Leading Behind Enemy Lines
by Jason Thompson
When writing to his beloved Timothy, Paul used an interesting metaphor to teach him about leadership. It is that of a soldier. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul writes, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” The metaphor of a soldier is one that is often used in the Scriptures to describe the life of a missionally engaged follower of Jesus. It is, perhaps, the one I connect with most after working 5 years in Germany. It is a metaphor that a co-worker of mine, just before I moving to Hamburg, said would be the theme of my work here in Germany. He himself had worked in Paris for 7 years church planting. I still remember the conversation vividly. He said that we would be paratroopers in Hamburg, those who go behind enemy lines, laboring on the margins in dark places where few believers choose to go. Of course, there are churches in our city and a history of Christendom in this nation, but those that live incarnationally and missionally are sadly few. Having our work described as paratroopers got me excited. I am a bit dramatic in that way. But the truth is, those that live and work behind enemy lines learn quickly about the temptation of being entangled in “civilian affairs” and the need for leadership that is adaptive and fluid. As I describe leadership behind enemy lines, I mean living and working in a place where the lordship of Jesus is not recognized. Of course, those we are among are not our enemies, but sadly they do live under the deception of the enemy (Eph 2:2). These last 5 years of leading a “band of paratroopers” has in many ways deepened and in some ways redefined what leadership means to me. In particular, the kind of leadership that is needed for those of us who are on the front lines or have been called a step further, deep behind enemy lines. I pray that some of what I share here will help us as we labor to please Jesus, our commanding officer.
As a leader, particularly among those working deep past the battlefront, your life is your rousing speech, your moving treatise for Jesus and his cause in the earth. Just as we call others into obedience to Jesus and his ways, we must live lives and embody the call we are giving that stirs in others a vision for the Kingdom and its coming. Paratroopers are chosen and sent under pressure, in adverse circumstances and with limited resources to effect change. It is only men and women who live lives in full surrender to Jesus that will draw others into Jesus’ kingdom advancing purposes.
One of the first books that I read as a young Christian was “Living on the Devil’s Doorstep” by Floyd McClung. I remember at the end of reading the book thinking two things. First, I thought living wholeheartedly for the kingdom as sited by McClung was the normal Jesus following life . Secondly, I wanted to live that way. Ever since, the leaders that have moved me have not been amazing preachers or vision casters, though I am encouraged and blessed by their ministry, it is rather the story of those who fully embodied the life of Jesus among the poor and the lost that have become the leaders I long to emulate.
Just as Peter said to the request of the lame beggar at the temple in Acts 3:6 “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk,” we also offer, in the end, only what we have to those we live among, our life changing encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Peter led most often as a paratrooper by embodying the life Jesus taught him to live. Grassroots movements are led by leaders who take the point, take risks and act.
Paratroopers and those “on the ground” are often best suited to speak into and lead the greater force because they know the culture and the needs of those that we are trying to see reached. They are forced into a continual state of learning and are put into new situations where they must adapt and learn to fit the circumstance without compromising their vision. I came to Germany five years ago to plant microchurches among Germans. Soon after being here, I found that those who were responding to this grassroots approach were some Germans, but more often foreigners living in the city of Hamburg. It fostered the need more and more for learning new cultures and ways of communicating and leading people among different cultures. After 4 years of being here, the nation of Germany saw the migration of over 1 million refugees from throughout the Middle East. In some ways overnight, our ministry was thrust into a Muslim context of which I had very little experience. It forced me to learn, both from study and experience, Middle Eastern culture, Middle Eastern history and politics, Islam and the Koran. An experience I am forever grateful for, but one that no one could have foreseen in my moving to Germany. Paul, another paratrooper, if you will, in describing his own commitment to learning for the sake of mission gospel put it this way, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:19–23
To live behind enemy lines is to live in a constant state of risk and change. We are daily faced with new situations or situations we are accustomed to but with new variables. It requires leadership decision making that is quick, discerning and open to adjusting. For me, this has been true in leading our Mosaik community. In the span of one week I can be confronted with the complexities of leading a house church with people from the Middle East, helping a family deal with the dangers and threats of the Albanian Mafia, mentoring a couple leading a new house church, discipling young European leaders who having been faithful to do the things I suggested, but are confronted with lack of response from those they lead, thinking through how to lead situations where those in our community are sinning against one another and navigating life in a culture that is, for me, in one moment familiar and then in the next moment completely foreign. It requires the ability to make Spirit led decisions from moment to moment. Leadership is often trusting God, making decisions, seeing those decisions through and adjusting. It is leadership that requires discernment, not only regarding the situation around me, but as best I as am able, discerning God’s heart in a particular moment. Jesus as the quintessential paratrooper put it this way, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19
The strength of a unit of paratroopers is in its diversity of skills, yet it’s ability to function as one. It is that leader’s task to recognize and empower others in order to do the task at hand. An effective leader recognizes leadership in his/her team members. In fact, a wise leader will give away leadership as fits the situation in order to maintain influence and the trust of their team. We as leaders need to be willing to listen and submit to the gifts of Jesus in others for the sake of our cause. One of our former team members, Anne, began a work among women in the illegal red-light district of Hamburg, truly behind enemy lines. She had very little experience with much that this work demanded, but saw tremendous fruit by God’s grace by assembling a team of women with diverse giftings that would lead the microchurch in various moments. It was clear that their gifting was the one required for differing instances. Yet, it was Anne’s overall leadership of empowerment and personal relinquishment that made this possible. Even today this microchurch, under new leadership functions by this same culture of empowerment that Anne created. It was the early church’s grassroots leadership described as the priesthood of all believers that set such a precedent for this and many other paratrooper microchurches. Peter, another familiar with the work of a paratrooper in the Kingdom wrote, “As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:4–5
Once behind enemy lines, a band of paratroopers no longer has the same access to the comforts of home base. They are isolated. Though they may find those who are sympathetic to their cause, they are most often alone. This has been true for us in our work of planting microchurches in Hamburg. So much that made “planting microchurches” easier with a large community is not available here . What I seem to find again and again is the challenge of sustaining vision even among the most devoted for living a fully surrendered life to Jesus. Of course, vision is valuable and must be fanned into flame from time to time, but perhaps even more valuable is teaching and training the need and value of perseverance. Vision feels external to me, but perseverance is something within. Perseverance is a choice. Perseverance is a value and the banner of those who bear the scars of ministry experience. Those that serve behind enemy lines are not entrusted with such a task simply because of their “vision-buy in” but rather the evidence through training and testing that by God’s grace they choose to keep on going even when that vision is not realized immediately. Our culture of missional engagement is saturated with vision, but it is in my experience sorely lacking in perseverance. Though it sounds biased (my apologies), I know of no one that more personifies perseverance than my wife, Katy. Where others are long gone in ministry that is evidently difficult, she sets her face like flint and keeps on among Bulgarians, among refugees, in meal after meal preparation for housechurch gatherings and yet still caring for her family both immediate and extended. As a leader of paratroopers, I am most interested in those who say they are committed, prepared to suffer like a good soldier and live not for themselves but to please their commanding officer. It was James, the brother of Jesus, who himself lived the life of perseverance and saw evidence in the life of his own brother, the Son of God who said, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
When sent behind enemy lines, the task of a paratrooper is to find and include those who are sympathetic to their cause. As ones deployed by Jesus, we are told to find those “people of peace” who welcome the message of the kingdom and us as those who embody the kingdom. To seek out those Jesus is already speaking to and who are open to the message of the kingdom. John Wesley taught those who were sent, as paratroopers on behalf of the kingdom, that God’s grace was prevenient, which is the idea that God is working in a place and among a people group in some way throughout the world. I am often asked about our work among refugees and the details of dealing with language and culture. The truth is, we, by God’s grace, found those who were sympathetic to our cause from Syria and Iran. They found in Jesus a message and a way of life that offered hope and peace. Some of these “sympathizers” have since given their lives to Jesus and others are still weighing the decision. All of them are faithful to attend every house church gathering, translate and care for the needs of those who attend. What we do in serving refugees here would look vastly different apart from these people. I am reminded of the story of Philip in Acts 8, deployed by Jesus to speak to the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip, led by the Spirit, encounters the Ethiopian on a desert road. Already God was working in this Ethiopian’s heart as he read and pondered Isaiah 53. Philip seized the opportunity from that passage to share the good news about Jesus. The Eunuch was so moved by the experience he gave his life to Jesus. Today, the history of the Ethiopian Coptic church traces back its lineage to this man. Perhaps even more fascinating is after his encounter with Philip and the Jesus of Isaiah 53, reading on in Isaiah the Eunuch would have read in Isaiah 56:4–5 For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.” Philip found in the eunuch one who was sympathetic to the cause of the kingdom and invited others into that cause.
It is true, experience is the best teacher. Living these years behind enemy lines has enriched my view of leadership. It has become more and more my practice as a leader to “safely” place people behind enemy lines so that they too can discover more deeply the life and calling that Jesus embodied and invites us to emulate. I believe more and more that this will be the kind of leadership called for among those whom the Father is sending into unreached places among unreached people. I know that for me it will be people with these attributes in leadership that I will want standing beside me in the struggle.
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