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Category: Christian Reflections
Missions in Odessa, Ukraine has presented me with no shortage of challenges and learning experiences. At times I find myself calling or writing pastors and friends I know in the States just to find reassurance that I haven’t completely fallen off my rocker with some of my theological issues. Recently I sent 4 Questions to some people I know from a wide range of denominations who I thought would have insightful answers. Thankfully, some found time in their busy schedules to respond. I believe many of the missionaries who visit Odessa and work with the churches see many of the same issues I have but choose to handle it in different ways or completely overlook it. Others on temporary trips do not even know they are there, or perhaps don’t realize the extent of the problem. One of the points here is to challenge Church leaders and aspiring Church leaders to think about some things they may not have considered in depth before.
These 4 questions touch on crucial aspects of some of the issues I have with the way churches are run here, and below are the responses I received. Let me say that I do not approach this subject flippantly, and with a heavy heart and great concern for the health of the Church, the Gospel, and the city of Odessa, do I now proceed to put this blog together. These are important pastoral questions which cannot be answered in over simplified terms and most of them require context and nuance for wise application.
Throughout Church history there has been much dispute over what makes for the “bene” of the Church, the “bene esse” and the “plene esse”. In other words, what does the church consist of to be the Church at all, what makes a healthy, or what is beneficial for the Church, and what makes for the fullness of the Churches life? The goal for us all should of course be the latter, but on mission I have encountered leaders who seemed entirely unaware of many of the questions surrounding this topic at all. Certainly, around the world we cannot expect all pastors to have a thorough understanding of these things as in many places a quality ministerial education is unavailable or incredibly scarce. However, in Ukraine there are plenty of resources for a person to get their hands on when preparing for ministry. The standard for leadership here has been tragically compromised.
Whether you agree with the answers below, these are great issues for all of us, leaders or not, to think through.
4 Q & As
1. Is it true that a church should have elders unified on certain issues which aren’t considered essential for salvation but for the unity of the leadership?
American Missionary and Pastor of Calvary Chapel Svitlovodsk in Svitlovodsk, Ukraine
I’d be happy to share my take on these with you.
I believe that the leadership of a church needs to have unity in more than just what is essential for salvation. Amos 3:3 says, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” The implied answer is, “no.” People can have very divergent views on soteriology, eschatology, missiology, pneumatology, etc. and though they are still both saved, it would be very unwise for them to attempt to both lead the same church, they will end up pulling it apart. I don’t believe that means elders need to agree on every little point, but there needs to be a common vision and unity on most basic points or an agreement that the areas of difference are to not be emphasized and presented from every angle.
Student at Moody Bible College (and bear hunting guide in Kodiak, AK)
Hey Jacoby, I’m glad to give you my ideas on these questions. In my college classes at Moody we have discussion boards where I interact with classmates on questions just like this. It’s crazy how many areas of improvement there are in the church.
Yes, ideally elders should be unified on all issues that matter because our unity is found in God. That’s kind of a fluffy answer though. Elders are going to disagree on how to spend missions money, whether or not to expand the local facilities, what church programs are best, etc. So honestly I think a better answer might be that elders should be unified on spiritual issues, and release material issues to the congregation. Delegate ministry managers. I also think every elder should be required to submit a personal doctrinal statement, and it be approved by the church before a new elder is accepted. That often doesn’t happen. If every elder can accept the detailed statement of faith of the church, then there will be no lack of spiritual unity.
What if a church does not even have a detailed statement like this, they have 5 elders that disagree on a bunch of stuff, and they are taking their time in trying to form this thing?
I think that’s the first thing a church needs, is to know where they stand. Until you know where you are, you can’t know where you’re going. That seems like the healthiest route–the elders determining what they can agree on. Our church does not have a detailed statement, and our elders have learned how to agree to disagree on issues not pertaining to salvation. I’ve heard it said that the most important thing for a church to determine is mission, mission, mission.
Nathaneal P. Taylor
Graduate of Westminster Seminary and Ruling Elder at Christ Church Presbyterian in Irvinet, CA
My brother! Of course you can ask any question you’d like whenever you’d like.
I would say it depends on what those issues are and how the leaders handle the disagreement amongst themselves. If it is an issue like eschatology then I don’t think the leaders have to be unified on this issue. But if the leaders have fundamental disagreement about preaching style, or if one holds to necessity of weekly communion and the other thinks that weekly communion is sinful then I would say there ought to be unified leadership for the sake of peace and coherence in discipling the flock (this is assuming both elders or leaders are unwilling to make any compromises on their respective positions). However, I have heard of cases where elders have agreed to disagree on non–essential matters and one of the elder promises not to teach on the disagreeable non-essential doctrine in the church. This could work so long as it is not an essential gospel issue.
Graduate of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and former pastor of Vintage Life Church in Fontana, CA
Here are my responses:
It is true that a church should have elders unified on non-essential issues that would result in discord or theological disunity if they were not. There should be as much unity as possible in the leadership of a church. The congregation will pick up on discord and disunity and will follow in it like sheep. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Psalm 133:1
Former Calvary Chapel Ontario Assistant Pastor and Current Executive Director of Tri-County Love INC, a compassion based ministry in Eastern Oregon
I’ll start with the fact that my thoughts on these issues are merely my own, but I try to base them off of what I consider a biblically informed view.
Yes. I’ll divide nonsalvific issues in the follow categories: cultural, theological and philosophical (not that these are totally inclusive).
