Roman religion had long since ossified, since it provided no oral principles, no way of salvation, no possibility for a personal relationship with the divinity, and no emotional home in a faith community. It functioned, at best, as the personified ideal of civic life and the state. At worst, it deteriorated into a cult of the ruler, the idolization of a living person, which began with Emperor Nero and under Domitian was required of all citizens. In 85 CE Domitian began presumptuously signing documents as ‘Lord and God.’
Since no god, except for the Jewish, made a claim of absoluteness, the gods became interchangeable. ‘The various cults were regarded by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the authorities as equally useful.’Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 11
I wrote this letter to our group of fellow missionary candidates shortly before we left for training. Six years later, these conversations and structures are still valuable to consider for any who are hoping to be sent out as missionaries from their church. However, I would recommend talking with your church about these things much earlier, perhaps a year in advance of your departure. The sending church relationship really matters! Consider how you these suggestions might help your church better send in a manner worthy of God.
Fellow Missionary Candidates,
We have just under two months until training and during that time I wanted to send you a few ideas regarding your relationship with your sending church. For the past couple of years I have served as a missions pastor and also have been involved in broader conversations with other churches about healthy New Testament sending and supporting of missionaries. Our crew of candidates comes from a variety of churches. Some are experienced missions-minded churches who already have developed sending and care structures for their missionaries. Others, in sending you, will be sending out their first ever missionary. We know that it is the church that sends, not the organization (Acts 13). Our org will provide many structures for our care and support while we are on the field, but your relationship with your sending church is a vital lifeline that can be the difference between you staying on the field or coming home. In light of this, here are a few best practices that our church and other like-minded sending churches have implemented in order to care for our sent out ones. I commend these to you as one way that healthy sending can be fleshed out. There are many faithful variations of these, and every sending church still has room for growth. Still, my hope is that these will generate good conversations, ideas, and structures as you speak with your pastors about your sending and care.
Don’t be shy to approach your pastors to talk over these things. An already busy pastor might feel overwhelmed at the thought of one more commitment, but many of these structures can be led and implemented by volunteers as well. And many pastors would be excited to think through these things, simply having never been exposed to these ideas before. One more thing – your eagerness to do the legwork for mobilizing for these things can make all the difference in the eyes of busy church leadership. At the end of the day, faithful pastors and churches really desire to send and support their missionaries in a manner worthy of God.
1. A Sending Relationship. Ask for a clear sending relationship with your home church. As was suggested at our meetings, read through Acts 13 with your pastors and ask them if they will do for you what Antioch did for Paul and Barnabas. This means that your church claims you as their missionary and takes real responsibility for your sending and care long-term. They acknowledge that before God, they are accountable for you and will hold the ropes for you. Clarify expectations with your leadership. If they are going to be your sending church, what is expected of you while on the field and when on furlough? What is expected of the church towards you? Clarify your role and seek your church’s affirmation. How do your leaders think through your role as a missionary biblically? And do they affirm that you have the character qualifications for that role? If so, will they affirm and commission you publicly? Do you need to go through an assessment process in order for them to do this? At our church we seek to have most of the men we send out go through our elder/church planter assessment process. We want to affirm publicly that they are qualified according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to plant churches and disciple pastors (like a Paul). Other men and single ladies are sent out as church planting teammates (like Aquila and Priscilla), assessed by the deacon character qualifications in Titus 1. It’s a weighty and courage-strengthening thing knowing that your sending church has taken you through an affirmation process and has commissioned you. If there’s not time for you to do this in your next two months, consider approaching your pastors about doing something like this next time you’re stateside.
2. Prayer Rhythms. Ask your pastors if your church will commit to praying for you. If yes, ask for the when and where of how that will happen. A picture on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean you are being prayed for. At our church we have Sunday morning prayer meetings where we rotate weekly praying for one of our missionaries. This is a chance for updated requests to be lifted up in a timely fashion. We have seen dramatic answers to prayer in response to these times. Is there some kind of structure like this where the church will commit to corporately praying for you? If it’s happening corporately, more individuals will pray for you on their own as well.
