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January 09, 2013

Locally Grown: Go Into Your World

By Martha Stoltzfus

Editor’s note: Martha Stoltzfus lives in Jackson, Kentucky. When she heard about RMM’s efforts to help CMC churches engage in local outreach, she sent us this interview of a man from her community who is committed to sharing his faith with those around him.

Ray Mullins and his wife Judy live on Turners Creek, in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where they attend Turners Creek Mennonite Church. Ray is not a preacher or a missionary. However, he takes very seriously his responsibility to proclaim the gospel to his world, which consists of his small community and anyone he meets while on the job. Recently I talked with Ray about his witnessing.

Tell me about your job.

I work for Empire Gas Company, hauling and servicing gas in several counties. And I install gas appliances in houses. I’ve worked for Empire since 1985. It’s a full time job and sometimes I’m on call.

I understand you do lots of witnessing on the job. Why?

It’s my reasonable service. And it’s such a blessing. I meet all kinds of people. Some are Christians; I encourage them. Some are lost. I tell them how good Jesus is, and that they need to be born again. We can do nothing to repay Jesus for what He’s done for us, but we can witness.

How do you know who to witness to and what to say?

Oh, the Holy Spirit. He lets us know where we are needed and what to say. I want to do what I can. Every morning before I go to work, I ask the Lord to use me, and then I look for people who need a word. Once I was making a delivery and I felt the unction of the Holy Spirit telling me to go to Morgan County to see some of my customers. They didn’t need any gas, this was not on my schedule, and it was 25 miles out of my way. But after work I went without question. The lady came to the door and I knew something was wrong. Her husband had died just several days before and she was all tore up. I was able to sit with her and cry with her and sing and comfort her. You know the Bible says to mourn with those who mourn and laugh with those who laugh. And if we do it for “the least of these,” we do it for Jesus.

Did you ever receive a special call from the Lord to witness?

When the Lord saved me, he told me to smile and to sing. People ask me if I’m a preacher, because I get so happy and excited when I witness. The Lord hasn’t “called” me to preach, but if he did, he would put the words in my mouth, like the Bible says. When I witness, I’ll ease into the subject. Once I was talking with a 93-year-old woman and I asked her what life was like when she was young. Then I asked her if she was a Christian, and a big smile came over her face. That was such a blessing! If a man likes to fish, we’ll talk fishing. Then I’ll say, “Jesus called fishermen to be his disciples.” Witnessing is just my reasonable service. People need to know about Jesus. “Whosoever will, let them come.”

Do you have any special training to witness or to preach?

No. No. No. If we have a willingness, he’ll use us. Offer yourself as a living sacrifice.

Does your boss allow you to talk about Jesus on the job?

“We ought to obey God rather than man.” But I try to please her and do my work faithfully, so she doesn’t object when I have a few minutes to witness. She is a nice lady but is all business. Because of the way the economy is, sometimes I worry about my job; will I get laid off? But the Lord will take care of me. By his grace I’ll make it.

Have you experienced ridicule and rejection when you try to witness?

I have, but not a lot. I say a little prayer under my breath, “Lord, use me and you deal with them.” I don’t get mad; I just get sad. The saddest thing in the world is when people reject Jesus, when they refuse the gift of salvation.

What part does prayer have in your witnessing?

A lot. Whatever we pray for, he will give. When I ask God to use me, never doubting, I have confidence he will. He has often delivered me from dangerous situations. Once I was delivering gas to a house up on a bank just above the railroad track. I parked the truck, pulled the emergency brake and placed blocks behind the wheels. But it wasn’t enough. While I was pumping gas, the truck slowly slid down the bank and stopped just two feet from the track. Then I heard a train coming. There was nothing I could do but watch that train go by, and pray. The Lord delivered us that day from a disaster. The only damage was a big hole in the truck’s bumper where the car’s “guns” slammed against the bumper!

The Lord told you to smile and to sing. Do you ever use songs as a tool for witnessing?

