Fake Beards and Future Believers

This past week Harry* preached for the first time in over two years. One of the only local believers who was present at the very beginning of our church plant, Harry at one point had become a leader in training. Our hopes were high that he would soon become an elder, but he disappeared during a season of church conflict and increased persecution from his tribe. By God’s grace, he’s come back around this past year and has been a steady and positive presence in the church once again. It was a sweet thing to have him preach again, teaching on John 15:12-17, “Friendship with God.” I led worship for the service, playing several of our local worship songs on our beater guitar that sounds half-way ukulele.

Harry is also one of the few locals still around who had met me fourteen years ago when I took a year off from college to come to this particular corner of Central Asia. Somehow the topic of how we first met came up on our ride home after the service.

“So, you remember this song?” I asked as I turned on “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Harry clapped his hands and gave a hearty laugh.

“That’s it!” He said. “That’s that ridiculous song you guys sang at the English club.”

My team at that point took part in a weekly English club at the local university. We would typically show a film clip to the hundred or so students gathered in the auditorium and then break up into discussion groups. The problem was the students were mostly very shy and nervous. At that point locals still felt pretty intimidated to be interacting with native English speakers. So we tried various strategies to get them to loosen up, including skits and musical numbers – mostly in vain.

One week for some reason I suggested we do a live rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” from the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Perhaps it was my grandmom’s West Virginia mountain holler genes getting the better of me. I was sent to the bazaar to find grey wigs that we could fashion into hillbilly beards and we scrounged up some floppy hats, flannel shirts, and overalls. I played guitar and another appropriately stocky man on our team would be our main vocalist. Three other teammates would provide the backup vocals and the hoe-down dance moves. The performance went off surprisingly well, especially our flourish – when the redneck dancing seamlessly transitioned into Central Asian line dancing. That was, as I recall, the one point we got a little bit of audience interaction. This was appreciated, as it was likely the first time in history that the dance moves of the Appalachian mountains met those of Central Asia.

We finished the song triumphantly – but were met by a room of awkward silence, then a few hesitant smiles. One student started some lonely clapping and we performers shrugged at one another and transitioned on to the next part of the program. Apparently it was too much, too soon, but at least we had had a good time with it.

The one student who clapped was apparently the only student to have also seen the movie. “Better than the film!” He said as he came up to interact afterwards.

As I was to learn many years later, Harry was also in that room of perplexed students.

“I remember you all showing up dressed very strangely and wearing fake beards. Then the big guy started singing and you were on the guitar. I was the only one of my friends who knew a little English, so they asked me what was being said in the song. I couldn’t understand a thing – until the line, I have no frieeends to help me now. I leaned over to my friends and told them, ‘He says he has no friends.’ ‘What?’ they responded, ‘Of course he has friends, who are those other guys up there with him? What kind of a song is this, anyway?’ I just shook my head.”

Apparently Harry and I briefly met that day for the first time, though it would be seven years before we would meet again. Instead, I ended up connected with one of his good friends who had good English. Amet* and I would spend the next nine months meeting up in city parks, walking and discussing the book of Romans, and sitting on the grass while we munched the rice wrapped in grape leaves that his mom would always send with us. I felt sure that Amet was close to faith, but I returned to the States at the end of my year somewhat disappointed that he never crossed the line into confessing and believing.

Six years later I would return to the same city on a vision trip and hear that Amet was now a language teacher for another expat family – and they were having regular spiritual conversations with him. Amet soon brought Harry along, and then got lapped by Harry, who was the first to believe, finally dragging his friend over the line as well. Amet later became a refugee in the West, but Harry stuck around and became a steady disciple.

Harry and I laugh when we remember that goofy bluegrass performance. It’s an odd contrast with the hard road we’ve walked together since then. A road that’s involved being betrayed together by a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Harry’s ups and downs with the church and with his tribe, and our mutual struggle to trust that all this mess is really going to one day result in a faithful church.

Ironically, one of Harry’s greatest struggles has been to believe the opposite of that line from the song – that he has friends who will help him now. He doesn’t have to isolate when things get hard.

He may have many hardships that fill out his testimony, but in God’s sovereignty he can at least begin his story with something funny. “One day these foreign Christians showed up at my university. They looked utterly absurd. And don’t even get me started on their singing.”

*names changed for security

Flatbread and the Kindness of God

It had been a rough six months back in the US. After a life-changing year in Central Asia, I had returned to the States in order to get back to being a college student. My first semester back was spent at an expensive Christian liberal arts school in the cornfields, where reverse culture shock hit me like a locomotive. In addition to this, a long-distance relationship had fallen through, a mentor had died of cancer, and God had seemed to go silent. A friend studying in Louisville, KY, invited me to come and visit his school. The combination of this close friendship, a more affordable school, and city with Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees caused me to move to Louisville in the summer of 2009.