3. Skype or Zoom Calls. We live in an age when communication between the missionary and the sending church is easier than ever. This is a very good thing for your care on the field! At our church we have a monthly group skype/zoom call that all of our missionaries are invited to participate in. It’s simply a time of encouragement from the word, discussion, and sharing of joys, trials, and prayer requests, led by one of us pastors or one of our missionaries. These times have been very sweet. In addition to this we are working to set up all our missionaries and spouses with a regular one on one call with a trusted friend or leader at our church. This is important for personal soul care, sound-boarding, accountability, and encouragement. We also make ourselves available for one-off calls as needed for counseling or discussion of issues on the field. Ask your pastors if they would be willing to set up a regular call with you.
4. Rope Holder Teams. Other sending churches call these Advocate Teams or Barnabas Teams, but the concept is the same. This is a small group of people within your church who commit to regular prayer, communication, care packages, and advocacy for you. This is particularly important if your church has many missionaries. This group can help provide the support you need on the field so that it doesn’t all fall on the pastors and staff. They are your go-to team for prayer needs, future trips, and other practical needs. They help keep you and your work visible in the life of the church. They also serve as a team of friends that tracks your ministry closely and stays in communication. It’s a good idea to invite close friends to commit to a Rope Holder Team – that way you’ve committed to staying connected. These teams are a great way to equip the church body to take part also in missionary care. Consider approaching 6 – 8 friends at your church to form this kind of a team for you.
5. Partnership Requests. Various needs arise when you are on the field. You might be in need of a short term team. You might need childcare workers for your regional meeting. There could be a health emergency. You are in need of housing and a vehicle when stateside. Are your pastors OK with you informing them of these needs? Who is the point person when these kinds of needs arise?
This may seem like a lot, but don’t feel like you have to implement all of these things at once. These are suggestions and ideas from one imperfect church trying to take care of the missionaries God has entrusted to us. At the same time, we have found all of these things very helpful. Consider prayerfully if you might need to talk with your pastors about any of the above care structures. As a TCK turned missions pastor turned missionary, I can say that any investment in your sending church relationship is well spent and will bear fruit in your health and effectiveness on the field.
Congratulations on being accepted and looking forward to seeing many of you again at training!
It was late January or early February and we had only just arrived on the field. We were scrambling to get our two toddlers out the door for our weekly team fellowship. This week it was being held at the home of some teammates just down the hill. It was a sunny, but chilly winter morning. We ambled down the hill, arms stuffed with Bibles, kids’ bags, and a guitar, trying to remember which street was the right one. Our kids were thrilled to be outside and excitedly ran ahead of us, pulling off some pungent leaves from the eucalyptus trees that grew on the side of the road.
We turned onto what we thought was the correct street and walked down until we recognized the familiar cement, plaster, and tile construction style of our teammates’ home. Like so many young parents on a church morning, we took a deep breath before we entered, trying to purge some of the stress that had accumulated from the mere effort to make it mostly on time.
Our three-year-old son, excited to be at our destination, stepped ahead of us up onto the stairs – and slipped. His forehead met the front edge of a step, a nice sharp corner where tile met tile – which is typical for Central Asia. So many sharp edges and corners everywhere, be they tile, cement, or metal. The roundness, bluntness, and general kid-friendliness of Western furniture and home interiors have never had greater fans than Western parents who live in Central Asia. Don’t be too alarmed if you invite us over and we admire how toddler-friendly the corners of your coffee table are. Such are the unintended effects of life on the mission field.
