We recently had a mini team retreat where we looked into the spiritual gifting and personality wiring of the different members on our team. At one point, one of my teammates quoted me as once telling him, “You have the strengths you do for a good reason. Sooner or later, they will save the day. We need your gifts, honestly, so that we won’t die!”
While we had a good laugh together about this particular melodramatic wording, I honestly stand by these words. Not only do I recognize the goodness of the diverse natural and spiritual gifts on my team, I need them. Even if we weren’t engaged in church planting somewhere like Central Asia. My belief in the sovereignty of God is such that I know that he has brought these particular teammates, for this particular season, because their gifts and strengths will be the key to making it through tricky and terrible situations. When I will not know how to thread the needle, when I simply won’t know what to do or what to say – somehow, one of them will. And it will make all the difference.
Consider this quote by Corrie Ten Boom: “This is what the past is for! Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives is the perfect preparation for the future that only He can see.”
I don’t think this is only true for experience and persons in our lives, but also for the natural personalities that God has given us as well as the supernatural gifts he has bestowed.
This is nothing other than a practical outworking of the sovereignty of God and theology of spiritual gifts. This is “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” meets “all things work together for good” (1 Cor 12:7, Rom 8:28).
Persecution is coming. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are coming. Suffering, awakening, complexity, breakthrough. How can I wish that you be just like me when I know that our differences are divinely ordained in order that we might face these challenges faithfully?
No, if everyone on my team was wired just like me, we would all die prematurely – metaphorically, and perhaps even literally.
This is true in general, but also true of my specific wiring. I have been created an ideas/vision guy. My brain gets flooded with hundreds of possible futures for the work here, most of which we can never pursue, and some that should never pursue. The problem is, in the beginning all of these ideas make a stunning and powerful rush on my brain, as if dazzlingly bright and accompanied by the Hallelujah chorus and rows of Central Asian picnic line dancers. And yet, they often turn out to be duds, or at least to be decent ideas that have not yet found their proper time. (Idea people out there, please find a place to store your ideas so that you can manage this issue, for everyone’s sake. I use the app, Trello. Time to marinate is key here.)
Should we quietly develop a legal network of friendly lawyers and judges in anticipation of coming persecution? Yes. Good idea, but premature timing. We don’t have the capacity or know-how yet for this. Should we start an illegal pork-smuggling operation in order to support local believers who have lost their jobs? Um… better take that one back to the drawing board.
My team (and my spouse) are my invaluable friends who help me know how to wisely move forward, in all kinds of situations, because Christ has ascended and has given them gifts (Eph 4:8).
Whatever our cooperative situation with other believers – be it church membership, ministry, the workplace, the family – let’s strive to more often view others through the lenses of sovereign gifts that might at some point save the day.
“Wow, you have learned our language! That’s great. Those _______ people live here for decades and never learn the language. They are fathers-of-dogs! You know that word, right? Fathers-of-dogs, am I not right? Hahaha!”
The high ranking security police officer was egging me on to join him in his racist jokes. While I appreciated the goodwill built by his appreciation of our language learning, I wasn’t thrilled that the conversation had taken this turn. I didn’t engage, and thankfully, he turned to his supervising officer for affirmation, and then stamped our paperwork.
In other circumstances I’ve sometimes been bold enough to offer a proverb as a rebuke to these kinds of comments. “As your people say, Don’t burn the wet wood with the dry wood.” This day I hesitated, not sure whether to take that route with this high-ranking official, and the moment passed.
Our focus people group, like all people groups in the world, struggles with the sin of racism. In years past, they were the oppressed, and hated their oppressors en masse. Now, the tables have turned in our region, and they still hate with a vengeance that very same people group – who have now become the oppressed.
Our focus people group’s racism has roots in legitimate grievances. Genocide. Betrayal. Blood feuds. War. Enslavement. Now, the formerly dominant people group also carries legitimate grievances from the injustices committed against them more recently by people like the officials we dealt with that day. They even had some legitimate grievances when they were the oppressors. Whichever position a group is currently in, the sins of the oppressed and the oppressor tend to intermingle in a tangled web of historical chicken and egg accusations.
How far back shall we go? If we stop keeping score at a certain point in history, is that not an arbitrary decision? If we stop where the records stop, is that not to naively proclaim the oppressed group at that point uniquely innocent in the history of humanity – that the absence of records proves that they alone did not do the very same things that every temporarily dominant group tends to do? Is not every people group – in the broad lens of history – simply another representative of this great democracy of the damned? For yes, all people groups have sinned grievously against others and fall short of the glory of God.
