Friday, September 07, 2007

Winning Hearts and Minds

I recently read a fascinating book by Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond, which ironically gave me several insights into the church’s ministry. The U.S. has a military presence in every part of the world. Kaplan explores the question, What is the military’s strategic objective in places like Mongolia or Columbia or Yemen?

The Army and Marines’ activities can be divided simplistically into “direct action” and “security and stability operations” (S.A.S.O.) Direct action is how we typically view warfare: engage and defeat an enemy army in order to seize territory and advance. S.A.S.O. is much “softer.” Its objective is to win the hearts and minds of people. It may include building schools, providing medical care, improving infrastructure, and helping governments improve their police and military. The U.S. military is engaged in a LOT of this around the world.

Direct action and S.A.S.O. are often intertwined. Consider the comment of a Marine infantry captain to an Iraqi citizen whose family mistakenly had been forced to evacuate their home during a battle:

“Sir, we are truly sorry that we had to ask your family to leave the building. You can all go back in now. We will compensate you for the inconvenience. We are U.S. Marines. We do not take kindly to people shooting at us. If you have any information about the insurgents, please share it with us. If you know any of the insurgents personally, please tell them to attack us as quickly as possible, so that we may kill them and start repairing sewers, electricity and other services in your city.”

My first insight: The church is called not just to “direct action” (we’ll call this proclamation and personal evangelism) but to doing good and serving in the community. Jesus “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). Coupled with the church’s proclamation and Christians’ personal evangelism, this aids our efforts to win hearts and minds by embodying Christ’s mercy, courage and love. I believe this is the next big step for West Houston, to become much more actively involved in helping the poor and addressing material and relational needs in our community. The possibilities are endless.

My second insight: The conflicts which the U.S. military addresses in the twenty-first century are far more likely to be “small arms” actions involving insurgents than “big arms” actions involving large armies. These conflicts favor small units operating with a large degree of independence, able to make decisions and act quickly. Sadly, Kaplan finds that the U.S. military is still far too “top heavy” operationally, with large and elaborate central operations micromanaging the units in the field and ultimately hindering their effectiveness. The lesson is: put the troops out in the field and let them do what they’re trained for. The parallel with the church’s ministry is that every Christian is a minister and we are all sent “into the field” to be ambassadors of Christ in our neighborhood and work place. Moreover, at West Houston our Life Groups are the “small units” through which much of our most important ministry takes place.

Final parallel: God’s kingdom mission spans the globe. Our deployment is not in Mongolia or Columbia or Yemen, but in northwest Houston. Like the VBS song we sing, “I’m in the Lord’s army.” Amen, Amen.


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