I appreciated John Piper’s recent answer to this tough question. His last couple paragraphs sum up his argument.
Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.
So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.
We simply don’t know what God has in store. If God has been clear and given a calling to go to the nations, and then along comes a potential spouse who is not interested in that kind of life of service, then wisdom would seem to suggest either converting them to missions (as my mom did to my dad), or leaving that potential spouse behind. When God has been clear, we need to move on that clarity – and trust him with the fallout. When we do, we will often find the desires of our hearts met in unexpected ways.
This is a bigger risk for single women than it is for single men. Single men are outnumbered overseas by single women by a scandalous ratio something like of ten to one. For any godly ministry-minded man who is wondering where all the amazing women of God are – get thee to the mission field! Wonderful single missionary ladies are out here, serving faithfully and risking much. But even for single ladies who feel called to both missions and marriage, many faithful brothers are out here too. For both men and women, let us also not discount the goodness of cross-cultural marriages. Some of our closest friends in the US are a formerly single missionary who fell in love with a godly Middle Eastern brother. And let us also not discount the goodness of godly celibacy. Our evangelical culture still tends to not celebrate this as much as the Scriptures do.
We cannot promise one another anything – only God knows the future. Some find spouses on the mission field. Some live lives of devoted singleness. Some lose their spouses on the mission field. My parents went to the mission field together, only for my mom to become a widow three and a half years later. She later continued on the field as a single mom for 7 years.
The key is walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Has he unmistakably called you to the nations? Then go. And trust God with the consequences. He is worthy of this. Those who risk their deepest desires for him are never put to shame. Somehow, in some unexpected way, he will give them back better things than those sacrificed – even a hundredfold – and in the age to come, will give eternal life.
This week we’ve been packing up for yet another move. My wife came across this poem I wrote for her a couple years ago, which I had posted at the very beginning of starting this blog. She requested that I post it again. And, seeing that she is a very wise and intuitive woman, I am happy to do so. I hope it can serve as one window into how those of us who embrace semi-nomadic missions lifestyles for the sake of the gospel wrestle with the costs – and hope in the world to come.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30 ESV)
A Hundredfold Homes
We have lived with rich and poor
In places some will not or can’t.
And found there joy, and doors
To life, and friends, and won’t
Forget the promise, one hundred-fold.
We need it dearly every time
We move again and say goodbye
And home becomes a house – again.
We do it all for Him.
True, we know the cost is real,
That mingled joy of rootlessness.
But I have heard the king has rooms
And rooms and rooms and worlds.
Perhaps a place where mountains meet
The sea, a house with orchards on a hill.
With pen and table, porch and sky
And paper and books, maybe some tea.
A pipe! And fire.
Yes, room to host and reminisce
(With friends and of course the King himself)
The glory that we saw
In our hundred fleeting homes.
Children born and born again,
The needy fed, the lost redeemed,
The straying won, the faithful trained.
A hundred tents of light
Soon dismantled yet again.
For the world was ours, but not quite yet.
We don’t yet know the fullness of
The joy, although we know the taste.
For each new place a portion sings
And each new move the old refrain:
The promises are coming true
Before our eyes – a hundred-fold!
And new creation, forever home.
Is coming, coming, like the dawn.
So let us drink and to the full
The joy of each new set of walls.
For they are fleeting like the fall
And shine unique, eternal.
Remember the talk of camels and tents?
And Shelby Park, and Kingston’s rooms
And Sarkenar or St James Court?
Yes, more to come, if grace allows
And we shall thank the king for each,
With faith and joy await to see
The next of our one hundred homes
That really are not ours at all.
The glory – they are forever ours,
And really are not ours at all.
“Hey *Hama! I just came from the tea house. Your brother-in-law is in there telling everyone that you are a Christian and that he’s going to kill you!”
Hama and I were hanging out at his favorite intersection in the bazaar when his friend came up and made this announcement.
“Hama?” I asked, “What’s he talking about?”
Hama went on to fill me in on the situation. By this point he and his wife had both been believers for eight years, and were getting serious about their faith again after some years of struggle without steady discipleship. I had been gone in the US finishing up school and starting a family, but a year before our return I had visited and connected them with a new missionary family. This discipleship from these workers – who would later become dear teammates – was bearing good fruit.
As one simple expression of their faith, that year they had put up a Christmas tree, and their six-year-old son had made a cross ornament. However, a photo of him smiling in front of the tree with his ornament had made the rounds among *Tara’s family, Hama’s wife. Her relations, I came to learn, were by far the more conservative and Islamic side. We had made it through the round of persecution brought by Hama’s family eight years previous. Now it was her family’s turn. Far from the somewhat sincere six month shunning that Hama experienced, this persecution would get very serious very fast. It would ultimately lead to them having to flee the country.
The open death threat made that day was a turning point. The same man who had made this threat was a known killer, having murdered prisoners and political opponents in crimes that were documented online by Amnesty International. Usually Hama laughed off threats. But now that his wife’s older brother, a killer, was making them, he was visibly worried.
A few weeks later they were taken to court. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal in our country and the family had accused Hama of forcing his wife to convert. They begged for prayer. To our amazement, the judge sided with them, believed their stories of genuine conversion to Christianity, and even let them swear on a Bible – in fact this was his idea. “They are Christians, didn’t you hear their confession? Show some respect and get these people a Bible to swear by!” Afterward Hama called me in tears from a police station, believing that even with the favorable judge, he was about to be hauled off to prison. Minutes later, he was let go as a free man. We celebrated God’s favor on them in this very scary situation.
But the harassment and threats continued. Tara’s brother showed up drunk one day and destroyed their kitchen, attacking Hama as well. Plans were being hatched to take their son away from them so he could be “raised right.” Our team grew nervous as a video circulated of Tara’s brother bragging about his past murders and making threats against Hama – and anyone connected to him.
To make matters worse, Hama was out of a job. The foreign company he had worked for had departed in scandal and debt, leaving Hama to clean up the mess. The financial pressure added to the persecution to make him feel like there was no way out. Hama began to sink into some dangerous depression.
So many of our locals who claim faith then quickly flee to the West, claiming persecution. Many of them are making up or inflating these claims. Our team was desperate not to contribute to the “faith-drain” that had become a regular fixture of the work in our area. But we were coming to terms with a very complex and potentially dangerous situation – and Hama and Tara were out of options. One night we asked them to pray for absolute clarity on whether the Spirit was indicating they should stay or flee, since both are biblical options. They came back with their answer. It was time to flee.
We started reaching out to friends and organizations that work with the persecuted. The responses were less than encouraging. “We don’t have an avenue for situations like this for your country. We thought your organization would have something in place.” Thankfully, a plan was eventually patched together for a visa, emergency tickets, housing in a neighboring country, and a basic budget for necessities. We might never be able to pull it off again, but at least for this dear family, God had provided a good plan of escape.
Unfortunately, Hama and Tara were only able to experience our initial attempts at gathering a new church plant together. In fact, we had been hoping they’d be one of our anchor families. But they had never quite understood why we kept emphasizing church and the gathering of believers so much. They had not committed and shown up as we had been desperately praying they would. This was typical for local believers, but extra tragic in their situation because it meant there were so few they could rely on when their natural support network turned against them.
Our teammates were the ones to drive them to the airport. I was grateful they were carrying out this last step, heartbroken as I was that my best friend was now leaving. On the way to the airport they shared this:
“Now we understand why you were always talking about church. Our physical family has abandoned us and attacked us. We were alone, except for you all, our believing friends. What would we have done without our believing family? This must be why church is needed.”
I grieved when I heard these words reported. Hama and Tara had largely missed out on what could have been theirs if they had been able to understand sooner why church is so important. But at least at the eleventh hour they had understood.
This realization made all the difference in their temporary country of asylum. They plugged into a good church and for two solid years experienced the joys of spiritual family – they really got it, and on telephone conversations they would actually scold us for not pushing our local friends more when it came to prioritizing the church! For our part, we would just listen, shake our heads, and smile.
Two distinct traditions exist regarding the apostle Thomas, and these appear, at first glance, mutually exclusive. According to Eusebius of Caesarea and later Nestorian sources, the apostle brought the Gospel to the Parthians. By contrast, acording to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and the Syrian DidascaliaApostolorum, the Doctrine of the Apostles, of the same age, he traveled to the court of King Gondophares in India… The two Thomas traditions can, in fact, be harmonized, since historical evidence, in the form of coins bearing his name and a stone inscription, proves the existence of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. He ruled over the region now encompassing south-eastern Iran and Pakistan, from c. 19 to 50 CE. It is thus conceivable that Eusebuis could have characterized his empire as ‘Parthian’. While nothing has been conclusively determined regarding the historical veracity of the Thomas mission, the possibility of his journey to India cannot be excluded, especially since regular maritime traffic took place between Rome and India.
Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.
This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.
This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.
But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.
Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”
I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.
Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.
As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.
Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.
Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.
Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.
“There is learning the culture so we can function well in the guest room, drinking chai and being polite. But then there is a whole deeper level to the culture when you are invited into the family spaces of the home.”
A colleague shared this wise advice with me the other day. His family had just been affirmed by a local brother as the best foreigners he had seen when it came to functioning well in local culture. So I passed on this feedback to my colleague – and asked for all his notes! But as is so often the case, this family’s progress in learning the culture had been a process more intuitive than systematic, more of an art than a science. Some are just natural artists. They sense their way forward, catching the culture as it were. But I have wondered for a long time if there are ways to make culture acquisition more visible for the benefit of all learners, whether we have a high CQ (cultural quotient) or not.
The truth is that culture acquisition is much harder to track than language acquisition. And language acquisition is itself a very subjective and slippery thing to measure. But culture? It’s everywhere and yet at the same time invisible. At least language has academic systems like the ACTFL scale that can provide some handles to know where a learner is at. To my knowledge, nothing like this exists to measure culture acquisition. Perhaps tools have been developed for specific cultures, but is there a universal tool that can be used to approach any culture and provide some kind of a systematic roadmap for studying it?
An anthropologist specific to our people group has opened my eyes to the importance of categories such as kinship, honor and shame, fear and gossip, the modern state, gender roles, the body, and fate.
I’ve also stumbled into some very different categories I haven’t heard discussed, but which impact our work greatly, such as how a people group is oriented towards institutions and formal organization.
On a practical level, beyond these underlying worldview categories are the important life ceremonies. How does a culture recognize pregnancies, births, birthdays, circumcisions, coming of age, graduations, engagements, marriages, new homes, sicknesses, deaths, etc?
In spite of all of these important areas of culture (and so many more) running in the background, most of us merely acquire just enough of the target culture to become functional. Then we plateau. It mirrors language acquisition in this way. Without a conscious effort to keep intentionally learning, the mind naturally settles in to a level that is merely workable for daily life. This might work well for a season, but it’s often not sufficient for navigating conflict and crises, and it can prevent us from doing deeper contextualization that might lead to breakthroughs.
This post is a call for careful thinking that leads to an accessible method of measuring culture acquisition. If it already exists, it is obscure and not known to the broader missions community (at least my circles). If it does not exist, then it would greatly serve the global church for one to be developed.
We need to fight the tendency to plateau – especially those of us working in cross-cultural contexts. To do this, we could use a map whereby we are able to have some better handles on this whole idea of culture acquisition. If I could give my family and my colleagues a tool like this that could give them some idea of where to focus next, that would be a very practical help for our work.
No one’s ever told us about circumcision rites before? Let’s cover that next. The local culture’s understanding of circumcision (if they practice it as ours does – tragically on girls as well) is bound to be imposed upon the scriptures that speak of it. We would be wise to know what context locals are bringing to that Bible study. But without a map or a tool prompting us to ask about things like this, we could miss it entirely. Plateauing might not seem that serious, but examples like this help illustrate why pressing on in a comprehensive understanding of the culture can make all the difference.
“Covenant! We don’t know anything about covenant. All we have is contract…”
I was talking to a local believer who was about a year into his faith. He was beaming as he spoke, grinning from ear to ear.
He continued, “In Christianity, marriage is a covenant. In Islam, it’s just a contract. Everything is like this. Even our religion is like a contract. It can all be canceled. It can all be broken.”
“Really?” I asked. “Do you use the word for covenant for anything? Is there no meaning for that word in your language?”
“The only thing we use the word covenant for is Jihad. That’s it.”
I shook my head, feeling simultaneously the joy of deeper insight into the local culture and not a little corresponding trepidation. We are trying to church plant in a culture whose only understanding for covenant looks like Al Qaeda.
“But I love our church covenant,” said this local brother, holding up and waving around the paper it was printed on. “I’m so glad we read it together at our regular meetings. We need to learn how to live like this!”
The brother speaking with me is a member at an English-speaking international church here in Central Asia. He has been growing by leaps and bounds and leading family members to Christ. Ironically, many missionaries would be quick to dismiss the use of a Western church covenant in this context as a failure to contextualize. Paternalists, they might claim. Yet once again, part of grandpa’s traditional Christianity proved to be surprisingly effective contextualization. My local friend was delighting in how the concept of covenant had hit a blind-spot in his worldview – and had changed everything.
Yes, there were conditional covenants in human history that were similar in some ways to contracts. But covenants are deeper than contracts. They are sacred. They involve blessings and curses. They warrant abundant life when fulfilled and are worthy of lament and judgement when broken. When we dig into the meaning of the New Covenant in the Scriptures, we find that it is eternal – once for all – accomplished by the loving sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). It is this truth of covenant love that transforms our relationship with God, our membership in spiritual assemblies, and everyday Christian marriage. It is the foundation of our gospel hope. That God will unfailingly keep his covenant with us, come fire, death, or even the end of the world. The local translation renders God’s covenant-keeping love as “love-unchanging.”
Imagine living in a society where your bond with God, with others, with your wife… is just a contract. Easily broken given the terms and conditions. Not secure. Fragile. Temporary.
Our local women go into marriage with tens of thousands of dollars of gold and contractual terms. In the event of divorce, they take all the gold with them, like an insurance payment. It’s almost as if they are planning from the beginning on the marriage being broken. And why not? All it takes in a religious family is for a man who is angry at burnt rice to cry out three times, “I divorce you!” And it’s over. His wife is now a divorcee. She takes her gold. And her shame.
If I had grown up in this kind system – and then found Jesus – I would be beaming and waving my church covenant around just like my friend was. Oh the joy of knowing in your soul that there is something stronger than a contract – and that the God of the universe offers it to you freely.
“With the way most plant churches among Muslims, we end up attracting only the rejects and the freaks,” said my friend with a scowl. “You’ll never start a movement that way.”
While spoken with some concerning overstatement, my friend’s comments were coming out of observations made within contemporary missiology, noting the largely ineffective traditional methods of church planting among Muslims. The shoe often fits. The congregations started by evangelical missionaries among Muslims have often attracted mostly the poor, the outcasts, and the mentally unstable. As the theory goes, most evangelical missionaries among Muslims have not focused enough on reaching the honorable leaders of the community – the patriarchs, chiefs, mullahs, and others. When these leaders are bypassed and the majority of attention is shown to those on the fringes of society, joining a movement to Jesus is prevented from being viewed as a real possibility by those in the mainstream of the culture – and especially by the leaders. And as I wrote in my previous post, these mental categories of “Not an option for people like me” or “It’s an option for people like me” really can make a practical difference in the mysterious interplay of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
I feel this critique. It is true that those of us coming from the West often bypass the societal leaders of an honor-shame community. We often do this even without thinking about it. “Why should I go visit the mullah or the neighborhood strongman? Can’t I just move in and get to work building relationships?” I myself have not done the best job of honoring the community’s leaders through preemptive visits of respect. I am wired as a grassroots, bottom-up reform kind of guy. And sometimes I just forget. Other times, a part of me wants to ignore these domineering leader types just to mess with their sense of self-importance. Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me that has inherited some distaste for hierarchy and classism? Yet there is wisdom in considering how showing honor to those in positions of authority helps us to have a good testimony (Rom 13:7), creates space for us to cause some trouble, and may even open the door for these leaders to embrace a costly belief in Jesus – and perhaps for others to follow them. I need to be more balanced in this area.
And yet whenever this conversation comes up, I hear this line from church history echo in my mind, “These are the true treasures of the church.” This sentence was spoken by Lawrence (Lorenzo – from Spain), archdeacon of Rome in the year 258. Emperor Valerian had issued an order to have all the leaders in the Roman church killed. And as the one in charge of the church finances, he had ordered Lawrence to turn over the church’s treasure, and he would be spared. Lawrence asked for three days and then slyly distributed all the church’s money to the poor. He then marched the poor, the crippled, and widows into the presence of the emperor and when asked about the church’s treasure, proclaimed, “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.” He was, of course, then put to death. Tradition says that he was roasted on a fire and that he also had a witty sense of humor. “I’m well done, turn me over!” he is alleged to have said while being killed (thereby becoming the patron saint of the poor and of chefs at the same time). I like this guy.
When Deacon Lawrence proclaimed the poor and the broken as the true treasures of the church, he was echoing Paul.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)
And he was echoing Jesus, who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, and who scandalously befriended the sinners, tax collectors, and the demonized rejects.
This area is yet another tension we face as missionaries. We do attract the outcasts. And some of them are remarkably broken. Broken people take a lot of time and investment and while on the slow road of healing can wound many others around them. They are not always the most stable foundation for a new church. I often beg God to bring us stable locals who will not implode our fledgling groups because of their deep trauma and broken pasts. Yes, we are all broken to some degree. And yet we live in a region of the world with very recent (and ancient) scars from war, dictators, genocide, sanctions, and other horrific experiences. It seems as if everyone here is traumatized in one way or another. And this makes church planting in this place at times seem utterly impossible.
What are we to do? An ideal approach would seek to minister to both the outcasts and the leaders, improbable as that initially seems. This much is clear – In the end, we must not hinder the “little children” from coming to Jesus. The kingdom of God belongs to them. It would be just like God to build the foundation of the church among my focus people group on the nobodies and rejects, just like Jesus did 2,000 years ago with his group of motley Galileans. Does this openness to the “rejects and freaks” hinder a movement from taking place? The research may claim this, but I doubt it. That’s just not how the kingdom of God works. If it does prove a hindrance to multiplication, then so be it. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. What genuine believer, after all, could actually choose a movement of Christians that is mainstream and respectable, but not open to the broken and the outcasts? Is this really a better alternative? If I have to choose, I will opt to gather with those who repulse the respectable.
On the last day I would rather stand with the orphans and the widows than with those this world honors. This simply seems to be the route more consistent with the heart of God as displayed in the ministry of Jesus. That may mean we end up less “effective” in the metrics of missiology. But does that really matter when the king returns? Rather, we would be wise to pay attention to how he characterizes the ministry of his true, known, followers: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me” (Matt 20:40).
My current language helper is a man who has heard the gospel countless times. He has been helping my colleagues and partners learn the local language for several years now. And that means he has gotten a steady and gloriously unrelenting dose of gospel truth for a long time. He has not professed faith. However, he has read much of the Bible, even memorized portions, and has distanced himself considerably from Islam. He now considers himself a Qur’ani, a type of Muslim who rejects all the Islamic Hadith (authoritative traditions) and the Muhammad they describe. Much of everyday Islamic practice and theology is dependent on the Hadith. Limiting one’s self to the Qur’an alone is to essentially embrace a faith that is considered heretical to most Muslims. My hope is that this is only a way-station for my tutor, evidence that he has grasped the deeply different message of the Bible and that he is seriously (though slowly) wrestling with it.
When I have a local friend like this, I’m not always sure how I should proceed with direct evangelism when they have had so much truth shared with them by so many and have not yet responded. There is a danger of their heart being hardened as they get used to hearing the same message and yet there is also the possibility of one more good word shared being the straw that breaks the camel’s back (in a good way). I will often chew on if there are ways to expose them to other complimentary things that could add to the case made by gospel words they’ve heard so often.
Many of us tend to do this with family members and friends who have heard a great deal of gospel truth and yet are not yet believers. We weigh whether right now is the best time to go direct. Or, if now is a better time to let what has already been shared rest on their heart and mind, and to instead focus on modeling a gospel-transformed life, exposing them to beauty or hospitality or friendship or other categories that could play a part in their eventual surrender to Jesus. It’s a tension. I try to navigate it by regularly praying for opportunities to share the gospel. If the gospel is on the tip of my tongue, and I’m praying for chances to go direct, then I feel a much greater peace about not sharing it directly sometimes in relationships like this.
One of my supporting emphases with my tutor has been to share with him a lot of information about how people from his people group and other people groups are becoming followers of Jesus – and about the history of ancient Christianity in Central Asia. What am I trying to accomplish in this? Well, this tutor has grown up in a society where the overwhelming amount of his fellow countrymen are Muslims and can’t imagine being Christians. It’s not even considered an option. In the mysteries of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, there is something in the human mind that tends to be more spiritually open to those social streams that have precedence among one’s neighbors and ancestors. Those are viewed as the honorable, good, or at least decent, options.
For example, in my focus people group a person can be a Muslim. That is what is assumed and what is held out as the ideal. But interestingly, at least two other groups have managed to establish themselves as possibilities for identity – something a local could embrace and still be considered basically a member of his people group. These two groups would be the communists and the Zoroastrians. In the mind of most locals, it’s best by far to be a Muslim. But if you absolutely must apostatize, then it’s on some level acceptable to become a communist or a Zoroastrian. These are tolerable options. To become a Christian? That’s still not considered an option on the table.
Hence my attempt to share a lot of stories and data with my tutor about believers from his people group and region, current and past. I want his brain to begin to shift such that by repeated exposure to the idea that others like him have followed Jesus, he might begin to think and feel that it is an option for him as well. Now, I am under no illusions that this is the key to him being born again. The lightning of gospel conviction will have to strike. Only the Spirit can do that. And yet, switching metaphors, I am going to put as many rocks as I can out on top of the icy lake in hopes that when the sun rises, the ice will break and all the rocks will sink to the bottom. Perhaps the sun will even warm those stones such that the ice breaks sooner because of their presence.
I remember hearing a missions trainer years ago share about something he called the hundred monkeys principle. Apparently thousands of monkeys at some point were introduced to an island where there had previously been no monkey population. Researchers studied how they adapted to their new environment. These monkeys were not used to the ocean and so stayed a safe distance away from it. One day an adventurous monkey decided to take a bath in the ocean. The rest watched from their perches in the trees and didn’t join him. After a while of this monkey bathing alone, one more monkey joined him. It was only the two of them for the longest time, until at last there came a third. The number of monkeys not afraid to bathe in the ocean increased one-by-one, incrementally, until it reached ninety nine monkeys. But to the researchers’ amazement the following day there were thousands of monkeys bathing in the ocean. This 99th monkey represented some kind of sociological tipping point for the monkey population. A switch flipped somewhere internally. Now bathing in the ocean was actually a mainstream option.
Similar things happen with human populations. A given custom is viewed as not possible for “people like us.” The early adopters get persecuted and kicked out. But one day, if the adopters keep on increasing, that same custom is viewed as an acceptable option. As I recall, the other possible outcome of reaching this tipping point might not be a general acceptance of the new belief or custom, but could also be large-scale persecution as that movement is suddenly viewed by the mainstream as a very serious threat. Drawing on memory alone, I recall hearing this tipping point being somewhere in the range of 10% – 13%. Any sociologists or missiologists out there will have to correct me if this is off. For a parallel in the West, pay attention to the increasingly-heated rhetoric on immigration once the foreign-born reach this same threshold.
By sharing (safely) with my tutor about others from his people group who have believed, I am trying to nudge him to be more open to being one of the early adopters – and maybe someday even part of the tipping point. We’re a long way from that percentage currently as I write this post. There are always those who must be the first. And their salvation is extra miraculous in that they take a step that no one from their people group has ever taken before. Surely there is some special honor for these pioneers in eternity. But my tutor doesn’t have to be the first. And though I can’t fully explain it, he needs to know that. I am under obligation to do anything that I can do to remove unnecessary barriers to the gospel – cultural, sociological, whatever, such that the gospel itself is the primary offense. Normalize the idea of people like him following Jesus, and that could be one of the many steps the Holy Spirit uses to prepare him for that piercing moment of new birth.
After all, there’s no sense wrestling with the idea of being the first monkey to ever wash in the ocean when you’re actually monkey number forty seven. Others have blazed the trail, so let’s know and feel that deep down inside, and then turn back and consider the invitation yet another time.
Turns out it’s a bit more complicated to define the region of Central Asia than one might initially think. Geographically, I appreciate how this map divides the political states between homeland areas and those areas where some CA peoples are present, but not dominant. Notice all the countries that you might not think of as Central Asian where the darker homeland blue spills over into a predominantly white or light blue nation-state: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and China.
Culturally, the best shorthand for summarizing this region is to organize it around two primary language and culture groups: Persian and Turkic. The largest people groups and the vast majority of the groups in this area are either Persian-related or Turkic-related. That helps bring some clarity to an otherwise messy situation. Someone working in Pakistan is clearly working in what’s normally politically and geographically called South Asia. But if they are working with Pashtuns (Persian-related) in the West of the country, then they are culturally and linguistically (and even geographically) very much in Central Asia. Part of the issue is the huge Eurasian landmass itself and the fact that the the cultural-linguistic spheres don’t necessary match the political and geographic borders. And then of course if you get into the mountains you will always find minority people groups and languages that will add more complexity to whatever principle of organization is used to label things.
Want to get a sense of what this region of the world feels like? Take a look at this intro video below. Parts of this video were filmed in the area where we serve, but yes, for security’s sake I’m going to have to keep you guessing as to which part of this very big region we ourselves live in.