In this manuscript, I share key experiences from my sixteen years of cross-cultural ministry in Cambodia in regard to mobilization of local resources. Additionally, I speak of Jesus’ incredible ingenuity for affirming and mobilizing local resources. Through personal experiences, biblical examples, and insights from others, I challenge cross-cultural Christian workers to avoid imposing outside resources, but rather facilitate local people to mobilize their local resources.
God had informed Moses that he was to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of their mental and physical prison into a land groomed and cultivated by God. Moses asked God with a great amount of pleading in his voice, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me?” God responded to Moses, “Throw that old rickety stick aside and let me give you something worthwhile for the task!” Surely, God did not respond in such a manner. Rather, God asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2).2
God did not give Moses additional resources but rather affirmed and used what was already in Moses’ hand. All missionaries should adopt the same question, both as a working question on the field and as a driving principle for their mission paradigm. A question that asks the local people, “What is that in your hand that God can use?” In the book Walk Out Walk On, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze share about communities that have learned to work with what they have to create what they need.3 If we were to turn this into a Moses-type question, we would ask: “What can you and God do with what you have to create what you need?”
In this article, I will share “aha moments” that I have experienced during my sixteen years of cross-cultural ministry in Cambodia in regard to mobilization of local resources. In addition, I will speak of Jesus’ incredible ingenuity for affirming and mobilizing local resources.
I was riding with a group of Cambodians in a truck to a village. In a ministry setting, most of these Cambodians were very timid and unsure of themselves as communicators of Jesus Christ. But, there in the truck they communicated with animation, passion, and confidence. What was the difference? They were interacting with stories, proverbs, riddles, and songs versus logical explanations and debates. In that very moment the truth dawned on me—I had imported and forced my teaching styles on the Cambodians. I cleverly taught the Cambodian believers how to study and present the Word of God through systematic theology, definitions, outlines, reasoning, apologetics, and interpreted narratives. While some of those who learned from me sorted out how to communicate like a Westerner, their Cambodian audience looked at them with blank stares.
I had made a huge mistake. I imported my resources and modes of teaching and communication. It was time for me to be the vulnerable one—not them.
I gathered up all my Western-oriented materials that I had written in the local language, tossed them in a cabinet, locked the door, and threw away the key. Then I started asking the Cambodians the Moses-type question: “What do you have in your hand?” The Cambodians revealed, “We have stories, drama, symbols, rituals, parables, riddles, ditties, poetry, music, songs, and dance.” Indeed, these were the resources of communication that the Cambodians could use for all aspects of ministry: planting the gospel, discipleship, training, teaching, counseling, and so forth. My duty as a missionary was to recognize, affirm, and learn how to use their local resources. I liken the missionary’s role to that of a cheerleader. We do not have to tell others how to play the game or play it for them, rather we cheer them on saying, “You can do it!”
I entered the Cambodian church and looked for a place to sit down. My favorite time of the week was when I could praise and worship God with Cambodians in the local language. While I was worshiping, I noticed a Cambodian man worshiping in a way different from all the others. I curiously leaned over to take a closer look. At that moment, I realized that the man was blind. Unlike the others, his posture represented pronounced reverence. He worshipped God the exact way a Cambodian would behave in the presence of a king or someone important: bowed lowly, no eye contact, and both hands tightly pushed together, pressed against the chest. The others worshipped standing straight up, seemingly making eye contact with God, and hands lifted upward with armpits showing. This experience would not be so bad, if I were not the one who planted the church.
I had made another a huge mistake. I imported my form of Western worship. Why? I knew better, but I wanted to plant a church before I could grasp the indigenous music of Cambodia. Since a real church needed formal worship—so I thought—I took a shortcut and introduced some Western songs translated into the Cambodian language and modeled modes of worship from my experience in North America.