Sometimes providence shows off. Circumstances fall into place in such an unlikely or personalized way that we can’t help but feel that God is uniquely caring for us as known and loved individuals. Soon after moving to Louisville, I searched the internet for halal markets. These stores are run by Muslims and sell groceries – and particularly meat – that are ceremonially clean for Muslims to eat, or halal. Most cities in Western nations that have resettled Muslim refugees will have a small network of these markets, as well as halal restaurants. I was sorely missing my Central Asian friends. And I was eager to be studying the Bible with Muslims again. So I scanned the search results, zeroing in on a market and bakery that were only one mile from my school – close enough for a student without a vehicle to walk to. Suddenly I leaned in. The name of the bakery suggested that it was run by refugees from the very same Central Asian people group I had just spent a year with. My heart leapt, and I decided to go as soon as I could.

The day I visited the bakery I met Rand*, a refugee from the same people group I had lived with, albeit from over the border in a neighboring country. He was just as shocked and happy as I was when we found ourselves able to converse in his mother tongue. We excitedly told our stories to one another and Rand gave me a precious gift – a stack of warm flatbread, freshly baked in a tanur oven. The smell was incredible, and transported me immediately back to the the windy streets of the bazaar. Not only did Rand bake the stuff, but he even delivered it! Now I was feeling spoiled. He was heading out to deliver his bread to the Middle Eastern restaurants in town, so we said goodbye and I promised to come and see him soon. I turned out of the bakery section of the building and starting exploring the small market.

The market was run by a kind family from Afghanistan. I had never had any friends from that country, and they became my first. Both my focus people group and Afghans are from the Persian-related swathe of Central Asia, and I was amazed to find how much of their culture and vocab was similar to what I had learned thousands of miles away. I gleefully picked up some looseleaf tea and spices to make the local chai I had learned – half earl grey, half black Ceylon, a little bit of cinnamon and cardamom and plenty of sugar. I stepped out of that market beaming, walking home awash in a sense of God’s kindness toward me. A halal market and bakery only one mile from where I lived! New friends from Central Asia! And a chance to step back into a part of the world I had come to love deeply, and which was beginning to shape me deeply in turn.

Nothing very dramatic ever happened at that halal market and bakery, but several very good things did. I got into conversations about Jesus with the Afghan family. I met some new friends there from my focus people group. I helped support refugee businesses by buying tea, happy cow cheese, and flatbread. I took a cute girl on one of our first dates there (a girl who would one day become my wife). That day it was snowing and we had a lovely walk through the snow to the bakery where I got to introduce her to the wonders of warm Central Asian naan and hot chai.

After only a year or so, Randy and his family moved out of state, and it wasn’t long afterward that the market closed also. There’s a very high turnover rate among small businesses like these. I missed visiting them, though by this time I had also found a dozen other Central Asian-owned businesses within a couple miles of my school – much to the surprise of even the missions professors. Iranians in particular are very good at starting businesses in the West that blend in pretty seamlessly, unless one is specifically looking out for them.

But I will never forget that bakery that felt like it was placed there just for this reverse-culture-shocking broke college student who dearly missed Central Asia. In what continued to be a very hard season, it was a tangible sign of God’s kindness – especially that fresh flatbread.

Photo by Syed F Hashemi on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

You’ve Never Heard This (Spiritually) Before

I’ve seen it happen many times. A new believer is sharing their testimony and when speaking of a moment of breakthrough gospel understanding, they say things like,

“I had never heard that before.”

“That was the first time I heard the gospel.”

“No one had previously explained Jesus to me in that way.”

Meanwhile, their longtime believing friend is sitting nearby, with an incredulous look on their face or perhaps a perplexed smile, knowing that that moment was definitely not the first time they had had the gospel presented to them clearly. The new believer represents the first time they understood the gospel as the first time they heard the gospel. And this doesn’t seem to be an intentional revision of the historical record, but an honest representation of their experience. In some mysterious way, there seems to be a memory loss effect upon the mind of an unbeliever when they hear, but don’t comprehend, the good news. Things get blocked out. Then all of the sudden, they’re not any more.

Perhaps you’ve never seen this with unbelieving or newly believing friends, but have experienced a parallel with your own offspring. I know a similar dynamic takes place with our kids.

“Ohhh, why have you never said that before? That makes sense.”

How many parents have heard similar sentiments, knowing that that same truth has indeed been repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in the past? Such moments for the parent are an interesting mixture of perplexity and deep relief that said truth has finally reached its target.

This past week our church plant was studying the person of the Holy Spirit in John 14. In verse 17 it says, “… the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” While discussing what this verse means regarding the truth-revealing role of the Holy Spirit, we turned to 1st Corinthians 2:12-14.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

These passages are clear. Those who are not yet believers cannot understand the truths of God, because the Holy Spirit and his spiritual understanding have not yet been given to them. The presence of the Spirit in a person is the key that leads to true spiritual understanding and discernment. The natural person cannot understand spiritual things without this key.

