Saturday, October 25, 2014

Definitely not dull days

The reality is, we all have days that are a bit dull. I don’t mean that in a negative sense – just that they are ordinary.

As director of MOCLAM I have days like that. Days when I just need to do the basic work of preparing classes, marking exams etc.

The last few days have not been those dull days.

For the last few days I’ve been travelling around a large island in the Caribbean that starts with C but can’t be named for security reasons. In 4 days of pre-dawn starts and late night finishes, I’ve driven 2000km on roads that varied from quite good to “is this actually a road?”. I’ve witnessed great joy and enthusiasm for God’s word in circumstances that many of us would find very difficult to tolerate, let alone be joyful in. And I’ve had the opportunity to witness the hunger for God’s word that occurs in a country where resources, including theological education resources are scarce.

The purpose of the trip was to visit many of the centres in which MOCLAM has students, to meet the group leaders, to present certificates to those who have completed their studies, and to encourage those who are still going.

It has been en encouraging, invigorating, edifying and humbling experience.

In 7 different locations I presented around 80 certificates, many of which were Certificates of Theology (ThC), awarded to those who have completed 18 subjects. To have the opportunity to meet students whose exams I have been marking for several years, and to hear them testify in front of their friends and family how the courses of MOCLAM have changed the way they minister was a rare privilege.

Each of the 7 groups was different. Some were meeting in large cities and denominational churches. Others, in small house groups. I met with one group who is in the process of planting 200 house churches across the central part of the island, as well as sending missionaries to other Spanish-speaking countries.

The most isolated group required us to drive 5 hours along beachside tracks and then eventually into a high mountain area, isolated from the most basic of services and facilities. Here the local pastors meet together for 5 days of intensive teaching from a MOCLAM tutor, and they are full of rejoicing that someone has bothered to come and help them, because their isolation means that any sort of theological education or training is virtually impossible.

The trip reinforced in my mind the great strength of MOCLAM. We are providing theological training resources that can be used in all sorts of contexts by all sorts of people.

But it also taught me something which I’d had an inkling of for a while, but is now confirmed in my mind. In this place we have a network of tutors who teach intensive courses in different locations. Over the last 5 years I have got to know each of these tutors individually, as well as a group and they have taught me that one of the key elements of theological education is relationship. They work together as a family, and it is clear from the testimony of the students that they treat their classes as a family conversation. Yes, there are things to be learnt, books to be read and exams to be done - but this happens in the context of a family relationship. And when the class is finished for the day, the family conversation continues as church matters and personal issues are discussed.

MOCLAM is not only providing a great theological training resource, but it is a mechanism by which pastors and church leaders are being supported in their often isolated and difficult work.

Why am I telling you about my “not at all dull” days?

Because many people who read this are our supporters through CMS, and I want you to share in the encouragement that I received in the last few days. It is because of your support that I can lead MOCLAM in this and other countries. Humanly speaking, without CMS supporting us in this ministry, none of this would be happening.

So thank you for your support.

I also want to share with you this experience, because it shows the value of long-term missionary investment. I have lost track of how many time I have been to this country – but it is more than a dozen since August 2009. As a result of this long-term investment in the relatively unspectacular work of teaching classes and producing resources, we are now seeing some profound fruit. In a world that is often dominated by the desire for “facebook-able” results and measureable (and preferably instant) KPIs , it is easy for theological education and training to seem slow – because it is. The shaping of people is like that.

But when the time is taken, the results can be profound, as my last few days have seen.

And so I ask you to keep on supporting this ministry, because the reality is, it is fragile, and needs our continuing support.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What I miss about pastoral ministry

I'm on the road at the moment - teaching several different classes in Chile. It is excellent. I've got enthusiastic students from different contexts and I get stretched as I teach a wide range of subjects. (This trip I'm teaching OT2 Joshua-2Kings, an introductory night on Creation to New Creation, and Doctrine1 in which we look at the knowledge of God.)

I also get to see fellow CMS missionaries from Australia which is always encouraging for me, and for them I hope.

Having said all that, I found that I agreed with much of what Trevin Wax said in this article, particularly his point about preaching to the same group of people week in and week out.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Another observation about ministry in Latin America: Publishing

Here's another quick observation about ministry in Latin America. None of these are supposed to be definitive, but they give an interesting taste of the sorts of things that are happening.

Books / Publishing.

Good books are pretty hard to find in Spanish, especially books that you might consider "meaty" or "good for pushing people on." Self-help, Christian psychology is popular. Today I received a catalog from a publisher in Latin America promoting a series of books which gives a good indication of the sorts of books that are being made available.

¿Where did my money go?
¿12 keys to reach your dreams?
¿12 keys to succeed in your work?
Principles of success

(declaration: I haven't read any of these books, so don't know what they say, but to be honest, I'm not sure that I need to.)

