A Lament from Place A

Last week on a brief speaking trip to the US I sat down with a PhD student in theology at a well known seminary to discuss his desire to reach the unreached of Africa. He briefly explained his plan to start a project to train men for ministry using a Bible college model. His desire is to reach some unreached people group maybe in the Horn of Africa or North Africa. However, since these unreached peoples often live in difficult and/or dangerous places to access he thought he might start a center for training in some neighboring country: reaching Mogadishu from Kenya, Khartoum from Cairo, or Algiers from Paris. Another idea he had was to teach modular courses on short forays into these hard-to-reach places.

For the rest of this article we’ll call these types of ministries “satellite ministries”: doing ministry in place A (the target) by training ministers in or from place B (the satellite).  The idea of a satellite ministry sounds exciting, exotic, and even innovative. James Bond meets Don Carson. Donors line up for this type of ministry. The stories can be fantastic. The numbers of pastors trained and the number of churches started is impressive. But what is really happening on the ground?

So he asked me some questions: Do I know anyone doing this in North Africa? Would this work? Is there a need for modular classes to be taught by a traveling professor?

My answer surprised him. I have watched satellite missions strategies wreaking havoc on the ground. As we spoke a friend and senior professor at the Seminary listened in. He encouraged me to write about my experiences. I never have because I risk sounding like a Negative Nelie or a Critical Carl (not real people). Nonetheless, he encouraged me to express these frustrations. And well they should be expressed lest the reality be unknown.

Caveats- The following observations are not true of all satellite ministries in all places. These are my experiential observations. I can think of two exceptions:

1. In some places in the world satellite ministries are the necessary second best option. The problem is that many might think that Morocco or China, for example, are such places. I have been ministering in Morocco for 10 years and can tell you that it is not such a place.

2. Some effective satellite ministries are being carried on by experienced, responsible, and conscientious men and women. Some damaging ministries are also being carried on by good people who are unaware of the negative effects on the ground. It takes experience and discernment to know the difference.

I am going to address this missions issue by explaining the problem on two fronts. First, there is a problem with the culture and attitude of many of these programs. Second, there are major problems created on the inside of these countries by offering free tickets to the outside. We have been watching these effects on the local churches for 10 years from the inside.

First, there is no lack of satellite ministries for North Africa and the Middle East. My PhD friend was surprised to learn that the few pastors we have trained in North Africa by life-on-life, day-in and day-out ministry get an invitation on the average of once per month to leave the country for some training program: Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, South Africa, and Indonesia are the destinations these brothers could have taken advantage of just in the last few months. It seems everyone is looking to buy a few pastors. If you are looking to get in this business just realize the competition is stiff, ruthless, and well funded.

Second, some satellite ministries feel that they must be validated. They can’t raise $20k and claim to be able to train 200 native pastors from place A without delivering! The money is already in the account. So, when they can’t find the men of the caliber they want they start lowering the bar. I know one ministry in Tunisia who sends current “students” back to our country to recruit more students. So they visit the house churches and talk to all of the members without the knowledge of the pastor of that house church. In one case, a brother was under church discipline for serious sin when he was recruited to go for pastoral training in Tunisia. The American teachers who came couldn’t see that this man had recently been drunk when he threatened to turn his pastor in to the secret police for not paying him to come to church. His church and community knew but if you put nice clothes on him he looks good in a group picture…especially if his face is blacked out “for security purposes”.

Third, satellite ministries thrive on reporting impressive numbers. A few years ago I was reading a newsletter from a ministry in Spain with a national believing friend of mine. In the letter they claimed to have trained over 300 house church pastors for the North Africa country where I work by bringing them to Spain and sending them back. That sounds amazing. The only problem is that there are at most 50 house churches in the country that anyone knows about…except the donors. The chances are that many of these “pastors” are counted in two or three other satellite ministry reports as well. The most unscrupulous of men often take these opportunities every chance they get.

To combat this problem some of these satellite ministries actually require the students to go back and start a church and send them the photo evidence. The “Tunisia recruiter” I mentioned has a habit we can count on. Every time he returns from his two week training he’ll visit the church we planted, invite everyone over to his house, take a picture during said meeting, and promptly send it back to place B. They, no doubt, forward the picture with joy seeing “real results” from their training program. He won’t meet with them again until he needs to send the next picture.

So, when I hear reports of a program training 2,000 pastors in 2 years who have all planted churches that each run 100 I am more than a little skeptical.