Again, I should have asked the Cambodians, “What is in your hand?” They would have answered, “A roneat, a pia, a chapey, a tro, a skor. We use pinpeat, chreing chapey narrative singing, ayai repartee singing, shadow plays, melodies that tell stories, lullabies, mohori ensembles, plengkar, ramvong, and so forth.” I should have continued to ask, “What is the most culturally relevant form of worship for you?”
It was time for me to be the vulnerable one—learn, adapt, and facilitate the Cambodians to produce their own indigenous hymnody: “a body of hymns and spiritual songs which are composed by members of an ethnic group and thought of as being their own.”4
A local Cambodian pastor requested that I work alongside of him to train a church planting team. I remember the first training session well. I made the following request: “Please, each one of you share your story of how you came to know and walk with Christ.” Their stories were similar: “I received free eyeglasses. . . .” “The Christian organization gave us rice. . . .” “I was given a job with an NGO. . . .”
I knew we were in trouble in regard to planting healthy indigenous churches. In a matter of months, the church planters requested eyeglasses, rice, and connections to job opportunities to share among the people with whom they were planting churches. Additionally, they expected material goods and financial compensation for their effort in church planting. I had matured enough to know that the moment I gave subsidies to the church planters and material goods for them to use as handouts, I would have created unhealthy dependency on me. Subsequently, the local pastor and I encouraged the church planters to remain bi-vocational and find ways to share compassion with their local resources—visit a patient in the hospital, work side by side on a project, teach a child to read, and any other compassionate acts that start with what is in hand.
Imported teaching styles, worship forms, and welfare evangelism were all detrimental to the process of mobilizing local resources for the sake of healthy indigenous churches that make a difference in their Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:8).
Almost on a daily basis, I receive emails from Africa, India, and Asia. The emails are always requests. “Please come and do crusades. Please conduct seminars for our leaders. Send materials, books, and DVDs. Will you partner with us?” Most emails state a little something that informs me that the invitation involves money. All the emails are from seemingly well-established leaders. What does this reveal to me? It reveals to me that something went wrong in the birthing and early development stages of those churches and organizations. The planter or those giving birth instilled a mindset that resources from the inside are inferior.
Capable leaders are driven to look constantly outside themselves to the West for their human and material resources. Instead of mobilizing people and resources around them, they make pleas to those completely removed from the context. These churches and ministries are sometimes kilometers apart from one another. Instead of reaching out and collaborating with one another, they bypass capable disciples of Christ in their own villages, districts, states, regions, countries, and continents to ask for help from the point farthest from them. In my perspective, it is time for the West to ask, “What can you and God do with what you have to create what you need?”
Yesterday, I received an email from India. The sender of the email has completed master of divinity and master of mheology degrees. This minister is now pursuing a PhD in missions. The purpose of the email was to make a request for books, DVDs, and magazines to do research on the house church movement. The composer of the email expressed that he wanted the resources for free because he could not afford to buy materials for his research.
One reason local Christians in places such as India feel the need to look to the West for resources is because Western missionaries and churches have conveyed the message that the educated and the affluent have some sort of edge in fulfilling the Great Commission. We have introduced structures and paradigms that are complicated, expensive, and definitely not mandated by Jesus for the purpose of making disciples in all nations. It is slightly ironic that the Indian gentleman came full circle. In other words, he has spent a significant amount of human and material resources to eventually research the house church movement, which has a secondary name: the simple church movement—a method that intentionally promotes simplicity, low maintenance, usage of local resources, and reproducibility. I have two books on this subject sitting on my desk entitled The Church in the House: A Return to Simplicity and Simply Church.5
Keep in mind that simple does not mean inferior. On the contrary, simple has an element of purity, authenticity, depth, and of course reproducibility. “It is not that the content is simplistic or shallow—it is often very profound—but the pattern for doing it is simple and therefore easily reproduced.”6
Being seminary trained or well funded certainly were not key ingredients to fulfilling the Great Commission for the disciples or Paul. Ben Chikazaza, a church leader in Zimbabwe, answered his own question:
I wonder what the apostles Paul and Peter would say if they came down and saw the state of the church today? They would be shocked at the amount of money needed to convert one soul today! God help the African pastor to remain simple and obedient. The apostle Paul preached a simple gospel and could not demand what was rightfully his for fear that he would be disqualified. David refused to fight Goliath using King Saul’s armour and we cannot fight our battles using the world’s armour. Many of God’s servants are so heavily loaded with materialism that they cannot lift a hand against the enemy.7
Jesus was born right in the midst of local resources—a manger in the town of Bethlehem. As you follow Jesus’ journey through the Gospels, you see that the only resources he introduced from outside the community were himself, the disciples, and signs and wonders. When Jesus entered a community, he utilized resources that already existed in that context to fulfill his ministry. He preached in existing synagogues (Mark 1:39). He preached and had dinner with tax collectors and so-called sinners in homes (Mark 2:2, 15). Large crowds caused Jesus to teach parables from boats along lakeshores and the beatitudes from mountainsides (Mark 4:1; 5:1). When a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the community well, Jesus led her into a saving relationship through himself, the living water (John 4:7). Jesus rebuked demons out of a man and sent them captive into a herd of pigs, which committed suicide by frantically running off a steep bank into a lake (Luke 8:33). He taught the people many things in parables using everyday objects and experiences (Mark 4:2–3). A withering fig tree along the road became a prophetic object lesson (Matt 21:19). The disciples brought a donkey to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and had Jesus sit on it (Luke 19:35). Jesus took bread during a holiday meal, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ foul-smelling feet, then dried those feet with a towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:5). Jesus died hanging on a cross made of local wood and was laid in a local tomb, located in the garden near the place where Jesus was crucified (John 19:17, 41–42).
You never read about Jesus opening a duffle bag or a crate to unleash resources on the people. He never requested that Judas give funds to the people to enable them to build a church. He did not send out the disciples with ample supplies and donor funds to set up humanitarian projects. Even when Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people, he accused those recipients who received a free meal of being interested in merely filling their bellies.
Jesus expected the same from his disciples. He trained his disciples on-the-job with local resources and sent them out without even sandals.
There’s a great harvest waiting for you in the fields, but there aren’t many good workers to harvest it. Pray that the Harvest Master will send good workers to the fields. It’s time for you 70 to go. I am sending you out armed with vulnerability, like lambs into a pack of wolves. Don’t bring a wallet. Don’t carry a backpack. I don’t want you to even wear sandals. Walk along barefoot, quietly, without stopping for small talk. When you enter a house seeking lodging, say, “Peace on this house!” If a child of peace—one who welcomes God’s message of peace—is there, your peace will rest on him. If not, don’t worry; nothing is wasted. Stay where you are welcomed. Become a part of the family, eating and drinking whatever they give you. You’re My workers, and you deserve to be cared for. Again, don’t go from house to house, but settle down in a town and eat whatever they serve you. Heal the sick and say to the townspeople, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:2–7; The Voice)
Jesus had church; he didn’t make church. Jesus had church at a water well, in homes, on the mountainside, and in a boat. He made disciples using fig trees, parables, demons in pigs, donkey rides, meals, and washing feet. Jesus was the first to instruct people to share and be generous among the needy; but He did this very thing through loving relationships and creativity, utilizing that which was locally available. Local resources served as the color for Jesus’ artwork of discipleship making. He saw what was near him and turned it into a parable. He used everyday articles to make a life-giving point. Homes and seashores served as his mobile pulpit.
On the contrary, we are so quick to introduce our resources from the outside. We race to set up buildings and impose foreign organizational structures. Missionaries and sponsors serve as conduits of money. While Jesus modeled church in an everyday context, we model church in ways that can only be sustainable through our funding. Both Gailyn Van Rheenen and Jonathan Bonk echo this reality:
“Western temptation is to conceptualize and organize the missionary task on an economic level that can only be sustained by Western support and oversight.” This has resulted in the development of mission strategies which are “money intensive,” signifying that one must have a lot of capital to do Christianity Western-style.8
Josphat Charagu, a pastor in Kenya, expressed to me that the missionaries organized their mission work according to a Western context with complete disregard for the African context and thought. David Phillips, founder of the Nomadic Peoples Network, has revealed that the Western, imported model of church caused nomads to count Christianity as a faith for the rich who can afford to erect and maintain buildings—not a faith for communities who intentionally move from one place to another. A camel herder’s statement says it all: “When you can put your Church on the back of my camel then I will think that Christianity is meant for us Somalis.”9
Pastor Charagu told me how one day he arrived at his church and saw a pile of rocks dumped right in the front of the entrance. He became upset and exclaimed, “I have had enough with our neighbor; he continues to make things difficult for us!” Pastor Charagu called the head of his men’s department to complain. The department leader responded, “Pastor, slow down! The neighbor did not unload those stones in front of the church. One of the cell groups brought those today as part of their contribution to build our permanent church.” Pastor Charagu was utterly encouraged to see the church members give sacrificially and without provocation.
This community of believers plans to build their church using a method called “divide and rule,” which is used by local politicians. Unfortunately, politicians abuse this method, but they plan to implement this approach in a righteous way. In this “divide and rule” manner, different people will be responsible for different facets of building the church, such as the drawing plans, stones, roofing, pillars, windows, and so forth.
The ingenuity, sacrificial commitment, and resolve of Pastor Charagu and his church are an example of the beauty of mobilizing local people and local resources. It is what happens among the people who use local resources through dependence on God and on one another that make the difference: prayer, sacrifice, faith, companionship, gift sharing, creativity, teamwork, capacity building, and perseverance. I guarantee that when you see an elaborate structure built with outside funds, you will NOT see the make-a-difference characteristics that you would observe among a community that has built its own church or creatively found ways to do church within existing structures (homes, community centers, urban garages, businesses, backyards, under trees, etc.) The beauty is in the process, not the finished product. Better the small that reveals a group’s effort toward responsible self-help than the big that reveals donations from outside. Our big and better methods in someone else’s country do not fool God according to Leonard Sweet:
The ancient Hebrews compared God’s workings to the monstrous cedars of Lebanon and wings of eagles. Jesus loves looking at mustard seeds, grains of wheat, leftover crumbs, and barnyard hens. He invites us to look around at our fields, our gardens, our orchards, our vineyards, our backyards. Jesus is not against large but invites us to start small and do little large. “Little is much if God is in it.”10
We need to cease making people of other nations believe that money and what money can accomplish are the key to making disciples. If we despise the small beginnings of other nations by shoving our supposedly efficient, bigger and better structures and methods down their throats, we are guilty of crushing the dignity and initiatives of men and women. We can learn from the interchange between the angel and the prophet Zechariah on behalf of Zerubbabel who was responsible for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem:
I asked the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” He answered, “Do you not know what these are?” “No, my lord,” I replied. So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. . . . Then the word of the LORD came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.” (Zech 4:4–10a)
The interaction between the angel of God and Zechariah reveals to us the key ingredients to godly success, which are God’s Spirit and small beginnings. Let us Western missionaries not swallow up these key ingredients by imposing our resources onto others in cross-cultural contexts.
All of us are quick to say that the Bible is our principal and God-given manual for our mission practices. Dr. Christopher Little challenges the distortion of that claim:
Most if not all people involved in fulfilling the Great Commission today would affirm that the sole basis for Christian faith and practice is the Bible. Yet for whatever reason there has been a preoccupation with the former to the neglect of the latter. That is, the church has concentrated on “orthodoxy,” right or correct doctrine and thinking, to the exclusion of “orthopraxy,” right or correct practice and action. This predicament is most discernible in the area of finance since, according to Herbert Kane, “no other one thing has done so much harm to the Christian cause” (1976:91). As such, it is imperative that the Western church recovers biblical models regarding the proper use of money in mission.11
The apostle Paul was the most successful missionary of all time. We would be foolish to count his orthodoxy as passé. Paul purposely set aside regular support for himself, expected the churches he birthed to be self-supporting from the beginning, and encouraged poor churches to contribute to those who were facing famine, all for the greater purpose of planting healthy churches. Jesus and the disciples gave of themselves endlessly, yet that giving never included an unloading of material resources on a people. If we appreciate the success of Jesus, the disciples, and Paul, we may want to take their practices more seriously.
God asked Moses what was in his hand. Jesus asked the same question indirectly throughout his ministry on earth (John 21:6). Philip emphasized what the Ethiopian eunuch was holding in his hand—the Scriptures (Acts 8:30). Paul exhorted Timothy to fan into flame his resource—the gift of God that was given to him through the laying on of hands (2 Tim 1:6).
Instead of being providers of resources, let us affirm and facilitate local people’s identification and mobilization of their local resources to create what they need. May the question, “What is in your hand?” be forever on our lips as we participate in the Great Commission. In this way, God will receive the glory, not us.
Jean Johnson, a cross-cultural communicator, spent 23 years living and serving among Cambodians in the USA and in Cambodia specializing in worldview strategic church planting, orality, and reproducible training. Presently, Jean is a co-director of World Mission Associates and an international coach in parts of Asia, Africa, and North America. She coaches and teaches pastors, churches, missionaries, organizations, and teams on how to intentionally inspire indigenous people to mobilize their local capabilities, resources, and cultural creativity. Her publications include We Are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide for Sharing Christ, Not a Culture of Dependency (Sisters, Oregon: Deep River Books, 2012), reviewed in the present issue.
Bonk, Jonathan J. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. American Society of Missiology Series 15. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.
Chikazaza, Ben. “Self-Reliance and the Church.” The Network for Strategic Missions (October 1997): .
Dale, Tony, and Felicity Dale. Simply Church. Austin, TX: Karis Publishing, 2002.
Fitts, Robert. The Church in the House: A Return to Simplicity. Salem, OR: Preparing the Way Publishers, 2001.
Little, Christopher. “Partnerships in Pauline Perspective: The Economics of Partnership.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 27, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 61–68.
Phillips, David J. Peoples on the Move: Introducing the Nomads of the World. Grand Rapids: IVP, 2001.
Schrag, Brian, and Paul Neeley. All the World Will Worship: Helps for Developing Indigenous Hymns. 3rd ed. Duncanville, TX: EthnoDoxology Publications, 2005.
Sweet, Leonard. Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who’s Already There. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “MR #2: Money and Mi$$ion$.” Missiology.org. .
Wheatley, Margaret, and Deborah Frieze. Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. BK Currents. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2011.
1 This essay is an adaptation of a lecture presented at the Abilene Christian University “Global Conference on Vulnerable Mission,” March 7–10, 2012.
2 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless noted otherwise.
3 Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, BK Currents (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2011), 3.
4 Brian Schrag and Paul Neeley, All the World Will Worship: Helps for Developing Indigenous Hymns, 3rd ed. (Duncanville, TX: EthnoDoxology Publications, 2005), 3.
5 Robert Fitts, The Church in the House: A Return to Simplicity (Salem, OR: Preparing the Way Publishers, 2001); Tony Dale and Felicity Dale, Simply Church (Austin, TX: Karis Publishing, 2002).
6 Dale and Dale, 70.
7 Ben Chikazaza, “Self-Reliance and the Church,” The Network for Strategic Missions (October 1997): .
8 Christopher Little, “Partnerships in Pauline Perspective: The Economics of Partnership,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 27, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 64, quoting Gailyn Van Rheenen, “MR #2: Money and Mi$$ion$,” Missiology.org, , and Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem, American Society of Missiology Series 15 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 40, respectively.
9 David J. Phillips, Peoples on the Move: Introducing the Nomads of the World (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2001), xiii.
10 Leonard Sweet, Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who’s Already There (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 37.
11 Little, 65.