Should a church be unified culturally? Of course, I mean if one elder pushes for contemporary services and another pushes for traditional services. There will be conflict. The goal is to resolve the conflict in a way and manner that everyone feels like they were united in the process..
Theologically the position of the rapture can be a huge problem. I think the church must be united in the sense two differing opinions can be held. Supposing a pre-trib and post-trib are elders, but they agree that this issue is debatable and it’s acceptable to hold differing views.
Pastor of Calvary Chapel Central Maui
Yes. Amos 3:3.
Long time friend and avid theology student
Yes, absolutely, without question. “A house divided cannot stand.”
Long time friend, evangelist and avid theology student
Hi Jacoby, it is good to see you. Grace to you in Jesus.
Elders in every church should be in submission to Christ to “teach no other doctrine” than that which ministers “godly edifying which is in faith.” (1 Timothy 1:2-4) That which they teach as a leadership should of the same mind. Double minded preaching is unstable and leads to confusion in the church.
Graduate of Master’s Seminary, Co-Founder and President of Chicago Reformed Seminary
I would say yes to all 4 questions.
Pastor of Cross Connection in Escondido, CA
Here are my initial thoughts.
Is it true that a church should have elders unified on certain issues which aren’t considered essential for salvation but for the unity of the leadership?
I’m not sure I’d account it a doctrinal requirement. But practically speaking, I would want the elders that I work alongside of to be united on issues of vision and direction of the ministry. In addition, when issues of church discipline are exercised, I would strive for unity among the elders.
Youth Pastor at New Song Christian Community Church in Wildomar, CA
I think it depends on the issue. I would say eschatology, no. But something like infant baptism, probably yes, tithing, no. Even on soteriology there’s room for some difference. At New Song, our Sr. Pastor is fairly Arminian, whereas I’m closer to the middle on the issue, and it has never been a problem. In my experience, I’ve found that divisiveness usually turns out to be more of a character issue, than genuine theological difference.
Jim Teri Baugh
Former Pastor who now works in International Leadership Development at Global Training Network
The unity of the Spirit is essential for team leadership, as is the willingness to submit to one another on non-essentials. In my leadership practice, if we were not agreed on a leadership direction that I presented as the lead pastor that was not a Biblical essential, we would pray and wait until God gave us clearer direction so we could move together.
Pastor of The Shelter Church in San Diego
Biblically all believers should be allowed freedom in the non-essentials but unity in the essentials. (Romans 14) The leadership is no different, however when it comes to teaching differing views there has to be a unity and respect for the other non-essential positions.
We just taught through the views of amellinialism, pre-trib, mid trib & post trib, rapture views and 3 elders taught each view(s) that they liked. None of us were dogmatic and we did a lot of q&a and it was fun. But we prefaced it with a long lecture about unity and pride about non essential issues.
Some asked us, why don’t you tell us which one is the right one, and we all agreed to say, “none of us know for sure and that is the way God left it.”
Pastor of Downtown Cornerstone Church in Seattle, WA
Good to hear from you, friend. I’ll give your questions a quick shot here:
Depends what those exact issues are. You want the elders to be as unified as possible. The more leadership someone has, the more in alignment you want them to be with the overall theological framework of the pastoral leadership team. For example, male-only eldership isn’t essential for salvation but that should be a significant point of unity. On the other hand, I think elders can differ when it comes to eschatology, etc. So, just depends what the issues are.
Pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in St Cloud, MN
Jacoby, my “short” answers…
Yes…I think elders should be unified re the church’s doctrinal statement and in certain ways that that doctrine is worked out…like: will only men lead worship?, will only men teach mixed classes (Life Training or Sunday School, e.g.) that are above middle school? Who will preside at the Lord’s Table and Baptism? etc, etc.
Former elder, long time friend, evangelist and avid theology student
Yes I believe the elders should be unified on issues, though we should not think that unity is walking lock step with eachother. (In a confessional church) Elders are required to have a doctrinal standard (though, that same standard is not applied to the congregation, but they are in some way expected to grow into those truths) and perhaps farther too.
Pastor of Smyrna Presbyterian in Smyrna, Georgia
Not necessary but surely beneficial.
Pastor of Calvary Chapel Woodland, in Woodland, CA
I will try to answer your questions to the best of my limited experience and what I believe to be Biblical precedence.
I do believe that whenever possible the elders should be unified on every issue. It has been our practice that even if there is one elder that is in disagreement with an issue or decision that we pray about the decision until we are all in agreement. I think there is a safety in that and a reliance upon the Spirit to direct us.
Pr 21:1 The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.
Pr 16:9* A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.
Pr 19:21* There are many plans in a man’s heart, Nevertheless the LORD’S counsel–that will stand.
MTW Missionary and Regional Director in Odessa, Ukraine
Yes, take this seriously, yes, they’re important issues, but rest assured that the Holy Spirit will do what is important. Here are my short answers to your questions.
Yes, a church’s elders should be unified, but I’ve seen many churches that were not completely in agreement on all issues. I guess I’d have to know which issues in particular you’re talking about.
Long time friend and insightful theology student
I completely agree, as long as the issues are actually important to the functioning of the church and its structure, both socially and spiritually.
Friend and serious student of theology
Answering these would be my opinion…
Not necessarily, our elders at Roosevelt are different in their views on spiritual gifts and baptism. I have no problem with that.
