Serving side by side: how missionaries and local church leaders work together

Pastor Jack and his wife Debra have served God full-time for 27 years in Taiwan. In 2011, they moved to Taiping, Taiwan’s second-largest city and home to 2.82 million people, to start a new church. Jack comes from a working-class background and Debra cares deeply for disadvantaged people. So, they started a church that provides a community service for these groups. They have worked with several cross-cultural workers, most recently, OMF worker Sarah Melbourne.

Sarah headed to Taiwan from Scotland in February 2018. After completing full-time language study in February 2020, she moved to part-time language study, while serving in Pastor Jack’s church.

So while some OMF workers do help lead churches, Sarah is one of many OMF workers serving under local leadership in East Asia. We chatted to Pastor Jack and Sarah about the opportunities and challenges of serving together in this way:

Pastor Jack:

What are the benefits of having a foreign cross-cultural worker join your ministry?

‘We are a small church, so having another full-time co-worker means a lot to us. We also have lots of youth in our church. Sarah was a teacher and is gifted with youth work. She is young, kind and gets along very well with the youth. Our church is an outward looking church, so having cross-cultural workers among [us] made a good impact on us.’

Have you experienced any difficulties?

‘The main difficulty we have is when cross-cultural workers can’t find their niche, and don’t know how to integrate with the church members. In the past this led to difficulties with communication. Sarah is a very proactive person. She is committed to getting involved with the ministries she is gifted in and so has found her place among the church members. Her Mandarin is good despite only being in Taiwan for a few years but at times her language is still limited. She is, however, willing to share with us her struggles. Because of her willingness to open herself up, we have been able to get to know her better and are able to help her when it’s necessary.’

What would you suggest to any local pastors who are considering having foreign cross-cultural workers?

‘Don’t ask the cross-cultural workers to get involved with ministries when they first come. Let them spend the first three or six months just joining the church and attending the meetings. This would give them time to get to know the church and build up relationships with the co-workers and church members. Let them observe the church and find out where they could use their gifts to serve within the church. It’s important to build up relationships before serving together. Serving together with one heart and one mind is very important. Pray together and spend time getting to know each other. Rather than focus on service, focus on relationships to make ministry more effective in the long run.’

Sarah:

What are some of the advantages of working under local leaders?

Growing an understanding of the Church in Taiwan, the challenges it faces and how they deal with these. This will be an advantage in my future ministry as I seek to build relationships with the Taiwanese working class. This experience has helped me to become more sensitive to cultural differences. For example, the way prayer meetings are held. In the West, a lot of churches sit very quietly for prayer, but my Taiwanese Church tends to all pray at once. Cultural issues have made me think about what I am willing to sacrifice from my own culture and what is core to my faith.

Often there is time spent before the meetings for everyone to exchange news, concerns and generally talk about families. Meetings sometimes take more time and, unlike some church meetings in the West, are less focused on programmes, more on relationship. I am beginning to see the strengths of doing meetings a different way.

My close connection with a church also means that I have a place to invite people to and know that the local church can form relationships with my non-Christian friends when I leave.

What are some of the challenges in going to work in a local church under local leaders compared to working in a team of cross-cultural workers?

There is always the challenge of communication. My Chinese is still improving ; listening to more than two people speak at once is difficult. It is hard to fully understand a conversation when you only pick up half the meaning of sentences.

There are moments when culture as well as the language is the issue. I’ve been asked questions about certain things a lot more directly than I would expect in the UK. A lot of the time I find this more amusing than offensive! I think a lot of the challenges cross-cultural workers encounter in a local church come from our own church expectations and background. Learning to be flexible and let the little things go, is key.

What have you learnt from working with a Taiwanese leader?

To think before we judge a situation. It’s easy to look at something through our own eyes and see only what we are pre-programmed to see. Letting some things go, is key. With that I’ve come to appreciate the value of different ways of doing things. When dealing with difficult issues in the congregation, the church leaders first instinct seems to be in showing people the love of God rather than finding fault with their behaviour or beliefs. I think this comes from the cultural value of not wanting to make people lose face and so embarrass or scare them away from the church. I’ve seen a lot of grace and mercy exercised towards the people the church is reaching; there is much wisdom in considering how people hear the message we’re trying to send.

I have seen how much they value the church being a family and they have really tried to take me in as a sister. They have shown interest in my life and family, especially during the pandemic. They have been endlessly patient with me when I’ve misunderstood something and are very quick to forgive mistakes (or laugh at language mistakes). So, I’ve learned from and also been very blessed by my church family here.