Churches Like Tequila Plants

Not only did she survive. She has since planted three offshoots.

My corner of Central Asia has long, brutally hot summers. Temperatures get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit/49 degrees Celsius. This tends to kill most house plants. If, like me, and you’re not naturally gifted with a green thumb, then it’s even more bad news. The majority of our plant attempts have ended in disappointment. We might be able to swing it if we were constantly living here, but with taking six months in the US now and then and occasional trips out for meetings, we have to entrust care of our plants to neighbors or coworkers – which usually means more plants die. Sensing a theme? The brutal sunshine and heat of the late spring to mid-fall even turns the mountains brown. How much more small plants that are attempting to grow in tile and cement courtyards and houses that absorb the heat and radiate it back long into the night?

Yet we have one plant that has become legendary in our family. We inherited this plant in January of 2016 from another expat family moving back to the US. We didn’t know what it was, just some kind of pokey aloe-type succulent. During our first term all our other plants died, but this hardy creature managed to survive and even grow a little bit. In the details of moving back to the US for a six month furlough, we forgot to assign watering duties for it. So we arrived back in Central Asia to find it tucked in a corner of our courtyard, utterly shriveled and brown. It had gone six months, including the worst of the summer, without any care. In a last-ditch faith attempt, I splashed it with a glass of water one evening, not really expecting anything to happen. When I returned to look at it the next morning, I was shocked. It had been resurrected. The dry and drooping leaves had somehow rallied, raised themselves back toward the sun and come back from the pit of death. Mostly dead really is still partly alive (let the reader understand).

We moved cities and took our one hardy survivor plant with us. Then after nine months we ended up back in the US again on a medical leave. Our local neighbors did their best to water our plants, but once again, most died. And yet, that same plant is bigger than ever and even multiplying. During the first lockdown I had done a bit of research and finally discovered what species our pokey desert plant actually was. Turns out it’s called a Century Plant, a kind of aloe known for being… the source of tequila. How in the world did it get over here to Central Asia?

The remains of our Brazilian Jasmine vine. Formerly beautiful. Alas, ultimately doomed.

As we marveled at the survival of our tequila plant, we found it to be an unlikely source of encouragement. The attrition rate among our house plants had become a strange parallel to the deaths of local church plants. Our area and people group tend to present a vibrant and hopeful picture in the beginning of new groups forming. Then they all implode. Soon, those promising potential churches are gone without a trace. Where all the methodologies come to die. It’s a sadly realistic slogan for our part of the world. Got a methodology that’s being puffed as the current silver bullet for planting churches (or even movements?) among unreached people groups? Bring it here and watch it wither, just like my Brazilian Jasmine vine. Those flowers and shiny leaves were lovely until they met the wrath of the summer sun. Now they are no more.

And yet, we know that the promises of God for his bride will not fail. Sooner or later, we will have healthy reproducing churches take root among our people group. They will be able to survive the brutal seasons of persecution, fear, in-fighting, and false teaching. But they will have to be unusually hardy, scrappy churches. They will need to be able to come back from the brink of death, as it were. They will have to be like tequila plants. Their fiber will need to be made up of robust biblical conviction and gospel clarity. They will need to be fluent and practical in their putting on of the characteristics of a healthy church:

  1. Biblical Discipleship
  2. Biblical Worship
  3. Biblical Leadership
  4. Biblical Fellowship
  5. Biblical Membership
  6. Biblical Giving
  7. Biblical Evangelism
  8. Biblical Teaching and Preaching
  9. Biblical Accountability and Discipline
  10. Biblical Mission
  11. Biblical Ordinances
  12. Biblical Prayer

These churches will not only need conviction and clarity on the biblical principles for a healthy church, they will also need to find faithful expressions of those principles that fit both the scriptures and our local context. With the same spiritual DNA as a church in Melanesia or North America, these churches will need to find hardy expressions of that DNA for a context that kills off expressions developed in more temperate climates. I’m not at all talking about reinventing church. Whether something feels traditional or new and exciting has nothing to do with it. Rather, as church planters, our sense is actually that we will have to be both more doggedly biblical and more carefully contextual than we have been thus far. We need to be able to draw bright and clear lines from our method to the scriptures and then to the local context.

