“But you have not answered my question,” the workman said as he ate the lunch we had provided of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
A while ago one of my teammates shared an object lesson with us that he used with one of his local friends, a teacher. This particular local friend has been on the fence for a long time, close to following Jesus, but wrestling with the cost. One day they were sitting down in my coworker’s kitchen discussing the gospel yet again. The local teacher was revisiting the concept of biblical forgiveness, specifically how Jesus’ work on the cross takes away our sin and purifies us from our unrighteousness. This concept is very foreign to Muslims who are raised in a very straight forward works-righteousness system. “Surely good deeds take away evil ones,” says the Qur’an.
Searching for an analogy, my coworker picked up his chai glass, partially full of dark black tea, and held it up.
“See this chai? Does it become clear when I add a drop of water to it?” And he proceeded to pour a small amount of water into the hour-glass shaped glass cup.
“No, it’s still brown,” said the teacher.
“What about now?” And he poured a little more water in. His local friend shook his head. My colleague did this a few times to drive the point home. Then he continued.
“This is like us when we try to purify ourselves from our sin by doing good deeds. Adding good deeds is not enough to truly purify us from the uncleanness of sin.”
“Yes,” the local teacher agreed. “I agree. It doesn’t really work. But we must try, right?”
Then my teammate got up and walked over to the kitchen sink. He turned it on.
“But this is what the righteousness of Jesus does to our sin when we become one with him.” And he held the chai glass underneath the rushing flow of clean, clear water. In seconds, all of the dark chai was gone, replaced by an overflowing stream of pure water that simply kept on flowing and flowing.”
The local teacher gasped. “Can that be true?! Can Jesus really purify you like that?”
“He did! When I believed in him. And his stream of purifying grace flows for me like this every single day.” The water kept on running as the two men watched and chewed on the power of this truth. One man living in the freedom of Jesus’ purifying grace every day and extending it to others (and this brother is truly a model of God’s grace to all he interacts with). The other man, hovering just outside and peeking over the fence as it were, not yet able to take the plunge. Wanting to and yet not wanting to, painfully within sight of the kingdom.
When I heard my teammate share this example, I was excited. What a clear and powerful opportunity for his friend! And what a simple and helpful object lesson on the difference between gospel and works religion. There’s not a home in this country without chai glasses – meaning we could reproduce this almost anywhere.
Our focus people are very much concrete thinkers. Even extremely intelligent people like this local teacher are wired to greatly appreciate analogy, metaphor, and hands-on examples over the abstract. We all are mixes of abstract and concrete learning to some extent, but in our corner of Central Asia concrete thinking is by far the more dominant stream. As highly literate, abstract-thinking, critically-trained Westerners, we are slowly learning how to better meet our friends half-way so that our message might be as clear and compelling as possible. Analogies like this might seem small, but we should be careful not to underestimate the potential for clarity that comes from small shifts in how the unchanging truth of the gospel is communicated in this world of such diverse lostness.
And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:9 ESV)
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)
I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.
My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-afflicted urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.
This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.
Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.
“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”
“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.
“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”
“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”
And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.
The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.
We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.
My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)
Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.
“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”
I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.
During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.
I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.
It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.
Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.
As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.
The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.
This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.
My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.
We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.
“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”
“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.
“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”
I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.
We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.
“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”
Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.
I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).
We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.
Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.
“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”
Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”
We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.
“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.
“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”
We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.
The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.
We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.
“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.
Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.
A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.
The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.
One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”
The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror.“Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”
We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!
However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).
These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.
Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally justdon’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.
“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”
And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.
*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!
*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.