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The Significance of Being a Phoenix’s Tail

Editors’ note: 

This article originally appeared on the Training Leaders International blog.

In China, there is a well-known idiom that says, “I’d rather be a chicken’s head than the tail of a phoenix.”

The idiom expresses a commonly held notion: It’s better to be in a position of prominence, even if in a less glamorous sphere, than in a low position within a more prestigious context. In the West, a similar saying calls it being a “big fish in a small pond.” In daily life, this sort of thinking can take many forms. Many Chinese businessmen, for example, will leave their low positions in a major company in order to take a high position in a local unknown company.

One would like to wish that pastors and missionaries would be immune to such sentiments. In fact, the sin nature needs no passport. It crosses every border.

Within the church, becoming a missionary is often regarded as one of the most selfless and sacrificial things a person can do. Of course, this can be true. Leaving family, friends, conveniences, and the ability to communicate easily are not things one forsakes lightly. On the other hand, the mission field can become a place of unchecked ambition.

Significance of Status

What happens when Westerners come to a country like China (or any number of other places)? They inherit the title “foreigner.” Initially, this title may offend the Westerner’s sensibilities. Missionaries come to find, however, that the foreigner status carries particular advantages. Within the church, Western Christians are often regarded as experts since they presumably come from a “Christian country.”

Compounding the problem, many missionaries receive similar accolades from friends and family in their home country who could not imagine living in a foreign country. Back in their home culture, they are basically anonymous until they decide to become missionaries. Then they become “chicken heads,” having prominence in a place few others want to go.

I note these things to highlight a subtle danger that can undermine missionary labor. In the environment I’ve described, vain ambition may still fester beneath the surface of everything one sees. How? Missionaries can all too easily confuse their status with significance.

How might this manifest itself in practice? The work of missions is inherently lonely and slow. Yet we live in a world of sensationalized marketing and high-speed methods of communication. Those who support missionaries want to see large numbers of people being trained and won to Christ.

However, the missionary knows that reality is less glamorous than his or her supporters really want to hear. What are they to do? If they are not careful, missionaries settle for being “chicken heads” rather than a “phoenix’s tail.”

Pragmatics of Praise

There are primarily two ways that one might confuse status with significance. Others could be mentioned. But in each case, the potential temptation is as subtle as it is dangerous.

1. Networking.

When a missionary lands in a new city, one of the first things he or she must do is meet people. So begins the long process of networking. Ministry is about relationships, right? What’s the problem?

It is quite easy to confuse networking for ministry. The situation is comparable to having a Facebook page. Because someone has a lot of Facebook friends, he or she should not mistakenly conclude that those connections represent meaningful or close relationships.

Networking is important, but it must not be confused with ministry itself.

It is easy to make oneself seen and known to others (just as one sees a chicken’s head); however, missionaries must continually ask themselves, What is the significance of these relationships? In other words, are we building up people or just building our network? It is healthy for missionaries to regularly ask, Do I simply know a lot of people? Or do I actually know a lot about these people?

Having a large network may afford a certain status, but it does not ensure significant ministry.

2. Statistics

People like numbers. Statistics are regarded as objective evidence that one’s mission strategies are effective. The problem, however, is that statistics must still be interpreted and can be manipulated.

I know firsthand about a school in Asia that advertised that they trained at least 1,200 pastors each year. Unfortunately, this was spin. The school only enrolled between 100 and 140 students (not all of them pastors). Why the discrepancy? They counted every class a student attended as though the school taught a separate person. So if a single student took 10 classes in a year, the school counted it as having taught 10 separate pastors.

Why the manipulation? People want to look good to both to their supporters and their supervisors. No doubt, this sort of number-twisting is a grievous offense. As a result, leaders within mission organizations need to do a bit of self-examination. Practically speaking, what sort of ethos are you fostering within your group? For example, what sort of books and methodologies are emphasized? What kind of requirements do you have for missionaries? Who typically leads trainings within the organization? Or, ask yourself this question: What kind of person typically gets promoted into leadership positions? In their ministries, have they reported rapid multiplication, perhaps even something like a “church planting movement”?

Put simply, what are the things we make a big deal of? If we continually emphasize statistics, we will foster an overly pragmatic ethos.

Statistics do not measure significance. Yes, people will notice us if we report high numbers, but they do not make Christ’s church become beautiful . . . like a phoenix.