So locals say a plurality of pastors is utterly foreign to this culture? Well, let’s still do it, because it’s biblical. But lets go so deep into their culture and history such that we find echoes in their past (like tribal elders) that help contextually illustrate the biblical leadership principle. Let’s take off our Western preference for informal/funny leadership relations and put on a Central Asian appreciation for titles, ceremony, and gravitas. Let’s actually try to wrap our minds around the complex patron-client system that dominates this worldview so that we and local believers can address it biblically – redeeming, redirecting, and rejecting as necessary. After all, the New Testament church itself upended the patron-client system of the Roman empire. How did they do it? Let’s not plateau in our understanding of theology nor our understanding of our local culture. Instead, let’s go deeper in both.

If we can work like this, then we just may see local churches emerge that last. We just may see churches that are like tequila plants.

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

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

-1st Thessalonians 2:19-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash

An Analogy for Sin that Hits Home

Our Muslim friends do not feel the weight of the word sin when we use it. There’s a reason for this. Islam has a different definition for sin, one more akin to mistake, flaw, or excusable offense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had local friends shrug off the concept of sin. “Of course we sin, we’re all humans after all. God understands! He made us like this and he’s full of mercy.” Missing is the deeper understanding of depravity. We are not just good beings that make mistakes. We actually have evil natures and without Jesus we commit evil continually from those natures. Sin has mercilessly infected every part of our lives. And this sinfulness has rendered us eternally incompatible with a holy God. Whereas the Bible presents sin as a disaster of eternal proportions, my local friends talk like it is something that can be remedied by a quick trip to the pharmacy.

We have found that while the concept of sin is shrugged off, the concepts of shame and uncleanness are felt keenly. Thus, these are good avenues to start with when explaining the biblical idea of sin. Sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us ashamed (Gen 3:10) and unclean (Is 6:5) before a just, honorable, and pure God. Leveraging these categories that already exist for fallenness can help us as we work to build new biblical categories that are absent or undeveloped in the local worldview. Someday our local friends will feel the sinfulness of sin after their minds and affections have been renewed by biblical truth. But it might take years. But they already feel the concept of shame deeply. And they feel uncleanness.

We should chew on how we can take this into account, how we can take a multi-faceted approach when explaining the biblical concept of sin to our Muslim friends. At the very least, we can use the biblical words for fallenness in clusters. We can regularly speak of sin and shame or of sin, shame, and uncleanness. By clustering these words like this, not only are we presenting a more holistic understanding of fallenness, we’re also sharing in a way that is more likely to pierce the heart. “What’s that? Jesus also cares about my secret shame? My constant uncleanness? That’s what separates me from God? This is not as easy to brush off as I thought it would be.”

I once did a home-stay with a Muslim immigrant family in the US. They were pretty moderate in their faith overall. But one day the teenage daughter brought home some takeout given to her by a friend. She didn’t know what the meat was and innocently put it in the fridge. Her mom later discovered the leftovers and was raving about how good they were. Then she looked at the receipt. It was pork. Immediately, the color drained from her face, she started muttering prayers of contrition, and she started trying to make herself throw up. She had become unwittingly unclean and that prospect left her terrified. She pleaded again and again for God to forgive her. This immigrant mother would debate for hours that humans are basically good, and yet she was very much alive to the concept of spiritual uncleanness.

Because of these things, I’ve come to start using an analogy on sin and uncleanness that I learned from a coworker. I like it in particular because it illustrates biblical truth in categories my local friends can understand. It meets them where they are at. The analogy is a simple one designed to help in conversations where Muslims are struggling to understand why sin is such a big deal. It goes like this: Imagine a delicious pot of rice, rich, steaming, seasoned, and ready to eat. Now imagine that one tiny piece of pork is mixed into that pot. What has happened to that rice? By nature of the tiny piece of pork, all the rice has become utterly unclean, or haram in Arabic. (Good Muslims should vehemently agree on this point. Islam abominates pork as the filthiest of foods). In an analogous way, one small sin pollutes and corrupts our entire nature, making us totally unclean and unworthy to be in the presence of a pure and holy God.

I’ve been able to try out this analogy with some of my local friends and so far have found it readily understood. Then from there, it’s just one step to telling the story of Jesus healing the unclean leper from Matthew chapter 8. Jesus touches the unclean and instead of himself becoming unclean, he makes the leper clean! Each of us needs him to do that for us also, to touch us and to purify us as only he can. This paints a stark contrast with the teaching of Islam. It means we are cursed with uncleanness and in need of a miracle to become spiritually pure. No more weak attempts to do ritual washings five times a day. We need something infinitely more powerful and permanent than that. Something that only Jesus can accomplish. If we will come to him in faith and repentance, he will kindly reach his hand and touch us. He will once again say, “I am willing. Be clean.”

p.s. We would of course later deal with the fact that pork is no longer actually unclean. Bacon is now back on the menu, if a believer so desires. But to temporarily use pork as a step toward understanding spiritual uncleanness is not necessarily to give credence to Islam. It is rather to do exactly what the food laws in the Old Testament did.