Another reminder of why Biblical teaching, training and publishing is needed to feed God's people in Latin America.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An observation about Latin American ministry

Today I received an invitation to a series of workshops / conferences (think big organisation, lots of speakers, big deal) aimed at gospel ministry in Latin America. The organisation was one I hadn't heard of, I won't be going, and I wish them well.

But - the invitation gave an interesting insight into what they, and I suspect many others think of when they say "ministry to latin america".

By definition, Latin America is the Spanish-speaking part of the Americas. It includes the rapidly growing hispanic population in the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America (although because of Portuguese, Brazil is sometimes left out.) Think from the US/ Canada border to almost the south pole. That is a lot of countries and a lot of people.

The interesting thing is, this organisation is holding 4 major events next year to "take the gospel to Latin America" but 3 of those 4 events are in the United States. The 4th is in Mexico City.

It is interesting because it demonstrates a perception (and I have no reason to object to the perception) that the centre of latin america is the United States. The thinking is, if you want to do something to impact the latino world, you do it in the United States - probably somewhere like Miami, Houston or Los Angeles.

This has an interesting implication for ministry and theological education.

It means that the tendency is to look north of the border for resources, training and funding. For example, a common model for US churches to be involved in the "mission work" of training pastors is to try and find a US institution that will offer a scholarship, coach the guy like crazy so his English is good enough, and bring him to seminary in the US away from his home country for 3 or 4 or 5 years.

At the end of that time, he may or may not return. There are plenty of churches in the US who want a well trained and well thought-out Spanish speaking pastor, and they are looking at these scholarship graduates. Remember that this is the guy who has won the scholarship and has got his English going  - so he is a good guy! But that creates a brain drain. The best and brightest often get taken away, and may never come back.

There are some that do, but they are the exception.

Its a tricky situation, because training institutions in Latin America that will do a good job of solidly preparing someone for word ministry are not common. A few exist, but they are not common. But a constant sucking away of the next generation of leaders and teachers is perpetuating that problem.

This is why in-country training, whether it be by distance or in a classroom is so important. It teaches people in their own context, it encourages them to serve in their own country once the training is over, and it builds the momentum of education and training in areas where it is needed.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Salty light

I'm preaching at our church this Sunday - always a daunting prospect in Spanish. Even more so this weekend, because the passage I've been give is Matthew 5:13-16 (you are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world.)

Two things have come to my attention as I've worked on this passage and thought about how to explain and apply it.

1. The "you" is plural - is is "yous". Of course saying this in English makes you sound like a Collingwood supporter, but in Spanish there is a very normal plural you. Seeing this has made me think about the "corporate" aspect of what Jesus is saying here. He is not just addressing a whole lot of individuals as individuals - he is speaking to the group.

What that means is that the application questions "What does this passage mean for me?" changes slightly to "What does this passage mean for us?"

2. In the second image, which is the only one with an exhortation attached, we, being the light of the world, are told what to do with our light. No surprises here - we are to shine it.

But what was a little surprising for me, was the purpose for which the light should shine. It wasn't for us (the shiners), but for whom it shone upon (the shinees??)

The purpose of shining is the light is not so that we will be shiny, but so that those who are looking at the light will give glory to God.

Call me slow (thank you .... I heard that), but I hadn't really thought about that before. So often we want to concentrate our life on ourselves, how we can live better lives, be more godly etc, but here is an encouragement to do that so that others will benefit.

I like that.

Of course it is not some dazzling new theme in the Bible, Paul tells us to count others more significant than yourselves (Phil 2:3), but here is a great example of it.

Be salt, be light - so that others may glorify God.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A response to an immigration crisis

Immigration is a big issue in the world at the moment. There are debates happening in Australia as boats approach from Asia, in Europe as they come from North Africa, and in the Mexico/USA border region as a new crisis emerges.

In the next year, it is estimated that around 120,000 unaccompanied minors (under 18) will cross the USA/Mexico border illegally. Most of these kids will arrive in Texas and Arizona.

The sending / smuggling / paid transit of unaccompanied minors has gradually been increasing in the last 5 years, and although next year's numbers are much higher, the national profile of those coming is also changing. Numbers of children coming from Mexico are dropping, while those coming from Honduras and El Salvador are increasing.

The causes, responses and repercussions of this crisis are deep and massively complex and there are plenty of opportunities for political posturing and point scoring. But some comments are also displaying a sad depth of selfishness and lack of compassion.

Writing in the Dallas Morning News today, opinion writer Mark Davis argues(and I paraphrase) that the flood of illegally arriving children needs to be turned back, because if they are not, it means a whole lot of kids who don't speak English will end up sitting next to your child in class, and that of course, means your child's grades will be dragged down because the teacher will be too busy helping the new kid.

