It was over 10 years ago that my wife and I were ambushed by God and evicted from our comfortable lives on a government salary with the military, to reach back into military communities across the Asia-Pacific region. It hasn't been all smooth sailing, but we are thankful that He interrupted us!
Our basic ministry strategy starts with finding ways to serve military personnel and their families, without an agenda. As we do that and trust builds, we look for opportunities to share our faith (1 Peter 3:15). The Holy Spirit wins people to Jesus, so the winning is something we pray about and truly desire to be a part of, but we don’t ever want to do anything that forces a response. Any kind of coercive evangelism risks our relationship with the community we are trying to help, and it risks someone faking their choosing to follow Jesus. We commit to building those who do follow Jesus in their faith, equipping them with the focus of sending them to serve others and continue the cycle. This strategy of serve-share-win-build-send has become the cornerstone of our ministry.
Serving is the largest part of the ministry, and it starts with getting to know what needs are out there. There is a temptation to “serve” by delivering a solution to one of our own problems without knowing if it is a problem for those we are serving. Giving someone something that they don’t need isn’t serving, so we spend a lot of time asking, “What would help look like for you?”
In one country I was asked to teach on Strategic Leadership to a group of combat experienced and hardened military personnel. I prepared the seminar and two weeks out, their boss, a two-star General, decided that the seminar should be on Ethical Leadership. I was annoyed, but after praying and taking counsel from my wife, I calmed down and wrote an Ethical Leadership workshop in a week. It was what they needed, so it really made no sense to bring anything else. I got to speak to 100 personnel, most of whom came from a combat zone to attend the workshop and most of whom had some blood on their hands, not all of it ethical. Over two days the discussion naturally led to the Bible as offering the only reliable ethical standard that never changes. The General, in his closing remarks, admitted that he was not an ethical man, but wished that someone had taught him those things when he was a young officer. I got to share the Gospel with the sergeant who drove me around. When we serve without an agenda, focused on meeting real needs and riding through frustration, God does things and we get to see.
While serving, we look for natural opportunities to share. Sharing needs to come naturally, especially in a military environment where we are sensitive to coercion of any kind. If we genuinely care about the people we want to share with, we will be patient. If we push it (I’m not saying, don’t boldly take opportunities, just don’t brashly try to force opportunities), people can smell our insincerity. They begin to feel like desired trophies and not people whom we have a genuine care for. Relax, let the Holy Spirit lead the conversation and when the time is right, He will give you a nudge.
I had a chance encounter with the Commander of the Air Force in one country, who happened to be coming to New Zealand for a conference. In his country it was illegal to talk about any religion except the state religion on government property, so the local ministry team had to be patient and respectful to be allowed to serve their military personnel. The Commander came to dinner at our house, where there are no restrictions on what religion we could discuss, but I was still patient and respectful (and a little nervous). Then he asked, “I love how your organisation helps us, but why do you do it?” There followed a two-hour inter-active unpacking of the Gospel. The Commander didn’t make a decision while he was with us, but the last time I saw him he told me that he was talking to others who believed what I believe.
Which brings me to winning. Winning is the business of God. No person ever convicted another person to follow Jesus, only the Holy Spirit does that, so again, we can relax. I’m a little uncomfortable even with saying that I led someone to faith. The way I would describe it is that God has invites us into His process of people getting saved. I am a privileged guest in a process that does not rely on my input, and that is freeing. If we truly relax and leave the winning to the Holy Spirit, we can naturally share our faith without any fear or burden of worrying about messing it up. We can’t mess up winning someone to Jesus because we are not responsible for the winning.
I’m also not sure that we can tell from one prayer if someone is saved or not. In Cambodia I was talking to a man whose organisation was a sharing machine. He told me that they don’t count anyone as saved until they have been discipled for two years. Only then, he had learned from experience, could there be some certainty around the sincerity of their decision.
This makes building a critical step in all ministries. It is when we build others in their faith that those simple truths take hold and the deep roots grow. Even better, well discipled people take up their own ministries and gain their own momentum, creating a cascading and multiplying effect that goes way beyond just us sharing our faith and seeing people saved. Discipleship builds understanding and it anchors people in a deepening relationship with God that can’t help but lead people to want to serve God and their fellow human beings well. When we don’t take time (and it does take time) to build people, we can doom them to error and mediocrity, if not failure.
We’re happy to build into anyone, but we are especially looking for trustworthy people (2 Timothy 2:2) to work with, people who we help to send to serve others. They are energising to work with. One couple we work through in Asia followed this pathway: from discipleship conversations around marriage, to positive changes in their own marriage, to marriage training, to more positive changes in their marriage and passing what they learned onto others, to training those others to run marriage training, to an indigenous marriage ministry. It’s not perfect but we love investing in people who want to be built into and use what we pass on, but better still, don’t ask before passing it onto others.
This is the key – the effectiveness of discipleship is seen in replication. Our goal is to disciple people with a vision to disciple others, in other words, we want to be a part of sending people to help serve, share, win, build and send others.
Alistair & Linda
Day 28, GC3 Daily Prayer Guide