Friend and serious student of theology
I know for a fact at our Church Trinity, Art doesn’t have the same views are one of our elders named Norm. Norm is a dispensationist and Art isn’t, and there are a few other things I believe. I think that as long as we have a high view of God and his word things will be fine, but I’m not a preacher, pastor, or even a leader of sorts. So I don’t have the experience really necessary to answer that question fully.
25. While Ukraine may be considered historically a “Christian nation” it does not mean people understand the Gospel. They do not have the same access to the abundance of Christian resources that America has, or a Gospel driven Christian sub culture. There is however “religious” sub-cultures and traditions which actually distract from the teaching of the Gospel.
24. People in Ukraine are exceptionally relational. If in America many people go to church because they made a friend, found acceptance, or found fellowship and community, rather than because of an objective investigation of truth, it is even more so this way in Ukraine.
23. It is fairly common in Ukraine to meet pastors who are relatively uneducated. Often they tend to begin ministry first and get trained later. This is slowly beginning to change I think.
22. Be careful in the way you tell people about their sin. Of course, this goes the same for people in America, but it is important anywhere as a missionary to know where a person is at before you challenge them with certain particulars of holy living.
21. Leaders can be pretty twisted. You know how the saying goes that people let you down. Well, we tend to expect more from leaders. Just an FYI, don’t invest all your eggs in the leaders either. Ukraine needs missionaries who are really ready to give themselves entirely away and who can be respected and followed.
20. Sometimes ministries or social agencies will be competitive and lie to each other, or not work well together, almost like they’re in competition with one another, as opposed to building God’s Kingdom or working together for the cause, they want to build their work.
19. When you begin to fight for the Gospel, stand for truth, and call a spade a spade, you will be slandered and opposed. Make sure you have counted the cost before you begin trying to let the Gospel be King. Satan doesn’t like sound teaching.
18. If in America the government is corrupt, here it’s more so. If in America people drive over the speed limit, here it’s more so. If in America people value relationships more than truth, here it is more so. If in America people don’t listen to preachers on the street handing out literature, here it is more so.
17. Often in missions in takes money to get certain things accomplished. Not a superfluous amount, but enough to bring things together. As a ministry leader you begin to see the role that resources play in missions.
16. The biggest felt needs of people change over time. In the 90’s it was valuable to teach ethics classes in the schools, now people need English lessons and AIDS education and other things. It is important to keep watch and pay attention to the biggest and most current felt needs of the people and to realize that this is shifting over time.
15. Invitation methods to meetings change. In the 90’s it was enough to stand on the streets and hand out flyers to invite people to a meeting. Nowadays, the internet and social media is the most fruitful way. However, in time there may be a better way to do it. Ways of effectively connecting with new people in outreach change. How can we be innovative with this and stay current?
14. Some missionaries are more prepared than others. Realize that not every missionary has had the same training or is prepared to give up as much, or work as hard as other missionaries may be prepared to do. Take the time needed to understand who you may be working with and work to let them understand who you are. Expectations are good to communicate up front, and sometimes even then misunderstood, so evaluate them more than once.
13. It is important to put enough of the important things in your updates and find the balance between honesty with over sharing. People don’t need to be bored to death with all the details of your life but they don’t need to be misled that you are conquering kingdoms and toppling towers for Jesus overnight either. Let them know the real and how they can pray, joining you in the work in this way.
12. Different types of mission fields will require different types of sacrifices. Missionaries in Ukraine do not have to bushwhack in the jungle or fear for their life, but there are many other conveniences or comforts they must give up. There are also many things they must get used to. Each calling is unique and after getting used to some sacrifices you may begin asking what else you can let go of.
11. Keeping in touch with people in the States is a lot of work. Raising finances is a tremendous amount of work. Missionaries must learn that many people will not be able to be relied on, that God alone can be their confidence. People who verbally commit to giving may have to be gently reminded a few times and this takes a lot out of what the missionary could be focusing on in the mission. This is to be expected to go with the territory of being a missionary. Though it doesn’t make it any easier, should be accepted as part of the work.
10. It is much easier to take up your cross and follow Jesus in theory than it is in reality. Missions are the perfect opportunity to die to yourself and make giving Jesus your life more than academic Bible talk. (This is not to imply people can’t do this without being missionaries).
9. Living in Ukraine I realized how much smaller food portions people are satisfied with. When trying to keep to our budget, I saw how careless I was in America with money, things, and food. The more I cut back, the more I realized how much we consume of what we don’t need at all, we just think we need. For example, I had always taken for granted how often I ate meat in my meals.
8. Ukrainians are different than Americans. Often I liked to focus on all the similarities between us. But eventually I came to terms with the fact that they are definitely different than me, and rather than trying to make anyone understand how similar we are, it is much more fruitful for me to learn all the ways we are different and why. Culture shock and learning the culture takes time, months, and even years.
7. In ministry Biblical knowledge is important, but especially in this type of ministry and in leadership, people skills are among the most important to develop. Loving people well takes a lot of deliberate thought and action. More than many of us are habitually used to.
6. God is in control. The things we plan or desire are not always the direction God takes them. We must be always ready to follow things down the road the Lord takes them. Plan carefully, work hard, and submit your will in prayer to God’s direction. God wants our faithfulness, not shiny neon lights flashing loudly from our ministerial service.
5. In a culture which is so mystical, relativistic and relational, it is good to be patient and spend some time with people, letting them know you care about them as people before you rush into conversations about Jesus with them. It is good for people to see how you live your life over time and to know there is a difference about it.
4. Missions work takes lots of time, patience, learning the culture and language, and perseverance. I am not sure there has ever been a single successful missionary who at one time thought of quitting because of the challenges, but didn’t.
3. In Ukraine people tend to see Protestant Evangelicalism as a “western thing”. So, when you are sharing your faith, there is often this idea in the back of people’s minds that this is normal for you and perfectly acceptable to be a “Christian”, because you’re a Westerner. So, faith is viewed as a cultural thing rather than objective and absolute truth.
2. Fasting is good, helpful, necessary and awesome. Are you a missionary? Learn to fast and pray regularly! Do not neglect this!
1. Trusting God and learning to do so more and more, I believe, is one of the greatest graces gained by being a missionary. More and more God nudges them on to be people who lean heavily on the Lord and His promises. It’s all worth it for this reason alone, and others as well.
There is a lot of instruction floating about the churchosphere about “making disciples” and “being missional and intentional”. At one time or another perhaps we have all asked ourselves the question, “Is God calling me to make disciples?” Is everyone in the church called to be making disciples of Jesus, or is this job for those with certain callings in the church? The answer to both of these question is yes…and no.
Last week my friend Emmitt made a post on facebook asking, “If we are not making disciples are we in sin?” Last month I chatted with another friend, Earnest (names change for the sake of privacy), who was telling me about a couple new believers in his home group who were very actively “making disciples”. Undoubtedly, my first few years after having a life changing encounter with God in my adult years were marked with the most zeal for evangelism. As a milk sipping, Jesus following tot barely learning to walk, was I to be instructing others in the faith?
Ultimately, the function of the church is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, not because the Westminster Catechism states it, but because the Westminster crew articulated what the Bible clearly and unmistakably preaches. How do we do this most, or best? In his book, what we might now call a modern classic, Desiring God, or in the condensed version, The Dangerous Duty of Delight, John Piper draws from the Scriptures that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”. The word “satisfied” here is not speaking of the type of satisfaction after we have had an excellent meal, but the type of satisfaction we are all longing for in the core of our being, the kind of satisfaction the Rolling Stones could get. This satisfaction is more of a filling of the soul wherein our joy, true supernatural spontaneous joy, is maximized in Jesus, commanded by God, and not separate from the act of glorifying God. There is no such thing as glorifying God apart from having joy in Him, and there is no such thing as having joy in God apart from glorifying Him. They go hand in hand.
Given our natural sinful condition, our hearts default to finding joy in anything and everything but God. Lesser gods set themselves against the true God competing for our hearts loyalty with their persistent illusions. This is where, as Christians, we learn to fight for our joy in God and the soul and mind is a battlefield on which numerous gods challenge the omnipotent One.
Under this ultimate purpose of our existence we find pen ultimate categories which always fit under the umbrella of glorifying God. First, as we mentioned is joy in God, and second would be obedience to the Great Commission. In short, we as the church are called to help others discover the same joy in God as we have. This is worship, when truths helping us know God, light off a spark, whereby spontaneous and true worshiped is ignited in our soul by grace. Getting to the point being made, making disciples means making worshipers of God, who find their ultimate joy in Him.
When looking at Jesus words in the Great Commission, to “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Mt. 29:19-20), my friend Emmitt, pointed out that in the Greek tenses disciple making includes both of these things mentioned, that is, baptizing them and teaching them to obey. It appears that this is evident simply in the word “disciple” itself. “Disciple” simply means “learner”, or “student”. So it goes without saying that the one being disciple is being taught.
Now we come back to our original question, but we will word it slightly differently. Is everyone in the church called to be teaching the “learners”? We know that teaching people to obey includes more than mere intellectual instruction. Teaching by example in Christian community is a big part of it too.
Is it right for young believers to be discipling others? Perhaps there are exceptions, although I would encourage evangelism more so than in depth discipleship. Why? What types of things should we be learning as disciples? What is it Jesus commanded? Discipleship involves learning how to pray, how to fight sin and resist temptation, how to read our Bibles in a sound way, even knowing what our Bibles are, how to defend our faith, how to give, how to sacrifice, how to fast, how to be filled with the fruits of the Spirit, what is the Gospel and what isn’t, and many other crucial things. In our day in age it would certainly include learning how to share our faith in a world full of relativism and pluralism and the centuries old necessity of discerning truth from error.
Thinking back to my first few years as a zealous young Christian, I can say with much certainty, that if I were to teach someone on each of these subjects I would certainly teach them much differently now than I would have then. Many of the things I taught people I’d rather not have never said. Discipleship is serious business. It is a shepherding of men’s souls, men’s spiritual well being. This is no small task and it’s not for everyone. What I would teach someone about killing sin or about forgiveness and grace is much more informed, experienced and altogether sound than it was ten years ago.
I believe in this sense not all of us should be too quick to be “making disciples”. Are we, in our passion, making worshipers, or are we actually misguiding people? As well, is everyone in the body called to be a teacher? Certainly, we are all called to glorify God, find our joy in Him and do the work of the church. But for all of us does this include teaching?
Paul spent many years in obscurity preparing for ministry. Christ Himself did not begin His public ministry until He was thirty years old. For all of us we should be patient and invest in a time of preparation. As the Holy Spirit works and speaks through all of us through and to one another, we are being transformed and shaped into Christ’s image. In this sense, we are all teaching each other in words and by example. However, as members of the body we all have our own individual giftings and functions. I suggest that each of our individual functions falls under the grand overarching umbrella of making disciples. Not only do our gifts fall under this umbrella, but in response to Jesus love, we should all be very aggressive about focusing, organizing and planning our lives intentionally toward this grand overarching aim.
When discipling people, perhaps the two things which should be focused on first is teaching people what the Gospel and the Bible is and isn’t, and how to read it well, then teaching them how to pray. Other things at the top of the list might be killing sin, being a witness and a light in the world, and practical service. The Holy Spirit is guiding young believers into truth and He uses our brothers and sisters in the faith to help with that.
Recently I met with a friend in another ministry in Odessa who is discipling three young men. I asked him if they were reading the Bible together and they hadn’t gotten to that point quite yet. Recently I shared with him what the Lord has taught me for a very simple, yet important way to teach young disciples of the faith how to read their Bibles. Everything I shared with Him I have decided to share here in this blog and is available in PDF format at the link for FREE.
May God guide His church as we grow in making worshipers of Jesus locally and globally!
A Teachers Guide to Bible Reading for Beginners
- Prayer. The first step is always to pray. This of course includes teaching the importance of continual dependence on God by the Holy Spirit. Psalm 119:18
- Context, context, context. Rather than reading a passage and jumping right into application and applying the Scripture in unsound ways, we should always start with examining the context.
- Explain the different types of Biblical contexts.
i. Broad context. The Bible as a whole and the Gospel as center.
- This may require that some initial time spent teaching through the Bible’s redemptive meta-narrative.
- Creation and the Nature of God.
- The fall, the origin and nature of sin, and mankind’s condition.
- The history of Israel. Teach the important aspects of:
i. Idolatry and Rebellion.
ii. Prophecies and Promises.
- Preservation of the Scriptures.
iii. God’s plan for all nations in the OT.
iv. Purposes of the OT sacrifices and the Law.
v. Symbols and foreshadows of Christ in the OT.
ii. Narrow context. The context of the books of the Bible, the chapters, the passage and the paragraph.
iii. Historical and Cultural contexts.
- What was the author’s intended meaning to whom he was writing?
iv. Literary contexts.
- Genres used in various books of the Bible.
- Grammatical context.
- Relevance. Next we must ask which contextual understanding is most important for understanding the current passage being read. In every biblical passage the broad and narrow contexts will be foundational.
- Principles. Do not apply the Word just yet. Next look for principles. There are principles to be found in every chapter of the Bible. To find many interesting principles in the text we can ask ourselves questions like:
- What does this passage teach me about God? Don’t overlook the “obvious”.
- What does this passage teach me about man? About myself?
- What does this passage teach me about sin? About the world?
- Application. Now we can look at the principles we’ve discovered in the text and apply them to our own life. How do the timeless principles apply to you today?
- Dig. A few more questions help us to delve into the passage further:
- How is this passage related to the Gospel? The cross? This step is very important, as every passage is somehow connected to the Gospel.
- Does anything in this passage stand out to me?
- What questions do I have? Is there anything I don’t understand?
i. Write these questions down.
- Prayer. How will we pray after our time in the Word as we seek the Holy Spirit’s enabling in personal application?
It was a good day. Lately life has been full of big discouragements and at the same time, signs of grace in our lives were everywhere! This morning when I opened my eyes the first thing that came to mind was 007 Skyfall. We had watched it before going to bed. I remembered my wife being bothered by his promiscuity. It bothered me as well, and I considered the allure of unattached, independent, rebels for worldly women. It may seem glamorous in the movies, but in reality, it is a lonely life plagued with guilt. To focus in my thoughts on something more fruitful, I grabbed my phone, opened my Kindle ap and began reading “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller. This week it had been my book of choice, jumping back and forth between that and “Ordering Your Private World” by Gordon MacDonald. Actually, I was part way through a few books, (Understanding the Koran, What do Jewish People Think About Jesus?, Planting Missional Churches) but these two happened to grab me and steal my attention away from the others. I was very hungry to bring God’s presence back into the center of my life in a real and tangible way. I had been longing for it for some time. I was beginning to feel it again. My faith was growing strong and warm. It made me happy. So I read.
Paul Miller’s book brought my mind to good meditations and I began to see into the insights he had about prayer. I began to apply trust more, without cynicism. How I could come to God as a child and trust in His love toward me in every detail of my life. I was being stirred to talk to God and listen to God not as a morning duty, but as a way of life. Praying a lot was something that usually happened to me only in seasons of suffering, which had been more than a few. God put it in my heart to become determined to have this in my life whether I was suffering or not. Between the lessons from this book and MacDonald’s, who contrasted so well the difference between a driven life and a called life, comparing King Saul to John the Baptist, I was beginning to experience more of God’s presence. I was also being ministered to by reading Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches. He would talk about how you can have the building, the team, the finances, etc and a church plant will not work without prayer being first in your life, or you can have none of these things and a lifestyle of prayer and it will work! God was building me up and strengthening me in my prayer life!
After reading prayerfully and praying prayerfully in bed, I rolled to my feet and showered. First on my plate was usually devotional time. I picked up my “One Year Christian History” by Mike Rusten and began to read. I love church history and looking at the date I realized I needed to slow down on these readings because I was a week ahead. Admittedly, I didn’t get to it every day, but the days I did had got me ahead of schedule, because I found the stories so interesting that I would sometimes read two or three. After learning about the birth of the King James Bible when King James kind of threw the Puritans under the bus, and Dawson Trotman and the formation of the Navigators, and how he loved Scripture memory and discipled thousands of sailors in it, I realized that today I would not be able to read the portions of my other daily devotional books (Puritan Prayers, A Gospel Primer for Christians, Voices from the Past, The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order). I would not have time today.
Lately, I had been waking up around 2 PM, and staying up anywhere from 6-10 AM, in order to be on US time and contact friends in the U.S. about getting behind the mission and vision financially. It was a lot of work, but beat traveling back to the States again and spending all that money and time it would take. Besides, God was steadily increasing the number of verbal commitments almost by the day.
The evening was planned for me to meet my buddy Ilya from camp, who I had not seen in awhile. Ilya was a young man I had met at our summer English Camp who I had hung out with one day after English Club near the end of summer. He told me he liked to read and he had a lot of interesting ideas about God. So I decided to travel with him to a Christian bookstore in the city center. It was raining hard that day so we both walked and discussed God’s existence in a philosophical sort of way. Upon arriving at the bookstore the woman said they were closing early that day for the holiday. Her and Ilya were communicating in Russian and we were getting soaked, so I asked him to ask her if we could please just buy one book before she finished closing shop. It was a no go.
We decided to keep walking to find another bookstore. It would be a secular one so I was unsure if we would find anything good. After finding our second bookstore after the first one, I stumbled across a translated version of Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God”. I thought, “for a postmodern thinking guy this might be even better than “Mere Christianity”. He did not want to accept the book from me as a gift. So I got him to take it by saying I would just loan it to him and he could return it later. He accepted it.
After having a McFlurry at McDonald’s, before parting we agreed that I would accompany him one day to a Campus Crusade meeting. He went there on occasion with friends. I was curious to see what kind of ministry they were doing there and to see who I could meet. It had actually not worked out several times for various reasons, one being he didn’t like to go so much because he was tired of hearing people talk about God all the time. He had some friends there who were girls. Finally, a few months later, we would meet tonight and he would take me.
The night before Sergey, who I had worked alongside during our internship at Living Hope Church was calling to ask if he could get our song list from our wedding on his flash drive. His wedding was Saturday and it was late Thursday night. I didn’t want him to have to walk over to our house at midnight so I said I would figure out a way to get him his songs. Being as it was getting close to 3 and I was planning to meet Ilya at 5:30 meant I had to be leaving home for the bus at 4:15. I needed to make sure I got these songs to Sergey, so down went the books. He didn’t know how to use dropbox, so I decided to see if it would work to email him all the songs. It was quite a long list of all your classical love songs with Frank Sinatra, Aerosmith, Al Green, and a variety of Christian stuff.
Gmail would only send four songs at a time, and they took a few minutes to upload. I soon realized I would be pressed to get this done before getting ready to leave. To be productive, I decided to catch up on emails and facebook messages between loads and sends. It is normal for me to be doing four things at once at the computer.
One friend had emailed bothered by the fact that I engaged people boldly on facebook with apologetics and said that was why he was not sending us financial support, I received two emails from friends on the west coast putting together a big box of socks to ship over here for the homeless, I was exchanging emails with three or four different pastors in the process of deciding whether they would support us or not. Previously three pastors had said, “no, not this year, maybe next,” and one church would say “yes”. Later the church which said “yes” would disband, and so now here I was, praying and fasting for provision as our cushion only lasted six months. Soon after, two churches would say “yes” and a couple others were still considering it. Then I had to answer a long conversation between Reed Olson who has tracts from The Action Bible in Russian for children and young teenagers.
He had sent me these stats by email from when he was in Ukraine in 2007,
“In 2007 Ukraine had between 100,000 and 500,000 orphans, and upon being released from their orphanages at the age of 16, 70% of them became criminals, 50% became prostitutes, 33% became homeless or unemployed, 80% of those who married divorced, 30% attempted suicide within the first two years.”
It would turn out we would need about $900 to buy 10,000 of these tracts for children which we do not have. We have decided to try to get enough to start out with 3,000 and see how those go, then if we hand those out trust God for more. To give towards this, click here: http://projectodessalife.com/givetosend/ Be sure to indicate what it is for.
Then I messaged a friend who goes to a big University in Odessa who had said he wanted to help me reach out to people there. The night before I had met up with another friend from summer camp, Zhenya, after our English Club for the orphans. We met downtown and sat at a café for awhile and then walked around in the city center. Up until that time I had had many conversations with him about God. I thought it would be a good time to ask him what was keeping him from Jesus. He said he needed more information first. That night he was asking me about how the Bible came to be canonized. His sister, who is into some eastern religions, was telling him that many books had been rejected from the New Testament canon. It was a great opportunity to explain apostolic authority, the Gospel (once again), eyewitness accounts, and the quotes of Scripture by the church fathers, along with their defense of the Gospel against the Gnostics. While Zhenya and I walked, we ran across a friend of his who was a taxi driver. He invited us to sit in his van with him and talk for awhile, which we did. His English was excellent and I soon learned he had lived on the East Coast working for a time and seemed to have been somewhat into partying. We discussed wages in Ukraine and how much taxi drivers make, corruption in the country and several other things before I explained to him my desire to build a large recreation and ministry center in Odessa. He seemed a bit surprised when he learned I was a missionary. He decided if I did something like that I would be a hero and my face would be on billboards in the city, half jokingly of course. I am well aware of the challenges of trying to do something like this. Then he explained to me about some organizations that may actually help. One of them being Sife, which is a group of University students who help people raise money from large corporations who are trying to do something that will help the city. These students help with this for free in order to enhance their resumes, portfolios, and create opportunities for future business connections for themselves. This would be one more possible resource to add to my list.
Then there were my friends who are the pastors of the church we recently left because of structural and preaching convictions I have. I had been being intentional about connecting with each of them individually for some healing and reconciliation, and up until then, meetings with two of them had gone extremely well. I was afterwards left to struggle with whether or not my convictions were right, or if I should be more flexible. I believed a board of church leaders should have more unity and agreement in their methodology, understanding of Scripture and theology, and creeds. These things seemed of little importance to them and later I would find that these things would be excused as being a “missions board” rather than a “board of elders”. However, I saw little weight in this as the church is five years old. So I had a lot of serious decisions to work through, and I had desired to discuss them with these guys as a team, but because of their unwillingness I would be forced to talk to people back in the States about them, and be left alone here for a time in Ukraine. It was a breath of fresh air to hear people in the States understand my concerns once I explained them. However, any close friend in Ukraine I discussed it with didn’t really seem to care about these things I found so crucially important to the health of a church. I would be wrestling over the issue of what should be a close handed and open handed issue among leaders in a church plant team and what does or doesn’t define an elder, for awhile. Good things to wrestle with in cross cultural missions! Plenty to think about for a first time church planter in another country, with no longer a team, who doesn’t even speak the language yet. Finally, there was an exchanging of emails with my new accountant who does taxes for missionaries at a great rate. We would be getting our entire $1,200 refunded, which would help us out a bit.
I was face to face with this tremendous challenge and it towered over me casting its long shadow across my face, as I looked to God for the answers. All the questions I faced would be brought to the cross; to the Bible. Would the financial provision come in we needed in order to stay in Ukraine? How would I find a team which had a sound understanding of church government, doctrine, and Scripture? Why were the few friends I had letting me down with the small ways I sought out their help? Did people in Ukraine care about truth or just friendships? Would I be able to learn this hard language at 36 years of age? Was I even doing the right thing? How come only a few people out of all our friends were interested in our Bible study? Would we be able to find a building to do ministry out of? How? Where? When? Would any of my friends in the States who were praying about missions end up coming over at last to help? Why wouldn’t the team I worked with reach out to me? Was it all up to me to work this out? Why didn’t they understand my intentions were for them and not against them? Did they care? How had I communicated things wrong? Was there still a chance to make things better? Why didn’t they understand these convictions and my heart? Was God using this to lead us away from there? Would I steward our financial support faithfully? How in agreement should elders be or shouldn’t be? What defines an elder biblically? What is the best, most biblical form of church structure? Would God get us out of debt? Would this dream for a Gospel movement in Ukraine become a reality?
So many questions and challenges came at me head on and all at once they demanded an answer from me. All I knew was though people were hurting me and letting me down left and right, God was providing, guiding, strengthening. We were alone but not lonely and God’s presence was strong in our home. We decided to stick to our convictions, although some would misunderstand it, and to continue faithfully trusting in God. We decided to pray, wait, and be honest with everyone. It was no small task to be a cross cultural missionary, but I saw that God had given me a will to believe and persevere. God had given me the wherewithal to ignore negativity and stand on His promises. God had provided up to this point in spite of some critics I called friends. Our home was in order. By grace our faith was strong.
The final few songs uploaded to gmail and if I wasn’t suited and booted soon, I would be late. On the bus I fought with myself. My hands inside my pocket touched my rubber band bound stack of Russian flashcards. I had a goal to learn my first 1,000 words within a few months. Actually, I was learning sentences and phrases, more than words. The English books on my phone offered me a mental escape from the challenge of Russian language learning, and I caved in, reading another chapter of “A Praying Life”.
Soon I was downtown and stood outside of Odessa’s first ever Orthodox Church which had been destroyed by the Bolsheviks in the 1930’s and decades later restored by looking at old pictures, the Transfiguration Cathedral in Sobornaya Square. The cold this spring had lingered in Ukraine and it began to get chilly. Once Ilya arrived we began to walk and talk since we had some time to kill before the Campus Crusade meeting. I practiced my Russian a bit and it was humorous for him. My pronunciation and accent is terrible! Once getting there, it was a joy to see a couple familiar faces. Kate was there helping to lead the meeting on the welcoming team. Then I saw Zhenya (another Zhenya) who I had once met at a marriage retreat. He immediately apologized to me because he had once invited my wife and I out to dinner but because of being so busy and recently having a baby it hadn’t happened, also, because my wife and I had recently spent three weeks in Israel. Lera’s grandma, who lives in Natanya, had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Lera was worried she might not get to see her granny, who she hadn’t seen in years, before she would pass away. Additionally, we hadn’t yet had a honeymoon and this was a long time dream of mine to see Israel. We found round trip tickets for two to Tel Aviv from Odessa for just $800 and learned I was allowed to leave the country and return on my missionary visa, so we took it! We knew this would be our last trip we’d take for some time, as we were planning to start trying for children later this year.
So, Zhenya and I made other arrangements to meet when things slowed down for him in a couple months. He wanted to discuss our vision with us. He also invited me to paintball the next day, which was nice of him, but I couldn’t make it because of Sergey’s wedding the next day.
Then I ran into Sergey (another Sergey), another older pastor in the city who I had been planning to meet with for some time. He would be speaking that night. I was impressed with his English as much of the theology books he reads are in English. It was easy for us to get into a long discussion about theology and church government. The next day I would message him and we would wind up meeting a couple more times in the next couple weeks. I wanted to explain to him our vision, who we were, and why we were in Odessa. He is a very likeable guy and many people tell me he is a gifted preacher although I can’t tell because my Russian understanding is so limited.
I endured the Campus meeting with little understanding of what was said. They were doing a series of meetings on love and dating and there were several unbelieving University students in the room. Ilya, who’s English is intermediate, was not very enthusiastic. He would lean over and say, “they just said, ‘blah blah blah’”. He is not a believer, tired of hearing about God, and wasn’t very interested in what was being said. I did not get much out of the meeting at all. But I was more there to meet people and see what they were doing in ministry. I would end up attending for the next few weeks and they would make sure I had a good translator if I hadn’t brought my own. I made some new friends this way, and our friend Tanya came with me one day after going to help me with our English Club with the orphans, also in the city center.
After the meeting Ilya introduced me to his friend Lena. She was a nice girl who said she knew me from the Living Hope English Clubs I used to help with. She explained to me that she was Orthodox all her life but liked protestants because they live their faith all of the week instead of just on weekends when they attend worship. For me this was very interesting to hear her say this. I also explained to her that Orthodox view the Eucharist as the center of the worship service, and Protestants view preaching as the center, because the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. She replied that the Orthodox do not preach, but they do have another time set aside for expounding the Bible. Then she said she had a question. I barely knew her, but was glad that she was coming to me with a theological question. The question however was more for Ilya than myself. She asked, “why does Jesus ask us to become slaves of Him”, implying of course that the word slave was a harsh word.
I explained to her and Ilya that we are always longing for, thinking about, working towards, chasing after, or worshiping something. At all times this is something we cannot not be doing. Whatever most has our hearts, minds, desires, and choices is what we have chosen to be a slave to. We are always a slave to something whether it is sin or Jesus, and as slaves of Jesus we are most free! Jesus is the good slave master who calls us friends! She really liked the answer. Ilya did not seem to like it so much.
We all walked to the bus together and I got on the same bus with Kate and Lena because they thought it would take me home. After some discussion with Kate about evangelism, Campus Crusade, a meeting I wanted to plan at a University, American Christian Celebrities, Bono from U2, and Hillsong music and doctrine, they got off. It was now after 10 o’ clock and dark. I rode on the small swerving bumping yellow bus, reflecting on the events of the day, contemplating possible places we drove past to possibly plant a church someday. I would not make it to the grocery store however for the few things Lera wanted me to pick up. It was too late. She was waiting for me at home slammed with studies for German and English final exams coming up. She was a very diligent student. Sometimes I think she studies her lessons harder than I study theology, and I study pretty hard at times.
Kate had made a slight error though in directing me in which bus to take. Of course she did not know exactly where I lived. She only knew we lived in Tierava which is the area of the city where Living Hope Church is. But, we live another 2 or 3 kilometers further towards the Sea. I watched everyone but two people get off the bus. Then the one guy left standing with the bus driver began to look at me funny. He started to say something. He and the bus driver both looked Georgian. I couldn’t understand a word, but I figured out that he was saying this bus was no longer going and I needed to get off. My stop would be right at the church we had left four months earlier.
I phoned Lera to let her know it would be a little while before I made it home. Oddly it was warmer than it was earlier that day. The walk down the street was pleasant. One thing about Odessa, it seems almost everywhere, late into the night and all through the day there are people out walking. With a good deal of thinking, praying, rejoicing in my heart, and people watching, I thought of these lost people walking by me. I couldn’t talk to them. I considered that I should at least have a tract to give them. I would be a lot more productive than just walking by all these lost souls without a single action or word. The tract I was writing and having translated and illustrated wouldn’t be ready for a while. I couldn’t wait to have that. People tell me that handing out tracts in Ukraine does not work well. In the U.S. if people are relationship based and it is important to build relationships with people before you share your faith with them, it is even more important here. People here got burnt out with religion, they say, after the fall of the Soviet Union. So many missionaries came and people were curious at first, but now just aren’t interested. They don’t want to hear a logical argument, what really matters is, they say, if you are their friend, not the power of the Gospel I suppose. I do believe there is definitely something to that and a place for building relationships in order to be more effective in your conversations with them. But I will not throw out the baby with the bath water. I believe strongly there are many conversations to be had about Jesus, God’s Word, and the Gospel, done in a healthy and constructive way with passersby on the street. I have had enough conversations with Ukrainians now to know that they are very intelligent and often very logical in their thinking. Apologetics and reason definitely has its’ place here.
As I walked, I gained more momentum in my heart in my desire to learn the language. One day I will show others that street witnessing can be done and done well in Odessa. With all the experience I had with it in my life, and taking people out witnessing with me in the States, who had given up on it, and hearing how they were encouraged otherwise after going out with me. Someday, I will show how wrong they are about witnessing in Ukraine. They need to know.
As I walked closer to home I knew I would tell my wife it had been a good day. It had.