But these questions are not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a subtle danger faced by missionaries everywhere, and especially by those working with historically oppressed groups. The danger is that in our love for our people group, we will go beyond appropriate empathy, lament, and action – and begin to absorb some of their racist views and attitudes.
It’s very easy to do. As a cross-cultural worker you strive to love your focus people group so much that you actually become like them. You strive to put on their language, culture, and lifestyle to the extent that you are personally and biblically able. The momentum is in the direction of absorbing huge portions of the cultural cake. But here’s the problem. Racism always comes baked into that cake. And sometimes we ingest it.
In our context, we find ourselves starting with a preference for how our focus people group does things (granted that we come out of culture shock alright). Then, that preference starts to mutate into feelings of judgement when we see how the enemy people group does things. Before long we find stereotypes coming true in our own experience and realize that have to check ourselves. If our jokes and our attitudes and our side comments about those people groups begin coming out slanted, it likely means our hearts have already followed our local friends’ into dangerous places.
How can we fight this momentum such that going deep into a certain language and culture doesn’t mean taking on its unique racist tendencies? A few practical suggestions. Believe and preach what the Bible says about how the gospel overcomes racial animosity. Pursue relationships with at least a few members of that “enemy” group. And finally, aim to plant multi-ethnic churches.
The Scriptures are not silent about the power of the gospel to overcome deep-seated hatred between oppressed and oppressor people groups. The fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish Christians into local churches in the early church is what precipitated and resulted from passages like Ephesians 2, where Paul celebrates how the gospel has torn down “the dividing wall of hostility” between the Gentiles and the Jews. In Acts, the inclusion of the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Gentiles in chapter 10 is intentional, and would have been a shocking racial development for the mainstream cultures on both sides. And it’s not like they then self-filtered into homogeneous groups. The diverse leaders of the Antioch church in chapter 13 and the ongoing conflicts present in books like Romans tell us otherwise. Jews and Gentiles, oppressed and oppressors, became fellow church members. Believing and preaching these kinds of possibilities for current people groups that hate each other provides the knowledge and passion that can mount an effective defense against absorbed racism taking root.
I was once in a taxi with a group of friends from an international church. When I spoke to the taxi driver in the local language, he went down the typical road of complementing me and proceeding to throw millions from his enemy people group under the bus as idiots who don’t learn the language. “Yet I’m one of them,” a voice piped up from inside the taxi, speaking in the local language. I suddenly remembered that one of the passengers in the car with us was a believer from the enemy people group. I’m not sure what I was about to say in response, but I remember feeling very certain that it would not have been as respectful as it should have been for a member of that group to be in the car with us. This was a bit jarring, realizing that my friendship with this man (and his presence) caused me to alter my response so much for that taxi driver. But it was also very healthy check. Knowing this young man meant I was able to better humanize his people group in that encounter. Knowing him as a brother in the faith meant the family honor was on the line. This is exactly why we need to pursue relationships with the enemies of our focus communities. Their faces and their names will serve as vital safeguards against absorbing our adopted group’s racism.
Finally, the danger of putting on the sinful racial attitudes of our focus people group calls for the long-term goal of planting multi-ethnic churches, where former enemies can worship side by side. Planting language-specific churches is very appropriate. A common language means biblical church order can actually take place. And as a language learner myself, I testify that no one should be forced to worship God in another’s language. Doing so should only be embraced by free choice, as we have done. For groups that have experienced suppression of their language, a language-specific church is even more vital. But if enemy people groups or individuals share significant linguistic overlap, then working toward local churches that display the broken wall of hostility should be our aim. Just like the New Testament church, if we live in a context of diverse groups at enmity with one another, we should strive to be able to verbally and visually proclaim that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
We don’t have to absorb the prejudice and racism of our adopted people groups. We shouldn’t strive to become like them in that way. Yes, the temptation is real – and subtle. Fear of man, love for our people group, and our own natural tendencies all push us into an unhealthy worldview where other groups are viewed as less human than the one we are called to. But this can, and should be fought. After all, the dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed. And so we are free. Free to love the oppressors. Free to love the oppressed. Free to guard against burning the wet wood with the dry.
Locals have a very aggressive way of pruning their fruit trees. At the very end of fall, the old men with their sickle sticks make their rounds again – and leave the trees naked for the winter. We were not in our current house this past winter, but we saw the effects of the lack of pruning on our loquat tree. Yes, this late spring it had several weeks of the yellow/orange fruit. It was fun while it lasted. One morning I triumphantly plucked my breakfast straight from the tree. But the neighbors’ trees had four times as much fruit for twice as long! Next winter, I’m getting an old man to come prune my trees. I will endure the sad loss of branches and leaves for the hope of the coming harvest.
