Involuntarily Sent

One crisis of this past spring hit our small local church particularly hard. Frank and Patty*, after five years of living in our city as asylum-seekers, were finally kicked out for good. They always had a tenuous set up here, patching together a life with the partial legality of official UN documents that said their case was in process. But five years of UN stalling, under pressure from the local government, itself under pressure from the powerful regime of the country next door, had never produced the official refugee status that international law promises.

What this meant was five years of not being able to legally rent a house, work a job, or send their daughter to school. Like many asylum seekers, they were able to achieve these things sometimes through the connections or goodwill of others, and mostly under the table. But several attempts to secure these basics of life legally also led to attempted deportations, sometimes barely averted by the last minute intervention of UN lawyers. It was not uncommon for us to plan church picnics outside the city accordingly, making plans to minimize the possibility of Patty and Frank getting arrested at government checkpoints on the road. The reality was and is that returning to their country of origin means certain imprisonment, and possibly worse. This is, sadly, normal for many Central Asian believers, the cost of following Jesus in a region where they are a tiny minority.

The final deportation came after Frank and Patty tried to legally rent a different house. The house they had been renting was suffering from rot in the ceiling plaster, which kept collapsing unexpectedly in various rooms. This was both messy and dangerous and the church offered to set up a workday where we’d chip all the plaster off the underside of the cement roof. But Frank and Patty were confident that this time they could get the coveted official permission. In fact they made it to the very last step of security police approval when everything went wrong. Someone high up in the local security apparatus must have had it out for them. A week of encouraging approvals led only to a sudden rejection – and a letter of deportation. “We are deporting this family on suspicion of being spies,” read one not very promising line of this letter.

Another lawyer scramble bought them a week and an option to flee to a neighboring province, to a city in the plains where we had lived for a period prior to moving back here to the mountains. We were actually out of the country at the time of their deportation so it fell to the rest of our team and the church to care for them in this crisis. Goods were sold off at great loss, many tears were shed, emotional discussions took place regarding how much of the church funds should be sent with them. Our role from a distance was to work our connections in our previous city to try to find some kind of a landing place while they waited, once again, to receive legal permission to rent their own place. Wonderfully, it worked out to have them stay with one of the pastors of the international church in that city.

So, Patty and Frank, the only believing local household in our church, the most consistent at attending, central pillars of our fledgling spiritual family, left. They had come to faith and been baptized in our church. We had labored to disciple them faithfully through the messy toddler years of being new believers. They had, at times, made us want to pull our hair out. Yet they had also enriched us greatly. Frank kept us laughing, fixed our electricity, and often led our church in prayer and Bible distribution. Patty served the church tirelessly, often hosting believers with a feast they really couldn’t afford, and she labored hard to memorize Bible verses in spite of being barely literate. Their teenage daughter taught our kids the local language and was one of the most articulate believers when it came to gospel clarity.

We had seen much transformation take place in their lives, but when the final abrupt departure came, it felt too soon. We were hoping they would be much further along in their spiritual maturity before having to leave. But all of the sudden, our time was up. We entrusted them to God and to the community of believers in their new city – and of course, promised to visit often.

Their four months of living with the pastor’s family were akin to Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness. God unmistakably provided for them through the sacrificial hospitality extended by this family. And the life-on-life discipleship that took place in those months of living together was worth its weight in gold. Still, they lived in limbo, in a wilderness of not knowing how the UN and the local government would decide, not knowing if in the end they would still end up being trucked across the border and promptly arrested. In the anxiety of this waiting and the trauma of yet another deportation close call, their faith was pressed to the limit, with Patty often expressing despair in tearful calls to my wife. Yet they clung to God and to their new community of believers, until one day the news finally came. They had been granted legal permission to stay.

We recently visited Patty and Frank, a week or two after they had moved into their new legally-rented house. The abundance of answered prayer was unmistakable. In addition to their new rental home, all three had found good work. They had recently become members of the international church and once again served as a pillar household around which other locals were able to gather in the new local-language service/church plant. Frank had begun sharing the local-language preaching load with the pastor they had lived with, who also headed up this ministry. And now their biggest concerns were what to do with all these immature local believers they were meeting!

My wife and I sat at their table nodding as they described their concerns for how few of the local believers they had met knew their Bibles or knew the gospel clearly, and how many seemed mostly interested in money or visas. They expressed concern that the load of discipling so many would be too much for the pastor and his wife. We encouraged them to take responsibility themselves for the discipleship of the other locals around them.

“But it will take years for them to grow as much as they need to! Can’t it happen faster?” Patty exclaimed at one point. I shot my wife a knowing glance, which Frank caught.

“Patty, dear,” he said, laughing, “how long has it taken us to get to where we are? Five years! Let’s not complain about others being slow to grow.”

“That’s not a bad point,” said Patty, thoughtfully.

This perspective was of great encouragement to us. Along with the sweetness of seeing how God works even the hardest seasons of our lives for good. Our two years spent in that city on the plains were not easy ones. Team conflict, culture shock, new-onset diabetes, Covid-19 lockdowns, and a premature departure had all left their mark on us. Yet God had used the love developed between us and other expat believers in that city to create a landing place for Frank and Patty. And more than a landing place. A healthy international church in process of planting a healthy indigenous one. Our seasons of suffering were bearing sweet fruit, as Frank and Patty’s were beginning to also.

As we prepared to leave, Patty and Frank offered to host us for the night, even though they had no extra mattresses. We graciously declined, prayed with them, and pulled our kids away from their 7th episode of Shaun the Sheep – a treat uncle Frank is always happy to bestow, getting a kick as he does from how much our kids cackle at the slapstick humor of claymation farm animals.

Patty and Frank’s departure had left a gaping hole in our small church plant. They will always be a central part of the story of these formative early years. Now they get to be a central part of the formation of another local church. They have, in one sense, been unexpectedly sent. Through their painful deportation they have been called to build up the church in their new city. And they are answering that call. May God grant faithfulness to them, and to any of us who likewise end up suddenly uprooted, involuntarily sent.

Photo by S. Tsuchiya on Unsplash

*names changed for security

What of the Miracles Attesting to Islam?

This past week we hosted a Q&A time for the local believing men. For a couple hours, we sat in our living room and engaged difficult questions that they have wrestled with. Together, we attempted to first answer these questions from God’s word and then from other experience and logic.

We didn’t make it through very many questions, spending the time primarily engaging several apologetics issues that local Muslims regularly challenge the local believers with. One very common question is what we make of all the alleged miracles that support Islam’s claims.

Islam leans very heavily on claims of the miraculous in order to prove that it is indeed God’s final authoritative religion. The perfection of the Qur’an’s language – written by an illiterate prophet – is one alleged miracle most Muslims would agree to. It’s also very popular to go into detail about how mysterious Arabic phrases in the Qur’an were in fact prophecies of scientific realities only demonstrated in recent centuries (See the book, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” for an in-depth discussion of this kind of Islamic apologetics). Islam is divided over whether Mohammad himself did many miracles. His official biography, written in the 700’s by Ibn Is’haq, describes dozens of miracles he performed. But many conservative Muslims debate this, since the Qur’an seems to suggest that the prophet of Islam did no other miracles other than the recitation of the Qur’an.

However, on a folk level, many Muslims maintain that Mohammad did in fact perform many miracles, such as splitting the moon in half at one point, and that Allah continues to give testifying signs that confirm the truth of Islam. Not unlike a Catholic finding a portrait of the virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast, I’ve heard serious claims that “Allahu Akbar” has been written in the clouds or in the markings of a watermelon skin. Just last night I saw a post claiming that a Muslim scholar drank rat poison after eating some special dates and was unharmed. This was allegedly a fulfillment of a promise regarding said dates from either the Qur’an or the Hadith.

So, the local believers wanted to know, how should we respond when our friends or relatives we are sharing the gospel with make these claims?

“I always ask them, ‘What, where, when, how?'” said Darius*. “It’s all baseless.”

“But what Bible passages can we turn to to help answer this question,” I asked.

The group sat and mulled silently for a second.

“How about Matthew 7:15-20?” one of the other men suggested. “This talks about how we’ll know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit of Mohammad’s life was bad, so we know that we can’t trust his miracles.”

We read the passage together that begins with, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit.”

“Good, and keep reading,” I suggested, “Until verse 23. Notice how it says that many will have prophesied and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but they don’t actually know Jesus. So there must be another power enabling them to do these signs.”

“The power of Satan?” the group asked. Several of us nodded.

“We have to admit that according to the Bible, it’s possible for people to do real miracles, but with evil power, not with God’s power. Remember Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus chapter 7, how they copied Aaron’s miracle and their staffs also became snakes?”

“Yes! But then Aaron’s snake swallowed the other snakes,” added Henry*.

“So, miracles done through an evil power really are possible, but we can say they will somehow fall short of God’s true miracles,” I suggested. “The magicians of Egypt are soon unable to duplicate the signs of Moses and Aaron.”

“Here’s a followup question, then. Are miracles even enough to validate the truth of a message?”

The group chewed on the question for a moment before affirming that no, miracles alone are insufficient proof.

“So what else is needed? How about agreement with the message of all God’s revelation that has come before?”

“That sounds like 1st John 4,” said one of my colleagues who was also part of the discussion.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Christ is not from God.” (1st John 4:1-3)

Here we spent a little time talking about the false teaching in the passage that denied Jesus’ humanity, and comparing it with Islam, which denies Jesus’ divinity. Even though opposite ends of the heresy spectrum, both are denying key tenets about the person and work of Christ, denying the core of the gospel message.

“So even if false prophets come with powerful signs, if their message denies the gospel taught from Genesis to Revelation, then they are false prophets. Signs must be accompanied by the same message,” we concluded.

“But so many of the miracles claimed by Islam are actually hogwash!” others chimed in.

“Yes, and you can have that discussion if you need to,” I responded. “But you can also just go to these verses (or others like Matthew 24:24 and Galatians 1:8) and show that miracles and signs alone simply aren’t proof of a correct message or religion. And then you can talk about the gospel message.”

The discussion moved on from there to responding to claims that the Bible has been changed and claims that Islam is the final “seal” religion. We ended the night by focusing on the need for God’s word to break down hard hearts, since consistent and clean logic is never enough in these kinds of apologetics conversations.

“Let’s make sure we are responding with God’s word. God promises to use his word in powerful ways, and it is the chosen vehicle of the Holy Spirit, like spiritual explosives. There’s simply no promise that he will use my logic or arguments or experience in the same way.”

