The Slow Path to Deep Transformation: Developing Leaders in a Closed Country

26 Jul


“Go slow to go fast.”

When it comes to the deep, transformative work of God, this old saying is rock-solid. While sometimes the work of missionaries is thrilling, filled with exciting stories of change and progress, other times it is a slow process, more of an endurance race than a sprint.

Making disciples and developing them as leaders who will transform their cultures can be like running a marathon. Effective mission often requires perseverance and faith to believe in the unseen work of God in the hidden places of the heart.

We desire to see all peoples come to know Jesus in a transformative way. So when necessary, we go slow to go fast. The wait is worth it, because transformed lives lead to transformed nations.

We recently heard from one of our long-term staff in a restricted access nation—a nation with limited resources for spiritual growth. He had encountered a large “hole” in the spiritual development of the leaders in that country. This hole left most leaders without personal experience of the love God had for them, and unequipped to respond to the living Word of God in their lives.

In an effort to fill the hole, this staff member embarked on a long and surprising journey, one that required patience, vision, and a willingness to take risks. Here is his story...

Entry 1: March 2010

I’ve spent more than a decade in [this closed country], and the Church does discipleship, evangelism and church planting really well. The Church has taken off, exploded, over the years. But investing in the deep spiritual health of leaders seems to be an area of need. This is a big deal because as the leadership goes, so often goes the Church. Too often, following Jesus is not resulting in deep heart-level change.

One challenge we face is that believers here really love the classroom, the academic side of things. When they think of someone advancing in their spirituality, they think, “I need to go to more classes. I need to do more homework. I need to listen to more lectures.”

I’m happy for them to get that academic support, but I know it’s not all they need to be spiritually healthy and it probably won’t produce real lasting transformation. By this I mean transformation that turns lives upside-down, that carries the power of God’s Kingdom, and has capacity to change the structures of society. It all starts with the heart.

So I’m faced with a puzzle: How do we invite the church in [this restricted nation] to move beyond their intellectual, academic pursuit of God, into the deep transformation of personally knowing and becoming like Jesus?

Entry 2: July 2014

As I grapple with this question of how to invite local believers into transformational interactions with God, I’ve been considering the writings of Henri Nouwen. Part of his significant contribution in spiritual formation came after he began to live among the marginalized, the physically handicapped and mentally challenged. It was out of that communal time that he really began to connect the dots, and connect with God in deeper ways.

Is there a way for the marginalized here—perhaps the homeless or human trafficking victims—to have a voice into the urban church, particularly in the area of spiritual formation? Could the same experiences that made Henri Nouwen’s words so compelling, powerfully move believers here?

Entry 3: March 2015

It’s time to try something new. We’re going to run a series of spiritual retreats, focused on those who are working with the deaf and orphans, women who have been the victims of trafficking, migrant pastors, migrant workers, and the homeless. We’ll go through simple exercises that involve listening to the LORD and meditative readings. We want them to personally experience renewal and refreshment, and learn to personally hear God’s voice.

But I’m not sure it’s going to work. Will God show up in a powerful way? Or will the old hierarchies and fear of vulnerability take over?

Entry 4: May 2015

At this past retreat we had two groups together, a group of men that were pastors serving the migrant communities, and a group of women that had come out of trafficking and prostitution. There was tension at the start of the retreat, with the gender and social dynamics that were going on.

It wasn’t a smooth retreat, with the local police spontaneously visiting the second day, but people engaged the LORD and there was a general trajectory of experiencing God. We wanted to end the retreat with communion. Since communion can be an opportunity to receive God’s healing and forgiveness, and help to mend broken relationships, I wanted to open that possibility for these two groups. In my introduction to communion I indirectly pointed out that there were some women in the room who had been hurt by men. I challenged the male pastors in the room, “What would it look like to be agents of God’s healing and forgiveness by serving the women communion?”

It didn’t go at all as I expected. The migrant pastors quickly picked up the bread and juice and served each other. They served me and the other facilitator. And they served the other urban church leaders who were there as well. They didn’t serve the women.

When they sat back in their seats, there was a sombre moment. In my head I was saying, “Wow, it’s really hard to cross these lines. OK. Let’s not be too critical of these guys, because this is a big challenge. But what happens now?”

And then God broke through in an amazing way.

The women saw what happened. They felt the stigma. They stood up and walked to the communion table. And then the women served the pastors. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Men in this culture don’t cry, they just don’t. Eyes will water, but even with the death of a spouse or a child, it’s very rare that the tears flow. And with a couple of the men the tears were just flowing down.

I think we all realized that when you’ve been forgiven a lot, you love a lot. And I think that’s what was being experienced in that room at that time. These women had learned to forgive and love on such a deep level through the pain they’d experienced, that being treated in a dishonoring way did not stop them from loving the people in front of them. They embodied the gracious love of Jesus for each of the pastors—an unconditional love that these pastors needed to experience in a fresh way.

We went to lunch to wrap up the retreat, and the laughter and the relationships, the talking and camaraderie at the table was just unbelievable, stuff that hadn’t happened all week. It was like a sledgehammer had hit the ice of our hearts. And on the two hour ride back into town, the opposite happened. It was dead quiet—but not an awkward silence. It was the silence of just having experienced something holy, the silence of awe.

Entry 5: February 2016

All together, we had five retreats last year, with some new participants, and some repeats. There have been ups and downs. It’s not like everything’s been fine and great after God broke through on that first retreat. But generally speaking, I see a huge deepening and awareness in the participants of experiencing God’s voice, and experiencing his love in their lives. What’s more, they’re taking these exercises back into their contexts, using them with the marginalized populations they’re working with.

Another powerful moment for me on retreat was seeing a homeless man leading a very poor, semi-illiterate village woman through a listening prayer exercise, helping her to hear God’s voice. Just unbelievable to see that happen. And the phenomenal thing was that urban church leaders were in the room with tears flowing down—talk about having your academic view of God shifted!

I feel like we’re still learning, but we’re stepping into the “Upside-Down Kingdom” that Jesus proclaimed—that knowing God is not dependent on education or academics, that leadership is not dependent on social standing, and that his love is truly unconditional.

This experience has been like Jesus coming to the wedding banquet, saying, “Hey everyone, come to the wedding, I’d love to have you come.” And nobody comes. And so he’s saying, “Well OK, let’s go to the streets, and let’s bring in people from the streets to the banquet table.” And as those street people come to the banquet, the celebration of new life in God’s Kingdom, I think that’s where the other aspects of society and community really begin to get changed.

We are seeing the seeds of transformation hidden in the hearts of these hidden believers. As I witness them responding to the living voice of God in their lives, and teaching others to do the same, I know the risk, the tension, the waiting to see what will emerge, is all worth it. God is showing up, and his followers here are learning to pay attention.


“BROTHER MARK” lives in Asia with his wife, three boys and their pug dog. His work centers on strategic leadership development of believers to become passionate disciples of Jesus who will multiply their impact, and the mentoring of leaders to pioneer new ground in restricted access areas.

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