On Not Neglecting the Internationals in Our Churches

A couple days ago I got coffee with a missionary who has served in East Asia. During one part of our conversation, we discussed a subtle issue we’ve noticed even in otherwise-healthy churches – that internationals and those from other cultures are often overlooked when it comes to both their care as well as investment in their potential. Similar to what I addressed in my post earlier this week, leadership and fellow church members don’t always “see” this particular class of the lowly or the seemingly-unimportant in the same way they “see” those who are same-culture individuals.

This is only natural. Humans gravitate toward those who are most similar to them and with whom they have the most in common. These sorts of people get more of our attention because relating to them is simply much easier – there are fewer barriers to communication and friendship. But therein lies the problem. The Church is not a natural institution, but a supernatural one, a new family built not on shared natural affinities, but on the spiritual affinity of a new birth into a new family where God is our Father and Christ is our older brother.

It’s makes sense that the Jewish Hellenistic widows were neglected in Acts 6. There were pretty significant cultural and linguistic barriers between them and the Judean/Galilean believers that prevented their needs from being as visible to the apostles. But the apostles and the early church didn’t shrug this off as some kind of natural dynamic that should be embraced (“Let’s just plant First Hellenistic Church, shall we?”). Instead, they created the forerunner of an entirely new office in the local church that would focus on the needs of the needy and marginalized. They recognized that they had a major crisis on their hands, that the credibility and faithfulness of the believing community was at stake if its members who were essentially foreign widows – foreigner and widow both being major categories of concern in the Old Testament – got neglected. So, they went and created the diaconate so that this kind of oversight might never happen again. Or, so that when it happens, there are leadership resources devoted to it.

Neglecting the needs of those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds can still happen, even in our healthiest churches – though this neglect is often unintentional. In some churches, care for internationals and those from other cultures gets essentially delegated to a select few who have themselves served in the past as missionaries. When those cross-culturally-skilled believers then go back overseas or otherwise are no longer around, the body at large hasn’t learned to care for internationals, and they can very easily slip through the cracks. Care and investment can be neglected, which looks like international students getting forgotten during holidays, older refugees getting targeted by scammers, and promising young leaders with a vision for their home country being left to figure it out on their own. Again, this is so often unintentional.

What would proactive steps look like in building a church culture that cares well for the internationals among us? Many churches in the West and in global cities will continue to have members who are either refugees, immigrants, students, or business professionals. And this does not seem to be slowing down. Here I want to offer some initial suggestions, though I offer these thoughts feeling that this is merely the beginning of a conversation on how we can all do this better in our various contexts.

First, in our churches we need to be serious about appointing wise, spirit-filled deacons who can be lead servants for the body in caring for the marginalized, including any internationals among us. After all, the origin story of deacons is explicitly tied to fixing issues of cross-cultural neglect in a local church. Do we insist that our deacons have their radars finely tuned for those in the body who come from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, the contemporary equivalent of the Hellenistic widows? What in their deacons meetings and ministry rhythms keeps this demographic regularly before them? Without this kind of intentional focus, again, the danger is that the marginalized from our own culture will accidentally take priority, because there are fewer barriers toward them being seen and heard.

The text of scripture highlights being of good repute, spirit-filled, and wisdom-filled as the primary qualifications for the men chosen in Acts 6:3. These qualifications, along with those laid out in 1st Timothy 3 should be our top priorities when appointing qualified deacons. These are the kind of men who have the character needed to see the lowly, and that is the most important thing. However, many have pointed out that all seven proto-deacons of Acts 6 have Hellenistic names. It’s therefore likely that they themselves were more Hellenistic than Hebrew in their cultural background, and thus chosen as those well-positioned to care for the Hellenistic widows. So, while natural affinity is not the foundation of the church’s unity, here we see that it may be important for mercy ministry to the marginalized. This is because we are simply much better observers of those things in which we also have some experience.

My daughter has type-1 diabetes and uses Omnipod and Dexcom systems for diabetes management. When others walk by us with these devices sticking to their skin, or when we hear their distinctive beeping noises, we instinctively notice, when we would not have noticed before. Why? We now have experience with diabetic devices and are deeply invested in them as a way to care for our daughter. It follows that those with experience and investment in other languages and cultures are going to more intuitively notice those from these backgrounds, and also notice their needs.

Given these realities, it seems wise to appoint deacons from diverse cultures or with missions experience as those with naturally stronger radars for spotting those international members most likely to be overlooked. If you have Spanish-speaking members in your congregations, consider prioritizing the development of Spanish-speaking deacons. If you South Asian members, then likewise. Or, perhaps that retired missionary might make an excellent addition to the team of deacons.

Other than appointing and directing lead-servants, what else can be done to strengthen the skill and gifting in the body for caring for internationals? For this I really only have one tried and true method: get people overseas. Create pathways for both leadership and members to spend extended time immersed in a foreign culture, ideally alongside of missionaries or churches that you know and trust. Again, people notice what they have experience or investment in. It’s remarkable the kind of effect that several months or several years on the mission field can have on someone’s ministry outlook for the rest of their life.

We should get creative about finding ways to get church leadership overseas, and not just for short-term trips. My missionary friend serving in East Asia shared about a house swapping arrangement he had with one of his former pastors. Before the pandemic derailed things, this pastor and missionary were coordinating their sabbatical and furlough so that the missionary family would have housing in the US and the pastor’s family would get to spend six months living in a foreign context. What a great idea! What would it look like for churches to free up their pastors for mission sabbaticals like this? The impact of getting church leadership on the field for extended periods could be tremendous. Whenever I encounter a student whose dream it is to be a pastor, I challenge them to spend a couple years on the mission field first. This is because their perspective on ministry and the church will be dramatically affected by spending time in frontier missions contexts – and yes, they will be more likely to have eyes that see the internationals in their congregation.

But it’s not just – or even mainly – up to the leadership. After all, the work of the ministry primarily belongs to the congregation (Eph 4:12). So, there is a great need to equip the body to care for those from other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Want to create a church strong in mercy ministry? Make sure there are many accessible pathways for your church members to spend extended time in mission contexts. Short-term trips are a start, but much more profound changes are going to come about by spending several months or longer overseas. They need to be there long enough to experience some negative things, and for the initial shine to wear off. They need to experience what it’s like to be a minority in a strange land, not just a tourist.

What can we do to foster a culture in our churches that cares well for the marginalized from other cultures? I think that pressing into our deacons and getting church leadership and members overseas are some sound ways to start. And let’s not forget the outcome of caring well for the Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Caring well for those often overlooked leads to evangelistic power. Of course it does. Spiritual unity among those without natural affinities is a stunning thing.

Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

The Barista of Chalcedon

Several years ago we found ourselves on vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I have always loved Istanbul, the city that spans two continents and is overflowing with history, culture, kabab, and – crucially – very good coffee. Very few places in the world feel so Western and so Eastern at the same time, depending on which direction you are coming from.

For some reason I was on my own that sunny spring morning walking through the hip neighborhood of Kadiköy, a colorful part of Istanbul full of little cafes, restaurants, and shops. I was on the hunt for a coffee shop that had come highly recommended from a friend who knew way more about coffee than I did. I followed google maps to the small intersection where the coffee shop was supposed to be. The square was paved with grey flagstones, with a small metal statue of a crocodile in the center. Most of the traffic through it was shoppers on foot, with the occasional cart or miniature van.

I didn’t see the coffee shop, so I double-checked the map. I was in the right spot. Maybe it had closed? Eventually I glanced up and realized that the coffee shop was a second floor establishment, perched above a cell phone accessories store, with a balcony that looked down on the square. I ambled over to the cell phone store and found the narrow staircase tucked beside it that led up to the cafe.

Once there, I was convinced by the kind barista to try a Japanese cold brew. It was the first time I had ever had one of these beverages. During hot summer visits to Istanbul I had already come to appreciate Istanbul baristas and their cold brew skills. I was on vacation, after all. Why not try a Japanese cold brew while in Turkey, made with beans from Ethiopia? I knew that once we returned to our region of Central Asia, I’d be back to only being able to get coffee that sometimes tastes of moldy dirt and often hits the palate like a bitter slap to the face.

As it would take a few minutes to brew, the barista encouraged me to go and find a spot on the sunny balcony. I sat down at the counter seating right on the edge of the balcony, got out my Bible and journal, and observed the square down below. I noticed a strip of white-grey marble running down the center of the street and found myself reading a curious name carved into it, Khalkedon. The name seemed familiar to me, bearing a striking resemblance to what I knew as Chalcedon, the location of the great church council of 451, where the ancient church hammered out how to articulate the nature of Christ. Surely, this wasn’t where that took place, was it? My tourist mobile data was acting up, but once I got it working again I looked it up. Sure enough, Chalcedon used to be a village outside of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and was eventually absorbed by the city, now forming a part of the Kadiköy neighborhood. This was indeed the location of one of the most important councils in Christian history.

I scanned the square for any kind of historical marker or monument that might alert passersby to this hugely significant history. I didn’t see anything. The crocodile statue, while a decent piece of artwork, did not seem to have any connection to christology or creeds. The businesses around the square and the people shopping there didn’t seem to show any awareness of this history either. This made sense, since Istanbul is an overwhelmingly Islamic city now. But still, surely they must know something about it. I decided to put the barista to the test. After all, he did work in Chalcedon.

The square of Khalkedon, ancient Chalcedon

My cold brew was ready, so I went back inside the cafe to pick it up.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked as I held the cold brew up to my nose, enjoying the sharp rich aroma as I swished it around.

“Sure,” he answered, smiling.

“How long have you worked here?”

“Several years.”

“Do you know about the history of this place, Khalkedon?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, right here, right in this neighborhood, one of the most important meetings in the history of Christianity took place, about 1,500 years ago.”

The barista gave me an inquisitive look.

“At that council they debated how Jesus could be both fully man and fully God!” I continued.

The barista continued to stare at me.

“Have you ever heard this before?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Well, when you get home, look up the council of Khalkedon, or Chalcedon. If you work here, you’ve gotta know the amazing history of this place. It’s really significant.”

“Thanks… I will,” he responded. Then, seeming a little perplexed, he turned to work on someone else’s drink.

I went back out to the balcony and enjoyed the cold brew and some Bible reading, imagining what Khalkedon must have looked like back in the year 451, when the emperor Marcian and 520 leaders of the ancient church gathered to debate the oneness and the twoness of Christ, and how in human language we might best summarize what the Bible has revealed of this great mystery. It’s from this council’s creed that we have received the orthodox formulation of the nature of Christ as one person, two natures. This council rejected the teachings on the one hand that Christ had only one nature (Monophysitism), and on the other hand that he had two persons (Nestorianism). Christ was one united person in two natures, fully human, fully divine. Sadly, Chalcedon was the theological occasion for the eventual break between the churches of the East – those outside the Roman empire – and those in the West. These churches had already been significantly divided by language, political borders, and culture. But the controversy over Chalcedon made the split official, one that has lasted to this day.

Istanbul is not the only place to have a hidden historical witness to Christian faith. Many parts of the 10/40 window used to have a significant presence of Christians in antiquity or in the middle ages. Just forty five minutes outside of our Central Asian city is a ruined monastery-citadel complex from the 400 or 500s. Locals know nothing about it, and it took tracking down an archeologist in Texas to get confirmation that this is indeed an ancient Christian site. Since then we’ve been able to take groups of local believers out to the site so that they might marvel at the evidence that their own ancestors may have had access to the gospel 1,500 years ago. Of course, this is a tremendous encouragement to them.

All over what is now the Muslim world, there are mosques that have been built on the foundations of ancient churches, abandoned chapels and monastaries in remote areas, tombstones, and even carpet patterns that reflect this lost history. There is a sadness to these silent witnesses. Persecution has often meant that Christianity has been almost or entirely snuffed out in regions where it was once strong. And like the Chalcedonian barista, the locals have no idea of the significance of what they are walking past every day. How did this happen? How could God have allowed the Church to lose areas that used to be strong enough to be sending bases of ancient missionaries?

Yet there is also encouragement to be found in the presence of these ancient stones. They are silent witnesses – but only until a believer comes along who is able to interpret for them. When this happens they begin to cry out. God has been active in the history of this people and this place. Your ancestors have not been left without a witness. Christianity is no Western religion foreign to your soil – it was here long before Europe was Christianized. To follow Jesus is for some an opportunity to return to the faith of their fathers before they succumbed to the sword and choking caste system of Islam. Like the tide, the gospel may recede for a season, but it will be back – unstoppably so. As Zane Pratt famously said at the tomb of Tamerlane, the Mongol Muslim ruler most responsible for the extermination of Central Asian Christianity: “We’re back… and you’re dead.”

If the West becomes even more post-Christian, we will undoubtedly have more of these silent witnesses ourselves, flagstones, monuments, and ruins that speak of our decline. We must remember that they also point forward to our return. And that no matter how dark it gets, God will somehow preserve a witness. Someday, a Central Asian Christian may just find himself pointing a Western pagan barista to the Christian truth present in the very stones around him.

