Eight shocking things you would never know without reading this sensational blog

My sister sent me an interesting link recently. It turned out to be a thinly disguised travel promotion by Sevier County in Tennessee.

Headlined 8 Shocking Secrets of Cades Cove You Won’t Believe, it focuses on one of my favorite places, the beautiful valley on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which we plan on visiting very soon.)

Was I shocked? You can’t believe the amazing, astounding, fantastic, shocking things I found out: Cades Cove’s first name was Kate’s Cove; The entrance to Cades Cove isn’t the first entrance; Cades Cove is the only section of the park closed at night.

I was shocked alright. My goodness, I feel that I have been deceived, lied to, led astray. I had always seen that tranquil corner of the national park as a quiet place, steeped in history, transversed by bubbling mountain streams, surrounded by the bluish Appalachian mountains, the home of deer and bears and other forms of wild life, and ablaze in glorious color every October as the leaves change and drop. To find that it is a place of such scandal was, well, shocking!

In truth, the article was interesting, revealing, educational, informative, attractive and so forth. But shocking? No way. The only shocking thing about the piece is that the folks at Sevier County would headline their article that way.

But in this age of competing claims, an overload of Facebook postings, tweets, texted messages and 24 hour news cycles, I guess people have to use words like shocking, amazing, incredible and others just to draw attention and get a potential reader to click on the headline and read on.

I see those types of exaggerations frequently in online pieces, web searches, suggested Facebook posts and the like. And, I have learned to ignore most of them because I don’t appreciate being manipulated, deceived or sucked-in by sensational headlines. (Yes, I know, I did read this one on Cades Cove, but then, that’s one of my favorite places!).

It reminds me of the caution and integrity that we must have in the setting of Christian witness and enthusiasm. We are so often intensely intent on introducing Christ to others that we make unsubstantiated, inflated or just grossly wrong claims about the benefits of following Jesus.

Some have promised a life of perfect peace, easy-street living, great financial rewards, prosperity, magical healing and a free “get out of jail” pass just for signing up at the end of an evangelistic service.

But those who study the Bible and listen carefully to the words of Jesus recognize that being a believer and a follower of Him not only brings an assurance of salvation, joy and a peace that only He can give, it also involves the challenge of doing what He teaches (Matthew 7:24), being willing to follow wherever He calls us (Matthew 16:24), suffering (Acts 14:22; John 15:20; 1 Peter 4:12), persecution (2 Timothy 3:12) and, perhaps, even death (Luke 9:23-26).

As missionaries and Christian evangelists have discovered, when only a “what’s in it for me” gospel is preached, there may be immediate response, but soon many fall away when they find that the new road isn’t necessarily a smooth, four-lane highway.

In fact, in the long run such a shallow way of evangelizing will result in a diminishing number of people in church and a hostility or at best an “inoculation” against the receiving of the true Gospel.

In Costa Rica, many churches found this “back-door” exodus as a result of “spectacular” evangelism to be devastating and very damaging to the local churches. (This topic has been explored in several books and on page 15 of this article by Cliff Holland). 

Healthy, responsible evangelism not only proclaims the unmerited, transforming, saving gift of eternal life from God through Jesus Christ, but the eternal joy of giving our life to His glory and service.

I’ve learned to ignore the multiple online postings using sensational, exaggerated claims in headlines. I would not want people to ignore or be deceived by those who use similar methodologies to temporarily fill the pews of their church or add fodder to their annual statistical reports.

To do that would truly be shocking.

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A bunch of pumpkin pie eating Christians

Some people just have a way with words.

Take John G. Lake, a fiery Pentecostal pastor and missionary who served for many years in South Africa around the turn of the last century.

In an obvious pique of justifiable self-righteousness, he took aim at Christian servants who set themselves apart from those they serve either in their lifestyle, where they live, their “holier than thou” attitude or their less-than-stellar lifestyle.

He referred to them as “pumpkin pie eating” servants. Or, more specifically, “pumpkin pie eating Pentecostal missionaries” (though, as you will see, what he said applies to all of us who serve the Lord, not just our Pentecostal brothers and sisters).

Here is the quote taken from “The Trumpet Call”, a sermon he preached in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1908:

I lived on cornmeal mush many a period with my family and we did not growl, and I preached to thousands of people…. When my missionaries were on the field existing on cornmeal mush, I could not eat pie. My heart was joined to them. That is the reason we never had church splits in our work in South Africa. One country where Pentecost never split. The split business began to develop years afterward when pumpkin pie eating Pentecostal missionaries began infesting the country. Men who are ready to die for the Son of God do not split. They do not holler the first time they get a stomachache. (John G. Lake; The Complete Collection of His Life Teachings, Albury Publishing, 1999)

Now, I wish I could (would) preach like that.