Photo by Pixzolo Photography on Unsplash

The End of the Ancient Irish Slave Trade

With the Irish – even with the kings – [Patrick] succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased. In reforming Irish sexual mores, he was rather less successful, though he established indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inmates by their way of life reminded the Irish that the virtues of lifelong faithfulness, courage, and generosity were actually attainable by ordinary human beings and that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society.

Patrick’s relations with his British brothers were less than happy. Rising petty kings along the western coasts of Britain, rushing to fill the power vacuum left by the departure of the Roman legions, began to carve out new territories for themselves and to take up piracy, an activity the Christian Britons had long ago abandoned.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 110

One important piece usually missing from contemporary discussions about slavery – ancient Christians abolished slavery in the Roman empire and even in territories beyond. Thus the modern abolition movement was the second time Western Christianity had ended slavery in its domains.

Is It Hypocrisy to Ask Locals to Be Self-Supporting?

“How can I not give a support salary to a local believing leader when I myself am funded by support?”

This is not an uncommon struggle for missionaries who are trying to plant self-supporting churches in foreign contexts. If it’s OK for me to be living on support from Western churches, well then why not this local evangelist? It’s easy to see why this question rests heavy on the minds of missionaries, awash as they usually are in requests for financial help from locals.

And yet dependency upon Western dollars is a major problem, undercutting the emergence of healthy churches in many places overseas and stunting local believers in their growth. Time and again, well-meaning teams, organizations, and visitors will generously give out cash, vehicles, and salaries to locals who are indeed in financial need. Soon this becomes the expectation. In my Central Asian context there has never been a self-supporting local church. The precedent set by Christian organizations here is that local believers should usually be hired, salaried, and otherwise financially supported. Because of this, local aspiring church leaders hunt on social media and in our region for foreign patrons who will bankroll them so that they can finally serve Jesus as they feel they deserve to. Locals hosting a house church demand that the church pay their monthly rent. Other believers balk at the idea of doing discipleship without financial remuneration. After all, a worker is worthy of his wages. Sadly, entitlement is not too strong a word to use for the money culture that exists here among the small community of local believers.

The saddest part of it all is that local believers don’t learn how to give sacrificially. Dependent as they are on Western dollars, they often give a tiny symbolic amount to their local gathering – a massive contrast to their generosity toward their kin and close friends. The culture of giving among local believers is woefully underdeveloped. So it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Locals don’t give because the Western dollars are expected to flow liberally. The Western dollars flow because the locals don’t give, meaning their leaders can’t provide for their families. Locals therefore stay spiritual children in this regard, not growing up into the mature blessings that come from giving sacrificially (2 Cor 9).

My approach among my local friends is to simply ask their community to do what ours back in the West (and in Melanesia) has done. Work hard. Give generously to the church. Support your pastors. Serve the poor. Then give even more to send out your own evangelists and church planters. This is what has happened among healthy church networks all over the world. We are not asking our local friends to go through any kind of a different process. “Your people should do what my people have done.” It’s that simple. The shortcuts are treacherous. I live on support, yes, and I am therefore a preview of what your church will also be able to do if you embrace the New Testament vision of work and giving to the glory of God. You will send supported missionaries to other places who will also there raise up self-funded churches.

It is not hypocrisy for me to live on support and to ask my local friends to have locally-supported leaders. I am for them. I am for their spiritual maturity. I long for the day when local funds raised by local churches will send locals as cross-cultural missionaries to other people groups. This can happen. But it won’t happen if they remain dependent on Western dollars, stunted spiritually by the lack of this spiritual discipline of giving – and in greater danger of the ever-encroaching love of money. A worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim 6:18). But let’s make sure we notice the context of that verse. The previous sentences are speaking of elders who lead well (v. 17). These are men who are tested, who are not new converts, who were free from the love of money before they became elders (1st Tim 3, Titus 1). These are men who have a track record of faithful leadership. Years of faithfulness have been invested without pay into the local church. By all means, let’s salary these kinds of brothers so they can be more free to devote themselves to the word and to prayer! But let that salary be locally-raised, or, part of high-accountability decreasing support plan where foreign support gets lower as local support ramps up – not unlike what we do for most North American church plants.