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

The Chalcedonian Creed, Chalcedon, Asia Minor, AD 451

First photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

To Reach the Unreached, Start More Schools

A Christian leader was once asked by a ruler of one of the Arab gulf states what his government should do in order to help expats stay longer in his country. The answer this Christian leader gave was threefold: churches, schools, and hospitals. If this infrastructure were in place, the leader explained, expats would be able to remain in that country for the long-term.

What is true of expats in general is also true of missionaries. We like to romanticize missionaries as rugged frontier types who have the secret spiritual gift of being able to function as a healthy church with their lone family or small team, who treat all their medical needs with a dog-eared copy of Where There Is No Doctor, and who can homeschool their kids on the back of a camel – all while learning language and planting churches. But missionaries are mostly ordinary people with ordinary needs. They need healthy churches, decent medical care, and schooling options that will work for their kids. The lack of this kind of infrastructure is a major factor in missionary attrition, one reason why people can’t stay on the field long enough to reach the remaining unengaged people groups.

Infrastructure isn’t everything, but neither is it nothing. As has been said among those who study combat, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. Even the best soldiers on the front lines will ultimately have to retreat if the supply and logistics system backing them up fails.

In this post, I want to highlight the vital missions infrastructure of workable schooling options for missionary kids. During our time on the field we’ve seen over and over again how deeply impacted families are when they can’t figure out good enough education options for their offspring – and the twin problem of their kids struggling to have a healthy peer group, or any peer group at all. Many of these families end up leaving the field, or relocating to other countries where there is a MK school. They were able to work through the elementary years with a year-at-a-time cocktail approach of homeschool, internet school, local government school, and maybe a local private school. But the junior high and high school years start exposing some very concerning dynamics among their kids. Academically, they’re falling seriously behind, or they’re struggling and depressed because they have so few friends their own age. Suddenly it becomes clear that the options that worked out for younger kids are no longer workable for teens. This often occurs just as the parents are really hitting their stride in language, culture, and ministry.

Why not just send kids to boarding schools, the classic missionary response to the education problem? Well, without discussing the pros and cons of this option, there seems to be a clear shift where missionary families are simply less and less willing to go this route. At the boarding school where I attended – not as a dorm kid myself, since my mom was a teacher so we lived near the school – my class was the last one to have kids arrive in the dorms as young as 1st grade. We noticed in the 2000s that classes were getting smaller, largely because families were choosing to keep their kids at home longer. I don’t sense this trend turning around any time soon. What may have been expected of earlier generations – sending the kids to a boarding school – is among younger generations of parents becoming at least undesirable, and for others, even unthinkable. Some will continue to pursue this option, but it will likely be a shrinking minority. I say this with much love for the school that I attended, and with great respect for all the families that have sacrificed to make this option work.

Is homeschooling not the obvious answer then? Not necessarily. While homeschooling continues to grow in popularity and accessibility, there is one wildcard factor involved that can sink this otherwise good option – the wiring of the child themself. I loved the years we were homeschooled while growing up, but had siblings that struggled with it. It’s the same with my own kids. We are coming to understand that at least one of our kiddos is flat out incompatible with the homeschooling environment, despite the valiant efforts of her mother, herself a gifted teacher. No matter what homeschool advocates claim, not everyone can homeschool, and homeschool may not be a good fit for every child.

Local schools might be great for language acquisition and making friends, but the academics can mean hours of remedial work once school is over, which still may not prove to be enough. School online brings better academics, but can isolate the child or leave them with only a digital group of peers.

Missionaries might be some of the most adaptable people on the planet, yet in spite of this the dual goal of a good enough education and healthy group of peers for teens continues to be a very thorny and elusive thing. So what should be done so that missionary families can have better options for their kids’ education and remain on the field longer? I would contend that sending churches and agencies need to help start dozens of new small or mid-sized Christian international schools. These schools should be placed in strategic cities or towns where there is still access to unreached or unengaged people groups. Priority should be placed upon high school grades, and then middle school, as the ages most difficult for homeshchool and most in need of strong peer friendships.

What if there are not that many missionary families in the area? Well, to quote a classic baseball movie, “if you build it they will come.” The presence of a trustworthy school will automatically draw other missionary families to that area. One of the cities we used to live in just got a new school, one that’s beginning as a robust co-op for elementary students that plans to become a full blown school in coming years. They were worried they might not have enough interested families. As it turned out, all of their available spots were snatched up right away. There are many families out there that would happily move to an unreached city, if only the schooling piece made sense. Find me a global city with good schooling options for MKs and TCKs, and I will show you a city with dramatically-improved longevity among the missionaries – and a ton of missionaries who have relocated there. For any colleagues reading this in Central Asia, one or two of these specific cities should immediately come to mind.

But it takes a whole lot of investment to start a school! Yes, it does. As the son of a MK teacher, I grew up with an inside view of how hard it was just to keep a school staffed and running, never mind the trouble of starting one from scratch. But we must wrestle with the tremendous costs of not having this kind of infrastructure more available for missionaries serving in hard places. Given the rate of turnover and attrition, it may in the end prove to be less costly to go big from the beginning and just start a school. And there is always the option of ramping up, starting with sending homeschool teachers, transitioning to launching a co-op, and finally launching a full-blown school.

Along with the cost, the potential reward also needs to be kept in mind. Let’s say long-term missionaries – who currently average around ten years on the field with some orgs – are able to double their years on the field, returning to the home country after twenty years instead. Think of the impact these second decade veterans could make in the lives of the locals and their colleagues, think of the wisdom and experience that they would bring to the table. Our region of Central Asia has very few who have made it to their second decade. Often, this is due to the fact that the first decade concludes with kids struggling in their teenage years. But if we can serve these families through starting schools, we just may be able to double missionary longevity in strategic areas. What an outcome.

The key is for gifted Christians with a passion for education to understand the great need and to embrace this kind of vision. And then for sending churches and agencies to fully back their risky goal. Previous generations of missionaries started schools like it was as easy as keeping tequila plants alive (which is shockingly easy, even for bad gardeners like myself). It almost seems second nature to them when you read about how often Christians and missionaries invested in starting educational institutions in the 1800s. Perhaps our contemporary fears of mission drift and “colonial” missions have kept us from investing in the very supply lines the mission truly needs.