The caution here is for all of us: missionaries and pastors, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, elders and deacons and those in the pew. We’re called to serve where the Lord puts us and to do so is to become one with those whose lives we touch.

To identify and to serve is to be with those who are hungering for the Word and seeking to walk the walk. That means that we don’t approach seekers, those who need ministry, as if we are coming from on high with superior knowledge or as more pious or more righteous.

As one of my favorite statements of faith says about Jesus Christ: In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, He (God) has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to Himself.

Did you catch that? God has come to us and shared our common lot. That’s what the birth in an animal shed was all about. That’s what the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) means.

God, in Jesus Christ, came and lived among us, living as we do, knowing our struggles and successes, experiencing our pain and anxiety.

And the implication for us, missionaries and pastors, Sunday school teachers and worship band members, educated and uneducated, experienced and novice, is that we can each witness to Him and share the message most effectively by walking with those who are wandering in aimlessness and sin, who are seeking the truth, who are hurting and searching for hope.

It means we live where they live, eat where they eat, play where they play, rest where they rest, laugh where they laugh, cry where they cry.

We share their hurt, celebrate their joy, pray for their search, rejoice in their salvation.

We share their common lot.

And, we do that best by eating cornmeal mush with them and forgetting the pumpkin pie as we serve our Lord.

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

New Year’s Eve, 2015

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

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Eight Things to Know as the Pastor of an International Church

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

It all began as an aside in a mission class taught many years ago by Dr. Norman Horner at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

He was explaining the various ways in which a person could serve overseas such as via denominational mission boards, independent faith mission groups, ecumenical bodies and others.

Pausing for a moment, he remarked almost as an after-thought, “By the way, if you are interested in an English-language ministry overseas you might consider the Union Churches which serve expatriates living abroad.”

Dr. Horner went on to explain that these congregations brought people together from various denominations to worship in an international location where there weren’t enough English-speaking Lutherans or Methodists, Congregationalists or Pentecostals to form their own church.

That was a “light bulb” moment for me. While I had (and continue to have) an intense interest in global issues and missionary work, I had never considered learning a language and moving abroad to carry out ministry.

But discovering that there were, in those days, around 200 of those congregations in a diversity of countries set me to considering serving one of them.

Generally known as international Congregations (ICs) today, there are at least 1,500 such multinational, multi-denominational churches located in major cities around the world serving an ever-expanding cadre of expatriates. And, increasingly, pastors from the United States and other English-speaking countries are heading abroad to take up the pastorate of these churches.

If you are one of those, congratulations. You are about to embark on an exhilarating and profound experience as you take on serving a multi-denominational and multi-national congregation.

But, before you go, there are at least eight things for you to consider to successfully serve such a diverse group.

1. What works back home won’t necessarily succeed in an IC.
U.S. pastors are used to packaged programs for evangelism and discipleship that lay out several steps to achieving success. And, there are numerous types of church governing patterns or models (seeker and emerging churches, missional congregations, lay-led, elder-led) which may not be at all relevant to a congregation that involves people from diverse ecclesiastical backgrounds.

Not everyone in an IC will respond well to these guided process. Some will resist having their church shaped in Australian, North American or European styles and assumptions. Others will see opportunities from a broader, international perspective. Better to develop programs for education, outreach or youth work that are more relevant to the broad make-up of the church you are serving.

2. Give up the idea of building a stable church with a growing membership.

Just as soon as you begin to succeed, you will reach a year when a large percentage of the congregation is transferred out of the country or decides to go back home. Or, upheaval in the country or region will send many expats packing. The IC pastor will quickly learn that turn-over is a major factor that shapes much of his or her reoccurring work. (An IC pastor in South America told me that each year he loses around 50% of his participants due to transfers in the diplomatic and business communities). In international congregations, loyal, supportive members will leave sooner or later and new people will come in to take their place—and none of that is based on whether you are a dynamic preacher or a strong leader.

Turnover can best be addressed by learning how to integrate people into the life of a church quickly and completely. Assuring that they find a small group, asking them to lead in worship or teach Sunday school, using their musical abilities will encourage many to stay and provide immediate replacements for those who leave. While a church will want to get to know someone responsibly before placing them in certain positions, making them wait six months or a year while they are examined usually means they will go somewhere else or will leave without ever getting involved or feeling at home.

3. Be prepared for the lowest attendance Sundays of the year at Christmas and Easter.

That makes no sense to a traditional pastor of a church in the home country. But the reality is that teachers, who may make up a large percentage of an IC, diplomats and some business people have extended vacations over those holidays and use them to travel home or take a vacation elsewhere in the region. Not only that, be aware that diplomats will frequently be gone for multiple weekends—they observe holidays from the host country and those from their home country. Attendance for some will be, at best, sporadic because many expats are regional directors or managers and must travel frequently.

