Sometimes God does a better job without us

How a pastoral couple let God do the job.

Steve Allen Wright is a pseudonym. This is a true story; however, only names, places, and settings have been changed.

As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a missionary. But when the opportunity came, I felt less than enthusiastic.

Ann and I liked our two-church district, and looked forward to several more years there. Then we saw an ad in the Adventist Review for a pastor willing to serve two years in remote Jandaug in Upper Krinnaria. The small Adventist community there dwelt in high, rugged mountains, and had no airstrip. They could contact the outside world only through amateur radio, and an occasional mule caravan sent by the government.

I showed the ad to Ann.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I suppose we should be willing to go," I gulped. Things happened fast, and within six weeks we flew off to our new assignment.

Getting to Jandaug proved difficult. We spent several weeks at union head quarters, awaiting transportation.

I awoke one night filled with awe. I'd heard no voice; I'd seen no vision. But at that moment I knew the problem we'd face at Jandaug: people who'd been hand-fed by missionaries and had never learned to think or study the Bible for themselves.

Our duty seemed clear: find an anti dote for their spiritual dependency, teach them how to think as individuals, how to question life and each other, how to find their answers from the Bible. Without depending on the pastor.

Outlaws to Adventists

During our four months' waiting for transportation, we learned about the people of Jandaug. Their ancestors had been outlaws who preyed on caravan routes far to the south. They'd discovered this mountain refuge--safe from the law. As time passed, the original band fought among themselves. Nearly all died violently.

Then a Bible entered the community. The survivors found spiritual peace, and left their lives of crime. In the late 1800s a Seventh-day Adventist layman learned of the colony's existence, and put forth near-superhuman effort to reach them. He stayed only a short time, but convinced everyone to keep the Sabbath. Several years later he brought an ordained minister, who baptized every adult and organized a church.

Faith on the skids

Our caravan jogged into the village after eight days of brain-jarring, narrow mountain trails. Nearly a century had passed since the Advent message had arrived, and the purity of faith no longer flowed through their Laodicean hearts.

Why did faith go on the skids?

I found several clues. The isolated community had one church Seventh-day Adventist and the members seldom had opportunity for outreach. Faith fights uphill under "secure" circumstances. Faith degenerates into mere custom habits practiced by the group with little thought of origin or meaning.

My worst fears proved true. Religion had become merely the thing to do to the point of boredom. Few gave any thought to a personal relationship with God. They'd learned to use foul language, and their moral conduct hung by a thread. Adultery, cheating, and lying had become a way of life to some. The only real question seemed to be: "What does the pastor think?"

I eventually realized that these people didn't differ at all from others I'd pastored. But the isolation of this group, and the tiny size of the community made it possible for me to see their experience more clearly than I had elsewhere.

Great White Father syndrome

The saddest thing I witnessed involved their desire to have the pastor make all their spiritual decisions for them. Every week one person or another asked me: "What should I do in this situation?" "Is so and so doing right or wrong?" "Since God will forgive me when I ask Him, wouldn't it be all right to sin, and then ask for God's forgiveness?"

I tried to encourage them to find answers in the Bible, or reason it out for themselves. But repeatedly I saw frustration in their faces. "But Pastor," they whined, "you tell us what to do and we'll do it as with all the other pastors."

It seemed they'd never learn the joy of freedom to think and act through God's grace. I began to realize how easy it would be to give in to the "Great White Father" trap. In my isolated post, filled with zeal to save "my" people, how easy to render them spiritual slaves.

I'm sure pastors don't decide to en slave their churches. But by giving pat answers instead of teaching people to think and study Scripture for themselves, we often lead people to depend upon us instead of God.

This pastor-god complex led to a lot of confusion at Jandaug, especially in areas of practical Christianity, sometimes lumped under the term standards.

For instance: The social committee showed movies twice a week in the town hall. Since mail came only four or five times a year, film rental companies hesitated to tie up good films. So they sent only castoffs--the dregs of the industry. But the committee provided no alternative, and the community watched.

How did pastors relate? One condemned all movies as sinful, and refused to attend. (He showed Adventist movies at prayer meetings that confused the "pillars." "If movies are wrong," one observed, "they're wrong all the way.")

Another pastor attended when he felt the movie passed biblical standards. Others attended almost all movies.