Yes! I actually sing, or just say the words. One of my favorite songs is, “Some through the water, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood.” Then I say, “If I don’t get out of this “holler” tonight, I know I’ve got a better place to go.” Then I’ll tell them about the blood of Jesus, to save and protect. One evening at home, I was watching a local Christian TV program. The preacher said, “There is a woman in our local hospital (he said her name) who is very sick and isn’t saved. Someone needs to talk to her.” Immediately I thought, I’ll go tomorrow. But the Holy Spirit said, “You need to go now.” So I got up from the couch where I was resting, and went. The nurse took me right to her bed and woke her. She was very weak and heavily sedated. I said, “Are you a Christian?” She shook her head. “Do you want to be a Christian?” She said “Yes.” She prayed the sinner’s prayer with me. I couldn’t understand all of it, but God did. Then she relaxed and was so peaceful. Two days later she died.

What word do you have for the church to encourage us to witness more?

Well, you know, just witnessing doesn’t make you a better Christian. But it’s such a blessing! And it’s our reasonable service. Some church people are too comfortable; they don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. But the Lord won’t send you anywhere without preparing the way. Jesus Christ is what it’s all about.


The Man Who Influenced a Generation

“Why did you go to Latin America?”

I was sitting with a group of 50-60 former RMM workers in Latin America who had gathered for a reunion this past summer. During the 1960s, 70s, and into the early 80s, RMM sent dozens of young adults as Voluntary Service workers to Latin America. Here they were, decades later, gathering again with friends with whom they shared some common threads in the tapestries of their lives.

They shared lots of old stories, spoke (and sung) lots of Spanish, and laughed a lot. This particular evening, group moderators Nelson and Carol Martin asked them to reflect on their own distinct reasons for going to Nicaragua or Costa Rica as young adults. He assured them that he wasn’t necessarily looking for spiritual answers to that question, though of course those reasons were welcomed.

One by one, they shared their stories—stories that involved a range of factors like parental expectations, desire for adventure, and peer influence. Some stories were quite dramatic, others were less so. After all who cared to had shared, one of the moderators asked another simple question.

“How many of you were tapped on the shoulder by Mark Peachey?” (By the 1960s, RMM needed its first full-time administrator, and Mark Peachey was the energetic visionary who stepped into that role.)

I was amazed as I saw hands go up all across the room—it must have been half or even three quarters of the group that responded. Some of them went on to tell of Mark’s tenacity. He wasn’t timid about sharing what he believed to be God’s plan for the next few years of their lives. I got the impression that Mark seldom took “no” for an answer, at least not the first time.

I don’t know why, but for some reason we don’t seem to be tapping people on the shoulder anymore like Mark Peachey did in his generation. Sure, it happens sometimes, but I’m pretty sure the current generation of young adults in our churches won’t be able to point to one person who had so strong an influence in getting them exposed to missions.

Are young adults less open to that kind of input in their lives? I doubt it. The ones I know are wrestling with the same kinds of life decisions I did at that age. Are older adults less confident to initiate those conversations with younger people? Has career counseling gotten so complex that we leave it to professionals?

I believe God is still calling young adults to missions, both long term and short term. And I believe there is still a place for humble and discerning—yet bold—“shoulder-tapping.” I for one want to learn from Mark Peachey’s example.

We welcome your comments on this subject.


January 07, 2013

Wait, CMC Has a Missions Agency?

By Andrew Sharp
From the January 2013 Beacon

Does Rosedale Mennonite Missions still matter to the Conservative Mennonite Conference churches? Since RMM is the official missions agency of the conference, the obvious answer should be yes. But in recent years leaders in CMC and at RMM have noted what they feel is a growing disconnect between the churches of the conference and their long-time missions agency.

After years of working primarily in Latin America, RMM dramatically shifted focus around the turn of the millennium with a fresh vision to go to people in parts of the world where few if any are followers of Jesus. “Our shift was driven by what we understood to be a call from CMC,” RMM President Joe Showalter said. But there are indications of a lack of unity in that vision. The number of RMM missionaries has been slowly declining, while people from CMC churches continue to go into mission assignments all over the world, independently or through other mission agencies.

Paul Kurtz, who serves as director of RMM’s Rosedale Business Group, said he has noticed this phenomenon when he goes to speak at churches. He will talk about RMM’s work and invite the congregation to join it. Then in the lobby afterward, he will see information about all the missionaries the church is supporting. There is all kinds of good missions work going on, he said, it’s just not happening through RMM.

