A Practical and Powerful Bible Tool For Every Christian With a Smartphone

There are certain tools and resources that have passed the longevity test. These tools have proven useful, not just for a season, but for the long-term. I want to recommend just such a tool today.

The Compare feature on Youversion’s Bible app is the kind of tool I have used countless times over the last seven years in order to read scripture side by side with speakers of other languages. This Bible app doesn’t just provide scripture free of charge in 1,950 languages (Which is a stunning thing in itself. Can you imagine Tyndale’s reaction if he knew we had Bible access like this?) But it allows a reader to work through an entire passage in multiple languages side by side, with the texts parallel to one another on the screen of your smart phone or tablet. In our multilingual world, this is an extremely practical tool for Christians eager to share the truth of Scripture.

You can use this feature if you are sharing the gospel with someone from another ethnic or language background and want to make sure the individual verses you are sharing are clear. Instead of only showing your friend a verse in English, you can at the same time be showing it to them in their mother tongue (And in this way also know that you are indeed showing them the verse you mean to). Or, you can use this tool in a Bible study with others as you work through a broader passage, one parallel verse at a time, again, having two or more languages in front of you on your phones’ screens for the sake of clarity and understanding – both yours and theirs.

I have also used this feature to continue growing in my knowledge of other languages. Since I’m very familiar with the text of the Bible in English, it’s an easy way to learn new vocab and grammar in another language. And I’ve recommended this practice to many of my English students as a way to expose them to the Bible while they strengthen their English skills, one parallel verse or passage at a time.

This kind of practice not only helps with language acquisition, but also with language retention. Like our physical muscles, our languages need a little bit of regular exercise in order to not atrophy. A few Bible verses a day keeps that language’s part of the brain online in a surprising way. In this vein, whenever I listen to a sermon I have the Bible app’s Compare feature open in front of me for this very purpose. I’ve found the act of code-switching between Bible languages during a sermon helpful both for the insights as well as the questions that emerge.

What if you are aware of a Bible translation that exists, but it’s not included in the 1,950 languages currently on the app? Youversion provides a form for it to be added (Click My Language is Not Listed on the drop down menu and they’ll get back to you). Several years ago I filled out the request form, asking that the trade language translation I grew up with in Melanesia be added to the app. To my surprise, after a few months, there it was. I could now read the Bible in English, my Melanesian trade language, and my focus Central Asian language side by side. This is a true gift because it means that even if I’m the only one in Central Asia who speaks that particular Melanesian tongue, I can not only keep my knowledge of it alive, but even be edified by the Word while doing so.

I was recently speaking with a missionary friend who didn’t know of this tool, so I wanted to put it out there in case it might serve others who are involved in sharing truth across language barriers. For so many, the realities of immigration now mean that even without leaving our home nations we have neighbors, community businessmen, and fellow classmates from other nations. Few immigrants and refugees ever have anyone from their host nation ask genuine questions about the language they spoke growing up. And many speakers of other languages have no idea that the Bible has been translated into their language. This then can be a great way to invite someone into reading God’s word. Ask about their mother tongue, show them that you have a Bible in their language on your phone, ask them if they’d like to have it on their phone also, then invite them if they’d like to meet up another time for coffee or tea to read some together.

Our team in Central Asia has been able to “distribute” dozens upon dozens of Bibles in this way, with some of them being downloaded the very first time we meet someone and get into a spiritual conversation with them. For long-term or short-term teams, or for any Christian eager to share the Bible with others, this really is a tremendous tool for getting scripture into people’s hands, and for reading it side-by-side.

If you want to use this Compare feature, here are the steps:

  1. Dowload the Youversion Bible app from the App Store or Google Play.
  2. Set up a free account on the app.
  3. Click the Bible button on the menu at the bottom of the screen.
  4. At the top of the screen, choose the passage and English translation. This version will be your default until you change it.
  5. Tap on a verse to select it.
  6. Click on the Compare button from the menu that will pop up when you tap on the verse.
  7. At this point, only the selected English verse will appear on the screen. Click on the Add Version button at the bottom of the screen.
  8. Click on the Language button at the top of the screen in order to select versions in other languages.
  9. Click the magnifying glass button at the top of the screen to search the 1,950 languages.
  10. Tap the language you want.
  11. On the next screen, tap on that language a second time in order to add it to the Compare page.
  12. You should now see the verse you selected in your chosen languages side by side on the screen. Click on the Next Verse or Previous Verse buttons to navigate through the chapter.

I hope you find this tool as practical and powerful as I have. And to the team at Youversion, my sincerest thanks.

Timely Provision of an Unlikely Kind

Every parent knows of the dicey situations you might find yourself in when you’re away from home and your kid has a clothing crisis. Here I recall walking down the sidewalk in Queens, New York, carrying my one-and-a-half-year-old. It’s a freezing December evening, and she is swaddled up in her mom’s Middle Eastern scarf. But apart from that she’s only wearing a diaper. This is because she had an epic blowout while we were eating at a Turkish restaurant with a friend. And while we had an extra diaper, we did not have extra clothes. So after dinner, we shuffled back to the hotel as quickly as we could, hoping the meanface worn by most passersby was just typical New York, and not because our daughter’s bare chubby legs were sticking out into the winter wind.

I was helping change my youngest son into his pajamas the other day when I was reminded of yet another similar incident. While lending this bedtime assistance, I saw that my son was wearing a pair of blue briefs with a bright red, yellow, and green band. On the band is a repeated pattern of the word Wonderful and a black print of what is clearly a cannabis leaf.

“Hey love, we still have the marijuana undies?” I called to my wife down the hall.

“Yep! Hand-me-downs,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

These particular briefs had actually belonged to my son’s older sister, though this is no fault of her own. Well, not entirely.

At some point your kids start desiring to pack for themselves when the family goes on trips. This will eventually be a wonderful thing, I’m sure. But for a good number of years it introduces just as much trouble as any potential time it might save.

It was about a year ago that we found ourselves packing for a team retreat at a mountain lake town. Our previous team-building sessions with some new teammates had been sabotaged by local ministry crises, so we were going to try again, but this time we planned to get out of town to make the interruptions at least a little less-likely. There’s almost no acceptable reason for not answering your phone in our local culture, but one of the few exceptions to this tyrannical rule is if you are out of the city. So, we packed up and drove an hour through the mountains to a nice lakeside hotel. We were all looking forward to a few days of encouragement, getting to know one another better, and some measure of rest. Even the biggest dust storm in decades didn’t dampen our spirits.

After the first evening of sessions, our family arrived back at our room. The plan was for each of the kids to get a quick shower before bed. Well, somewhere in the course of this process my wife discovered that our daughter had forgotten to pack any undergarments. In spite of her best packing intentions, our daughter had simply forgotten to pack any of this crucial form of clothing. My wife and I both deflated when my she told me the bad news. It was now 9 p.m. and neither of us wanted to head out into the dusty night to problem-solve this kind of issue at the end of a day of travel and meetings. We just wanted to get the kids in bed and get some rest ourselves.

But maybe, just maybe, some of the stores in the little tourist town’s bazaar would still be open and have something that could work. We decided I should try to go hunt down some children’s undergarments. If I found some, then I wouldn’t have to make the drive down to our city and back the next day and miss a half day of the retreat. We remembered passing a few women’s clothing stores as we drove through the bazaar, but it was a very small town with a marketplace that focused mostly on swimming and picnic supplies for tourists. I figured I had maybe a 50/50 chance of accomplishing my mission.

Girding up my loins, I drove down the mountain road to the little town and began weaving my car systematically through the streets of the small bazaar. Most of the stores were closed, with the exception of tea houses, shawarma shops, and alcohol stores. I had just about given up hope when I made it to the very last street. One narrow closet of a store remained to be checked.