I’m not saying that there’s never an appropriate time for foreign dollars to fund local leaders overseas. But in many contexts it has caused absolute carnage among the churches. Foreign dollars are certainly among our top three church-killers locally. We need to grapple with this. Foreign financial support, if attempted, must be done very carefully and wisely, always with an explicit vision toward self-supporting local churches. There are usually better ways to invest Western money, such as helping local leaders get the training needed to start a business or get hired. Teach a man to fish, as the saying goes. Or, like Paul, teach a man to make tents.

I will have another chance to sit down with some local brothers this next week. They have asked to meet me and I’ve learned that they have a reputation for being salary-seekers. Money will likely come up. I hope to humbly invite them to follow me as I follow Christ. I’ve walked a good, hard, slow path toward now being fully supported to do gospel work. My path involved years of faithful volunteering, demonstrating to myself and to the church that I would do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and service no matter what, support or no support. “Will you also follow this good path that many others have walked before us? Will your people do as my people have done?” It may be harder, but in the end it is indeed a sweeter road – and safer too.

Photo by Fredrik Öhlander on Unsplash

It Is The Glory of God to Conceal Things

*Henry was a local friend who had volunteered to help our relief and development office. He was extremely ambitious and his desire to leverage his connection with us for his future prospects was not exactly subtle. Even other locals were a bit taken back by his drive and abnormal energy to get ahead. He represented a certain slice of the younger generation who were reacting against the fatalism of their culture and a bit too intoxicated with the Western ideals of self-determinism and the power to set one’s own destiny.

Yet alongside of his drive he had the normal Central Asian abundance of hospitality and relational energy. It was an interesting mix. One of my teammates befriended Henry and began taking trips with him to visit Henry’s father’s village and flocks and going on mountain picnics with him. During these outings they began to study the Bible together. I was really encouraged to hear that this was happening as much of my time in that season was taken up by my focus on Hama and his network. Occasionally I would have the opportunity to speak briefly into these conversations, but mostly my teammate took point and I prayed and supported as I could.

This state of things continued for a couple of months or so, with Henry seeming close to understanding the gospel and then pulling back in defensiveness. Still, it seemed to be an upward spiral. One summer afternoon I was present in our office as the debate reached a tipping point.

“I need you guys to find me a priest,” Henry said.

“Why do you need a priest?” asked my teammate.

“I need someone who can explain the Bible to me better than you guys can. I just can’t understand it, no matter how hard I try. I need a religious professional.”

“Henry,” my teammate protested, “we are telling you plainly what the Bible says, you don’t need a priest or a pastor.”

“No! I need a priest. I need a professional religious teacher. Then this book will make sense to me.”

The back and forth continued like this for a bit longer. I eventually chimed in as well.

“Henry, you don’t need another human teacher. We’ve been telling you clearly what this book means, but you can’t understand it because you need God’s help. You need the Holy Spirit of God to be your teacher. Only he can open up your eyes now to understand this book. You need the Holy Spirit, not a priest.”

Henry ended up leaving, frustrated. Perhaps we could somehow connect him with a like-minded pastor. Maybe that would make the difference?

The next day Henry came back to our office, pale as a sheet.

“Henry, what is it? Come in!”

“I need to sit down,” Henry said. “I need to tell you something that happened.”

Henry’s entire demeanor was changed. No longer was he projecting his confidant, ambitious, driven persona. For the first time, I saw in his eyes what could have been humility. And fear, there was definitely fear.

Henry insisted we go into an inner room of the house and lock the door behind us.

“I have to tell you what happened last night. You need to help me know what to do,” Henry said. “Last night I was reading in the Bible you gave me. I was reading the book of Proverbs for the first time. I got to chapter three or four I think. I remember thinking about the part where it says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not lean on your own understanding.’ Then I fell asleep, with the Bible on my chest.”

Henry paused as he collected his thoughts in the dim light of the inner room. There was no electricity so we were sitting in a quiet but somewhat dark space. The taste of a room that needed to be dusted was in the air. Henry was on the couch, we were on two chairs, pulled up close and facing him.

“I had a dream. In my dream I saw a man in shining white robes that came to me. I do not remember everything that he said, but he said to me, in my own language, ‘My son!’ – In my own language!”

“Do you know who that was, Henry?” we asked.

“I know it was Jesus. I don’t know how I know, but I know it was him,” he said. “He had an open book in his hand. He told me that I need to read it. Behind him were several people, also wearing white robes, also with books in their hands. It was you guys. I saw you in my dream standing behind Jesus. I asked Jesus who you were and he said to me, ‘These are my people. You need to listen to them!”