*names changed for security

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

Discipleship Is a Type of Suffering

The normal work of discipleship is a type of suffering. This, according to Paul in 2nd Timothy 2:2-7.

[1] You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, [2] and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. [5] An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. [6] It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. [7] Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

2 Timothy 2:2-7, ESV

Notice how verse two, which discusses the entrusting of Paul’s message to other faithful men, is immediately followed by an exhortation to share in the suffering of Christ. Along with the local brothers with whom I attended an exegesis and preaching workshop this week, I had been assuming this mention of suffering here referred to persecution. But our cohort leader helped us to see the kind of suffering meant here is illustrated by the three examples of soldier, athlete, and farmer – all examples which emphasize the costliness of hard work and discipline. The costliness of steady, focused, tough labor. Not the costliness of persecution. That was an eye-opener for me, and a timely word.

Yes, elsewhere in 2nd Timothy persecution is mentioned, but the immediate context of these verses suggests that Paul has the suffering of discipline in mind. The kind of discipline and hard work that comes with entrusting the gospel message to faithful men who will entrust it to others also. Like a faithful soldier, a disciplined athlete, a hardworking farmer. This is the suffering of sweat, long hours, and extended seasons of toil.

Why was this takeaway so helpful for me? Because I feel the costliness of trying to disciple others and trying to raise up local leaders. I feel it keenly. Even during the several days of this training, the conduct of the local believers was deeply disappointing. It was exhausting. And it wasn’t just this three-day workshop. It has been a long season of walking through one conflict after another with local believers. And I am tempted to feel like the difficulty, the sweat and fatigue of this season, means I am doing something wrong – or that I am simply not gifted enough for this kind of task.

It seems every time we are ready to extend greater trust and responsibility to locals, some petty conflict emerges (or rather, explodes), showing that the maturity piece just isn’t there yet. Crisis reveals character again and again, and yet again.

How long, O Lord, until your word and your Spirit do their work of making our friends trustworthy and faithful? Will we ever see elder-qualified men emerge in this context?

And yet here in 2nd Timothy 2, I have been given a timely word. The work of discipleship is a kind of suffering. It’s not just me. Even a sharing in the suffering of Christ himself. What an honor! Paul found a Timothy, Timothy found other faithful men, they taught others also. If not, the gospel would have never come down to me, and to my local friends. This work is not impossible. To feel like a weary soldier, a tired athlete, a sore farmer, this is exactly how I am supposed to feel.

Dwelling on this truth these last several days has steadied my soul. Unlike how many missions trainers use verse two to advocate for rapid multiplication of disciples, this context shows us the work is long-term, tough, and yes, even a form of suffering.

That is not bad news at all. For weary workers like myself, it is in fact very good news. It means we are not off-track and unfit simply because the work often feels like working cursed soil in a desolate land. No, this is the nature of the work itself. Deprivation before honor. Sweat before victory. Toil before the harvest feast.

That is the kind of suffering that leads to faithful men who teach others also.

Photo by Kamal Hossain on Unsplash

He Brought His Own Birthday Cake

Last week I got lunch with a local believer and a teammate from our previous city. As they introduced me to the best chicken tenders I’ve had yet in this part of the world (I live in an emerging foodie city), I remembered with gratitude and amusement how this local brother had first professed his faith.

Mr. Talent (as his name translates) was a student and is a close friend of this same colleague. Since both men are quite serious about their food, they initially spent a lot of time together meeting up at new and different restaurants in search of the best kabob in the city. “We would always plan our meetings around which restaurant we needed to hit up next.” As far as a relational evangelism strategy goes, that’s not half bad!

These lunch outings led to many conversations about life and spiritual things, and eventually into a study of the gospel of John. When my teammate left for his furlough, Mr. Talent was clearly wrestling with the claims of the gospel. Just before my teammate’s departure, we had together begun trying to start a local language house church in the morning and an English language house church in the evening, both simple gatherings on the same day, based out of our living rooms. Mr. Talent would come about once every three weeks to the local language group and show up occasionally for the English group as well, even though his English was not great.

Mr. Talent belongs to a certain stream of men in this culture who are a particular blend of soldier masculinity and strong aesthetic-consciousness. The son of a general, he once took us to shoot AK-47s in a field (illegally we later found out, when we got taken into the police station). But whenever he came to our English center he would compliment me on my formal teacher apparel as he adjusted my collar so that it would sit just right. Mr. Talent usually wears expensive suits and watches, has shoes spotlessly shined, and is known to take selfies with other similarly dressed students while they hold a bouquet of flowers. Contrary to the West, there is no conflict in this culture between manliness and immaculate grooming. Think classic James Bond – a James Bond who also really likes poetry and flowers. Yes, while the core of masculinity doesn’t change throughout history and around the world, its expressions certainly have a wide range of play. When you consider how many historic war epics contain the hero fabulously dressed and waxing eloquent in poetic verse (while cutting down his enemies), you might even begin to feel that we are the ones who are somehow out of step with our understandings of manhood. Needless to say, it’s been an adjustment for me, a simple T-shirt guy who used to go everywhere in flip-flops.