Proclaiming my peace upon the store attendant, I entered and did a quick scan. Hair dryers, makeup, adult pajama sets, and other similar items filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. These were good signs. I tried to look casual as I made my way to the very back of the store. And there I spotted a thing of glory. A dusty bin on the floor full of a random assortment of kids briefs.

“There it is!” I said to my self in the local language, much more loudly than I had been meaning to. As other missionaries can attest, there is a special kind of victorious joy that floods one’s soul when the very item you have been searching for is suddenly found in the bowels of a foreign market. Providence cares for us in many ways, and these oh-so-practical provisions in unexpected places certainly count as one of them.

However, I soon I realized that the trick would be finding something the right size. Most of these undergarments were for apparently massive children and my daughter was a very skinny seven-year-old at the time. After I had picked through the entire dusty box, I found three pair that would have to do. One was neutral, and probably too big. Two seemed to be a better size. Of these two, one was clearly for girls, and illustrated with flowers and goofy Asian cartoon characters. Passable, I thought to myself. And the third pair, which was the one I was most confident would actually fit, was none other than the pair of boys’ Rastafarian-themed underwear which I have described above.

I squatted on the dirty tile floor of the shop considering the best path forward. Was I a bad dad for considering buying my child an undergarment emblazoned with cannabis leaves, self-proclaimed as Wonderful? However, since they might be the only ones that truly fit, the more practical side of me soon won out. Clean undies trump many things. I would get my daughter at least two pair that should fit, and if any uncomfortable questions are raised about the nature of said plant emblazoned on its band, we could always use it as a teachable moment. It’s never too early for a little Christian worldview formation, right?

Having made my decision, I couldn’t not spend a moment chewing on certain unanswerable questions. Who in their right mind had decided to design such a garment for kids? Why had their supervisor at the clothing factory approved this idea? What country and continent had this pair of briefs originally come from? Jamaica? And what kind of strange and Wonderful journey had brought them to this dusty bin in an obscure mountain town in Central Asia? Alas, there are no answers to questions such as these, so I rose, attempted to purchase them with a nonchalant demeanor, and stepped back out into the hazy night air.

Much relieved to have actually found something, I celebrated by buying myself a late night chicken shawarma sandwich (to be consumed immediately), and some Snickers bars (to be consumed in the hotel room). It may have been a needle in a haystack, but by the grace of God I had found something passable at the very last store I could have checked. Our children would be fully clothed. The team retreat was saved.

I definitely had to stifle a laugh the other day when I realized that these marijuana undies had made it all the way to America with us. The many adventures of the traveling cannabis underpants continue. Indeed, they are being put to good use as a hand-me-down for a missionary kid, so they have found a noble use in the end, despite their murky beginnings.

“What is real missionary life like?” many ask. Well, there are the days when you find someone divinely prepared to hear the gospel message. And those are good days. And then there are the days when all you can find is some cannabis-themed underwear for your kids when they’ve forgotten to pack any of their own. And those are good days too. Turns out the small graces of laughter and timely provision can be a mighty thing amidst the many ups and downs of missionary life.

No, I will not scoff at the timely gift of even these pagan underpants – but yes, I will laugh. And someday, when they’re old enough, I think our kids will too.

Photo by David Gabrić on Unsplash

*Just in case it isn’t clear, I would like to say that I do not support the recreational use of cannabis plant/marijuana for Christians or anyone. Though I hear it was used to make some decent parachutes during WWII.

Not Forever, Yet Still Meaningful

“Make sure they know their commitment doesn’t have to be forever to be meaningful.”

I recently shared this tip with a friend who was struggling to build a core team for a new church plant in eastern Kentucky. He had another informational meeting coming up, and since I wouldn’t be able to make it, I was eager for those at the meeting to be free from the false choice of a never-or-forever commitment to living and serving in the mountain town chosen for the church plant.

Many tend to view a commitment to missions or church planting as a life calling to a certain place or people group. And for some, it is. Church history says that Timothy eventually settled in Ephesus, ministering there until he was martyred as an old man. Patrick gave his life to Ireland. But for Paul and others who were part of his apostolic band, several months or years here and there seemed to be the norm.

For lead church planters, there is an important distinction to understand between the planter-pastor calling and what can be called an apostolic planter calling. Planter-pastors aim to plant a church and then to pastor it for the long-term. For those who are called to an apostolic planter ministry, their leadership over the church plant is meant to be temporary from the beginning, and they aim to go on planting other churches. These planters have a gifting that echoes that of Paul, where churches are started and then handed over to long-term elders, and it’s in this sense that I’m using the term apostolic, without here getting into the debates about whether there is an actual apostolic gifting or office for the church today.

Having been involved with both North American and cross-cultural church planting, it’s curious to note that the planter-pastor approach is the dominant model and assumption for North American church plants, while the apostolic planter model is the dominant model and assumption for planting churches cross-culturally. The conversations tend to be very different in these two spheres of church planting regarding what is necessary for a church plant to be successful. Preaching is a great example of this. For North American church plants, a strong gift of preaching is held up to be absolutely necessary. But for cross-cultural church-planting, preaching is often downplayed or even jettisoned altogether. Given these drastic differences, there needs to be more cross-pollination between missionary planters overseas and church planters in North America who are planting in their own language and in near-culture contexts. This is necessary so that neither are stuck in their own echo chambers. But that is a separate post.

What I want to focus on today is that just as some lead church planters are called to a life commitment and others to give a much shorter time, so the members of a church planting team can also be called to either kind of commitment. But perhaps because the planter-pastor model is the dominant one in North America, those considering joining a core team of this kind of church plant tend to assume they are being asked to commit decades to the church plant and focus city. This is, understandably, a very big ask. So it’s no wonder that many church planters heading to hard places in North America have a difficult time recruiting a team.

Yes, some will be called and gifted with a life-long commitment to a new church plant and new city. But this kind of long-term calling will not be the case for everyone, and is not necessary in order for team members to make a meaningful contribution to the church plant. The mid-term category for missionaries serves as a helpful example here. Many will go overseas for one to three years and then return to their home countries. Not only is this a very formative time for them, it can also be a crucial support for the long-termers on the ground. And eternally-significant ministry can take place in that kind of time frame as well. Gospel seeds can be sown and friends can come to faith and discipled. Churches can even be established.

If this is the case overseas, why would it not be the case when church planting team members will be ministering in their own language and in a near culture? While studying the local culture will still be important, this kind of church planting has the massive advantage of the team, from day one, already being fluent in the local language – with the exception of some local slang and idioms, of course. This is still just enough ignorance to be dangerous, but you can’t get away from every possibility of risk and embarrassment in this kind of service. Nor would you want to, since everybody ends up more humble and happy when they can laugh at themselves. 

Calling for mid-term length commitments, say one to five years, might not only free up more people to commit, but could also keep them from unnecessary shame and disorientation when they are a number of years in and are burnt out, or simply need to transition to a setting that’s healthier for their family. Being in a season ourselves where our family’s health raises a lot of questions about our future in Central Asia, it can be profoundly disorienting to rethink the next several decades when we had thought the path before us was more or less clear. Whether overseas or in city church plants in North America, many families end up needing to make significant moves somewhere in the five to ten year range. This often has to do with kids getting older, the costs of serving in a hard place piling up, and some kind of natural human cycle where we get restless and tend to lose hope of real change actually happening in this particular range of years (check out the most common years for divorces to take place). Rather than recruiting all teammates with a decades-long vision, there may be some wisdom in anticipating these dynamics and calling for shorter commitments as well. That way, even if someone decides it’s time to transition after their five years are up, this is a chance for celebrating their faithfulness, rather than an unexpected blow to the team that yet another member of the core team is leaving.