Fourth, satellite ministries often don’t recognize the leadership structure of the local churches inside the country. A national friend of mine was recently invited to Indonesia for two weeks. They excitedly told him that he had gone through “an extensive, prayerful, regionally based selection process” to be identified as one of the Christian world’s next emerging leaders for North Africa. They promised him that he would finally be able to understand his role in the mission of God. They told him that he would be entering in to a 10 year agreement of mentoring with them.

The only thing is that this young man had already been being mentored for 5 years and not by a once-per-month Skype call. I met him when he was 19 and still in university. We have spent thousands of hours in the Word together. He is at my home every week and my family has an ongoing witness to his mom, dad, sisters, and many from his extended family. Now he is leading a house church, preaching every week, and organizing a national project for evangelism and church planting in new cities. Yet in the mind of this ministry they were going to be the first to touch this raw clay with their adept ministerial fingers.

When this particular candidate responded that he would not be attending their event they begged him to reconsider passing up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (they may not have known that it was a once-per-month opportunity). When he persisted in his rejection they kindly asked him for an email from two others they might invite. The “extensive, prayerful, and rigorous” criteria they spoke of must be that the person claim to be a Christian and have an email address.

Fifth, most satellite ministries don’t have any idea about what is really going on in place A. One brother that had attended our church had begged me to “make him a pastor” in June of 2012. I told him that I don’t make pastors and that he doesn’t qualify. This particular man was very famous for his violent temper. He had hit his wife with a glass coke bottle landing her in the emergency room just a week before. Since this is a Muslim country such treatment of women is not only allowed but prescribed by the Koran for dealing with disobedience. When he realized that I wasn’t going to put him in ministry (or give him a salary for serving God) he started to make other plans. Within three months he was traveling to Tunisia for a pastoral training program. They never asked me…or his wife.

One brother that I had led to Christ 6 years ago was in our basic discipleship program. He had completed it and been baptized. We have a training program for men desiring to start a church but this man didn’t qualify because he had not told any of his family or friends about his faith. We consider someone a strong believer and worthy to lead and preach to others only when they have taken a stand for Christ in their family and community. But, you guessed it, last year he was recruited by the above mentioned brother and began attending their “pastoral training seminars”, all-expenses-paid. He goes every other month for two weeks. They don’t know he is a secret Christian.

Another young man came to our church years ago claiming to have believed on Christ. Within a few months it became obvious to us that he was a pot-smoking, womanizer who was playing a game and looking for girls. After repeated warnings he was not allowed back to any of the churches. That wouldn’t stop a certain ministry in South Africa from flying him in and out for their training program. He continues to post pictures of himself on his ”place A only” Facebook smoking pot and kissing girls. What they know won’t hurt them, I guess.

Despite the pesky facts, these ministries will report that they have deployed these three men as national pastors: “they are witnessing, gathering a body of believers, and pastoring them”, they say.

Sixth, some of these satellite programs disrespect the ability of the national pastors to train their own people. I have three kids and I’m proud to take care of them. I delight to give them their daily bread and provide their daily dose of hugs and love. I have a plan starting at their young ages for them to save up money to buy their first car. But what if someone from the richest part of town would drive into my neighborhood and hand my kids restaurant bags full of sushi and hotdogs (their favorites respectively), give them a hug, and take a picture? What if that same rich person were to promise them that on their 16th birthday they were going to give them a brand new car? It would take a considerable amount of maturity for my 12 year old to understand that he should not take the sushi now or the new car later.

We have been working in North Africa to train men to train men. This is 2 Tim 2:2. We have developed a training program that the first disciples have been through and are teaching the same material to others. These men teaching have limited education at their disposal and limited finances but they are the dads of these young men none-the-less. But why would a young man stay and learn from his native pastor when he can go and study under an American PhD who will pay for his next international trip? The best, most mature, and principled men understand why not but many new believers (and all false believers) cannot understand.

Seventh, satellite programs are destroying the testimony of national Christians and pastors in Muslim nations. National believers here are accused in the media and in their communities as people who have “sold their religion” to the rich Westerners. It is common belief that one can get a job, wife, visa, and/or monthly salary for becoming a Christian. So we protest: No! These men and women have believed on Christ to their harm not for their financial success! But how can we argue when a man who could barely afford bus fare yesterday is now jet-setting to Asia, South Africa, and the Middle East for pastor training seminars? …and he isn’t even a pastor! He has put in two years effort into spotty church attendance and now he is an international star.