Years ago I heard Tim Keller make a similar point about cities and schools when discussing how Catholic and Jewish communities had been able to thrive in American cities when evangelicals largely hadn’t. He also pointed to infrastructure, noting that Jewish and Catholic families with children have stayed in the cities when there have been schools, community centers, and hospitals accessible to their distinct community. If the infrastructure is lacking and it’s been hard for evangelical families to remain in American cities, how much more so when it comes to the cities and towns where the world’s hardest to reach people groups live? This will require some serious vision, investment, and commitment.

Christians and churches who are passionate about education may never have considered the vital role they could play in reaching the world’s unreached people groups. Their experience, their connections, even their classroom management skills, these are as valuable as gold, and could be the crucial piece that allows missionaries to remain on the field – and new peoples and tribes to have the chance to follow Jesus. We should challenge them to use these precious gifts for the sake of the nations.

If we want to reach the unreached, we’ve got to start more schools. To keep the front lines strong, we’ve got to strengthen our supply lines.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Introducing the Poet of the Ancient Church

Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) was a deacon in the Roman border cities of Nisibis and Edessa in the 300s. Though not widely known, he is perhaps the most important poet of the early church. The reason he is not well-known is because he wrote not in Greek or Latin, but in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that served as the main language for Christians in the far east of the Roman empire and those who lived across the border in the Parthian, later Sassanian, empire. These eastern cities where Ephrem lived (now in SE Turkey – Nusaybin and Sanilurfa) were extremely diverse religiously during his lifetime. Different sects of Christians mixed in the marketplace with Arians, Jews, polytheists, and Manicheans. Ehphrem wrote theological poetry, composing many hymns which would serve both discipleship as well as evangelistic purposes. Ever since I read that Ephrem would lead evangelistic choirs of women into the marketplace to contend for the truth of the gospel, I have wanted to more about this overlooked ancient poet. Our focus people group, and so many others in the Middle East and Central Asia, continue to be deeply poetic and musical. The idea of doing theology and evangelism via poetry and song, employed by Ephrem so long ago, might still prove to be a very powerful thing in this region.

I’ve finally gotten my hands on a book of Ephrem’s poems and will periodically post some on this blog, as a window into the Christian faith of this ancient Syriac poet and the churches he sought to strengthen. The poem below is about a communion service, and Ephrem calls for the Church to praise its savior, drawing connections to the wedding at Cana in John 2, doing a bit of comparison between Israel’s failure and the Church, and ending by delighting in the nature of Jesus.

Hymns on Faith, no. 14

I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of song, 
but the wine - the utterance of praise - at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise. 

Refrain: Praise to You from all who perceive your truth.

The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.

You who are so just, if at a wedding-feast not Your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do You, at this wedding-feast, fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.

Jesus, You were invited to the wedding-feast of others, 
here is Your own pure and fair wedding-feast: gladden Your rejuvenated people,
for Your guests too, O Lord, need 
Your songs; let Your harp utter!  

The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber, 
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts. 
And if a single body is a wedding feast for you,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!  

The holy Moses took the Synagogue up on Sinai:
he made her body shine with garments of white, but her heart was dark;
she played the harlot with the calf, she despised the Exalted One, 
and so he broke the tablets, the book of her covenant.

Who has ever seen the turmoil and insult 
of a bride who played false in her own bridal chamber, raising her voice? 
When she dwelt in Egypt she learnt it from 
the mistress of Joseph, who cried out and played false. 

The light of the pillar of fire and of the cloud 
drew into itself its rays
like the sun that was eclipsed 
on the day she cried out, demanding the King, a further crime.

How can my harp, O Lord, ever rest from Your praise? 
How could I ever teach my tongue infidelity? 
Your love has given confidence to my shamefacedness,
-yet my will is ungrateful.

It is right that man should acknowledge Your divinity,  
it is right for heavenly beings to worship Your humanity;
the heavenly beings were amazed to see how small You became, 
and earthly ones to see how exalted! 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 24-26

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Seven Dangers of Ministry Method Dogmatism

“Before we agree for you to meet with these ladies, we need to know what your ministry strategy is.” I could see my wife’s face cloud over as she read this text. During a difficult season of ministry where she was struggling to make meaningful connections with local ladies in our new city, she had heard of a community center run by other believing expats that was in need of someone who could do local language Bible study with a few local women. As one gifted to do this very thing, we were excited for her to be able to help these ladies understand God’s word, especially since there was no one else at this community center who could currently help them. But once again, the “S word” was being deployed as the primary filter for partnership. Not my wife’s testimony, not her doctrine, not questions regarding her character or competency, but the deal-breaker for simple Bible study with local women was going to be her position on strategy of all things. Her ministry methods would mean she would or would not be allowed to study the Bible with several open women from an unreached people group. If my wife didn’t espouse the right strategy, then these expats would effectively deny these local women the chance to study the Bible. During a season of attempting to bring healthy change in a city deeply divided by ministry methods and strategy, this text made us feel somewhat angry and somewhat sick.

Many Christians in ministry are prone to be dogmatic about their methods – even more dogmatic than they are about their actual dogma (their teaching/doctrine). Missionaries are particularly at risk of this, likely due to the specific needs and gifts required by the mission field context. There are a few methods that are commanded more explicitly by the scriptures, things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but most of our ministry methods are an effort in trying to apply biblical principles faithfully so as to come up with faithful expressions of those principles for our unique setting. Study what the New Testament has to say about musical worship and you’ll see what I mean here. Lots of principles about worship, almost nothing regarding the actual forms we should employ. Nevertheless, Christians in ministry become very dogmatic about our own preferred methods, even when the scriptures don’t speak to them specifically. Rather than treating a method’s importance as primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on how clear God’s word is about it, particular methods are elevated to be primary based on some other standard – a standard which is sometimes unexamined, and other times mere pragmatism. When this happens, we expose ourselves to at least seven profound dangers.

