No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

A Bible in your own language

A Russian Orthodox Church at St Andrew's Monastery, Moscow

A Russian Orthodox Church at St Andrew’s Monastery, Moscow

In the western world many of us take if for granted that we not only have the Bible in our own languages, but that we have many different version.  But imagine you live in a country which has been under the domination of an influential neighbour for centuries. Their language is the one you have to learn if you want to progress in education or business; yours is only spoken at home. Although they have brought you education, literacy and Christianity, you still feel a bit of an outsider. Although they send you their missionaries to tell you about God, and give you his book to read, it’s only available in their language. It’s not surprising to find that there can be resistance to the Gospel in cultures such as these.

Until a quarter of a century ago, that was the world of some 85 million people of the former Soviet Union who are not Russian, and who speak between them some 130 different languages. They include large people groups such as the Tajik, who now have their own country, and many tiny tribes in places like Siberia, Kamchatka or the Caucasus who struggle even to this day for the recognition of their indigenous culture, whether by the Russians or by another dominant people group. Indigenous languages and cultures struggle survive in a homogenising world where in order to get on, become educated, and trade prosperously people need to fit into larger groups. People often abandon their own roots because of their perceived need to adapt and progress.

But now imagine what it means to a person living in one of those places when a Bible in their own language is put into their hands. Often they are amazed that somebody cares about their culture enough to publish a book in it. One person even commented on opening it “God speaks my language!” over and over again. It radically transforms their impression of God into the one who has come into their world and values them and their identity.

This is at the heart of the work of the Institute for Bible Translation (IBT). Based in Moscow in a former monastery which was founded five centuries ago with the express purpose of organising the study of Greek and Slavonic texts to a high academic level and translating them into Russian, IBT now serves the many non-Slavic people of the former USSR who have no scripture in their own language. Having gone through the lengthy process of doing a proper technical translation, they also then publish the Word in the form of books, audio-Bibles and digital Bibles. The aim is to get the Bible into the hands of people who would otherwise have no access to it. Many of these people are Moslem, although some have traditional shamanistic beliefs.

Recognising that there may initially be resistance to their work, the early works that IBT focuses on include a Children’s Bible, and a book of local folk stories, which are illustrated wherever possible by local artists, in order to reinforce their cultural relevance. Proverbs often follows, because many Biblical proverbs mirror local wisdom and are readily accepted.  Since parents are often keen for their children to learn their own language so that it will survive, books that are targeted at children are very popular. To date, the Children’s Bible has been produced in more than 40 languages, with over 9 million copies in print.

When a specific book is complete, there is a presentation ceremony wherever this is possible. In minority communities, even those who are Moslem, this is often seen as an opportunity to celebrate and affirm their traditional culture. So the local president, or mayor, or even the imam may be a central figure in the presentation. At an event like this, one imam commented that he always uses the Bible to teach from in his mosque, because it is in his own language! He can’t understand the Quran, as he doesn’t speak Arabic. So there is immediate evangelistic potential from the publication of a Bible in their own language.

While there continue to be many challenges, the work of IBT is advancing the Gospel in the former Soviet Union. The church is being encouraged and built up, and the Gospel is coming for the first time to many people in their own language. One beneficiary of the work commented:

I beg you, whatever problems you might face, never stop your work. It’s very much needed; every book means a redeemed soul!

With a response like that to the work of IBT, there is clearly a major need for this work to keep on expanding. You can read more about this wonderful ministry, and contribute through prayer or giving at www.ibt.org.ru.

Is it time to move on?

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Countries of the 10/40 window, in blue

Which are the countries which have the smallest proportion of Christians?  Most of the candidates are debatable because it is hard to collect accurate statistics in them, and many believers will be keeping their heads down for fear of persecution.  But the answer is probably:

  • Western Sahara
  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia
  • Yemen
  • Maldives
  • Morocco
  • Mauritania

All of these countries have fewer than 0.5% Christians, and are closely followed by Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey.*  Many other countries in north Africa, central Asia and the middle east have fewer than 1% Christians.  None of these countries are places where it would be easy to be a mission worker, and in many of them, it could be fatal.  As it can be for the believers.

1112138276You might expect the bulk of the church’s mission work to focus on countries like these.  Even if it’s not easy for us to go as mission workers, it’s possible to go and start missional businesses such as teaching English or computing, introduce the nationals to Jesus while they are studying abroad in a more open country, and train locals remotely to witness to their own people.  We can broadcast the gospel into their countries – see the work of TWR Europe, FEBA or Sat 7 for example.  We can pray.  We can go on holiday there and try to be a subtle witness or engage in prayer ministry.  Some agencies, to be sure, are trying to get people into countries like these, but of course we can’t tell you who they are in these pages, though we salute the faith of the few who engage in such a dangerous calling.

Yet a list of the countries to which the UK sends most mission workers tells a different story.  We actually invest most of our missionary effort in countries where Christians are already in the majority.  The top five receiving countries are:

  • Kenya (79% Christian)
  • Brazil (91%)
  • France (68%)
  • Zambia (85%)
  • Spain (68%)

In total there are over 10,000 mission workers in these countries from all over the world.  It is perfectly legal to witness to people and to start a new church in each of these countries (though occasionally very difficult!).  Although many of the ‘Christians’ contained in the statistics may be nominal, with the exception of France and Spain they have strong evangelical churches which are able to shoulder the burden of mission, and in France the church, though still small, is growing strongly.

While there are nearly two billion people living in the 10/40 window who have never heard the gospel, thousands of completely unreached people groups elsewhere, and hundreds of ethnic minorities who have no access to the Bible in their own language, does this seem an appropriate use of our resources?  Ok, perhaps the Christians in those countries do not follow our particular brand of Christianity, but wouldn’t it be better for us to let the local church take over the task of witnessing to the lost?

Is the continuing presence of overseas mission workers in those countries actually preventing the indigenous church taking on more responsibility for evangelising their own people?

Time to move on?

Time to move on?

I know a lot of mission workers reading this will already be angry with this suggestion (thank you for making it this far!) and I recognise that there may be many people working in those countries who will be doing tasks the local church may not currently be equipped to do:

  • providing theological education
  • discipling a young and inexperienced church
  • using those countries as a base for reaching out into other less evangelised ones
  • working with unreached minority people groups
  • providing vital technical support such as bible translation.

There will be other valid reasons for mission workers to be there.  Or are these countries simply ones where we like to be mission workers?  But if 90% of us moved on to minister to an unreached people group or a country in the 10/40 window, that would mean an extra 9000 people freed up to reach the world’s least evangelised people.  That’s over 150 new mission workers in countries like Tajikistan, Laos and Algeria.

Of course it’s risky.  Even today mission workers are being martyred in the 10/40 window.  But that’s part of following Jesus, and despite the western world’s risk-averse policies, Jesus didn’t shrink from paying the ultimate price to show God’s love for the lost, and neither did the early church.

Maybe it’s time for us to move on to somewhere more needy.  Or is that a bit too uncomfortable for us to consider?

* This article has drawn heavily on Operation World for its statistics.  Find out more about this essential guide to prayer for the world at www.operationworld.org

Contextualisation

Contextualisation?  A 19th century church building in Malawi  (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

Contextualisation or blasphemy?

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!

Update on the Arab Spring

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

Two years on from the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it’s worth pausing to take stock of what has happened so far, particularly since recent the military conflict in Mali against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the ongoing civil war in Syria have drawn attention to the region once again.

Readers will recall that early in 2011 a democratic uprising in Tunisia, largely facilitated by the use of social media in organising, communicating and publicising, triggered a number of popular uprisings in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region.  Since then, not a single county in the region has been unaffected by some form of protest, and the ongoing conflicts continue to destabilise the entire region and threaten to spill over into west and central Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia.  Several countries have experienced major unrest and the results have been mixed – certainly not the democratic success that liberals were hoping for!  Here’s how they stack up:

Successful change of government: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen

Top down change in response to the uprising: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia

Civil war: Libya, Mali, Syria

Authoritarian crackdown: Bahrain

The key questions for us at Syzygy are not so much about the politics but about the impact of these disturbances on a) Christian mission and b) the national church.  It should be remembered that most of the countries in the NEMENA region were not particularly hospitable to Christians before the Arab Spring, and many of them had no significant Christian population.  Overt Christian mission was not possible in any of these countries.

1112138276The breakdown of law and order in the Arab Spring uprisings caused many mission agencies to withdraw their teams from most countries in the region in 2011.  The risks of becoming inadvertently caught up in the conflict, or of being specifically targeted by extremists were considered too great.  In many of these countries the overseas mission workers have still not returned, or if they have, their actions are hampered by the need to take security seriously.  This has an impact not only on their Christian witness, but on the vital humanitarian and development work they have been doing.

The prospects for the national church have been even worse.  The possibility of Sharia law being introduced (in Egypt for example) is a major threat to their ability to meet together openly and have their minority rights protected.  In the event of civil war the Christians are more vulnerable because often they are not able to rely on support from a wide family network (who may have ostracised them), or because they may be seen as covert allies of western democracies whose influence is opposed by Islamic extremists.  In Syria, where the minority Alawite regime has in the past been reasonably tolerant of Christians because they too were a minority, the rebels can even see the Christians as the enemy, particularly as they have not taken sides in the war.  There is nobody to protect the believers from extremists who want to lynch them and burn down their buildings.

Here are some recent headlines about what is still happening to the suffering church in the region:

  • Church burned, Christians stoned by Egyptian villagers (17th February)
  • Christians sentenced for (allegedly) proselytising in Algeria (13th February)
  • Christians in Sudan face victimisation by the Government (12th February)
  • Internally-displaced Christians in Mali face starvation (11th February)
  • Iraqi Patriarch claims Arab Spring resulting in bloodshed (9th February)
  • 200,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by war (1st February)

Yet God continues to do amazing things throughout the region.  There are reports of miraculous protection of Christians and church buildings.  Many people are finding Christ through the internet, or satellite tv and radio broadcasts.  We reported last year on ‘The Beautiful One’ who meets people in their dreams.  Nevertheless, as we observed on this website in 2011, these are precarious times for the church throughout the NEMENA region.

  • Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters, that their faith will be strengthened and they will be comforted in their suffering.
  • Pray that mission workers will feel assured of God’s protection, have wisdom in avoiding detection, and be able to get on with their ministries unencumbered.
  • Pray that revival will break out as people commit their lives to ‘The Beautiful One’.
  • Donate to Christian relief agencies providing humanitarian aid in the region.

Islam in central Asia

In 1991 when the USSR collapsed there was barely a hint of Islam in public life in the central Asian republics.  That was due, of course, to the seventy years of communist rule in which all religion was unlawful, barring the recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many cases was led by a KGB agent posing as a priest.

In the first year following the collapse of the USSR, all five republics declared their independence. This fresh independence brought with it a new constitution, which declared the freedom of religion.  Churches sprang up, reaching out both locally and to neighbouring countries.

By the mid 90’s there was a definite new presence of Islam.  Mosques began to reopen.  We began to hear rumours from local people that Iran was funding an underground Islamic movement throughout central Asia.  Throughout the later 90’s there was growing evidence of the growth of Islam throughout the region.  Islamic universities and seminaries were opened.  Calls to prayer were heard over loud speakers five times a day and men clad in long robes bowed in the streets by the hundreds on their prayer mats.  Those not participating were ridiculed and threatened.  More and more women were veiled and dressed in long robes down to their ankles.  Reports of abuse to women by their Islamic husbands became rampant.

Following 9/11 the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan and people from the north of the country began to flee across the borders into the  central Asian republics.  Most of the people were professing, if not practicing Muslims.  Christians seized the opportunity to begin sharing Jesus with the newly arrived refugees.  Hundreds of people came to know Jesus as a result.

The report of hundreds coming to know Jesus fuelled the hatred of Christians from the Islamic faction.  Throughout the region, as people are known to be Christians, they have difficulty in doing business in their communities, shunned by family and friends, bullied in the work place.   They are denied promotion at work or even fired from jobs.  Their children are ridiculed by classmates and often beaten themselves en route to and from school

In the late 90’s there began to be reports of beatings and people being stoned for their Christian faith.  By 2004 the reports were coming very nearly each month.  By 2007 the reports were weekly.  Today the reports are a daily occurrence.  I still remember vividly the time I met with pastors who had fresh bruises on their faces.  They had been beaten for their faith in Jesus.  In 2006 a pastor was shot for leading others to convert from Islam to Christianity.  In recent years some have been butchered and boiled.  The murder of Christians  is brutal and horrific and goes unpunished.

When I meet with these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, I often say to them that I’m praying for them and that I will share with the western church as I am able, so they too may pray.  They always answer with a request that the prayer be that they ‘stand strong in the face of persecution.’  I am often humbled and daunted that they never ask for prayer for the persecution to stop.  They consider it an honour to be identified with Jesus and also take it as an opportunity to share their faith even with their tormentors.  Ultimately they yearn with joyful longing to share in the glory of Jesus when they will see His face.

How can the western church pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout central Asia?  Their three requests are:

  • pray that they stand strong in the face of their persecution and bring honour to the name of Jesus.
  • pray for those that persecute them to come to know Jesus
  • pray for the western church to know that not only can Jesus meet all their needs – Jesus Himself is all they need and anything else is extra.

This report was prepared by a mission worker with extensive connections in central Asia, who for obvious reasons prefers to stay anonymous.

The Beautiful One

For a number of years, Christians have been amazed at the stories coming out of the Moslem world of people coming to faith in Christ as a result of having seen Jesus in a dream.  They call him ‘The Beautiful One’.  Many of us may have been sceptical at first, but in recent months the number of reports has increased significantly.

