Mission Marm and Apple Guy
BookTrends: The Meeting of the Waters
By: Fritz Kling|Published: February 24, 2010 1:00 PM
It was 2:00 a.m., and the knocking on the locked iron door was getting louder. It kept coming as I slid out of bed, stumbled in the dark to the door, and groped for the big ring of keys hanging on the wall.
I was groggy from the overnight flights from Richmond to Miami to São Paolo to Manaus, Brazil. Manaus used to be the capital of the world’s rubber industry and is now a gritty, gateway city into the Amazon Basin for tourists, business people...and missionaries. People like me.
While I was in Manaus, I found myself sleeping in a missionary jungle pilot’s basement bunkhouse. I finally opened the heavy iron door to a missionary woman in her sixties, and I thought I was dreaming. It was my aunt Vera.
There was one problem: Aunt Vera had been dead for more than twenty years. But the woman standing before me was a dead ringer for my dead aunt. Like Aunt Vera, she wore her grey hair in a bun, bifocal glasses on a leash, an ankle-length print dress, and sturdy shoes. It had been more than sixty years since Vera had gone to serve the Lord in Iran, but the missionary lady at the door bore an uncanny resemblance to my aunt.
When she returned from Iran, my real aunt Vera had become what they used to call a schoolmarm—“a woman teacher, especially one who is regarded as strict.” That is why I immediately thought of my late-night visitor as Mission Marm. I believe that everyone involved with Christian ministry around the world knows a Mission Marm.
As she stood in the doorway, Mission Marm had the steely-eyed gaze and brusque manner of a woman who had lived alone in developing countries for decades. Her bone-crushing handshake betrayed years, I guessed, of laying bricks, delivering babies, sewing clothes, and farming. I would love to reflect on our conversation and what I learned about her life in the mission field...except that we barely spoke. I am by nature a questioner; she was a woman of few words. She walked past me, down the hallway to one of the vacant rooms.
I later pieced together her story. Mission Marm became a missionary in the 1970s, at a time when America was an isolated player on the Cold War stage. China and Russia were closed to foreigners. She, like Aunt Vera, knew she would only see “home” about every five years, so she loaded a steamer trunk and boarded a ship or plane for her trip to “the field.” Communication was only by sporadic mail service. The need was serious, the conditions harsh, and even a lifetime of evangelization seemed too short for the task.
After our brief meeting, I could tell that Mission Marm had probably forgotten more about Christian service than I had ever known. Her devotion, experience, and resolve were palpable; this woman twenty-five years my senior barnstormed around the Amazon Basin all day and night.
I was in the missionary bunkhouse because I run a Christian foundation, where my job is finding ways to invest in the growth of the global church. The global church is not a certain denomination or building, an individual mission agency, congregation, or megachurch. It is informal and undefined, not bound by a specific nation. If I were to try for a concise definition of “global church” I would say,
Neither an institution nor a bureaucracy, the global church is incredibly adaptive and vibrant. It has long been the world’s most effective relief agent, meeting needs across the globe through justice advocacy, material aid, counseling, biblical proclamation, education, and more.
I know that from personal experience. Over the last ten years I have visited over forty countries, met with a few thousand ministry leaders, and bounced through hundreds of hours in vans to project sites. I have downed gallons of coffee, Coke, and chai served up by my hosts in places where they knew I could not drink the water. During my travels, I have walked where Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci walked in sixteenth-century China. I have accompanied an Australian nurse as she tended to the elderly in an Asian leper village. I have learned from Russian preachers who were jailed during communist times. I have been spellbound by Ugandan underground church pastors as they described private audiences with heinous strongman Idi Amin.
During those years, I have also had the privilege of meeting hundreds of people like Mission Marm. These people are my heroes. I find it impossible not to feel humbled and grateful seeing firsthand the sacrifices and fruit of past Christian workers’ efforts. In difficult years past, missionaries left port for their assigned country with their belongings packed in coffins, fully expecting to live out their days in their new country. I can relate to 1950s U.S. statesman Adlai Stevenson, who, after visiting mission stations in Africa, was asked about what impressed him most. “The graves,” he said. “At every mission station there were graves.”
Just after drifting back to sleep, I was reawakened at 4:00 a.m. by the rattling of the iron window bars. I felt like I was bunking in an equatorial Underground Railroad, with unknown travelers drifting through at all hours on their way to one part or another of Latin America. This time I opened the door to a man in his late twenties, en route to a remote jungle village to begin his new career as a teacher. Pleasant and casual, he immediately plopped down on the couch and multitasked while we talked. I watched him Facebook and send text messages to his family in Ohio, who were all most eager to know he was safe.
