In last week’s post, director of Love Thy Neighborhood, Jesse Eubanks, described how he handles the challenge of building teams on mission. It probably didn’t take long to notice that Jesse’s approach orbits one thing: relationships. To him, teaming isn’t “just do something,” but “let’s be something”. It’s share your life story and be vulnerable with struggles and study one another’s personalities. It’s the tonic of knowing God and knowing one another, which in turn actually makes mission medicinal. In other words, a team who is preaching the gospel also as it is being embodied is preaching the gospel indeed.
Seem abnormal? Unfortunately, it is. The longer I serve in the world of global missions, the more I realize healthy teams are the exception to the rule. That’s a risky statement because the phrase “healthy team” appears to have an acceptable definition already. If a team is logistically and missionally functional, then it’s often considered a healthy team. I mean, if team members are posted in cities ten hours from each other, sometimes even they are considered a healthy team.
Forget healthy, that’s not a team at all.
So when I sat down with Jesse just after returning from a care trip among three overseas teams in turmoil, he had my attention to say the least. As I listened to his foundation for building a team (the seven points listed in the previous post), a litany of questions came to mind, and not just for further details. Jesse allowed me to play devil’s advocate, asking questions that would be asked, and should be asked, when an old paradigm is being prodded. Here is our conversation:
Zach: If team relationships are just as important to the team’s mission, that’s going to take a lot of work. Who has time for that?
Jesse: We’re so quick to say, “The world needs me!” And if we’re convinced that the world needs us, then of course we’re going to stay busy trying to save the world. But Jesus didn’t even do that. He constantly focused on remaining in the Father’s love. His rhythm was to engage and withdraw. If he had forsaken relationships so that he could get more done, then he would’ve destroyed his ministry and our salvation. How can the importance of relationships among a team of Christ-followers even be a question?
Zach: But isn’t focusing on Christian community just what I’m supposed to do before going overseas?
Jesse: If the team’s vision is only outward, then the day will arrive when you wake up overseas and look inward at your group and say, “No one knows me and no one cares about me.” Even Jesus needed people–why do we think we don’t?! That’s pride and it’s a religious way of protecting ourselves from being harmed by others. It’s seeing others as a burden. When that happens, then missions has become a way to justify not being known. But no one is exempt from true, deep community. No one graduates.
Zach: Didn’t missions teams in the New Testament only focus on team relationships when there was a sin issue?
Jesse: God’s heart is about being known in relationship. David was “a man after God’s own heart” not because of morality, but because he brought all of himself transparently before God. And Paul—he was so communal. He was known by the body and knew the body. That’s why he could write the things he did. He’s always referring back to shared stories and his own story. What are the conversations happening on the road with Paul and Barnabas as they travel? Well, what happens on a road trip in our own lives? You tell your life stories. There’s constant relationship in the midst of mission. Today, people on teams can get so devoted to the work that they view each other as co-workers instead of spiritually-devoted family. We focus on the sin of a lost world, but what about the sin issue in seeing each other only as functions of ministry?
Zach: Sure, team unity is great. But it won’t help lost people. Don’t we go to advance the gospel among the unreached, not build holy huddles among the reached?
Jesse: The ability to teach correct doctrine doesn’t mean you are actually experiencing God’s grace. If a team isn’t abiding in God’s love, what are they going to give to the world? We must first experience God’s gospel in order to share God’s gospel. So yes, for the sake of the gospel a team should be more insular for a season. They should learn to build one another up into the maturity of Christ so they can stay in the fight. If we believe that other Christians don’t truly care about us beyond our functions, Satan will use this foothold to split us off from our community. This is the classic warfare tactic of “divide and conquer”. We become vulnerable to despair and temptation. This isn’t complex. Fortune 500 companies get it. They devote large amounts of time to building their team unity. But Christians often jump straight into the work and assume unity is already present. This just is not wise.
Zach: Ok, pretend that all the missions teams in turmoil are gathered in one room. What would you say to them?
Jesse: Let’s just talk about what it means for God to love you. Not what he requires of you to be a good missionary. God has given you human limits. That means there is permission in ministry to need to slow down and be less busy without feeling guilty. Lay low for bit—the Lord wants to show you something particular about how he loves you. Maybe the call to missions was romanticized in your journey overseas, and the Lord needed to show you that through this hurt. It will be identity loss, but he will put you back together in a fresh new way. One of my close friends is a really great missionary and he told me that one of his biggest mistakes was that he waited a long time to share his life story. After he finally did open up, he said that life with other people became so meaningful. So go ahead, take some time together right now, and share your stories with one another…