I saw it this morning as I shared the gospel with two older men in a money-changing shop – furrowed brows indicating that the message of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus was not quite making sense to them. I’ve seen it for the last three Tuesday nights as a group of us gathered to field hard questions, including those of Darius’* cousin and another close photographer friend. These two former-Muslims/current agnostics are being treated to some excellent apologetics and biblical answers, especially from Alan*, with his scholarly mind and long experience of himself wrestling to find the truth (What a joy it is to see local believers taking a more prominent role in these kinds of conversations). Yet these unbelieving friends grind the gears of their unregenerate minds, seeming to move mere millimeters in terms of actually understanding and agreeing to what we are saying. They will likely not remember the spiritual answers they have been given at this point if they later become believers. And Alan will shake his head when some other guy later repeats the same point and they claim that it’s the first time they’ve heard it.

So what’s the point? Why sow seed that just seems to get eaten by the birds, rich truths that seem to immediately get suppressed and later forgotten? Simply because this is the only way that spiritual understanding comes about – through the unrelenting sowing of God’s word. The Spirit only comes upon those who have heard the words of truth. He does not work without it or around it. He works through his word, period. And from our perspective we cannot see what is going on behind the scenes, which seed is the one that will take root and burst through the concrete. He sovereignly chooses to strike with life sooner, later, or not at all.

To borrow an analogy from Donald Whitney, we cannot control the lightning, but we can set up lightning rods. Lightning tends to strike metal rods, so we would be foolish to not set them out simply because the actual strike is beyond our control. On the contrary, if you want the lightning to strike, then put out as many rods as you can.

It really is OK when our newly believing friends remember things inaccurately. God knows the true part that each and every conversation played and the mysterious ways that the spiritually-dead mind represses things. We can sit back and smile when we have played a part that is now forgotten or even distorted. What really matters is that spiritual truth is now understood by our friends, who are now themselves truly spiritual.

In fact, they are not all wrong when they claim to have never heard said truth before. They just never heard it spiritually.

Photo by Josep Castells 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

Providence Showing Off

Most of my prayer walks in the bazaar are an exercise in being alone with God while being surrounded by other people. Strange as it may sound, I enjoy praying quietly to myself while flanked by other pedestrians on a bustling Central Asian sidewalk. I’ve not intentionally sought out opportunities to share the gospel while out praying and walking – that discipline is able to happen elsewhere. But neither am I opposed to hitting an evangelistic softball if one is thrown my way during the course of a walk.

An opportunity like this came along last week, and completely out of nowhere. It was a sunny mid-morning I was walking down a street full of small bakeries, fish stalls, chai houses, and watch repairers, when I decided on a whim to take a left down past the old post office. I had no particular reason for choosing this route, but at the moment of decision it simply felt like this would be a good way to go.

Two-thirds of the way down the post office street I spotted a man standing in front of me and looking at me oddly. Our eyes met.

“You are an English teacher, right?” he asked me.

“Well, I was for some years, yes.” I said as I wondered how he had pegged me so accurately.

“I am a legal translator. And I am stuck. I have been translating registration documents for a Christian organization.”

Internally, I quickly transitioned out of prayer/meditation mode and sought to focus on what was happening in front of me. The ingredients of this situation were not exactly common. I wondered if this might be a divinely-appointed interaction.

“There’s some religious language that I’m not familiar with,” he continued. “Some unique Christian terms that I haven’t heard before. I don’t know what to do…”

“Would you like me to come to your office and see if I can help?” I quickly offered.

“If it’s no trouble, my office is just across the street here,” he motioned to a nearby corner.

We walked over to his small translation shop and stepped inside. The legal translator motioned for me to take a seat, handing me the customary small bottle of cold water. Then he pulled out the documents he had been working on.

“Can you tell me what gospel identity means? And what about reconciliation?” the translator started off, furrowing his brow. “Look at this sentence where they use those terms. I can’t make any sense out of it. I’m a legal translator, not someone familiar with translating religious language.”

He handed me the registration documents and I perused them, smiling internally. The words the translator was the most stuck on were some of the best gospel bridges in the document.

As I read the document, one part of me rejoiced at the spiritual terms present, and another part of me shook my head at the unnecessarily complex language we Westerners tend to write in – and saddle our translators with. “The goal of good writing is to be clear, not impressive.” I don’t know how many times I have said this line while helping a local friend struggling to translate Christian material out of English and into our local language. The translatability of our writing is a virtue not spoken of often enough.

The legal translator and I went back and forth over a number of tough Christian words and phrases, a process which gave me several good opportunities to dive into biblical truth. I shared with him the basic definition of gospel – good news – and then described that good news as “God is holy, we are sinful, Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, and we must respond by repenting and believing in him.” We review this God, Man, Christ, Response outline as a church every time we gather for a service and I was grateful for the gospel fluency this longstanding practice has created, both for the local believers and for us.

