Love Bade Him Welcome

This is the story of how a friend came to faith. The same friend, *Aaron, that I had thought was being drawn three and a half years ago. At that time he had shown a strong resonance with the spiritual themes of a poetry group I was leading. But when we had finally connected, God surprised us by saving his best friend, *Darius, instead. And Aaron drifted away. We kept praying for him, but he went dark for two years. That is, until the last week of December, 2020.

My family and I were visiting our previous city for Christmas and were reveling in the chance to connect with believing local friends there. We had even been invited to spend Christmas night with some coworkers and a bunch of the local believers in a mountain picnic house – a fun if freezing time full of chai, conversation, music, and arguments about what kind of smoke is actually going to lead to carbon monoxide poisoning while we were sleeping. The matter was never decided regarding the danger of the wood fireplace vs. the kerosene heater, so one brother stayed up all night making calls to friends, just to make sure the rest of us would actually wake up in the morning. Personally, I was on the side of the kerosene fumes being the only ones worth worrying about! There’s a tale there for another time.

We wrapped up our time at the picnic house and, jet-lagged from the smoke and late night games and theology conversations, made our way back to the apartment where we’d stay for the rest of our time. It was that night that Darius reached out to me.

“I just heard from Aaron! He told me that he is struggling with a huge decision. That he cannot continue anymore without truly knowing God. But also that he is terrified.”

“Really? Aaron? Do you think he is wanting to become a believer?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but it sounds like maybe. Something has clearly changed since we last spoke. I told him that this was a great week to meet up because the three of us can get together again. Can you find time in your visit to meet with us?”

I enthusiastically agreed. One of the harder things about being a new team leader in a new city has been having fewer opportunities for evangelistic conversations like this. “You seemed especially alive when you got back from your trip,” a teammate told me last night. What happened with Aaron is a big reason why.

We met up in a cafe a couple nights after Darius asked. Aaron got right to the point.

“I used to think I was a good person. But I have lost myself. I know I am in the darkness and have been very depressed lately. I know I cannot continue without true faith. But I don’t what to do. Can you tell me what I need to do? I told God this week I would do whatever is necessary. Since then I have been waiting to meet with you.”

Darius and I just stared at Aaron for a minute. With such a wide open question, where do you begin? Darius, growing by leaps and bounds since he had confessed his faith to his family, was clearly itching to open up the gospel fire hose. But being very kind and honoring, wanted me to start things off.

I’ve found we can never quite predict exactly where gospel conversations are going to start or end up. We rely on the guiding of the Spirit to help us take the same unchanging themes and with them to chart a path through the particular topics and passages needed for that unique context and person. This is exactly why Paul asks that we pray and speak graciously as evangelists, “so that you may know how you ought to to answer each person,” (Col 4:6).

We first encouraged Aaron that his feelings of separation from God and being lost are actually very much in line with the nature of our human situation. We are naturally separated from God, and we can’t shake that sense, no matter how hard we try. Then, because Aaron had said that he needed true faith, we started somewhere I don’t recall ever starting at before, the nature of true faith. We turned to Hebrews 11:1. True faith is simply believing the promises of God, even when we can’t see them. We looked at Abraham, the one counted righteous through believing God’s promises (Gen 15:6). Then we turned to Romans and started looking at how God now counts us righteous if we have faith in Jesus, the one whose death makes God both just and justifier of the unrighteous (Rom 3:23-26). We looked at how true faith is a gift, a free pardon, something given apart from works. How do we receive this gift? By confessing our sin and hopelessness and by confessing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron was tracking and nodding with everything.

Darius, evidencing the solid discipleship he’s been getting from my coworkers, wanted to make sure that Aaron really understood himself to be a lost person, guilty and shameful and separated from God. This is wise because popular Islam treats sin as something like an excusable mistake. When we looked at Jesus as the good shepherd in John 10 and the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, we had our answer.