  1. Limiting our biblical options. When we zero in on one expression of a biblical principle as the way to do it, rather than understanding that it is a faithful way to do it, we limit our biblical options. As a former house-church-only advocate, this was an error that I fell into. House church is a great biblical option for some contexts. But if we are in place where church can happen in other settings outside the home, why would we automatically rule those options out as less faithful or less effective? Ministry is hard anywhere in the world. It is particularly hard when we are seeking to plant churches among the unreached. We need all our biblical options on the table.
  2. Failing to do good contextualization. We often become dogmatic about certain methods merely because of reasons that are personal and tied to our own cultural background. “We will not use a projector for songs because of the baggage I have with it from the church I grew up in.” But have we stopped to study our focus culture to understand what using a projector might mean to the actual locals? It really does not matter all that much what it means back home. Instead, is it a biblical option and how does it communicate in the local culture? Good contextualization is often prevented because those in ministry enter their new contexts with a prepackaged set of methods that they have gotten from their books, their trainers, their past experiences, or some study based on a movement in another part of the world. Thus, they fail to first stop and ask insightful questions of their actual target culture – and so they fail to do good contextualization.
  3. Encouraging unnecessary division. Paul says that division among Christians is necessary (1 Cor 11:19). But we must strive to keep these divisions appropriate to how central something is to the truth of the gospel and the central teachings of the Bible. As others have so helpfully written, we must know the right hills to die on. Some issues are worth dying for since they separate saving faith from false gospels. Others are worth dividing over and require us to be in separate churches, such as our ecclesiology. Then others are worth debating for within the same church, like our understanding of the end times. Then there are issues to personally decide for, such as whether we should drink alcohol or eat pork in a Muslim context. When we fail to do “triage” like this with our ministry methods, we end up treating tertiary things as if they are secondary or even primary. For example, if one missionary is fine with introducing one local believer to another when they are not naturally part of the same “household,” other workers might ostracize this missionary because they are violating their movement strategy. Sadly, these kinds of divisions will also not be limited to the community of ministry professionals, but will trickle down to those we disciple as well.
  4. Exposing others to false condemnation. Our preferred methods often have an uncanny correlation to our personal gifts and strengths. When we get dogmatic about these methods, we can cause other believers to feel as if they are a less valuable part of the body of Christ because they are not as strong of an evangelist, not as good at reproducing stories, not as expressive in corporate worship, etc. We must be aware of the accusations that our brothers and sisters will hear when we speak or believe too dogmatically about our ministry methods. We may be exposing them to struggle with false condemnation.
  5. Becoming a silver bullet salesman. This danger is particularly for those of us who experience seasons of success or breakthrough in ministry. After a year of very encouraging ministry in college, one mentor cautioned me to make sure I didn’t assume that my experience would be true for all others also. It was sound advice. Fresh off a year of seeing my Muslim friends miraculously come to faith, I was at risk of sharing the “gospel” of my methods with any who would listen, implicitly communicating that they would see the same results if they followed the same formula. The ministry and missions world is full of books and speakers who are effectively silver bullet salesmen. Praise God, they saw breakthrough in their particular ministry. But now they’ve written a book and reverse-engineered their experience so that if you follow these simple steps you too can be a part of this new thing that God is doing! Some will even imply that they have uniquely rediscovered the methods of the early church which have been lost over the centuries. This kind of talk is heady stuff, but is really spiritual naivete – self-deception at best and spiritual pride at worst.
  6. Leaving a more temporary impact. When we become dogmatic about our ministry methods, we zero in on things that may be proving to be effective in our own little slice of culture and history. But by focusing on these expressions rather than on the principles they come from, we end up leaving a more temporary – rather than lomg-term – impact. The next generation’s context may be drastically different from my own. If I try to pass on my methods, they may prove to be ineffective. If I pass on my principles, these have the flexibility to be applied in countless diverse contexts. This is what separates the Christian books that continue to be read century after century from those that are forgotten. This is also why Protestant principles such ad fontes (to the source) and semper reformanda (always reforming) have given Protestant Christianity such dynamism and flexibility in the last 500 years compared to the older churches that became so chained to their Latin, Greek, or Syriac ministry methods (i.e. traditions).
  7. Opening the door to doctrinal drifting. We have a limited capacity for dogmatism. I have often observed that missionaries who are dogmatic about methodology are less convictional when it comes to theology, and vice-versa. It seems we simply cannot live in the real world and be dogmatic about everything. We must fix ourselves to some particular area of importance which then becomes our ballast for navigating everything else. If our north star is “right” methodology, then that means right doctrine is not what we ultimately look to for guidance. This opens the door to doctrine and theology slowly feeling less and less important, as we convince ourselves that right practice is really the main thing in the end. Yet dogmatism in our methods has another path that leads to doctrinal drifting, or to what many are calling deconstruction – when our much-hyped methods let us down. If we have been fixated on the false promise that the “right” methods will be a guaranteed formula for success, then we are in for a gut punch when they inevitably fail. And the enemy uses that season of disorientation to convince us that it wasn’t just the methods, it was also the theology that we believed that led us here. This seems to be happening all around us as in the West as Christians grapple with abuse in the church, and proceed throw out both unhealthy leadership methods along with complementarian theology.

Ministry method dogmatism will lead us to some bad places if we let it shape our lives and ministries. We need to open our eyes to the dangers of this very common malady and put ministry methods and strategies where they belong – as the flexible servants of solid biblical principles and doctrine. While a few areas of methodology are commanded more specifically in the New Testament, most of our methods are not the kind of thing we need be dogmatic about. Should we be convinced of our methods? Sure, let’s have well-formed opinions and make intentional choices about what methods we employ. But let’s not hope in our methods, as if they are what will make or break our ministries. Our methodology – and the Christians around us – can’t handle that kind of pressure. Only the word of God can. Let’s keep the dogma in the dogmatic, keep the central things central, and hold the other stuff with lots of grace, a willingness to change, and a good dose of humility.

Photo by Bernd 📷 Dittrich on Unsplash

How a Christian Marriage Was Saved by a Wise Guerilla Leader

I woke up to texts that several of the exiled political party/guerrilla bases in our area had been bombed. One main base was hit with a devastating rocket attack. I scanned the updates, wondering if any of the teenage guards or kind officials that we had interacted with there had been killed. I was struck again by the sad security realities of our area of Central Asia. Things could seem so stable and safe, then all of the sudden, the veneer of security gets shattered as someone you interacted with gets disappeared, assassinated, or targeted by a neighboring country’s rockets or drones. It hadn’t been very long since I myself had been at that same base that now had a smoking rocket crater in its central building. Though in general we tried to stay away from sensitive locations like these, it was a crisis among local believers that had brought me there. In fact, the leadership of this guerrilla base had even helped to save the marriage of two local believers.

Two months earlier, things had reached a breaking point in Pauline* and Karim’s* marriage. Their daily arguments about money and respect had escalated, household items had been smashed, and they were at risk of falling back into their pre-conversion violent outbursts toward one another. We asked Karim to come and stay with us for a few days until things could cool off. After initially protesting at how shameful this would be for a Central Asian man to be “kicked out” of his home by his wife, he eventually relented. I was grateful for that humility that won out over cultural pride.

