No Reputation

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Our church planting team in Lilongwe, Malawi, November 2005.

In November 2006 we moved to Malawi with our family to plant a new church in Lilongwe, Malawi. Why Lilongwe? We aren’t sure except we had a peace to move to that city. We knew no one, had nowhere to live, we only had the assurance that we were supposed to be in Lilongwe to plant a church.

At the time, we had 4 other churches in Africa: 2 in Burundi, 1 in DRC, and another in Zambia. The Lilongwe plant made 5 churches total for us. This work wasn’t new to me; I had been a missionary/church planter/relief worker since 1984 but the wonder of seeing a church born hadn’t left me. What a miracle to see something that will effect eternity be born – that still makes me stop and smile. Why would God choose us? Who are we? I’m still not sure, but I’m glad we are here, I’m glad we obeyed.

It may sound a bit romantic, planting a church where there was none before. It may also sound a bit foolish, what guarantees would there be of a successful church plant? What would we do if no one wanted to join our intrepid band of church planters, i.e., our family? Those thoughts have never played much of a role in my mind. I have always been convinced of the fact that if God sent me somewhere, He would make the work successful – the onus for success is on Him. Learning to think like this has been a journey as in our success-driven world today it’s easy to allow ourselves to fall into the trap of performance-driven agendas rather than God-agendas.

Don’t be mistaken, I have had those seasons that didn’t turn out as I thought they would, those, “What was that all about?” seasons. You know, you have had them too I’m sure. When those times roll around, the best thing to do is look up and say, “Take over Lord, I sure don’t know what’s going on!” It may be that some of those experiences we have to leave in the Lord’s hands and move forward – what’s the option? Living in regret? When we’ve done our all – that’s all we can do, then, we move forward in faith and let the thoughts of “what will everyone think” fall away.

“Nobody who ever gave their best regretted it.” George Halas

Jesus didn’t waste His life trying to build His reputation; He spent His life building His Father’s reputation (Phil. 2:5,6). He knew where He stood with His Father, but for some reason, He thought we were worth emptying Himself of His identity so we could take on His. How can I possibly think I have amounted to anything on my own when my redemption cost the life of the Son of God?

He also knew that people were as unpredictable as the wind – their opinions change from one day to the next. Usually, it seems, favor for Jesus will follow the winds of what feels good (healing, prosperity, popularity) but the moment a challenge is made, when people have to stand up for the unpopular, and a line is drawn, opinions about Him change.

John 2:23-25 ESV Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

This verse was written at a time that came on the heels of the miracle at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and the cleansing of the temple of moneychangers and those selling animals there for profit. He knew that those who praised His miracle at the wedding would be the same ones bitterly complaining over His acts at the temple. The same holds true today: people will quickly praise you for doing things that require no change on their part, as with those at the wedding. When Jesus changed the water into wine, people were amazed and pleased! No one spent money, everyone had a good time – nothing was required of them. However, when He found people using the temple incorrectly, He drove them out. I wonder what rumors were circulating around the city the next day.

They say, whoever they are, that with age comes wisdom. Wisdom, as I understand it, is correctly applying truth to our lives and it only makes sense that we gain some wisdom as the years go by. If the story of the temple cleansing were to take place today, we, the followers of Christ, would form a committee and find a way to persuade everyone to leave without offending anyone – which is impossible and would result in nothing getting done for the sake of pleasing people.

Godly wisdom operates on another plane that oftentimes goes cross grain with our hopes and dreams for popularity and a “good reputation.” Jesus was, and is, a figure Whose love is amazing and calls us to live lives of “no reputation” just as He did.

None of our church plants have been a result of church splits; they were birthed in prayer from nothing. They all began obscurely, without much ado. We walked the streets, visited homes, ran classes, hosted weekend encounter retreats, started feeding programs and, in time, released these churches to our national pastors so we could go and plant more.

Yes, there is a kind of romance to seeing a new church born from nothing – and now, years later when we go to visit the churches in Lilongwe (and elsewhere) our hearts melt when we see familiar faces who began the journey with us. This coming weekend, April 30th another church will be born in the suburbs of the city and our hearts are full with excitement for church #12 to be born. I realized we had done our job when I said to my husband earlier today that he should go for the weekend (we’re only 5 hours away by car from Lilongwe) and he replied, “No, they don’t need me.” Yes, the local pastors and leaders can get the job done, they really don’t need us there and this is what we have worked for – not being needed.

That’s a bit of an uncomfortable place to be – not being needed. We are welcomed and wanted, but that’s different from being needed. When my children started leaving the nest, I found it difficult not to be needed. Wanted, yes, but they no longer needed me to survive. They had sprouted wings and were flying – I wasn’t about to clip them!

Of all the places we have served, we’ve never been privileged to see the full development of the work. After we leave, buildings, other church plants, and other activities begin. To be honest, I sometimes wish I were the one allowed to stay and see the fruit and growth – but that’s not what has been on our journey thus far – maybe someday though! The reputation belongs to the Lord and not to us. We’ve built for others to enjoy after us.

So, bring it on, I’ll give my best. What matters most is succeeding at what He has called us to do and not worry about reputation. God’s opinion, after all, is what matters.

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn’t really matter.” Dwight Moody

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