Preach the Gospel?

What does Good News look like to them?

In the world of mission there is a continuing debate of whether we should demonstrate the gospel, preach the gospel, or do both (often referred to as “wholistic” mission)*.  Advocates of the first argue that there is no point in preaching the gospel to people who are going to die of hunger, while advocates of the second say there is no point in giving people hope in this life if they have no hope for the next.  Proponents of wholistic mission try to find a mid-point and do both.

The picture is muddied even by the example of Jesus.  One the one hand it is clear that Jesus had compassion on people because they were needy (Matthew 9:36), yet the previous verse said he proclaimed the gospel and healed people.  His famous mission statement in Luke 4 says that he came to preach good news… and then proceeds to focus on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed.  In other words, the socially disadvantaged.  Then later in the same gospel he says “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) which sounds profoundly soteriological.  In Acts 11 Peter calls Jesus a man who went around doing good and makes no mention of him preaching the kingdom.

One way to square this circle is to ask ourselves what Good News actually is.  Evangelical Christians would customarily describe it as “Christ died for your sins”, but of course before Jesus died, Good News must have meant something else.  In Luke 9, Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Jesus’ usual message) and heal, but in verse 6 we’re told they ‘preached the Good News’ and healed.  So the Good News is not merely the Kingdom even though it includes a call to repentance (Mark 6:12).  For some people, Good News looked like healing.  For others it was food, or deliverance from demons.  Good News embraced their immediate needs as well as their eternal needs.

What does Good News look like for the people we meet?  Seen from their perspective, it may not primarily be salvation.  They might have more immediate concerns.  These might be a bed for the homeless, a meal for the hungry, a community for the refugee, healing for the sick, comfort for the bereaved, friendship for the lonely.  This is why so many Christian compassion ministries exist in the UK and abroad.

Christmas is a time of year when Christians invite their non-Christian friends and neighbours to church services, or send them overtly evangelistic Christmas cards.  But if we’re not showing them what Good News looks like throughout the year, our preaching might seem to them a bit shallow.

* There are of course many facets to mission including discipleship, social action, advocacy, creation care….  but the ‘show and tell’ model is a simple one to use.

Sowing in hope

Shoots of hope?

Officially, winter starts next week in the UK.  Yet at the end of November, when branches are bare, flowers have died, and leaves are turning to mud in the gutters, it feels like it’s already here.  Days are short, temperatures dropping and our moods drop too as we brace ourselves for the cold and damp.

But even in the midst of such gloom we carry out small acts of hope.  Autumn is the time for planting bulbs.  In November, before the ground freezes, we plant the bulbs which will start growing roots ready to burst into flower in the spring.  We know that in a few months our hearts will be lifted by the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips which will turn our drab winter gardens into a riot of colour.  We plant in hope.

Mission workers are no stranger to this feeling.  Most of us work in environments where we see little response, yet we carry on sowing the seed of the word of God.  As Alex reminded us a couple of weeks ago that this can often take years to come to fruition but we keep sowing it in faith anyway.

Sadly our supporters sometimes expect the harvest to come quickly.  “How many people have you led to the Lord this year?” they might ask.  Churches may threaten to withdraw funding if there is no evidence of people turning to Christ as a result of our labours.  This can put us under pressure, make us worker harder, pray harder, preach harder, even succumb to the temptation to coerce people into coming to church.

There is a short parable in Mark’s gospel which can encourage us in this situation.  Tucked away between the more famous parables of the sower and the mustard seed, this one is about the growth of the seed.   It’s short enough to repeat in full:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

(Mark 4:28-29)

He does not know how.  The growth of the seed is not dependent on the farmer.  He plants it, waits patiently, and reaps the crop in due time.  Let us not worry about the mechanics of what is going on in people’s hearts.  That’s God’s job.  We plant the seed, he makes it grow.  And we are privileged, in partnering with him in his mission, so be called his fellow-workers (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  So let’s concentrate on our part of the work, and leave him to do his bit.

“Every Christian is a missionary or an impostor”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

This quote from the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon does the rounds occasionally and draws a lot of attention.  It is waved about by missionary apologists trying to mobilise more workers for the overseas mission field.  It is quoted by tweeters to draw attention to global mission.

