In China, there is a
well-known idiom that says, “I’d rather be a chicken’s head than the tail of a
idiom expresses a commonly held notion: It’s better to be in a position of
prominence, even if in a less glamorous sphere, than in a low position yet a
more prestigious context. In the West, there is a similar saying that talks
about being a “big fish in a small pond.”
daily life, this sort of thinking can take many forms. Many Chinese businessmen, for example, will leave their low positions in a major company in order to take
a high position in a local unknown company. One would like to wish that pastors
and missionaries would be immune to such sentiments. In fact, the sin nature
needs no passport. It crosses every border.
the church, becoming a missionary is often regarded as one of the most selfless
and sacrificial things a person can do. Of course, this can be true. Leaving
family, friends, conveniences and the ability to communicate easily are not
things one forsakes easily. On the other hand, it is possible for the mission
field to become a place of unchecked ambition.
The Significance of Status
happens when Westerners come to a country like China (or any number of other
places)? They inherit the title “foreigner.” Initially, this will offend the
westerner’s sensibilities. However, missionaries come to find that the
“foreigner” status carries particular advantages. Within the church, Western
Christians are often regarded as an “expert.” This is nothing more than sheer
assumption since they come from a “Christian country” (so they think).
the problem is the fact that many missionaries receive similar accolades from
friends and family in their home country, who could not imagine living in a
“foreign” country.” Back in their home culture, they are basically anonymous, .
. . until they decide to become missionaries. Then, they become “chicken heads”
. . . having a place of prominence in a place few others want to go.
note these things in order to highlight a subtle danger that can undermine missionary
labor. In the environment I’ve described, vain ambition may still fester
beneath the surface of everything one sees. How?
Missionaries can all too
easily confuse their “status” with significance.
What might this manifest
itself in practice?
work of missions is inherently lonely and slow. Yet, we live in a world of
sensationalized marketing and high-speed methods of communication. Those who
support missionaries want to see high numbers of people being trained and won
the missionary knows that reality is less glamorous that his or her supporters really
want to hear. What are they to do? If they are not careful, missionaries settle
for being “chicken heads” rather than a “phoenix’s tail.”
The Pragmatics of Praise
will list two ways that one might confuse status with significance. Others
could be mentioned. In each case, the potential temptation is as subtle as it
a missionary lands in a new city, one of the first things he or she must do is
meet people. So begins the long process of “networking.” Ministry is about
relationships, right? What’s the problem?
is quite easy to confuse “networking” for ministry. The situation is comparable
to having a Facebook page. Because someone has a lot of “Facebook friends,” he
or she should not mistakenly conclude that those connections represent
meaningful or close relationships.
is important but it must not be confused with ministry itself.
is easy to make oneself seen and known to others (just as one sees a chicken’s head); however, a person must
continually ask himself, “What is the significance of these relationships?” In
other words, are we building up people or just our network? It is healthy for
missionaries to regularly ask themselves, “Do I simply know a lot of people?
Or, do I actually know a lot about these people?”
a large network may afford a certain status, but it does not ensure significant
like numbers. This is no less true in mission circles.
are regarded as objective evidence that one’s strategies are effective. The
problem however is that statistics must still be interpreted and can be
know first-hand of a school in Asia who advertised that they trained at least
1,200 pastors every year. Unfortunately, this was spin. I have direct
knowledge that the school only enrolled between 100–140 students (not all of
them pastors). Why the discrepancy? They counted every class a student attended
as though the school taught a separate person. So, if a single student took 10
classes in a year, the school counted it as having taught 10 separate pastors!
the manipulation? People want to look good to both to their supporters and to
their supervisors. No doubt, this sort of number twisting is a grievous
offense. However, those who are leaders within mission organizations also need
to do a bit of self-examination.
speaking, what is sort of ethos are
you fostering within your group?
For example, what sort of
books and methodologies are emphasized? What kind of requirements do you have
for missionaries? Who typically leads trainings within the organization? Or, ask
yourself this question, “What kind of person typically gets promoted into
leadership positions?” In their ministries, have they reported rapid
multiplication, perhaps even something like a “church planting movement”?
simply, what are the things we make a big deal of? If we continually emphasize
statistics, we will foster an overly
Statistics do not measure
significance. Yes, people will notice us if we report high numbers, but they do not
make Christ’s church become beautiful . . . like a phoenix.
Jackson Wu (PhD, SEBTS) teaches theology and missiology in a seminary for Chinese church leaders. Previously, he also worked as a church planter. He has just released his second book One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization. In addition to his blog, jacksonwu.org, follow him on Twitter @jacksonwu4china.