We made some good progress on the document, but I could tell that the translation needs would require more time than I had to give that morning. Gospel comprehension would also require more time.

“I have an idea for you,” I shared after a while. “If you download the YouVersion Bible app, you can search for a Christian term and see how it is used in the Bible and see how it’s been translated by scholars into your own language. There’s this great parallel language function that I use all the time.”

“Really? That would be great!”

I showed him how to download the Bible app, search for a term, and compare languages side by side. I also gave him the number of a bilingual local believer in case he got stuck and needed some more assistance.

“You know, you remind me of someone I used to know,” the translator said. “A close friend named Joshua.”

“Joshua?” I smiled. I knew who he was talking about, a believing friend from college who had done a stint in this city of more than a million people a decade ago. I knew that Joshua would have shared the gospel with this man. And yet the lack of easy comprehension on the part of the translator showed that it had never really sunk in, even in terms of intellectual understanding. Or it had long since faded, suppressed by time and an unbelieving mind. Maybe Joshua was still praying for this man. Maybe that’s why we had run into each other on the sidewalk that day.

I took note of the translation office’s location, a spot I walk past most days. This shop would be one to come back to.

We said goodbye and I stepped out into the sunshine. I walked home, continuing to pray and encouraged by this unexpected chance to share the gospel. Even on a meandering prayer walk, there are no unplanned steps, no random encounters. I don’t always pick up on the providential designs beneath my daily encounters. But some days they’re simply on full display. Almost as if providence is showing off.

Photo by Ali Kokab on Unsplash

Worth Some Frozen Pipes

“But you have not answered my question,” the workman said as he ate the lunch we had provided of takeout kabab (It’s expected in this culture to provide lunch when workmen are at your house all day). “What do you think of Islam? Is it good or bad?”

I had just concluded sharing how Islam teaches salvation by works – salvation through the scale of good deeds – while the Bible teaches salvation by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus alone. But my friend wasn’t going to let me get away with indirectly pointing out how my faith directly contradicts Islam. The workman and his colleague looked at me expectantly.

“Islam teaches that a man can save himself by his good works,” I said, “so it is bad. Because it is impossible for a man to save himself in this way. It sets men up for despair, or worse.”

It’s rare that I drop that bomb so early in a conversation. Usually if I attack Islam directly early on, then the honor/shame defense mechanisms kick in and the conversation stops being productive. I’ve learned that most of our locals will let me critique Islam in a hundred indirect ways and keep talking with me, all the while increasingly understanding my position that what they believe about ultimate reality is wrong. However, the response from the head workman to my blunt reply was more positive than I had been expecting.

“Good job!” he said. “I think Islam is bad too. For me, humanity is everything. And I can’t stand how we mix Islam with politics all over this region.”

I hadn’t seen this coming. These workmen were from a town four hours to our south, members of one of our unengaged people groups. An unreached unengaged people group (UUPG) is a people group that has no known Christians working to reach it with the gospel. The particular group these men belonged to may be around one million strong, with its own distinct language and identity – and zero known believers or churches. They live in a politically tense area that is hard to access and are so obscure as to barely show up on the unreached people group mapping sites.

Given this background, my assumption was that these men would be rather devout. I had assumed wrong. Sitting in front of me were men whose people group have never had a Christian missionary, but who had already been “converted” away from their native religion and into the lure of an easy humanism. They were Muslims in name only, but in reality would share much in common with progressive Westerners. The difficulty in these kinds of conversations is helping these locals see that the gospel is not just an equivalent religious system to Islam (and therefore to be dismissed as outdated), but to show them that many of the values they so admire in Western humanism – such as human rights and freedom of religion – come from biblical principles – and that these values alone are not enough.

I was encouraged over the course of two lunches to get to share the gospel, the goodness of religious liberty, and a biblical sexual ethic. We agreed to meet up for dinner soon where we’d have lots of time to talk at length about these things.

These lunch break conversations were an encouraging providence in a tough week of frozen pipes, gas shortages, sickness, and below freezing temperatures. Some weeks we spend so much time just staying functional that it can feel like we have nothing left over for the actual work of the ministry. It is especially encouraging then, when the life maintenance brings the ministry conversations to us.

This time we got to share the gospel with UUPG men who have never heard it before. That’s worth some frozen pipes.

Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi on Unsplash

Seven Factors for Missionary Homes

Whenever new personnel come to the field, we end up discussing the pros and cons of the housing that’s been chosen for them. Usually there’s some concern that it’s too nice compared to how locals live, but sometimes there are concerns that the place is not nice enough. I try to encourage them to settle in to the place they’ve been provided, and to keep their eyes open for the various ways in which locals and foreigners live here. “In a couple years,” I encourage them, “you’ll be in a great spot to find your own posture as far as housing and standard of living.” As we’ve given our colleagues here eventual freedom to choose to live in more modern or traditional places, they’ve felt better able to find their own personal fit regarding this very practical question.