But put this sentence back into the context of the original sermon, and you will see that Spurgeon is not encouraging people to leave their homes and occupations to bring the good news to strangers on the other side of the world.  He is challenging every Christian who claims to love Jesus to tell their family, friends and neighbours –right where they are!

The text of his sermon is so good that the whole paragraph needs to be read:

If Jesus is precious to you, you will not be able to keep your good news to yourself; you will be whispering it into your child’s ear; you will be telling it to your husband; you will be earnestly imparting it to your friend; without the charms of eloquence you will be more than eloquent; your heart will speak, and your eyes will flash as you talk of his sweet love. Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that. You either try to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus and a totally silent tongue about him.

 

Yes, the world still needs people to travel to the ends of it to bring the good news of Jesus to people who have no other means of hearing about him.  But we should not forget the many millions in our own neighbourhoods who do not yet know him.  Contemporary missionary challenges in western sending countries include thousands of refugees who have come to us recently, millions of non-European immigrants who have arrived in the last 60 years,  forgotten people groups like the Roma, marginalised tribes like the urban poor, and many other unreached groups in our midst including the indigenous unreached population.  The older translations of Mark tell us to “Go into all the world….” – a missionary being someone who is sent (as an emissary) on a mission.  Spurgeon reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street… as long as we go.

International Student Ministry

Source: http://friendsinternational.uk/

This weekend I was at an event organised by Friends International and was reminded how doing outreach to international students is such a strategic ministry.

Many students come to this country from places it would be hard for us to get mission workers into.  We could spend a lot of time, energy and money recruiting, training and sending mission workers for Creative Access Nations, where they then may have to spend many years learning language and culture before they can be effective in ministry.

Or we can put resources into reaching the students God puts on our very doorsteps, who can be equipped to go back to their home countries and take the gospel quickly and effectively to their own people.  What’s not to like about that?!

There are over 400,000 international students in the UK, many of whom have little opportunity to hear the gospel in their own country.  Yet we have a small window of a few years when it is easy, cost-effective and legal to tell them about Jesus.  If every university in the country had teams seeking to befriend international students and lead them to Christ, this task could be accomplished much quicker.

Unlike overseas ministry which requires a lot of preparation, student outreach is readily accessible to ordinary Christians and churches.  It doesn’t take much special training to make tea at an international student café once a month, help an international student improve their English or cook a meal for a hungry student.  And it’s something that doesn’t require a great commitment of time, just an occasional availability.

So where do you start?

  • Contact an agency working with international students, like Agape, Friends International, Navigators or UCCF and ask how you can get involved.
  • Make a point of welcoming international students to your church and asking how you can help them
  • Download resources from the Friends International website.
  • Pray that God will send international students to your church.

Outreach to international students is an ideal ministry for people who care about world mission but can’t for some reason go abroad themselves.  It’s an opportunity to be part of taking the gospel to the nations – who knows how these students are going to affect their nations by their godly wisdom and actions and by leading their compatriots to Christ.

 

Do single men really not go?

A recent blog on the Crossworld website prompts me to comment on the issue of there being so few single men on the mission field.

It is of course not a new phenomenon in missions but its significance, as the author points out, is that it becomes hard to mentor men for maturity.  It can also lead to a church full of faithful women, which does not seem attractive to male unbelievers because it does not model an image of strong masculinity despite its focus on a male saviour.  So let’s consider some potential causes.

1) Statistics: There are generally fewer men in the church, so fewer are available to go, whether single or married.  In many UK churches the single women outnumber single men 4:1, so there are bound to be fewer single men going. Those single men who do go to the mission field are outnumbered even more, frequently by 8 or 9 to 1.  This increases opportunities for them to marry, so many do not stay single very long.  Thus the problem is perpetuated.

