Attempting to function with an Americanized mindset in a cross-cultural church does not come without a challenge. It can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Even when some of your church members think distressed denim is something you wear while gardening, instead of going out, you can still make an impact for the gospel.
The church you might be a part of does not have Coldplay gently wafting throughout the facility. The person preaching might still be using paper from which notes are read. Cultural references in the sermons are few and far between. All week you listen to podcasts on your iTouch/pod/pad/phone of guys who tell you your salvation cannot be lost. So you think to yourself, what am I still doing here? I am here to tell you that you are doing something great. Something that God would like for you to do. Exist in an unnatural habitat where you will learn how to be humble. It might now always be easy. You will experience difficulties and setbacks. But, maturity and growth will happen at an exponential rate.
Here are five things you can do right now to flourish in a challenging environment. These actions can be taken beyond the confines of a local church. These actions will help you thrive and survive in any challenging environment. These actions will save you from unpleasant interactions that can otherwise be avoided. I believe these actions will bring monumental glory to God and maximum joy to the people you serve.
1. Remain where you are. When placed in a tough predicament, our first instinct might be to flee. The grass is greener on the other side. Somewhere else, it is much better. You might think your creativity is being stifled. You are not able to do that which you think is effective. Any idea proposed by you is met by a disagreement, usually lacking any logic. The fruit of your labor is barely visible, or virtually non-existent. I might be an optimist, but let me say it plainly. Remain where you are. Sure, there are exceptions. There may be extenuating circumstances. But if you find yourself disagreeing more with methodology than theology, stick around for a bit. If you are disagreeing with theology, pray long and hard about your expected departure. After this season of prayer, follow it up with another one. Wherever you end up, difficulties will follow you and issues will greet you. They are inevitable. It does not matter what environment you find yourself in. If you think you will be happier with a hipster huddle, drinking seven dollar java rather than silver-haired grandmas who read 27 spiritual magazines delivered to their door, think again. You are deceiving yourself and the truth is not in you. Problems will exist where people are found. So for this reason, remain where you are. If only for a season. Before God will use you greatly, remain where you are patiently and endeavor to do the work, faithfully.
2. Redeem what you can. To avoid constant disappointment, you must learn to be maximally impactful by acting within your level of authority. Often we experience disappointment due to unrealized expectations. Relieve yourself of these unrealistic expectations. You will be able to breathe much easier and avoid hyperventilation. You are more effective when you are still around. If you know the people in your church will not accept a certain style of music, do not assume this will change overnight. If people in the church deem it inappropriate to wear denim to the church, do not assume they will be “high-fiving” you when you rock your straight leg Sevens to the service. Learn to be highly effective in the sphere of influence that you have. If you lead a small group, pour your heart into it. Develop a series. Teach and preach Jesus. Do it with passion, clarity and conviction. Teach the five people God entrusted to you with as much enthusiasm as you would have speaking to five thousand. Be intentional about exercising the influence and authority level that you possess. Avoid going above it until asked to do so. If you are asked to lead a group at a camp, do not try to be the camp director. If you are asked to teach a class, avoid acting like you are the principal. If you are asked to preach once in a while, leave the vision casting to the lead pastor. If you are asked to prepare some food in the kitchen, unless you are Gordon Ramsay, don’t attempt to overstate the head chef.
3. Realign your reality. Avoid the corruption of comparison. If you are in charge of audio and tech, use what you have and tune it to the best of your ability. Yes, the church down the street with 20k members has a slightly higher budget than a few hundred dollars. Not everyone showed up to your seminar. That is ok. Give all you have to those that did. Be intentional about the impact you are making, in the sphere in which you are making it. Yes the budget might not be there. The tech equipment is not up to par. The power point has glitches. There is no fresh brewed coffee in the foyer. Professional, multi-color pamphlets are replaced with 8.5 x 11 plain sheets of paper. It is ok. All those things matter, but they are not the main thing. God has placed you there for a reason. To tell others about His Son Jesus Christ. To proclaim to others about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Even if everyone does not have a murse or know how to text and surf the web simultaneously, you can and will make a great impact for the Kingdom of God.
4. Refrain from being indifferent. This is probably the worst position to assume. Either be all in or it is not a win, for you and for others. Many people love to believe like bunnies. They hop from church to church. They watch the live-stream of their favorite guy Sunday morning on their laptop. Later in the day, they visit the local campus where another favorite is streamed live onto a big screen. In the eve, they find the church where the band is the best. If they find something they don’t like, they leave right away. If something is not done to their liking, an exit strategy has already been planned out, and executed. This is great, if you are training for the church marathon olympics. This is why it is important to refrain from being indifferent. Refrain from being passive, when you do not like how something is. Instead of criticizing passively, engage yourself in service actively. Yes, it might be uncomfortable. Yes, it might make you step out of your comfort zone. Yes, you might have to work with people you don’t agree with. Yes, you might have to sing a song or two from your grandparents’, dust-covered hymnal. The goal is not personal comfort but rather a pursuit of demonstrating gospel-drenched virtues to other people. So, refrain from being indifferent. Instead make a difference.
5. Reform slowly, but steadily. Many of us want to drop the gospel bomb but could care less about picking up the pieces. Rampant reform can lead to countless casualties and preventable catastrophes. Reforming something can be fun for some but painful for most. Change is difficult to initiate and easy to avoid. Jesus teaches us how to be wise. Let us ask God continuously for wisdom that surpasses all human understanding. If you want to reform something, do not start with how much you know. People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Avoid making people drink from a reformation fire hydrant. It is unpleasant. Instead, engage slowly but maintain steady speed. Most people will be fine with change, as long as they are informed about it, explained the reason behind it and led patiently through it. Meet people where they are. Take off the official garb. Become more down to earth. Drink tea with an elderly couple. Have some coffee with the older couples. Keep contact with the young people. Shake hands with the senior citizens who rode for 3+ hours on a bus just to attend a 90 minute church service. People will be much more inclined to accept that which you are trying to change when they know you, not when they just know about you.
Lastly, do not lose sight of what you are doing. Ultimately, we are pursuing people with the love that Jesus first demonstrated to us. God can use us in the most strenuous of situations, to bring about change for His glory. God first wants to do a great work in you so that he can do a great work through you. Even in the most desolate of settings, the gospel will take root and Jesus will be glorified. Continue to love the people you serve, at the place God has called you to, during the season that has been allocated for you.
Question: What have you done lately to flourish in a challenging environment? What best practices can you share about functioning effectively in a challenging environment?