A word of advice to team leaders or church planters out there: insisting on one rigid standard of living for your team doesn’t tend to work out that well. Rather, letting people wrestle with the following factors helps them to balance the different aspects involved, and make a decision with deeper buy-in. We don’t have to all live the same way on the mission field. A variety of housing lifestyles is healthy even for local believers to see. This is another area where we need to be careful not to create laws, even if we have personal convictions regarding what kind of housing is truly strategic.

  1. Access. The most important factor for missionary housing is access. Can workers who live in this house or apartment easily access the people group or the area they are called to focus on? We want to redeem the time and not live in a house that bogs us down in transit or isolation unnecessarily. We are also all creatures who struggle with motivation. When that culture shock is running you over, you want access to your people group to be there with as little resistance as possible. Living next door to (or on top of) your focus people group provides gospel opportunities, even when you might not want them. Easy access is not always possible, but when it is an option, it’s an extremely important factor.
  2. Hospitality. Does that potential home lend itself to gospel hospitality? Will locals feel comfortable visiting you when you invite them? Does your wife find the hosting space efficient or frustrating? Socioeconomic dynamics can have an effect here. If your house seems too fancy or too rough, locals may not feel free to visit you. In our context where apartment towers are a very new thing, many locals are afraid of high buildings, and might not be able to visit an apartment on the 20th floor.
  3. Relatability. Does your house or apartment and the way you live have much overlap with the way that locals live? Or is your house laid out in a foreign way, or lacking important items that locals believe should be in every home (like bathroom shoes)? It’s usually not wise for foreigners to try to live exactly as the locals do, but we should aim for healthy overlap. There should be ways in which our homes feel local, and ways in which they feel Western – especially for rest needs. Our first house in Central Asia was very nice, a surprising step up from where we had been living in refugee apartments in the US. Our second house ended up being a little too small and rough for our family and ministry needs. Our third house? Hoping for the right balance.
  4. Longevity. Is your home restful for you, your roommates, or your family? After spending yourself in local ministry, is your home a place where you’re actually able to recharge? If your house is the biggest cause of stress you have, you likely need to move. Some of our colleagues have moved into communities with 24-hour electricity and have experienced a major decrease in their stress levels now that they don’t have to juggle various fragile electricity systems. Many of us have also lived in homes without adequate natural light, and have learned to prioritize this as a practical way to fight discouragement. My family has moved into an old stone house, but one with green trees and lots of dirt and easy access to the bazaar. Why? Because green and dirt and walking the bazaar are life-giving for us. And it all adds up when it comes to longevity – the ability for workers to actually stay on the field.
  5. Team. Are you close enough to your teammates to be able to function as a healthy team, with regular rhythms of meeting, eating, and working together? One of the costs of our current house is that it is a 30 minute drive from our teammates. But for our first two years on the field, we were neighbors with one set of teammates and lived just up the hill from others. This easy access was crucial in those early days. Sometimes we can prioritize strategy over team and community, and only later realize the deficit that’s been building.
  6. Life Stage. Are you married with small children? Apartment living might not be the best choice, unless you can find a place on the ground floor. You probably don’t want to tell your kids to hush all the time. Are you living in a Muslim context but have teenage daughters? A house in a conservative neighborhood could end up severely limiting your girls’ freedom and end up leading to bitterness. Health problems can also mean needing to live somewhere newer with better utilities. Singles may also not be permitted to live in some neighborhoods because of honor/shame or safety issues. Access to schooling can also be one of the most important factors here.
  7. Beauty. This has been a growing category for me personally. In the past, beauty would not have registered as an important aspect of which house to live in. But we are creators by nature and even in this unstable age we are called to plant gardens in Babylon as it were. Once again, everything adds up when it comes to longevity. Access to beauty at home, or the potential to create beauty by moving into a fixer-upper – these things could actually make the difference in whether or not that internal stress cauldron boils over or not. My mom used to garden in Melanesia. For years I never understood what the point was. Now I am starting to get it. Our lives are supposed to be little previews of the new heavens and the new earth. Splashes of beauty in or around our physical domiciles contribute to that overall foretaste that we hope to give our local friends. In one sense, investing in the beauty of our homes on the mission field doesn’t feel like a very “pilgrim” thing to do. But we are not merely utilitarian beings, laser-focused on the spiritual while ignoring the physical creation around us. We were gardeners in the beginning. We will one day be part of an eternal garden city. Therefore, as “pilgrim gardeners” we are not foolish to hint at these realities in the here and now, even as we admit that these good previews might be here today and gone tomorrow.

We should be careful not to create laws about missionary housing that stem more from preference than sound principles. These seven factors, however, are worth considering as church planters, missionaries, or really any Christian wrestles with how to live on mission in this needy world. There is no perfectly balanced place to live this side of heaven. But by being intentional in where we choose to live, we can have a home that is an aid to our mission, rather than a hindrance.