One evening, we had just wrapped up our English language gathering when we heard a knock on the metal door. I opened it, and there stood Mr. Talent, dressed in a light blue suit and with a large cake box in his hand.

“Mr. Talent! How are you? And what is this?” I asked, motioning to the cake box.

“Hellow! It-z my birth-e-day.”

“Really? I didn’t know that! Happy Birthday!” I said as he came in and extended his Salaam to everyone present.

“Not my actual birthday! Tonight I’m going to believe in Jesus,” he laughed and told me in the local language. “So I brought a cake to celebrate.”

It took us all a minute to process what he had just said. He brought his own cake because he’s planned to profess faith? Is this in line with the ordo salutis? We glanced around at one another as we chewed on this unexpected development.

“Wow, really?! That is wonderful, bring the cake over to the table,” my wife said, kicking into honorable hostess mode, as she does so well. The cake was a lot like Mr. Talent – very fancy and very happy.

After some time socializing, our Mexican partner and I took Mr. Talent aside to make sure that he was ready to believe as he had said he was. We ran through the gospel with him a few times, to make sure there was a clear understanding and identification. We were both satisfied. There was a clear confession of personal faith and a clear understanding of the good news – God is holy, we are sinners, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, we must repent and believe in him.

Then came the part where we had to decide how to proceed. We decided to kneel together and put our hands on his shoulders and pray for Mr. Talent. And we asked him to pray once we had finished, just expressing his new found faith to God in whatever simple terms he chose to. He had never prayed in front of us before and was quite nervous about doing it wrong, but we assured him that whatever was in his heart would be great. I prayed in mixed local language and English. Our partner prayed in mixed local language and Spanish. And then Mr. Talent prayed in his mother tongue, a simple, clear, heartfelt prayer evidencing true faith.

We said Amen and then looked up. Mr. Talent hadn’t heard very many testimonies of faith at that point. He had certainly never read any Christian literature, other than the Bible. So there was no one who had prepped him to say what he did next.

“When you guys were praying for me, I felt this strange energy, like electricity, flowing through my body.”

I took note. Mr. Talent certainly wasn’t the first person in church history to describe things this way. But that wasn’t near as interesting as what happened next. Mr. Talent, who had until that point merely been a shy learner and a seeker, started impromptu teaching us with conviction about the identity of Jesus from John chapter 10. He went on a five minute theologically-solid and passionate monologue, exhorting us to look to Jesus. My Mexican partner and I sat there amazed at the conduct of this brand new believer. Yes, striving to be good soul doctors, we carefully look for the subtle evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all our friends who who profess faith. But usually it is just that, a bit more subtle. This was blatantly obvious. Mr. Talent was suddenly talented, gifted, overflowing in proclaiming the word in a way he hadn’t been just a few minutes previously.

“Brother… keep doing that!” we encouraged him when he had finished. “Keep holding up Jesus like that. That is not just you, that is the Holy Spirit inside of you, helping you. The Bible says he gives each one of us unique gifts. And be an example to the other believers in consistency and faithfulness. Now… let’s eat some of this cake you brought. Today really does seem to be your born-again birthday!”

Mr. Talent wasn’t always the most consistent. The absence of his main discipler for a season took a toll. Friendship and spiritual progress are intertwined in mysterious ways. But now, three years later, he has persevered and has grown in his regular attendance and service to his small church. I’m not sure what exactly God is going to do in his future, but my guess is that it will have something to do with proclamation.

Proclamation – along with an appreciation for fashion and good food. So be it. The kingdom of God is a colorful place, after all. There’s certainly room for those who can lecture on the virtues of certain kinds of kabobs and suit jackets, and then pivot to exhort others on the shepherd heart of Christ.

Photo by David Holifield on Unsplash

His Joy in Suffering Overcame Her Fear

My best friend, *Hama, had come to faith. On a mountain picnic overlooking the city, he had professed to me his love for Jesus, his brokenness over his own sin, and his desire to live and die for Jesus. Several months of Bible study in the book of Matthew, many long discussions, a near-death experience, and a dramatic answer to prayer had led him to this point. Really, it was more like decades of preparation as the Holy Spirit used even events in Hama’s childhood to make him ready for the gospel when he finally had a friend to explain it to him. An elderly ethnic Christian woman in his neighborhood had modeled a heartfelt love and respect. Italian Christians had sheltered him in a church when he was making his way through Europe as a desperate refugee. The Muslim taxi drivers in the UK had begun to unwittingly reveal to him his own hypocrisy in his professed Islamic faith.

It had been a long journey for Hama to be ready to give his life to Jesus. But, like many new believers, Hama immediately began aggressively sharing his faith with his family and friends as if they should be able to see the truth immediately. His passion was admirable. His methods, well, I often had to encourage him to talk about Jesus more and spend less time bashing Mohammad and Islam. He was in what he and his wife *Tara would later call the “attack helicopter” phase. He quickly got into heated arguments with his mother and sisters and he and his pregnant wife were kicked out of the family home. Work as a wedding musician was already slim for Hama and now they were practically homeless, heading into the hottest months of the summer.