Even worse, none of the pastors took the time to explain how to distinguish an acceptable movie from an objectionable one.

Teaching people to think

Before arriving at the village, Ann and I discussed my midnight impressions of Jandaug's major spiritual problem and how we might change it. We decided that our first step should be to teach them to think for themselves. Then we'd show them how to search the Bible for answers to their questions.

We chose the Sabbath school as our launching pad. We'd heard that public discussion during Sabbath school class had all but disappeared. The class had become just another sermon "usually taught by the pastor."

I politely refused. "I'm not good at teaching," I replied, truthfully. "Ann's much better. Ask her." They had no idea what we'd planned for them.

"I'm a teacher, not a preacher," Ann explained at the first class. "And in order for me to teach, you'll have to study the lesson and be prepared to answer my questions."

Ann's questions called for information--who, what, when, where, why, how--not just a yes or no. Then she waited quietly until someone answered. At first more than half of the class period passed in silence while Ann waited for people to answer questions. She'd often rephrase her inquiries to make sure the class understood. But again she'd quietly wait while restless members tried to think of something to say to break the embarrassing silence.

Months passed. "I don't think they'll ever learn," Ann wailed. But by the end of her first year we began to see results. The mountaineers were starting to answer her questions and occasionally add comments of their own.

While Ann taught the class she also instructed me in how to teach. So at the end of our first year I took the class to give it a different voice. Ann counseled me how to continue her teaching plan. Discussion became livelier. At times villagers asked their own questions-- which I reflected back for the class to answer. People read their Bibles with new understanding--because they were now thinking about what they read and applying it to their own lives.

Teaching people to teach

The second step in our "think for yourself plan involved training the mountaineers to teach the class them selves. We knew this might prove difficult, because they often shied away from public exposure.

God's Spirit impressed three women to teach, but they agreed to teach only on a rotating basis. They wanted me to teach three Sabbaths, and then one of them would take the fourth. Then I'd teach three more, and the second would take her turn.

Not much, I felt. Each teacher had only one class a quarter. But it was progress.

We planned to meet every Thursday at my house for teachers' class. The person scheduled to teach on Sabbath would lead the discussion, and the others would help plan the presentation.

I had been ill for two months, and the small dispensary at Jandaug lacked the lab equipment to make an accurate diagnosis. So mission headquarters decided to search for a caravan to take me out for hospital treatment.

On Friday morning, after our first teachers' class, an unannounced caravan hobbled into town. The lead driver agreed to take me out, but he couldn't stay long. "Every minute of idle time costs me dearly," he said.

As our string of animals wound around the last curve, I wondered, "Lord, why am I leaving now, just when we're beginning to see fruitage?"

I did not return for four months. During that time little news leaked out, and none of it mentioned Sabbath school. So when a caravan finally returned me to the village, as I embraced Ann I asked: "What about the class?"

"Wait and see," she said, a twinkle in her eye.

One of the teachers approached me as villagers unloaded cargo. "Will you be wanting to teach this Sabbath?"

I guessed she had the job. "No," I replied. "Give me time to get settled."

On Sabbath the woman taught with grace as if she'd been teaching all her life. I could scarcely contain my joy! I
soon discovered that the others had developed equally.

"What happened?" I wondered. But I knew the answer already. God accomplished in my absence what might never have happened had I remained. Those people had depended so much on their pastor that God needed to remove him so they'd realize He could work through them, too.

Hard lessons

I learned three humbling but important lessons during my short term among those gentle people:

1. If people depend on their pastor to identify right and wrong without studying Scripture and praying for themselves, then they worship the pastor rather than God. And pastors make a god of themselves when they fail to show their people how to
establish a personal relationship with God.

2. God works in ways of which we'd never dream. We often magnify our importance in the missions to which God calls us. But our presence and work may be for our benefit or merely circumstantial.

3. Further, God may not be able to do all He wants to do in our presence. He may have to remove us from the scene in order to accomplish His will.

A pastor's prayer

So whatever position we hold in God's
vineyard, we need to pray daily, hourly:

May I be
willing to work,
willing to be used—even
willing to sit on the sidelines.
Whatever will bring Jesus back...

May I be
willing to do it.


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Steve Allen Wright is a pseudonym. This is a true story; however, only names, places, and settings have been changed.

September 1995

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