At this point my teammate and turned to one another, wide-eyed with chills going through our bodies. I think we may have laughed in amazement and high-fived.

“Did he really say that, Henry? Did he really say that we were his people and that you should listen to us?! Ha! That’s wonderful, that’s amazing! Wow!”

“Yes,” Henry said, “He said that, and you were there. It was your faces and you were holding books, like you were eager to give them to me.” My teammate and I shot each other knowing glances. We had been vindicated.

“What else did he say?” we asked.

“I can’t remember everything. The only other thing that is clear is that he said, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things…’ Strange sentence. Does that mean anything to you?”

It had a familiar ring to it, but neither of us could remember off the top of our heads where it was from. So we pulled out our Bibles and laptops and began searching. It didn’t take very long for us to point out to Henry that it was from Proverbs 25:2 – It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search them out. We showed this passage to Henry.

Henry backed away from us, looking frightened.

“I… I didn’t read that part of Proverbs yet. I fell asleep in chapter four. I didn’t read that! But that’s what Jesus said, and there it is, in the Bible, right there! How did he do that?”

My teammate and I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear and shaking our heads. For a couple of college guys who had volunteered to spend a year in the Middle East, we never expected anything like this. It was enough to get to share the gospel with our friends and study the Bible with them. But it seemed that the Holy Spirit was out to rescue some of our friends, like Henry. And he was displaying his sovereign power in doing so.

“Guys,” Henry said, his face now in his hands. “It all makes sense to me now. Everything you’ve been trying to tell me. Everything that the Bible says. It’s so clear now, when yesterday I just couldn’t grasp it. Something has changed.”

“Henry,” we said, “It seems that you found your teacher… or that he found you. The Holy Spirit has given you the light you need to understand God’s word.”

“So what do I do now?” Henry asked.

“Well, now you follow Jesus.”

“But how do I do that?”

We proceeded to walk Henry through the gospel one more time – God as holy creator, man as a fallen sinner, Christ as our savior and sacrifice, and the need to repent and believe. Henry affirmed that he believed all those things. We weren’t exactly sure what to do at that point, having ourselves been chewing on the issues related to the traditional sinner’s prayer as we had inherited it. So we opted to instead lay hands on Henry and to pray that God would confirm his gospel confession as true and if so, establish him in his new faith.

After we prayed Henry looked up, no longer afraid, but now full of joy. He was now a brother. He has quietly continued in his faith to the present day.

But what was going on with the quotation of Proverbs 25:2 in his dream? I am no dream interpreter, but my best guess is that this verse was quoted in Henry’s dream to emphasize that the truth had indeed been sovereignly concealed from him as he wrestled to understand it in his own wisdom. No matter how strong his drive was, Henry just couldn’t make sense of this book. Biblically, there is a particular glory of God that manifests itself in the concealing of mysteries. After all, he is a God with secrets and with thick darkness all around him (Deut 29:29, Ps 97:2). He wanted Henry to know that only the Holy Spirit could remove the veil from his eyes so that he could see the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ. Why? So that it would be all of grace, clearly all of grace with no room for boasting (Eph 2:8-9).

All of grace. Henry didn’t deserve to be given spiritual sight. Neither did I. It is the glory of God to conceal things. Yet praise God, it is also the glory of God to reveal them.

*names changed for security

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

But Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed?

“But the Bible has been changed.”

It doesn’t take very long for someone sharing their Christian faith with Muslims to hear this response. And if you continue sharing your faith with Muslims, you never stop hearing it. The concept that the Bible has been corrupted and changed is so deeply ingrained in the Islamic mind that it seems like common sense to the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. For those who have grown up in a Muslim family, they have likely never heard anyone challenge this claim, so it is simply accepted as established truth. It is one of the most common and earliest objections to the gospel. Even if someone has never thought deeply about this question, it will certainly come out when they are in conversation with a Christian friend.

We’ve noticed among our friends a curious pattern with these kinds of common objections, such as the corruption of the Bible and Jesus not being the Son of God. Early on, these same objections always come out, almost on autopilot. It’s what they’ve been trained to say by their upbringing. Then later, if someone is close to coming to faith in Jesus, the same objections come out again, but this time with a different tone. In the beginning it was someone simply parroting an objection they thought would be unanswerable. Later on, they’re looking for deeper answers, looking for reassurance, and looking to see if they themselves will be able to have an answer when their friends and family hit them with the same responses. It’s therefore helpful to have a solid initial response and deeper answers that can be dealt with later on. I’d recommend avoiding getting bogged down arguing about this topic in the beginning.

