August 25, 2020

Won’t Doing Ministry Among the Poor Put My Children in Harm’s Way?

I sometimes speak to young men who say they are interested in planting churches in housing schemes. There’s one issue in particular which seems to hinder them, especially if they’re from an educated, middle-class background. It’s the problem of children. They are either worried about their current child/children or they have concerns about raising future children in a housing-scheme environment.

Count the Cost

Let me begin by affirming that following Jesus into housing schemes as a church planter truly can, at times, be a brutal business. Following Jesus, at the best of times, comes with all sorts of pressures and temptations. Surely that’s why Jesus told his disciples to “count the cost” before deciding to follow him.

If you want to plant a church in a housing scheme, then you better take Jesus at His word. Consider what He says in Luke 9:56–62:

And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say goodbye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I’m not going to exegete this text, but suffice to say that one clear point of application is this: Jesus is more important than your family. He is certainly more important than your children. Deal with it. Or walk away.

There will always be issues and worries and problems and questions concerning the Christian life. When considering moving into a scheme, these are manifold. But the bottom line will always be whether you are prepared to put your allegiance to Christ before all and above all, including those wonderful, fluffy, cute, sweet-smelling bundles of (often) idolatrous joy that we call our offspring. These verses read well until they have to be put into practice. If you truly want to serve Jesus in a housing scheme, then it will be hard. That’s not a ‘manly’ catchphrase; it is a heart-breaking reality.

Here’s a newsflash. Wait for it. . . . Church planting might actually cost us something. That something might even turn out to be everything. It might turn out to be every sacred cow we hold dear in our middle-class, educationally-driven, child-centred, play-it-safe, let’s-cover-all-the-angles-before-we-step-out, Christian culture.

Wait A Minute. . . .

Really? You mean those biographies of long since dead people who buried their children on the mission-field after suffering all sorts of diseases might actually have some relevance for my coddled, sanitised 21st-century life? Are you suggesting that I may have to make difficult decisions today that might even be (in human, earthly terms) detrimental to my loved ones? Well, that sounds a bit over the top. That doesn’t sound biblical, or even closely like my God who wants me and my family to be safe and sound. What would Joyce Meyer or the guy with the nice teeth on the God-channel say about that? God wants me to make decisions that make me and my family happy, doesn’t He? God wouldn’t really want me to suffer for His namesake, would He?

Okay, maybe a bit of name calling and some strong debate with my atheist friends. But, to move my family to a tough scheme without thought to my young ones? C’mon. God wouldn’t want me to do anything that is irresponsible, surely? We should, at least, consider some sort of risk assessment? You seriously mean to say that my children might suffer for the gospel? My wife might suffer for the gospel? I thought I might have to suffer, but not like this. Actually, when I come to think about it, I’m not actually sure what I mean when I say that. I didn’t really think that ‘take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee’, was really all that serious. It sounds so much better with a bit of base and a nice drum beat.

When Children Suffer

When Miriam and I made a decision to move to Brazil in 2003, we had two young children under the age of two. We knew it was going to be hot, but we had no idea just how difficult it was going to be for us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Don’t get me wrong; we were ready for hardship and difficulty. We were ready to suffer for Jesus. We just weren’t ready to watch our children suffer for choices we had made.

Both of my children were ill almost as soon as we arrived. And I’m not talking just a cold or a runny nose. It was often brutal vomiting and diarrhoea. In fact, on one occasion, my youngest lost half her body weight in the space of two days.

I remember turning up to the hospital with her in my arms and they had to stick a drip in her heel because she was so dehydrated. We were shoved in a room with three other children. There was mould on the floor and blood up the walls and the whole place stank of defecation. It was horrific. We hardly spoke the lingo and I had no real clue how to communicate what was wrong. When they began treatment, I couldn’t even be sure of what they were giving her. The whole thing was traumatic. I was burning with rage, fear, and frustration. Psalm 46:1–3 came to mind:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

He didn’t feel like my help and strength. And I was frightened in that stinking, third-rate hospital watching my little baby suffer unimaginably while a child on the bed next to us was screeching in pain and bleeding all over the floor.

Another time, we were at a BBQ with friends, and suddenly my eldest daughter began screaming in absolute agony. She had stumbled onto a fire ant nest and had begun playing with it because it looked a bit like a sandcastle. They were all over her, biting into almost every part of her body. I had to pick her up and throw her into a neighbour’s swimming pool.

Again, it was horrendous. As I watched her writhing in agony, completely helpless to ease her suffering, I remember thinking: What am I doing to my children? Have I put their lives in jeopardy for some romantic notion of missionary living? I remember well the many people we knew back in the UK who had gossiped behind our backs about what we were doing to our children, bringing them to such a place. What about their health? Their education? What about taking them away from their family? It was all coming back to haunt me.

I had read the missionary biographies. I thought that I was supposed to be feeling some kind of deep peace about my sense of call. I was supposed to rest in the fact of God’s providence. Well, I wasn’t feeling peace and I wasn’t feeling a deep sense of call. I was just feeling a deep sense of pain and an overwhelming desire to return home with my tail between my legs. I felt like I was abusing my children out of a sense of some personal, spiritual duty. I felt exactly as the Psalmist did in Psalm 10:1: “O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?”

I feel like I want to quote some Bible verse that came to me in those dark days. But none really did. There was just a sense of putting one foot in front of the other and hoping that things would get better as long as I kept trusting the Lord.

In our first year in Brasil, Miriam was ill, both my girls were seriously ill, and I had a life-threatening illness which resulted in my being unconscious for three days. We wanted to leave and never go back. We despised the place and its people. But we loved the Lord and we knew that even in the deepest pit of our emotions, He wanted us to be there. It was just a price we had to pay. It was part of the cost. I just didn’t realise that the cost meant everybody in my family and not just me.

Great High Priest

We can read verses like Hebrews 4:15 glibly in our culture. We read it from the safety of our modern homes and comfortable lives.

For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses. . . .

In those dark days, we remembered, somehow, that we were there because people were suffering just as we were (often worse) without Christ. Imagine that, if you can. We were traumatised, sure, but we had hope—and we had come to live among a people who had none.

If our troubles did nothing else, they gave us a profound empathy with people. They gave us a faint glimpse behind the curtain of Calvary, where Christ cried out,“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) Even more profoundly, consider how deeply the Father must have suffered to watch his Son in agony as he pursued His heavenly mission. Hebrews 4:15 came alive then, let me tell you.

God’s Fatherly Care

Then, in 2006, we moved to a housing scheme in Scotland. That brought with it a whole host of other issues related to our children. What about friends for them in a church with few or no children their own age? Wouldn’t it be easier and fairer to pastor in a church with an established children’s ministry and youth group? How about now that they’re older with no friends their own age in the church? What about schooling in an area of failing educational systems? What about role models for them? How about the fact that we can’t really let them play in the street with so many questionable (read: sex offenders) people about? We can’t let them go into certain houses we know are associated with drugs and crime. These are all big questions that need to be carefully considered.

There aren’t easy answers to these questions. We need wisdom from above. But I read these words recently, and I’ll finish with them here.

Good God, thank you that this life is not a random throw of the dice, but is watched over by your favour and Fatherly care. That’s easy to confess when the wind is at my back and the sun is on my face; give me the same trust in your will when the circumstances of life turn tragic and are tear-stained. Let me understand that, even then, I am kept by you.