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The Missionary and the Cinnamon Tree: A Case Study and Teaching Exercise

Author: Chris Flanders
Published: August 2010
In:

MD 1

Article Type: Text Article

Chuck and his team members had prepared many years to work in Gujarat. They planned to do evangelism, disciple new believers, and plant indigenous, self-supporting churches. Their mission training had inculcated in them a fundamental commitment to avoid all forms of dependency. The metaphor they favored as an apt description of their role was that of “scaffolding”- missionaries were only to be a temporary superstructure that would dismantle as soon as the foundation of the church was strong. Within a few years of their arrival, they had seen approximately thirty Gujarat men and women come to faith. Yet, they now stood at a critical juncture, realizing that they may have created the very thing they were trying to avoid–a missionary-dependent church.

From the beginning, the church met in one of the missionary’s homes. Eventually, as the church grew, Chuck and the team brought new believers together for discussions about the organization and establishment of the new church. They agreed to move to rented facilities where they could continue meeting. The missionaries also identified a small number of Gujarat Christians they felt could become a core leadership team for the new congregation. Their goal as church planters was to equip locals to become leaders and to move as quickly as possible to turn over the responsibilities of the church to these local leaders. They worked hard and as time went on produced a relatively organized church with greater formalized structures.

Chuck and his colleagues worked with the Gujarat leadership team to organize and establish the regular worship of this congregation. While they met with these leaders frequently for planning the worship services, Chuck and the members of the team did most of the preaching. This was due to their own realization that they were best equipped for that ministry task (several missionaries had advanced biblical and theological training) and the Gujarat believer’s insistence that they enjoyed missionary preaching much more than that from the newer Gujarat Christians. Frequently Gujarat believers would also note that the missionaries were fully supported and therefore had more time to prepare and produce higher quality sermons and lessons.

Missionaries also provided the core leadership for planning the worship services, setting the overall vision, and evaluating ministry outcomes. This again was due primarily to the missionaries being full-time and the limited time the Gujarat leaders had for such activities. Additionally, Gujarat Christians did not seem as interested in evaluations, projections, and visioning, as did the missionaries. While the Gujarat leaders were often participants in these activities and processes, many times present in the discussion and always consulted before major decisions, Chuck or one of the other team members always provided the core leadership for the worship services and were the primary impetus for planning and vision.

Chuck and his missionary co-workers felt great responsibility for this fledgling congregation. When at various times they sensed reticence or hesitation on the part of the Gujarat believers to take leadership roles, Chuck and his missionary colleagues would step in and provide direction or guidance. For example, early on Chuck began to lead the worship during Sunday morning services. This was due to his apparent ministry gifts in that area and that local Gujarat believers felt he did the best job. When Chuck left for a 3-month furlough, he entrusted this important responsibility of leading worship to two Gujarat Christians. Yet, upon his return, instead of stepping out of this leadership role as he had planned, he found that the two worship leaders were eager for Chuck to resume being the primary worship leader. Chuck reluctantly yielded to their insistence. It became increasingly clear that the missionaries were really doing the leadership and providing the direction and support of every major aspect (and many minor aspects!) of the congregational church life. Indeed, it seemed that as time went on the Gujarat leaders grew progressively more stagnant and hesitant to provide leadership and ministry support.

On the one hand, such was incredibly discouraging for Chuck and his colleagues as they were committed to helping empower the local believers to become a fully indigenous church. On the other hand, they continued to find themselves stepping in to fill leadership vacuums when the Gujarat believers failed to respond positively to such opportunities. Chuck and his teammates were frustrated.

Then, Chuck had two challenging conversations that brought this all to a point of focal attention. The first was with Prakit, a Gujarat believer who accused the missionaries of creating a “missionary church.” Chuck countered that on the contrary, the missionaries had assiduously avoided dependency (for example, they had never used foreign money to support locals or to fund ministry projects) and worked hard to empower the local Gujarat believers. Chuck insisted that the missionaries continued to work hard toward their goal of an indigenous Gujarat church.

The next day, Chuck was visiting with Satpragaat, perhaps the most respected of the Gujarat leaders. Chuck mentioned his conversation with Prakit and asked Satpragaat why Prakit held such a “clearly” misguided perspective. To Chuck’s great surprise, Satpragaat answered gently but firmly, “Because it is true.” As this leader continued, he described how the missionaries made decisions regarding the vision and leadership of the church and how, despite the missionaries’ best intentions, the primary role of the Gujarat leaders had become one of helping the missionaries figure out how to get members to accept and carry out missionary-initiated plans. Chuck was stunned.

Soon afterwards, during a visit with some friends of one of the newer Christian women, Chuck enjoyed some local coffee provided by their non-Christian hosts. While drinking, they used freshly gathered pieces of cinnamon bark as a stirrer for the coffee. Chuck commented on how much he enjoyed the fresh cinnamon taste in the coffee. As he was leaving, their non-Christian host went into the nearby forest and found a cinnamon tree seedling that he gave to Chuck as a gift.

Chuck promptly planted the seedling in his front yard. Since the initial shoot was droopy and falling down to the ground, Chuck took a hollow metal pole and tied up the shoot so it would stand tall. Over a period of several months, Chuck watered the tree and nurtured it carefully. It thrived and grew rapidly. In the process of caring for this young cinnamon tree, Chuck became quite attached emotionally to “his little tree.” One day he felt it was strong enough to stand on its own. Yet, to his horror, when he untied the tree from the pole that held it, it bent over to the ground, nearly snapping itself in two. It was unable to sustain itself on its own strength.

As Chuck mourned over the frailty of his tree, he suddenly realized this was exactly what had happened to the Gujarat congregation. He and his teammates had effectively propped up the church to make it something that they thought it should be. This accelerated observable growth in many ways, to be sure, but in the end, such growth was unnatural and inappropriate. When asked to stand on its own, the church was both unwilling and unable to sustain its own weight. The particular form of missionary leadership Chuck and his team practiced, though well-intentioned, ultimately proved harmful, and was nearly fatal as the church struggled through several years of spiritual inertia before eventually recovering.

Teaching Exercise

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the concept of power and power-laden relationships
  • Students will consider the unintentional consequences of well-intentioned leadership choices
  • Students will evaluate effective means of empowering leadership

Issues

  • The nature of missionary “power” as it relates to leadership and church planting
  • The challenges of empowering indigenous leadership
  • Cultural differences in leadership styles (e.g., relationship vs. productivity and efficiency)
  • Empowering the people of God for ministry vs. doing the ministry oneself

Characters

  • Chuck
  • The missionary team
  • The Gujarat leaders
  • Prakit
  • Satprakaat
  • The cinnamon tree

Class Plan

Read the case carefully. In small groups of 3-5, have students analyze each character in terms of two dimensions: (1) Possible interests (e.g., a growing Gujarat congregation, etc); (2) Resources controlled (e.g., high-ministry skills, etc.). Discuss how the overlap of these two produces social power in the various relationships in the case. Then, look carefully at how the different characters used their social power. What did these various usages accomplish? What role might cultural differences have played in the ways characters used relational social power to accomplish ends that were important to them? Write a brief description of each character (or group of characters), what resources they controlled, what interests they had, the type of social power that resulted from the intersection of interests and resources, and the modes by which characters used their power. What was the relationship between the modes of power used and the achieved ends? Evaluate and comment on each character in these terms.

Many missionaries and church workers in cross-cultural contexts hold an explicit goal of empowering indigenous forms of leadership and Christianity. Often, unfortunately, things turn out just the opposite. Write a “Manifesto for Empowering Indigeneity.” In it, mark out the distinguishing characteristics (in a declarative, “We will…” form) of an approach to use of missionary social power that will empower rather than produce unhealthy dependency. Have each group share their “Manifesto” and evaluate one another’s work. Finally, as an entire class, come up with a “Do this, not that” master-list to encourage and instruct new missionaries going into situations similar to what Chuck faced.

Additional questions to discuss

  1. In what ways does the case illustrate the challenges of empowering local leadership? When is it right and helpful to do ministry? When is it destructive to do ministry?
  2. Chuck and his team were committed to the notion of indigeneity. In what ways did their practice fall short of their theory?
  3. What sorts of pressures or commitments might have led to the missionary “scaffolding” becoming more like the cinnamon tree “pole” that propped up the church in unhealthy ways?
  4. How is it that these well-intentioned missionaries clearly did not understand the gravity of the actual state of affairs in the Gujarat church? What possible “early warning signs” might the team missed?
  5. Describe what you think might have been behind the lack of initiative among the Gujarat leaders. How might the missionaries (unintentionally) contributed to this?
  6. What might have contributed to a church system where helpful feedback and critique from the Gujarat Christians was not occurring?
  7. What cultural differences may have complicated the disconnect between the missionaries efforts and the Gujarat believers’ responses?
  8. Social power is generated when control (in English, we often gloss such control with the terms “authority,” “responsibility,” “duty,” and “leadership authority”) of any resource (e.g., abilities, rights, resources, expertise, money, titles, status, etc.) intersects with the interests of groups and individuals. Many do not like to think of themselves as possessing such power (often a term the Christian community views with suspicion) but all individuals possess power in various ways. Such power can be used in subtle and not so subtle ways, for the good of others or for self-aggrandizement.
    1. What are the explicit and implicit forms of social power in this case and how might the use of such social power have worked against the stated goal of empowering an indigenous Gujarat church?
    2. Extremes are easy. Missionaries do everything (heavy-handed paternalism) or they do nothing (well-intentioned but naïve “empowerment”). It is somewhere between these two that helpful equipping and true empowerment of local Christians lie. What could the team of missionaries have done differently that would have enabled them to live and work in the more helpful “middle space”? What modes of leadership influence/power do you think appropriate to the goal most missionaries hold, of forming local, indigenous leadership capable of serving a congregation without dependence upon the missionaries? What modes do you think counterproductive and potentially destructive?

Additional activity

Once groups have constructed their “Do this, not that” list, have them draw pictures of two cinnamon trees (they may need to go online to search for a picture of a young cinnamon tree). Have them think of a creative way to attach the “Do this” items to a picture of an upright, healthy cinnamon tree. In the same way, have them assign the items of their “Not that” list to the picture of an unhealthy, drooping, or cracking cinnamon tree.

Share or publish these and engage in classroom or online asynchronous discussion about each group’s pictures. Encourage the use of creativity in the way they illustrate and design their pictures.

For further reflection and study see Lingenfelter, Sherwood. Leading Cross-Culturally. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
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