The Danger of Drifting

by Al Simms, Director of People International.

I had the huge privilege of living in Cornwall for a short period of time with a small property overlooking the sea and glimpses of the harbour. I had a little boat, nothing special you understand, an open boat about 14ft long, suitable for going out a couple of miles or so. Interestingly, off Dodman Point, there is a raised up cross with some excellent Bible verses inscribed. However, the seas off Dodman Point can be quite dangerous, as tides and wind swirl around the headland and the seabed varies in depth, switching from sand to rock.

One of my favourite places to fish was about a mile off the headland, often with a significant swell causing my boat to rise and fall quite dramatically. I would cut my engine and do some bottom fishing, while enjoying the breeze and the quietness that hits you the moment the engine stops throbbing. Concentrating on the task at hand, after about 20 minutes, I would look up and take in the situation around me. Suddenly, I would realise that either the rocks of the headland were very close or they seemed to be a long way off and so much further than when I stopped. There was always a sense of relief when the engine fired up successfully, motoring along to recover the lost ground. With wind meeting strong tidal currents off the point, it was quite usual to drift very quickly. The saving grace was that I knew this was likely to happen and was usually prepared for it, although now and again I would be caught out by the speed of the drifting.

The dangers of ‘drifting’ are very significant, not least because it can happen at an indiscernible rate when you’re busy doing other things and you don’t notice it or it can occur very quickly.

I read a book recently called Mission Drift1 and was quite gripped by much of the content. The book outlines how Harvard University, USA, started with a clear vision: ‘To be plainly instructed…that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.’ After only 80 years, Harvard had so seriously drifted from its vision that Elihu Yale financed a new university in his name to provide Christian education. Before long, drift happened again and now both Harvard and Yale are outstanding centres of education with no Christian ethos remaining. Mission drift is a huge challenge, and sometimes a problem for many mission workers overseas. In my area of Central Asia, you can’t just turn up as a missionary and, in fact, in Almaty Airport in Kazakhstan there is a notice which says, ‘Missionaries are not welcome.’ To live as a missionary in all the countries we work in requires an acceptable reason to be there. Nearly all of our field workers use NGOs, language schools, agriculture, water projects, teaching or some other business reason to be in the country and to get a visa.

The rationale is great: use your reason to be in the country and devote some time to it, make links and friendships in order to share the gospel, then use the rest of your time to work with scattered local believers and church leaders. However, it is too easy for the ‘reason to be there’ to become more and more consuming to the detriment of gospel proclamation.

Tent Making

Come with me to the first century in Turkey and imagine the apostle Paul working away at his tent making. He’s using his hands and earning enough money to fund his basic needs in life. I’m assuming he worked hard, as he encouraged his readers to do so as a way to glorify Christ. So, imagine the order for more tents start arriving at his door with the requests, ‘Can you just fit this order in’ or ‘I need this order completed in the next week’. And gradually the time spent on making tents increases, almost indiscernibly, and before long there’s less and less time for ministry. Mission drift has happened. It didn’t happen with Paul like this because he was incredibly focused but you can see how this might have happened.

it is too easy for the ‘reason to be there’ to become more and more consuming to the detriment of gospel proclamation

Mission Drift

Now come with me to Central Asia to meet H. He’s an entrepreneur and has set up a business growing fruit in a sustainable way, sinking boreholes to provide water and propagating different fruit varieties that are particularly suited to the climate of a dry and arid country. His aim was always to use the business to have a reason to be in the country, to provide employment for some believers who face discrimination for being followers of Jesus and also as a means of developing relationships with locals who have never heard the gospel. However, as the business develops and grows, it demands more of his time and energy and little by little there is less time for the relationship building and the focus becomes less and less clear in terms of gospel objectives.

Through our workers, we sometimes provide relief, such as channelling money through Turkish churches after the earthquake, which is right and proper. However, the danger is that we drift into becoming a relief agency providing increasingly for physical needs and losing the focus on the spiritual needs. Or consider the micro-loans project that provides funds to get local people in business, become self-sustaining and remain in the rural church, which is an excellent thing to do, but it can drift to become the main objective in ministry.

Many secular organisations do a brilliant job of providing humanitarian relief and valuable projects, often better than Christian agencies. Our unique selling point as Christian mission agencies is the gospel. Only the gospel will meet the deepest needs of people, so mission drift costs spiritual lives.

Gospel Focus

Now, I’m going to tread a dangerous path and make another assertion, which might land me in deep water with some people. I think it is much easier to do humanitarian work, grow apples and provide clean water than it is to share the gospel. When doing what are valuable and worthwhile activities, workers are not necessarily engaged in a frontline spiritual battle. Quite simply, there is less opposition, life becomes a little more comfortable, people might even like the workers and value them – the moment it becomes about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the bristles rise and a spirit of antagonism often rises up very quickly. So, someone like me who doesn’t like conflict and tries to avoid upsetting people will naturally defer to the line of least resistance. Interestingly, similar comments have been made by a number of workers on the mission field who have battled with keeping the focus of their ministry. The tension between these demands is difficult to manage.

Mission drift is an inherent danger for all Christian faith-based organisations. Tragically, when you look up from fishing in the boat and see the land now three miles away, or the boat nearly on the rocks, it is too late for many Christian mission agencies. You see, the drift only happens one way – evangelical missions drift towards secularism but secularistic organisations never drift into evangelical mission.

Anchored to the Word

So what can be done to avoid a ‘Harvard’ or a ‘Yale’?

Regular checkpoints need to happen to ‘check the location of the boat’. It is excellent practice for a sending church or assembly to take the lead in this, sometimes asking the more difficult and searching questions. In places like Central Asia, it is likely that there won’t be many conversions, so the test must always be about faithful service to Jesus Christ, not a results-based ministry.

Pray for workers you know who need to hold the tension of having a valid reason for being in a country versus the prime objective of direct mission work. Mission workers are superheroes in my reckoning but they are flawed human beings just like the rest of us. Isolated, exposed and often under pressure, they need our constant prayer to help them remain focused on the priorities.

Encourage workers on the mission field. Let them know you’re praying for them. Send them a message of encouragement. In whatever way you can, help them to constantly fix their eyes on Jesus.

1 Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, by Peter Greer, Chris Horst, Anna Haggard, Bethany House, Feb. 2014.

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