How do you train others to feed themselves?

This blog series has been sidelined as we have been out of town for most of the past 4 weeks. But I do not want to leave this topic of self-feeding without addressing the question of how we can equip others to become self-feeders. In my first post on this topic, I asked the question, “Who feeds the missionaries spiritually?” Despite the value of various member care initiatives, we cannot avoid the simple conclusion that our missionaries must learn to feed themselves. The second post looked at Biblical examples and Biblical support for the concept of self-feeding. It is not just an outgrowth of Western individualism. In the third post, we clarified what self-feeding actually entails, and talked about taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual nourishment, planning ahead and developing rhythms.

Now as a missionary trainer, I realize that just writing about these concepts or even explaining them clearly in our pre-field training does not automatically translate into life transformation in the lives of our missionaries.  If only it was so easy!

I am deeply encouraged as I spend time with fellow missionaries, and noticed intentional initiatives to feed themselves.  The last few weeks have been no exception.   I have seen them taking time at the beginning of a busy day to read the Word and pray. I heard them share fresh things that God is teaching them from the Word. A young mother passionately speaks about her love for the Scriptures. Another young missionary family still learning the language sits down in their living room with their two toddlers on Sunday evenings, and listens to a recording of one of a message from their home church.

But I also hear missionaries admit that they have gone for long periods of time without reading their Bible for personal nourishment more than once or twice a week. Well over half of our new missionaries in our pre-field training program admit that they are not at all consistent in their personal devotional habits.  This greatly concerns me, although I am grateful that our new missionaries are so transparent about where they are struggling.  Maybe just as many missionaries of my generation were inconsistent in their spiritual disciplines when they began their missionary careers but they just never told anyone.

But given what we now know, we, as a training department, have decided that spiritual formation is of utmost importance in our pre-field training programs. We seek to equip new missionaries for effective transition into fruitful cross-cultural ministry first of all, by fostering within them a commitment to the regular practice of nurturing their relationship with God. Our #1 desired outcome for these new missionaries is that during the duration of the Member Orientation Program, they will “review healthy habits for spiritual growth and practice spiritual disciplines that will sustain them in the context of spiritual warfare, cross cultural stress and the day-to-day sacrifices of missionary life.”

So back to our question.   How do we train missionaries to feed themselves?  I think our best model trainer is our Lord.   His disciples were no spiritual giants or prayer warriors when he first selected them.   But their ministries and the church they founded are characterized by a devotion to the Word and prayer (Acts 2:42, 6:2-4).  They obviously learned to feed themselves – as well as others – during those three years with Jesus. How did Jesus teach his disciples to spend time in prayer and in the Word?  

  1. Model it — Over and over again, Jesus demonstrated his dependence on his regular communion with his Heavenly Father.  He regularly spent extended times in prayer, often alone (Luke 5:16, 6:12), but sometimes in the presence of his disciples (Luke 9:18).  It was after Jesus had spent time praying that his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1).   During the night that he was betrayed, the disciples, despite being so sleepy that they could not pray themselves, noticed how fervently Jesus  prayed so that his sweat fell like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).  As Dallas Willard so powerfully argued in “The Spirit of the Disciplines“, Jesus gave them not only a faith to believe but also a lifestyle model to follow.   Christ had developed disciplined practices that kept him constantly in fellowship with his Heavenly Father and we as his disciples are expected to emulate his lifestyle, not only believe his words.   As recorded in Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, this missionary statesman’s children recalled how deeply they were impacted by their father’s commitment to spending time with God.   On overnight trips in China, they would see him get up for two hours in the middle of the night to spend uninterrupted time in the Word and prayer while everyone else was sleeping.
  2. Give them supervised opportunities to practice what they had observed — In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus went off to pray, but he asked his disciples to also spend time in prayer.   He did not invite them to pray together with him, but rather encouraged them to pray by themselves.  Then he came back to check up on them to see how they were doing.   They failed miserably (they all fell asleep).  But within 40 days, in the upper room after the Ascension, we find them “constantly in prayer.”   (Acts 1:14).   In our pre-field training, we not only talk about the spiritual disciplines; we practice them right in the classroom.
  3. Tell them what is at stake — In the garden, Jesus twice tells his disciples to pray “so that you will not fall into temptation”  (Luke 22:40, 46).   In Mark and Matthew, He gives a further reason for the critical necessity of prayer, “for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”  (Mark 14:38).  The subsequent events suggest that if the disciples had been praying, they would have stood strong in the face of the temptation to deny Christ at His arrest.
  4. Give them a simple structure — When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in Luke 11, he gives them a very simple model.  The Lord’s prayer, as we call it, has amazing depth, but its structure is not complex.   One of our new missionaries told me that what they needed more than anything to become consistent in their devotional habits was some type of structure.   For this reason, we encourage our missionaries to use the Life Journal with its Bible reading plan and SOAP journalling method.
  5. Use stories and analogies to illustrate the concept — Stories capture attention and are easier to remember than lectures or commands.  Jesus’ parable about the sower (Luke 8:1-15) taught the disciples the importance of hearing and clinging to the Word.  His parables about the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5-10) and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) taught them to always pray and not give up.
  6. Commend those who prioritize self-feeding — In every Member Orientation Program, my colleague, Carl Kresge, tells the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him (Luke 10:38-42).  We find this story is a powerful way of illustrating the critical priority of investing time in fellowship with our Lord.  Jesus makes sure that Martha and his disciples recognize that Mary’s choice to spend time with her Master was not wasted time, and in fact, was a better use of time than what her sister Martha had chosen to do in preparing a big meal for Jesus.   Jesus shows by word and example that ministry opportunities (serving Christ) must not supersede spending time in intimate communion with Christ.  We want to make sure that our missionaries never feel guilty for spending extended times in prayer and the Word when they could be doing ministry.  
  7. Demonstrate how much these disciplines have impacted your life — Jesus drew his strength and wisdom from his intimate relationship and fellowship with his Father.  Prior to critical decisions, he prayed (Luke 6:12).   When everyone wanted to speak to him, he prayed and established fresh priorities (Mark 1:35-36).   Before he asked a critical question of his disciples, he prayed (Luke 9:18).   He knew that the Father always heard him (John 11:41-42).  He was confident that he always did what the Father commanded him to do (John 14:30).   The impact of this uninterrupted intimate fellowship on his life and ministry was supremely evident.  His wisdom, his joy, his confidence and his holiness were unparalleled.   At times, the disciples could even witness a visible external transformation of their Master while he was in communion with the Father.  Luke records that while Jesus was praying in the presence of Peter, James and John, his face and clothing was transfigured (Luke 9:28-29).  As he wrestled in prayer prior to his crucifixion, apparently the disciples saw an angel appear to him to strengthen him (Luke 22:43). 
Can you think of other ways that Jesus taught his disciples to prioritize the spiritual disciplines?   Please add your comments below.
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