The following weeks were full of crisis counseling, and that in another language. It is one thing to have technically achieved advanced language. It is another thing altogether to keep up with conflict conversation, when accusations and insults you’ve never heard before are flying. Somehow we muddled through it. After a few days, Karim moved back in with his wife and daughter, but things were still not great. Sixteen years of tumultuous marriage as unbelievers had left some mighty deep scars. And in spite of the tremendous growth in knowledge they had achieved in their several years of being believers, both husband and wife accused the other of failing to put their Christian beliefs into practice when it actually counted – in the home.

Karim was willing to work on things, and while truly at fault for a great many things, was willing to take some initial steps of repentance. Pauline was done. Day after day she insisted they get an official divorce. To do this, they would have to visit the headquarters of their political party, an ethnic organization and paramilitary group that had been exiled from one of the neighboring countries and was now based out of our area. The unique way our regional government handles groups like this is to require them to have a separate legal infrastructure for all their party members who live as asylum seekers or freedom fighters in the region. The party is thereby able to grant some measure of legality and protection to it members, who are not granted many of the basic rights that local citizens enjoy. To get a certificate of divorce, Pauline couldn’t go to the local courts. She’d need to work through this parallel system, she’d have to make her case to her party leadership.

Continued pleading and counseling with Pauline had little effect. We asked specifically for a month’s time for her to think over the huge decision she was about to make. But it seemed she had run out of hope entirely that she and her husband could change. She insisted that they go and request an official divorce, and, being without transportation, she asked that I drive them. After weighing the risks with the team, I decided to go with them, hoping that the hour and a half drive might provide some opportunity to talk further.

When we began the drive, I realized how unrealistic my hopes for vehicular counseling had been. Pauline and Karim could barely look at one another, and had no interest in talking. Their teenage daughter merely stared out the window and sometimes cried quietly. The atmosphere in the car was tense and silent. I decided to turn on my playlist of English worship songs. In happier times, Pauline and Karim regularly made jokes about how bad their English was, so there was little chance that songs by City Alight, Josh Garrels, and Poor Bishop Hooper were going to have much effect on them. Still, they might pump some faith into my heart. And it was better than driving in the heavy silence. Maybe they’d pick up on the Hallelujahs and the name of Jesus as the songs played.

I stewed on our depressing situation. Pauline, a member of our church, was stubbornly pursuing an unbiblical divorce against all the counsel she was receiving. Karim was acting like a punk as well, taking angry jabs at Pauline that only made things worse. We were driving to a guerilla base that a neighboring country counted as a terrorist hub, and one they periodically bombed. But the worst part of it all was the horrible witness this whole adventure would likely be to the unbelieving party members that we interacted with. How were they supposed to see the difference Jesus makes if their only comrades claiming to be Christians have a marriage that is falling apart? I shook my head, imaging the kind of bickering they might get into once each was asked to make their case to the judge. Maybe, just maybe, my presence there as their pastor could serve to do some good in all the mess. In all likelihood, their party leadership, influenced primarily by Marxism and ethnic pride, would give them worldly advice, and issue a certificate of divorce. Even if they leaned on their Islamic background, supporting a divorce was the most likely outcome.

I drove and prayed. We had tried everything, and it hadn’t been enough. If Pauline proceeded, we’d need to shift into a church discipline process as our final option. What else could be done? Some moments in ministry we feel only too keenly the powerlessness of our words to effect change upon hardened hearts.

After an hour and a half we passed the last local government checkpoint and drove down the desert road toward the area where the exiles had built a neighborhood and their political party and paramilitary facilities. Eucalyptus trees swayed in the spring wind. Rain clouds teased the thirsty orange soil with small sprinklings here and there. It was a beautiful day, the kind likely to produce a rainbow or two over the distant foothills. It was too bad our excursion to this small desert outpost had to be for such a sobering reason.

We pulled up to the base’s checkpoint and were approached by a gate guard who looked like he was seventeen. He and the other young female guard with him were dressed in dark solid green fatigues and had checkered black and white scarfs around their necks. I remembered how idealistic I was at seventeen and wondered if these kids were true believers in the guerrilla cause or if this was simply what one does growing up in this kind of community of political exiles – a high school job of sorts. After checking Karim’s papers, they waved us through and we found a place to park in a small gravel lot.

A party official with a large mustache soon arrived in his vehicle and parked next to us. He recognized Karim and was familiar with their situation. Having been responsible for some of their official processes in the past, he felt some responsibility for their family and quickly shifted from respectful greetings to an almost fatherly demeanor. He put his hand on Pauline’s shoulder and began warmly but earnestly entreating them to do whatever it took to save their marriage. This was when I began to realize that some of my assumptions about the day might not be correct. This man was talking sense, sound wisdom that backed up the counsel they had been getting from their church. I looked at Pauline to see if it was having any effect. Negative. Her respectful nods were accompanied by a steely gaze.

We soon transitioned into a nearby trailer office, a sort of triage room for those with appointments with party officials. Here we sat on reception couches as the younger official behind the desk ordered tea for us and began to confirm the details of the visit with Karim and Pauline. Once again, this official bore a look of kind concern. He also began reasoning with Pauline, asking her to reconsider her decision to divorce, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Pauline held firm, quietly insisting to see the judge. The official then asked who I was, and Karim shared how I was one of the pastors of their church, and an American. Both of these things surprised the official, who seemed both confused and intrigued at my presence. While they couldn’t have interacted with many Christians, or that many Westerners for that matter, I was encouraged that the hospitable responses so far seemed to indicate my presence at least wasn’t going to make things worse.

We finished up our tea and walked back out to the gravel lot, where were met again by the first mustachioed official. He now learned who I was, and as he walked us into the main building to see the judge, he dropped back to walk beside me.

“If we work together, I bet we can change her mind,” he told me under his breath. “She’s not as set on divorce as she appears. I can tell.”

I found this interpretation encouraging, though Pauline sure seemed hell-bent on divorce to me. Hopefully he was right. As we walked through the corridors, multiple energetic and respectful greetings were exchanged with each person that we passed. I was struck by how well this paramilitary context fit with the formal, honorable tendencies of our local culture. The militaristic structure seemed to bring out some of the best aspects of the culture, and to dampen some of the negative aspects that Islam reinforces, such as the demeaning of women. In fact, there was an easy respect among the men and women on this guerilla base that was downright refreshing. I also noticed that the female soldiers were still very feminine, sporting long black braids for example, and everyone seemed fine with that. This, and the fact that many joined up because all their brothers had already been killed presented a more nuanced picture than is usually present in evangelical discussions about women in the military.

At last we were ushered into the large room where we would do the interview for the certificate of divorce. It was carpeted, stiff high-backed couches lined the walls, and portraits of party leaders were prominently displayed. A large, very official looking desk sat in front of the windows. We sat on the couches facing the desk, and were served a second round of tea.