Hama had a nephew who invited him to stay with him in his house. It’s not typical for young men to have their own house, but Hama’s nephew had been gifted one by a very powerful patron, the wife of the president. In a previous era this nephew’s father had served as a bodyguard for this powerful woman and had died in the line of duty – at the hand of Islamic extremists, if I remember correctly. Because of his father’s loyalty, Hama’s nephew was taken care of. He later went on to become a famous television personality who regularly got into trouble for taking shots at Islam while on air. He had a house, he was close to Hama, and he was no sympathizer with conservative Islam, so it made sense that Hama and Tara would end up staying with him. He was utterly confused by Hama’s new faith, in spite of our attempts to explain it to him. But it was a good temporary solution until Hama’s family cooled down and accepted his new identity, which they did, several months later.

Tara, however, felt as if her world were collapsing. Her first pregnancy had ended in a traumatic miscarriage. Her new husband had now apostatized. Midway through her second pregnancy, they had been kicked out of their home. She was terrified that God would punish them for Hama’s apostasy by causing the second child to die also. We began to pray specifically that God’s protection for this baby would soften Tara to the faith of her husband. I would still spend the night at their place once a week, often studying English and the Bible late into the night with Hama. Tara was still as respectful a hostess toward me as ever. But every time the Bibles came out, Tara would get agitated and leave the room. Hama insisted that we keep going because he noticed that sometimes she would do chores just close enough to be able to overhear our discussion.

This went on for the next couple months. Hama’s family refused to talk to them. Tara’s pregnancy got more uncomfortable. The summer heat reached its worst stretch. And Hama’s work almost completely dried up. It was 2008 and the financial crisis had brought the local economy to a standstill, leaving precious little money to spend on live wedding musicians like Hama. Tara’s stress and anxiety has reached the boiling point.

One evening she couldn’t take it anymore. After yelling and arguing with Hama about how all this had been his fault, she broke down in tears. Hama tried to comfort her and to help her calm down. In spite of everything, their love for one another was deep and strong, enduring the kind of season that has destroyed many other local marriages. When a little while had passed, Tara asked Hama how, in contrast to her, he could possibly have peace and joy in the midst of such a terrible season.

“It’s Jesus,” Hama had replied. “Jesus has filled me with such joy. Even though this is the hardest time of our lives, it is the best time of my life because I now know Him.”

Tara chewed on Hama’s response. Then she replied that whatever Hama had, she wanted it. From that point on she began sitting in on our Bible study together, listening intently. Hama soon began reading the scriptures to her when she had trouble getting to sleep because of pregnancy pain or fear. Soon she started devouring the Bible on her own, surpassing Hama in her passion for reading. Their suffering had brought Tara to a point of desperation. But it was Hama’s joy in the midst of suffering that had overcome her fear. She had seen that deep peace and joy in the midst of suffering were possible – and the power of that sight overcame her fear of studying the Bible. She was not yet a sister in the faith, but she was well on her way.

*names changed for security

Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash

I Look Forward to Drinking Chai With You in the New Jerusalem

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? 
Is it not you? 
For you are our glory and joy.

-1st Thessalonians 2:19-20

Over the past year or two I have been experiencing some kind of crisis of motivation. What had previously always come naturally – love, hope, energy for investing in our focus people group – this had seemingly dried up. It’s clear to me the initial cause of this loss of motivation. A couple years ago our team was betrayed by a local leader in training that we had loved dearly and invested in deeply. Seemingly for the sake of money and power he had secretly turned against us, dividing the fledgling church plant that had started, and scattering many of the new believers. Deceit, slander, and confusion bore terrible fruit and we saw firsthand the devastation that can be caused by the Titus 3:10 “divisive man.” Life since then has been mostly non-stop transition for my family with a steady series of smaller let-downs by other local believing friends. Praise be to God, the church plant survived and quietly continues. But we took a hit. One that went deeper than I think I expected.

For the past year or so I have been asking for prayer that God would restore to me motivation for ministry relationships with locals. I believe he is answering that prayer. Our return to Central Asia this past month has brought with it a fresh wave of energy for the intensity of local friendships and the sometimes OCD-seeming level of texting, calling, and checking in on one another. It’s a full-time job to just keep up friendly and honorable smartphone communication in Central Asia. But not only has God been giving the grace to respond and reach out to local friends, he has also been filling my heart again with faith and hope in his good plans for this people group. Yes, they are prone to petty betrayals and duplicity. Everyone who has served here long-term has had close friends turn on them. But Jesus has his remnant here and the gates of hell will not prevail. A steady and faithful core of local believers hints at the amazing future of the Church here.

One text that has been used recently to encourage my soul is 1st Thes 2:19-20, quoted above. As is so often the case, when I am prone to discouragement or depression, God uses a fresh vision of our future hope in Christ as the means to pull me out of it. Time and time again, meditating on the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the new heavens and new earth has served like a defibrillator for my weak heart, jolting me back to life and awakening me to beauty. This time the scene the scriptures paint brings together the return of Christ and our joy in those who are there with us, those that God has used us to reach.

Looking forward to the coming of Jesus, Paul calls the Thessalonian believers his hope, his joy, his crown of boasting, and his glory.

The Thessalonian believers are not Paul’s basis of acceptance on that day – that is the righteousness of Christ alone. Yet these messy new believers will be for Paul a source of incredible happiness and honor on that day. I once heard of a tribal missionary speaking of the jungle tribe they were able to reach with the gospel. He spoke of longing for the day when he might be able to present this tribe as a fragrant offering to Christ. I believe he was likely referring to this and similar passages. For all of us, our friends that we are able to lead to faith or disciple or gather into churches, they will be on that day a part of a remarkable triangle of glory and joy. Glory and joy will flow from Christ to us and we will exult and rejoice in reflection back to him. But there will also be a side-by-side glory and joy with fellow believers. In being there together we will (is it possible?) have even more glory and joy, honor and hope as we delight also in one another.

There is great practical help in envisioning that last day when we are struggling with other believers in the here and now. I am also finding that there is help in fixing my gaze there as I prepare to enter local relationships that could prove to be yet another disappointment or false start – and as I hope for future healthy churches among this people group. I am helped by envisioning a small crowd of local believers rejoicing together and for the first time standing before the throne, presenting one another to the king with laughter and tears. There is power in meditating on these things. And healing. We don’t speak enough to one another like that future life actually real and approaching.

My best friend in the US, himself a Central Asian who is now a follower of Jesus, wrote this in a card to me as we left for Central Asia a number of years ago: “I look forward to drinking chai with you in the New Jerusalem.” I’m pretty sure I had to find somewhere private to go cry after reading that. It’s part of our “inconsolable secret” that we all have as believers. We ache for that day when we are there in the presence of Christ – together with our brothers and sisters in the faith, side by side and at last fully alive. For those of us who are leading others, we long to be found faithful and to see those stewarded to us kept until the end, glorified, shining like stars forever and ever. Glorified, but also still ourselves, doing very human things like drinking chai together, reminiscing about God’s faithfulness, and getting ready to explore the new earth. Who knows? Maybe the marriage supper of the lamb, like a good Central-Asian feast, will be followed by a round of chai for all.

So, like Paul, let’s meditate on that coming scene. Let’s encourage one another in the coming reality of that day. “You, dear struggling friends, you are my hope and joy and glory and crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming.”

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

In Praise of The Dogpile Effect

The dogpile effect. My former team gave this name to our response against territorialism. Territorialism is a common danger on the mission field where certain believing or unbelieving locals are “claimed” by a given missionary and the other foreigners are not invited into that relationship. Sometimes there are decent reasons for limiting the number of foreigners a local has speaking into their life. Too many diverse voices can cause unhelpful confusion. Somebody needs to run point. And yet most of the time it’s simple fear, insecurity, or pride that leads a cross-cultural worker to not let their teammates or trusted partners get to know their local disciple. What if they like them better than they like me? What if they give them counsel I don’t agree with? Why should I need others investing in my friend if I’m already discipling them?

Desiring to move into a better posture regarding our ministry relationships with locals, we came to instead embrace the idea of the dogpile effect. The premise is simple. A team of believers pouring into a local will be healthier and more powerful in the long run. In the presence of many counselors there is safety (Prov 11:14). Turns out there are several very important reasons to bring others into your discipleship relationships. And while I’m primarily speaking into the world of cross-cultural workers, these things apply to any believer seeking to disciple others.

Transience is the first reason to bring others in. Humans are transient beings, and missionaries even more so. While it’s true for all of us that our lives are mere vapor (James 4:14), fading much more quickly than we thought, this effect is compounded on the mission field. Missionaries may have to leave their context of service abruptly due to political developments, visa issues, health problems, brokenness, family situations back home, or sin. So many plan for forty years and due to unforeseen difficulties have to go back to their home country after four. The average long-termer in our corner of Central Asia stays for only six years. A realistic view of our own transience means we should have other mentors that our local friends can lean on when we get that dreaded phone call saying it’s suddenly time to go. Handing off discipleship relationships is easier said than done. It takes time for trust to be built. We should be bringing in others early on in the process.

My family only ended up serving three years in our previous city, never imagining that we would be called to serve elsewhere after such a brief season. Yet that’s exactly what happened. By God’s grace our local friends were already plugged into a community, a team that was able to carry on with spiritual friendship and their discipleship – even in the relationships where we had previously taken point. This brought comfort in the midst of our transition. Our friends would not be left as spiritual orphans.

Our own lopsided spiritual gifts also advocate for inviting others into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Every believer is given particular gifts by the Holy Spirit, but no one is given every gift (1st Cor 12). While we all have strengths, each strength comes with its accompanying weakness. We need other believers investing in our friends because our own discipleship will have some serious holes and shortcomings. Something wonderful happens when several believers invest together in a particular person – their complementary gifts work together for a more holistic and healthy mentorship than would have been possible one-on-one. The body of Christ simply does better work when the members are working together. This doesn’t change simply because we are working in a foreign context.

I will never forget a church discipline situation with a Central Asian friend where I had used every tool and argument that I knew of to plead with my friend to repent. In the end it was insufficient. Yet breakthrough unexpectedly came through a conversation with an East Asian brother who was able to apply a surprising passage of scripture to the situation in a masterful way I never would have. His gifting in wisdom made all the difference. My friend repented and was restored.

Transience and giftedness argue for communal ministry relationships. Yet I would be amiss if I did not also mention one more aspect: beauty. There is a particular compelling beauty that comes about through a community of believers on mission together. This beauty results in the world knowing that we are Jesus’ disciples as our love for one another is displayed (John 13:35). It results in the world believing that the Father has sent the Son as our unity shines (John 11:21). An isolated disciple maker is simply not as spiritually compelling as a dogpile of believers doing the work together. These are the basic dynamics of the kingdom, how it grows and blossoms.We may not think of a dogpile as a particularly beautiful thing, but this kind most certainly is.