My go-to initial response is to appeal to the character of God and the character of his word. In response to my friend’s statement that the Bible has been changed, I will assert that the Bible is the word of God. Instead of Bible I’ll use the terms Tawrat (Torah-Writings), Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (New Testament) – these are the parts of the Bible that Muslims have heard of. There is usually a statement of agreement from my friend when I make this point that these three “books” are the word of God. Islam does not contest this (and good Muslims shouldn’t either). But then I will share that the Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil all contain promises that God’s word will remain fixed forever. These are promises like Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, 1st Peter 1:24-25. I will often share Isaiah 40:8 in the local language, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever. Then I simply appeal to God’s character.

“God has made promises that his word remains forever. He keeps his promises. God is strong enough to protect his word from being lost through man’s tampering. Do you really believe that man is stronger than God? That some puny group of Christians or Jews were stronger than God and able to change his eternal word? We should not believe that about our great God. Do you actually believe that or do you believe like me that God was strong enough to protect his word in history?”

This response, of course, is no silver bullet. Some squirm and make up hypotheticals about the real Bible being hidden in Yemen or somewhere, claiming that the Bible that we have is corrupted. But it’s the rare Muslim who is eager to admit that man was stronger than God and therefore able to change his word. Many will say that the quality of the inspiration of the Bible was less than the Qur’an, therefore God had to send a final revelation that could not be changed. But because the original Bible is affirmed as the word of God by Islam it’s a logical mess any way you look at it. There’s often power in just letting the question sit: You really think that man was stronger than God? Wow.

Some, never having faced this information and question before, will accept it as a good response and move on to other questions and objections. When this happens, it’s a win. The rabbit-hole of tit-for-tat arguments has been avoided on this difficult topic. And how? By an appeal to the character of God and to his word. If the argument can be sidestepped so that someone is willing to study the Bible with you and thereby let it defend itself, then that is ideal. The word of God is its own best defense. We should be ready with solid arguments, but we should leverage them cautiously as it’s not usually the intellectual and logical disagreements that are the main barriers for Muslims coming to faith. There will be a minority for whom a more detailed apologetics conversation needs to take place. An even smaller minority of those will actually hear the detailed arguments presented and consider them. These people do exist – and sometimes they go on to become a Nabeel Qureshi, the late author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. But most of my friends need help to simply get past these objections so that we can focus on the gospel message in the text of scripture and displayed in the lives of believers.

There are many other possible answers to this topic. Some of my colleagues like to put forward a series of questions. “Who, What, Where, Why, How was the Bible changed?” Challenging locals to find answers to these questions can lead them to the awkward place of realizing their teachers don’t have any. There is also the fact that the Qur’an itself commends the Bible as a book to be believed and followed. And the Qur’an never says that the Bible has been changed. All that’s there is an obscure reference to Jews twisting some spoken words. Earliest Islam simply did not teach that the Bible has been changed, but that the message of the Bible was in agreement with the Qur’an, albeit misunderstood by its followers. It was only later, when the differences were understood to be as stark as they actually are, that the whole doctrine of the corruption of the Bible came into play. The Jews and Christians twisted the meaning of the words evolved into the Jews and Christians changed the actual words. Today the latter is the almost-universal belief of Muslims.

Finally, there is the amazing manuscript evidence for the New Testament that can be appealed to. The evidence for the reliability of the Bible is stunning – over 5,600 Greek NT manuscripts with 99.5% copying accuracy between them. And yet in my experience I have found digging into these details, as encouraging as they are for me, seem to have very mixed results among my Muslims friends. Many of my local friends don’t use logic in the same way I do. They rely instead on trusted authority, even when it goes against logic and evidence. They also have the honor of their heritage to defend and will shift arguments as needed. Be prepared to hear strange claims about The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Barnabas and maybe the Illuminati.

It’s a subtle trap, getting stuck arguing about the history of the Bible such that you never get to the message of the gospel itself. My counsel would be to simply appeal to the character of God, to ask good questions that your Muslim friends have never heard before, and then to get them in the actual Bible as soon as possible. Studying the Bible with a believer is the best way for Muslims to overcome the inherited belief that the scriptures have been corrupted.

