Author: Leslie Keeney
Category: Poverty and Wealth, Prosperity Gospel
I recently had the opportunity to join other writers from the Lausanne Bloggers Network in a phone interview with Ajith Fernando (yeah technology!). Fernando will be one of the plenary speakers at the conference in Capetown and works in Sri Lanka with the urban poor. Since I was unfamiliar with Fernando’s work before the interview, my only preparation was to read an article he wrote for Christianity Today called “To Serve is to Suffer.” What I found was a brilliant pastor who shares my concern that the Western church’s infatuation with efficiency and productivity is at odds with the biblical portrait of what Fernando calls the “theology of suffering.” In the article, Fernando writes that Christians working in Eastern cultures experience frustration and discouragement while waiting 10-15 years before they see any conversions. In contrast, Western churches assume that frustration or suffering is a sign that one should leave to find more “fulfilling” ministry somewhere else. Fernando asserts that by not training workers to expect hardship, the Western church may gradually lose both its workforce and its vision.
Fernando is a native of Sri Lanka and has worked with Youth for Christ in that country for over 30 years. He has written several books on the realities of a life devoted to ministry and speaks brilliantly on a variety of topics concerning the challenges of the church in both the East and West. Fernando is one of those uncommon people who can speak from experience in both cultures. During our phone interview, he emphasized that one of his biggest concerns is the tendency of Western Christians to see frustration in ministry as a sign that God wants them to pull up their stakes and leave. Unfortunately, people often end up leaving ministry not because their ministry wasn’t fulfilling, but because they did not expect to have to suffer. Fernando knows from personal experience that a person can be really, really frustrated—and even experience physical suffering—but still be exactly where God wants them to be. Fulfillment, says Fernando, is the key. Ministry can be annoying, sleep-depriving, and even life-threatening, but if it is still fulfilling, then it is still their ministry.
What I found truly paradigm-shifting was Fernando’s insight into the differences between East and West. What is it about the Western church that makes it so susceptible to the idea that suffering is a sign that we should give up and go home? Fernando suggests that because the East is far less defined by—and dependent upon——technology, that it is more open to the possibility that God can work in the world through prayer and providence. In addition, says Fernando, the East’s “catalogue of essentials” is much smaller, making people more likely to accept suffering as part of life. This is an important concept, so let me say it again. Having a much shorter list of what is necessary to survive makes the East more inclined to view suffering not as a sign of God’s disfavor, but as the price of effective ministry. Here is just one more reason for Western Christians to question the assumption that more is better.
I readily admit that I have a tendency to view the Western church’s appropriation of corporate values as a universally bad thing. I don’t attend any of what the evangelical world calls “leadership conferences” or subscribe to the principles of the church growth movement because I am uncomfortable with the idea of imposing the grid of the corporate worldview over the untamable and unpredictable force of God’s redemptive work. Fernando, however, has a much more balanced and sympathetic view of the Western church, which has caused me to repent (just a little) of my previous assumptions. He observes that every church reflects its own culture. In a highly productive culture, the church will naturally reflect the idea that it should be productive. He also credits Western management principles for giving him needed insight into certain aspects of his own ministry. But he cautions against making Western management principles superior to the principles of Scripture. “The church is a sociological entity,” says Fernando, “and if it uses the principles that work within the larger culture, it will succeed as a sociological entity, but it then becomes defined by its numbers, by the idea that it needs to be branded and franchised.”
Along with many others who find themselves caught between the Western assumption that the most one can aspire to is a “successful” life and a still developing vision of what it means to live as members of God’s community, I question whether adopting the principles of corporate America should have any place at all in the church. It is a short hop from the assumption that a ministry should be dropped if it is not “productive” to the idea that suffering is a sign that we should pack up our tent and go somewhere else. I am beholden to Fernando for his firm belief that smooth sailing is not proof of God’s blessing and that fulfillment can be found in spite of suffering. In his article “To Serve is to Suffer,” Fernando asks the question “will loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective?” While I think the answer could be “yes,” I also find encouragement in the fact that people are beginning to ask the question.