Two women then entered. Like all of those who worked at this base, they were dressed in simple green fatigues. The younger woman was a lawyer. The short woman in her fifties was a high ranking official, and would serve as judge for Pauline and Karim’s case. She had a mature – though tired – look in her eyes and a no-nonsense bearing that called for a respectful hearing. Yet she also seemed kind and approachable. I instinctively trusted her to see through any of the nonsense that might emerge in the following conversation.

After confirming the details of the visit one more time, she proceeded to ask some basic questions. This led to the only funny thing that would come out of the day.

“You are Karim and Pauline, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been married how many years?”

“Twenty one.”

“And these two are your children?”

“This is our daughter, and… uh, this is our, um, pastor,” Karim managed to say with only a hint of a smile.

I shot the family a quick glance and could tell they got a kick out of the judge thinking I was their son. That Karim and Pauline are my “dear mother and father” would become a story often told and an inside joke that continues to the present day. But the welcome moment of levity was over all too soon.

“So you are here to request a divorce. Pauline, please explain your situation.”

Pauline proceeded to lay out her complaints for the next ten minutes or so while the judge took careful notes by hand and the lawyer leaned in to listen. After this, the judge allowed Karim to respond and explain his desire to remain married. So far, everything remained calm and orderly. I found myself envying the gravitas this older woman brought, and wondering how I could learn to do likewise in my conflict-mediation conversations with locals that tended to explode.

After hearing both sides and effectively shutting down some bickering, the judge began to reason with Pauline.

“My dear, none of these problems that you are describing are abnormal for a marriage. These are not massive issues. They are the everyday frustrations of a husband and wife that must be navigated and worked through. You are not describing anything to me that seems to warrant a divorce. Think of the great costs you and your daughter will incur if you do this. Think of the regret. Pay attention to your husband’s openness to making change. Why should you give up at this point? Be wise and careful, my dear. This is a very serious thing you are requesting.”

The judge continued on this vein for some time, patiently and wisely attempting to help Pauline see reason. For my part, I was thrilled that the judge was taking this position. Over and over again, these unbelieving freedom fighters were dropping wise and sober counsel. Eventually, the judge turned to me and asked what our church’s advice had been regarding the marriage. I was surprised at this invitation to speak, but grateful.

“Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, and that a situation like this does not call for a divorce, but reconciliation. We have counseled them to stay married, to commit to regular counseling, and to follow Jesus in this way.”

The judge nodded respectfully and took more notes. A middle aged man with a red mustache came into the room with some files for the judge to sign. He knew Karim and proceeded to make efficient greetings to all present. He seemed very kind.* Following this, the judge rose and excused herself to deal with another situation that had arisen, promising to return soon with her verdict.

We sat in the room for the next fifteen minutes. The lawyer decided now was a good time to wax eloquent about her views on marriage and feminism. It was the first counsel of the day that was less than helpful. But I could tell that neither Karim nor Pauline seemed to like her. The lawyer continued her spiel, seeming not to notice.

At last the judge returned, sinking into her seat with the look of a woman who has to deal with multiple crises every day.

“Having reviewed everything in your case and heard all of your answers, we have decided to give you a month to think things over.”

This same period of waiting was what the church had asked for as well. I smiled, since the judge hadn’t heard that part. She continued.

“We will not be issuing you a certificate of divorce today. Go home. Think it over for a month. If after a month you still desire a divorce, then come back and we’ll give you the certificate. But dear, do you think carefully and wisely about what you really want.”

Karim, his daughter, and myself were relieved. Pauline was furious. The verbal outbursts that followed confirmed for the judge even more that she had made the right call and that Pauline was in no condition to be making this kind of life-altering decision that day. The guerilla leader saw a chance to save the marriage, and she took it, believing that Pauline might come to her senses and stick with her flawed, but loyal husband. And she was right, this is exactly what would happen. God would use the legal decision taken by this party official to buy time for repentance to begin. I had been very concerned that this leftist group of freedom fighters would only help to undermine Karim and Pauline’s marriage. Instead, we had surprisingly found ourselves to be allies, pleading for the goodness and sanctity of marriage together. God uses all kinds of means – apparently even Marxist-leaning paramilitaries and “terrorists.”

It was early afternoon by the time we left, and we were all starving. We stopped by a hole in the wall restaurant to eat some chicken before the drive home. Karim stepped outside to take a call and I seized the opportunity to draw out Pauline without him present.

“Dearest mother,” I started, alluding to judge’s humorous mistake. “How are you doing? Will you not take this month to reconsider your decision?”

Pauline smiled and chuckled, “Oh my dear son, I’m still getting divorced, believe me! We’ll be back in a month, you’ll see. Now pass me some of that chicken.”

But already there was a new softness in her eyes. And she continued smiling. Somehow I knew we wouldn’t be back at that base after a month. She had tried very hard to go her own way. And God had kindly placed obstacle after obstacle in her path.

Today, Pauline and Karim are still married, and doing better than ever.

*Names changed for security

*Sadly, this man would be assassinated in a hotel room two days later.

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Tell Me About a Time You Deeply Hurt Someone

We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.

It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.

Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.

Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.

Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.

The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.

These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.

This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.

I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.

Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.

Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.

Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.

Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash

Grant Me One Muslim Friend

“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.

Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.

The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”

One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.

At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.

“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.

I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.

The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.

“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”

“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”

This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.

Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.

I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.

The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.

This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.

Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.

“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”

“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”

“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”

“Oh.”

“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?

I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.

“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.

Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.

Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.

We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.

Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.

God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Sohaib Al Kharsa on Unsplash

Where Bread is Life

“Oh, and never throw out your old bread.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Locals say it’s really shameful.”

“So… what do you do with it instead?”

“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”

“So they come by regularly?”

“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”

This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.

Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.

“Have you eaten bread today?”

“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”

Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.

At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).

The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”

There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.

I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.

There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.

A Christmas Party and the Birth of a Church

We had the hardest time getting local believers to gather for a house church service. Sure, they would meet (somewhat) regularly for one-on-one Bible studies with us. But meet in a group with other locals? Not happening. Our first year on the field was full of conversations with our team and locals about this frustrating reality that would have to change if a new local church was ever going to be birthed.