2) Ministry fulfilment: do men have more opportunities for ministry on the home side?  Although the percentage is steadily increasing, women still only make up about 1/3 of Anglican clergy in the UK[1].  In October 2015 Christianity Today reported that around 10% of US churches have women in the sole or senior leadership role (though twice that percentage attend seminary)[2].   Some traditions do not have any formal role for women in leadership.  Perhaps this means that men can more easily find an expression for their Christian service within their home church or denomination, so technically it is not that fewer men are going into overseas mission, but more women, as they seek an outlet for their desire to serve God which is harder for them to find at home.  But the result is that more single women go.

A bigger question is not why there are fewer single men in cross-cultural mission, but what are we doing about it?  Here are some suggestions:

Churches  –

  • Do you actively seek out men you think might have a future in the mission field and challenge them to go? Do you suggest to young men looking to start out on a career that they might consider a life serving God abroad, or even a few years?
  • Do you promote mission as an equal opportunity and not just for women? Do your male leaders model a mission heart or is it only your women who talk, pray or go in mission?
  • Do you tell stories in your sermons of brave and heroic men like St Paul, Francis Xavier or Robert Thomas who took the gospel to far-flung places at great cost to themselves because of their one true love – Jesus?
  • Do we teach a high view of singleness as a way to serve the Lord?  Do your young men have accountability relationships so they have an opportunity to focus their attention on developing godly character?

Agencies –

  • Do your placements seem attractive to single men?  What can you do to make your mobilisation more appealing to them?
  • Are you thinking through what their needs are? Do you try to send teams of men so that there are other men around for them to build friendships with?
  • Do you foster a culture which allows men to express their masculinity appropriately?  Can they truly “feel like a real man” when they are engaged in the activities you co-ordinate?
  • Do we mentor single men in the field so that they can be fulfilled in their singleness and not struggling?

And for all of us –

  • Do we unconsciously model disappointment if our sons sacrifice a good career to go into mission, while we think it’s a great opportunity for our daughters?
  • Do we think mission is a good place for those poor women who have not been able to find partners, but expect men to marry and settle down?
  • And do we pray that more single men will listen to the call of God on their lives and follow him to the ends of the earth – and do we encourage them to do so when we think he’s calling them?

Or was Gladys Aylward right (see John Piper’s Desiring God Podcast) – do the men called to the mission field just not listen to God as well as the women do?

 

[1] Statistics for Mission 2012

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2015/october/state-of-female-pastors.html

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

May the Force be with you…

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Star Wars is back!  This week the eagerly anticipated resumption of the epic double-trilogy starts with episode 7 –  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the biggest-grossing film of all time.

Since the ground-breaking arrival of the first film in 1977, Christians have argued over the content and symbolism.  Those in favour will claim that the Force represents the power of the Holy Spirit, Obi Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice and apparent survival beyond death (kinda) is a significant nod to Jesus, and Darth Vader is a clear manifestation of everything we think of as evil, from his character to his stereotypical dark clothing, and even he can be redeemed.  Others will argue that the Force can be used for good or evil, which is not part of a Christian cosmology.  There is no clear redeemer figure and no communication of the love of God or the depravity of humanity.

But the real issue is not whether the films reflect a Christian message or not, but the fact that they reflect a postmodern worldview which Generation X and Millenials have bought into in a way that an older generation can’t comprehend.  Millenials in particular think in a way that is in line with the underlying assumptions of the Star Wars galaxy, for example:

  • There is a spiritual aspect to life which we do not understand but we can tap into if we choose
  • Trade corporations are inherently evil and not to be trusted
  • Most politicians are selfish and will easily turn to the dark side
  • I have the ability to achieve much more than simply being a cog in the system

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not antagonistic to Christianity (as long as it not prejudiced and bullying).  They are suspicious of organised religion but open to personal spirituality, and are open to following Jesus if he is presented to them appropriately.  The success of many vibrant, new church networks is partly due to numbers of millenials attracted to a warmer, livelier, less-structured style of church that helps them feel that they belong and are significant.  These movements often intentionally plant (or re-plant) churches that look in very different ways to tradition ones.

The problem is that most millenials have not heard of Jesus.  Unlike previous generations they were not taken to church or Sunday school as children, religious assemblies in school are discouraged, with the result that this generation is the least evangelised European generation for 1500 years.

