Safety in numbers

Chanctonbury ringWe all know the idea of safety in numbers, whether it’s herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti, or shoals of mackerel avoiding predators like tuna.  But we might not have noticed that trees do the same.  A few tree species produce winged seeds that catch the wind and fly far away, but most, like the oak, produce heavy ones that don’t fall far from the parent tree, so that they can build up a forest around them for protection.

Whether it’s a naturally-occurring forest or a human-made plantation, trees tend to flourish in groups.  This can be best seen in some of the Victorian plantations that still stand on the top of some of Britain’s hills.  Trees seldom grow alone on the top of exposed hills, and if they do, they don’t always grow big and strong.  The wind breaks off their tender new growth resulting in squat, bent trees.  This still happens on the windward side of hilltop woods.  The ones that bear the brunt of the wind still struggle, but in doing so, they provide shelter for the downwind ones.  The further away the trees are from the force of the wind, the taller and straighter they grow.  In other words, the upwind ones take a hit for the others.

Mission workers are too often like lone trees struggling against the elements.  They leave the safety of their natural environment to go somewhere more demanding.  They might persist but they don’t thrive.  Which raises the obvious question – where is the community?  Who is taking the hit for you so that you can grow big and strong?

It doesn’t have to be one supporter who suffers greatly bearing this burden, but a number who share it between them.  Part of raising support before we go is finding the members of this team who not only provide the money (and that’s what we focus on getting, right?) but can provide practical and pastoral support, communication and prayer.

It’s also about being part of a team in the field which supports us in our challenges.  Whether they are specialist member care workers, supportive colleagues or understanding team leaders, we need to make sure that we have a team which takes the hit for us (and vice versa).  We must also remember not to overlook the provision that God has given us in the local believers.  Too often we come to the mission field with a mentality of serving the local church which is at best paternalistic if not neo-colonialist, and we don’t even entertain the fact that they might be able to serve and encourage us.  But perhaps we serve them best when we show that we are not strong and invincible but fragile and vulnerable and allow them to help us in our need.

Few of us are called to be a lonely pine on a hilltop.  Most of us are intended to be mighty oaks of righteousness, planted together in groups which will bless and encourage others.  So take a look around and see where the other trees are, and whether you can’t actually start growing closer together.

Are singles treated like children?

Struggling to grow?

Speaking at the European Member Care Consultation last week on helping single mission workers thrive in the mission field prompts me to post a little taster of what I’m talking about.  In some ways singles are like plants: we want to grow, but sometimes the conditions aren’t right.  Some things stop growth – like shade, stony soil, poor drainage, and competition for nutrients will stunt the growth of plants, so there are certain things which make it harder for single to thrive.  In this short blog I want to consider the extent to which single mission workers are (sometimes inadvertently or unwittingly) given the impression by colleagues, both expat and national, that they are second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes they are not really respected, just because they are single.  In many of the cultures where we serve, marriage and parenting are highly esteemed, which means that those who are still single aren’t really thought of as grown up.  I was once told by a Zimbabwean: “What do you know?  You have no wife – you are just a boy!”  While we can’t do much about the local culture, we don’t have to let local Christians have their views shaped by secular value.  Can we teach them something of the sacrifice single mission workers are making?  How they are trusting in God (not in many children) for care during their old age?  How they depend on God alone for comfort and encouragement since they have no ‘soulmate’?

And it’s not only local culture which can give the impression that single mission workers are not really valued.  Sometimes the sending agencies inadvertently include even long-serving singles with short-termers, probably due to the assumed ‘temporary’ nature of their singleness.  But this just undervalues people.  One single woman told me:

I am a 37 year-old woman with 37 years of life-experience and 32 years of being a follower of Jesus.  Yet too often I am treated like part of a youth group and left out of important decision-making discussions in which married couples with similar or less experience/abilities are included. 

Too often singles are left out of important discussions.  How many singles find their way into leadership positions?  The church or agency might claim they are valued, but too often their absence from leadership structures betrays that they are often considered to be no more than children.  Sometimes they’re even asked to look after the toddlers while the ‘adults’ have an important meeting!  But where there are couples present for the important meeting, surely one of them should look after their own children, rather than disempowering the singles.

So questions for churches, sending agencies and receiving teams:  Have you personally encountered any of these challenges?  How did you feel?  Are you aware of single mission workers you are responsible for who are facing these challenges?  How can you support them effectively?  Can you change the organisational culture to demonstrate you value them?

Syzygy is leading a retreat for single mission workers at Penhurst Retreat Centre where issues adversely affecting them will be unpacked, and suitable responses considered.  Please do let people know about it!

World Watch List shows persecution on the rise

WWL

Last week Open Doors published its influential World Watch List, in which it rates countries according to the degree of religious persecution.  Many of these come as no surprise, as once again North Korea tops the list.  But the news which gives most cause for concern is that the frequency and severity of persecution is clearly increasing.  For example, in 2013 the 50th country on the list scored 35 points.  This year, the 50th country had 53 points.  And frequently the reason that some countries are dropping down the list is not that conditions there are getting better, but that persecution is growing even faster in other countries.

This reminds us that despite what we might feel in the relatively secure West, the world as a whole is not a safe place to be a Christian.  The ongoing threat from global terrorism, dictatorial nationalism and religious extremism not only from ISIS and Boko Haram but also in, for example, India, reminds us that the unprecedented levels of comfort and safety that the West experiences is not shared either by the global church or the historical church.  For much of the church’s history, persecution has been the norm.

Persecution has even been seen as evidence that our faith is genuine – the world hates us because it hated our Lord (John 15:18-21).  In this passage Jesus said that the reason people persecute Christians is that they do not know the One who sent him.  Our response therefore, as well as supporting the oppressed and campaigning to protect them, should also be to strive to make sure that the persecutors really do get to know the One who sent Jesus.

You can read a summary of the report, order your copy of the World Watch List and find out how to pray for persecuted Christians by clicking here.  And remember:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church –

there is one church.

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

Sacred Pathways

Sacred PathwaysDo you ever have the troubling feeling that while everyone around you in church is having an amazing experience of God, you are feeling nothing at all?  You wonder if there is something wrong with you.  Are you having a spiritual crisis?  Have you lost your faith?

Such thoughts can be common among all Christians, but can be a particular challenge for mission workers who may have a much narrower choice of churches, and find their ministry needs them worshipping as part of a church which is intentionally geared towards meeting the needs of the local believers.  This can make a significant contribution to levels of stress and mislead people into thinking they are not cut out for the mission field.

People feeling like this may find Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Pathways helpful.  I’ve used it many times to help people understand why they may feel they don’t fit in.  Thomas’ simple theory is that we all meet God in different ways, so what works for one isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.  He has come up with nine different types of people:

Naturalists, sensates, traditionalists, ascetics, activists, caregivers, enthusiasts, contemplatives, intellectuals.

Needless to say, people are not necessarily all one and none of the others, but a mixture, though a dominant type will probably be present.  The beauty of the names he gives is that they are readily accessible.  It’s pretty intuitive to know whether you are an activist or a caregiver, though he does go into an explanation of each in the book.

So what does it mean for the frustrated mission worker?  The first thing to say is that it’s not a licence to stop being part of a church!  It’s a tool to help you understand why your church doesn’t work well for you and what you can do about it.  So, for example, if you’re a naturalist you’re much more likely to meet God out of doors than inside, so make sure you get some nature in your spiritual life, possibly by going to a park to read the Bible.  If you’re a traditionalist you need some sort of routine, so if your church is the sort that does something different every week, compensate for that by introducing routine, or even liturgy, into your personal devotional time.

Sacred pathways is available from many online bookshops and you can read more about it on Gary Thomas’ website: www.garythomas.com/books/sacred-pathways where you can also download the study guide and read a sample chapter. The study guide gives helpful descriptions, examples of famous people who represent each type, scriptures and songs for aid in worship and suggestions of pitfalls one can fall into.

Let’s hope that this simple but effective understanding can help jaded Christians re-engage with God in a way that is suitable for their personality!

So thick-headed!

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

Eagles Rest

Eagles RestFor mission workers living abroad, part of their armoury for combating fatigue and cross-cultural stress is to take regular breaks from their place of ministry and go on retreat.  Getting away from the daily pressures, both spiritual and practical, is often essential.  We have blogged about the importance of getting adequate rest and retreat before.

But what about the local church leaders they work with?  How do the hardworking pastors cope when the stress gets too much for them?  They can’t afford holidays or sabbaticals.  Where do they recharge their batteries?

Eagles Rest in south Thailand is an excellent ministry seeking primarily to meet the needs of east Asian church leaders.  They welcome such people for a rest, and they feed them, comfort and encourage them, provide clothing, take them for days out and generally ensure that this much-overlooked ministry group get the support they need to help them cope with the burden of their ministry.  You can find out more about Eagles Rest on their website.

The work of Eagles Rest is growing and they are now looking to recruit volunteer mission workers to support their ministry.  Click here for more information.

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!

The crack in the wall

Cracked wall25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall was breached.  Few of us alive at the time can forget the emotional scenes of Germans from both sides of the barrier greeting each other freely, without risk of being shot.  The Wall had divided the city since 1961 and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe into two ideologically distinct halves.  The fall of the Wall was a dramatic change in European geopolitics which had been unthinkable only a few months before.

Berlin was a microcosm of global issues and the fall of the wall was a turning point in modern European history.  It brought down with it the Iron Curtain, and shortly afterwards the Romanians overthrew their dictator, and other communist regimes fell in eastern Europe.  Within a few years, The Czech Republic and Slovakia had parted company, Yugoslavia had violently fractured and the Soviet Union broken up.  The impact of those events still affect millions of people today – just think of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Berlin itself wasn’t the start.  The roots of the popular overthrow of communist regimes across eastern Europe began with the election of a Polish pope in 1979, which gave a new legitimacy to the Roman Catholic church in Poland.  The trades union Solidarity stood up to the communist government.  Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika.   Prayer meetings started in East Berlin.

Gods_smuggler_headerChristians played a significant part in this movement and continue to do so.  New liberties allowed Christians to meet freely and take the gospel to their neighbours.  Western mission agencies and churches could enter countries freely where only a few years before Brother Andrew had been smuggling in Bibles in his battered VW.  Protestant churches were planted where previously there had been no evangelical witness.  Church buildings were reconsecrated and put back into use.  Eastern Europe began to send its own mission workers to other countries, and today it provides the world with significant theologians and leaders.

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

At this time there will be many retrospectives.  The current issue of Vista has an excellent review.  Syzygy is proud to be helping the European Evangelical Mission Association run a conference called Revolutions in European Mission, which will take place in Bucharest in two weeks’ time on the anniversary of the Romanian revolution.  Not only will it review the successes and failures of the last 25 years of mission, but it will ask important questions about how we do mission in the future.  You can read more about it here.

Today a million tourists have taken away most of the Berlin Wall, though its location is remembered in the paving on the Berlin streets where it once stood.  On this important anniversary we rejoice with the people of central and eastern Europe, recognise what it cost many of them to gain their freedom, and pray that they will use it well.

Persecuted for their faith in Iran

captiveWe have blogged on numerous occasions about the suffering church worldwide but a visit to hear two young women from Iran talk about their experience of being imprisoned for sharing their Christian faith prompts us to consider the heroism of the many millions who struggle daily just to stay alive, let alone actively share their faith.

Maryam and Marziyeh both grew up in muslim families in Iran, and independently met Jesus while still in their teens as a result of their search for more meaning.  Within weeks they had led family members to Christ, and then shared the gospel with friends and strangers.  Boldly they spent four years handing out New Testaments around Teheran, or leaving them in restaurants, or posting them through people’s letter boxes.  In four years they were able to distribute 20,000 before the authorities finally caught up with them and imprisoned them.

Held in detention in a notorious prison, they continued to share the gospel with guards and prisoners, leading many to Jesus.  When challenged by interrogators, they said it was the fault of the authorities for putting them there!  They pointed out that it was natural for other prisoners to ask why they were there, and they had only answered truthfully, which led to people asking what Christianity was all about.

Which for us at Syzygy raises a rather uncomfortable question: how can two young Iranian believers be so bold in their faith when we in the west feel embarrassed to mention Jesus even to members of our own families?  Many of us will excitedly travel halfway round the world to take part in the latest outbreak of Holy Spirit revival but we won’t walk down the road to share the gospel with our neighbour.  We talk about being persecuted at work when colleagues tease us about being Christians and never have to face a life-and-death choice.  How did we get our values so upside down?  Why can’t we say, with St Paul:

I do not consider my life dear to me, in order that I may finish the course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God…. For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

(Acts 20:24, Philippians 1:21)

Subsequently cleared of the charges, freed, and allowed to emigrate to the United States, Maryam and Marziyeh now devote their time to reminding the church of the plight of believers in Iran, where many Christians are still in prison, and those who are not face significant discrimination and active persecution.  They are currently on a world tour telling their story to help Open Doors raise funds for a much-needed project.  We strongly recommend going to one of their remaining events, which you can find out about here.

Please pray for the suffering church in Iran, particularly those in prison.  You can find out more at the Open Doors website.

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

Cooking with Poo

img-poo_04Most of us are pretty adventurous when it comes to food, and often have stories to tell which shock those who’ve not had the opportunity to have their culinary preferences stretched to the limit on a bush tucker trial.  So Syzygy is proud to be promoting an event which will attract a lot of interest for the exquisite food.

We have talked before on this blog about the remarkable ministry of Urban Neighbours of Hope in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok.  One of the people whose lives has been affected by their work is Poo, who ran into financial difficulties when the small catering outlet she ran from her home couldn’t make money due to rampant inflation.  The UNOH team helped her start a cooking school which has subsequently become what TripAdvisor has called

One of the best-rated activities in Bangkok

Which is quite an accolade when you think of all the exciting things you can do in Bangkok!

PooNow you have the opportunity to taste this remarkable Thai food for yourself without leaving the UK, to learn how to cook it and to hear more about the amazing work of UNOH at the same time.  We are running two events, both on 4th April at Rowheath Pavilion in Birmingham.

Starting at 10.30 am and running through to 3.00 (ideal for people picking up kids from school) there will be a cookery school taught in person by Poo.  This is an opportunity for up to 50 people to cook genuine Thai food for themselves.  Then at 7.30 in the evening there will be an interactive cookery demonstration by Poo, which will also feature stories from Klong Toey, an opportunity for people from the audience to join Poo in cooking a dish, and an open Q&A time.  The cookery school costs just £30 per person, and the cookery demonstration is £10.

You can find out more about Poo on her own website.  If you can’t make it to Birmingham to meet her, there are events in other parts of the country listed here.

We speak from experience when we recommend Poo’s cooking: the intrepid Syzygy team went all the way to Thailand to sample it, and came away delighted.  We can’t wait to find out how she does it!

Guilt and shame

40288_without_face___1One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

A guilt society would be characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the use of terms such as ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘duty’.  Individuals in such societies regulate their behaviour by reference to their own conscience.  There will be shame when somebody misbehaves, but the guilt is primary.  This society will be recognised by many western mission workers as their home culture, as this culture is often dominant in the Christian world.

Shame societies, on the other hand, will place less emphasis on abstract concepts of right and wrong and more stress on the need for social cohesion by maintaining the honour of the individual, family or nation.  Individuals will regulate their behaviour by reference to the shame that exposure would bring, and the risk of social ostracism or ‘losing face’.  There may also be a sense of guilt, but the shame of exposure would be primary.  Many of the countries in which western mission workers minister will be shame societies.

This distinction is useful for understanding why other cultures do not necessarily see things our way.  So if I come from a guilt culture, I will feel it is objectively ‘wrong’ for somebody to steal my bicycle.  But if I’m serving in a shame culture, it may be a bigger cultural taboo for me to challenge the thief, thereby exposing him to shame.  My emphasis on ‘correct’ behaviour may inadvertently have become a bigger issue than the original theft.  That is why western mission workers may perceive the people they work with as having an unacceptably low tolerance for theft, absenteeism or  bribery (for example), while themselves being perceived as being legalistically inflexible and irrationally intolerant of local norms.

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

The long-term impact of living in a culture different to one’s own can be stress, fatigue and even burnout.  Ethical situations may frequently tax the individual.  Some, for example, may wonder why so many people ask them for bribes, while others will be amazed that an apparently simple administrative transaction is complicated by the completion of paperwork when a simple facilitating payment would suffice.

This situation is made much more demanding for cross-cultural workers when they see Christians happily partaking in the culture they find it so difficult to understand.  Their natural inclination is to believe that their own values are correct and appropriate (and therefore Christian) and so the others are compromised.  Behaviour that is tolerated, albeit reluctantly, in the non-Christian locals is seen as unacceptable in the church.

How can we deal with such deep issues which can, if unresolved, threaten our emotional well-being and our relationships with the people we’re supposed to be serving?  Here are some suggestions:

  • recognise your own cultural preferences and try to understand those of your host culture.  Do your best to see that it’s possible that neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they’re just different.
  • discuss your concerns with people of your own culture who have been there long enough to understand how the local culture works.
  • try not to be judgemental towards your host culture.  Recognise that there may be good reasons why they’re different, and acknowledge that they may likewise be judging you.
  • if particular issues vex you, look at what the Bible says about them, and be willing to recognise that your preferences might actually be no more godly than theirs.
  • be very sensitive in challenging the church with what you see as ungodly attitudes.  Don’t openly condemn but instead find a suitable Bible verse and ask them to explain what that would mean in their culture before explaining what it means in yours.

Who are the real believers?

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

The Injil (New Testament) is a Holy Book of Islam

We mentioned previously the conference on contextualisation held last month, and I’d like to follow up by wading into the debate on what happens when muslims find faith in Jesus.

In parts of the world where there is a dominant non-Christian culture, notably but not only Islam, it has become common in recent years for some people who find faith in Jesus to stay within their socio-religious communities.  They may still attend the mosque and call themselves muslims (or muslim followers of Jesus).  This is not necessarily because they fear persecution (they may well get that anyway) but because the community is so tight and hostility to Christianity so strong, that they would lose family, friends, social networks and the ability to earn money or even buy food.  By remaining within their community, even though they hold unorthodox beliefs, they maintain their support structures and, crucially, the opportunity to witness to their families and neighbours.

Some Christians think that these ‘insiders’ cannot possibly be real Christians, and that if they were, they should leave their communities, join a church, call themselves Christians and take the resulting persecution.

Church and mosque - mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

Church and mosque – mutually exclusive or is there an overlap?

A biblical case study of relevance would be the early Jerusalem church.  While clearly self-identifying as followers of Jesus (or The Way), they still considered themselves Jews, attended temple services and kept the law.  They were, in effect, a Jewish sect.  They didn’t stop being Jewish just because they followed Jesus.  While relationships with other sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees were occasionally violent, mostly they co-existed for nearly forty years.  The split began when the Jesus followers didn’t take part in the war against Rome (68-70 AD) and fled en masse to Pella, so their loyalty to Jewish nationalism was impugned.  Eventually, around 85AD the Jews developed a curse on those who split the faith, which forced the Jesus followers out of the synagogues where it formed part of the liturgy.

In other words, the Jewish believers were happy to remain within Judaism until those who rejected Jesus pushed them out of it.  It was the same in the churches Paul visited – they always started with the synagogue until they were expelled.  It may well be the same with muslim-background believers – only time will tell.

crossRecent research among one particular group of muslim-background believers in Jesus found some startling results.  390 believers in 118 communities (ekklesia) were interviewed.  83.9% met together with other believers at least once a week, mainly in homes.  Most of them are in groups of fewer than ten people and their activities include Bible-reading, prayer, worship and fellowship.  41% of them had come to faith through experiencing dreams or visions of Jesus, or miraculous healings.  57% of them had found faith after being witnessed to by other believers.  Perhaps the most staggering statistic was that 92% of them had shared with non-believers the message of salvation through Jesus alone.

Until the church can match statistics like that, we don’t have the right to claim that they are not ‘proper’ believers.

Focus on Mongolia

mongoliaMongolia is a country which is not often talked about in the west, and the suffering Christians in the least densely populated country in the world seem largely ignored.  Even the respected website www.persecution.org has no current reports on the situation for believers there, yet anecdotal evidence emerges for the suffering of the church.

Although there are fewer than 50,000 believers in Mongolia (precise numbers are not available), the church has an ambitious goal to have 10% of the population as active church members by the year 2020.  In a country dominated by Buddhist and atheist beliefs, where powerful shamans still wield significant influence at all levels of society, this goal is also significantly dangerous.

The Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity in Ulan Bataar

The Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity in Ulan Bataar

Life in Mongolia is hard for many people.  Unemployment is high, and so are the prices of basic commodities.  According to one source, it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  The value of its currency has tumbled almost as fast as Syria’s in recent weeks as falling coal exports deprive the country of foreign earnings.  But life is even harder for Christians, who can lack the family support networks to help them survive, and are vulnerable to significant persecution, bureaucratic disinterest and family opposition.

Yet the country does not feature in the top 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian, largely because Christianity is officially permitted.  But a recent unpublished report told of how the spy holes in the doors of apartments where Christians live had been painted over with red paint, compromising their security, but not those of their non-Christian neighbours.  Death threats spray-painted in red have been left for them.  Some have had to leave home in fear of their lives.  Despite that, the number of churches in the capital has proliferated and over 400 overseas mission workers now serve there.  Truly remarkable growth for a country which had just a small handful of believers in 1989.

Please pray for our suffering brothers and sisters.  The church faces many challenges as it seeks to reach out.  There is hostility from other faiths, lack of resources, poor access to the Bible in their own language and a resurgence of Buddhism.  Pray that God will make them bold in their proclamation of Jesus, strong in their faith, united in their love and comforted in their grief.

Featured mission: Kapumpe

kapumpe-logoMany of you will already be familiar with the excellent work of Kaniki Bible University College in Zambia.  What you may not be aware of is that after many years of working to support orphans in its local community through feeding, clothing and facilitating school attendance, not long ago Kaniki conceived a vision for providing its own primary school to increase the available facilities in the area.

God has provided amazingly for this new project.  Funds were donated, land was bought, buildings were put up by a mixture of local workers and visiting volunteers, and staff arrived.  The school is set to open next month and will add to the existing  educational opportunities in the area by raising teaching standards and increasing capacity.  You can read more about this amazing journey on their website.

But the work continues.  Kaniki still needs volunteers of all sorts – short term, summer teams, long term – to help with construction, teaching, admin, children’s work and a variety of other ministries.  The cost of volunteering at Kaniki is incredibly low, and good accommodation, food and mentoring are provided.

kopThere is also ample opportunity for getting to know the students, who come from a variety of African nations, for working in local churches and exploring this amazing country.  This is a well-managed project which will be ideal for people seeking to dip their toes in the waters of overseas mission.  You can find more information about volunteering at Kaniki here.  There is an ongoing need for volunteer teachers – click here or more information.

For over thirty years Kaniki has hosted volunteers, whether as individuals, couples, families or as part of organised groups.  They have contributed to the life of the college and in turn been profoundly affected by their experience of overseas mission there.  Many are now full-time workers overseas, others are key mission advocates in their home countries.

Two such volunteers are Tim & Gemma, who now run the Kaniki volunteers team.  They started out as students on a training programme at Kaniki, and subsequently went on to lead that programme before taking on responsibility for the whole community programme.  “Both our lives were changed forever when we came to Zambia on short-term mission,” they say.  “It turned out to be the start of an amazing journey and we would love other people to join us.”

Syzygy is happy to be part of facilitating volunteers at Kaniki.  For further information contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk or get directly in touch with Kaniki at kop@kaniki.org.uk.

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!

They had been with Jesus…

Jesus' last message

Jesus’ last message

In the book of Acts, there’s quite a lengthy story about the trouble that Peter and John get into for preaching the resurrection of Jesus after the healing of a lame man in his name (Acts 3-4).  The ructions go all the way to the top, and they end up being hauled before the authorities to account for themselves, where Peter preaches a bold message.  And then as the national and religious leaders begin to debate what to do with them, Luke adds a delightful little phrase:

They recognised them as having been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Of course, it may just be that realising they were Galileans they remembered seeing Peter and John with Jesus.  But I like to think it was more.  I wonder if they saw something in their boldness, their integrity and eloquence that reminded them of Jesus.  Had Peter and John begun to resemble Jesus?

After three years of living with Jesus, it’s highly likely that some of his mannerisms and expressions had begun to rub off on them.  Even subconsciously, we emulate key authority figures in our lives.  But this could have been so much more.  Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised them in John’s gospel) they were beginning to undergo inner transformation.  They were being reminded about what Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  They were doing what he had done, and saying what he had said.  They were becoming like him.  And it showed.

They had been with Jesus

They had been with Jesus

The great mystery of this is that the Father and the Son have set up home with us (John 14:23).  Not merely that they moved into our neighbourhood, or visit our church on a Sunday morning, but that they have settled in.  Most of us fail to actively cooperate with them.  We treat them like lodgers, who live in a room at the back of the house.  We see them occasionally, and sometimes we may have a chat, but effectively they live separately lives while under the same roof.

They want more.  They want to be treated as part of the family.  They want to belong with us.  Jesus says he wants to come in and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).  Note that he says this not in an evangelistic way to unbelievers, but as an offer of deeper fellowship to Christians.  This is an intimate relationship, living together cheek by jowl, talking things over, doing things together, just like Jesus would have done when he was living with his disciples.  And when we cultivate this intimacy, we become more like him.

Do the people you work with see Jesus in you?  Not merely the Christians, who might be looking to see him in us, but the non-Christians.  The policeman at the roadblock, the customs official, the taxi driver or the shop worker.

If they don’t, it’s probably because we haven’t been with Jesus.

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.