Two months ago we gathered for the last time as members with the international church in our previous city. As we prepared to move, leaving this dear body of believers was one of the hardest parts. Seldom have I heard of another international church like this one. It is both serious about becoming a healthy biblical church and at the same time practical and devoted to serving cross-cultural missionaries like us in planting language-specific churches. Many international churches do not embrace a robust church planting vision for the local population in their host countries. Or, in the name of serving the broader expat community, many others settle for lowest common denominator doctrine and ecclesiology. But not all. There is a small but encouraging movement afoot, begun in the UAE twenty years or so ago, that is dotting this region of the world with a different breed of international churches. In my opinion as a cross-cultural missionary, this is one important part of a broader strategy to reach regions like ours with the gospel.
When we were new members at this church, we got to be a part of their first church discipline vote. Now, this is not at face value a very encouraging thing. Though commanded in scripture in passages like Matthew 18, church discipline is hard, messy, and costly. As such, it is largely absent from the evangelical missions world – despite being practiced by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and others of our forerunners.
How exactly church discipline should get worked out in church planting situations is complicated, and there is a great need for research and thinking to be done about how to actually do this. As with many areas of ecclesiology, it’s gets muddy when you are seeking to plant the first healthy church ever among a certain people group – in situations that we call “zero to one.” How do you do church discipline when you haven’t been able to raise up local pastors/elders, and the church plant is led by temporary-apostolic-planter-pastor types like us? How do you discipline when you haven’t had a chance yet to teach on church membership and roll out a size and culture-appropriate expression of the inside-outside principle for biblical congregations? Yet the complications don’t erase the biblical commands nor the realities on the ground. For a tree to be healthy and fruitful, it must be pruned. The same is true of the local church – and church plants. After all, Paul’s letters were written to situations not too different from ours, to first generation believers who worshiped in church planting contexts.
In our first term we got burned by these very complexities. A local leader-in-training turned out to be a very divisive and deceitful man, who was bribing and dangerously misleading new believers. When our team wanted to move against him in order to protect the church plant, we were undermined by our conservative evangelical partners who didn’t feel that church discipline would “work” in this culture. Turns out the line of those who will actually do church discipline and who won’t is another crucial one which, in terms of practice, divides Bible-believing evangelicals. When it comes down to it, many biblical innerantists on the mission field won’t actually obey the Bible on this front. When you are dealing with a wolf, this is deadly.
Even among those of us who felt that we were dealing with a Titus 3 “divisive man,” we were very unsure of how to proceed in a new church plant that was not yet quite a church. We were caught flat-footed, and this skilled manipulator had lots of room to run circles around us, at great cost. Just the other day I was exploring the bazaar and happened to find the tailor shop of a new believer who fell away in that season, one of the first victims of that whole debacle. I don’t know if he’s open to relationship with us again, but now that we know where his shop is we can try to rekindle that connection.
All of this context is why were were both grieved and encouraged that the international church was moving forward to discipline one of their few local members. This young man had stopped coming to the church gathering for about a year and was unrepentant in the face of earnest counsel to return to his spiritual family. Hiking was more important than his church, and it appeared that his faith had been like the seed sown on shallow soil. He was simply over Jesus, and he was OK with that. We prayed for him to repent and waited patiently, but when the members meeting arrived we sought to be faithful to Jesus by declaring this man an unbeliever and no longer a member of our body.
As we reflected on what happened that day, we realized that this local man may have been the first person in our focus people group to be church disciplined for a thousand years. Or perhaps ever. There was a significant presence of ancient Christians in this area, and they did practice excommunication at times, so I can’t positively say he was the first. But likely the first for a millennium. A tragic distinction for him. But a courageous step for the international church. It would have been so easy to excuse away patterned unrepentant sin because as a local he was coming from an unchurched background, because locals are more resistant to the gospel, because their culture means they don’t understand church discipline, etc. But instead of going these routes, the church leadership and body stepped out in faith, obeyed the Scriptures, and pruned the tree.
The aim of healthy church discipline is always restoration – that those disciplined would wake up and respond in true repentance and faith. We pray that this young man would do this. But we also know that healthy church planting here will involve many more situations like this one. Every time will be a challenge. Will we believe and obey the Scriptures when both our culture and our adopted culture find it unpalatable? When local believers and other evangelicals tell us not to? We must. This is simply what faithfulness in church planting looks like. Holding fast to the commands of Christ, come what may.