“That’s me!” Aaron said, “That’s exactly me! I’m the lost sheep. I’ve been so lost… and now Jesus is coming to find me, even though I don’t deserve it.”

Aaron continued, “What do I need to do now?”

We turned to look at Romans 10 and Aaron joyfully confessed the gospel with his mouth. We offered to pray for him and both in turn asked God to confirm and establish our friend’s brand new faith.

“How do you feel?” we asked, curious to see if Aaron was internally experiencing things that matched his words and the wonder in his eyes.

“I feel… amazing. Jesus is my shepherd now.”

We wrapped up shortly thereafter, after some initial advice on how to walk with Jesus as a new Christian. It was one of the most straightforward gospel conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I think Darius and I were both second guessing ourselves because it had been so easy. But Aaron was simply that ready.

The Spirit is full of surprises. Apparently, we had been wrong to think we were wrong that the Spirit had been drawing him three and a half years beforehand. It just wasn’t harvest time yet. Aaron had been the only one in that poetry group who had resonated with Herbert over Henley, Love III over Invictus, humility and grace over prideful self-autonomy. Turns out it really was a preview, just as we had desperately hoped, an initial flicker of the new life that would flood into his soul years later.

We said our goodbyes and I got back into my frigid car. After praising God for such an amazing evening, I sent a message and the text of George Herbert’s Love III to Darius and Aaron.

“Remember when we read this one and you really liked it? This poem is actually all about the gospel of Jesus. We have been praying for you ever since. Welcome to the family.”

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Looking back, Aaron’s conduct in our meeting was one of the clearest embodiments of this poem I’ve yet seen. Knowingly undeserving and yet welcomed in regardless. The man knew he was lost and marveled that God would actually be so kind to him. Two weeks later, he publicly professed his faith in front of the small church of local believers.

Pray for Aaron, he may have a very hard road ahead of him. Grandpa is a mullah, an Islamic preacher/teacher, and his relatives are known for their hardcore devotion to Islam. This usually means new believers lose their housing, marriage prospects, and sometimes work. It can even mean physical attacks. As we parted, we emphasized to Aaron that the church is his new family now, no matter what his physical family tries to do to him. Pray that no matter what comes, Aaron will cling to Jesus and that the family of faith would be with him every step of the way.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Daniel MacDonald on Unsplash

Transmuting Pagan Values

How did Patrick do it? We have noted already his earthiness and warmth. But these are qualities that make for a lowering of hostility and suspicion; of themselves they do not gain converts among the strong-willed. We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage – his refusal to be afraid of them – would have impressed them immediately; and, as his mission lengthened into years and came to be seen clearly as a lifetime commitment, his steadfast loyalty and supernatural generosity must have moved them deeply. For he had transmuted their pagan virtues of loyalty, courage, and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope, and charity.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 124

Photo by Michael Schofield on Unsplash

I Didn’t Come Here For the Other Foreigners

“I didn’t come here for the other foreigners.”

I’ve said it. I’ve felt it. I’ve heard it said by others. It’s the kind of statement a cross-cultural missionary can say with a deep inner sense of fiery rightness. Yes, we did ultimately come here for the lost locals, and not for the other missionaries. Or did we? This statement alludes to the danger of getting sucked into the attractive expat bubble – where they speak my language, feel my culture, and let me be my own cultural self. This expat bubble – full of birthday parties, meetings, and game nights – has claimed many a victim, lured so deep in that there no longer exists any compelling inner response to the lurking question, What am I doing here? Not to mention what it does to actual culture and language acquisition. It’s wise to be aware of this danger of too many hours with other expats.

And yet it’s a statement that only acknowledges one deadly cliff off the side of a ridge. There’s another one, it’s evil twin as it were. This inverse danger has to do with the absence of biblical love toward the other missionaries. Like it or not, the other foreign Christians in our contexts are a part of our witness toward the locals we are trying to reach. In pioneer contexts, they may be the only other brothers and sisters in the faith around. So these teammates, partners, and fellow expats we awkwardly run into in the grocery store have an important part to play in what we communicate about the kingdom and household of God.