There are downsides to calling for midterm commitments. Investing in midterm teammates can take a long time, so it’s a blow when all that investment feels like it’s leaving after only a few short years – and then you have to do it all over again with someone new. That kind of turnover on a team can be discouraging and heavy. Wisdom is needed to make sure this is actually paying off. But when we remember that we are not just investing in these teammates for what they can do for the work, but we are investing in them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, those who will go on to serve elsewhere, then we can better bear these costs. We might not see as much return on the investment as we had hoped for in our local work, but we can trust that all faithful sowing will eventually bear fruit, both in the person themself as well as in the future churches they are a part of.

Starting something new is a tricky thing. This is just as true of churches as it is of anything else. There is a very subjective sense of momentum and growing stability that can make all the difference in others buying into the vision and taking the risk to join a church plant. Given this fragile dynamic, the simple presence of a few more faithful people can make all the difference in the early years. For those unsure about long-term callings or doubtful that they could in good conscience commit to decades, hearing that they can make a real difference by giving a specific year or three might turn a “No” into a “Yeah, by God’s grace, I think I can do that.”

It may not be forever. But that doesn’t mean means it’s not meaningful. After all, Paul only spent three years in Ephesus, and even less time elsewhere. The choice need not be never-or-forever. A few good years sown in faith as part of a church plant in a hard place may yield more of a harvest than we could ever anticipate. We may not be able to give decades, but could we give a year or two or five? It’s a worthy thing to wrestle with.

Photo by Lukas Allspach on Unsplash

Two Types of Language Learners

Language learning. It’s the 500-pound gorilla that first term missionaries everywhere must learn to dance with. Though often, this experience feels less like a dance and more like our metaphorical gorilla is simply sitting on your head.

I had the advantage of growing up a bilingual TCK, which does help. The shift from two to three languages seems to be easier for the brain than the shift from one to two – something about the mind having already learned once to express reality in an alternative system of thought/speech forms makes it that much easier to do it again. A second or third language gives your brain additional categories, more hooks on which to hang the grammatical concepts or vocab of whatever language you’re learning next. For example, my high school Spanish got me familiar with verb conjugation based on person and number, a category that served me well when I started learning our local Central Asian tongue. But no matter how much experience you have with languages, it always takes a lot of time and hard work to master another one – and this often requires two to five years. Therefore, anything that makes it somewhat easier is extremely valuable.

I’m no trained linguist, but as a language-learning practitioner (and one who has worked closely with many others) I’ve observed two main kinds of language learners, two main patterns of wiring when it comes to learning an additional tongue. There may be technical terms for these language learning styles out there, but for the purposes of this post I’ll call them the Analytical and the Intuitive language learning styles. Essentially, every language-learner I’ve engaged with on this topic seems to fall into one of these two camps, creating something like a 50/50 divide.

These styles or preferences differ from one another in how they relate to the structure – the grammar – of the language. The mind of an Analytical learner craves and needs understanding of the language’s structure very early on, often proving unable to absorb vocab and dialogue without it. If required to learn and reproduce phrases without this structure, the mind of an Analytical learner protests and complains – “How am I supposed to learn this if I don’t understand what these parts of speeches’ roles are, what they are doing in the sentence, the rules that govern them, and how it all fits together?!” An Analytical learner needs a map of the language, a blueprint of sorts, and only when they have this can they begin to truly learn the individual parts. It’s as if the mind then relaxes and is free to learn because it now knows where to place the hitherto-disjointed pieces. These pieces are then no longer felt to be disembodied and random, but part of a logical system, part of a whole.

The mind of an Intuitive learner functions in the complete opposite way. An intuitive learner’s mind cannot take in or understand the language’s structure, its grammar, without a large foundation of listening, phrases, and dialogue. If presented with grammar lessons at the beginning of language learning, their mind will tend to reject the information, since it feels like it has nothing concrete on which to hang these abstract rules and systems. These learners crave jumping in headfirst and using the language, getting conversational with practical, everyday language. Only after a solid season of this will their brains start to desire and accept the Why behind the words and phrases they have been hearing and using. They need to feel out the rules first, and only directly study them later. Rather than needing a map, these learners need to go and explore the streets on foot as it were. After they have done this they will then be able to rightly orient themselves with the big picture.

All human beings learn their first language as Intuitive learners. Our brains naturally absorb the structure of our mother tongue by constant observation and trial and error. We absorb the rules naturally and indirectly. Then, once we are in school, we are directly and explicitly taught the structure of our language. We approach grammar study in school in an Analytical way. This means that for everyone who has studied grammar in school, we all have at least some experience learning our own language in both styles. But whether because of brain plasticity or something genetic, around half of us develop an Analytical learning preference, while the other half continues to prefer Intuitive learning.

How do we know which wiring fits us? Even without learning another language, there may be some clues that you already have. First, how did (and do) you feel about studying the grammar of your own language? Does this feel good to your mind, or more akin to the angst of getting a cavity filled – necessary, but definitely not enjoyable? Does “seeing” the invisible structure of your language bring you joy or make you want to go to sleep? If grammatical concepts make your mind tingle pleasantly, chances are you are an Analytical learner. If you’d really rather get back to what you feel is the real language, then you’re probably Intuitively-wired.

These categories tend to flow over into other areas of learning as well. A friend who works as a chef told me this week that he has always loved learning the why, the science, behind what is happening in cooking. Knowing this makes him feel more free and equipped to create and enjoy cooking food. This means there is a very good chance that my friend would be an Analytical language learner. Get that man some grammar early on, and he will feel so much more free and equipped to persevere in language learning. Paying attention to how you prefer learning in other areas is another clue to how God has wired your brain to learn language.

Why are these categories are so important to understand? Because enjoyment and perseverance in language learning are on the line here, and this because language learning programs tend to favor one style or another. Put a language learner in a program that favors the other kind of mind, and they will very quickly want to pull their hair out, and/or quit. Put a learner in a program that fits with their respective Intuitive or Analytical style, and greatly increase their chances of actually learning that language. Too often learners are handicapped by the wrong approach, and mistakenly come away thinking they are not really gifted to learn language at all.

Several dynamics mean that language learners continue to get placed in programs that lead to deep frustration. The first issue is simple ignorance of these learning preferences. The learner, teacher, or facilitator might not know that these variations exist, so how can they know which style the student best aligns with? Second, it is a lamentable human tendency to project our own wiring onto others. So, if we successfully learned a language in a certain way, we naturally feel that everyone else should be able to learn in this same way also. We might even go on to publish and distribute our favored method, making big claims about the universality of our approach. And this leads to the third issue, that of methodological rigidity. Just as missionaries might latch onto a silver-bullet church-planting strategy, so they tend to latch onto a language learning methodology as the way to do it, rather than a way. Here the same common sense logic applies to both church planting and language learning – it’s a very hard job and people are very diverse, so we should want to keep all of our healthy options on the table. Sadly, many new missionaries on the field are locked into a language learning approach that is given the weight of law, when it should really only be treated as a helpful option, one that very well may need to be tweaked or even discarded.

My wife and I are wired as Intuitive language learners. This meant that we wanted to jump in right away into collecting phrases and doing conversational practice. I remember having some grammar lessons in the US before going to Central Asia, but almost nothing from those lessons was retained by my brain. Instead, six months into an Intuitive learning approach (GPA), I suddenly found my mind unexpectedly hungry for some rules for things like the way that near/far and singular/plural demonstratives were acting in my new adopted language. A grammar summary from a teammate on the logic of how to say “these bananas, those bananas, this banana, etc.,” made all the difference here. And even though we found ourselves in a learning program that mostly fit our style, we were also crucially allowed a great degree of flexibility to pursue more Analytical lessons as needed. And we made generous use of this freedom, changing up our program significantly every few months. I believe that this flexibility is what allowed us to reach the advanced level of language in the time frame that we did. Because for us, flexibility to pivot when needed meant we were able to continue (mostly) enjoying the language learning process.