4. Enjoy the opportunity to preach to an international audience.
They are serious about hearing good, biblical preaching and messages that resonate with the struggles of expat life. A never ending series of expository sermons that runs through a book or the whole Bible for months or a year may not be feasible or effective because of the attendance fluctuations and the sizable turnover during any given year. It’s much better to keep series in a manageable length such as three to eight weeks.

Another challenge to your preaching: dare I say most of your tried and true illustrations from back home won’t be relevant in an IC? Australians don’t understand baseball nor North American football. Filipinos don’t watch American or European TV programs and so won’t understand who you are talking about. Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans cannot follow the twists and turns of U.S. primary elections and never will understand the Electoral College no matter how often you explain it. Pick and choose stories and illustrations that will communicate cross-culturally and internationally.

Oh yes, another caution: If you decide to celebrate the 4th of July, then—in fairness–be ready to celebrate the independence day of all the nations represented in your church. In one congregation we had people from 35 nationalities—making celebrating any national holiday impossible.

5. Your congregation may be in deep need of encouragement and emotional/spiritual support.

Not only will they want counsel and understanding for those normal struggles they would have back home such as marital stress, concern about children and aging parents, drug and alcohol abuse and the like, but they will also require support for unique expat issues. These might include frequent losses as they or friends relocate or move away after a short period of time, adjustment to another culture and learning other languages, responding to violence and insecurity, intense homesickness or loneliness or the fear of deportation or having to return to their home country and giving up the expat lifestyle. Good, biblically-based, need-oriented preaching can help build a basis for dealing with those issues, but many cups of coffee (or tea) at a local restaurant will be required as you help them work through these challenges.

6. Conflict can also arise in an IC.

The issues are many, some of them different from what a pastor might expect: differing expectations between people coming from liturgical or non-liturgical backgrounds, conflict over preaching style from those who want what they had back home; tension between members from developed countries and those from developing nations; political differences in a very diverse congregation; stresses and a lack of understanding between missionaries and business people.

While blending traditions and practices from multiple church backgrounds often works well, an IC pastor must be sensitive to differences among the members in such a diverse congregation. Learning to lead a congregation made up of liturgical Anglicans, middle of the road Baptists and expressive Pentecostals can be a joy while also challenging.

7. Learn four useful phrases which will provide counsel and understanding as you adapt and get along with both expats and people from the local culture.

a. When dealing across cultures, if you remember that “your” assumptions are not necessarily “their” assumptions, you will get along well.

b. A successful expatriate has a good sense of humor and a poor sense of smell.

c. In another culture, you cannot say “you would think…” The reality is that you and they think and do things differently. Be quiet and learn from the way “they” do things.

d. Since you are there to preach the Gospel, taking a political stance in a diverse congregation can damage your personal relationships with people of various persuasions. Avoid discussing politics, especially those from your own country, with anyone. And remember, many of your members don’t watch the same news channels you do (they are more likely to be tuned into the BBC World News or CNN International).

8. Be ready to be challenged, blessed, excited, fulfilled and satisfied.

The reality is that there are no more interesting, challenging and fulfilling churches to serve than the international congregations. They are filled with fascinating people who have the most amazing and bizarre stories to tell; whose perspectives are far beyond those of most folks back home; who are deeply committed to the Lord and the work of His church; who will teach you more than you will ever teach them; who will appreciate your efforts and likely recommend you to serve their new church when they move half a world away.

Kenneth D. MacHarg has served as the pastor of nine international churches in seven countries (Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Panama and the Bahamas) and is the author of the book “Singing the Lord’s Songs in a Foreign Land; Biblical Reflections for Expatriates.” He is semi-retired and lives in Carrollton, Georgia, when not serving an international church abroad in an interim capacity.

Sidebar # 1
Expatriate: Someone who lives outside of their own country. Also known as an Expat.

Do not confuse an expatriate with an expatriot—someone who has given up citizenship in their country of origin. Sometimes known as a traitor.

Sidebar #2
To know more about international churches, see a partial listing of them and find churches seeking a pastor, see:

http://www.internationalcongregations.net
http://www.micn.org
http://www.ibc-churches.org
http://icc-ministries.org

Please feel free to leave comments on this site. Those comments posted through the button on this page will be posted if appropriate. Comments sent directly to me are welcome and I will respond, but they will not be posted. To receive notification of future posts, please click on the “follow” button at the top of this page or write to missionaryjournalist (at) gmail (dot) com.