With his scruffy beard, T-shirt, baggy shorts, flip-flops, and compact technology, the man seemed like a typical twenty-first-century young adult. He reminded me of a sales associate in my local Apple store. I dubbed him Apple Guy.
“I was working as an engineer in the States when I traveled with my church to Brazil on a short-term mission trip a few years ago. That was when I ‘caught the missions bug.’ We did work at a mission school in Brazil’s interior. After I returned home, I kept up with their newsletters and emails. It turned out that my wife and I really had a heart for the school and for Brazil.”
Then the inevitable happened—history, global politics, and providence (not in that order) aligned to shape the future plans of Apple Guy, his church, and the mission school. “Brazil’s government was becoming increasingly anti-American,” he said, “and it began imposing more restrictions on American organizations.” A large American mission agency had been providing staff to the school for a long time, and the government treated the agency as a high-profile scapegoat. So the agency decided to pull all of its personnel out of Brazil.
As Apple Guy spoke I knew, though he didn’t, that this kind of missionary eviction was common around the world—just one more sign that mission times were changing.
However, the government needed Brazilian children to be educated, so in order to keep the school functioning they would find just one expatriate couple to replace the several who used to run the school.
Apple Guy concluded, “The school made its need known, and my wife and I prayed and talked to the kids about it. We decided to give it a shot—we would all move and run that boarding school in the interior of Brazil. I was as surprised as anyone!”
As he slouched into a couch, a series of photos of his children’s happy faces shuffled across his laptop’s screen. Finally, he pulled up a movie; he said it would help him fall asleep.
The two visitors could not have been more different.
That night in Manaus, I glimpsed the future: The global church was undergoing a generational changing of the guard. In a world of widespread upheaval of every kind, the global church was drifting between a storied past and a rapidly morphing future. Mission Marm was giving way to Apple Guy, and it wasn’t a question of “when?” but “how?”
In coming years global church leaders will be able to employ some traditional approaches from the past, but they will increasingly need to try out experimental, innovative, and even uncomfortable ideas. A generation of Christian workers like Apple Guy will depart from Mission Marm’s methods at almost every turn, which will lead the global church into uncharted waters.
But will that next generation be up to the task? Beyond the hip clothes and cool gadgets, will they bring enough depth and commitment to very difficult cross-cultural assignments? Are they prepared to minister and teach Christian faith to people in complex and changing cultures? Will Apple Guy and his contemporaries know how to forge relationships with leaders from less-developed, less-powerful countries? I know that Apple Guy cannot fulfill his task alone, but will older religious leaders allow his generation a place at “the adult table”?
As I thought about the generational shift, I wondered if the emerging generation’s voice would be heeded. Would the global church of the future incorporate the new generation’s focus on justice, relief, poverty, conservation, and mercy? Christian workers in the past often tended to focus on individual needs and spiritual concerns but, as a British journalist recently noted, young Christians today are “as concerned with ecology, AIDS … and with human rights worldwide as with traditional questions of personal morality.” I felt certain that Mission Marm could not effectively advance those emerging concerns, but I also had my doubts about Apple Guy.
Right now, over 400,000 Christian missionaries are living in countries other than their own, carrying a message or delivering a service to the ends of the earth. I am, wherever I go, almost a knee-jerk defender of the work of the Christian church around the world. The good work done by Christians over the years—the hospitals started and staffed, the schools built, the sick people treated, the science and agriculture taught, the souls saved—far eclipses any negative history. I work for American donors who help the Christian church serve the world. The last thing I want to see is disheartened or discouraged Christian workers, but I feel a need to express my concern.
You see, I believe that Mission Marm’s days are waning; the future of the global church will look very different. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is reputed to have explained why he always seemed to be the first player to the puck: “I don’t skate to where the puck is; I skate to where the puck is going to be.” I wondered, that night in the bunkhouse, if the global church was skating to where the puck was going to be.
Others share my concerns. I read a report by an international panel of church experts charging that, all too often, global church leaders do long-range planning as if the future is simply going to be an extension of the present. The report questioned whether the Christian church has the ability or desire to recognize a world in flux and figure out how to respond. Another writer called for global church leaders to become “incredibly well-versed in the ways that globalization affects their particular field, [for] turning a blind eye to the issue is incredibly dangerous.” That is why I have written The Meeting of the Waters—to address the issues of globalization and the church head on.