Photo by Marko Beljan on Unsplash

Ottomans and Incarnation

My son and I were killing some time in a local mall when we entered a furniture store and happened upon a small ottoman-type foot rest. I had been keeping an eye out for one just like it, the kind of addition that would complete a great reading corner in our living room.

We called the salesperson over to ask if we could buy it and while discussing details he looked in confusion from my son to me. My son, blonde-haired and blue eyed, clearly looks like a Westerner. But locals aren’t always sure when it come to me since I have darker hair and features. In fact, the better our language gets, the more my wife and I get mistaken for locals. After many years of plodding language study and countless mistakes, we do enjoy these occasional instances of being viewed as not obviously foreigners. I always chuckle when the checkpoint police ask me, “What are doing with that foreigner there?”

This particular salesperson was really pleased that we could speak the local language, and turns out he himself was no local either, but a transplant from a neighboring country and from a sister people group – one we have no ability to access due to political difficulties.

As we moved toward the cashier I got to ask him questions about his people group and home city, a place with a storied past and a people known for their poetry, craftsmanship, and culture. For example, my particular old stone house was built by masons from his city back in the 1950s. The female cashier joined into our conversation as well, the only actual local among the three of us conversing.

“Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” They asked me.

“I’m a Christian, the type called Injili (Evangelical),” I told them.

“There’s a lot of different groups in Christianity, just like in Islam,” the salesman said to the cashier.

“That’s right!” I jumped in. “Injilis are distinct for focusing so much on the sources, God’s written word, and prioritizing it over human tradition.”

“So, you actually think that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”

“Yes, that’s what he is called in the Scriptures. But the meaning is different than what people think. God has an eternal Word. His word became a man and dwelt among us. When his Word became a human he had a nature that was sinless, unlike ours, because he is actually God’s eternal Word. That’s an important part of what that title, ‘Son of God,’ means.

Their brows were furrowed as I spoke. It was clearly the first time they had ever heard this.

“It’s not a physical sonship as most Muslims think,” I continued. “It has a deeper spiritual meaning. Sometimes we also use ‘son’ in a different way. A man from this city might be called a son of the city, or a son of the mountains. Even the Qur’an has a term, ‘son of the road.'”

My new friends looked skeptical, but they let me keep going.

“At the same time, Adam is also called, ‘Son of God’ for having no earthly father, but being created directly by God. In a similar way, Jesus’ birth was a miraculous act of creation by God.”

“That’s right, because Mary was a pure virgin,” chimed in the cashier.

“Correct! So the title, ‘Son of God’ has important deeper meanings in the Scriptures that are not understood by those who are quick to claim it’s blasphemy.”

They chewed on this information and got back to processing my purchase.

“You know,” said the salesman, “That’s the one big difference between what we believe and what you believe.”

I surveyed the empty store and realized we had time for a little bit more conversation. My phone was buzzing. My wife was done grocery shopping and was likely calling to try and find us. I knew she would let me ignore this call for a few minutes because of the nature of the conversation.

“There’s another big difference,” I continued. “The question of how a person is saved.”

My friends’ eyebrows raised and they paused to listen.

“In Islam people believe that salvation is like a scale. If your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you can go to paradise. But God’s word – The Torah, the Psalms, the New Testament – disagrees with this idea. It teaches that we are so sinful that our bad will always outweigh good, and that even our good is mixed up with our pride. The scale system doesn’t work.”

They were still listening even after this controversial statement, so I kept going.

“Instead, God instituted a system of sacrifice and pardon. All of the prophets were commanded to do animal sacrifices, and through the blood of the sacrifice their sins could be forgiven. God gave these animal sacrifices as a prophecy about the life and death of Jesus. As the eternal Word of God, Jesus had no sin, and his purpose in coming was to be the final sacrifice for sins. The value of his blood was so great – and the power of his resurrection from the dead three days later – that anyone who stops believing in their own scale and in his sacrifice instead, will be forever pardoned, safe, and saved.”

At this point my wife was calling again and I needed to take it. My new friends handed me my change, passed me my ottoman in a shopping cart, and said goodbye. As I met the rest of my family outside the store I glanced back. The salesman and the cashier seemed stunned almost, still standing there, deep in thought.

Just that morning at our weekly service I had been discouraged about not having opportunities to share the gospel recently. Then out of nowhere, a random furniture store interaction about a footrest turned into sharing about the incarnation and how to be saved by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.