What does a compelling communal witness look like? It can be the simplest relationships on display. One friend came to faith in part because he witnessed the dynamics of our marriage – and we were newlyweds at the time, very much figuring things out. Another friend believed the gospel after coming to know the members our small church plant in communal settings. The beauty of believers interacting together and on display is beautiful and powerful – even to raise the spiritually dead.

Territorialism is a constant temptation for disciple makers. My encouragement is that we fight our fears, insecurities, and pride, instead choosing to invite other believers into our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. Because we are transient. Because we need one another’s gifts. Because of beauty.

Let’s embrace the dogpile effect. We won’t regret having done so.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

If You Don’t Evangelize at Home, You Won’t Overseas?

In this post I hope to offer a qualification to a good general principle. I have often heard it said that if you don’t share the gospel in your home culture, you won’t share it in a foreign culture either. There is no sanctification by aviation, it is said. I largely agree with this sentiment. Whether you live on mission at home is a very good indication of whether you will live on mission overseas or not.

However, I have also spent many years of my life living in places where it’s actually easier to share the gospel than it is in the secular West. Frankly, the Western church needs to know that it’s hard to share the gospel where they live compared to many other parts of the world. It’s not just that we all struggle with fear of man. Western culture itself has built-in societal mechanisms to shut down conversation with others about religious things. Many other cultures don’t do that to the same extent. Sure, the government won’t get you in trouble for sharing the gospel in the West. But believe it or not, it’s actually easier to share the gospel in a context where the people are hungry for it, but the government will arrest you. In the West, the government may be fine with it, but the people are prone to be offended.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Christians in the West should excuse themselves from sharing the gospel. But open admissions of difficulty are often helpful in and of themselves. They help us adequately prepare for the task at hand. Yes, it’s tough. So what do we need to do to account for the toughness?

But the fact that it is often harder in the West might also mean that some need to go overseas in order to get training in how to evangelize. Common experience dictates that trainees need to begin with tasks that are more attainable as they work their way up to more difficult tasks. This provides them an opportunity to gain experience and confidence as they progress toward greater challenges. In this vein we start kids off with pool noodles as they work their way toward swimming on their own and we train teenagers to drive in parking lots or country roads before they get on the highway.

For some in the category of trainee, newer disciple, or even veteran believer who has never shared the gospel regularly, dropping them into a foreign context just might be the most helpful thing for their growth in evangelism.

Some foreign cultures are very comfortable speaking openly about religious things. In our corner of Central Asia, the first things many want to know about are our views on Trump and our views on Islam. It’s as if the Western rule of “no politics or religion in small talk” has been flipped on its head. This makes our overseas context a wonderful place to practice and grow as an evangelist. When we or our visitors are spending time with locals, there tend to be many softballs thrown inviting a gospel presentation and lots of room to make mistakes. I know that our setting is not unique in this regard.

Foreign cultures can also be helpful training grounds for evangelism because we are often freer from the fear of man when speaking through linguistic and cultural barriers. In our home culture we feel how awkward a certain direct question about sin or death might be. In another culture, we initially don’t feel this. We instead feel greater freedom to be as blunt as we should be, blissfully ignorant as we are of how awkward that kind of a question was. This can be helpful as we come to see the good fruit that can come from direct gospel conversation, regardless of the awkwardness or strangeness of it. Greater gospel sharing leads to both greater willingness to do the awkward thing and a greater ability to make gospel conversations natural.

A particular intentionality toward spiritual things also tends to accompany us when we are in a foreign context. Whether it’s a one-week trip or a one-year term, the constant strangeness of our surroundings reminds us of the purpose of our presence in said foreign land. We are here to share the gospel. We have a limited time to do it. This kind of intentionality naturally leads towards more actual gospel proclamation. We think about it more. We pray about it more. So we share more. In our home cultures we can be in danger of a certain spiritual forgetfulness. Because everything feels so familiar we can forget that we ourselves are spiritual strangers and sojourners, placed here for a particular mission.

If you don’t share the gospel at home, you won’t share it overseas. This is a trustworthy statement. At the same time, some may need to go overseas in order to learn the confidence, craft, and intentionality required to share the gospel regularly back at home. This argues in favor of short term and mid term mission assignments to locations where this kind of growth can take place. Not sure how this kind of a trip can take place? Well, myself and hundreds of other missionaries would be overjoyed to help your church find the right kind of setting for a short-term trip that helps your people grow in evangelism (once the post-pandemic world returns to greater normalcy in travel, that is).

Helping timid evangelists grow in their craft and confidence may not seem to make a huge impact on the work of long term missionaries. But it would be a worthwhile investment in the saints of partner churches nonetheless. We can’t always trace the Spirit’s plans. It may be that a timid believer finds his evangelistic gifting while on a short term trip overseas. Coming back home, he is then helped to live a more faithful evangelistic lifestyle. A coworker he then leads to faith ends up overseas long-term himself, leading to breakthrough in an unreached people group. Stranger things have happened in the advance of the kingdom.