However, when we invited a group of individual local believers to a picnic or a party, they would come. We also had several come on a weekly basis to an English-language study of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God. This evidence showed us that locals would indeed show up and be exposed to others when they wanted to. But there was something about an invitation to church, to sing, pray, and study the Bible in a group with other locals that kept them from being willing to actually attend. True to an honor-shame culture, many would commit, only to back out last minute or simply fail to show at all. Most of it seemed to boil down to the fact that they didn’t trust the other locals, but believed they were mostly spies, frauds, or just bad unknown people. We were also pretty sure that a lack of experience in the joys of gathering as Christians meant that their spiritual appetites for gathering were barely existent. Their lack of appetite kept them from gathering, and not gathering kept their appetites from developing. They were stuck, and many a team meeting was spent arguing about how to get our local friends unstuck.

These dynamics and disappointments caused many missionaries to give up attempting to gather mixed groups at all. Instead, they felt that the only way churches would ever be planted among our people group were if we were content to gather only those who were part of a natural household network together. This “oikos” network of family members and close friends would have some level of familial trust for one another, therefore they would likely be more willing to gather and do something risky like study the Bible and sing songs to Jesus.

But we had several problems with this oikos-centered model. First, there was precious little fruit to be shown for a decade of oikos-promoting work among our people group. Even if we were going to be purely pragmatic, the oikos approach simply wasn’t working either. Second, we knew a sizeable network of believers who were alone in their faith in their network of friends and relatives. Some had even tried to gather a group of friends and relatives to study and had been rebuffed or threatened. When it came to the household-only strategy, they were actually prevented from gathering with others by some of the foreigners because the only other believers in the city were not part of their natural network. Most seriously, we believed that the nature of the church is that of a new household of faith, where those from disconnected and enemy households and networks are visibly part of a new family with one another. Especially in a culture so prone to division, treachery, and racism, we wanted the church to be a picture of a new humanity – and that from the very beginning.

Our locals are very concrete in their thinking. Yet all of our conversations with them about church were still in the realm of the hypothetical – inviting them to partake in something they had never seen. So we wanted to find some way for them to experience church without having to call it that. Christmas provided the perfect opportunity.

As in most of the non-Western world, Christmas as a secular holiday is making major inroads into our area of Central Asia. Locals are fascinated by this winter holiday with its celebrations of lights, gifts, and music. Some vaguely know that it’s connected to the birth of Jesus, but most think it’s basically a way to celebrate the new year. Yet every time we had invited a local to something Christmas-related, they not only came, but eagerly came. Some of our teammates had learned how to leverage Christmas-time hospitality so that family after family would hear the gospel as they munched on sugar cookies and listened to a description of tree ornaments that together told the story of Jesus.

A plan was hatched. We would invite all of the isolated local believers that we knew to a Christmas party. Along with eating a festive meal together, we would also include a time of singing, teaching from the Word, and prayer. Since this would be their first Christmas party, they wouldn’t know that we were smuggling elements of a basic church service into it. This would give them a chance to taste and see the goodness of corporate worship, which might make some then willing to keep gathering with us in a similar way.

We divided up the responsibilities for the party. Mark*, the only one at that point able to teach in the local language, would teach on the magi from Matthew 3. I would help with some songs in the local language, my wife would make some coconut curry, Mark’s wife would prep the sugar cookies and chai, all of us would pester our friends about coming.

The day of the Christmas party came, a bright, chilly December day. The team all sat around in Mark’s dining room, wondering if anyone would show up. The dull crackle of the propane space heaters filled the air whenever the conversation fell silent. Suddenly, we heard the door bell. We looked out the window and saw Harry’s* head peeking over the gate. Yes! We would have at least one guest. Harry was one of our language tutors from a very conservative family and had come to faith a couple of years before. After a few minutes Hamid* appeared, one of our English students and also a newish believer. Then came Joseph*, an English-language scholar who lived isolated in a city three hours to the south. Then Maria*, a single woman from a neighboring country. Finally, my close friends Hama* and Tara* arrived, and close behind them a brand new believer named Marlin*, one of the members of our Prodigal God study group.

Lunch was a hit. Apparently coconut curry is a good choice for a Christmas meal with Central Asians (though mild, not spicy). We dipped freshly baked local pita loaves into it and had fun cutting up over the meal. Hama could always bring some welcome laughs to any gathering, although true to holiday meals in our own country, Hamid kept wanting to corner people and bring up politics.

Eventually it was time for the “service.” We moved to the living room and Mark opened up Matthew 3 and taught on the coming of the wisemen. Like other Central Asian languages, ours still has a word for magi, a linguistic descendant of the once-dominant Zoroastrianism of our area and the broader Persian world. The tallest mountain looming over our city is even named after a magi. So this topic easily held the attention of our local friends, drawing a connection between their ancestors and the birth story of Jesus. Mark finished up his lesson by tying it all to the gospel, and we sang some songs together in the local language, including one from Psalm 133 that celebrates the goodness of brothers dwelling together in unity:

Together, toge-e-ther,

Lai lai lai, lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai

Behold how good and how wonderful it is

When we dwell in unity together

After this it was time for prayer and for passing out the chai and cookies. Our wives made the rounds, passing out the caffeine and sweets to grateful replies of, “May your hands be blessed,” and responding with, “May it be to the health of your soul.”

“This was great,” Marlin said, munching on a Christmas tree-shaped cookie. “Why can’t we do this more often?”

We tried not to choke on our chai when Marlin said this. The irony was rich. We had been inviting them to do this ad nauseam.

“We do this every week,” responded Mark.

“You do?”

“Yes, every week we get together and learn from God’s word, we sing, we pray, and we eat together. Just like this. It’s called church.”

We waited to see how the locals would respond. While we couldn’t read some of them, several were leaning in, processing what Mark had just said. They seemed excited, like a boy who had beforehand been deathly afraid to try the waterslide, only to afterward admit that it was actually quite fun.

Mark decided to go for it. “Let’s do this again, then. Next week. Right here, just like we did today. Who’s in?”

Almost all of the locals agreed that they would like to come back. We could hardly believe it. We had smuggled in a basic church service in the guise of a Christmas party… and it had actually worked.

Today, six years later, a small church exists in Central Asia as a direct outcome of that Christmas party. Of the original guests, only Hamid is still there, having recently come back and reconciled after a long absence. Hama and Tara and Harry have fled the country due to persecution. Marlin no longer professes faith. Joseph is still living in relative isolation in the south. Maria’s family were outed as actual spies. Mark and his family are still on the ground, and every year when Christmas comes around he teaches on the magi, from Matthew chapter 3.

God uses many things to get new churches started. Church history has seen it happen from revivals, forcible displacements, and power encounters. Our sending church was started when a bunch of German Catholic immigrants met in a brewery to sit under the preaching of seminary students.

Our little church in Central Asia? Birthed by a Christmas party.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Nicholas Safran on Unsplash