And yet many of our colleagues have found the same programs we used, the same lightly-structured approach favoring Intuitive learning, to be positively life-sucking. They dream of having an official language school, where an Analytical approach to the language could result, for them, in greater freedom and joy in language learning. And I wish the same for them, because God has apparently wired our minds differently. Why should they be compelled to learn in the same way that I did? No indeed, get those folks some grammar, and fast! But please don’t make me study it until I’m ready. In this way we may all learn to get that 500-pound gorilla off our heads, and perhaps even begin to dance with it.

Photo by Patrice Audet on Unsplash

Strongmen vs. The Structures of a Healthy Church

When modern dictators fall the societies they ruled tend to flounder and splinter. This is because they have previously been gutted. A dictator, in order to increase and maintain his power, needs to systematically weaken all other institutions of civil society that might serve as independent centers of power and organization. So he goes after religious institutions, the media, voluntary societies, other branches of government, etc. He will often permit a shell of these institutions to continue, but will appoint loyal cronies to head them up so that they no longer pose any legitimate challenge. The longer this goes on, the more a society is gutted of healthy systems and structures that it could use to organize and unify itself once the dictator is removed. Like some kind of ravenous fungus, a strongman consumes and replaces healthy systems and institutions as he feeds off his people, slowly choking the organizational life out of society.

This explains why certain Middle Eastern countries have done so poorly since the removal of their dictators in recent decades. During long decades of dictatorship, true civil society was turned into a zombie of its former self or driven underground. Often, the only network of institutions strong enough to endure the long stranglehold has been the conservative mosques, buttressed as they are by their religious ideology. Thus, when a dictator of a Muslim country falls, the West’s hopes for the emergence of a unifying liberal coalition are disappointed again and again. They liberals can’t seem to organize effectively, and it’s no wonder. All the institutions of the liberals and moderates were practically destroyed ages ago. Into this power vacuum then steps the Islamist fundamentalists, the only ones placed to organize and take over the uprising – even if said uprising began as a majority liberal movement.

An interesting parallel exists here between these political realities and the state of many churches in the Middle East and Central Asia – indeed, anywhere in the world where the culture tends to reward domineering leaders. As in society as a whole, a strongman over the church tends to take the rightful place of other legitimate systems and structures. Look at the few churches that exist in these areas, and you will notice a curious absence of things like healthy membership, responsible giving and finances, congregational accountability and discipline, and plurality of leadership. Instead of covenanted members, belonging to the church is equated with those who are loyal to the strongman. Instead of transparent finances, the pastor controls all the money. In the place of congregational discipline for its own members, you have the favor or displeasure of the leader. And there is no healthy plurality, just one charismatic, domineering personality that leaves no room for any legitimate pushback or accountability.

If we return to my preferred napkin diagram of a healthy church (described in a previous post), we see that a strongman completely replaces all of the characteristics of a healthy church that we would see in stage two, in what I’ve called an organized church.

Now, this diagram is simply a tool I’ve used to quickly summarize the characteristics of a healthy church as they relate to the typical stages a church plant goes through. Not all of the characteristics are rigidly sequential, but I would contend that the three stages of Formative, Organized, and Sending are a common pattern in how church plants develop – and, for our purposes today, that there is a qualitative difference between what is present in a formative church and what is there in an organized church. That difference lies in the intentional organization and systematization of what had previously been a gathering of believers functioning more organically.

A bible study that has really taken off might gather regularly for fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, and discipleship. They might share the gospel regularly with their friends and neighbors. All of these things are biblical and good. And while they can be organized into systems, they don’t have to be organized in order to be done well. They don’t demand careful planning and organization. They can exist in an organic fashion for a very long time with only basic plans put in place. The same cannot really be said for the characteristics in stage two. These require careful thought and planning and implementation if they are to even exist in a church plant. And they will not ever exist in a healthy way without great intentionality that leads to the birth of good systems. In fact, to simply wing the structures of stage two is to play with deadly fire that will burn many.

This required intentionality and creation of systems and structures explains why the elements of the organized church stage are absent or so underdeveloped in many house churches. These characteristics are complicated and time-consuming to figure out and it’s simply easier to keep punting their development until some future date. Often, there is a great deal of ignorance about how to actually begin to teach and then roll out things like membership, plural leadership, and discipline. This is why groups like 9 Marks focus so heavily on reviving both the knowledge and the practical details of good ecclesiology for the Church. Even those committed to these things in principle can often botch the implementation. I’ve often heard it said that the number one mistake of reformed church planters and church revitalizers is appointing elders too quickly.

However, this is so far assuming that the church planters, missionaries, and members want to see these systems developed. But often, past experience and current methodology commitments mean that the preference is for things to stay organic and natural (And this often has roots in Westerners’ own cultural moment of being post-institutional). Stage two will just happen naturally, it is claimed, as the Spirit eventually gets around to leading the locals into how to be a biblical church. Missionaries can live in a fantasy where the kinds of intentionality and organization required in their own culture for the church to function well are actually considered bad, or at least not really necessary in the more pristine cultures of foreign lands. Some even view focusing on the characteristics of stage two as bad for church multiplication, the kind of thing that leads to the terrible “I” word that is alleged to kill movements of the Spirit, institutionalization.

When you pair these Western postures with cultures already prone to domineering leadership, you get a lethal cocktail. The missionaries aren’t interested in pushing for organized church characteristics in their church plants. They want things to stay organic and rapidly multiplying. Locals, never having before known the power of a spiritual family organized in a healthy way, default to how their families, mosques, and government are run – strongman rule. Soon, a strongman does emerge who then goes on to make the church his own little fiefdom. The missionaries become perplexed and discouraged at what has happened, and either fall in line themselves or are eventually run off when the strongman feels they are a threat to his monopoly. The end result is a sick church, one without biblical membership, giving, leadership, or discipline. Biblical mission, often the final characteristic to be developed, will also never happen through this kind of church where a spiritual dictator has settled down to feed on the sheep.

If we do not plant churches with a willingness ourselves to lead in the development of stage two characteristics, we do a great disservice to the local believers we are claiming to serve. Like a society naively asked to go vote after decades of dictator rule, we set them up for failure. A power vacuum will always be filled. And in strongman societies, little dictators spring out of the ground like so many narcissus flowers in the Central Asian fields of spring. Local churches all over the world desperately need systems of healthy giving, leadership, discipline, and membership. How will they know what these structures look like if we do not intentionally teach and model them? Or do we really believe that these systems will somehow contaminate indigenous churches more so than the inevitable strongman who will take over in their absence?

Should stage two characteristics of a healthy church be contextualized? Absolutely. And yet here we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. An imperfect effort to contextualize a system of membership is far better than never initiating formal membership because we are afraid of some kind of Western contamination taking place. Covenants can be modified for the pressing needs of specific contexts. Membership lists and vows can be oral rather than written and signed. Leadership can be chosen and honored in ways that are locally sensitive. The Scriptures provide ample room to carefully apply the principles of church organization to a given culture. “All things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) does not mean you should simply copy/paste the systems of First Baptist Church back home. But it does mean we should give serious attention to the right ordering (organizing) of the church. As Paul said to one church planting team member, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What was asked of Titus in his cross-cultural setting is still asked of us today.