We must model for the local believers how to prune the church as they model for us how to prune our fruit trees. To be faithful gardeners, we must endure the sadness of the pruning for the hope of the abundant fruit that will result.
Next spring I hope for many more loquats. And next decade? Many more brothers and sisters in the faith.
“Your pastors aren’t paid by the government?!” Our friend’s language teacher was in shock. He had never heard anything like this. “So how do they make a living?”
“By the faithful giving of the church members,” said our friend. More astonishment followed.
The longer we live in Central Asia, the more we realize that we are living in a different financial universe when it comes to money and religious institutions.
The local religious leaders are salaried by the government, as long as they are part of one of the officially approved religions. This means a somewhat secure income – but also government control.
Local religious institutions themselves are also given a monthly stipend from the government, even those institutions which would otherwise have died long ago – such as a Sufi-dervish branch I visited this past week. The Sufis (Islamic mystics) were the most powerful group here for about 1,000 years. But sometime in the past century their power collapsed. My local friends say it’s because so much of their teaching and practice was based on tradition and personality, as opposed to the more text-based Sunni Islam exported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia since the early 20th century. But it’s that monthly government stipend that keeps them holding on. The few members of their branches get a cut of that stipend, and so they keep coming back, chanting, and talking about the glory days. The government for their part gets a friendlier group than the more militancy-prone Salafis, who are growing exponentially here based on a strong mix of ideology and funding.
As long as there were melons, the relatives were score. But now the melons have run out, the relatives are no more. So goes a local proverb that seeks to explain how many locals’ loyalty is dependent on a basic monthly payout.
This type of top-down money scheme is carried into the church when locals come to faith. Many are offended to not be given monthly cash for simply being faithful attendees. And watch out if you hire an unbeliever for that development job instead of a local believer – that is viewed as akin to betrayal.
As far as sacrificial giving that could fund a local pastor – that’s going to take some time to be understood and actually put into practice. In fact, we have never had a financially independent local church in the three decades that missions has been taking place here. The patron-client worldview means local believers give their time and loyalty to a certain missionary, group, or church, and then often expect to receive cash and favors of influence in return. For many locals this is self-evident, just the way the world runs.
There are also wild stories believed among the locals about the missionaries’ financial situation. $25,000 payout per baptism is one of the more extreme ones that I’ve personally been accused of. Even this past week a dear brother was shocked to learn that healthy organizations don’t tie higher or lower salaries to results.
“You mean to tell me that if a foreigner’s church plant falls apart, he’ll still get the same salary?” he asked, incredulous. I just shook my head and attempted to carefully explain that a fair income for a sent-out one should be tied to faithfulness, not to ministry results. It was the first time he had ever considered this.
The widespread assumption here is that numbers, events, and baptisms equal top-down, outside money. Some of this is the fault of this cultural context, as I’ve been describing here. But some of it is also the fault of evangelical organizations that have come in and splashed money around carelessly, not realizing the harmful precedents they are setting. While many locals fall into these issues simply for lack of discipleship, others have also learned to play the game. Western pastors who visit our region are a favorite target. In a one-week trip, the visitors are dazzled – and financial commitments follow. The long-term missionaries who try to follow up on these “high-impact” groups often find they have already been shattered by conflicts over money – leaving believers embittered and unwilling to gather with others.
These problems are deep-rooted, and won’t go away overnight. But there is a quiet transformative power that comes from biblical, congregational churches – where members learn to work hard and give generously, to decide together, even to discipline together. This bottom-up participatory Christianity has overcome honor-shame patron-client cultures before, such as that of ancient Rome and that of the American South (See the writings of David A. Desilva and Gregory Wills, respectively). If this kind of faith truly takes root here, we can expect similar reform to eventually take place.
In the meantime we’re going to have to get really explicit when it comes to how the local church should handle money. When living in different financial universes, assumptions are highly combustible. Somehow in security-sensitive contexts like ours, we’re going to have to find ways to say, “No pastor or missionary should ever get money for a baptism – ever! If they do, they are dangerous and a wicked example.”
Work hard. Give generously. Support your own pastor. Serve the poor. Fund your own cross-cultural workers. These are our dreams for the local churches here. There are no short-cuts to these outcomes. Outside money will always be quicker and easier. But it will keep the churches here from reaching adulthood. Bottom-up congregational giving, on the other hand, will lead to a beautiful maturity.
We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.
“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”
My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.
“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”
It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.
It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.
It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.
What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are?What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?
I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.
But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.
For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).
We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.
Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.
Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?
Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.