Wednesday, April 27, 2016

REAL MINISTRY

My daily life is not glamorous. In the morning, I study language in a classroom. In the afternoon, I study language at home. Occasionally, I will practice what I have studied via painfully basic conversations with people who possess a deep well of patience. I respond to emails, work on budgets and write blogs. Every Sunday I go to church and maybe understand a word here and there. The most exciting part of my average week is deciding what to watch on Netflix during the weekend (we’re working our way through season three of Elementary right now, if you must know).

This is the front entrance of our language school. We are especially grateful for the coffee cart right outside.
I believe learning Khmer will be essential for any future work I do in this country. However, learning language is not my primary reason for coming to Cambodia. I want to help develop a training program for the growing number of pastors in the Cambodia Baptist Union. I talk about language acquisition as a means to that end, but I never talk about it as the primary reason I am here.

In my experience in Cambodia or in other countries, I have heard many fellow Christian cross-cultural workers say something along the lines of, “I can’t wait to get out of language school so that I can get started on ministry.” It’s not even uncommon for me to hear, “I dropped out of language school early because I came here to do ministry, not sit in a classroom.”

The assumption behind these statements is that language learning is, at best, a means of achieving successful ministry, and at worst, a distraction from real work. Whatever language learning may be, it is not real ministry. I unconsciously endorse this supposition with my words and actions often. But when I stop to reflect on the assumption, I find it problematic.

Contemporary Christianity, especially in the US, undervalues ministry preparation in favor of just doing something. The number of pastors and leaders with seminary degrees is dropping. Churches are downsizing their education programs. Adults in the church are less biblically literate than they have been in many generations. Our culture tells us there is no time to stop and prepare. Instead, we should find something to do, anything at all, and Just Do It!

The apostle Paul spent as long as three years in the desert preparing himself for his public ministry after his conversion (Galatians 1:15-18). Apollo, who was already having a rather successful ministry, stops to receive training from Priscilla and Aquila, after which his ministry becomes even more powerful (Acts 18:26). Even Jesus does not rush into his ministry, waiting until he is around thirty to get started (Luke 3:23).

I struggle with a need to feel useful. I place so much of my value in what I can do. Sitting in a classroom for another year (especially given all those years I sat in classrooms during college and seminary) can be hard to justify to myself some days. My culture values youth so much that I wonder if I wasted my “prime” on preparing for stuff rather than actually doing stuff. I have heard many American Christians express similar discomfort during their times of preparation or waiting.

Cambodia forces me to face this question head on: am I wasting my time in language school when I could get started on real ministry?

I believe that language learning is real ministry. It’s not merely a means to ministry. Language learning done well is good, solid ministry in and of itself.

What is ministry if not living life alongside people, learning how they see the world, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with them, all in order to display God’s love. As I learn language, I find myself coming alongside Cambodians and understanding their perspective. Other people begin to see me as vulnerable and human. I hope that I never fail to see and embrace all the ministries I have because of the fact that I am in the middle of learning language.

I hope you too will learn to embrace the seasons of preparation and waiting that God calls you to. These are uncomfortable because they show us that we want to find our value in doing and accomplishing. There may come a time when your ministry is more active (just as I hope I can one day transition to a ministry here in which I am helping develop pastors more directly), but you may still be in the midst of good, solid ministry right now. How is God using you right in the middle of this season of preparation?