Strongmen will never coexist peacefully with healthy systems that can hold them to account. They will always seek to prevent their emergence or to choke the life out of them if they are present. On the other hand, the best way to prevent the people of God being ruled by these domineering men is to order the church wisely, even if this involves great intentionality and careful organization. Protecting the church means organizing it so that it might fully display the glory of God – not only in its organic love and obedience, but also in its wise systems and structures.

Photo by Rob on Unsplash

Drinking Hot Tea in the Desert Actually Cools You Down

I was twenty, sitting in a tea house in a far-flung desert town. It was summer, so the temperature hovered around 120 degrees (48 C) in the dusty bazaar. My friend had suggested that we stop for some tea as he gave me a tour of the marketplace of his hometown, famous for its castle, its hard workers, and its heat. “Welcome to hell,” another local friend had quipped earlier as we drove into town, wiping the sweat off his brow.

Always one to prefer heat to cold, I had been eager to see if the summer weather in this town was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Rising early our first morning, shortly after sunrise, I had stepped out of the house and into the sunlight. Immediately, I was hit by a rush of blasting, hot wind and oppressive radiant heat, as if the entire sky were a giant hair dryer aimed right at me. Mind you, it was only 6:30 am. I quickly stepped back into the protective shade of the cement house. If I had ever doubted before why so many desert cultures wore so much protective fabric, now I understood. At a certain level of heat, you do whatever you can to keep the sun’s rays off your skin, even if it means going around covered in many folds of cloth.

As we later made our way through the bazaar, and then found our seats at the tea house, I was beginning to adjust somewhat to the constant feelings of living in an oven and clothing always soggy from sweat. I gratefully received a bottle of cold water alongside my scalding black chai. I chugged the water eagerly.

“Are you hot, my son?” asked a mustachioed older man, sitting across from me and smiling in his turban and flowy local robes.

“Yes, I’ve been told about the summer heat here, but now I see how true it is!” I responded, gulping.

“You know how we stay cool?” he asked me, raising his small steaming chai cup and saucer. “We drink this all day!” he said, laughing.

I looked at him, a little puzzled, wondering if he was joking or serious. He picked up on my expression and explained further.

“We drink the hot chai and it makes us sweat. And our sweat cools us down. That is how it works,” he said, seemingly satisfied that he had just handed down an important life lesson to this young foreigner.

I could tell he believed what he was telling me, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My love for local chai was intense, and so I was willing to drink it all year round, even in the fever heat of summer. But surely hot chai doesn’t actually cool you down in the desert. Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, a placebo of sorts that these desert men had learned to tell themselves in order to justify downing so many cups of sugary caffeinated goodness seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. The logical thing to believe is that hot drinks raise your core body temperature and cold drinks cool it down. I left our interaction mostly sure that I was right and the locals mistaken. But a part of me has always wondered if there was something to what the old man was saying.

Then this week I came across an article in The Smithsonian that would make the old desert man crack a big smile, exposing all of the teeth he’s missing because of his chai habit. Turns out a hot drink on a hot day really does cool you down. And this has now been scientifically verified with the help of a bunch of scientists and cyclists. Somehow, the cooling effect of the sweat produced by a hot drink on a hot dry day is actually greater than the warming effect the drink has on the body, making it a net win for a cooling effect. The article gets into the likely biological process for those interested.

So now I know. Hot drinks warm you up in the winter. They also cool you down in summer. How strange and wonderful. No wonder I like them so much.

There is one big caveat in all of this, however. In order for a hot drink to cool you down, you must be in an area of dry heat, not one of humidity. Since a humid environment prevents sweat from evaporating, the hot drink will actually raise your body temp, not decrease it. But as long as you are in some kind of desert or low humidity setting (and able to sweat), the trick should work.

All of this reminded me of what a tricky thing it is to interact with local lore and tradition. By default, we want to dismiss local knowledge that seems bizarre to us as superstition or old wives tales. But quite often there is something to it after all. Not in every case, but often enough that we ought to reserve judgement on local claims until we’ve looked into them somewhat. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.” Oral tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, simply because it initially strikes us as absurd.

A missionary friend in Cameroon shared with me this past week about a volcanic lake in that country. At some point in the 80’s, large amounts of toxic gas were released from the lake, killing all who lived in the villages around its shores. However, all of those villages had been founded and populated by newcomers to the area. The long-time residents did not live close to the lake, since they had an oral tradition that it was spiritually deadly to dwell too close to the water. Apparently this lake is prone to these kind of toxic gas releases every 150 years or so, meaning that the indigenous villagers had an oral tradition that preserved a deadly historical event from the distant past, although it had become clothed in their animistic worldview.

I remember another story from my childhood in Melanesia, where a village pastor, eager to prove the local traditions wrong, had decided to cook and eat a bird locally believed to be poisonous and used in witchcraft. The pastor ate the bird, and almost died as a result. Turns out this black and orange bird is the only poisonous bird known in all of nature. Local oral tradition wins again.

Why do we so often assume that local tradition is untrustworthy and bogus? Because sometimes it really is, and it keeps locals in bondage to empty and dangerous lies. Consider the Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief in patrogenesis, the idea that offspring one hundred percent come from the father, and the mother is merely a carrier, a vessel. All kinds of bad stuff has come from this cultural belief, including laws that disadvantage the mother when it comes to custody of her children – even if the man is abusive. Or, the cultural belief that the honor of the extended family is most dependent upon the sexual purity of the women in the household, resulting in honor killings which almost-exclusively target erring female family members. In Melanesia, tribes until recently believed that if your enemy was strong in something, you could kill them and eat their corresponding body part for that ability, thereby getting stronger in that ability yourself. This local tradition led to widespread cannibalism and all of the dark effects associated with it.

However, what often happens is that Christians of the reformed camp approach culture with eyes only for these cultural lies. We often have a default posture of Christ-against-culture when it comes to local knowledge and traditions. We know that all cultures, like all people, are fallen and under the curse of sin. We know that this affects every aspect of a person, and every aspect of the culture – that total depravity is not just individual, but corporate as well. The mirror which once reflected the image of God so well has been shattered, and gross distortion has resulted. And yet a shattered mirror has not ceased reflecting entirely. No, if you lean in close and focus on small individual shards, a somewhat accurate, limited reflection can sometimes be found. The fact that the fall has damaged every aspect of a culture does not mean that the image of God is no longer present at all, shining out – sometimes dim, sometimes bright – through the distortion. Just as the restoration of the image of God in believers will not be perfected until the age to come, so the utter loss of that image in unbelievers and their cultures will not be complete until that same coming age.

This means that we cannot approach the culture of an unreached people group only prepared for the gospel to begin rejecting and discarding local beliefs and culture. We must be prepared for much of this, but not only this. We must also be ready to discover local beliefs and customs that fit quite well with a biblical worldview – that at times fit even better than those of our own culture. In these cases, the local cultural practice or belief is to be retained, but filled with a new motive, that of the glory of God and love for neighbor.

Few contemporary missionaries are at much risk of the kind of overt cultural pride present in the colonial era. In fact, we are more often at risk of the opposite, an unbiblical open denigration of our own cultures as we seek to embrace the local one. But pride is a slippery thing, and if our only setting is Christ-against-culture, then we will find ourselves prematurely scoffing at local wisdom that will eventually prove to be just that – wisdom. And scoffers don’t win trust. Those who sneer at local methods of chai drinking are less likely to find a hearing when it comes to the bigger questions of life and death and eternity.

Such is the challenge of engaging local lore and tradition. You may find lies straight from the pit of hell. Or, you may find truth that has been marvelously preserved, against all odds. We must learn to anticipate both, and to humble ourselves when we get it wrong. We should listen carefully to the old men of the desert, ready both to learn and to stubbornly upend the traditions of ancestors when needed. We are tasked with this great untangling, with the laborious task of seeking to glue the shattered mirror back together. It will take a long time and countless conversations. And hopefully, lots of cups of chai. Even when it’s hot outside.

Photo by Zeynep Sümer on Unsplash

The Justifications of Polygamists

“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”

Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.

And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.

The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.

Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.

This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.

Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.

Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.

Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.

A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.

The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.

At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.

Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.

For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?

The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.

Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.

*Names changed for security

Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash

Lessons Learned: Living Room Baptisms

We had been living in Central Asia as a family for seven months. At last, I was hanging out regularly again with my dear friends from my gap year, Hama* and Tara*. This fun-loving couple had come to faith back in 2008 as we studied the book of Matthew, saw God miraculously answer prayer, and as they experienced God’s faithfulness during their six month ostracism from their family. When their son was born at the end of that year, they had named him Memory, so that they would never forget all that God had done for them.

I had done my best to try to hand off my relationship with them to others when I had returned to the States for seven years, but this can be a tricky thing. While one believing European friend stayed close with Tara, no one had been able to regular invest in discipling this couple, in spite of the fact that a believing husband and wife are a rare and wonderful thing in a people group where nine out of ten believers are single men. This lack of steady discipleship meant they had never been baptized, something I was eager for them to pursue.

Somehow, on that summer evening in their apartment the topic of baptism came up. As I shared how important it is, and showed them passages like Matthew 28 and Romans 6, Hama and Tara were suddenly convinced.

“Let’s do it then!” said Hama, “How about tomorrow?” Tara was beaming as well.

I was a bit taken aback by this spontaneous decision, and observed that when it comes to areas of difficult obedience, our people group have an interesting long-term resistance that suddenly breaks into a desire for immediate action – which often catches us westerners a little unprepared. Given all of the hesitancy around baptism and its costs in an Islamic society, my sense was to try to help Hama and Tara move fast, now that they were at last ready to move. I did not want the spiritual clarity and excitement for obedience they were currently experiencing to fade away again. Plus, this was a long time coming, seven years without taking that first crucial step of discipleship. This was an answer to prayer.

“Can we do it at your house?” they asked.

“Well,” I replied, “I’d have to figure some things out for that to work. Are you sure you don’t want to drive to a lake or river? The weather is nice and hot.”

“No, somewhere like your house makes sense. It would be private and clean. And we could do it fast, without having to plan a whole picnic.”

Our locals take their picnics very seriously. And no baptism outing to a lake or river would be permitted without some kind of a half day or full day picnic program also happening, which takes a lot of work and planning. There are picnic sites to argue over, food responsibilities to be debated, and logistics to be hammered out. Knowing how exhausting even just planning these local picnics could be, and that it was still too early for the cooler autumn picnic weather, I was happy to agree to something simpler and within the city. Plus, at that point we didn’t have a natural location that we knew could work well for baptism, and this would take some research.

“Right, then,” I continued, wanting to make sure they were OK with some other believers (my teammates) being present, “Let me see if I can make it work for tomorrow evening, and connect with some of my colleagues that you know. I’ll text you in the morning if it will work.”

This plan agreed to, I left Hama and Tara’s apartment full of excitement. My dear friends were ready to follow Jesus in costly obedience. And our team would get to experience their first baptisms with locals. I couldn’t wait to tell them. But first, I had to figure out if we could even pull this off in the living room of our second floor duplex home.

I had seen inflatable kiddie pools for sale on the sides of the road in recent weeks. I had also seen cheap hand-pumped siphons for sale in most neighborhood stores. A plan began to come together. I would buy a kiddie pool, inflate it in our spacious living room, fill it up with water from the porch hose, then afterward be able to drain it out to the porch drain with that same house and a siphon. We had no bathtub, something that is quite rare in our area, and I had read that some Muslim cultures have negative reactions to something representing cleanliness, baptism, happening in an area of the house that also has a toilet, or a squatty potty. No, I thought to myself, to get both privacy and respectability something like a kiddie pool is the way to go.

The next morning I embarked on a mission to find my needed supplies. Not too far from my house I bought a large inflatable rectangular pool, long enough for an adult to lay down in and deep enough to make sure they could get fully immersed, if they began by sitting down. I took the pool home and used my wife’s hair dryer to inflate it. So far so good. It fit perfectly in our living room alcove, backed by windows that looked out on the southern mountain range. It felt like it a took a very long time to fill the pool up with the slow stream of water from the porch hose, and it was early afternoon before I had achieved proof of concept. But there it was, a functional baptismal in my living room. This could actually work.

Now it was time to share the good news with the team. I sent them a picture of the pool and a pecked out a message with my thumbs.

“Last night Hama and Tara told me they are finally ready to be baptized! And they asked if we could do it at my house. I wasn’t sure if it would work, so I got a pool to test it out. But look, it works, and they said they’d be ready as soon as tonight! What do you think?”

The message I got from our team leader was not at all what I was expecting.

“We need to talk. This is not happening. I’m coming over.”

I was stunned. What was going on? Where did this kind of response come from? Clearly I was missing something big.

My team leader came over to our place and we proceeded to have a pretty tense conversation, one where I was scrambling to figure out where I had gone wrong. I had clearly stepped in something. It had all seemed so simple to me. We were there to make disciples, baptize them, and form churches in a city where there was no healthy church. What was the holdup? Why the resistance?

It quickly became clear that I had to contact Hama and Tara and tell them that we couldn’t move forward with their baptism. Our team, for some reason, was not on board. Over the proceeding weeks I began to figure out what gone wrong. The issues really boiled down to a failure of contextualization, both me toward my team and my team toward our local context. By contextualization here I mean using methods that are both faithful and appropriate for a given context and culture, taking universal biblical principles and implementing them skillfully with particular people and in particular places.

My team had responded to me so negatively because I had failed to operate within our culture as a team and organization, which was still very new to me. When I had been in the same city on my gap year, I had served with a different organization, and on a very disjointed team where we more-or-less coordinated on platform projects, but had a lot of autonomy as far as ministry decisions. But the new team and organization I was with was very different. Leadership of the team and strategy in church-planting were taken much more seriously. Ministry decisions were not rushed or autonomous, but approved by the team leader and hammered out over a long period of (hopefully) consensus-building conversations.

Comparing things to my previous season serving as a church elder in the States, I remembered once hearing the principle of “never surprise your fellow elders.” But this is exactly what I had done. I had very much surprised my teammates and my team leader, and not in a good way. In fact, they felt that the timing of my communication, after having set everything up, was somewhat manipulative, put them in a bind, and was at the very least out of order. They were stunned that I would proceed in this manner. For my part, I was struggling to understand why this kind of decision would be controversial at all.

Turns out our team had been at an impasse regarding local baptisms for a year or more before we had even arrived. A few single men had come to faith and desired baptism, but the team couldn’t agree on whether or not it was appropriate to baptize these men if they were not yet ready to tell their immediate families about their faith. Nor could the team decide on how to baptize them into a church if no healthy local church yet existed. They were also committed to westerners not doing the baptisms. Tensions had run very high around these conversations, unbeknownst to us. And into the simmering tension surrounding these ongoing debates, I, the new guy, had quite suddenly inserted myself and Hama and Tara.

Understanding this context wisely, both of team culture and of team conflict, should have led to a very different process as far as how I approached the whole baptism conversation. But in my excitement for my local friends, I had failed to contextualize well toward my team.