Some of us may be aghast at that thought.  But the flipside of it is that they are also the least prejudiced.  They haven’t been bored to death by stories of Noah’s Ark and Goliath.  They haven’t been made to follow a lot of life-crushing rules.  They come to Jesus with a completely clean sheet and no preconceptions.  They don’t have problems with the existence of an unseen world or a benevolent force pervading the universe.  Ironically, this is probably the generation most open to the gospel in over a millennium.

May the Force be with you as you tell them the good news.

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.

We want to see Jesus

024Most ancient church buildings have a number of plaques of different sorts on their walls – tombstones of the gentry, memorials to famous parishioners, tributes to the war dead or past incumbents – but at Penhurst in Sussex there is one that in my experience is utterly unique: a private message addressed to just one person.

It is not in a prominent position; in fact it is not visible from most parts of the church, yet it is clear and conspicuous to the person about to mount the steps to the pulpit, and it is addressed only to the preacher.  It reads:

Sir, we would see Jesus.

It is a quote from John 12:21, and it is a reminder to preachers of their responsibility to reveal Jesus to their listeners.  Yet this duty (and joy!) is not the preacher’s alone; it falls to all believers – as Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

Some of us will indeed be called to go to the other side of the world, while others are called to go to the other side of the street.  It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘going’ that counts.  In our schools, offices and retirement homes we can all look to ‘show and tell’ to our colleagues.  In our homes we can explain and exhibit Jesus to our families and neighbours.  In gyms and golf clubs we can incarnate the risen Lord to our team-mates and competitors.  There is no-where and no-when that we cannot – and should not – take the opportunity in some way to bring Christ into a sharper perspective, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, to the people around us.

Paul sets us an excellent example.  He writes to the Corinthians “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).  He felt compelled to share the good news.  But as we will see next week when we look at his missions strategy in Europe, he made it clear to the Thessalonians that this was not only standing in the synagogue trying to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah who was destined to die and rise again (Acts 17:2-3); it also meant publicly demonstrating Christ in his impeccable behaviour (1 Thessalonians 2:10) and privately imploring individuals to believe (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

To help me remind myself of my role in this great sermon which we live and speak every day, I like to start the day with an ancient prayer.  Perhaps you would like to join me in it:

O Lord, grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendour of thy presence, but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow humans.

Heroes in mission: St Andrew

andrewSt Andrew may not be the most obvious choice for a missionary hero.  Eclipsed by Peter, his more famous brother, often left out of the Gang of Four (Jesus, James, Peter & John) but occasionally included, without significant participation in the gospels, he’s not the most obscure of the disciples, but he is certainly not prominent.

Yet what is unique about him is that every time we are told about him in the gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, and most significantly for church history, he brings his brother Peter (John 1:40-42), using a phrase of unparalleled faith so early in Jesus’ ministry: “We have found the Messiah”.  Then, it is Andrew who finds the boy who gave Jesus his lunch (John 6:8) – and we know what happened after that!  And after that Andrew is found introducing some Hellenistic Jews to Jesus (John 12:22).  Later on, tradition tells us, he preached the gospel in eastern Europe, including in what is now Ukraine and Russia, both of which honour him as their patron saint.  He is also credited with founding the Patriarchate of Byzantium.

What can we learn from Andrew?

  • As already stated, he is regularly bringing people to Jesus. In all that we do, we must not forget that this is a key objective, whether we do it directly ourselves or facilitate others doing it.
  • He does not appear to have sulked. As one of the first disciples to have followed Jesus, he might have had a claim to be part of the inner circle, but when he wasn’t, there is no evidence of him becoming upset, and he certainly didn’t walk out.  He just got on with the job.
  • He wasn’t afraid to go beyond the boundaries of his world. Although Greece, Thrace, Byzantium and Romania would have very different cultures from what Andrew would have been used to in Judea, they were at least part of the Roman Empire.  As he worked his way round the Black Sea and up the Dniester River as far as Kiev, and possibly even going as far as Novgorod, he would have been in the territory of ‘barbarians’.

Legend tells us that Andrew when he was crucified, he asked to be tied to a diagonal cross, as he was unworthy to die on the same sort of cross as Jesus died.  May we also be as passionate about serving, representing, and (if called to) dying for Jesus.

Urgent!

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

150 years ago this week, on 25th June 1865, Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission, now OMF International.  It had (and still has, though slightly adapted) the goal of “the urgent evangelisation of China’s millions”.

Taylor was greatly concerned that the Chinese were dying without Jesus.  This prompted the sense of urgency which pervaded not only the CIM but other 19th century missions too.  They were motivated to take the message of Jesus to people who  were being lost, consigned to hell for eternity.

These days, hell is an unpopular and rarely mentioned concept in much of western Christianity.  We feel it is distasteful, incompatible with the idea of a loving God, and disrespectful of those who choose not to follow Jesus.  We certainly don’t use it in our outreach, preferring instead to tell people of God’s love for them rather than focus on divine wrath.

Whether you agree with downgrading hell to a theological optional extra or not, the disappearance of hell from the evangelistic agenda has removed the sense of urgency.  We recognise that telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent is not the best way to build a bridge towards them.  And while we may not be sure what happens after death to those who don’t follow Jesus, we trust God to be fair and sort something out.  Rob Bell infamously flirted with universalism in his controversial book Love Wins, which was welcomed by many people who can’t stomach the idea of God condemning millions of his creatures to burn for eternity for the simple crime of not worshipping him even though nobody had told them to.

Today we prefer to take our time to woo people into the kingdom of God because we’re not in a hurry any more.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped dying without Jesus.  In the time it’s taken you to read this blog, thousands have died before being told the message.  Whatever you believe happens to them after death, it can’t be as good as spending eternity with Jesus.  So go and tell them.  Quickly.

A new spring?

WP_000678Spring is a beautiful time of year in northern Europe.  Its early signs come well before its culmination in all its vibrant colours.  Snowdrops peep out of the frozen ground, followed by crocuses, daffodils, primroses and bluebells.  Deciduous trees grow bright new leaves and the dull grey clouds break apart to allow patches of blue sky and bright sunshine.  A wide variety of shrubs and flowers burst into blossom.  The days lengthen and the air grows warmer.

This season lifts the spirits of those of us who have toiled through a long, dark winter, and the joy is expressed in ancient festivities which have become Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost).  The drama of this transition embedded itself deep in the psyche of the Europeans who have recycled it in art, literature and religion.  C S Lewis used it to good effect in describing the change on the landscape that came when the frozen winter kingdom of the White Witch thawed into the realm of Aslan.

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

We even use this imagery in our history – The Dark Ages is the name we give to the period following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when the pagan winter engulfed ‘Christian civilisation’.  Areas we now know as France, Italy, Spain and Britain were occupied by Franks, Goths, Vandals and Saxons – the names of some of them passing into posterity as those hostile to ‘civilisation’.  The so-called Christian empire was overrun, leaving just a few isolated monastic communities to keep the light of faith burning in the sea of darkness.  But those communities did not retreat into their bunkers and look inwards; they went out to their hostile neighbours and spread the word of God, often paying with their lives.  Men like Boniface, Aidan and Columbanus ensured not merely the survival of Christianity, but its dominance, as pagan Europe turned into Christendom.

A thousand years later, the process was repeated.  Christendom, already a decaying empire, fell to the ‘barbarian’ hordes.  Humanists, secularists, nihilists and many other tribes overran it, leaving the population confused and vulnerable.  By the 20th century many had consigned Christianity to history.  It was just another primitive civilisation which had collapsed.  Yet the faithful continued to keep the flame burning brightly.

The 21st century is a second missionary era, when the saints once more are called to go to the postmodern ‘barbarians’ and take the message of God to them.  People come from across the world to bring us the truth that so many have forgotten.  All across Europe missionary endeavour is bringing enlightenment to the lost.  Many churches are experiencing significant growth.  People are turning to God in numbers not seen for centuries.  A new spring is upon us.

Come and worship!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week, Christians will celebrate the momentous event in human history when God stepped into his own creation to live and die as one of us.  It matters not one bit that it may not have happened in December (or January if that is your tradition), or whether the inn was really a guest room, or whether there were kings present, or donkeys, or snowmen.  The important thing is that it happened.

It happened because God was so concerned about the plight of selfish, ungodly humanity that he did what only he could to bring us back into relationship with him.  Or as St Paul puts it “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The whole point was to restore the broken relationship so that humanity could live at peace with God.  Jesus came to make that possible.  That is why we celebrate him as “The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

For this reason he is the ultimate role model for mission workers.  We may follow the examples and tenets of the founding father of our agencies or movements, or other heroes of mission, but only because they point the way to the one who has gone before all of us.  He left his home, learned the language, and adopted the culture and customs of his mission field.  He laid down his life in obedience to his calling, and he raised up followers to continue the spread of the message.

At the end of his letter to the Romans Paul writes “the gospel and preaching of Jesus Christ… has been made known to all the nations” (Romans 16:25-26).  The world has grown bigger than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day and many more tribes and peoples have been located who have not yet heard the good news.  The missionary imperative to tell the great glad tidings still rings out to us.  Many of the carols and readings that we use in our worship at this time of year encourage us, like the magi (Matthew 2:2), to come and worship Jesus.  What better way to do that than to bring others with us to discover the Saviour for themselves?

Come over here and help us

Paul's Macedonian Vision

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Paul’s vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:10) asking him and his co-workers for help initiated Paul’s ministry in Europe.  It is also an excellent paradigm for modern global mission.

It is at the invitation of the local believers, not the instigation of the mission workers.  Today, except in frontier missions where we have no knowledge of local believers, we should be seeking to partner with indigenous churches, agencies or believers.  How often do we go to a local group with a good idea and sell it to them, and they are too polite to say no even though they don’t want it and they know it won’t work?  It is much better for us (and more empowering for them) to go and sit at their feet, and ask them ‘What do you want for your community, and how can we help you achieve it?’  We need to seek their guidance and advice, respect their decisions, submit to their leadership, and be ready to leave when they feel that we’ve done what they need us to do.

We are invited to help, not take over.  It seems that we often marginalise the local believers and do all sorts of things for them, when they may be capable of doing things for themselves.  We turn up with our education, technology, and Biblical understanding, but leave our respect behind.  A genuine partnership asks ‘How can we do this together?’, and seeks to release everyone into the ministry that God has for them.  In many cases we may bring skills and resources which they do not have, but that does not entitle us to take control.

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

What does genuine cross-cultural partnership in mission look like?

Our work should be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Paul hadn’t even thought of going to Macedonia.  He and his friends had tried several times to go into different parts of what is now Turkey.  In this vision, God expanded their boundaries.  He took them into something different.  How willing are we to contemplate doing something different rather than doing the same old thing in the same old way?  Let us be open to the Holy Spirit guiding us into God’s appointed ministry for us.

God is already at work and lets us join in.  The spread of the gospel in any country will have started before we get there.  Paul didn’t bring the gospel to Europe; there would have been several small communities of believers which may have traced their roots back to the crowds of Jewish worshippers who had flocked to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Acts 2:10).  God was already on the move and gave Paul and his friends a chance to join in.  Let us not be so arrogant as to assume we are taking God in with us.

West isn’t necessarily best.  In large parts of the world Christianity is seen as a western faith.  Yet this incident reminds us that the gospel was originally brought to Europe by people from the Near East.  Europeans would still be pagans (and in many respects we still are!) if mission workers from another continent had not come to teach us.  Let’s remain teachable.

Who is today’s Macedonian?  Who today is calling us to go and help them?  We looked at some of the options a few weeks ago – and they include remote unreached tribes, people in the 10/40 window, and urban slum dwellers.  Are we open to the possibility that there are people hungry for the gospel who we haven’t even considered?

Paul’s vibrant and controversial ministry opened up a new mission field right across Mediterranean Europe.  He was driven by the desire to preach the gospel where it had not been preached before (Romans 15:20).  Let’s follow his example and seek out new frontiers for the kingdom!

From a Wall to a Bridge

Cracked wall

A crack in the wall (Source: www.freeimages.com)

A few weeks ago we celebrated the Fall of the Wall.  For much of the latter part of the 20th century Berlin was divided in two by this physical barrier, which also by allusion applied to the Iron Curtain which divided much of central and eastern Europe from the west.

Walls don’t necessarily create division but they certainly perpetuate it.  They keep people apart.  They stop trade and traffic.  They divide families, prevent the exchange of ideas, and contribute to misunderstanding.  The Berlin Wall did all those.

The Wall only stood for 28 years but its shadow continued to hang over Europe much longer.  For a whole generation after its demolition, it continued to exist in the mind of churches, agencies and mission workers.  It was, in effect, a stronghold, even though it no longer existed, because it affected missional thinking on both sides of the boundary.

In the west, many mission workers viewed eastern Europe as a new mission field.  They ignored the rich religious tradition, the oppressed but faithful churches, the many heroic believers who continued to be a witness to Jesus throughout the communist times, and assumed that the lack of Bible colleges and seminaries meant that the local believers were immature and biblically illiterate.  They moved in with money and programmes and sidelined locals who didn’t get on board with their projects.

But it wasn’t only the westerners who made mistakes.  Often the believers in central and eastern Europe resented the intruders and refused to work with them.  They let them get on with making their mistakes rather than helping them.  They looked down on the westerners who had money and programmes but were not interested in important things like relationship and culture.

Chain bridge

The Chain Bridge in Budapest (source: www.freeimages.com)

Therefore much mission in eastern Europe was characterised by division and mistrust.  Granted, this was not always the case, but it was the dominant theme which emerged at the conference of the European Evangelical Mission Association as it took stock of the last 25 years since the Fall of the Wall.  Yet the same conference heard much good news.  We met leaders of many thriving churches from a dozen countries in eastern Europe.  We heard stories from eastern European mission workers to several Asian countries.  Mission leaders from all over Europe got together to discuss strategy, training, education and member care.  And most of all we were greatly encouraged to hear of a new paradigm that has begun to emerge.

In her opening presentation, Anne-Marie Kool cited the example of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the city where she has lived and worked since 1987.  She pointed out that it was built through cooperation between east and west and at the time was a symbol of progress and unity.  Inspired by a Hungarian nationalist, it was constructed by local builders and engineers consulting with an English designer and a Scottish chief engineer.  It brought together the two diverse communities of Buda and Pest for the first time, and stopped the great expanse of the Danube preventing traffic flowing easily from east to west and back again.

This could be the dominant image to emerge from the conference – that having demolished a wall which kept us apart, Europe is now in the process of building a bridge to bring us all closer together as we reach out to take the gospel to diverse communities across Europe and beyond.  A new spirit of genuine humility and cooperation, based on mutually respectful relationships, is starting to emerge.  At Syzygy we welcome this strategic development, and look forward to the result becoming even more elegant, beautiful and functional than the Chain Bridge.

Let us renounce the quest for worldly comforts

PiperGod is pursuing with omnipotent passion a worldwide purpose of gathering joyful worshipers for Himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. He has an inexhaustible enthusiasm for the supremacy of His name among the nations. Therefore, let us bring our affections into line with His, and, for the sake of His name, let us renounce the quest for worldly comforts and join His global purpose.

(John Piper)

Story of the month – outreach in Burundi

IMG_1216We have previously featured the remarkable ministry of Great Lakes Outreach and this month we’re happy to bring you their report from their summer outreach for your encouragement.  GLO National Co-ordinator Simon Guillebaud writes:

I asked you to pray for our incredible annual summer outreach for the first two weeks of August and the results are in.  They’re awesome, as ever!

  • We sent out 1010 evangelists in 42 teams around the country (554 from our group, Harvest for Christ, and 456 local church folk who could learn on the job alongside our guys).
  • 11,366 people made professions of faith, including 62 witchdoctors and 55 Muslims.
  • There were119 miraculous signs, including two blind people recovering their sight, two deaf people hearing, 13 paralysed people being healed.
  • 40 separated couples were reunited, 4 people intent on committing suicide were rescued.

A few stories:
Our team found a naked vagrant madman under a tree.  He couldn’t speak at all.  They prayed for him and he was healed, in his right mind now and able to speak.  When his family members heard he was no longer mad and running naked in the streets, they gave our team all the objects of witchcraft they’d used to try to set him free, and made a fire to burn them all, at which point the family gave their lives to Christ as well.

Karenzo, a young child, had lain paralysed in bed for two years.  The evangelists prayed for him and he was healed.  All his family and neighbours immediately gave their lives to Christ, and the miracle opened up the whole village to welcoming the team in to minister to them.

At Giheta, two of our team were arrested as they preached, and thrown into prison.  Whilst in their cell, they preached their hearts out and led four fellow prisoners to Christ.  They got to meet the head of police and other senior dignitaries.  Once it was established they hadn’t committed any crime, they were released and continued to preach further to a large crowd who were all the more impacted by their willingness to suffer for what they believed, and a large number responded.

Praise God, for these and many other stories of Him setting people free!  Thanks so much for your prayers.  Keep praying for the follow up too, that it would be lasting fruit as these new believers are built up into disciples, not just converts.

To see over 11,000 people saved, as well as all the other fruit produced, the outreach (bus tickets into the bush, minimal food, etc) cost us $32,000.  Please help us do it again next year by clicking here to contribute.  Do also check out our beautiful new website in the process – www.greatlakesoutreach.org

Heroes in mission: Robert Thomas

Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866)

Robert Jermain Thomas (1839-1866)

On the face of it, Robert Thomas has to be one of the world’s worst missionaries (sorry Jamie!).  He had hardly set foot in the country he was called to before he was martyred, while according to some accounts, pleading with his murderers to accept Christ.

Christianity had come to Korea, been accepted and then harshly suppressed a couple of times before Thomas, a Welsh Presbyterian serving in China felt the call to Korea, then a closed country, and embarked with a consignment of Bibles on the General Sherman, a heavily-armed US trading ship which was hoping to open up trade (by force, if necessary) with the isolationist Korean kingdom.  As the ship sailed up river towards Pyongyang, Thomas apparently threw Bibles ashore to the Koreans.

Accounts differ of what happened next, and who started shooting, but an incident flared up and the US ship was set on fire.  The fleeing crew were fired upon but Thomas stayed on board till the last minute, still throwing Bibles ashore.  Leaving at the last minute, he was killed as soon as he swam ashore, while offering a Bible to his killer.

The Thomas Memorial Church

The Thomas Memorial Church

A local Korean took the Bibles and used them for wallpaper.  Some years later other mission workers brought Christianity once again to Korea, and local believers discovered the wallpaper and flocked to the house to read it.  The church continued to grow steadily and in 1932 Korean Christians built a memorial church on the riverbank near where Thomas died, but it was later destroyed during the communist revolution and the site is now part of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Today it is not known how many Christians there are in North Korea, but they are the victims of the most anti-Christian government on the planet.  Most of the believers are in labour camps.  South Korea, on the other hand, has embraced Christianity.  Nearly a third of the population are Christians, the highest proportion in Asia, and they are one of the world’s leading missionary sending nations.

What can we learn from Robert Thomas?

  • He was keen to open new frontiers to the gospel.  Even though there were so many unevangelised Chinese, Thomas was led to go to a closed country where he knew the risk.  Today, when there are so many unevangelised countries in the 10/40 window and 41% of people who have not heard the gospel live in the thousands of neglected people groups, many British mission workers go to safe countries which already have strong indigenous churches. (You can read more about this in our blog Is it time to move on?)
  • He was zealous to propagate the gospel even when his own life was threatened.  In our risk-averse world, how many of us would even have gone to Korea, let alone offered a Bible to the soldier about to kill us?
  • There are dangers of being too closely involved with non-Christians.  If Thomas had not gone with armed traders, his reception may have been different.  We need to be wary of joining forces with those who do not share our aims and values.

Today, many thousands of South Korean pilgrims visit Wales to visit the birthplace of Robert Thomas in Rhayadr and the manse which was his childhood home.  The Christians in North Korea cannot, of course, even leave their prison camps leave alone their country.  Please pray for them.

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