Tending to Eden: Conclusions

We are continuing to read through Tending to Eden by Scott C. Sabin.

The book has ten chapters, but I’ll leave the rest for you to read. I’ve just tried to hit the highlights — and enough of the substance to suggest a few conclusions. But you have to read the whole book.

Notice, first, that the old virtues remain true. Hard work, thrift, paying back what you owe … those things are just as true in Haiti as in Long Island. Indeed, more so, because third-world countries don’t have social safety nets.

When through a misguided compassion we give people what they could work for and earn, we do them no favors. We only manage to relieve our consciences — and we leave them in poverty and create a charitable system that many aren’t willing to support.

On the other hand, neither are the poor in the third world able to rescue themselves. They need help, but it’s a kind of help that’s harder to give than boxing up last year’s cast offs and writing a check. On the other hand, it’s a vastly more rewarding kind of help to give. I mean, I’d far rather support a program that not only wins converts to Jesus, but also rescues them from poverty so they can enjoy a good standard of living and even help support the next generation of missionaries.

And it’s critically important that our missions create disciples, not self-satisfied pew sitters performing five acts of worship while the world around them goes to hell.

Later in the book, Sabin points out that most Mexicans who illegally immigrate to the United States are from areas impoverished due to overworked farmland and deforestation. If the villages had developed sustainable practices, the men wouldn’t have left to support their families.

Rick Atchley, minister for the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Ft. Worth, once commented that because we’d failed to send missionaries to Mexico, God was bringing the Mexicans to us! Sadly, had we sent missionaries, they would still be fleeing Mexico because we would have seen our work as being solely preaching the gospel and sending boxes of clothes, with the occasional house painting trip by teenagers. We likely wouldn’t have taken the time to ask what we can do to help.

Had we been there, and had we asked, we’d have learned the greatest need in many villages is the ability to restore the land so it can be farmed profitably. And that’s something we now know how to do.

Worse yet, in the past, many of our missionaries would have focused on those who already believe in Jesus so they could convert them to the proper five acts of worship. You see, it’s easier to convert the converted. The result would be to bring division to villages and families, rather than being peacemakers and redeemers.

So here’s how I’ve got it figured —

1. Don’t support a missionary who teaches 1950’s style Church of Christ legalism. Why would you support a theology you wouldn’t teach your own children? Such a man may well be doing much more harm than good.

2. Don’t support a missionary who teaches a one-sector gospel. We need to both practice and preach a fully missional gospel that works to redeem individuals, communities, and creation. Not every mission point has a desperate need for creation-care, but many do. All have a need for a redeemed community. Church can’t be about only evangelism. Rather, the fullness of the gospel requires teaching a Christianity that loves, gives, and serves.

3. Only support missionaries who are excited about creating disciples. By “disciple” I mean a convert who acts like Jesus, that is, who teaches the good news of the kingdom and does works of compassion for those in need. The world has too much religion and not nearly enough discipleship.

4. In impoverished, third-world areas, support a missionary who is willing to work with the locals, to wash their feet by asking them what they need, rather than telling them. After all, a four-year degree in Bible or missiology doesn’t equip a preacher to tell a Haitian or Mexican what his village really needs.

5. In those areas where Plant With Purpose is active, cooperate. If not them, seek out other Christian nonprofit agencies trying to lift people out of poverty and work together. Competition among Christians is unseemly and counterproductive. And there aren’t many areas where we don’t need the help.

6. Learn from others. Study what works and what doesn’t work. Do your homework. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t limit your studies to Church of Christ missions. If nothing else, get on the internet and find out what organizations are having success in the area you’re wanting to support. Email or call them, and let them help you. Don’t be too proud to learn.

We’ve had enough of good intentions. Missions have matured to the point where someone, somewhere has probably already figured it out. Find them and talk to them. In the worst case, you’ll find a dozen failed ideas you won’t have to experiment with.

7. Teach your congregations to stop thinking like Republicans and Democrats and to instead think like Christians. You’ll notice that some of the principles that work are stoutly conservative. And yet others will seem uncomfortably “liberal” to the congregation. That’s a good sign. You see, the Spirit works through both Democrats and Republicans, and both sides have some things right. Neither side has it all right.

That doesn’t mean the truth is in the middle. In reality, the best programs may be something neither side has ever thought of. And we’ll never discover them if we keep  letting the political machines and media tell us how to think.

8. Doing missions right is going to be a whole lot harder than what we’re used to. I mean, the usual approach is for someone’s son-in-law, freshly minted by a preacher school or Bible college, to stop by and raise funds to go somewhere to preach whatever he learned in college. And we have no idea whether he’ll have any success, but as least he’s from a good family, so we make a one-year commitment — which becomes a 20-year commitment. Even if he’s an abject failure.

We need to be working with experienced, proven organizations that know what it takes to succeed in an area and what kind of missionaries are required to be successful.

And the day of the solo-missionary is gone. We need team players who are willing to be mentored and accountable. We need men and women willing to make thoughtful plans in coordination with experienced missionaries — and who aren’t too proud to ask the Baptists and Assemblies of God who are already there what the area needs and what approaches to missions have succeeded and failed.

You see, no longer do we have so much money that we can afford to be naive and ineffective. You can’t convert people just by announcing that you’re an American. The work is harder than ever — and perhaps more needed than ever — because we’re up against such very serious, very deeply engrained challenges.

9. And you know what? It might be helpful to have organizations that study these things and gather their learning and experience to help churches select and support missionaries the best ways possible. Fortunately, a few already exist, such as Missions Resource Network and the Continent of Great Cities. We have no business supporting a mission without at least speaking to one of these organizations to find out if the work is effective and reflects our values.


5 Responses

  1. Since this post moved this way, let me comment something on choosing missionaries and mission fields. I think churches need to get more involved in the process. A congregation needs to choose a certain area and be willing to stick with that area. They should then find personnel for that work.

    Too often, a mission project is only the missionary’s project, not his supporting church’s project. It takes more work for congregations to take the lead, but it will make for more stable works in the future.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. A great post and even better advice!

  3. I’d like to add to Tim’s good advice.

    When a church is doing all of these things that Jay listed in its own backyard, it will begin to grow missionaries who suddenly have a strange desire to go to other backyards. Sometimes it will be another part of the same city, sometimes a city far away. By forming teams and supporting them to go work in those other places, you make “stage two” training centers. Or put another way, you make a way for people to hop from one level of training to the next, in a safe-to-fail environment.

    As this type of church continues growing, there will be those who think they’re hearing a call to mission work, but they’re not sure. A church with supported, internally-grown teams will have a place to immediately plug the “not sure” people into, so that they can become sure.

    1. So you have a church that is in charge of running two or three missions, who are, in reality, the gateways from the home church to the world. They are really just church planting churches, supported from behind by a mature engine of prayer, money, and personnel.
    2. The home congregation is constantly surrounded with the active idea that they are on mission in their own backyard.
    3. People who are raised in this atmosphere are more likely to hear God’s still small voice calling them to “go,” with specific instructions for them.
    4. If they need training (like in culture shock management!), there are places they can step up into immediately and get it on the job, so to speak.
    5. And the wheels turn round and round!

  4. We need team players who are willing to be mentored and accountable.

    And can I add another? Monitored too.

    There is lot of work to be done here in the USA. Visit the widows and orphans and those in prison. How many ever been a part of the work in a prison? We have more people in prison than any several countries you want to name put together. Not so glamerous a place as some foreighn countries, but sure needed and appreciated. Many Prisons have no church of Christ coming in at all. One I know of in Alabama, may be more.

  5. Tim,

    I entirely agree. I know of a situation where a missionary retired, left his mission congregation with no preacher, and his supporting congregation abandoned the church he’d spent decades building. They seem to have supported the missionary more than the mission.

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