By Dick Brogden
In October 2016, the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series again after 108 years of blood, sweat, and toil. As a lifelong Cubbies fan, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between a 108-year championship drought and the joy of longed-for victory, and the work of church planting among resistant unreached peoples.
Release the “Lovable Loser” Mentality.
We Cubs fans are proud of our loyalty. We stayed true, filled Wrigley Field, proudly wore the bright blue, and loudly root, root, rooted for the home team, standing by them through 108 years of non-victory. We were (and are) proud that we were faithful to our task of cheering and hoping, even when there was no fruit. But now that we have fruit, we will have to learn to live with a new identity (that of winner or favorite) and release the old (faithful to the end, no matter the odds). For some Cubs fans this will be harder than anticipated. There is, after all, something that feeds our ego when we can be faithful despite no reward.
Similarly, there is a danger for those who work faithfully among the unreached without fruit. If we’re not careful, we can derive our satisfaction from being known as faithful instead of being known as fruitful. After all, we like being lauded for living in the hard and dangerous places. We love being praised for striking out where angels fear to tread. We feed on the praise derived from being determined when there is nothing to show for it. And frankly it’s easier to raise funds, prayer, and accolades when we are faithful despite constant fruitlessness. But if our identity and self-importance is being the “lovable loser” in missions, the one who plods away when no results are forthcoming, then what does that mean when God breaks through, as He surely will?
If we call an area a “zero zone” because it has no Christians, no churches, and no missionaries, then what do we call it once we send our first missionary? And are we willing to give up our exotic titles, brands, and identity in order for the lost to be found? Is it more important to us that we are regarded as special than it is that the unreached are ransomed? Sadly, some of us (and I’ve been guilty of this) derive our identity from thinking ourselves better than other missionaries because they work in fruitful places and we work in hard ones. In our own minds (and not without help of an encouraging sending constituency), we are the “lovable losers” worthy of double honor because we never win, yet are faithful.
In 53 Years in Syria, the biography of missionary Henry Jessup, the author tells the sad tale of a lost revival because missionaries and local pastors were afraid to open their church doors to the new converts from Islam. The rationale went something like this: “If we let Muslim converts come into our churches in noticeable numbers, our churches will be shut down.” In essence they said, “We will lose our place and our nation,” and they chose to bar the doors, losing a magnificent opportunity. Today we have platforms that give us access, some of them funded at great expense by donors. There can be a temptation that follows this logic: “We are so invested in this business platform, we must be extra cautious that we do not attract government attention. So let us be slow (or lacking!) in proclamation, evangelism, and discipleship.” In both cases, past and current, there is an ironic fear of success. If we succumb to that fear, we will chose to keep our “faithful loveable loser” identity, our buildings, or our businesses rather than see the unreached reached.
God keep us from making it about “our place and our nation” and not about Him and the lost. God help us be so passionate about Jesus being glorified among the unreached that we eagerly desire a change of identity and welcome the loss of platform or status. Oh for the joy of harvest, even if that totally changes how we are known, located, or regarded!
Build from the Ground Up.
Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Cubs, has received much of the credit for the Cubs’ win, and rightly so. Among other principles, he led the Cubs to focus on a farm system, to build on position players, and to do things “The Cub Way.” A farm system refers to the many levels of baseball and the grooming of one’s own young talent rather than the spending of big money on established players from other teams. Building on position players refers to concentrating first on the players who play every day (not pitchers who play only every four or five games). Pitchers are critical, but Epstein’s strategy was to make the core those who play daily. “The Cub Way” refers to doing the little things right and doing them over and over again.
If we will see church planting movements among all unreached peoples, we will have to train an army of young missionaries of every race and culture. We cannot rely on veteran transfers. We must have the patience to slowly and surely raise up and train young workers at every level. This requires patience and a commitment to the long view; it requires not taking shortcuts and not diluting quality for expediency. The most obvious application is training teams and a determined approach to language and cultural fluency. Many are the temptations to truncate the process of grooming our own young missionaries, but if we will be steady and faithful, we will ultimately win.
While there is value in non-residential ministry (i.e. flying in to teach) or a mentoring/coaching/strategic/administrative/leadership role, the heart and soul of our work must be the boots-on-the-ground church planting teams embedded in context. Yes, we need good leadership. Yes, we need wise and experienced seminar speakers. Yes, we need educators and catalysts that can start programs or travel to speak and inspire. But those on the ground who live day in and day out in the communities of the unreached and make disciples on a steady basis win the victories. We must be ever vigilant to make the field worker the center of mission. We must empower, protect, and resource the boots-on-the-ground, disciple-making missionary. Our life and our success depend on an undistracted, everyday position player. The big guns come in and add value, but then move on; the battle is won by the everyday dirt-in-their-fingernails field worker. We must be careful not to become top heavy in leadership, administrative, or specialist positions. It is the generalist who can do several basic things well (like run, hit, field, and throw) that will carry the day.
The endless repetition of the little mundane things is what ultimately wins wars and crowns. We don’t need homeruns to win. We need singles, sacrifice flies, a stolen base, wise base running, and a long at-bat to wear down the pitcher. We need to hit the cut-off man, reduce errors, and know when to shift the infield or look the runner back towards the base. These references will not make sense to the non-baseball fan, but the point is, these are the little things practiced a thousand times until they are reflexive. We need to abide in Jesus every day. We need to constantly learn another word, phrase, or proverb. We need to go back to intercessory prayer. We need to sow widely. We need to quote, pray, and preach Scripture. We need to lay our hands on the sick and pray in faith. We need to go on another visit. We need to invite to our house one more time. We need to serve with kindness all over again. We need to do these things over and over and over and over and over again. Every once in a while, we will hit a home run or experience a no-hitter, but the vast majority of our activity will just be going at it “The Live Dead Way,” just doing the right things repeatedly and without fuss, finding joy in them, knowing that world class victories are built on the daily repetition of simple, humble deeds.
In one way, the story of the Cubs’ win is 108 years old. In another way it is five years old and connected to Theo Epstein and Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Epstein hired Maddon, the daily manager, and reorganized the whole franchise. Maddon, the coach, taught the players daily, kept them in the right frame of mind, and oversaw the games day after day.
These two leaders made all the difference for the Cubs and accomplished what dozens of leaders before them had failed to do, even leaders who had magnificent players. Maddon had the wisdom to not let his players get too high or too low. He kept perspective—his motto is the lighthearted “try not to suck.” He brought out the best in them and taught them to trust themselves, each other, and the collective system. He worked as hard at spirit and chemistry (combining young players full of zest with men like 39-year-old David Ross, a baseball veteran) as he did at competency and skill. His skillful leadership allowed the players to joy in life (wearing their pajamas on the plane) and joy in the game (as must we lead others to joy in the work of church planting).
Spiritual leadership is critical in planting the church among the unreached. There are plenty of other managers in baseball that understand the game as well or better than Maddon. Where he excels is in knowing his men and how to lead them. Maddon varies what he does depending on which player he is leading. We who lead those who plant the church among the unreached must understand “the game,” but if we understand it without understanding our players (and thus, treating them as cogs in a machine rather than as individuals), then we won’t ultimately “win.” Leaders must have the discernment and the courage to both (1) treat everybody according to the same principles and (2) endorse the selective treatment of everyone differently in application. We must learn how to find a legitimate and honorific place for our veterans and team members with the wisdom derived from variegated life experience, as well as for our zealous, energetic young workers. This is art, not science, for we must be able to flex and take the criticism and ire our seeming inconsistency provokes. When done poorly, this is unsettling inconsistency. When done lovingly well, this is creative and life giving. We must live joyfully and lead our team members into joy. We must study them, listen to them, learn how to trust them, and empower them to trust themselves. How we lead matters. Church planting will rise or fall on the ability of team leaders to be flexible, discerning, creative, disarming, and wise beyond their years. Holy Spirit, help us.
Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold’ Em.
Game 7 of the World Series was a roller coaster for all fans. In my opinion, Maddon was fortunate to win for he took pitcher Kyle Hendricks out too early and brought closer Aroldis Chapman in too soon. The result was nearly disastrous. Overall though, over the course of several years, Maddon and Epstein brought the right people in at the right time and let the right people go when they needed to—no matter how hard it was financially or relationally. These leaders made difficult personnel decisions for the long term good. So must we.
Corporately, we can stay too long and leave too early. Chemistry wise, we can put the wrong people in leadership with disastrous results. We ourselves can stay too long in leadership or in a position, and we can leave too early. We must be willing to do the right thing no matter who is offended. Personnel decisions cannot be made primarily with the individual in mind—though his or her good must be considered—but with the mind of the greater good (the team and the work of church planting). Knowing when to bring the right people into our “game” and when to take them out is equally important. The end game is critical. We must have an exit strategy (like Paul we exit location, not relationship), clearly defined goals, and a plan for how to end well.
Play the Long Game While Believing for Miracle Accelerations.
