Every Asian kid growing up has one time played ninja. You take a black t-shirt, wrap it around your head, make some paper throwing stars and hide in the closet to get the drop on your unsuspecting brother or sister. Movies and pop-culture show the ninja to be a bad-ass warrior.
But real life ninjas actually kill people. They are gifted assassins of secret military organizations groomed for a special purpose and sent on special missions. They understand their purpose, operate in the shadows, adhere to a strict ancient code and no one knows their name.
The way of the ninja (minus all the violence) has always reminded me of certain principles of God’s Kingdom Growth. As missionaries, church planters and pioneers we must understand our purpose, operate in Christ’s shadow, obey Jesus’ commands and live for the sake of His name.
One of the keys to seeing generational growth and movements of churches reproducing churches is to define our role as the outsider. Our identity must be clear as we enter into new fields, lost communities and unreached people groups – especially in cross-cultural settings. It’s sad to say that many church planters and missionaries have never sat down to define their roles in the field but unwittingly sought to dominate them. As a result, many emerging movements have been stifled.
Jesus was the ultimate ninja. The New Testament leaves a trail of ninja-like role models we can exemplify and principles we can apply in reaching the world. Here are 6 ways to define our role as the missionary / church planter / pioneer:
1. UNDERSTAND YOUR CALLING
Ninjas are naturally gifted people who are bred to kill with as much efficiency as possible. From a young age they are trained, scouted, chosen and sent. There is no confusion as to their calling.
Movement pioneers are apostolically gifted people who are willing to take risks for Jesus. They typically go where no one else is working and where no one has heard the Good News. They naturally cast vision and start new things. They are clearly called, chosen and sent by the Holy Spirit.
For years we have avoided the word apostle in relation to church planting and cross-cultural work for fear of sounding delusional or arrogant. Yet in the scriptures it’s described as a leadership gift, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” (Eph. 4:11-16, 1 Cor. 12:27-28). The calling and work of the apostles were at the core of the expansion of the Gospel in the first century and continues to play a vital role in movements today.
Apostollein is the primary Greek word used for “sending” so the apostle is “one who is sent”. The word “missionary” is a Latinized form of the Greek terms for “sending”. This term doesn’t apply to all who are sent out from their churches but specifically to those who break new ground and pioneer new fields, better known as, movement pioneers.
We, as church leaders, must understand the apostolically gifted leader, encourage their specific calling and recognize their ministries as essential for the expansion of God’s Kingdom.
2. OPERATE FROM THE SHADOWS
Ninjas are discreet and work in ways that minimizes their presence as much as possible. They carry simple but effective concealed weapons like grappling hooks, katana’s and smoke bombs that can be adapted to a variety of situations. Jumping quietly from rooftop to rooftop they operate with minimal resources so they can move from one place to the next.
In contrast we minister with fanfare and try as much as possible to maximize our presence. We give in to the cultural value that “bigger is better”. We operate with complex budgets, large buildings and charismatic big shots. We introduce tools that not everyone can understand, use or possibly reproduce in new places.
This is why churches in the West struggle to maintain members. This is why rural villages in the Global-South have large empty western style church buildings. We presume that our traditional methods, trainings and tools can work in closed countries where persecution, poverty, limited access and injustice exists. We end up causing more damage and effectively kill the disciple making process.
We must operate under the shadow of Christ by intentionally working in ways that others can comprehend, apply and reproduce.
3. BLEND IN
Contrary to popular belief ninjas don’t wear black. During the day they are disguised in normal civilian clothing so as to move about without drawing attention. At night ninjas wear dark blue, light weight, fitted clothing so they can move silently. The majority of their time is spent in espionage and reconnaissance learning every angle about their mission context before striking with panther-like proficiency.
Our initial role as outsiders is to learn the culture, language and worldview of the people we are trying to reach. It is not enough to look up one of the 6,000 plus Unreached People Groups on the internet, pick a random group in a country we like, check off the adoption box and fly across the ocean to go “reach” them.
Many ethnic African and Asian seminaries, churches and trainings have western “experts” where the white person is behind the pulpit. Our short-term trips overseas reinforce the idea of western programs, money and expertise. There is no attempt from well-meaning western Christian groups to learn about the people and invest blood, sweat and tears to raise up local disciples. Our strategy in the west is the same, reach them, teach them then preach at them.
We, as outsiders, must seek to lovingly learn about the people in order to find perfectly blended insiders who can catalyze the disciple making movement.
4. FOLLOW THE CODE
Ninjas live by an ancient code of honor and excellence. In the underground world of the assassin, taking lives without leaving a trace requires intense training and unwavering obedience to the cause.
Movement pioneers also live by an ancient code of loving God and loving people. They understand that love is what propels people into action.
Yet in a world dominated by knowledge driven superstar pastors and information accessibility we have a generation of Christians who know a whole lot but do very little. We promote knowledge and use education as the criteria for spiritual maturity. In a cross-cultural context we teach villagers for several years before expecting them to apply what they are learning. Or we simply send local believers to 4 years of Bible training in a foreign country with the expectation that a degree will make them into a biblical leader.
Following the commands of Jesus has been brushed off as legalism. Yet Jesus himself said, “If you love me keep my commands…” (John 14:15). We obey out of love for our King. In this process God fills our head with knowledge, our hearts with character, and our hands with experience.
We must follow God’s code of love by training disciples for both knowledge and obedience.
5. SET YOUR TARGET
Ninjas are masters of the silent assassination. Their tactics include setting fire distractions, camouflaging oneself within a tree or curling into a ball and remaining motionless to appear like a stone. Working in secret they prepare their escape route, stalk their prey from every vantage point and then strike their target when least expected.
Movement pioneers are directed by the end vision. They are purposely moving towards reproducing disciples and churches within their target people. They brutally evaluate any activities that don’t contribute to the end goal, have an exit strategy and seek to leave behind generations of disciples with far reaching Kingdom influence.
The Apostle Paul had a vision to reach the eastern half of the Roman Empire (over 20 million people) from Jerusalem all the way to northwestern Greece. In less than 15 years’ time Paul was able to confidently claim that his work was finished and there was “no place left” for him to pioneer the Gospel (Rom. 15:32). That meant that he planted churches in strategic locations that would continue to reach others around them. His discipleship plan was designed to last long after his departure.
We must not get distracted by doing good things but focus on what actually needs to be done to see no place left in our target people.
6. REMAIN NAMELESS
Have you ever met a real ninja? No one has who has ever lived to tell about it. This is what makes ninjas ruthlessly efficient. They are willing to live their entire lives in secret and will never receive reward or recognition for the work they put in. These covert warriors will lay down their lives for the way of the ninja.
Movement pioneers are willing to live without reward or recognition. They are willing to suffer and labor for the sake of God’s glory.
In an age of social media campaigns and public identities well known pastors and teachers like Francis Chan, David Platt and John Piper have audiences of tens of thousands if not millions of people. We all have much love for these Godly and gifted teachers. Yet the true fruit of discipleship is not in how many books or sermons you can give but in how many of your disciples are making disciples. As high profile leaders its easy to pretend that we are investing in the lives of individuals. If all we are doing is public speaking, training and writing without intentionally applying what we learn then we are setting ourselves up for failure in more ways than one.
There has never been a true movement pioneer with a strong social media presence. They would never have a website named after them. The path they have chosen is one without a name. They have chosen to become distractions so others can put their full attention on Jesus…the master of all things ninja.
We must follow the way of Jesus who died so others can do greater things than himself and lived only to glorify the Father’s name.