Now I Understand Why You Were Always Talking About Church

“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.

That’s what we’ve been trying to say all along.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Contracts and Covenants

“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.

Photo by Tetiana SHYSHKINA on Unsplash

Ancient Mesopotamian Baptists

Although the Apostolic Council resolved the question of circumcision within the Roman Empire, the issue re-emerged among the Nestorians of Mesopotamia after the seventh century as a result of the Arab conquest. Islamic scholars reproached Christians for failing to have themselves circumcised, as their prophet Jesus had been. They replied that baptism had replaced circumcision, as Christ had abolished the latter by his own baptism. Neither an external sign nor ritual cleansings were crucial for the covenant with God, but rather the symbolic death and resurrection in baptism and the inner purity of the heart. ‘What good does it do a darkened house to have lamps on its outer walls while the rooms within remain unlit?’ Regarding the replacement of circumcision with baptism, the East Syrian metropolitan Odisho of Nisibis (1250-1318) wrote, ‘The Jews had to distinguish themselves bodily from the other heathens, since God had determined that the messiah would appear among their descendants. In the same way [like circumcision] a man marks his camels, sheep, and horses, to distinguish his possessions from those of strangers. The baptism of true believers [however] encompasses the mystery of death and resurrection. For immersion in an abyss of water is similar to death, as one no longer has senses, as when one is buried in the earth. The emergence from the water is they symbol of resurrection, resembling rising from the grave. For this reason, the apostles required that, before baptism, the candidates wear black penitential garments and afterwards white robes, to represent the transition from the world of darkness to the world of light.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 13-14

A Local’s First Visit to the International Church

A local friend of mine recently visited our international church for the first time. A teacher, and a somewhat traditional man, I was curious to see what his impressions would be. After the service I asked him about it.

“I’m amazed at all of the small children here!” he said. “You don’t see any small children at the mosque.”

“Really?” I asked. “Is that not normal?”

“No, we don’t let any children under six come. But not only are families with small children here, their children are sitting quietly and listening! This is amazing.”

In response to this, I was able to share the story with my friend of Jesus encouraging the little children to be brought to him, from Matthew 19. It was likely the first time he had ever heard it. I also assured him that the small children (such as ours) definitely do not always sit quietly. But persevering parents who aren’t afraid of giving ten thousand reminders make a big difference.

He was also amazed by the diversity. Being an international church, we have members and attendees from twenty countries or so.

“I haven’t seen anywhere like this in our city before. So many people from Asia and Africa and Europe. Look at this man! I wonder where he is from?”

My friend kept on commenting in this vein, seemingly unable to stop, eyes wide at the fascinating mosaic of human skin and culture in front of him. I just smiled. The ethnic diversity of our church family is indeed a powerful witness.

“Was there anything else you noticed? Do you have any other questions?” I asked.

“Yes, your services… are they always this long? It was very long.”

I just laughed. “Yes, it’s a little long. But I’m so glad you got to be part of it.”

Little children and people from lots of different ethnicities, all worshiping Jesus together in a very long service. Not at all a bad first introduction to the local church.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

We Are Family Now

This past week I was looking back through recorded answers to prayer. I came upon a prayer from a few years ago for some local new believers to be baptized. I had written the date we started praying for this, and the date God answered that request.

The lead up to the baptism was tricky. This believing couple was pretty fearful of blowback from their community or relatives. As with many Muslim societies, the community here views baptism as the true point of no return, much more so than a verbal profession of faith. I’m not sure the historical reasons for this, but it is a powerful dynamic we must wrestle with as we work with new believers. Finding a place that is appropriately private and public – so that we honor the biblical requirements and the security realities – is often a great challenge as well. And we live in a climate labeled “high desert,” so there’s not exactly a ton of private swimming holes dotting the landscape.

After much discussion, a date was agreed upon. Then a place and a plan. The husband requested that we do the baptism at their house, in a kiddie pool that he would get ready beforehand in their garage. This would provide a measure of security and privacy, yet still allow the members of the young church to gather and publicly witness their profession and immersion. Initially, they wanted to choose which members of the very small congregation could be there and who couldn’t. Yet we insisted that it was crucial to allow all the members to attend – especially the locals. Locals tend to extend a lot of trust to us foreigners and almost no trust toward the other local followers when they are new believers, to the great detriment of church formation. We have to constantly push against this. It came down to the night before the baptism before they finally agreed the whole church (including all six locals or so) was welcome to attend.

By this point we were well aware of another cultural dynamic that was probably making them feel uncomfortable about their pending dunking. In this culture, it’s very important that men who are not relatives never see a woman wet, whether that’s swimming, wearing wet hair from a shower, etc. Wet hair and clothes are viewed as very sensual. So baptism, where a woman is publicly soaking wet, is the kind of event that could lead to strong feelings of shame, of dishonorably exposing oneself, a wife, sister, or daughter to the eyes of unrelated men. Families and close relatives go swimming together all the time, but its extremely rare for unrelated locals to be at a mixed-gender swimming locale. Because of this, all of the hotels have gender-segregated swimming hours.

To anticipate this fear and objection, our default has been to offer gender-specific baptisms, where the women only are present for the women going under and the men only are present for the men. Afterward, once the newly-baptized one has put on dry clothes and dried or covered their wet hair, all the believers celebrate together. I’ve heard that the early church in some places had similar practices for men and women and that the role of deaconess was mainly about modestly helping women with baptismal rites. When we extended this offer of keeping the genders separate, the couple pursuing baptism were noticeably relieved.

The morning of the baptism came and the members of the little church parked on the street and filed into the garage, beaming and shushing one another so that we wouldn’t make too much commotion for the neighbors. Baptisms, tricky though they are, are always an exciting time. We all stood around talking and inspecting the pool and making sure the water was deep enough for someone to go fully under – we are Baptists after all. We talked through some details for the celebratory picnic to follow the baptism and then it was time to start. We motioned to the newly believing husband and wife that now was the time when all the men would head upstairs.

“Actually, we changed our mind.” The husband replied. “We know that for our culture we should separate the men and the women, that only relatives should be present for a time like this.”

We all nodded and he continued.

“But you have told us that we are family now, that through Jesus we are family with every other believer here. So we want the men and the women to stay for both of our baptisms.”

Surprised, we pressed to make sure they really meant it. Then we shrugged our shoulders and proceeded. As foreigners, we try to walk wisely in how much we try to change certain cultural practices that we might not prefer, but which are not sin. But when the locals insist that they desire to go against the grain of the culture for the sake of Jesus and the church, that’s not the time to pull out our lines about missions methodology. That’s the time to support our brothers and sisters in their risky decision.

Due to the trickiness of getting someone all the way down, under, and back up when baptizing in a shallow kids pool, we’ve come to adopt the method of having two individuals do the actual dunking, while a third reads out the gospel questions and makes the Trinitarian baptism declaration. While we stumbled into this practice, we came to really appreciate the corporate nature of it, where the honor and authority (and physical weight) of the baptism can be spread out between three believers. This gives us a good chance to undermine any competitive “my baptizer was better than your baptizer” nonsense that can often crop up. And it visibly communicates equality of spiritual authority between the foreigner and the local if both are involved in physically laying the new believer in their watery “grave.” Locals want the foreigners to do all the baptizing. Missiologists want the foreigners to never do the baptizing. We’ve settled into a middle way.

The husband and wife both went under the water and came back out, gasping and all smiles. The ladies were lightning quick to wrap the wife in a towel as soon as she came up. The church members, far from acting awkward, burst out in their favorite worship song. At that point everyone there was fine with the neighbors being suspicious. Rejoicing had become far more important. Everyone shared their warm congratulations with their sister and brother, using those familial terms in an intentional and kind way. They were getting it – the church is the new family of God.

Then, because we’re in Central Asia, we went upstairs to drink chai, and to commence with the honorable haggling over picnic logistics.

Photo by Vince Fleming 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

Photo by jules a. 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.

Photo by Tory Doughty on Unsplash

The Greatest Social and Cultural Transformation

I’m currently on a trip to my previous city and engaged in multiple days of back-to-back visiting. So I will likely be writing a bit less this week and instead posting a few articles that I have found very influential over the years.

This first one addresses the very relevant question of how missionaries can achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation. Should they make this kind of transformation a direct focus of their work or should they only focus on the “spiritual” work and trust that the transformation will follow in due time? In this article, John Piper comments on the research of J. Dudley Woodberry. Woodberry’s stunning thesis in his project, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” is to show that the historic presence of conversionary protestants is the most important variable in whether a society has developed a free and democratic society or not. When these conversionary protestants focused primarily on preaching the gospel and planting churches, significant social change was the consistent result. Piper says,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

I live and work in a part of the world where we have many acute social needs. There are a thousand good causes I could devote my time to and if I did this many people would find real and meaningful help. So why do I spend so much time studying language and focusing on sharing the gospel, discipling believers, and ultimately, planting churches? How can I do this work in good conscience when my place of service is full of honor killings, FGM, refugees, genocide-related trauma, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking, and dozens of other issues that desperately require reform?

This article and the accompanying research help provide data that accompany the conviction that it is not unfaithful to focus on church planting in such a context. It is in fact the truest path toward true and lasting reform.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Please Don’t Call It An Interview

For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.

“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.

“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.

“Yes…”

“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.

“How so?”

“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”

I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”

Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”

I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”

Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”

“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”

“Really? Why?”

Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”

“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”

“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”

“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”

“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”

I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.

Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”

Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.

For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.

And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.

*names changed for security

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

From All Nations To All Nations

Last week a local believer surprised us, asking to spend a couple nights with us as he waited for his university dorm to open. We were heading into a needed slower weekend after a very busy week. So we had to take a minute to wrestle with whether our family could absorb the good cost of overnight hosting in the local fashion – where chai and conversation often last until well after midnight. In the end, my wife and I decided it would be the right kind of sacrificial call to make. We’ve learned the importance of making these kinds of calls together, even though it’s a little weird in local culture for me to tell a friend I’ll call him back rather than just immediately extending gushing invitations of welcome. But ministry can be quite costly to family, and unity between spouses is essential for navigating when and how to absorb those costs.

This particular young man has been a fun example of providence for me. Years ago I met him in a bookshop in our previous city. He shared with me that he and some of his high school buddies ran a philosophy discussion group in their very conservative Islamic city. I had felt keenly that this was the kind of group I should try to visit, but I had never followed up on the opportunity. Nevertheless, his number remained in my phone and his unique name in my mind. A few years later we had returned from six months in the US and had moved to a different city. At our first visit to the international church here, who should walk up to me at the end of the service? This very same young man – now a professing follower of Jesus. I don’t know how, but I knew I would run into you again, I thought to myself.

During my friend’s stay with us we talked a lot about his work with local radio stations – including our only local Christian radio station. He shared with me how our newly completed audio bible in the local language was recorded at their studio. This project is worthy of celebration since so many of the women in our adopted country are illiterate and much of the general population is only functionally literate – meaning they will never read a book for fun or personal interest. Having the whole Bible now freely available via radio or a free smartphone app means access to the word of God just increased exponentially.

“You know what really surprised me?” my friend said to me. “The project was funded by churches in Africa. How can that be?”

I was thrilled to learn about this aspect of the project. How amazing that African churches have just funded an audio bible for my Central Asian Muslim people group! I’ve never heard about this direction of partnership for the work here before, but it seems like an exciting preview of things to come. I proceeded to explain to my friend about the massive Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa and how I have heard it is set to become a major force and sending base for global missions. This was brand new information for my friend and he leaned in as I explained how the Church in the global south is in many ways the future center of global Christianity. The Church in the West may be declining or plateauing, but God is raising up churches all around the world to fill the gap.

In our previous city we partnered closely with a Mexican family. Their unique strengths were key to our fledgling church plant getting up and off the ground. We were able to lean on them for the areas of working in the local culture where we as Westerners were weaker – and vice versa. When that term came to an end I took a couple seminary classes while in the US. In both of my classes was a student from the very same country in Melanesia where I had grown up. Turns out he had been discipled by a pastor my own dad had discipled before he passed away. Now this man had been sent to get further seminary-level training. His dream is to return and start the first seminary in the country in order to train future pastors and missionaries. I watch with gratitude on social media as Melanesian guys I played volleyball with at Easter Camp are already going out and planting churches locally and even ministering in neighboring nations. Back here in our Central Asian context, it’s not uncommon to hear of cross-cultural workers from Asia and Latin America who have come to also see the Church take root here.

What an exciting time to be a part of global missions. Many countries and people groups that used to receive missionary church planters and Bible translators are now organizing to themselves send workers to the unreached people groups of the world. It’s often messy. We learned some hard lessons about how difficult it can be to have to contextualize to two foreign cultures at once, trying to keep in mind both local Central Asian and partner Hispanic culture. I can only imagine the epic culture clash if someday my Melanesian friends come as workers to Central Asia. “My grandpa was a cannibal” meets “My grandpa was a terrorist.” Sparks will certainly fly at times. And yet the advantages far outweigh the costs. The picture alone which is painted for our local friends is spiritually powerful. I relished every opportunity I had to point to our former partners’ ethnicity and our ethnicity and the locals’ ethnicities, holding up the supra-cultural power of the gospel for every people group of the world. “They’re Mexican, we’re American, you’re Central Asian. Look at the power of Jesus to save us and make us into a new people!”

I don’t know yet which churches from which African country funded our local audio Bible. But I praise God for them. Only the proud feel threatened when new regions of the world get involved in the missionary task. Many of us simply rejoice. Blessed reinforcements with unique strengths and needed experience! The promises of God are coming true. If all the unreached people groups of the world are to be saturated with healthy churches, it will have to be through a combined effort of the global church sending workers to the areas of greatest need. No longer mainly the West to the rest. Instead, all nations to all nations.

Photo by Arpit Rastogi on Unsplash