But there was an unintentional upside to my mistakes. I had forced the conversation. Two local believers were eager and ready to go under the water. A baptismal kiddie pool was sitting there in my living room. Nothing was stopping us from moving forward other than our own inability to agree with one another as a team. And so we found ourselves in the unfortunate position of delaying locals from obeying Jesus until we could get our stuff together. Though sometimes necessary, this is the kind of place any missionary should want to avoid. When the locals are ready to obey Jesus, we need to make sure that we are ready to facilitate this – though this is often easier said than done.

But the team, still all pretty new to Central Asia, had also failed to contextualize well to our specific situation.

The team was committed to no missionaries doing baptisms, because missionaries in Somalia had found this could result in baptisms performed by locals being viewed as second-rate by local believers. And missionaries in Latin America had found that barring foreigners from doing baptisms was an important principle in what is called shadow-pastoring. In shadow-pastoring, the missionary is never seen actually leading, but is always coaching a local leader from the background. But we weren’t in Somalia or Latin America. We were our unique city in Central Asia – which had no mature local believers able to do these baptisms. And where we had no local data yet to suggest that locals would elevate baptisms by foreigners as somehow superior, or that they would respond negatively to a foreigner directly modeling local church leadership in this way.

The team was also committed to baptism being done into the local church, a sound biblical principle. But once again, in our particular unreached context we had no local church for Hama and Tara to be baptized into. They would have to be the first local believers that would become the church for others to be baptized into it in the future.

Finally, the team was committed to baptisms not happening in kiddie pools in our homes, but in more idyllic natural settings. This final commitment seemed to be more of a personal preference or idealism, one which curiously went directly against the desires of the actual local believers we were working with. The sense among the team was really that it would be a bit of a tacky precedent to set.

In all of these things, it was not merely the biblical principles, but also their foreign applications and expressions that were being asked of our local friends. In this sense, things were backwards. Yes, good contextualization should be informed by how the global and historical church has expressed biblical principles, but it must also ask the important questions of what certain choices and expressions mean in their unique, local focus culture and people group. As far too often happens, our team was taking expressions and methodologies developed elsewhere, and imposing them upon our locals as some kind of inflexible missiological law. Hama and Tara were excited about being baptized in a kiddie pool, by me, in my living room. We were saying no to this. Why? Because of Somalia, Latin America, and our own personal baggage with indoor baptismals. Just as I was failing to contextualize to my team, my team was failing to contextualize to our local believers.

Biblically, there is nothing wrong with a foreign missionary baptizing local believers in a kiddie pool in their living room, in a private setting with a small crowd of believing witnesses. There is nothing wrong with those who are the first baptized becoming the church that others will be baptized into because no church yet exists. In fact, there is no way around this latter reality when planting the first church in what is sometimes called a zero-to-one context. But methodological commitments were prematurely denying us some of our biblical options – and doing this without any local evidence for it.

Thankfully, the ensuing conversations as a team were fruitful, and we were able to find a good compromise for Hama and Tara. The team had come around to us baptizing Hama, as long as he joined us to baptize his wife afterward. But the kiddie pool in the living room was still something they couldn’t bring themselves to agree to. It just felt tacky, and it would take many more local believers insisting that it was fine and respectable for it to become an option that all of us were OK with. Hama and Tara humbly decided to go ahead and plan a half-day picnic and for our sake to be baptized in a slow-moving greenish stream.

“The Bible says I need to go under the water, but does it say it has to be such dirty water?” Hama joked with me at one point as we surveyed the slime at the edge of the stream. I smiled at him sympathetically, wishing I could tell him about all the dynamics that had led us finally to be permitted to dunk them in that lazy stream in late summer.

As for the kiddie pool, it remained filled up in our living room for the next several weeks. “Might as well let the kids enjoy it!” I said to my wife. Plus, having the kids use it actually helped us deflect our language tutor’s repeated questions as to why exactly we had a pool set up in our living room (The picture at the top of this article is of two of our kiddos very much enjoying a splash on a summer afternoon with no electricity).

Though it quickly developed leaks, we actually got to use the same controversial kiddie pool for several baptisms the following year, one in a local’s courtyard and one in a local’s garage. It was still too soon for the whole team to be comfortable doing it in our houses. But by the end of our first term, Darius* was being baptized in a kiddie pool in our team leader’s kitchen, dunked by a local on one side and a foreigner on the other, and into what was now a fledgling local church. Considering the level of tension around baptism a few years earlier, the symbolism of this event was not lost on me.

What had changed? I had learned how to contextualize to our team, and all of us on the team had learned how to better contextualize to the locals. God had answered a lot of prayer, and all of us had shifted significantly in how we understood what methods were both biblically faithful and locally appropriate. We were more committed than ever to biblical principles, but some very good adjusting had taken place as we sought to wisely express them for the unique people and culture around us. We were still informed by missiology from the outside, but it had become the servant to local contextualization, not the law.

Study your unique team and leadership. Study your unique local friends and their culture. You’ll likely find you have to make some significant adjustments in your assumptions, approaches, and your methods. But this is what good missions work looks like. One hand holding on tightly to fixed, unchanging biblical principles. The other hand with a looser grip, tweaking, prodding, and poking at your methods, striving for the best way to apply and express those principles in a way that is faithful, wise, clear, and compelling.

*Names changed for security

What Are You Calling a Church?

In the words of renowned theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word I am referring to here is church. And when it comes to communication between missionaries and Christians back in their supporting churches, this word is used often, but almost never defined. What often results is a failure in communication that leaves both parties feeling good, but ultimately failing to serve one another well.

Let’s say a missionary or organization reports on a certain number of churches that have been planted. This receives much applause and leads to much rejoicing. And yet what those reporting on the field mean by that little word, church, can sometimes be nothing like what the supporters back home are thinking of when they hear that same word.

Perhaps a Christian or pastor back in the home country hears a missionary report that 1,000 churches have been planted. In his mind, he envisions 1,000 smallish congregations, each maybe several dozen strong, containing diverse believers from a given community who now form a new spiritual family for one another. He projects his image of small church plants which he has encountered in his home country onto the report he hears about this overseas region. The missionary, on the other hand, influenced by a movement missiology, counts a gathering as a church if there’s merely a believing husband and wife who read the Bible weekly with their unbelieving teenage son. Or, he reports a church when two cousins who are secret believers meet up monthly to read, pray, and whisper-sing some songs together. Or perhaps a group of five college students who meet regularly with a local pastor for a time of Bible study.

None of these gatherings are bad at all. Each are worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we can assume they are churches. What is lacking is agreement upon what standard is used to call something a church.

The missionary might report 1,000 churches planted and the home audience in one sense hears that 1,000 churches have been planted. Yet they are not actually communicating with one another, because they are not using the word church in the same way. This means that what one envisions in their mind when those words are spoken is wildly different from what the other sees in their respective mind’s eye. The missionary knows that if all the groups of 3 or 4 people meet, this represents somewhere around 3,000 – 4,000 people, a mix of believers and unbelievers, most of whom gather only with those of the same natural household or family. However, the home audience is assuming something more like 20,000 – 30,000 people total, all believers meeting with others from different households. The missionary means 3,000 not leaving the natural bounds of their own network. The crowd understands him to mean 30,000 forming new spiritual families. This is, at best, a failure of communication. At worst, it is downright deception.

This entire interaction can take place without either party acknowledging the great divide in their definitions of the word church. And as long as this goes unaddressed, both sides can leave feeling pretty good about things. But it must be addressed. Missionaries and their sending churches are accountable to one another. This even applies to reporting. If missionaries mean something wildly different from their senders when they use the term church, then this needs to be made public. And for the good of the mission, common definitions and parameters must be agreed upon for when it is appropriate to call a group a church.

This is the point where most Christians realize that they are operating out of experience and assumptions rather than a thought-out ecclesiology. So step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. So far, so good. All church-planting missionaries and all pastors should be able to readily articulate what constitutes a potential church, a true but immature church, a healthy church, or a false church. Please, don’t send anyone to the mission field who can’t do this.

For example, our group of five college students represent a potential or formative church. Despite what certain methodologies might claim, I do not believe that they can biblically call themselves a church even though they regularly meet with a pastor to receive teaching, to worship, and to pray together. Several key ingredients are missing, such as the biblical self-identification as a church (covenanting) and the Lord’s supper and baptism. Now, if they had these elements in place, but no elders, giving, or mission, then they could be a true but immature church. A healthy church is simply one which is well on its way to implementing all of the Bible’s characteristics of a church.

We like to summarize these biblical characteristics into a list of twelve: Discipleship, Worship, Leadership, Membership, Fellowship, Giving, Evangelism, Teaching/Preaching, Accountability/Discipline, Mission, Ordinances, and Prayer.

A useful exercise is to list out these twelve characteristics (or a comparable list which summarizes the data differently) and to try to discern which elements can be present without a group actually being a church. Then try to figure out from scripture and church history where the line is that separates a potential church from an actual church. When I do this, I end up first with a formative church section full of a bunch of elements that could take place in a college ministry, such as teaching and fellowship, separated by the ordinances from a cluster of organized church elements such as membership and accountability/discipline that take place in a true – if still maturing – church. I personally like to then make a third division which separates what I call an organized church from a sending church, since so many churches end up implementing eleven of these twelve characteristics, without ever getting involved in church planting and missions. Again, I’d define a healthy church as one committed to implementing all twelve. A false church would be a church where in either the teaching or the practice a false gospel is proclaimed. Here is a basic diagram of how I have tried to chart things out.

Earlier I mentioned that step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. Step two is simply to then adjust your language accordingly. Don’t call something a church that is not a church. Be intentional in when you make the shift in terminology from group to church. Communicate your biblical rationale for when and why you start calling a group a church so that people understand what you mean by the term. If, like me, you believe that a mere three people could sometimes actually constitute a true church, then explain the biblical and situational rationale for this.

Step three then is to hold your ground. No matter the pressure you might feel to report higher numbers. No matter what the missiology gurus say about how good or bad this is for multiplication. Call things what the Bible calls them, and hold your ground. Sometimes this will mean surprising supporters back home who have projected church buildings, pastors with theological degrees, and certain size congregations onto the biblical meaning of church. Other times this will mean running afoul of the current trend in missiology that your leadership is so excited about. But the way the Bible uses a term is our truest window into the real, eternal meaning of that word. So let’s stick with that, and not deal in the more temporary definitions.

Finally, we must not be shy to ask others how they are defining that word, church. We cannot truly serve one another if massively different understandings of this term are simultaneously taking place while we all clap for the report of thousands of “churches” that have been planted. My sense is that many denominations and pastors would be scandalized to hear what their missionaries are actually calling churches, if they would only press for detailed definitions.

Some missionaries will not want you to press. This is a warning sign. It may mean these missionaries feel that they are superior to the Church back home or that they operate in what could be called a missiology of reaction, where their goal is above all to not do church as they have experienced it back home. Lots of weird missiology is the result of this kind of posture, but not healthy churches that last.

Trustworthy missionaries, however, won’t mind you asking. In fact, they may find your questions downright encouraging. After all, faithful missionaries have thought carefully about these things. Why? Because the front lines force them to wrestle with these things, and to examine their Bibles. But even more so, because they love the local church, and so they honor her with their language.

Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash

No Word For Grace

“Our people group has no word for grace or gift.”

One missionary couple shared this fact at the gathering of a church planting network this past week. The comment landed with sobering weight, since the preaching at the conference was working through the book of 2nd Timothy. We all realized that without the word or concept for grace, you would get stuck at only the second verse of the book.

How do you preach the gospel in a tribe where there is no word for grace?

At lunch the next day, a couple of us asked these missionaries and bible translators some further questions about this problem of missing vocabulary. Thinking of the sermon on the mount, I was curious about how this people group viewed the blessings of rain and sun, which they don’t work for, but receive freely despite how righteous or not they are.

“Do they view these blessings of nature as gifts somehow, or as entitlements?”

“Our people group, sadly, is a very entitled one,” my friends responded with a frown. “Even with things like these.” Dead end there. Earlier they had shared how even a father building a house for his son would expect payment for this labor.

When faced with a lack of spiritual vocabulary like this, a missionary has three primary options. The ideal one is to dig deeper into the language and culture to find a word or phrase that might be there – though currently hidden – that can in fact do the job. A second option is to make up a new word within that language, ideally by combining other words or word parts that already exist. Finally, you can introduce a loan word from another language. With these latter two options you have to teach the meaning over and over again to make sure the new word created or introduced gets paired with the right meaning. But even with the first option of finding an indigenous word, constant teaching might be needed to make sure the word grows into an accurate, biblical meaning.

Our friends could pursue any of these options as they move forward. This is one reason they are focusing first on bible storying before they begin Bible translation. It gives them more time to iron out these thorny linguistic issues.

As we tossed around the problem at our lunch table, they shared that there is one indigenous word they need to explore further, a word which they had recently learned in the marketplace. Their locals will often sell a batch of produce, such as a small pile of tomatoes, for a set price. But once the customer has agreed to purchase, the seller might throw in a couple extra pieces, and then use a specific local word to describe these extra tomatoes that are apparently functioning as some kind of gift. Initially, this seems to me to suggest a meaning more like a bonus, which is still earned in a sense because of the initial purchase. But it does at least show the culture is not entirely absent of the concept of something being given for free-ish. And that could be a beginning.

Or, since they work as Bible translators and are gifted linguists, this couple could end up just making up a new word with the help of their translation team. But again, this path is not without its risks. There is no guarantee the word will gain traction and actually be used enough to be understood. However, sometimes this can indeed work. Another missionary shared how this has taken place in Indonesian. A word for grace was created a couple hundred years ago, and it is now well-known and widely used among the Christians there. 

Borrowing the word from French – their country’s trade language – could also be the way these missionaries decide to go. But again, the risk is that this loan word could end up being used without understanding or even that grace itself could thereby be understood as a foreign concept, not really something that belongs to this unique tribal group. But this option can also work at times, as it has among the Central Asian people group where we’ve been laboring. A term for grace was borrowed from the historically-dominant language of a neighboring people group, yet is now used freely and without baggage among local believers.  

It is a sobering thing to realize that some societies have fallen so far as to not even have a term for grace or gift. A lack of a word means that since the fall, that category of truth has been almost completely destroyed in that people or culture. Given the nature of God’s law written upon our hearts, I don’t think a spiritual category can ever be utterly destroyed. Yet it seems possible that a concept can become so foreign to a people group long-separated from the truth that it now lingers in the soul only as a shadow of a distant memory – something barely present as a form of intuition, something perhaps felt, but not “known” in a cognitive, linguistic sense.

At times like this the role of the missionary is a stunning and vital one. They are in a sense raising a dead concept back to life, by clothing it in an old, new, or borrowed “robe” of a word. In time, and with the help of the Spirit, this word will become a vital part of the spread of the gospel in this language and the life of the new indigenous Church. This being the case, in the words of 3rd John 8, we really ought to support people such as these. The stakes are very high, and we need to pray for wisdom for those tasked with this kind of high responsibility to make the truth clear in long-lost languages.

I am so grateful for these friends laboring among this tribe, and for all in similar roles. May their labors over specific words and meaning someday bear fruit such that their focus people praises God’s wonderful grace – and both knows and loves what that priceless word means.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash