Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Church in Northern Iraq, II--The Problem of "Ownership"

With all the good news I have had to share about the growing Kurdish church in northern Iraq, there are some very difficult realities I feel compelled to discuss as well.

In the city where we met the gathering of 12 believers, the western ambassador for Jesus told me the story about one of the young men present. He (the ambassador) noted that the young man and his brother had caused him much grief over the years. At one point, he (the ambassador) had felt compelled to cut off fellowship with the young men: their behavior was simply inappropriate.

Eventually, both young men had made solid commitments to Jesus and had begun to behave in ways appropriate to those who claim the name of Christ.

And so, at one point, the ambassador made a plea to the young men: "I am concerned that a time will come where someone will offer you a lot of money to devote yourselves fulltime to 'ministry'--working as evangelists or church-planters. I plead with you, brothers: don't accept the offer! Work within your chosen professions. Work as examples to your fellow Muslim-background believers. They need to see men working within the culture, rather than as foreign-paid 'religious workers.' . . ."

As it turned out, the young men were made "an offer they couldn't refuse" just three weeks after the warning. And the offer really was "too good to let go."

And so they are now evangelist/church-planters sponsored by a western mission agency.

My informant is obviously deeply conflicted about the whole situation. And there was pain in his voice.

I report what he said neither to criticize him, nor the agency that has hired these young men, nor the young men. I report, instead, to give you a sense of the kinds of issues the young church in northern Iraq faces.

In no particular order, let me note:
  • It is painful for an evangelist/church-planter to go through the kinds of pains that my informant went through with these very young men: to take the risks, hold them accountable, work with them through their rough spots, accompany them to a certain level of maturity . . . and then have them "taken away," as it were, to become the "poster children" of another ministry. --Put another way: it's tough to have someone else "reap," as it were, when you've done all the tough work of planting, watering, cultivating, tending to the young plants. . . . Now, all of a sudden, the "other group" seems to "get the reward." [Once more, please understand: I am not seeking to criticize or hold up for special recognition. I am "merely" attempting to observe . . . so that we, on the sidelines, might pray in behalf of those who experience the deeper hardships.]

    My informant said he has to remind himself and pray often according to the pattern St. Paul provides us in Philippians 1:15-18: Whether "some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry [while] others out of goodwill"; whether they "do so in love [or] out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me . . . : what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached."
  • The young believers face enormous pressures. And, truly, what is the "right" thing to do when you love Jesus? Do you remain in the job you have and talk about Jesus occasionally? Or do you accept a [generous] offer that will not only improve your standard of living but enable you to talk about Jesus much more freely than you could when you were more dependent on local (potentially offended) sources of income?
  • What should mission agencies do--or refuse to do--when it comes to "hiring" or "utilizing" national believers in outreach ministry?
  • Strange, isn't it, how quickly and easily we--any of us--can begin to feel a kind of "ownership" over another person? He's "my" disciple, "my" convert, "my" coworker, "my" evangelist. . . .
--On this last point of "ownership," I should note another entire thread of comments I heard, from numerous sources, while present in Iraq. I was admonished many times to refrain from taking pictures of local believers not because of concerns over security and safety (though such concerns were certainly present), but, far more, due to concerns about offense: the use different groups had made of photos they had taken of local believers.

"I'd like to take your picture," said the visitor from America. Harmless enough.

But then a few months later that picture appeared in a mission agency's publication with captions that implied the agency had some significant hand in the presence of that Christian--or that group of Christians-- being there. Or the caption implied, "these are 'our' [spiritual offspring]."

Ownership. A real problem.
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