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 ESV)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103 ESV)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

My New Neighbor, My New Brother

Upon reentering our Central Asian country we had to sign that we would self-quarantine for fourteen days. In spite of much ambiguity about whether this is actually required, we are trying to honor this request as much as possible. However, there were a few tasks that needed to be done in our immediate neighborhood in order to be able to stay at home for these two weeks, such as replacing a burned-up component of our electricity box. The lack of constant electricity is such a common grievance here that the government would definitely count replacing this piece as a permissible exception. “Give us independence! … or if not… we’ll settle for 24 hour electricity.” is the joke refrain among some of the demographics here.

On our first or second day back I was sneaking out of our courtyard in order to put something in our vehicle. As I hurried down the street, masked, I saw a 50-year-old-looking man approaching me in the native dress of a different people group, the outfit of the historic enemies of our majority neighbors here. He stopped me and began to ask me something, but in the other major language here that I haven’t been able to learn, focused as we’ve been on our people group’s tongue. There is a swathe of shared vocabulary between these languages, however, and I was able to discern the word for “neighbor.” This man seemed to be asking about my neighbors. I apologized and told him that I didn’t speak his language and moved on to my vehicle. But I pointed to another neighbor’s 20-something son who is fluent in this language and indicated that he could help him.

When I was walking back to my house, there he was again. The young man then began translating for us. “He’s your new neighbor!” he said. “He wants to let you know that he is honored to meet you and that he is at your service.”

I began kicking myself inwardly. I had done it again, rushed out to be about my business without moving slowly enough to make room for respectful greetings and interactions with others. Yes, I had the quarantine to consider, but here was my first interaction with my immediate neighbor, and I had essentially brushed him off. Depending on his personality, he could take offense at this. I quickly recomposed myself and used the few respectful phrases I know in this other language, holding my hand over my heart and hoping that my eyes would show my smile beneath the face mask. We proceeded to have a brief and respectful interaction, mediated by our translator, who as a member of the younger generation began rolling his eyes a bit at all these pleasantries. My neighbor seemed to overlook my mistake gracefully.

Living between Western culture and Central Asian culture presents this daily difficulty: how to be productive and time-oriented with my coworkers and Western partners while still leaving enough margin in my day for honorable interactions with Central Asians. If I’m not careful, I slip right back into productivity mode. I step outside my gate expecting to be able to immediately get in my car so that I can make it to that meeting on time. Yet often there is another neighbor just then driving up or standing in the street, eager for the kind of friendly and respectful interaction that makes for good neighbors here and a good reputation.

To love and respect Central Asians I need to communicate to them that I have time for them and that their relationship is more important to me than my to-do list. And yet I tend to be a man at war within myself. I’m either knocking out the emails, projects, and meetings and blowing by my Central Asian neighbors, or I’m taking the time necessary to build those relationships and resigning myself to my ballooning inbox and to-do list. My current strategy is to make mornings my protected productivity time while leaving the rest of the day open for the unpredictable, time-consuming, and ever so valuable task of relationship-building.

A couple days after we met, my new neighbor caught me again peeking outside my gate, trying to figure out why we had lost electricity. He eagerly engaged me, even though he knew that I didn’t understand his language. But this time he managed to share two new pieces of information with me. First, he is actually from a minority here, what we call an unengaged people group. This means there is no established church among this people group and there is no one that we know of currently strategizing to reach them. The second thing that he shared with me was that I am now his brother.

Remarkable. Even after years of working with Central Asians, I continue to be amazed by their overflowing hospitality and respect. There is a regional proverb that says, “The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.” This neighbor had moved in while we were away, so technically he is the newcomer. I should be welcoming him. Yet I had possibly acted dishonorably in our first interaction. I haven’t learned his languages nor done anything yet to serve him. Yet he proclaims me his brother.

I have come to understand that these over-the-top statements are not always meant to be taken literally. It is an honor-shame culture, after all. Yet they are said genuinely by enough of the population that I still find myself perplexed at how anyone can have so much energy for respectful hospitality. Perhaps another local proverb has had a deep effect on them, “Guests are God’s guests.” At any rate, I still have a long way to go in learning from my local friends how to live slowly enough and energetically enough to be an honorable man in this culture. How that is supposed to mesh with the Western side of my life, I really can’t say. I suppose it is a tension that will always be there.

I’m grateful for my new neighbor, my new self-proclaimed brother. No foreigner that we know of has ever learned his language. He’s probably never heard the gospel before. Perhaps God will use his cultural honor, grace, and hospitality as a means by which we can eventually show him supernatural honor, grace, and hospitality through the gospel. Oh for the chance to share the gospel in a way he will understand. Are we supposed to learn his language? Are we supposed to recruit others to do this? There are at least five unengaged language groups like his in our country where no missionary has ever learned to speak their mother tongue. These are things to commit to serious prayer.