I was in Manaus, Brazil to visit an aviation ministry that flies supplies and teachers to remote Amazon River villages. Since planes were the ministry’s “business,” the workers decided that an actual flight downriver would give me the best firsthand experience.
Early that morning I was picked up and driven to Manaus-Eduardo Gomes International Airport. I did indeed learn a few things about aviation ministry that day but, to my surprise, my greatest lessons were much more sweeping. What had been a lingering hunch about the church in the twenty-first century became for me a consuming quest.
As we flew over the sprawling port city and then countless river villages, I thought about Christian presence in those places below...and around the world. From the air, those remote villages looked just like they must have appeared one, two, or even three hundred years ago. On the ground, though, they were very different. Even as some villagers poled to and fro in dugout canoes, many others talked on cell phones to their friends and relatives in other river villages and cities.
I wondered whether either Mission Marm or Apple Guy would be effective in those river villages today. Or in cities like São Paolo, Bangkok, Phoenix, or even Manaus, for that matter. As those places morphed, I knew, so must Mission Marm and Apple Guy and the rest of the global church.
In our six-seater float plane, we touched down in several of the river villages to visit indigenous churches and pastors. We traipsed barefoot through knee-deep mud and muck and navigated rickety boardwalks between shacks on stilts, with ramps leading from the tied-up canoes and motorboats to the front door. We visited a church that met in a screened-in hut, which doubled as a community lodge where the village men watched soccer matches on satellite television. It might have been an Amazon River village, but it was still soccer-mad Brazil.
Flying back upriver to Manaus, our plane banked over the city to see a local landmark. In Manaus, two distinct eastbound rivers converge to form the fabled Amazon River, which then flows nearly one thousand miles until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean at Belem. Tourist brochures gush about the “Meeting of the Waters,” but I confess to some indifference about tourist attractions. Over the years, I have visited about twenty different “seventh wonders of the world”—but this one lived up to its billing.
Like oil and water, the Amazon’s two tributaries do not blend or mix upon meeting, but create instead a seam of sorts. They appear from the air to be side-by-side runners of black and caramel carpet. From my plane, I could see tour boats sitting astride the seam, with passengers on one side of the boat looking down at the placid Rio Negro, and people on the other side watching the caramel commotion of Rio Solimões.
The southern tributary, Rio Negro (“black water”), is the largest blackwater river in the world. It is tannic—the color of very dark tea or even wine—because upstream it cuts through forests of leaf-shedding trees. Rio Negro’s water is dense and heavy, virtually free of mineral content and home to sparse fish life because it is so acidic. Though dark, it is also crystal clear.
The northern tributary, Rio Solimões (“white water”), is caramel colored and wavy, full of churning vegetation and silt from mountains in western South America. It has plentiful fish life. Faster moving than Rio Negro, Rio Solimões swirls, churns, and rushes toward the Atlantic.
At the Meeting of the Waters, not only is the seam dramatically visible from above, but it is also three-dimensional—almost as if an underwater wall or baffle rises from the riverbed to the surface of the water. A Brazilian missionary friend described diving into the river and swimming underwater from one stream into the other. She exhilarated in bursting through the underwater wall into the other stream.
For ten miles, as the newly formed Amazon courses east, the two rivers run completely distinct and separate in their shared channel. The seam visibly exists for that whole distance until, finally, the waters blend.
Looking down on the river and jungles, I listened to my pilot’s fascinating running commentary and found myself thinking about his life in the heart of the Amazon...and about hundreds of thousands of Christians like him serving around the world. The Meeting of the Waters, I thought, was a perfect metaphor for my previous night’s realization about the global church at a crossroads.
Like one of those tour boats, the global church today sits at the confluence of two powerful streams. One is the past era, when the Christian church around the world relied upon dedicated Christians from North America or Europe. Those foreigners stayed for extended periods—years—at great expense; emphasizing personal piety, they were strong in the Bible, missions, and service. Mission Marm and her colleagues dedicated themselves to specific people groups or countries or regions and developed expertise there. They were focused on personal lives and spiritual things, and not on the world or global affairs.
The other stream represents the globalizing world with its changes that are spreading immediately and indiscriminately. That stream is evolving and unpredictable, and it cannot be ignored or dammed. It is characterized by conditions almost entirely different from those the church faced in eras past: different forms of transportation, speed, communication, entertainment, political forces, national and ethnic identities, culture, conflicts, crises, economies, and technologies. Most significantly, the new stream brings a completely scrambled roster of “players” and issues. People from all around the world are involved, with newfound voices of credibility and urgency. As a result, the future church will need to find its voice in a wider-than-ever range of issues, like poverty, human rights, ecology, justice, conflict, equality, reconciliation, and global events.
Amid all these changes, I am reminded of the warning of former General Electric chairman Jack Welch: “If the rate of change inside an organization is less than the rate of change outside...their end is in sight.” As a Christian, I take heart that the gospel story is blessedly different from the corporate world. God’s Word will assuredly survive, and His truth will prevail in the end. My question, though, is not concerned with eternity; it is about today and tomorrow. How can Christians be faithful and relevant in these volatile, fluid days, as we seek to spread good news to people of different cultures in a winsome way?
Christians, I believe, have always struggled with whether to embrace or reject the world, but separatism is no longer an option. The admonition of British scholar John Stott rings truer now than ever. Dr. Stott charged world-concerned Christians with engaging in “double listening,” paying attention “both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.”
The best leaders around the world—secular and Christian, in developed and developing nations—recognize the need to understand the changing world in order to remain viable in their own fields. Author Thomas Friedman writes, “In a world where we are all so much more interconnected, the ability to read the connections, and to connect the dots, is the real value added.... If you don’t see the connections, you won’t see the world.”
I believe the distinctions between how churches thrive and how the world does business are blurring. Christians seeking to understand the church’s role in the future must be effective double listeners, like Stott, while connecting the dots, like Friedman.
Mission Marm, though, is ill suited for dot connecting. Decades ago, she left the world as she knew it and focused on a new culture. She dedicated herself to meeting the immediate needs of day-to-day people. I thank God for her. The day she boarded the ship, Mission Marm laid any hopes for keeping up—with friends, with news, with the world—on the altar. She went “back in time” then, and our brief meeting convinced me that she would never catch up again.
Apple Guy, on the other hand, hardly appears ready to take over the helm of the global church. He excels in double tasking, but he will surely have difficulty double listening. Flexible and capable of adapting, he likely lags in teaching skills, counseling, mission history, international experience, and ultimately perhaps, commitment.
So, on one side of the Meeting of the Waters is a familiar stream that allows the global church to be safe but stodgy. On the other side is a stream whose wild currents will move the church toward future relevance...and also risk and change. At this new and confusing juncture, church leaders must be forward thinking and bold in forging ahead, despite certain discomfort.
Just like the Meeting of the Waters, the global church’s distinct streams are bound to merge in the coming years. In that newly globalized world, the long-standing methods and messages of Mission Marm and her generation will show their age. At some point, even the current approaches of Apple Guy will falter, for that future age will generate new needs and responses of its own.
Between the extremes of Mission Marm and Apple Guy is where most Christian workers reside: They seek to be relevant and orthodox, productive and faithful, current and grounded, innovative and contented...and often they simply end up feeling overwhelmed. Many followers of Christ who identify more with Mission Marm sense that the global church needs to change, and many Christian workers who relate to Apple Guy have the nagging sense that they are not fit to carry Mission Marm’s bags.
The church, as it strives to reach future generations, will need to bundle Mission Marm’s passion for evangelizing unreached people groups, Apple Guy’s project-management skills, and countless other approaches that emerge for future societal changes.
This book provides the global church not with a one-size-fits-all map detailing the river’s course, but a flexible and varied tool for continually recognizing and adjusting to the all-bets-are-off global environment. It is a tool that must be widely used and shared.
Tradition-minded church leaders accustomed to listening to the Word may be daunted by global realities they have not yet learned to read. At the same time, leaders doing ministry at the very cusp of the cutting edge may need to work harder at incorporating the Word into the world they understand so well. In reality, the impending confluence of waters is unavoidable, and staying the course without responding to change will steer the global church straight into a turbulent future. The greatest danger is that the valuable treasure carried by the church—the best news the world can ever hear—will be risked because leaders lack the stomach, mind, or heart to engage the changing times.
The ancient prophet Isaiah spoke to just this kind of challenge when he said,
Copyright 2010 David C. Cook/Cook Communications Ministries. Meeting of the Waters by Fritz Kling. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.