Like our own children, our local friends are always watching. They are wonderful observers. They are sometimes terrible interpreters, but they see far more than we might initially think. Do we really think that local believers won’t pick up on the inconsistency if we are exhorting them to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom 12:10) when we ourselves ignore and keep a distrustful posture toward the other missionaries, our siblings in the faith? Sure, we might not be actively working against them, but is respectful distance really enough to count as biblical love? Our actions, our modeling, must match the words we use in our evangelistic and discipleship relationships. When our words match our lives, that is when we are living a compelling witness. To model love, we must be open to healthy relationships with the other believing foreigners.

Jesus makes some pretty incredible promises related to these things. He says that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). He prays that we would be one so that the world may believe that the Father has sent the Son (John 17:21). The love of believers for one another proves we are true followers of Jesus. Our unity proves the Incarnation – no small thing for those like us working among Muslims! Notice the absence of a qualification that says these dynamics are important only between missionaries and their local disciples. Sadly, many of us have drawn an arbitrary line where we justify our cold treatment of other foreigners because we are pouring ourselves out in love for the locals. Yet notice what’s happened here. Love for one group of people has become an excuse to not show love to another group. Is this OK? Maybe we should run that one by the Sunday School children and see what they have to say about it.

We will reap what we sow. God is not mocked (Gal 6:7). Geography and calling doesn’t nullify the one-anothers of the New Testament. If we conduct ourselves like pagans toward the other foreigners and only act like Christians toward the locals, this will catch up to us. It will undermine our work again and again, as countless missionary teams have learned over the years. The number one reason missionaries are said to leave the field is because of team conflict. I believe this is because we missionaries are so strongly tempted to live a double life of love toward the locals and pettiness toward our fellow expats.

It would not be so common if it were not so easy to justify. But oh, can we justify this double standard. Think of the number of lost going to hell every day! What is a birthday party compared to that? Think of the scandal of there being no witness in this huge language group! Why should I invest hours every week trying to get along with my teammates whose personalities are so different from mine? Can’t we just merely tolerate each other so I can get back to pouring into the ones I’m really here for?

But just as the body can’t ignore any of its physical members without experiencing eventual pain and harm, so missionaries who are part of the same body of Christ must not pretend they live in a vacuum separated from their fellow members of God’s household. We are intertwined by the blood of Christ. We need one another. Spiritually, we are already one with one another through the work that Christ has done. To live otherwise is to live out of touch with true reality.

If we missionaries live in a context where there are other foreign believers, then we must broaden our sense of calling. Have we been given a specific secondary call to reach a certain people group or city? Great! But we have first been given a deeper primary calling to love the bride of Christ, every part of her. We have to mature to the point where we can see that loving the other foreign believers well is an integral part of reaching the locals. Often, sacrificing some ministry time with locals for the sake of healthy team or partner relationships will be the right call. Pressing as the needs of the work are, we can’t afford to tourniquet these members of the same body merely because they are expats like us.

God sent us here for the locals – but yes, for the other foreigners too. The sooner we embrace this broadening of our calling, the healthier models we will be of a mature and compelling faith. There is danger in spending too much time with other expats, especially if we are doing this to retreat from the culture. But there is also great danger in failing to love the other foreigners in a manner worthy of Christ. Let us strive to walk that proverbial ridge without falling down the cliffs on either side.

Photo by Mirko Blicke on Unsplash

When Systems Fry and Fail

Last week I wrote a post on the upsides of local houses. Well, there are downsides as well. The quality of the construction materials and infrastructure here in Central Asia means that things are regularly and unexpectedly breaking. “It takes forever just to get to zero here” is how one partner used to put it. In other words, by the time you’ve got your electricity working again, water back in your tanks, the squatty potty unblocked, and the cockroaches squashed, your energy and motivation to go out and invest in locals has taken a big hit. You’ve worn yourself out just getting to zero – and you haven’t actually done any “work” yet. Because of this, we’ve learned that part of living wisely in a place where things regularly break means having backups. And backups of those backups.

When a system we rely on breaks, that can throw a wrench in other very important plans. It can turn a day focused on good proactive work into a day consumed by reactive scrambling. It can also lead to a rush of stress and anxiety as we strive to fix said system ASAP while the children scream and the parents’ other tasks start piling on top of themselves. This kind of thing can be weathered occasionally, but no, it’s not sustainable. One of the reasons I’ve come to be a believer in backups (and backups of those) is because they simply allow my family to keep on humming along, even when we’ve somehow run out of water – again. Backups also crucially give me a bit more margin to fit in that repair or replacement without nuking my entire schedule. And I also find that I’m practically able to go about the logistics of the fix with a bit more patience, respect, and intentionality – in short, more like a Christian. Which is good, since I am a missionary, after all.

Two nights ago we got back from a Sabbath day excursion to the mountains. The real winter weather had finally arrived in our semi-desert city and I had left some small electric heaters on low so that the house would retain some of its heat while we were gone. The cement houses here quickly turn into iceboxes if their residents don’t vigilantly fight to maintain a low and steady heat inside. Well, we got back to see that our whole street had electricity, but our house alone was dark, as if we had tripped our power again. “Well,” I sighed to myself, “Here we go again!”

Our local electricity situation is quite complex. There is the dirt cheap national electricity which is very inconsistent, but almost unlimited in amount when it’s available. When it’s on, residents tend to binge use all their appliances at once. “Quick! Turn everything on before it goes away again!” When national electricity is off, each neighborhood uses its own private generator. Residents choose how many expensive amps they’d like to buy and can use only that amount of electricity when they’re running on neighborhood power. We buy just enough amps to be able to use one AC/Heat unit, plus a fridge and lights.

However, this neighborhood system still doesn’t equal 24-hour electricity. That’s led us to set up a battery-inverter system to run a few small things during the regular blackouts – things like internet, some light bulbs, and a sound machine for the kids. Beyond this, we have propane stoves and heaters, plus flashlights and candles. A family can actually hold out on battery and flame-powered devices for quite a while. This is what we end up doing when the neighborhood generator breaks down because of extreme temperatures or when the national electricity transformer at the end of our street gets fried by a very unlucky cat (true story). The longest we’ve gone without electricity here is about three days – not bad compared to the Melanesian village I lived in as child. But then again, there are no winters in Melanesia. Nor summers with 120 degree desert heat. In fact, the mountain valley I grew up in was known to have one of the most ideal climates in the world. But I digress.

When we got home from our mountain excursion we saw right away that we had no electricity. I first checked to see if we had tripped a breaker in our courtyard in a power surge. This sometimes happens when national electricity turns on. And it sometimes leads to 2 a.m. electrical fires (once again, true story). Nope, no tripped breaker evidencing a surge. Then I checked to see whether we were on the backup neighborhood generator. An indicator light told me that yes, we were supposed to be on neighborhood power. So I went out to another breaker we have up on a pole across the street to see if we had somehow tripped that one. Negative. Neighborhood power, our backup, wasn’t working for some reason. So I went inside and flipped the switch to the battery lights, our trusty backup of the backup, expecting the battery-wired bulbs to immediately flicker on. Still nothing. Here I started to get a bit concerned. The backup of the backup wasn’t working either. I remembered that a friend had just warned me that it was coming time to replace the huge battery we had bought four years ago for our inverter system. The aging battery must have run out of juice after running for several hours. Now it was completely dead.

I went upstairs to check yet another set of breakers (all fine) and then turned a propane heater in our central room on high. At least we would have some heat. Then I came down and started pulling out all our neglected flashlights and putting fresh batteries in them. With the aid of the flashlights, my ninja wife was able to get our campfire-scented children bathed. We praised God that hot water was left over in the boiler from earlier in the day. We had hot water, some propane left, batteries for the flashlights, and some candles. Not bad, actually. The backups of the backup of the backup were saving the evening. With these things my wife was able to move the kids toward bed (somewhat) as usual. And I was able to start problem-solving the situation, knowing my family wasn’t going to bed in a house that was completely cold and dark.

I quickly called up our neighborhood generator man. Someone else picked up and told me that the man I needed was actually asleep. However, they had another guy to send who promptly gave me a call. I asked him if he knew the house where the only Americans in the neighborhood lived. “Of course I know where your house is, it’s me, Muhammad!” Which Muhammad? I thought to myself. Most first-born males in our city are given that name, meaning the name alone doesn’t do much to call up a certain face. So we end up tagging them in our phones with some other descriptive – Security Muhammad, Baker Muhammad, Taxi Muhammad, Crazy Muhammad, etc. So with “Electrician Muhammad’s” help I learned that some kind of national power surge had indeed burned up the conductor unit next to our courtyard breaker switches. And this was preventing our neighborhood amps from getting through. Alas, that conductor had lasted a whole three months since we had installed it to replace the previous one – which had burned up after only three weeks.

With some skillful screwdriver work by Muhammad and only a couple quick runs down to the neighborhood bazaar, we had everything we needed. To my great satisfaction, after only an hour and $20, we were back up and running on neighborhood electricity. We were also good to go if national electricity decided to come back on, and our battery-inverter system was also getting recharged again (Which I actually had to use during a blackout as I wrote this post). Systems restored.

We then went on to finish a quiet Sabbath evening.

If anyone has made it this far, I’m impressed that you slogged through all of these details. What is my purpose in writing about all of this? Likely, the misadventures of our backups of backups might strike only a few as oddly interesting. But truth be told, over here we actually spend quite a lot of time thinking about, talking about, and fixing these kinds of issues. We don’t write home about them very much, but they are the day in and day out stuff of real life in this corner of the mission field.

“What did you do yesterday?”

“I spent all day recovering from an electrical fire. You?”

“Ran out of water again. Good times.”

For churches and supporters of missionaries, if you know workers on the field, it’s worth asking them if there’s any kind of backup system that they don’t have that could really serve them. Maybe something solar or battery-powered. Maybe a well or a generator. Sometimes we’re not sure if we’re supposed to spend money on things like this, even though we know there might be great practical payoff.

For any future missionaries out there, you may want to seriously consider investing in some basic handyman skills. And also know that it’s not overkill to spend some cash on good backup systems – and on backups of those backups. There may be those days where being able to fall back on that backup will enable you or your family to keep humming along, hopefully at a pace and posture more conducive to spontaneous ministry and steady faithfulness.

After all, when you’re hosting a local and getting close to sharing the gospel, and the power or water or something else goes, it’s wonderfully practical to simply fall back on the backup system, knowing that you can fix the other stuff tomorrow. Turn on the the battery lights. Fire up the propane heater. Bring in some water from that extra tank to flush the toilet. Make a good-natured joke about things falling apart. And then keep on sharing the gospel as if you never missed a beat.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

Literally The Man on the Island

A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.

The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.

One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”

The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror. “Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”

We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!

However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).

These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.

Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally just don’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.

“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”

And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.

*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!

*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

A Letter on the Sending Church Relationship

I wrote this letter to our group of fellow missionary candidates shortly before we left for training. Six years later, these conversations and structures are still valuable to consider for any who are hoping to be sent out as missionaries from their church. However, I would recommend talking with your church about these things much earlier, perhaps a year in advance of your departure. The sending church relationship really matters! Consider how you these suggestions might help your church better send in a manner worthy of God.

