Letting Go and not planting the Church you had in mind

Culture is a funny thing. Man-Made to a large extent but completely necessary. Someone once remarked to my wide-eyed insistence that we should “change our worldview”;

Changing your worldview is like pushing a double decker bus….while you are inside it.

We grow up learning what is right, and what is true. It is extraordinarily hard to separate yourself from those ideas that take place in such formative ages and through such foundational relationships. For us to function healthily we must attain some foundational certainty, but for us to continue to grow in adulthood we must learn how to re-evaluate.

Learning to live alongside other cultures has taught me a few disciplines for gaining what little understanding I can claim to have of those cultures. These ideas are not rules as such, but more un-attainable goals. The idea is that if I aim at 10 out of 10, I’ll probably get to 6 out of 10, but might have only gott to 3 without 10 as the goal. In both of these ideas, the goal isn’t actually to fulfill them as if they were rules, but to place them out of reach so that I go as far as I can with them. Last year, I managed a few months of consistency at the gym, because I scheduled it 5 days a week. I never intended to go 5 days a week, but I normally got to 2-3. If I had a planned 3 days a week, I would have likely gone once or not at all. So these ideas follow that logic, they are purposeful over-the-top-statements;

1) Don’t trust your gut

This is a hard one. The things we really believe at a deep level are really true, we don’t think in our heads, we feel them in our gut. Whether you call that place your heart, stomach or gut, it is a more integrated belief than pure intellectual knowledge. When you see something that pulls at this level of knowing, it feel like it pulls directly at what makes you, you. It begins to tear at the fabric of your perceived universe.

As a Christian this can seem all the more troublesome. We are invested in discerning, and hearing the voice of Holy Spirit which are already tough things to do. How do you distinguish your gut, from these things? Well, if it was easy I’d have 3 steps for you, but it isn’t. But one thing I can tell you is when you feel something at this level, it isn’t always your sanctified discernment, or prophetic impulse, it is often your culture.

Not trusting your gut gives you a window of time, not endless, but long enough to withhold judgement and allow the universe to feel like chaos and enter in to the logic or connections of the other culture.

2) Don’t call anything demonic for 10 years

I know this one will seem deeply un-discerning for many of you out there, but remember my shooting for 10/10 analogy above? I have already failed at this; two young people were raped and one was killed this week in the community we work in. Everything in me wants to say; demonic.

But at the same time it was people, and often talk of the demonic can so un-embody the problem that we forget, Jesus makes the Spiritual, the unseen real, embodied. The problems we face will be spiritual and in-bodied, and so will the solutions.

I’m not of the stream that would consider humans, “worthless worms, debased and wicked” but I do think our motivations are frequently less sanctified than we’d like to admit. Often our desires to judge something as bad, or demonic is because it makes us uncomfortable and we know the easiest way to pronounce on something in a way that won’t easily be challenged is to Spiritualise it.

Not calling something demonic helps us look at it for a little bit longer than just writing it off into a black and white universe that keeps with our sense of how thing really are. The reality is, for longer than you think in a cross-cultural environment, you don’t know how things really are. You can place your grid (and there are times when a prophetic voice from outside a culture is helpful) but rarely will placing your grid on a culture help you affect lasting change.

Affecting Lasting Change

Lasting change seems to always happen from the inside out, in people, and in communities, you can catalyse or begin the momentum from outside, but if the people or realities on the inside don’t get moved, little will change. Real change is more than simply performance on the outside, when things go badly, performance falls apart and we wondered whatever happened to that sanctified veneer we had been interacting with. Real change goes and often starts deep on the inside.

Living alongside a culture that is not your own, that you want to see some form of change happen in is not easy, it is often about a letting go. Not a passivity, but an understanding of what is yours to do, what is theirs and what is God’s. I think that might be true for more than just cross-cultural ministry in fact.

These verses have helped me in understanding the process of letting go;

And I tell you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church
Matthew 16:18

The protestant interpretation of this verse has been that rather than a source for papacy (with Peter as the lineage of the Pope in roman catholicism), Jesus includes a promise in the second half. That He Himself will build His Church.

I like this insight into Vincent Donovan’s perspective on working across cultures with a desire to see the local church raised up;

It was this kind of letting go that informed Vincent Donovan’s conviction, in his work among the Masai people in Tanzania. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, understood the significance of not fixing the form of the church in advance, of not predetermining what the Christian community should look like. He had that deeply gospel-informed instinct that the missio Dei involves a quest for the emergence of the Word’s community in whatever forms and whatever shapes such might take. He understood that ‘because a missionary comes from another already existing church, that is the image of church [they] will have in mind, and if [their] job is to establish a church, that is the church [they] will establish’. But ‘the missionary’s job’, as Donovan put it, ‘is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he [or she] preaches Christ’, a ‘church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church [the missionary] had in mind’. (Little wonder he was not Rome’s best friend.) The missionary church must preach Christ, not the church. And the response – and the shape of that response – will be up to those who hear the message. They will have to do their own work, offer their own faithful responses to the Word they hear. The Word must have his own freedom to create or not to create whatever forms of community he chooses. And what he chooses might look entirely unfamiliar to all who have passed by this way before.

This is one of those 10/10 goals, I’m not even sure I agree with everything in it, but I love the impulses behind it. We bring the story of Jesus, we trust that Holy Spirit will be present in the reading of the word and a church rises up, but, as Donovan says; “might not be the church [the missionary] had in mind” because ultimately change will happen on the inside, where no missionary can ultimately go, but holy Spirit will be present to guide; “the shape of that response – will be up to those who hear the message. They will have to do their own work, offer their own faithful responses to the Word they hear.”

So, what hope do we have as outsiders to other cultures, or more simply, other people in affecting change. I would argue that we actually have a great deal of hope. Stories in scriptures consistently point to a voice and an initiating agent in how God intended to bring change in a person, city and nation, but it is important that we have a good handle on what our role is, what their role is, and what God’s role is. Only when we let go, can we be free to respond to people without being the one who has to change them. We can respond to God without feeling like he places all the expectation at our feet. We can live under the ‘easy yoke’ he promised, to pull a load alongside Him, thats the joy of letting Go.


If you want to receive articles like this once a week to your email sign up here


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *