What? You say I’ve just been peeling onions for five years?
Local Oral Tradition
This is an idiom to pull out when a friend seems a little too surprised that you’ve actually been productive or gotten a lot done. “You were expecting something else? Whaddya think we’re doin’ round here?”
I have in fact not been as consistent blogging this past month as I had hoped. Our move to our previous city and the time it took finding and setting up a new house was more work than I expected. But we have been working hard! No peeling onions going on around here, I can assure you of that. I am however looking forward to a more steady schedule now and a return to more consistent writing. After a year of blogging almost daily, it was interesting to have a few weeks where I wasn’t. I truly missed it. And that itself is clarifying and reassures me that this was not just a good one year experiment, but something I’m supposed to give myself to for the long haul.
There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.
We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.
None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.
Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.
No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.
Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.
Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.
As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.
If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.
Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.
A local friend just struck a major deal with a big media company here. As a friend and possible participant in some of his projects, I was invited into a couple of the meetings. It was fascinating to observe because the method of how to pitch an idea here is the exact opposite of the way Westerners typically do it.
In the West, we make sure our research and proposal is in order, then we might do a small pilot project and try to build things from the ground up and to provide a demonstration. We do the research and detailed prep first and that’s how we get the credibility and approval to go official. It’s a process rooted in meritocracy. Here, you meet with the important potential patron first, gain their trust relationally, then once they give you the go ahead, you go and figure the details out. You can’t begin your research until someone with some societal clout has given you permission to do so. It’s a process rooted in patronage.
A few years ago I visited a ruined Christian monastery with a local friend. I was curious about what the locals in the nearby town knew about this historic site. I had stumbled upon some recent archaeological research claiming that this was a monastery and citadel built around the year AD 500 and destroyed about five hundred years later. First, we visited a local religious leader, an important mullah. Even though his mosque was just down the road from this site, he knew very little about it. Most locals believed it to be an old Zoroastrian or Islamic site. The mullah did know that a few years previously a team had dug up two bodies which had been buried facing Jerusalem, not Mecca. He said that strengthened the case for it being a Christian or Jewish site.
Next we paid the mayor of this small town a visit. With it being a sleepy summer afternoon, I didn’t think anything of dropping by this government office to introduce ourselves, have a cold cup of water, and ask a few friendly questions. After all, my friend and I were respectable English teachers, an honorable profession in this part of the world. The mayor knew even less about the site than the mullah did, but we had a seemingly friendly conversation nonetheless. Still, it amazed me that the leaders of this community had no idea about the important historical site that sat right next to their town. I indicated that I hoped to do more research on the site in the future.
Upon leaving, the mayor motioned to us,
“Let me give you some advice. The next time you go around asking questions, make sure you have an official letter saying that you are approved to do so.”
His comment caught me off-guard. Approval to ask questions? Isn’t it my right to ask questions and do research and hold off on the approvals until I’m actually ready to commit to something? Not in Central Asia. Here you have to get permission to even ask the questions.
I saw this same dynamic working out this week as my friend met with this company’s CEO. Once he earned his trust and gained approval, the sky was the limit. He had secured a patron, so my friend wasn’t concerned about cost or details. There was abundant time now to figure that out. The most important piece was in place – the relationship with the CEO.
My friend’s team, a motley crew of very young and diverse Westernized locals, were nervous about the lack of detail. Interestingly, they had assimilated enough to global culture to understand the steps of the process to be backward – as I had with the monastery. But having gone through that experience with the mayor and run it by a good many locals for understanding, I was able to calm the team down. My friend and the CEO were operating in a tried and true Central Asian process, almost a dance, where a potential patron and a client explore forming a new working relationship. That relationship now agreed upon, the cornerstone for all the other work was now in place.
Now, they had their “letter.” The patron had been assured of their loyalty and of the potential for them to do good work. He had promised them his full backing. So now, they could go get to work on the details.
Paul worked very hard at Thessalonica at his profession (tentmaking) so that he would not be a financial burden to the church while he was there. The church at Philippi had sent Paul financial assistance when he was working in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15); perhaps the financial assistance from Philippi was at the beginning of his ministry, functioning as “seed money” allowing Paul to rent a shop and purchase raw materials. Although shops sometimes were open in the late afternoon for more leisurely browsing, the average Roman merchant worked intensely in the six hours before noon and then closed the shop. Daylight was the main requirement for conducting business; hours would be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Paul reminds the church that he even worked when most places were closed for the evening. By using the plural “we,” he implies that Timothy and Silas worked with him. This would have been a good model of Gentile-Jewish cooperation for Thessalonian believers and may have been part of the reason the Jews in the city were upset with him. He also may have “outworked” the competition, and financial envy perhaps contributed to opposition to the apostle.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1779
Living in Central Asia, where the bazaar/market is a prominent feature of every city, Paul keeping his shop open after the others have closed is a vivid picture – and a challenging example. These notes on this passage (1 Thess 2:9) are helpful biblical background when considering the issues of contemporary tent-making and supporting locals.