For now, I am grateful for the common grace of good neighbors. Rather than ignoring us as the strange foreigners, they have instead proclaimed us to be family. May we indeed become true family, co-members of the household of God.

Photo by Kieran Stewart on Unsplash

Making Observations, Not Laws

“All Chinese restaurants here are fronts for prostitution.” This statement was communicated to us when we were brand new on the field. Over time we learned that it was a bit overstated. Yes, some of the Chinese restaurants were fronts for prostitution, but not all. From asking various locals we were able to learn about certain restaurants where we could enjoy some delicious Asian cuisine without indirectly supporting prostitution – and where we would also not be in danger of being perceived by locals as ourselves being customers of the wrong sort. Turns out that even in our corner of Central Asia there were Chinese small business owners who were just here to make a living by opening a restaurant (some of whom in other cities were rumored to be missionaries themselves, part of the Back to Jerusalem movement).

What had been a valid observation had become a law of cultural interpretation. “Chinese restaurants here tend to be fronts for prostitution” had become “All Chinese restaurants here are fronts, therefore never eat at one.” For us, this served as one example of a common trend among those doing cross-cultural ministry – the trend of making laws when we should instead be making theories and observations.

It’s understandable. When we enter a new context we are eager to learn the culture, the rules, the way things are, and the way we need to act. Important things are at stake, like our sanity and our testimony. We ourselves are adrift in a sea of uncertainty, navigating a foreign culture and context, desperate for something solid to hold onto, eager to make sense of this new world. So we get a piece of intel from our teammates or from a local and we absolutize it. From this day forward, I will honor the laws that all locals have lice, no locals can think abstractly, no locals are comfortable worshiping in a public church setting, etc., etc.

But there are several problems with this way of forming these kinds of laws and absolutes. The first is that every culture is diverse. Just because one local describes his people in a certain way does not mean that is an accurate representation of every demographic in the culture. My wife was once invited to play a role in a local TV commercial for a rice company. Most of our city friends said not to think twice about it, but to take it as a fun opportunity. But when we checked with one of our other believing friends from a more conservative Islamic and tribal background, he told us not to do it. “We would never ever let our women be filmed like that,” he said. “Too much opportunity for them to be objectified by others. It’s not honorable.” We decided to be cautious and to pass on the offer. We were glad after seeing the commercial as they portrayed the foreign women who later took the role as somewhat of a buffoon.

Another problem with making laws instead of interpretations has to do with our own limited understanding of our new context. Actually understanding what certain things really mean in a new culture is a marathon effort, not a sprint. We do not always have the lenses we need to see things clearly and without distortion. Once we have spent some years marinating in the values and worldview of our new culture, we will be in a better place to connect the dots. “Try not to make any judgments in your first year on the field” is a wise piece of advice I recall my mother saying. If we’re not careful, one generation of missionaries makes hasty judgments which get passed on as laws to the next generation of missionaries and then on to the next. While some things are blatantly obvious (drunkenness and wife-beating are wrong and to be immediately condemned), others are illuminated in a better light over time (he’s making sure not to touch your hand when he gives you the change, not because he thinks women are dirty, but because he wants to protect your chaste reputation in the community).

Finally, culture is not a static thing. It is living and moving, like a cloud formation that seems stable, only to have shifted a great deal the next time you glance back up at the sky. The valid “rules” a few years ago may have shifted by the time we arrive on the field – or when we come back again after a season away. They may continue to shift. The key is to have a firm grasp on our biblical principles and their range of expressions and then to have a curious and keen eye toward studying the culture. Living in a non-static human culture will bear on commands such as “outdo one another in showing honor,” “he must have a good reputation with outsiders,” “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and others (Rom 12:10, 1 Tim 3:7, 1 Thes 5:26). It is extremely important that I stand to my feet when a local man over forty enters a room. This is changing among the twenty and thirty-somethings, who are moving away from some of their elders’ formality. Rightly discerning our context is key – as is the right kind of stability and flexibility. I will always honor adoption, no matter if it is shameful in my adopted culture. I will not always kiss other men on the cheek without first discerning my context.

Entering a new culture (or reentering) is a wonderful time to make observations. Contrasts which will later fade are stark and vibrant. So let’s make abundant observations and theories. But let’s be cautious with making laws about the culture. They may prove to be valid trends. But turning a trend into a law ultimately results in decreasing our valid biblical options. And frankly, the work is hard enough that we should want all options on the table.

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In Praise of The Dogpile Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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