Category archives: Blog

Apples and Oranges, Part 2 (Ministry)

In his book on evangelism titled Living Proof, Jim Petersen recounts a story about a group of missionaries working among New Guinea highlanders. There were a number of professed converts who were baptized and for several years tithed, attended church and obeyed the important rules of Christian behavior. One day the village leader went to the missionaries and said, “We ought to have done enough by now to repay Jesus for his death.” Saving faith had not occurred at all. The villagers had gone along with the missionaries until they tired of it then went back to their old ways. Petersen concludes, “How easy it is to gloss over big issues with a few glib phrases, elicit a prayer, or some other action we interpret as ‘a decision,’ and move on, happy with our success. One of the challenges for the missionary is to discern whether those he is ministering to have actually put their faith in Jesus Christ, or are merely following the missionary himself. Sometimes an entire generation can go by before such a misplaced trust is discovered.”

As I wrote in my previous blog, comparing missionaries and mission fields is like comparing apples to oranges – there are as many differences as things in common, including the challenges of cross-cultural ministry.

Often churches judge missionaries based upon “results” (professed salvations and church plants) but it is important to realize that not every people group is at the same point of preparedness or equally predisposed to respond to the gospel.

While on deputation I recall speaking with a veteran missionary to Africa during a mission conference. He said one of his biggest challenges was to ensure that the Africans to whom he ministered were not simply adding Jesus to their plethora of other gods to see if he would be the one to bring better luck to their crops or cure their baby of a disease. He said that it would be easy to get them to say a prayer but whether they had saving faith was another issue altogether. He then lamented that if a missionary was focused on getting “decisions” for the sake of numbers, he would not only be deceiving supporting churches but more importantly deceiving the Africans by giving them a false sense of salvation without genuine conversion.

Instead of sharing our beliefs immediately the missionary should ask probing questions until he can ascertain what the other person thinks and believes. Our words are often interpreted according to the listeners’ existing frame of reference.

Many Italians consider themselves “believers”. In fact, one of our greatest challenges in evangelism is that the Italian people (for the most part) already consider themselves to be Christians. Of course their definition of “Christian” is diametrically opposed to that which is revealed in the word of God. Whether I deal with a nominal or practicing Catholic (90% of the population falls in one of those two categories) their general thoughts regarding the basis of their salvation is always the same: Grace + Merit, Faith + Works, Jesus + Me. As I dig further into their unbiblical view of Christianity the vast majority confess that their culture shapes their view of God. They are Catholic (or “Christian”) because they were born in a Catholic country. Many have told me that God is far beyond man’s comprehension and all religions of the world reveal that particular culture’s idea of understanding him and so there is no “one way” to heaven. To Italians, God is impersonal and obscured by religion – if they live a good life (according to their standard of goodness) then all will be well. They trust their local priest, the bishops, and the Pope to work out the fine details. There is no impetus or motivation to examine what it means to be “saved” because not only do they believe in universal salvation but also that there is no eternal punishment for the unsaved, citing the Pope as their authority in which he said there is no literal hell. It is within this environment that we preach the gospel.

The “results” that some supporting churches often look for, or perhaps we as missionaries self-impose, can be slow in coming. Mission work is not a “level playing field” and it should not be the place of supporting churches or missionaries to “keep score.” Unfortunately, this does occur and missionaries can feel they are in competition with others in order to maintain their financial support and thus prayer letters are often used as the scorecards to determine the success of a ministry.

Whereas some mission fields are able to use the American model of establishing a new work – that is, start with a building and a church sign and begin to invite people to gather for weekly preaching services – that model does not seem to be effective here, at least in northern Italy. I’m sure there are exceptions but several veteran Italian missionaries have told me that generally starting with a building produces an international ministry comprised of expats from the Philippines, South America, Africa, etc., but few, if any, Italians. Rather than begin with a building we have opted to focus on reaching the people and then organize a local church with these new believers taking part from the very beginning. It is slow and labor intensive but I believe the long-term benefits will be a healthy and stable work that will be able to reproduce itself and live beyond the missionary.

We have been greatly encouraged by pastors who support the vision given to us by the Lord and who understand the approach the Lord has impressed upon us for ministry in Verona. For new missionaries heading to the field I would encourage you to prayerfully consider a few things as you seek the Lord’s direction for effective ministry:
– Understanding the culture is as important as fluency in the foreign language in regards to reaching the lost.
– Listen to your people group for clues as to what hinders them from receiving the gospel.
– Your singular objective is to communicate Jesus Christ. He is the gospel. He is our message. In order to effectively preach, our own understanding of Christ – his identity and the implications of his resurrection – must ever grow and deepen.
– Evangelism is not merely presenting the terms of a contract but rather taking the time to help another person know Christ – not merely an intellectual assent to the facts but helping them work through their own rebellion and obstacles.
– Don’t isolate yourself from the culture. Obviously don’t engage in sinful practices but build meaningful relationships with nonbelievers.
– Keep social occasions social and not use them as bait to open the Bible. Relationships are key. Be honest with your intentions. When we intend to open the Bible with people, we should communicate it upfront, always leaving room of course for the direction of the Holy Spirit.
– Don’t try to make them American.
– Learn from missionaries in your country, realizing, however, the response of people can vary greatly depending upon the region. In Italy, for instance, the people in the north are much more closed than those in the south and I’m sure there are challenges in the south that we don’t face here in the north.
– Unity is not uniformity. There can be diversity in how missionaries minister from one another but unity of mind and purpose regarding the overall objectives: Christ glorified, souls saved and discipled, and churches established.
– Traditional methods and activities that are meaningful to American Christians may not be effective on the foreign field.
– Do not compare yourself to other missionaries. Praise the Lord for those who are seeing many souls saved and multiple works established! Don’t be discouraged if it takes you longer. Some missionaries start a work with expats, some report the results of veteran missionaries with whom they work as their own, some rent a building and report they have started a church, some report church growth in terms of percentages in order to sound better, e.g. “our service grew 50% this week” (two visitors joined the missionary husband and wife). I’m not intending to belittle or accuse anyone but this type of thing does occur and you should not add stress to your life and ministry by making comparisons.

Several months ago I met with a new friend for pizza and he began to discuss the spiritual climate of Verona and the Veneto region where we live. He is not a Christian, however he is interested in learning about and discussing others’ beliefs. Knowing that I am a missionary he began to discuss the challenges we face in Verona. He reiterated what we have been told by other missionaries and Italians, that Verona is a staunchly Catholic city in one of the most devout and difficult regions of Italy and a city in which the people tend to be very cold and closed-minded. He discussed how the secretive and manipulative Catholic group Opus Dei has saturated Verona and has made it one of its chief operating cities. He also discussed the strong cult presence of Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Egyptian mysticism, and outright Satanism. In spite of the strong opposition to the gospel I am persuaded the Lord will give the increase to our labor for souls here in Verona and I am particularly encouraged by the number of people with whom we meet that are wrestling with biblical truth and moving a step at a time with us on the road to Christ and salvation.

Like our Verona, the world is in desperate need of the gospel. My prayer is that missionaries keep their eyes on Christ, seeking his approval as they communicate him to the people groups amongst whom they live. I pray also that supporting churches will not make unreasonable comparisons nor have unrealistic expectations but rather will wholeheartedly invest in and encourage those who are evangelizing the “uttermost part of the earth” on their behalf.

Apples and Oranges, Part 1 (Finances)

While at a mission conference on deputation I listened to a guest speaker preach about the lack of faith among many missionaries of today. At one point in the message he said that if a missionary truly had faith he would go to the field on far less than his projected budget, even if it was 30% of his support, and trust God for his “daily bread”. Among other things, I remember thinking: “30% of what?”

Comparing missionaries and mission fields is like comparing apples to oranges – there are as many differences as things in common, including financial needs. If a missionary is going to a field that has a positive currency exchange rate in his favor and a low cost of living and yet is raising a sum higher than needed for the culture in which he will minister then 30% of that sum is much more manageable than the missionary who goes to a field with a negative exchange rate and a high cost of living (like those of us in Europe). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When asked by new missionaries with what percentage of support they should go to the field, I reply: “Did you research and pray about the amount God would have you raise? If so, go at or nearly 100% of that amount.” In order to create a budget it is my opinion that a new missionary should contact several missionaries on his particular field as well as various mission agencies to determine an appropriate budget. One can also research the Internet to determine the cost of apartments (the most expensive part of the budget), gas prices, food prices, etc. After solid research, discussions with his wife, and counsel from others, the missionary should spend time in prayer to determine the will of God for his budget. If you have peace from God about the amount why would you feel led to go at 70 or 80% of that amount? I recommend nearly 100% because generally there will be a few churches that will begin support after the missionary makes it to the field. One should also consider, however, that there will likely be several churches that will drop support due to financial constraints, pastoral changes, etc. so the amount received should not be too far below the set budget.