A local friend of mine invited me to his birthday party a few years ago. I was excited to get the invitation, since this was a good friend who had once professed faith, but had sadly been drifting away for years. He was one of many young men in our Central Asian city who had eagerly identified as a Christian in the first wave of house churches planted, only to grow cynical after they imploded. Many of this first generation of believers have fallen away and no longer claim faith in Jesus. Others hold out, but are determined to never gather with other locals again. Such is the devastation wrought when new churches are destroyed by domineering leadership, outside money, power conflicts, and prosperity theology. The foundation wasn’t deep enough when the missionaries (eager to not be paternalistic) went home. Little today remains of that budding movement of house churches once touted as a great success.
Right as things were falling apart, a new group of missionaries arrived and got to work opening an English center. They were to become close partners for my team when we arrived some years later. The birthday party I attended took place after about a decade of steady labor by these partners, a point that I think should not be lost in the account to follow. In the wake of the collapse of generation one, our partners faithfully taught English, learned the local language, and told people about Jesus. When this birthday party took place, I had probably only been teaching at that particular center for two years. I have since realized just how well set up I was by the labors of this partner team.
Our local Central Asian people group is very much into Instagram-worthy birthday party celebrations. At this particular party (where everyone was dressed seemingly for prom) they included candles that were essentially fireworks and a gorgeous cake that tasted like cardboard – the norm, sadly. While the smoke was still hanging in the air and the world-conquering “Happy Birthday” song had been sung in our local tongue, one of the guests approached me.
“So, you teach at the _____ English Center, right?”
“Yes, I do! You have heard of it?” I asked.
“Of course I have! All over the city people say that there is no better place to learn the English language. Tell me, what’s your secret?”
“Well,” I said, “All of our teachers are native English speakers, so that’s part of it. But our teachers also have a culture of spending time with their students, even outside the classroom. It’s normal for us to go to the tea houses with our students and to go on picnics with them. This kind of relational and conversational way of learning English has a big effect. We’re not like some other foreigners that you only see in the classroom, but not in the bazaar.”
“I see,” my questioner said, narrowing his eyes and leaning in. “But I also hear that you can learn about Jesus there.”
I wasn’t sure where this man was coming from. Could he be a seeker? A Salafi? Unlikely in his spiffy suit. A member of the secret police? Thankfully, I don’t remember my anxiety spiking, as sometimes happens when it feels like someone is trying to “out” our work as missionaries in a country where it is illegal. This time I felt a welcome confidence and a clear mind. Perhaps it was the effect of the gunpowder birthday candles, or just a simple Spirit-given calm.
“You are right that all of our teachers are followers of Jesus, true Christians. And this makes a huge difference in how we teach, because we genuinely love our students as God has loved us. When teachers truly love their students in this way, of course their students are going to learn well.”
My new friend smiled and seemed to accept this answer. I invited him to visit our center soon, but I’m not aware that he ever took me up on the offer. To this day I don’t know exactly where he was going with his questions, but I’ve often remembered that conversation as I’ve thought about what it means to do “platform,” or tent-making work, well as a missionary – or even how to work any job for the glory of God.
This man may have not intended this, but he paid our English Center two huge compliments, all the more so because many would view his observations as being in opposition to each other. Sometimes we are faced with a false choice – either work excellently and leave the witnessing to non-business hours, or we just do what it takes to get by with the platform, focusing instead on sharing the gospel. Because it could be used by the secret police to shut us down, we tried not to share the gospel too explicitly in our English Center, but we also had a softball policy. If someone lobs you one, hit it out of the park and trust God with the consequences. Plus, even though not always sharing explicit gospel, we labored to model Christian character and alluded to God’s word as much as we could in the classroom and in our discussion groups.
To be known all over the city as offering an excellent product and to be known as a place where people can learn about Jesus – that’s just about as ideal a reputation as you could ask for when running a business or NGO among an unreached people group. Our partners had truly done some great work. And my fellow guest at the birthday party may never know it, but he has helped me better frame my goals for my new team’s current and future platforms: How can we offer an excellent product that gives glory to God? And how can we be the subjects of good gossip as those who can help others know more of Jesus? We don’t have to choose one over the other.
I remember NPR doing an interview with a coffeeshop in our home city in the US. The owners were Christians and NPR showed up because, along with winning national awards, this coffeeshop had a steady presence of Christians and those becoming Christians. Some locals murmured about it being “a front” for evangelicals. There was suspicion that conspiracy was afoot.
The owner responded to the NPR interviewer with wisdom and truth.
“We are Christians, so we are motivated by the glory of God. Of course, that affects the quality of each drink that we make and the care we put into it! And this naturally leads to good conversations about our product and about who we are as well.”
Exactly. No conspiracy. Just good Christian work, done to the glory of God – and the kind of reputations that follow.