In one way, the Cubs’ win was 108 years in the making. In another way, it actually only took five years. Theo Epstein did what countless other general managers failed to do. His approach, methodology, strategy, and leadership were the things needed. His long game was five years, not 108. He needed that much time to transform the organization from the ground up. Some missionaries have twenty years’ experience. Some missionaries have one year of experience repeated twenty times. The Cubs, you could argue, fell into this second category—103 years of not learning from what was not working.
On the one hand, nothing replaces longevity—longevity that has learned language and valued relationship, sown wisely and widely, remained humble and holy, and learned to abide in Jesus. Discipleship and leadership development cannot be microwaved. On the other hand, we can stubbornly cling to what is not working. We need the humility to constantly ask the Lord—and those of like precious faith around us—if there is something that needs to be changed. We cannot insist and discourage new missionaries by predicting for them a long and weary journey that must align with our experience. We must allow new missionaries to try new things (within biblical parameters). We must even allow them to try some things that we tried and failed in (there are too many variables in mission to think that what failed once will always fail).
In God’s sovereignty, some pray, some remove stones, some plant, and some water, and then in His wonderful timing God brings the increase. Among our unreached people, there will come a day when God breaks through for His own glory. Right in the center of that will be some young punks blissfully ignorant of the process, labor, sweat, and tears of perhaps generations of saints before them. And it won’t matter. We will rush into each other’s arms, crying for joy, and the one who played the long game and the one who happened to just show up for the miracle acceleration will have equal delight.
On the flip side, new/young missionaries must learn to respect the process, the hard work, and the painfully earned wisdom (indigenous principles) of the elders. It is poor stewardship and the height of folly to make the same mistakes as our fathers. If we happen to be the young who stumble into harvest, let us remember that “others have done the hard work.” If we are wise and faithful, none of us will labor without someone sometime after us harvesting, and none of us will harvest without someone sometime before us paying the price.
In the Cub narrative, there are legendary stories about curses and bad luck related to a goat, a cat, an overenthusiastic fan, and numerous other incidents. What started out in jest became for some a self-fulfilling prophecy: “We are cursed with bad luck. Something will always come along to spoil our chances.” A series of disappointments led to fatalistic thinking, almost resignation. When you have a long history of failure, external pressure and internal anxiety can combine to make you nervous in critical moments, almost fatalistic and hopeless. There were some dark moments in this championship year, but Maddon and the players (including the now famous rain delay team meeting led by outfielder Jason Heyward) didn’t believe in curses or let setbacks and disappointments overwhelm them. They kept believing.
In planting the church among the unreached, curses and satanic opposition are not fanciful but real and constant. We don’t have to overcome superstition—we have to overcome the powers of hell. We have to live and thrive and win men and women to Jesus where Satan has his throne. We must both constantly stand on the promises of God [every people group will be represented in heaven (Rev. 5:9)] and we must learn to fight spiritual battles. We must learn to pray through, stay under the blood, pray in the Spirit, discern beyond the physical, resist fear and intimidation, believe for signs, wonders, miracles, and dreams, steward power encounters, petition the Lord to rebuke the accuser (Jude 9), cast out evil spirits, cast down principalities, and war with every spiritual weapon while staying protected with every spiritual defense. We are not going to plant churches among the unreached until the strong man is bound. The curse must be overcome and we can’t be naïve.
Praise and Pre-rejoice.
There is one moment from the last game of the championship that I will treasure. The Cubs were hanging on to a one-run lead. They needed just one more out to end the game. The ball was hit and bounced to Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant. The slow motion replay revealed that before the ball even reached him, a brilliant, giddy grin spread across his young face. He had not yet caught the ball and had not yet thrown it to Anthony Rizzo at first base, but in that suspended moment of time, before the ball had even reached him, Bryant saw how it was all going to end and his body physically manifested the deep joy that was about to be. At the professional level (of anything), routine skills are practiced thousands and thousands of times, and Bryant had full confidence in what the next few seconds held—and thus, the once-in-a-lifetime smile. He beamed before it was accomplished because he knew.
We who plant churches among the unreached must likewise beam before it is accomplished. Yes, we pray. Yes, we labor. But we also praise. The Bible tells us how this ends. The Spirit has been promised to equip us. God will defend His own honor and glory. Representatives of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will be assembled around the throne and we will enjoy Jesus and each other eternally. We know what to do. Let’s keep doing the basic things right. Let’s anticipate with gladness how all this ends. Let’s praise Jesus for it now. Let the people of God go ahead and collectively break into a world-creasing grin.