Let us strive to share the gospel faithfully no matter where we live. “Woe to me if I do not share the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Yet let us also keep our eyes open to those places that can be strategic training grounds for Timothy-types who might need a season overseas as solid preparation for living faithfully back home.

Some Will Walk Away Because We’re Not Conservative Enough

[1] Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, [2] through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, [3] who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. [4] For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, [5] for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)

We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.

Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.

In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!

And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.

For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.

As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.

Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.

Photo by Antonio Barroro on Unsplash

A Time to Let the Left Hand Know What the Right is Doing

“Brother, if I ever become a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be a much stronger follower than you are.”

Ouch. My friend *Hama was sharing with me what he was learning as a first-time reader of the gospel of Matthew.

“May it be, my friend! But what do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I would study the Bible every day and I would pray every day so that I could be close to my God,” Hama said.

“But Hama, I do those things almost everyday.”

“You do?!” Hama turned in surprise.

I laughed, “Yes I don’t do it perfectly, but for years now I have sought to begin my day by an hour or so of reading my Bible and praying.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. How had I failed to mention my own spiritual disciplines to Hama in the months that we had been friends? I chewed on this question and on the fact that my closest local friend had been assuming the worst about me. This wouldn’t be the last time I experienced this dynamic while working with Central Asian seekers or new believers.

A few years later I was working with refugees in the US. As we sought to have a few join our local church who were professing believers, we kept encountering the same kind of assumptions. The default belief of some of these refugees was that members of the church who were dating were regularly sleeping together before marriage. Others believed that that the pastors who were getting paid by the church were not themselves giving any money to the church. Another time I encountered the belief that the reason we counted the number of people in services was because of some financial scheme. I often wondered, how are they not picking up on what is really happening here?

Later in Central Asia I would find the disturbing assumptions that the missionaries were obligated to pay all the rent for the owner of the home where the house church met. Many even believed that we were paid a certain bonus for each baptism that took place (mine was rumored to be $25,000 per head!). Scores of my friends probably still assume that I work for the CIA in some fashion.

Why would my friends assume these things, even after coming to faith? Part of it is due to their own cultural and worldview formation. They have grown up in the real, fallen world. Central Asia and the Middle East have a strong religious veneer, but underneath the facade everyone has experienced the powerful forces of love of money, sexual immorality, lust for power, and every other manner of sin. They have learned to assume these things are going on as the normal way the world functions.

But I also came to see that I was from a church culture where many of these areas of obedience were kept in the category of open secret. We Western evangelicals tend to assume that others can somehow see our obedience in areas such as spiritual disciplines, sexual purity, and money, without us ever having to tell them directly (with the exception of an accountability partner). And many of us have learned to pick up on very subtle clues or have rightly given one another the benefit of the doubt. If the public teaching is explicit in these areas, then to casually ask someone about their giving to the church or whether they slept together with their fiance before marriage would seem forward and awkward, even in a healthy Western church.

We also know that temptations to pride are real. This keeps us from speaking openly about our obedience, out of fear of seeming prideful or giving ground for pride to grow. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth (Prov 27:2). We don’t want to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). These things are biblical. So we keep quiet about our giving, about the victories of sexual purity, about the ways we’ve been faithful to seek the Lord for years.

There is much good in our allergy to phariseeism. But there is also danger, danger to new believers. It is imperative that we speak openly about our secret obedience with those who are unchurched and new in the faith. They need to hear that we are actually obeying the seemingly-impossible commands of Jesus. They also need to hear from a role model on how we have obeyed the commands of scripture in a practical manner.

I’ve heard it said that children are wonderful observers and terrible interpreters. I believe this is true of many cross-cultural relationships and new believers as well. Many are prone to misunderstand why certain things are happening in the life of the church. Pagan motives will be projected onto believers by those who have been raised by pagandom. It’s our job as their disciplers to be frank with them about many things regarding ourselves – things we might not bring up to other mature believers from our culture for the sake of fighting pride.

Yes, I seek to spend time daily in praying and in the word. This has gone on for years. This is what it looks like for me…

Yes, I give generously to my church. This is what percentage I give at… Here are the other ways we are giving to the poor as well.

Yes, my wife and I were virgins when we got married. This is not impossible. Here’s how we fought for purity…

Yes, I drank alcohol in moderation and never got drunk. This is not impossible. Here’s what that looked like for me…

Yes, all the pastors at my church give money back to the church, even if they are paid by the church.

No, I don’t work for the CIA or for any other government.

No, I don’t get any money for baptizing people! This is a lie.

We will serve new believers and believers from other cultures if we would be more open with them about our secret obedience. But what about not letting the left hand know what the right is doing? The principle of this command is that we should not publicly trumpet our obedience for the sake of the praise of men. It’s all about the motive of the heart. Therefore, if it’s for the sake of equipping a new believer, I am free to take my financial giving out of the realm of open secret and into the realm of frank discussion.

Let’s not assume new believers are able to somehow intuit our secret obedience. They need role models. And let us not assume that they know the “why” of what we do. Let’s make it plain for them. No question about Christian morality should be off-limits. On a personal note, let’s also be gracious when our friends seem to assume the worst about us, our believing friends, or our church. After all, we are part of the kingdom of God – a kingdom that cannot be understood without new eyes and a new heart. Even after receiving these, we all need the grace of frank discussion with a friend… and lots of time.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash