris Brasil

iris team

Another group that is pioneering this concept is Iris Brasil. In contrast with YWAM, Iris Brasil in Fortaleza isn’t a school (although they may have on in the works), they don’t have rigid support structures, massive funding or a 15-step discipleship program. Their model of discipleship and family is based directly on Christ’s, and it looks like this:

  1. They never say “no” to Jesus. Listening to the Holy Spirit as individuals (and corporately) allows them to make healthy, Spirit-led decisions as a family.
  2. They submit to one another.Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV) is more than idea for them, it’s a reality.
  3. They recognize the priesthood of every believer (1 Peter 2:9). Order isn’t maintained by rigid hierarchy, rather each individuals passions, convictions and ministry is recognized by others of the group. While the projects each may do vary, missionaries help each other on projects that are not their own, recognizing the value that God has put in others.
  4. They live together. Twenty-thirty people living in close quarters inevitably creates all types of new stresses. Yet as that stress forces pain, fear and character flaws to the surface, members of the community view it as an opportunity to love one another, showing forgiveness and letting “Iron sharpen iron” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV).

Prioritization: Key to Sustained Community

While the last point (living together) would be difficult in Japan as the building they inhabit would easily cost ten thousand dollars a month to simply rent, it can be observed in the day-to-day practice of our lives.

When I returned to my home town after college in 2009, a few believers and I aspired to do just that, and the result was incredible. After three months of meeting several times a week in a generous friend’s basement, acquaintances and people I had never before met became as close (or closer than) brothers and sisters. It was not out of a sense of duty or obligation but a joy to meet as the family of Christ.

During that time, we would spends hours each week worshiping, studying the Bible and just hanging out as friends. Although we each had our own apartments, houses, jobs, classes and obligations, we made it our goal to prioritize one another above all of those things. We continued and established new outreaches, which are still active to this day. Every member of our group, including a number of disciples newly baptized in the Holy Spirit, is still passionate and seeking the Lord today. One is in seminary, another is in the process of starting and orphanage, two others went to Bethel ministry school, and nearly all since have been involved in short or long-term missions.

When believers must live separately, the key to community is prioritization. Taking time every day to spend time with other believers is crucial for our development as believers.

 

Features “Boarding” by Kevin Jaako. See Image on Flickr.