Maybe you have a co-worker, a friend or a family member who, well, likes things to be a certain way. Organized to a fault, they approach the day with daily planner in hand, dutifully checking things off their list. The plan must be adhered to, time is of the essence, and putting it all aside for a spontaneous movie and popcorn is audacious. We all know someone like this, or we will at some point. They are the “choleric” personality, the type-A, if you will. They have much to offer, but their way of doing things isn’t always conducive to the circumstance or group they are operating in.
Imagine if your entire missionary team was like this. Actually, this rigid sense of mission and time is all too common among Western missionaries. It’s quite characteristic of the Western culture, really; they like to get things done quickly, make the money and do it the easiest way. There is some value to this, of course. Much prosperity has indeed come, at least in part, from assertive and focused people who blaze ahead. But the mission field is not actually a project to be completed. You may make deadlines, but there is no real deadline other than the one God has set for the last days, and not even the Son knows when that is.38
To approach the mission field like a raging type-A personality is unrealistic and perhaps destructive. This is not to say that plans and organization are superfluous and unnecessary. The contrary is quite true. Managing and leading a group of people in a foreign country over a short period of time absolutely requires a great deal of planning. To leave everything to whims and spontaneity could indeed be a costly and ineffective experience. But like most things in life, we must be careful not to hold onto these schedules and expectations with a closed fist.
Flexibility is the name of the game here. To adhere to a rigid, unchanging, and often break-neck schedule might leave you and your team members in a frenzy for a couple of reasons.
- The Cambodian culture varies from the Western lifestyle. We will delve into cultural differences in the days to come, but understand that Cambodians operate differently than Westerners. Many other cultures are slower-paced, less inclined to Western ideas of timeliness, and what they say might mean something other than what you think. If you arrange and plan according to your ideas about time and efficiency, you might be sorely disappointed or frustrated.
- The work of the Holy Spirit is not confined by human time-tables. Think about Paul. He was doing his own thing – a very different thing than God wanted – in his own time. These plans were fortunately severely disrupted. For most of us, a blinding light will not suddenly halt our vans and change our plans. But you must have a mind and heart open to change what the agenda is and meet a different need than was originally intended for the day.
Being flexible is a balancing act of sorts. You must learn as you go. Make a plan, approach it with an outstretched hand, all the while being willing to adapt and change, and then reflect to make future adjustments, knowing full well that strategies and time might change again. You must be neither too urgent nor spend too much time getting everything together to be just right. Rather, “having the attitude of a humble learner throughout the process is far more important than having comprehensive knowledge at the start of it.”39
It is important to remember that a local staff already works in Cambodia every day. They understand how things work, but even they must work with different circumstances as they are handed to them.
We can see flexibility even in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Let’s visit Mark 6, when Jesus and His disciples fed the five thousand. This wasn’t really in the plans. Jesus had intended for them to withdraw to a “deserted place” after some intense ministry. But the crowds couldn’t give them a break and Jesus was “moved with compassion.” So the plans changed, and a miracle happened.
This is not to say that being purposeful and intentional is wrong. But your ultimate purpose must be to advance the kingdom of God and serve Christ and His people. Sometimes, that might look a bit different than what you were expecting.
Venturing into the unknown and having your day or your next hour look like uncharted waters can warrant feelings of fear. Control no longer feels like it rests in your hands as you struggle to re-orient yourself around a new circumstance.
Look at what Jesus said in Mark 8 to His disciples after the five thousand were fed. He told them to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” They thought He said these things because they had forgotten to take bread with them on their journey. He asked, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” “Twelve,” they responded. “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” It was seven baskets that they collected.
Here we see that Jesus operates outside of our finite and earthly way of thinking. We are quite concerned with the way things ought to be, with what we think of as reality. But Jesus understands circumstances differently. He sees matters in an eternal light and limitations as somewhat relative. Changes in plans do not prevent Him from working. Sometimes they are the very evidence that He is in fact doing something marvelous in the lives of people. Jesus is our powerful and able God who takes that which does not make sense to us, that confuses and frustrates us, and he turns it into something that demonstrates His love and glory and brings about His kingdom.
Take some time to think about how attached you are to Western ideas about action and ministry. Honestly, how tightly do you hold to your perceptions of time or how ministry ought to be conducted? Do you have a sense of fear at the prospect of really not knowing what your day is going to look like? Begin to truly understand your own level of flexibility, how that might need to be adapted for the Cambodian mission field, and how you can confidently surrender your fears into the capable hands of the Lord.
“We must not live as if God’s mission is somehow contingent upon our plans and strategies. God remains on the throne and continues His redemptive work with or without our frantic sense of urgency.”40
38 Mark 13:32
39 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 216.
40 David Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 66.