You wanna hear something sad?
Last year we went out to the coast and stayed at a hotel that had an aviary on the grounds. I like birds, so I was excited to go see what kind of tropical birds they had on display. They had beautiful Tucans and all kinds of parrots and peacocks and owls and some kind of vulture. My favorite birds were the Scarlet Macaws. There were mango trees above the cages, shading the birds, and some monkeys were in the trees eating fruit. Of course those greedy monkeys never finish a whole mango before they drop it and reach out for another one, so there were all these mangos with just one bite taken littering the ground under the trees. So my kids and I picked up a few green mangos and pressed them against the side of the Macaw cage.
Those big birds got all excited. They would use their big, sharp beaks to scrape off bits of mango through the fence. We just had to watch our fingers. It was a lot of fun to feed them. But the sad thing was that there were taller trees around the aviary and they were full of flocks of wild Macaws. They were absolutely stunning in their freedom. It was such a contrast to the caged birds we saw in the aviary. The caged birds didn’t actually LOOK any different than the wild birds, but they lacked that sense of majesty and awe that we saw in the wild birds. I felt bad for the caged birds who watched their cousins fly away wild and free, being just what God made them to be: Awe-Inspiring.
In our ministry we have the opportunity to cast vision in the local church. My husband travels around Costa Rica training lay people and pastors on how to start small group Bible studies on University campuses. The cool thing is that sometimes at his seminars there are other kinds of people- not just students- ordinary people who have regular jobs but they’re interested in reaching out to their co-workers. That’s really cool for us, because they are taking our ideas and expanding them, seeing potential for application in their lives, and getting excited about sharing Jesus with their co-workers.
But the frustrating thing is when we find these willing co-laborers trapped like a Macaw by a pastor who tries to control them. Sometimes pastors can be very controlling of their people. Sometimes people feel like they need to ask their pastor for permission to do ANY kind of ministry, even if it’s outside of the church. For example, many of our students tell us they must ask their pastor’s permission before they start a group on their campus. We’ve also had other adults in the church tell us they want to start a Bible study among their co-workers, but their pastor won’t give them permission to do it… so they don’t! Some people who WANT to do something big for God feel like those caged Macaws looking wistfully at their brothers and sisters who fly freely above them. They long for that type of freedom and mobility, but they feel caged and tied down by an authoritarian leader.
But really, this is mostly a type of culture clash for us Independent Americans who don’t like anyone telling us what to do. We need to learn that “process” is not always a bad thing. Most people who live in a Group Centered society like many of the Latin American societies, don’t find this to be a problem. For them, they see themselves as a member of a group and they want the support and authority of the group leader behind them before they step out and try something new. This works fine if the pastor is generous with his power and truly passionate about expanding the Kingdom of God. This works fine if the group member isn’t frustrated and discouraged by the slow process of gaining approval and consensus among the group. Sometimes it’s only the missionary who sees this as a problem.
It’s a fine line that must be balanced by us missionaries. We come to a new culture with an entire life time of cultural baggage that we don’t even realize we carry. We have our own ideas about how things should be done. And if we aren’t careful, we can turn our cultural presumptions into Doctrine. (Isn’t Efficiency in the Bible somewhere?!?) Sometimes it’s best if we just sit back and let the people do it their way. We present a new idea and let them hash out the details of how this should be done and what this will look like in their world. The culture we are working in has it’s own set of processes and procedures, and it’s not a good idea to try to short cut these steps. It’s a challenge for us missionaries to give the pastors freedom to lead in their own way and it’s a challenge for pastors to release their people into ministry. This is not an easy thing to do. Power is a heady thing, and sometimes it can lead to abuse. Working together in building the Kingdom of God means opening up the cage and letting the birds fly free. It’s a hard thing to do.