Fellow Missionary Candidates, 

We have just under two months until training and during that time I wanted to send you a few ideas regarding your relationship with your sending church. For the past couple of years I have served as a missions pastor and also have been involved in broader conversations with other churches about healthy New Testament sending and supporting of missionaries. Our crew of candidates comes from a variety of churches. Some are experienced missions-minded churches who already have developed sending and care structures for their missionaries. Others, in sending you, will be sending out their first ever missionary. We know that it is the church that sends, not the organization (Acts 13). Our org will provide many structures for our care and support while we are on the field, but your relationship with your sending church is a vital lifeline that can be the difference between you staying on the field or coming home. In light of this, here are a few best practices that our church and other like-minded sending churches have implemented in order to care for our sent out ones. I commend these to you as one way that healthy sending can be fleshed out. There are many faithful variations of these, and every sending church still has room for growth. Still, my hope is that these will generate good conversations, ideas, and structures as you speak with your pastors about your sending and care. 

Don’t be shy to approach your pastors to talk over these things. An already busy pastor might feel overwhelmed at the thought of one more commitment, but many of these structures can be led and implemented by volunteers as well. And many pastors would be excited to think through these things, simply having never been exposed to these ideas before. One more thing – your eagerness to do the legwork for mobilizing for these things can make all the difference in the eyes of busy church leadership. At the end of the day, faithful pastors and churches really desire to send and support their missionaries in a manner worthy of God. 

1. A Sending Relationship. Ask for a clear sending relationship with your home church. As was suggested at our meetings, read through Acts 13 with your pastors and ask them if they will do for you what Antioch did for Paul and Barnabas. This means that your church claims you as their missionary and takes real responsibility for your sending and care long-term. They acknowledge that before God, they are accountable for you and will hold the ropes for you. Clarify expectations with your leadership. If they are going to be your sending church, what is expected of you while on the field and when on furlough? What is expected of the church towards you? Clarify your role and seek your church’s affirmation. How do your leaders think through your role as a missionary biblically? And do they affirm that you have the character qualifications for that role? If so, will they affirm and commission you publicly? Do you need to go through an assessment process in order for them to do this? At our church we seek to have most of the men we send out go through our elder/church planter assessment process. We want to affirm publicly that they are qualified according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to plant churches and disciple pastors (like a Paul). Other men and single ladies are sent out as church planting teammates (like Aquila and Priscilla), assessed by the deacon character qualifications in Titus 1. It’s a weighty and courage-strengthening thing knowing that your sending church has taken you through an affirmation process and has commissioned you. If there’s not time for you to do this in your next two months, consider approaching your pastors about doing something like this next time you’re stateside. 

2. Prayer Rhythms. Ask your pastors if your church will commit to praying for you. If yes, ask for the when and where of how that will happen. A picture on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean you are being prayed for. At our church we have Sunday morning prayer meetings where we rotate weekly praying for one of our missionaries. This is a chance for updated requests to be lifted up in a timely fashion. We have seen dramatic answers to prayer in response to these times. Is there some kind of structure like this where the church will commit to corporately praying for you? If it’s happening corporately, more individuals will pray for you on their own as well. 

3. Skype or Zoom Calls. We live in an age when communication between the missionary and the sending church is easier than ever. This is a very good thing for your care on the field! At our church we have a monthly group skype/zoom call that all of our missionaries are invited to participate in. It’s simply a time of encouragement from the word, discussion, and sharing of joys, trials, and prayer requests, led by one of us pastors or one of our missionaries. These times have been very sweet. In addition to this we are working to set up all our missionaries and spouses with a regular one on one call with a trusted friend or leader at our church. This is important for personal soul care, sound-boarding, accountability, and encouragement. We also make ourselves available for one-off calls as needed for counseling or discussion of issues on the field. Ask your pastors if they would be willing to set up a regular call with you.¬†

4. Rope Holder Teams. Other sending churches call these Advocate Teams or Barnabas Teams, but the concept is the same. This is a small group of people within your church who commit to regular prayer, communication, care packages, and advocacy for you. This is particularly important if your church has many missionaries. This group can help provide the support you need on the field so that it doesn’t all fall on the pastors and staff. They are your go-to team for prayer needs, future trips, and other practical needs. They help keep you and your work visible in the life of the church. They also serve as a team of friends that tracks your ministry closely and stays in communication. It’s a good idea to invite close friends to commit to a Rope Holder Team – that way you’ve committed to staying connected. These teams are a great way to equip the church body to take part also in missionary care. Consider approaching 6 – 8 friends at your church to form this kind of a team for you. 

5. Partnership Requests. Various needs arise when you are on the field. You might be in need of a short term team. You might need childcare workers for your regional meeting. There could be a health emergency. You are in need of housing and a vehicle when stateside. Are your pastors OK with you informing them of these needs? Who is the point person when these kinds of needs arise? 

This may seem like a lot, but don’t feel like you have to implement all of these things at once. These are suggestions and ideas from one imperfect church trying to take care of the missionaries God has entrusted to us. At the same time, we have found all of these things very helpful. Consider prayerfully if you might need to talk with your pastors about any of the above care structures. As a TCK turned missions pastor turned missionary, I can say that any investment in your sending church relationship is well spent and will bear fruit in your health and effectiveness on the field. 

Congratulations on being accepted and looking forward to seeing many of you again at training!

In Christ,
A.W. Workman

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Walking the Graveyards

But why go to the other side of the world when there are so many lost people right here in the homeland?

It’s a valid question, and one that feels weightier the more post-Christian the West becomes. Before we moved overseas as a family, we used to share an image to answer this objection.

Imagine a huge and ancient graveyard, full of wooded hills which are covered with thousands of tombstones. But the graveyard is not completely still and silent. Here and there individuals and small groups make their way from one grave to another, pausing to push one or several seeds into the grassy earth. They might move on quickly or linger at a certain grave for some time. Usually nothing happens right away. But sometimes a sudden flash of light occurs, and the one who was dead emerges completely alive and made new. This newly living one (after a period of understandable disorientation and celebration) then joins the others in their methodical and mysterious work of seed-pushing.

It’s not predictable when and where the seeds that are planted will bloom in an explosion of light and dirt and life. Sometimes there are weeks and months with nothing. Other times multiple dead ones suddenly come to life simultaneously. The only trend the planters have been able to gather is that the more graves that receive planted seeds, the more resurrections tend to take place. The planters go about their work steadily, but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of graves, somewhere in the ratio of ten thousand to one.

One day one of the planters climbs a cemetery ridge to conduct his work. From the top of that ridge he can for the first time make out the existence of another graveyard, just within eyesight. It’s even bigger than the one he and his friends have been working in. Yet strain as he might he’s unable to see any movement within that graveyard. There are no planters to been seen anywhere. The reality dawns on him that there are none to walk that graveyard. None to sow the seeds that can raise the dead. The graves there will never stir nor give up their bones.

Gradually he comes under conviction that he must go and be the first planter to walk that graveyard, though the ratio be as bad as one to ten million. It’s not right that all the planters (small in number though they are) be concentrated in one graveyard when there are other cemeteries with just as much potential for resurrection that have no one to sow the seeds.

Everywhere that seeds have been planted, sooner or later, the dirt gives up its dead, who in turn become faithful living workers. Everywhere. So he goes. It’s not a matter of the absence of need in the first graveyard, it’s the presence of such disproportionate need in the faraway graveyard which has no planters. And perhaps one day that graveyard will give birth to enough of its own workers to be able to send some back to lend a hand in the first one. Or perhaps from that vantage point they will see yet another graveyard further away, itself also lacking even one to plant seeds of hope in the dirt of its ancient graves.

This image helps to explain why we came to Central Asia when there is so much good gospel work that needs doing in our homeland. Though the work is daunting, our home “graveyard” has many more workers who are going to keep doing the work faithfully. But our corner of Central Asia? There are towns and villages that we have visited that have no known believers. Places where we may have been the first to ever share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we’re not even as remote as some of our colleagues are. Many over here are working at a ratio of a million to one. A million graves for every seed pusher. That would be like having only three hundred people to reach the entire population of the US with the gospel. In God’s miraculous power, it’s possible. But man, someone please send those people some reinforcements!

Are there dead people in the homeland? Absolutely. But are there also crews of faithful seed pushers? Yes. That’s why we left. And why we’ve come to another graveyard with just as many dead, but with precious few planters.

Photo by Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Church Size Cultures

I continue to learn just how important self-awareness is in the effort to do good missiology and contextualization. In order to understand my target culture and know how to apply the gospel to it, I am deeply handicapped if I do not understand my own preferences and my own culture. The danger of confusing personal and cultural preferences for biblical principles and commands lurks ever hidden under the surface – not unlike the sea mines in the Bosphoros that prevented the allies from taking Constantinople in WWI. In this vein, I have been greatly helped by this article by Tim Keller that addresses church size dynamics.

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

My mistake as a former house-church-only advocate was this very thing, confusing a house church size as being a more biblical choice. Small was holier than big. Simple was holier than complex. Just as good missionaries need to constantly remind themselves that many strange things in their new culture are “not wrong, just different,” so Christians must remind themselves of this same truth when interacting with churches of different sizes. The key takeaway is not just that churches of different sizes usually have different cultures, but rather that they inescapably have different cultures. To refuse to let the culture change because of some personal size preference is to do damage to the church and to impede its healthy growth, like new grandparents insisting that Christmas must always look the same even though their grown children now have their own children plus another other set of in-laws that need to be honored.

This article is also full of specific wisdom to help leaders when their churches are passing from one size culture to another. Since many of the churches that are planted in Central Asia will exist in the house church to small church range, I am helped to be aware of how to proactively lead or help the local leaders anticipate what kind of shepherding is needed to make this transition.

If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.

Read the full article by Tim Keller here.

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Theological Triage

In my context overseas I’ve heard it said that we should only partner with those with whom we share the same theology and methodology. This statement falls short for at least three reasons. First, it assumes that theology and methodology are equally important. Second, it fails to recognize that within theology and methodology are different levels of varying importance. Third, it practically means that if you draw such a tight circle as your prerequisite for partnership, you’ll hardly be able to partner with anyone. It’s only a matter of time before you discover some difference in theology or methodology. When that happens, this mantra leaves you poorly equipped to do anything other than part ways.

Far better to recognize that we can partner with others in various ways according to our theological and methodological likemindedness. This is where the concept of theological triage comes in.

The word triage comes from the French word trier, which means “to sort.” Thus, the triage officer in the medical context is the front-line agent for deciding which patients need the most urgent treatment. Without such a process, the scraped knee would receive the same urgency of consideration as a gunshot wound to the chest. The same discipline that brings order to the hectic arena of the Emergency Room can also offer great assistance to Christians defending truth in the present age.

A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency that would correspond to the medical world’s framework for medical priority. With this in mind, I would suggest three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates.

Al Mohler

Mohler, in this article, calls the church to a mature approach whereby doctrine is ranked in primary, secondary, and tertiary importance. Issues of primary importance are gospel issues. These issues divide orthodoxy from heresy, e.g. doctrines like the Trinity. Secondary issues are issues by which Christians cannot disagree and be part of the same church in a healthy way. This would include topics such as the proper subjects of baptism. Tertiary issues are those which believers can disagree with and still be part of the same church, such as differing views of the millennium.

Interestingly, Mohler points out that the error of liberalism is to deny that there are any first-level issues while the error of fundamentalism is to make everything a first-level issue.

What I have not seen done yet is for someone to take this helpful concept of theological triage and to apply it to the mission field and to methodology. We are in desperate need also of methodological triage. The sad truth is that many evangelical missionaries overseas are operating as methodological fundamentalists or liberals. Issues of strategy and methodology have become of first-level importance, without acknowledging whether the scriptures themselves give said method that kind of weight. Or methodology is treated as a neutral endeavor where there’s no connection between form and meaning and into which the scriptures really do not speak. Either way, this should not be.

Read the full article here.

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