For a new missionary, there are a few things to consider when determining a budget:

  • Is the cost of living uniform throughout the country? In Italy, for example, the cost of living in the north is higher than that of the south.
  • Will the missionary be living in a city? The cost of living is much higher in a city compared to the surrounding countryside. We live within the city-limits of Verona, a tourist city, and the cost of an apartment is higher than in other cities of our region.
  • Are there upfront costs associated with renting an apartment? In Rome, we had to make a deposit of 2 months rent plus pay the realtor a fee valued at 1 month rent (realtors are a necessity). In Verona we had to make a deposit of 3 months rent plus pay the realtor a fee valued at 1 month rent.
  • How many dependent children do you have at home and can they share a bedroom? We have a son and a daughter so they do not share a bedroom therefore we needed a three-bedroom apartment. The cost for a three-bed room is significantly higher than that of a single or even a two-bed room apartment in Italy, not to mention more difficult to find.
  • Are there annual fees, like permits to stay, visas, etc., that need to be considered? In Italy, at the age of 14 children are required to be processed separately for their permits so starting this year our total fee was more expensive after Isaiah’s birthday.
  • Will there be health-care expenses? We are required by Italian law to have American health insurance in order to have permits to stay in the country. In Rome, we could use our insurance a limited amount for doctor’s visits (twice per year) and then we had to pay cash for additional visits. In Verona, a doctor will only treat us and prescribe medicine if we are a part of their healthcare system, which, for a religious workers visa, is nearly $400 per person per year. In short, we have to pay for both American insurance and Italian health care.
  • There are always unexpected expenses. For example, we didn’t realize how expensive it would be for me to get an Italian driver license. The process was quite rigorous and included driving school, exams, and various processing fees. I had to pay nearly $1,000.
  • How much is language school? How long will you be attending? The free schools offered by countries are generally not very effective, i.e. you get what you pay for.
  • Are there costs associated with public school education for your kids (if you choose not to home-school)? We pay several hundred dollars a year for our kids’ Italian public school fee as well as several hundred dollars more for the home-school material Sandy uses to teach them English grammar, a Bible curriculum and English reading books. In addition, we pay nearly $400 for Isaiah’s Italian school-books and will pay the same amount for Pearl when she enters middle school.

For pastors who are considering the difficult decision to drop a missionary, I would hope you would consider the following:

  • Is the exchange rate of the country positive or negative? If it is negative the loss of your support can greatly affect the missionary’s livelihood.
  • Many veteran missionaries are living on far below what they originally budgeted due to inflation, loss of support, increased ministry expenses, etc. One should also consider that it is rare a supporting church gives their missionaries a raise to their monthly support but the cost of living continues to increase.
  • If you stop financially supporting a missionary will you take them back on for support when your church’s financial situation improves? Have you communicated that to the missionary?
  • Not every missionary can take furlough at regular intervals to regain lost support or to raise new support to stay up with inflation.
  • Not every country allows the missionary to work in order to supplement any loss of income. We are not permitted to have a job in Italy with our religious workers visa.
  • Is there another area of your budget that could be changed in order not to drop the support? One would rightly be critical of a government that sends soldiers to war only to cut-off their line of supplies. In the same sense, I think a supporting church should make it a matter of intense prayer before cutting-off the supply to a missionary on the “front-lines.” Sometimes loss of support can be so disheartening and make other difficulties in the ministry seem so much greater that the missionary gives up due to discouragement.

Years ago as I listened to the guest preacher continue to preach on faith and trusting God on 30%, a supporting pastor sitting in the next pew reached behind and handed me a note that read: “Don’t you follow his advice!” Unfortunately, with eagerness to get to the field (and to be finished with deputation) many missionaries leave the States prematurely and have difficulties throughout their ministry and in some case have to leave the field all together due to poor planning. In the end, a missionary must make a decision that is best for his family and ministry based upon the leading of God and sound research, not on peer-pressure or to impress others by their “faith”.

*I used masculine pronouns while writing but I am fully aware that there are many single ladies called to the mission field as well.

Snapshots: Mary

Verona is a staunchly Catholic city. There are at least five shrines to Mary within a few blocks from our home. A casual study of the Bible reveals the Mary venerated by Catholics is very different from the historic Mary of scripture. For instance, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (969) states, “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation… Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” Whereas Paul wrote, “For there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

The Mary statues throughout the city are constant reminders of the religious identification of the majority of the Veronesi. They also reinforce false doctrine instilled within the people from early childhood.

MaryUnicredit2

The shrine above sits on a prominent corner in our neighborhood. The inscription below the statue reads “Mother of God pray for us.” The priest of the local parish will pray with people in front of it and last year he led a procession with a large statue of Mary through our neighborhood so that she might bless the residents.

MaryOspedale2

The statue above is near the hospital down the street from our home. I have seen many people genuflect and make the sign of the cross before it. As I took this picture a car passed and the driver made the sign of the cross.

I often reflect upon Christ’s words to Paul in his call to the ministry, as recorded in the Book of Acts, “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18). It can be a foreboding task to labor to help men see clearly the truth of the gospel through the fog of indoctrination, however I take comfort in the One who has no trouble in making blind men to see. He is my mediator and the only hope for Verona.

 

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