Anyway, our son’s forehead met the tile edge of the step and as foreheads are wont to do, blood started instantly gushing everywhere. As he screamed, we scrambled to pick him up and do damage control. I quickly grabbed one of my winter gloves, wadded it up, and pressed it against the wound. Our one year old daughter was screaming by now as well and my wife was bleeding also, having reopened a previous kitchen wound as she reflexively reached out to grab our son. Being in such a state, the rest of us remained perched on the steps as my wife ran inside to alert our teammates.
She burst into the kitchen, yelling, in search of our friends. But no one was there. Looking around, the kitchen seemed very different. I wonder if they’ve reorganized things? She thought to herself. Not missing a beat, she moved around the kitchen until she saw a roll of toilet paper and grabbed it, rushing back outside to try and help with all the blood. Why was the house so quiet when our whole team was supposedly already there for worship?
Moments later a local woman appeared at the kitchen door – looking extremely confused. We were confused as well. Neither of us could quite understand what this local woman was doing at our friends’ house so early on a sleepy Friday morning (the first day of the weekend here). Now, we knew very little of the local language at this point, but my wife knew enough to yell, “My son! My son!” as we wildly gesticulated at his bleeding forehead. The local woman squinted and stared, trying to make sense of this bizarre scene.
All of the sudden, it dawned on both my wife and me that this was not our friends’ house at all. My wife had barged into the kitchen of a total stranger, stolen their toilet paper, and woken them up. My son’s bleeding had been stopped by now, but we had by this point collectively bled all over their steps. Now mortified, my wife handed the roll of TP back to the local woman, who was still standing there befuddled and confused. She looked at the toilet paper, looked at us, looked at the TP again, and then slowly handed it back with a muted but polite phrase which roughly translates to, “Please, go ahead.”
We now did our level best to apologize in every language that we could and slowly backed away down from the doorway. Our family hobbled down the street and turned the corner. I was hunched over, still pressing the glove against my son’s head as we went one street down. Then we spotted it, the correct house. It was the same design except for the color of the decorative tiles. Blasted orange tiles instead of purple!
We burst into the house – this time it looked exactly as we expected it to – and announced that we needed to get our son to the hospital right away. Stitches were definitely going to be needed. Our team leader got on it right away, loading us all into his SUV and speeding off to the government emergency hospital.
At that point, this free hospital was the only place open on a Friday morning. And, grateful that there was a place open at all, we didn’t stop to ask any questions we normally might have of this particular kind of facility, which we would later come to call “The Blood Ward.” We called it this because there was blood everywhere, puddles of blood in the corners, smears of blood on the beds, and against the wall, a man washing his bleeding head in a sink. Quick action by my wife meant the sheet was adjusted just in time so that my son wasn’t laid on top of the previous patient’s blood (likely belonging to the man at the sink).
Because it was winter, the hospital was freezing. An electric heater, shaped like a standing fan, radiated heat close to the top of the bed where we all huddled, holding my shrieking son down so that the doctor could get to work on the stitches. He went right at it in a manner that showed great skill in stitching and an almost complete disregard that he was actually stitching the skin on the face of a human. We had to make sure the cloth on my son’s face left room for breathing and also had to remove the doctor’s elbow from my son’s eye at one point.
My team leader was doing his best to maintain morale, sharing their own stitches stories from Latin America and snapping photos of the event for posterity. I was watching the needle weaving in and out, a little too closely as it turns out, as I soon realized that I was on the edge of fainting from the concentration of heat, blood, and needle. I moved toward the wall to sit down before it was too late.
“Don’t sit there! That’s a puddle of blood!” my wife hollered.
I scooted over a couple feet and squatted down in an action learned from the muddy earth of Melanesian villages. Sometimes you really shouldn’t sit all the way down. So God in his kindness made us able to squat. Slowly the clouds began to lift.
“Come on, brother!” my team leader yelled, “Do America proud! Don’t faint on us now!”
I smiled and waved and tried to shake off the wooziness. By this point the doctor had finished. He had done an amazing job on the stitches themselves. And my son had stopped shrieking like a nazgul, which helped things calm down a good deal also (I would have shrieked too, if I were in his place!). We were ushered toward a window where we were given a prescription, which we filled at another window for the equivalent of three US dollars. That was it. No other charges at all. Not bad for a procedure that would have cost at least a hundred dollars back in the states! Still, I would have gladly paid ten times the amount we did if it would have helped clean up some of the blood puddles.
To this day my son still has an impressive scar in the middle of his forehead that he can be proud of. What a champ. And we regale friends with the story of how my wife broke into a stranger’s home to steal their TP as my son was bleeding all over their steps. We like to hope that it also makes for a good story for the poor local woman who witnessed our frantic intrusion that quiet winter morning.
“Hey Auntie, tell us the one about those foreigners who were bleeding all over your steps and broke into your house!”
“Well, it was a quiet morning and I was just waking up when I heard the sound… someone was rifling around in my kitchen! I emerged and what did I find? … A strange foreign woman shouting gibberish and stealing my toilet paper!”
Lies have little legs.Local Oral Tradition
In other words, they can’t take you very far and they are easily caught. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. I find this proverb strangely comforting as I behold the spectacle of political America from afar this week. So many lies doing so much damage. Many two-faced factions that are just like “Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.” (Isaiah 36:6 ESV). Don’t entrust yourself to pharoahs nor to lies. Their legs are simply too stubby.
I appreciate how the serious themes of this song contrast with the upbeat reggae style. It’s this kind of unexpected juxtaposition that makes me want to lean into a song. The music is feel-good music (reminds me of my youth in reggae-loving Melanesia), but the lyrics deal with those times when we are feeling anything but good. Anxiety, spiritual depression, and emotional chaos push the song writers, and us, to desperately seek refuge somewhere. Will we find our refuge in the One who offers himself to us unconditionally, regardless of the state of our emotions and feelings?
Check out “Hiding Place” by Chris Howland on the YouTube link above.
But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?
It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.
Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.
It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.
One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.
Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.
Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.
This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!
Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.
“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”
“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”
With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.
“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”
Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.
The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.
Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.
But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.
Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?
Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.
Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.
It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.
These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.
The phrase “the violent bear it away” fascinated the twentieth-century Irish-American storyteller Flannery O’Connor, who used it as the title of one of her novels. O’Connor’s surname connects her to an Irish royal family descended from Conchobor (pronounced “Connor”), the prehistoric king of Ulster… In the western world, the antiquity of Irish lineages is exceeded only by that of the Jews.Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 123
We have a new teammate. And we have been praising God for her heart. Why? Because she is teachable, humble, and lights up when we talk about gospel truths.
We have come ourselves to light up when we encounter a heart like hers. This is because we have learned that what the psalmist says is true. Mark the man of peace, for he has a future (Psalm 37:37). Not only will someone who has a humble and teachable heart flourish under God’s kind hand, but those around them will flourish also. Teachable peacemakers make the best teammates and colaborers in the trenches of ministry. They also make wonderful friends.
Looking back on my Bible college and seminary days, it’s interesting to note how some of my most gifted classmates didn’t really end up flourishing spiritually in life and ministry. At least not to the same extent that the steady, humble, teachable ones did. In fact, over time the seemingly gifted ones were lapped by the ones most of us would have been tempted to initially overlook. The unassuming, the unpretentious, the ones who didn’t have to lead, but who eventually led anyway because of their steady faithfulness and consistency – these friends are the ones who quietly got started in ministry, have so far persevered, and are now harvesting righteousness (James 3:18).
How do we spot them? Well, the humble show up. Consistently. They listen. They are open to feedback and counsel and eager to learn how they can grow. They don’t pine after influence. They are willing and even eager to serve. They know how to laugh at themselves. They know how to follow and how to rejoice in others’ successes. This, even though there is very much a quiet gospel fire burning in their souls and often very wise things in their minds. It just seems to take a while for the rest of us to gradually shift our gaze away from the flashy ones so that we can see the better and more trustworthy embers burning in the hearts of the lowly. But time will inevitably expose the humble, and sooner or later we will not only see them, but come to lean on them more and more.
It’s just as true for marriage prospects. I remember walking down the road as a college student debating with myself about this girl that I had recently started dating. In some ways she was different than what I had imagined. Looking back, like a typical idealist, I was putting way too much emphasis on secondary things. But suddenly a thought stopped me in my tracks. A.W., you fool, what would you give for a woman with a heart of gold? It was a valid and pointed question expertly aimed to undo my wrongheadedness. Right then and there I decided to stop focusing so much on minor things and to pursue this godly woman who had a gracious and humble heart. Ten years now into marriage, I daily experience the rewards of having gone for the heart over the external details. Turns out that beauty in the heart unfailingly spills out and beautifies the world around it.
The teachable will lap the gifted. Every time. I need to keep reminding myself of this as we eagerly look for new local believers who could be future leaders and as we recruit for future teammates. If someone is very gifted, but proud, I need to remember that it’s OK to move on, in spite of the great needs around us. A better harvest comes from the hands of the humble. It’s an exercise of faith to let these types of people go, or at least to not invest in them in as deep a way as I would initially like to. And, wonderfully, some of these eventually become humble themselves, more often than not after having walked through the fire of suffering or failure. Or by simply learning to not take themselves quite so seriously. There’s frankly more spiritual power in that than we often admit.
Want to impact the world for Christ? Go all in for teachability, grace, and humility. And after others in your church start affirming the grace they see in your heart, then consider attaching yourself to some struggling church or rag-tag team of church planters like ours somewhere in the world.
Humble yourself. Sow Peace. Trust God with the timing. A harvest of righteousness awaits.
When I was twenty one, *Henry, a good friend from the Middle East, came to the US on a summer exchange program. I was excited to see him again and eager to see how he was doing in his young and still mostly-secret faith. He had not been willing to gather with other believers yet, which was disappointing, and he was terrified to tell his family. Still, like a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, his faith had continued. I was relieved when we met up and he was eager to pull me aside to talk in hushed tones about spiritual things.
His hosting situation was a peculiar one. He was staying with an elderly couple, the husband a retired pastor in a liberal mainline denomination. Another student, a conservative Muslim from Egypt, was also staying there. This Egyptian student was eager to ply the elderly pastor with hard questions about Christianity. His host was mostly willing to engage his questions, but with an inclusivist air that made the answers quite disappointing for the Egyptian – and for me. Now, this elderly couple was wonderfully kind and hospitable, admirably so, hosting two young Muslims (or so they thought) during the height of the War on Terror. But having had very little interaction with liberal American Christianity, I found myself growing more and more concerned that his answers were so, well, squishy. Did this man actually believe that Christianity was true? If so, where was his backbone, where was his conviction, where was his Bible? The Egyptian’s bias against Christianity was only being confirmed by this man’s very NPR-style politically correct responses. Henry, for his part, was not going to jump in and risk revealing to his Muslim Brotherhood-influenced roommate that he himself had apostatized.
I listened respectfully to their conversation, observing the retired pastor with a good deal of inner astonishment – and hoped that Henry would not be led astray by this well-meaning but watered-down Christianity. And I prayed for a chance to get to talk with the Egyptian myself. Thankfully, after a pleasant dinner and evening together, we got our chance as the three of us ended up bunking in the same room. Out came the polemics. The Bible has been changed. Christians Believe in three gods. Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God. The Bible prophesies Mohammad. And finally, out came the Bibles.
We discussed Christianity and Islam late into the night, open Bibles in front of us. Even Henry got into it, making some good points here and there while never quite revealing his own faith. Long after midnight we got into the concept of the Trinity. It was a rousing debate. Both the Egyptian and I loved it. We loved it because, young though we were, we both knew that truth matters. We both knew that Islam and Christianity make exclusive truth claims. We both believed that an honorable believer doesn’t insult his opponent by pretending that the differences aren’t real. We knew that the promises of squishy humanism were coming up empty. Somehow, strangely, we knew we were “older” than our elders and that we must muddle forward together in the pursuit of absolute truth. We debated and muddled until we finally called it a night around 2 a.m. To my great joy, Henry’s heart was freshly encouraged in the gospel.
The next morning we attended the mainline church where our hosts were members. Having grown up a Baptist in Melanesia and having recently been part of underground house churches in the Middle East, it was just as much a cultural spectacle for me as it was for my Middle Eastern friends. I had never been part of a liberal mainline service before. I was encouraged that so much truth was still remnant in the liturgy, but discouraged that no one seemed to take it seriously, not even the female pastor. At the end of the service, she called us up to the front. She wanted to welcome us as guests and to present the three of us to the elderly congregation. She let us introduce ourselves and when we were finished, turned to the congregation.
“Pastor *Smith,” she said with a smile, “who is hosting these young men, tells me they were up until 2 a.m. discussing, of all things… the Trinity!”
The congregation erupted into chortles of laughter and knowing smiles. The pastor egged them on.
“Well, boys, when you’ve figured it out, be sure to come and let us know!” More laughter. More respectable snickering.
There we were – the secret young believer, the Egyptian who would later become a mullah, the young American missionary – the brunt of a joke because we took the Trinity seriously.
We stood there awkwardly as the laughter died away. I looked at Henry and at my new Egyptian friend, realizing in that moment that we had more in common with one another than we did with all these chuckling church-goers. In fact, we lived in a different world. As a believer, I had more in common with my Muslim friends like this Egyptian than I did with many of my own countrymen who claimed to be Christians. What a strange and tragic thing.
There have been few moments where I’ve been more ashamed of Christianity in my homeland than I was that day. Though as Machen rightly maintained in Christianity and Liberalism, it was not Christianity at all, but a new religion entirely, gutted of the gospel. What would these cultural Christians say if Henry’s family found out about his faith and kicked him out, or tried to kill him? Would they try to comfort him by telling him that “We all really believe the same thing, after all?” What would they say to my other Middle Eastern friends who had lost everything for the sake of Jesus, for holding to beliefs that these wealthy westerners had long ago dismissed as intolerant or not progressive enough? For all of the residue of truth that clung to that church because of its once-faithful tradition, it had become a community impotent. Impotent to represent Jesus to serious Muslim theists, and even more impotent to mentor those who could lose their lives for their faith. Just a shell of what is was supposed to be, full of nice and polite grey-haired members who chuckled at the silly young men who thought it was worth it to stay up late and debate the nature of God.
It’s not always easy to live among Muslims. Sometimes we want to pull out our hair in frustration at how illogical Islamic belief and practice are. But there are many times when we actually find ourselves strange bedfellows with our Muslim neighbors, scratching our heads side by side at the absurd but confident assertions of Western modernity. It’s frankly refreshing to live in a society where the existence of God is strongly believed by most, where male and female still mean male and female, and where the question most wrestle with is What is the truth? rather than What is truth?
My neighbors largely believe that God exists, that he created the world, that he sent prophets and holy books, that heaven and hell are real, and that we should strive to live according to God’s will. This is not a bad theistic starting point, even given all of the distortions that Islam introduces. For many Muslims, like Henry, they are not far from the kingdom of God. They need a friend. One who will tell them of Jesus, open the Bible with them, and pray until the miracle of the new birth crashes in and changes everything.
Woe to the many respectable, progressive, and nice church-goers of the West. For while they chuckle and exchange the power of the gospel for niceness, it is the scrappy Middle Easterners who will get into the kingdom of Heaven before they do.
*Names changed for security