To try to bring the agency back into close partnership with its churches, RMM leadership has launched a new initiative they are calling Operation Birthright. It might sound like a new American military campaign in the Middle East, but the name actually comes from Psalm 2:8: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance [birthright], the ends of the earth your possession.” The idea, according to Showalter, is that missions is the birthright of the local church—that the churches have the right and the privilege to take the gospel to the nations, and that they may have outsourced that privilege to RMM as an agency. RMM board chair Mel Shetler, from Goshen, Indiana, noted that the different agencies of CMC had separately arrived at the belief that they need to focus on the local church.

So Operation Birthright aims to restore a faltering connection between the churches and their missions agency, partly by examining the fundamental way the relationship has been working and see if it can be changed to give churches a greater share in the responsibility. Doing that kind of overhaul with 110 churches all at once could be a daunting task, so the RMM board asked for approval from the CMC Executive Board and ministers for a plan to pursue Operation Birthright with a pilot group of churches. These churches would be made up of the churches attended by RMM board members. The CMC board and ministers approved this idea.

To start the process, the RMM board members brought pastors and others from their churches along to the November board meeting to help brainstorm what Operation Birthright could look like.

Restoring Connection

Church representatives, board members
and RMM staff talk over lunch during the board meetings.
Making stronger connections sounds like a great idea, but actually doing that is a little more complicated. Those in attendance at the board meeting had to wrestle with what the realignment should look like, and what it should accomplish.

Showalter said the goal is to try to avoid a situation where churches send money, but then pursue their own visions while RMM pursues another set of goals. “If missions is fueled by the local church, we as CMC’s missions agency…really need to reconnect with what that vision is.”

He said RMM wants to build trust with the churches and demonstrate value. “If RMM is of no value to you and your congregation, it is probably time to have a burial…if there is still a purpose for [RMM], we need to hear together with you about what God is saying that purpose is.”

Showalter said the process of working toward a common vision will not mean RMM simply will stay on the same course, and the churches will come on board, or vice versa. Instead, the idea is for both the conference and its agency to change course to come closer together. “It’s very difficult for a single agency to align itself with 110 different visions; in some respects the alignment does have to happen toward a common vision,” he said.

That was one of the concerns raised at the November meeting—how to avoid fragmenting RMM’s missions work and vision into many small ones. “I think we’re going to have to keep saying, we can’t do everything,” Showalter said. “It’s the old balancing act of staying…good at what we’re doing but broad enough that we are actually meaningful to the visions of the churches.”

“I think it’s important that we stress that the local churches are being heard,” board member Randy Sunderland said. Sunderland attends Allensville Mennonite Church in Allensville, Pennsylvania.

So if the local churches want RMM to broaden its vision beyond unreached people groups, will RMM do that? “What I would say is, let’s talk about it, let’s think together about how that could work,” Showalter said. “I have no illusions that…CMC now needs to come to our vision whether they like it or not.” He added that he thinks RMM needs to keep articulating why it is focusing on unreached people groups, and the churches need to articulate their vision to RMM.

“What I see about Operation Birthright that I’m excited about is that it feels like this is not just RMM getting up at a business meeting or conference or something and saying, ‘Well, let us tell you again, here’s why we are trying to reach the unreached’…we’re going to sit across the table from each other and say, ‘So what do you think about this?’” Showalter said. Then if the churches still disagree on the vision, they can explain why, “And we will have heard much better from them than if we assume they don’t care.”

RMM’s emphasis on spreading the kingdom among unreached people did get a lot of affirmation at the board meetings. The group watched a video presentation by author and speaker David Platt, who made a strong case for the needs of people who have no access to the gospel. A major discussion question among the group gathered at the November board meeting was how to promote that vision for the unreached in their churches and in the other churches in CMC.

Board members share ideas during the meetings
More Responsibility for the Churches?

Another major question addressed the “birthright” part of the equation—the importance of church investment in missions, and what that investment on the part of the churches would mean in practical terms. Should churches play a greater role in sending missionaries? What parts of missions work are best handled by an agency, and what parts by individual churches?