First-time interactions like this seldom lead to immediate professions of faith – the message is so new and so different it takes time and lots of repetition for it to be truly comprehended. But these kind of conversations serve almost as a shock tactic – like an ancient Persian war elephant breaking up a group of Greek hoplite infantry so that the cavalry can come in afterward with devastating effect. In this case, the elephant is the fact that none of their teachers have ever shared these things with them or portrayed accurately what Christians actually believe. And now they are faced with a bunch of new ideas – from an actual Christian – that frame things in an entirely different light. This in itself creates doubt. It puts what the locals call, “a worm in their mind.” One that can someday lead to more questions and even to true spiritual hunger.

Whether I get to do the followup or someone else does many years down the road, I pray that the gospel truths dropped in that short conversation will have their effect. And that the salesman and the cashier will know God’s eternal Word – God’s Son – for themselves.

Photo by WeLoveBarcelona.de on Unsplash

That Are Not of This Fold

Yesterday I got to preach to our small local church plant on John 10:16 – “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

We simply walked phrase by phrase through this verse, seeking to understand, wrestle with the importance, illustrate, and apply each line. The phrase that got the most audible reactions was “that are not of this fold.”

I shared with the attendees that Jesus was here communicating to the Jews that the people of God would be gathered from unexpected peoples and places – namely, the gentile nations. “Not of this fold” meant not of ethnic Israel. One of the great mysteries revealed in the New Testament is that God had chosen a holy spiritual nation, comprised of those from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Ethnic Israel wasn’t the ultimate Israel.

This part wasn’t very provocative. After all, my listeners were Central Asians, not first century Jews. However, we then discussed why this point is important for us today. We, like Jesus’ initial Jewish followers, tend to believe that there are certain types of people who believe, and certain types of people who really don’t. Those similar to us almost always fall into the category of “likely open to belief.” And groups we are naturally opposed to often end up in the category of “unlikely to believe.”

This has a practical effect on our evangelism. We end up sharing with those we have pre-filtered, and we remain tight-lipped with others. But what has occurred is that our own experience and cultural categories (or prejudice?) have become the filter, rather than the gospel message itself. Given the logic of Jesus in this passage, this is a mistake.

“If we see a person in Western clothes, young, and educated, we are likely to believe they’d be open to a spiritual conversation about the gospel,” I said to the group. “But if we see someone with a big Islamic beard and their pants cut short in the Salafi style, then we are likely to avoid speaking with them about Jesus, right?”

“Oh, for sure!” the group responded.

“And what do we do with the elderly, the tribal, the illiterate, members of enemy people groups, or our own relatives? Do we avoid sharing with groups like these also?”

“Yup, all of them!” the group responded. People were shaking their heads and laughing, but they were being very open and honest and genuinely wrestling with this difficult point of application.

“Friends,” I continued, “I think we need to repent. And seek to share the gospel even with those who seem like the type very unlikely to respond. Jesus has other sheep that are not of this fold.”

It was not lost on me that our small circle of local believers represented those that many in the West would categorize as “not the kind that believes in Jesus,” as I used to. All of the local believers present grew up as Central Asian Muslims. Their passports and physical features are of the sort that qualify them to get extra “random” screenings in Western airports. And yet here they were, now believing, wrestling with the same kind of temptation as they thought about categories of people they really didn’t believe could follow Jesus. It reminded me of the time a local brother was wrestling with “the man on the island” problem. “Brother,” we told him. “You literally are the man on the island!”

But I am just as guilty as any of these local followers in this regard. Too often I also have held back from sharing with that Salafi-looking man, that elderly local, or that secular Westerner. I have used my own filters instead of using the gospel message itself as the filter.

Thank God that the voice of the good Shepherd effectively calls those from among groups we are tempted to avoid. Thank God for his grace toward us weak evangelists with our own faulty assumptions.

The good shepherd has been calling his sheep from other, unexpected, folds for 2,000 years now. My own Anglo-Saxon and Celtic genes are evidence of this. The hardest to reach demographics and people groups have and will continue to surrender a remnant at the power of the shepherd’s voice. The flock – in all its unexpected diversity – will be complete. “And there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Photo by Samuel Toh on Unsplash

The Hundred Monkeys Principle

My current language helper is a man who has heard the gospel countless times. He has been helping my colleagues and partners learn the local language for several years now. And that means he has gotten a steady and gloriously unrelenting dose of gospel truth for a long time. He has not professed faith. However, he has read much of the Bible, even memorized portions, and has distanced himself considerably from Islam. He now considers himself a Qur’ani, a type of Muslim who rejects all the Islamic Hadith (authoritative traditions) and the Muhammad they describe. Much of everyday Islamic practice and theology is dependent on the Hadith. Limiting one’s self to the Qur’an alone is to essentially embrace a faith that is considered heretical to most Muslims. My hope is that this is only a way-station for my tutor, evidence that he has grasped the deeply different message of the Bible and that he is seriously (though slowly) wrestling with it.

When I have a local friend like this, I’m not always sure how I should proceed with direct evangelism when they have had so much truth shared with them by so many and have not yet responded. There is a danger of their heart being hardened as they get used to hearing the same message and yet there is also the possibility of one more good word shared being the straw that breaks the camel’s back (in a good way). I will often chew on if there are ways to expose them to other complimentary things that could add to the case made by gospel words they’ve heard so often.

Many of us tend to do this with family members and friends who have heard a great deal of gospel truth and yet are not yet believers. We weigh whether right now is the best time to go direct. Or, if now is a better time to let what has already been shared rest on their heart and mind, and to instead focus on modeling a gospel-transformed life, exposing them to beauty or hospitality or friendship or other categories that could play a part in their eventual surrender to Jesus. It’s a tension. I try to navigate it by regularly praying for opportunities to share the gospel. If the gospel is on the tip of my tongue, and I’m praying for chances to go direct, then I feel a much greater peace about not sharing it directly sometimes in relationships like this.

One of my supporting emphases with my tutor has been to share with him a lot of information about how people from his people group and other people groups are becoming followers of Jesus – and about the history of ancient Christianity in Central Asia. What am I trying to accomplish in this? Well, this tutor has grown up in a society where the overwhelming amount of his fellow countrymen are Muslims and can’t imagine being Christians. It’s not even considered an option. In the mysteries of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, there is something in the human mind that tends to be more spiritually open to those social streams that have precedence among one’s neighbors and ancestors. Those are viewed as the honorable, good, or at least decent, options.

For example, in my focus people group a person can be a Muslim. That is what is assumed and what is held out as the ideal. But interestingly, at least two other groups have managed to establish themselves as possibilities for identity – something a local could embrace and still be considered basically a member of his people group. These two groups would be the communists and the Zoroastrians. In the mind of most locals, it’s best by far to be a Muslim. But if you absolutely must apostatize, then it’s on some level acceptable to become a communist or a Zoroastrian. These are tolerable options. To become a Christian? That’s still not considered an option on the table.

Hence my attempt to share a lot of stories and data with my tutor about believers from his people group and region, current and past. I want his brain to begin to shift such that by repeated exposure to the idea that others like him have followed Jesus, he might begin to think and feel that it is an option for him as well. Now, I am under no illusions that this is the key to him being born again. The lightning of gospel conviction will have to strike. Only the Spirit can do that. And yet, switching metaphors, I am going to put as many rocks as I can out on top of the icy lake in hopes that when the sun rises, the ice will break and all the rocks will sink to the bottom. Perhaps the sun will even warm those stones such that the ice breaks sooner because of their presence.

I remember hearing a missions trainer years ago share about something he called the hundred monkeys principle. Apparently thousands of monkeys at some point were introduced to an island where there had previously been no monkey population. Researchers studied how they adapted to their new environment. These monkeys were not used to the ocean and so stayed a safe distance away from it. One day an adventurous monkey decided to take a bath in the ocean. The rest watched from their perches in the trees and didn’t join him. After a while of this monkey bathing alone, one more monkey joined him. It was only the two of them for the longest time, until at last there came a third. The number of monkeys not afraid to bathe in the ocean increased one-by-one, incrementally, until it reached ninety nine monkeys. But to the researchers’ amazement the following day there were thousands of monkeys bathing in the ocean. This 99th monkey represented some kind of sociological tipping point for the monkey population. A switch flipped somewhere internally. Now bathing in the ocean was actually a mainstream option.

Similar things happen with human populations. A given custom is viewed as not possible for “people like us.” The early adopters get persecuted and kicked out. But one day, if the adopters keep on increasing, that same custom is viewed as an acceptable option. As I recall, the other possible outcome of reaching this tipping point might not be a general acceptance of the new belief or custom, but could also be large-scale persecution as that movement is suddenly viewed by the mainstream as a very serious threat. Drawing on memory alone, I recall hearing this tipping point being somewhere in the range of 10% – 13%. Any sociologists or missiologists out there will have to correct me if this is off. For a parallel in the West, pay attention to the increasingly-heated rhetoric on immigration once the foreign-born reach this same threshold.

By sharing (safely) with my tutor about others from his people group who have believed, I am trying to nudge him to be more open to being one of the early adopters – and maybe someday even part of the tipping point. We’re a long way from that percentage currently as I write this post. There are always those who must be the first. And their salvation is extra miraculous in that they take a step that no one from their people group has ever taken before. Surely there is some special honor for these pioneers in eternity. But my tutor doesn’t have to be the first. And though I can’t fully explain it, he needs to know that. I am under obligation to do anything that I can do to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel – cultural, sociological, whatever, such that the gospel itself is the primary offense. Normalize the idea of people like him following Jesus, and that could be one of the many steps the Holy Spirit uses to prepare him for that piercing moment of new birth.

After all, there’s no sense wrestling with the idea of being the first monkey to ever wash in the ocean when you’re actually monkey number forty seven. Others have blazed the trail, so let’s know and feel that deep down inside, and then turn back and consider the invitation yet another time.

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash