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The 4th Dimension

The 4th Dimension

J. Ted Esler

The world’s top-selling rap artist is a white man, the number one golfer is a black African American[1], and the tallest basketball player is Chinese.[2] The world is certainly not the same place it was just a few years ago. Just as remarkable is the radical shift in the makeup of God’s people over the past century from a Western worldview to a church made up of predominately non-Westerners. It is no wonder that the missionary enterprise is embracing these non-Western members in record numbers. As these new cultures flood our church-planting teams we can expect an equally radical shift in gains for the Kingdom.

Or can we? Peter Senge states that, “Today’s solutions become tomorrows problems.”[3] I am beginning to wonder if our approach to teams (yesterday’s solution) has become a problem for today. I am not suggesting that the team concept of ministry is a problem but rather, are we missing some of the incredible potential that teams present to us?

Teams are Important

Teams are a powerful force in missions. The wisdom of “teaming” can be seen in the pages of the New Testament. The model put forth shows diverse individuals coming together for a common purpose – the evangelization of those who aren’t worshippers, the discipleship of new believers, and the establishment of communities of believers among all peoples. It is important to note that no one church held authority over these first century teams. No organization, in the modern sense of the work, can be found administrating the work. No single culture was deemed necessary (in fact, one of the great battles the early church fought was to keep itself from being singularly Judaic). From the day of Pentecost we find many cultures present. Certainly it is not too difficult to conclude that there was great diversity on the first century church planting team.

Steve Richardson has written about “Third Dimension Teams.”[4] The concept behind a third dimensional team is that they are working toward the same goal (this is the first dimension), using the same strategy (the second dimension), and caring for one another as they go about their task (this is the third dimension). Teams that function well utilize all three dimensions of this spectrum. Experienced missionaries know how difficult it can be to achieve these dimensions in the real world.

John 13:34-35 provides a compelling reason to strive for the third dimension. “A new commandment I give you, that you love another even as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Third dimension teams make this command possible. All too often we assume that it is showing love to non-believers that sets us apart as Christians. Obviously we are commanded to show love to non-believers, but this scriptural injunction is different. As believers we must love another in order to evidence Christ in us. This can only happen if we are working together. Further, these relationships must be lived “out loud” so that the non-believer has the opportunity to see this love and conclude that it is divine. That’s a tall order! In a culture devoid of churches it is a mandate that can only happen on missionary teams.

As a recruiter and mobilizer of missionaries, I can assure you that team life is considered to be an important factor for those considering missionary service. The expectation of a happy, well-adjusted team is huge. I find myself working to lower expectations in an effort to stave off future disappointment since teams are, after all, made up of sinful people. Yet who would deny the attractiveness of working on a team that proactively sought your best interests not only in terms of your missionary objectives, but also in terms of your personal life, growth and development? These powerful expectations may be our biggest enemy in creating teams that incorporate people from other cultures as well as the national church.

The Problem of the 3rd Dimension

When missionary care and support expectations, strategy, and access to the people group demands a uni-cultural team we limit the ability of the team to accomplish the task found in the New Testament both in terms of outcomes and methodology. This is best illustrated by using an example.

When Bob and Betty first joined their team they were like most new missionaries on the field. They were struggling with the language while trying to adapt to their culture. Within their culture they found that the roles of men and women were starkly different than that of their home culture. Soon, Betty felt very isolated. Her only reprieve was the weekly team meeting where she could relate as she did in her home culture, among those of her own background. A missionary from another culture was invited to one of these meetings and was shocked by the forward nature of the women present. “How could they interrupt the men in this way?” he wondered to himself. He simply did not understand that for Betty, this was her lifeline to sanity. Betty would certainly protest a change that would bend to this man’s culture. The team’s weekly meeting was not a place where both Betty and the national leader could comfortably work together given their own cultural expectations.

In another scenario, a team is working in a country with little to no tolerance for missionaries, among a minority group long known for their resistance to the majority ruled government. The team is careful to protect itself from the hostile government by ensuring that people from the majority-culture are not aware of their activities. Even though there are many Christians from the majority culture, the team has no plan in place to mobilize or utilize these believers because of the risk they pose to the team.

The outcome of the work is hampered because the non-Westerner is not allowed to contribute to the effort even though the non-Western missionary is becoming the majority missionary. Methodologies that make use of nationals or culturally-near leaders are not possible if the team is not able to adopt new structures or take on new risks. In both cases the team is hampered in its ability to become more than uni-cultural. Something more is needed in the way of teams in order to expand the influence of the non-Western missionary.

While walking down busy road in Thailand one hot afternoon I discussed this with Steve Richardson. Why is it that many of our movement’s team leaders are hesitant to embrace multi-cultural teams? No doubt the difficulties are great enough and adding more diversity to the mix will only make our teams more complex. Yet, the promise of more laborers who can have a greater impact for the Kingdom is huge.

“Do we,” Steve asked, “need to consider a 4th Dimension?”

The 4th Dimension

A 4th Dimension team incorporates all of the aforementioned attributes of a 3rd Dimension Team and adds one more important dimension. A 4th Dimension Team embraces non-Westerners and nationals as full members of the team and proactively removes the obstacles that keeps them from participating in the life of the team. This is a tall order.

Anybody who has gone down the road of multi-cultural teams has observed the incredible difficulties it brings. These same people, however, are its greatest proponents and would argue that it is worth the effort.

You might be thinking, “This all sounds great but how can this happen on my team?” Here are some practical suggestions to consider:

1. Examine philosophical and structural impediments to having nationals on your team.

Does your philosophical approach to mission keep nationals from having a role on your team? It might be that your team’s philosophy of money and possessions, for example, hinder the ability of non-Westerners to be a part of your team. Perhaps your view of leadership training demands a level of theological education that is simply not possible in your host country? You could examine major categories of philosophy and consider how a non-Westerner would approach these (for example, money, leadership, decision making, male/female roles, family, etc.). In essence, practice cultural anthropology on your own team in light of a non-Western worldview.

Structures flow from culture and back into culture. In what ways does your team structure hinder or enhance your ability to include non-Westerners? Do members have to come through an established Pioneers’ mobilization base? If so, how can you include national leaders? Perhaps you will need to create multiple “teams” – one which follows the traditional definition and is the outward face to the larger organization and one which is actual ministry team and can include non-organizational members. If you take this approach, how do you make sure that there aren’t two “classes” of team members? These are complex and daunting questions. Ask around – other teams may be further down the road already and able to provide you with insight.

2. Create alternative means for missionary care and support.

In the process of incorporating the 4th Dimension we cannot lose sight of the powerful 3rd Dimension. We must practice the “one anothers” of the New Testament. New team members are particularly needy. As they grow in language ability and cultural understanding they will also grow in their ability to receive and give care to nationals and non-Westerners. At least for a while, however, you will need to pay particular attention to how you will serve these newest team members if you are moving away from a uni-cultural orientation. If you have one weekly team meeting that is a part of your plan for meeting these needs, then you will need to consider doing something different.

Furthermore, you will need to think about the needs of the non-Westerner team member. Whether that has to do with family issues or some other area of member care, they come with their own set of unique issues. By truly caring for them we will see John 13:34-35 displayed.

3. Use the national language in your team meetings.

What is the “lingua franca” of your team? When you gather around the table to pray and strategize, do English-speaking newcomers have the advantage over experienced nationals or non-Western missionaries?

When I was a team leader there were precious few team meetings held in the national language. I think we missed a significant opportunity. What would happen to your team if you decided that all subsequent strategy meetings would be discussed in the national tongue? Nationals would certainly be able to participate in ways that might now be unimaginable. There would be added motivation for new team members to learn the language. All team members, from anywhere in the world, would find themselves operating under the same linguistic challenge.

4. Make membership on your team something other than organizational membership.

In an era of partnership and cooperation a heightened sense of “our team” can work against the objectives of collaboration. If your team is a very tight knit group of “3rd Dimension” members you must take care not to erect walls that like-minded missionaries cannot climb. If you are insisting on organizational membership most national leaders will be left out.

Most teams that I am aware of only extend membership to those of their own organization or those from other organizations that are highly similar. While I am glad that so many of our teams partner with other agencies, is this the kind of partnership that will bring new ideas and skills to the table? We will gain the most traction in partnership when we partner with those who share our objectives but do something different from what we are attempting. We need to makes sure that we recruit both “hands” and “feet” to our teams.

5. Submit yourself and your team to national leadership.

National leadership continues to be overlooked by many missionaries. This was made clear to me recently when I was attending a regional conference. One missionary was introduced to the room full of people with the statement, “This is Joe and he doesn’t have a team yet.” In reality, Joe works on a large team of nationals as the only Westerner. His team is experienced and has extensive work in multiple people groups. Our categories of team, however, leave us to view Joe as someone without a team. We need to reverse that way of thinking! Perhaps we need to form a definition or category of missionary that suggests a commitment to a national movement with no further concern for building a Western team.

There are few places left in the world today where your team is not able to partner with national movements or culturally-near national movements. How often do you do a “strategy review” with these national brothers and sisters? Do you spend time thinking through the ramifications of your decisions in light of their strategies? Do you pray together? Do they attend your conferences? Do you attend theirs? How often do you recruit people to serve in their ministries versus perform a role on your team?


These are all difficult questions for any ministry team to consider. It forces us to recognize the assumptions that we unwittingly allow to become the modus operandi of our teams. These are not new struggles. We find ethnic dissension written into the pages of the New Testament. We also find the power there to overcome them. The price may be high. We could lose team members and make terrible mistakes. Safety calls us to be prudent. The Great Commission calls us to risk.

[1] As this article was being written, Vijay Sing beat Tiger Woods for this honor. This is even more remarkable: the best golfer is a Fijian of India descent!

[2] My son read this quip to me a few weeks ago – he was unable to give me the source. If you know it, please send it to me.

[3] Senge, Peter, The Fifth Discipline, Copyright 1990 by Peter Senge, p. 57.

[4] This article can be viewed in its entirety at