So the pastors of the churches we have started are not taking these same quick opportunities. But that doesn’t save them from the doubt and criticism. These satellite ministries are only exacerbating the bad testimony on the ground and making it harder for the lost to see the light of Christ. All the lost can see are the plane lights as they blink through the night sky taking more “infidels” to exotic locations.

Eighth, some satellite programs are decimating the local churches. Based on all I have written above you can probably figure out how. The men we have trained fight tooth and nail for a small number of converts per year: preaching, visiting, warning, and exhorting. Then they fight to bring them together and teach them in a local church. The going is slow. Then the fruit is cut in half. Not by the government and not by persecution but by satellite ministries who take the most promising young men before they are ripe. They yank them out of the ground, plant them in foreign soil, and then return them as unscrupulous competition for the men who used to be respected as their spiritual fathers and leaders. The national pastor is doing all he can not to quit. The competition brought in by satellite ministries is not helping the work. It is dividing and conquering it.

My Personal Foray into Satellite Ministry

Four years ago I was presented with a tempting opportunity to do satellite ministry. A guy I had witnessed to during my first year in the country had become a professing believer. I hadn’t heard from him in five years so I was delighted when he got back in touch with me and told me the news. He lived 5 hours away from me so I visited him and rejoiced to hear that his wife was open to the gospel. He had complaints about a local pastor that he was meeting with. They seemed like reasonable complaints so I decided to help this new believer train for ministry and start a church. The only problem is that I could only see this friend five days per month when he would come to the capital where I live and do the training and during occasional visits to his city. I was doing ministry in place A from place B.

I reasoned that it might work because we know his family, I was his spiritual “father”, and he would be connected to a national church here. After over two years of satellite work with him all of the place A secrets we didn’t know about came to light. He had been using the knowledge he was getting from our training to gather funds from satellite ministries in Turkey and Europe claiming to have been imprisoned for his ministry. I knew that he was put in jail for distributing expired medicine not for distributing the healing gospel but the satellite ministry didn’t know that. When we informed these satellite ministries about his unrepentant attitude and hid deceit we were scolded for sowing division and gossiping. He is still receiving funds from them today.

If I had done life-on-life ministry with this man in place A I don’t think I would have been so ignorant of what was really going on. He would not have risen to the position of pastor so fast.

Toward a better way for the donor and the satellite teacher

Many reading this will not have the opportunity (unlike my seminarian friend) to plant churches and disciple men on the foreign field. So what role is there left for you to give to worthy ministries or teach effectively on a modular basis? I would offer two pieces of advice:

First, do not write off satellite ministries entirely. Remember that Paul was operating a satellite ministry to Corinth, Philippi, Crete, Ephesus and more. The difference is that he had lived there and personally planted those churches. He was in an ongoing relationship with the leadership through his own letters, visits, and deputies like Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17) and Titus. Their was a strong sense of fatherhood/sonship between the leadership and the trainees.

Second, teach alongside national pastors and church planting missionaries. There is a place for foreign teachers. It is not over the national leaders but beside them. If you are teaching “future pastors” or “pastors-in-training” then their pastors need to be teaching beside you. You are leaving and will provide no structure for church discipline, baptizing, and disciple making. The national leaders will stay and need to be looked at with all the respect they deserve.

Toward a better way for the would-be missionary

Paul reminded the Corinthians that “though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you don’t have many fathers; for in Christ I have begotten you through the gospel.” (1 Cor. 4:15) There are thousands willing to be your teachers, your prof, your life-coach, but only one who can be your father. He didn’t say instructors were wrong, he just said the line for instructing is long.

So, what can you do if you would love to reach unreached peoples and train pastors?

Paul’s advice: Go have some children in the faith. I can take you to ten countries tomorrow full of unreached peoples of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist background where you can go, preach the gospel, gather believers, and train some men…until they kick you out. A degree (and I have two of them) doesn’t give you the right to train pastors. Age doesn’t give you the right to train pastors. Money doesn’t give you the right to train pastors. Pastoring gives you the right to train pastors. Having children gives you the right to be a father. Do not aspire to be an instructor. Aspire to be a father.

When you have lived where they have live, when you have ministered in the context where they will minister, when you have learned their languages, when you have faced the police and the Imams, when you have cried with them at their dad’s funeral, when you have stayed up all night for three nights in a row at their brother’s wedding, when you have sat on sheep skins in dirt-walled rooms and shared Christ with their aging parents, when you have traveled mile after mile with them on evangelistic trips, when you have confronted them in their sin and helped them overcome it, when you have modeled everything it means to be a father and a pastor…then, and only then, have you earned the right to train pastors.

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