The Future is in the Middle

(First appeared in SIM Niger Newsletter, August 2015)

There are three important stages in the missionary endeavor: the beginning, the end and the middle. At the beginning the gospel goes where it has never been before. The missionary must take initiative to create something out of nothing: a contact, a friendship, a study, a way for the gospel to be heard. At the end when a well-grounded, growing church is established with capable leaders in place, the missionary steps back and that which has been planted continues to grow and bear fruit.

Most of what we do in SIM Niger is neither a fresh beginning nor at the point of stepping back. Most of what we do is in the middle. The middle is that long winding path that takes the most time and energy. It is often the most painful part but the lasting impact happens in the middle.

The middle is where the missionary learns to journey with local leaders. He neither shrinks from responsibility nor does he insist on being in charge or in control. It is in the middle that cultural differences are the most sharply felt. We can comfortably work with local colleagues as long as we are in control. It is when we work alongside local leaders who are exercising their leadership in their own cultural context that we may hear ourselves saying things like: • “All this talking is a waste of time”
• “Everything seems so ambiguous…I can’t work like this.”
• “Why don’t people say what they mean?”
• “The reporting on this is a mess.”
• “This would be so much easier if we just did it ourselves.”
• “People didn’t remember to come to our meeting and so it was postponed…again.”

No doubt, the local leaders have their own list of frustrations with working with foreign leaders who leave messes in their cultural wake. It would be difficult to relate to our high turnover. They start to see progress in a missionary’s language ability and cultural understanding when the face changes yet again. No doubt, there is much a local leader wishes he could say or change.

This is how it often feels in the middle. But the truth is that all good beginnings fail without a good middle. And there is no satisfied ending without persevering through the middle. The middle is where missionaries learn to be effective agents of change. The middle is where trust is formed. The middle is where new leaders emerge. If you want to have the greatest and most lasting impact in Niger, find a ministry where you walk alongside local leaders. Not ahead nor behind but alongside them. Learn to learn from each other as you solve problems together. Learn to resist passing quick judgments. Learn to trust even when it means you get your heart broken from time to time. Allow yourself to be inconvenienced and slowed down. This is where discipleship happens. Resist the temptation to give up. Resist the temptation to bolt and move to a position where you are again firmly in charge. Welcome to the middle. The middle is often uncomfortable, but I believe it is where the future is.

Yours in Christ,