Between the time missionaries commit to missions and the time they fly back years later as retired church planters, there are a few details that need to be taken care of. The board, church participants, and RMM staff went over a long list of responsibilities that need to be taken care of to send and support missionaries, from recruiting to training, accountability, funding, and so on. For each item, they gave feedback on whether they thought the responsibility would be best handled by an agency like RMM or an individual church. They affirmed some as best done by an agency—cross-cultural training, language training, receiving donations, making decisions about salary and retirement benefits, or taking care of visa details. They saw others as being possibilities for more shared responsibility between the churches and RMM—recruiting missionaries, watching out for missionaries’ emotional needs, raising funds, screening candidates, strategic planning, and visits to missionaries in the field.

Whatever shape increased involvement takes in the future, board members and church leaders affirmed the idea of getting the churches more involved in missions. Titus Mast, pastor of Naumburg Conservative Mennonite Church in Castorland, New York, who also attended the board meeting, said he thinks that idea was one of the most important things that came out of the Operation Birthright meetings. “It’s going to bring more involvement from local congregations…they’re going to get more excited about what they see God doing as they realize that this is our mission…it’s something we are directly involved with.”

John David Swartzentruber, head pastor at Greenwood Mennonite Church in Greenwood, Delaware, attended the meetings with new RMM board member Mark Yoder, also from Greenwood. Swartzentruber also said the churches could use a greater sense of ownership of RMM. “We as churches are RMM; it’s not us and them.” For churches to take greater ownership and make Operation Birthright successful, he said people will need passion for missions. “Do I really care that the message is going out to all the world? Or am I satisfied just where I’m at?” he asked. “Maybe there needs to be greater passion for this…if we don’t have a passion to do it it’s probably not going to do much good to talk about vision and goal setting because it’s not really going to be that important to me.”

Jonas Yoder, a board member from Bethel Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Florida, said he also would like to see people connect better with the work RMM is doing, maybe through some kind of partnership between the church and RMM on a project. “If we can get people excited about missions, all our budget problems…getting people to go, and all that stuff, that’s all going to go away,” he said.

Swartzentruber said better communication between congregations in CMC could also motivate people, as they hear about what other churches are doing. “In some ways it kind of spurs us each on as we talk about it.”

More involvement from the churches also ties into the question of where RMM should be working, Swartzentruber noted. Because RMM has limited staff, he said, if people want the agency to get involved in more locations, “the churches are going to have to take some of the responsibility.”

What Next?

So when the meetings ended, what had Operation Birthright become? The group brainstormed on many different topics—should RMM help churches reach out to their communities? Would focusing on these local projects sacrifice a larger conference vision? How can RMM communicate better? Could each CMC church be paired with a missionary?

“I don’t think we have a handle yet completely on what all Operation Birthright will look like,” Sunderland said. “There’s a lot of…trial and error, a lot of tailoring it to what the needs are.”

Development of the details will take place at future board meetings and in visits to the churches from RMM staff, Showalter said. For the time being, the board members have taken a statement of intent to participate in the pilot program back to their churches to get any necessary approval. As this article went to press some of the churches had signed up and others are still reviewing the idea.

In the long term, the idea is that once the participating churches and RMM develop better ways of working together, they won’t become just a privileged RMM board club—the agency will start to work with all the churches in the same way. But RMM had to start somewhere, Showalter said. “We can’t just flip a switch and start connecting well to 110 churches.”

Showalter pointed out, however, that the seven churches currently represented on the board make up almost 20% of CMC’s membership. So if they all participate in Operation Birthright, RMM will already be working with a significant portion of the conference (located in both urban and rural settings). Showalter also estimated that these churches, scattered as they are in different CMC communities, are geographically close to most of the rest of the conference membership. At some point down the road, he said, the pilot churches might be able to help connect RMM with these other churches.

“I think it’s going to be an adventure that is going to be really exciting.”

Let us know what you think: how should the relationship between RMM and the churches of CMC work? Do the churches of the conference need a missions agency? What about RMM’s focus on unreached people groups? Leave a comment or send your feedback to President Joe Showalter at joe@rmmoffice.org.