Passing the torch: What it Means for Our Missionaries.
In my conversation with Chad Irwin, 15 year missionary pilot to Ecuador, we stumbled upon a fascinating but no less important issue: how and when to pass the reigns, from minister to the ministered.
From daily flights transporting Bibles, medical supplies and other missionaries, to Chad's new job of working with fresh recruits; transitioning from the mission field in Ecuador, to headquarters in Nampa Idaho has been a delicate process.
"We've spent the last year and a half since we've come over from Ecuador, just a real, a huge transition for our family. - My wife and I have status as foreign missionaries living in Ecuador, flying every day, and that's what we had dreamed of doing and prepared to do for many years, and so now we've come home and our kids are no longer at a missionary school in a foreign country and so we've come home and had to adjust to living in our own culture again.
"That's what we'd dreamed of doing for many years"
The process of nationalization is no unfamiliar topic for any mission worker, it's in the DNA of the great commission. To make disciples of every nation, not just mere listeners or followers, disciples. The apostle Paul addresses this to Titus concerning church government:
"This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you." Titus 1:5
Biblical and even beautiful as it may be, it's painful to leave all that you know, and the people you have spent years ministering to, even if leaving means the maturity and blosom of the bride of Christ.
The disheartening thought for a missionary: "how much can this church grow while we, foreigners, are still here billowing the flame." Eventually the bird gets kicked out of it's nest, and children must make their own decisions. Not always without consequence. Birds don't always take to flight, and children wont make the best decisions.
Eventually the bird gets kicked out of it's nest.
As in the case of the churches of Corinth and Galatia, the decisions made when reigns are passed aren't always optimal. Divisions, sexual immorality, even turning to a gospel "which is really no gospel at all." (Galatians 1:7)
On the other hand, staying with a foreign church well into planting it could have an adverse effect. Like clingy parents that never leave their kids to make their own decisions. What results is an unhealthy dependency upon the founders. There's truth in the words of Proverbs, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)
There is such benefit to passing the torch.
Irwin put it well: "In the end, the truth of the matter is, as believers, we're all working towards the same goal. We're used to doing things a certain way and the program looking a certain way, we needed to let go of some of those things and realize that as the natural church takes over, they would make decision and changes that might not be exactly what we would do, that's not a bad thing though. They have also the ability to see things in their culture that we probably have missed for these last 60 years that we've been in Ecuador and they can use the inside of their own culture, their own people to help serve them even more effectively."
As believers we're all working towards the same goal
I think in the end, it's such a good reminder for us as believers. There is more at stake than just the church planted. The church planters. Families in every country that, at the point of the church taking over and leading themselves, these families face the extreme difficulties of returning to their home country, or starting a new church.
For the Irwins, "we don't want to assimilate back into our culture and get lost in some of the things that we as believers know are pitfalls in our own culture, the business, and the things in our culture that keep us from living out true Christianity, and so we struggle now just trying to find that fine line."
I can't imagine the shock of living in a constantly intentional gospel centered environment, to moving back to the states where the concept of a loving God is often thrown out with the bath water.
It's such a beautiful thing to watch as a church plant in another country rises up to lead themselves, but it can leave our missionaries in limbo. I think what I'm getting at is this. Let's not stop praying for our missionaries or the ministries they have started when they come home, their ministry is not over.
And if the Pauline apostles are any evidence, we should be praying so hard for every abroad church plant that does begin to lead itself. May they be like the church of Philadelphia, that thought they "have little strength," they "have kept my word and not denied my name." (Revelation 3:8)