Although accurate reports are hard to get hold of, I heard of one church in a central Asian republic where 80% of the believers had come to faith following a dream.  There are stories of Imams having a dream and leading the entire congregation of the Mosque to Christ.  Just visit a well-known video hosting website and key in ‘dreams of Jesus’ and you will see numerous testimonies.  Some reports suggest that Moslems are turning to Christ in greater numbers now than at any time in the 1400 year history of Islam.

Muslims of course are not ignorant of Jesus.  He is one of their great prophets, and it is taught that it will be Jesus who comes back at the end of the age to receive the faithful and inaugurate global Islam.  But they do not expect to find salvation in Jesus.  It should of course be emphasised that receiving a dream about Jesus does not automatically make someone a Christian, or to be more accurate, a Moslem-background believer.  This is only the start of their journey of faith, which may lead them deeper into their Moslem beliefs, as Jesus is revered within their own religious tradition.

Many of the people who receive dreams are not searching for Jesus, and are perfectly content Moslems.  Reports of the dreams make it clear that the dreamers are in no doubt that it is Jesus they are seeing.  They describe him as beautiful, dressed in a white robe and glowing with light.  This figure will be instantly recognisable to Christians familiar with the book of Revelation.  If the Beautiful One talks, he may tell them to follow him, or that their sins are forgiven.  I was given a first-hand report of a mosque in a middle-eastern country where everyone had received a dream.  Yet if you ask them who it was, they will answer ‘The Prophet… or maybe Jesus’, as the risk of openly confessing Jesus is very high.

So why are these visions coming now?  It cannot be a coincidence that in recent years, just as concerted and committed prayer for the countries of the 10/40 window has been coordinated, it has become very hard for outsiders to get into Moslem communities worldwide to preach the gospel openly.  Although many still go undercover, their ability to spread the message is severely restricted.  With the rise of militant Islam, pressure on indigenous believers from Palestine to the Philippines has become heavier.  Church buildings are being burned and believers being martyred.  So the Spirit of God does a new thing, and speaks to Moslems directly when his human followers can’t.  Together with the rise of Christian satellite TV and the internet, the Moslem world has never been so technologically open to the Gospel.  Those who have dreamed of Jesus may find it hard to meet fellow believers, but they can watch TV and surf the net.

How can we help Moslems find Jesus their Saviour?  Above all, prayer.  Prayer opens the way into the darkest places and softens the hardest of hearts.  If you meet a Moslem, you can ask him if he has had a dream of the Beautiful One (don’t say Jesus!) or if he knows of anyone who has.  Gently (remember that persuading someone to change their religion is a crime in many Moslem countries) ask who he thinks it might be.  What does he want to say to the Moslem?  What does he want of him?  Why does he appear now?  Respectful questions will open a channel for the individual to reflect on the dream while not imposing our beliefs on him or disrespecting his traditions.

Please pray:

  • that Jesus will reveal himself to Moslems in all nations, and that they will see him for who he really is;
  • that the faith of Moslem-background believers will be strong despite the persecution they may face;
  • that Christian mission agencies will be effective in spreading and broadcasting the Gospel and following up.

Confess or renounce?

Sixteenth century Japanese fumie, used for treading on as a symbolic renunciation of Christ

Recently, in a troubled central-Asian republic where there has recently been much turmoil, a Christian was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist extremists.  In great pain, and with threats of similar violence to his wife and children, he agreed to their demands to renounce Jesus, and was released.  Subsequently, he suffered huge pangs of guilt and remorse.  Although he had not done this willingly, he had said the words.  He felt he had let down his Saviour.  How could he find forgiveness for that?

This reminds me of a story explored in Shusako Endo’s prize-winning novel Silence.  It concerns a Jesuit priest in mediaeval Japan, who is captured and forced to renounce Jesus by treading on an image of him, as many Japanese believers were forced to do during the seventeenth century.  As he wondered where his God was in the midst of his dilemma, he looked at the image of Jesus and felt it saying to him, “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”  Endo gives us an image not only of a Christ who suffered and was rejected on the cross, but one who continues to be rejected.

What would you say to encourage a man who has denied Christ?  Has he lost his soul (2 Timothy 2:12)?  Will he be restored in grace as Peter was after he denied knowing Jesus?  Is he just a normal flesh-and-blood person, who did the rational thing in a crisis, just like the rest of us would have done?  What would you have done in that situation?

Please pray for the believers in this country.  Life is hard for them, as they are marginalised by their compatriots, and find it hard to get jobs.  They risk being attacked, whether individually or as congregations.  A rising current of extremism threatens the notional freedom of religion in this state.  Pray that the political situation would stabilise, that law and order would be established, and freedom of religion protected.  Pray that the suffering Christians would be encouraged, and comforted in their hardship.