So kids who are from families so desperate that they send them on a long, dangerous overland journey to escape poverty, violence and civil war are to be denied a chance because it means our children might slip in their grade point average.

I might be doing Mr Davis a dis-service, but to me that sounds like "family values" and "the things that we hold most dear" being used as a cover for racism.

Who knows Mr Davis, if our children end up sitting next to a new immigrant at school, they might learn some words in another language? They might get an insight into another culture? They might learn how to help people? They might learn that they and their grades are not the centre of the universe.

The verse "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Phil 2:3) comes to mind.

As I read Mr Davis' column, my own family came to mind. We've sat on both side of "the kid who doesn't speak the language" fence.

A few days after arriving in Mexico, with no Spanish, our kids started going to a 100% Spanish speaking school. They were the kids who the teachers had to give extra attention to. They did, we are thankful and now our kids speak beautiful Spanish.

One of the reasons the school did such a good job is that they have a policy of helping special needs kids. Every class has a couple of kids in it that need extra help. Kids with Downs syndrome or physical disabilities are members of ever class. And you know what? Everyone wins. Especially the kids who give the help. They learn to help, they learn to care, they learn patience, they learn to look after people as people. I like that.

The school's average academic performance is lower because of this policy. I don't care about that.

What I care about is that one of our girls has a very deep friendship with a profoundly disabled boy in her class. We've had him over to do puzzles, to have dinner and it is a joy to see how our daughter cares for him. She's learnt to treat him as a friend, a person. That's more important than her academic average.

Immigration, illegal immigration, refugees, borders - they are complicated issues - very complicated issues. But they are people. We need to care for people, and we need to learn from people, rather than letting our selfishness dominate policy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Would you like to plant a tree with that?

The caricature "suggestive-selling" line used to be "would you like fries with that?" but recently things have got a bit more sophisticated and environmentally aware.

My job involves a reasonable amount of travel, and as a result I am frequently booking flights / trains / hotels and other bits and pieces online. And it is very common that as part of the payment process, I'm invited pay a bit more for an extra bag or lounge access, but also there is another box to tick to plant a few trees / donate to the company's charitable foundation / donate to a well know charity group etc.

In fact, here in Mexico, when you withdraw money from an ATM, the last question you are asked before you get your card back is whether you would like to donate to a charity - with a suggested amount (usually about $0.50).

I think its a great idea, and the "charity marketers" have realised that if you make the donation process part of an already existing transaction, it is probably more likely that a donation will be made.

That got me thinking about the fundraising I'm involved in - raising money to support theological education in Latin America. How could I encourage those who are "already making a transaction" to add a bit more for the sake of being a donor to a worthy cause?

Here's what I came up with.

Generally, the registration process for a conference or an event is out of my control (unless of course I am running it), but what if each time we went to a conference or a training event where we were going to be fed we thought - "I'll give $25 to Latin America for Christ so a Latin American pastor can have a similar experience"?

I've chosen $25 as the figure because for that I can meet the costs of one pastor doing one subject through MOCLAM in one of the countries Latin America for Christ supports.

So if you're going to a conference this year - can I "suggestively sell" to you?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A new job (and I'm keeping my old one)

I've got a new job! (as well as keeping my old one).

I'm now the President and Executive Director of Latin America for Christ Inc., a Texas based non-profit organisation.

LAC (as it is known) has been established for the purpose of raising money to fund theological education in Latin America. This is a huge need, because the majority of pastors and church leaders have little or no theological training, and therefore have to face the responsibility of teaching and leading their congregations without some of the basic tools that pastors in other parts of the world take for granted.

This leaves the pastors very susceptible to burnout and frustration, and they often look to the latest fads or trends for a "quick fix" - which on many occasions takes them away from the gospel, rather than to it.

We've taken the deliberate decision to identify and fund theological education that happens in, or near the home country of the pastor, rather than giving them a scholarship to go and study in another country (like the United States). There are several reasons for this.

- To send someone to a foreign country and study is a very expensive exercise - tens of thousands of dollars. Local education is always much cheaper and therefore we get more "bang for our buck".

- Experience has shown that those who receive scholarships to study overseas often do not return. This is particularly the case in the United States, where there are plenty of churches who want to employ well trained Spanish speakers. This results in a "brain drain" for the local Latin American church.

- Moving to another country is an enormous ask (I know!) If we can train people in their home context, it is often a much easier proposition to "sell".

- Local training means the leaders can stay connected to their home ministries while they are studying - which is particularly important for Latinos.

And so - given all that - we're trying to raise funds to allow Latin American pastors to study in Latin America.

At the moment we are concentrating on funding MOCLAM courses in countries where the students do not have the resources to pay for themselves, and we are also investigating the possibility of providing scholarship for students who are studying in seminaries that we are connected with, for example the CEP in Chile.

If you would like to find out more, or contribute to this fund, please visit our website and/or contac me through the website.