Putting First Things Last
Being the first missionary to do something on the field must be a great sell. Otherwise, why would there be so many firsts?
A few years ago, I heard claims from several groups who had traveled to the same rural location independent of each other. Each group claimed to be the first Western Christian group to visit the village. Perhaps this is what they had been told by residents, but it couldn't have been true for all of them, and it may not have been true for any of them. I've been noticing all kinds of "first" claims--the first Christian broadcast or station or book or missionary or church to go to a particular audience.
Being first sounds good, but that's about it. How do people really know that something they are doing has never been done before? I sometimes wonder if, when enthusiastic nationals tell enthusiastic Westerners that something they are doing is a first, do they really mean that it is the first time that such an event has taken place in their life experience? Or maybe they mean that this is a time period of firsts in post-Soviet religious life, so everything that happens is sort of a first. But being "sort of" first doesn't make sense, and doesn't have much appeal to our egos, not to mention supporting friends and churches.
Yet we long to measure ministry in some way. We don't want to say that we are the best. That would be boasting, and a more obviously difficult assertion to prove than being first. So the next trick is to clarify the "first" event. For example, let's say a Protestant claims to be the first Christian missionary in a region. It may seem true and it may even be what people have said. But just to be safe, to avoid presuming that an earlier Orthodox or Catholic presence "doesn't count," qualify the claim by saying the first Protestant missionary. Other safer superlatives would be "the first missionary in this century," or "the first modern missionary," or--the safest and vaguest claim of all--"the first ministry of its kind in country x or y or city z."
We would all do well to remember that being first says nothing about quality or effectiveness. Does being first really validate work? Why not focus communications on matters of the heart and specific people being helped? This approach may lead you to a place where with a certain amount of confidence you can share legitimate personal firsts--the first time a person ever received a gift with no strings attached, the first time a specific person ever read a Gospel, or the first time a person ever considered that Christianity might be true.
People love stories. I have a suspicion that's one of the reasons why Jesus told so many of them. The writers of the New Testament could have filled their books with firsts?first appearance of angels to shepherds, first water-to-wine miracle, first boy's lunch that feeds thousands, first stoning of Christian missionary, first persecutor converted to Christ. For some reason, that wasn't their focus. And when it comes to defining and communicating our work, it shouldn't be ours.
I realize there are times when reporting a "first" is valid, but how do we verify such a claim against a thousand years of history? When something truly miraculous and historic takes place, even when it is a legitimate "first," no one has to point it out. For its recipients, God's saving grace and mercy is always fresh, firsthand, and, to be sure, a first. The miracle is that it happens at all and that it happens all the time in little and big ways.
As I witness the twists and turns of both history and Christianity in lands formerly dominated by Soviet Communism, I conclude that God's children are often vessels that don't even know what they're holding or for what purpose they contain it. I sometimes think God keeps such knowledge from us to keep us from getting big heads. Alas, our heads get big anyway. We mistakenly conclude that all we perceive as truth in the world will ultimately be revealed as truth. When the glass goes from dark to light, there will be surprises for all of us. When we find ourselves in that light, we may be embarrassed to discover that our claims of being first are not only false, but that the energy we put into making such claims only served to keep us from what God really intended us to be--His servants, more concerned with people in need than our need to be first.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies