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Man-Centered Missions

by Steve Hafler Editor’s note: Steve Hafler served as a missionary in Kenya and Zambia for 11 years. He now pastors Highlands Baptist Church in Centennial, Colorado. Steve provides valuable insight into missions today and a strong dose of caution to keep the focus on Christ and Christ alone.

Near the end of his extraordinary life, William Carey was becoming a household name in England. Biographies were being turned out to an eager public. Even mementos of Carey’s life were prized as almost sacred objects. One day a friend of Carey’s was going on and on about the fame of the “Father of Modern Missions.” Carey interrupted him sharply saying, “When I am gone, speak no more of Mr. Carey. Speak of Mr. Carey’s Saviour.” Carey wasn’t the last missionary to become a celebrity, and his rejection of such misplaced attention, his “He must increase; I must decrease” attitude is refreshing. But the whole story underscores a dangerous tendency in ministry.

When missions becomes man-centered, a deviation has occurred from its Christ-centered and Gospel-focused purpose. This deviation often stems from an outdated biographical ideal from the 1800s coupled with the masterfully prepared updates of “Mr. Missionary.” The pictures and stories may present a warped view of reality on the field, but who needs facts when people are spellbound? Close the deal and sign the contract while people wipe tears from their eyes and feel guilty for living in America. Pass the plate now! How can you not give when the photo collage of children’s dirty faces, recent burial mounds, and abject poverty glare at you during the closing song? Anyone untouched by the show must have a hardened heart, it is assumed.

Thankfully, there are a few refreshing exceptions on the missionary horizon, and they are easily identified. First, they do not sound like the two daughters of Proverbs 30:15 whose names are “Give” and “Give.” Secondly, they refuse to praise themselves, even inadvertently (Proverbs 27:2).

We have become desensitized to selfish ambition, empire building, and poor strategy because, well, it’s missions. I am not simply giving vent to cynicism, though at times I am disillusioned with traditional western missions and its celebrity status. But I do blush to think how national believers would respond if they saw the average missionary update. Would we present it the same way if they were watching? Would they feel exploited? Are they aware that their child is the poster boy for poverty and that their story is the closing illustration of our sermon? Would local believers validate all of our achievements? Have the local works been accurately and fairly represented? Would they agree with the impression given that “Mr. Missionary” is the only one doing valid Gospel work in sub-Saharan Africa since David Livingstone, even though there are more than 20 nationally pastored Gospel-preaching churches in the city in which he lives? Maybe we should ask the nationals.

The perspective of national believers is revealing, perhaps disturbing, and, if we humble ourselves, helpful. This may bring the accountability and integrity for which they have been pleading! In Gospel-saturated areas, the best thing we can do is extract ourselves completely from long-term occupation and let the nationals lead. Brace yourself: this will be debated by missionaries who own property and feel “at home” on the field and resisted by mission boards who boast about having “their” presence in as many countries as possible. Hudson Taylor’s words temper this pop culture view. He said, “I look on foreign missionaries as the scaffolding round a rising building; the sooner it can be dispensed with the better.”

Glenn Schwartz, veteran missionary to Central Africa who saw this danger, wrote in his article “Missionary Demeanor and the Dependency Syndrome”:

“Westerners often create projects, programs and institutions, which cannot be carried on or reproduced by those they are trying to help. Sometimes those who create this outside-induced dependency carve out a future for themselves from which they cannot seem to be extricated, if indeed they want to be extricated. If they really don’t want to be extricated, a conspiracy develops which thrives on the need to be needed by outsiders. The need to be needed is a very powerful force.”

We must not be content with long-term occupation in foreign lands when the extraction of our missionary-hero is necessary for a healthy indigenous work. The large presence of Americans is often the undoing of effective local ministry, since we continually set ourselves up as the “professionals.” If African men and women can manage Barclays Bank, international airlines, department stores, and internet providers, can they not also lead a church, a training institute, a college, a camping ministry, or a mission outreach to bordering countries?

I am becoming more righteously indignant as God’s people believe the propaganda fed by missionaries who continue to prop themselves up as irreplaceable. The real problem may not be a lack of local leadership but a lust for control, praise, or simply an unwillingness to transition away from what has become a comfortable “ministerial paradise” in a foreign land. This is what national believers are beginning to say, although nationals receiving large salaries connected to stateside donors are conspicuously quiet.

This “celebrity status” that we allow reveals a myopic view of what God is really doing in the world. The Christian leaders needed in Africa are brown, not white. They speak Bantu and Nilotic languages from the heart, not just English or French or Portuguese. The best person to pastor a Zambian is a Bemba-speaking Zambian, not an American with a Zambian translator. The best person to pastor in Cameroon is a Cameroonian who speaks one of the Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, or Nilo-Saharan languages. The best person to pastor people from Madagascar is a native Malagasy speaker called to preach who hasn’t just learned the culture but breathes, thinks, and is the culture. There are few exceptions to this rule. Missionaries from Cairo to the Cape are ruling little white kingdoms—their own designer label of Colonial Christianity. These empires are built on foreign support, handouts, job creation, and dominance over those in their charge. If our goal is to set up a long-term base of operation, then the work is doomed to float along, to give only the appearance of life as we pump in the helium of U.S. dollars.

This parade must stop. We must hold tenaciously to the conviction that the nationals themselves are “able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2). It does not glorify God when celebrity status is abused to create fund-raising machines that create destructive dependency. This ministerial manipulation is rarely exposed, because it is often glossed over by glowing prayer updates with a few well-staged photos. National believers begin to feel insecure without a direct connection to “Mr. Missionary.” What caused this thinking? Poor strategy has taught them, indirectly, to believe that they are unable to do the work of the ministry if unconnected to the umbilical cord of large dollar donations. Since the clearing agent for the influx of currency is the missionary, how can the national really offer any meaningful input? How can he disagree with the CEO invested with complete power? It would be an exceptional man to disagree with the Big Bwana when his meal ticket is at risk of being confiscated.

There must be a distinction between God’s Kingdom and a man’s empire. It is always dangerous to elevate men, giftedness, results, or any other good thing if in doing so we trample God’s glory. We not only hinder missions, but we grieve God’s Spirit by glorifying a man, a church, a project, an institution, or any other thing above God. We have for too long tolerated a silly fixation on the tool and a reverent gaze on those who should be servants. The clay pot is not the treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). We must evaluate whether it is God’s glory we are jealously guarding or the coddling of our own agenda, personal preferences, or the importance of large gifts given to construct buildings. Are we passionate about our institutional label or do we possess a radical unbiased zeal for the glory of God alone?

As we let our dear African brothers take up the work in saturated areas, may God give us and them wisdom to know how to effectively penetrate frontline, difficult-access regions for His glory. As the ministry landscape changes in Africa, may God grant men and women, New Testament evangelists, the accompanying wisdom, boldness, and "ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20).

Walk On Water

Roger had it all worked out. From old maps and detailed accounts, our day in Brighton was well planned. I came off a night flight from Addis Ababa, and my British friend met me at Victoria Station. From there we whisked southward through a late winter countryside dotted with sheep and blushed with spring color. In just under an hour, we were looking over a gray English sea and walking on what, in missions history, is sacred ground. Here on Brighton Beach Hudson Taylor made the decision from which the China Inland Mission was born. Not only did the mission become the greatest single force in the evangelization of China in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, but it provided a model for many other organizations that would penetrate more unreached lands in Asia and Africa. beachwalk Along the way, Roger helped me understand the big picture of that long-ago day on Brighton Beach, where prayer turned to peace, vision to action. Years ago when Roger made risky trips behind the Iron Curtain to help pastors and smuggle Bibles and typewriters, God gave him an inexplicable peace that He was with him. A man said to Roger once, "I want to serve Christ in such places, but I can't. I'm afraid." Roger said, "Can you walk on water?" Meaning, the Apostle Peter walked on water because he trusted the One who called him to step out into an impossible situation. It reminded me that Peter, Hudson Taylor, Roger, and all men and women of faith walk on water when they venture all on Christ. Hudson Taylor once observed, "All God's giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them."

Often when we read about "God's giants" we read history backward. Our heroes stride across the stage of their generation, every decision drawn by the compass of destiny to their rising star. Even defeats, we know, are just a prelude to the victories that will come a few pages later.

But that's reading history, not living it. I thought of that as I walked in the now-famous footsteps of Hudson Taylor along Brighton Beach. To those who know the story, Taylor's decision at Brighton was a tipping point. But in 1865, Hudson Taylor was misunderstood and ridiculed. He lacked formal theological training, and the piecemeal medical studies that he took to help gain initial entrance into China would barely qualify him to ride in the back of an ambulance today. His belief that men and single women could serve Christ on the foreign field was considered by some dangerous, or worse, scandalous. His conviction that an agency could draw workers together in common Cause from different denominations and raise financial support from God's people through prayer alone was considered naive at best.

Because Taylor wanted to lay aside any nonessential barrier to the Gospel, he insisted on looking as much as possible like the people he was reaching. This meant not only donning a robe and slippers but also wearing dark glasses to mask his occidental eyes, dyeing his blonde hair black and having a faux ponytail woven into his hair beneath a silk cap. This man was serious about the Gospel. Many of his colleagues, though, thought he was a nut. Despite the snickers that followed him, those who knew Hudson Taylor knew two things about him. First, no one to that point had taken the Gospel further into China's unreached interior than he had. And second, when Hudson Taylor prayed, he got results.

By the time of Brighton, Hudson Taylor had survived nearly seven years of hard ministry in China, but nothing there compared to the physical, emotional, and spiritual battle in which he was now engaged. He saw the need and the neglect of China. "Can the Christians of England sit still with folded arms while these multitudes are perishing?" he wrote. "What does the Master teach us? Is it not that if one sheep out of a hundred be lost, we are to leave the ninety and nine and seek that one? But here the proportions are almost reversed, and we stay at home with the one sheep, and take no heed to the ninety and nine perishing ones! Christian Brethren, think of the imperative command of our great Captain and Leader, "Go, go ye, into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.'"

By the spring of 1865 the burden had grown acute. As the months wore on, so did the weight of the crisis––the crisis of, in his words, "a million a month" in China dying without Christ. He rarely slept more than a couple of hours at a time, and he was physically and emotionally exhausted. A friend invited him to come to the seaside for a weekend to get away and to get perspective.

On Sunday morning, June 25, 1865, Taylor heard a stirring message from the Presbyterian preacher J.M. Denniston. Then, as he wrote later, "Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony; and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. I told Him that all the responsibility as to the issues and consequences must rest with Him; that as His servant it was mine to obey and to follow Him--His to direct, to care for, and to guide me and those who might labour with me. Need I say that peace at once flowed into my burdened heart? There and then I asked Him for 24 fellow workers, two for each of eleven inland provinces which were without a missionary, and two for Mongolia." There, with the sea breeze catching the pages of his Bible, he opened to his reading for that day, Job 18, and wrote on the top margin, "Prayed for 24 willing, skillful labourers, Brighton, June 25/65." Afterward he wrote, "I felt as if I could fly up that hill by the station...How I did sleep that night! Mrs. Taylor thought that Brighton had done wonders! And so it had."

Today I retraced Hudson Taylor's steps on Queen's Road where he dashed up from the beach. If he walked it now he would pass Big Bites Fish & Chips and would have picked up his pace as he reached Boots Midnight Pharmacy where the hill begins its rise. If he successfully dodged the double-decker buses that ply this road, perhaps he crossed Queen's between the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and Mr. Topper's barbershop. He would also pass the church he walked out of in 1865--it still stands but is now gutted and shuttered.

Here in front of the Flying Bean Cappuccino Stand, where I grabbed a cup before catching the train back to London, I like to think of Hudson Taylor stepping off the curb with a light heart. He has no time for coffee though‚--he has a continent to conquer! But I like to think of him this way because it reminds me that God did not (and does not) mightily work only in a black-and-white tintype world of the past.

So where are our Brightons today? Where are the next Hudson Taylors? Where are the men and women who will venture all on Christ? Perhaps she's reading this article. Or perhaps he just stepped off the curb next to the Flying Bean, his steps now ordered by the Lord.

The Unoccupied Fields

A century ago this year, Samuel Zwemer wrote one of the first detailed descriptions of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization. It was titled The Unoccupied Fields. Today we have a comprehensive online survey called the Joshua Project. With a few keystrokes, a vast encyclopedic survey of nearly 7,000 unreached people groups is available. Long before Google, though, Zwemer’s reports were gathered from books, news clippings, telegrams, and saddlebags. It’s interesting that Zwemer chose to use the word “unoccupied” rather than “unreached.” By that, he was emphasizing the risen, returning King’s words, “All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” With scarred Hands outstretched, He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” His authority extends to the ends of the earth out of which He ransomed people for God from every nation, tongue, and tribe. So He sends His messengers out to occupy the world over which He has all authority, taking the Gospel and extending His Kingdom as more and more people hear, believe, and receive their King. By “unoccupied,” Zwemer was also recalling a parable the Lord gave His disciples just weeks before His Ascension. Fittingly, it’s a parable about a king going to a far country and before leaving, he charges his servants to “occupy till I come.” My copy of Zwemer’s book is battered and yellowed, its statistics and even some country names outdated, but Zwemer was a pioneer missionary to Arabia, and his words have both the weight and the glory of the Cross about them. With 40% of the world yet unreached, with vast lands and teeming cities “unoccupied,” his words still speak forcefully:

The challenge of the unoccupied fields of the world is one to great faith and, therefore, to great sacrifice. Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise. Great victory has never been possible without great sacrifice. . . . The unoccupied fields of the world must have their Calvary before they can have their Pentecost.”

The stubborn citadels of the world in Zwemer’s day remain largely unoccupied in our day as well—a Great Wall that extends from south and central Asia to the Middle East and across Saharan Africa. This short article can hardly begin to address the challenges of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization, but hopefully it can cause us to “lift up our eyes,” to risk, to obey.

Second Wave

The world is very different from the one in which William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived. They and other missionary trailblazers inspired their generation to answer the Great Call. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian. As they crossed continents and cultures with the Gospel, though, things changed. People of every nation, tongue, and tribe were saved through faith in Christ. Churches sprang up, and Christians in many lands began sharing the Gospel with their own people. In the 20th century, political boundaries grew dramatically. There were 55 independent countries when Zwemer wrote The Unoccupied Fields. Today there are nearly 200 countries in the world. As the number of countries has grown, so, too, have the political barriers to Western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the Gospel was unhindered because Christ is building His Church! Tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is taking place in large part through effective indigenous evangelism.

This second wave of missionary forces is, therefore, much more diverse than in the past. Just this year I’ve seen African believers penetrating unreached parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, sharing Christ for the first time to people of the Loma, Golla, and Susu tribes. In northern India, Frontline’s team is systematically reaching 15 new unreached villages this year. Over the past decade, 170 villages representing a mosaic of tribal groups have been reached in this way and several churches planted and pastored by Indians. On the Siberian front, Ukrainians and Russians are joining hands to evangelize migrant workers from as far away as North Korea and praying for outreach further up to peoples above the Arctic Circle. This is just a glimpse of the Big Picture of how Christ is building His Church. Thankfully it’s not dependent on us—it’s dependent on Him!

Creative, Visionary, Opportunistic

Here at home our King is still calling faithful men and women to risk-taking Gospel ministry to the hard places. Oftentimes, though, the first barrier they encounter isn’t a distant border crossing—it’s a lack of vision and resources in our churches for the unoccupied territories. Missions in such places requires the sending and the sent to embrace creative, non-traditional roles in order to get in and stay in. There’s no blank for “church planter” on visa applications to Algeria, Afghanistan, or Laos, but there may be one for “nurse,” “English teacher,” “entrepreneur,” or “barista.” The goal in all of it is to see vibrant churches planted in native soil, but in hostile territory, frontline soldiers must adapt in order to survive and to serve. Churches here at home need to adapt, too, adjusting to the realities of the unfinished task and positioning themselves to be at the forefront of creative, visionary, and opportunistic missions.


Pioneers Needed

About the same time Zwemer wrote his book, Sir Ernest Shackleton was seeking men for another kind of unoccupied territory—his expedition to Antarctica. His now famous recruiting poster called for:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

These words could well apply to men and women whom Christ is calling to venture out to those who have yet to hear the Gospel. Our motivation is not thrill-seeking or fame—it is Christ! His grace and mercy is so beautiful and abundant in our own lives that we want to find others who are like we were before we met Jesus—blind and shackled—and see them made new.

The simple, life-changing joy of the Gospel is what sustains the pioneer and draws others to take up the hard, unfinished task. Christ alone can help us see past the mounting statistics, past the beards and turbans, past the fierce faces and the dreary, lonely places to the happy work of bringing men and women to the King.

God’s e-Smuggler

In 1967 the story of a Dutch evangelist known as Brother Andrew was published. God’s Smuggler was a sensation and inspiration as it described how Bibles were taken behind the Iron Curtain in Brother Andrew’s Volkswagen. Of course, his remarkable story was just one story. Hundreds of men and women who never had a bestseller were also involved in smuggling Bibles and Christian literature. Most of them were not from the West but were Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians. They risked—and many lost—their freedom in order to print and smuggle Bibles to Christians desperately hungry for this Bread. Printing presses were cobbled together from parts of washing machines and bicycles. Quantities of paper and ink had to be secured. Every step in making a book had to be done secretly—printing, collating, folding, stitching, trimming. And that was before the Bibles were even given to the couriers. These brave men and women sometimes carried heavy loads of books on trains or buses, traveling hundreds of miles day and night, all while they watched and prayed and played a high-risk cat-and-mouse game with the KGB. Today smuggling Bibles and Christian literature is no less important in countries where believers suffer persecution and where the Bible is a forbidden Book. While secret printing operations and courier work is still underway in places like Central Asia, smugglers now have another route to use—one that bypasses border guards and the secret police: It’s the internet! Digital storage has eliminated the bulk of books—a single flash drive can hold more Bible training materials than Brother Andrew could have put in his Volkswagen. Not only that, but the materials can be instantaneously “smuggled” to thousands of others. The internet erases the old barriers and has presented us with remarkable opportunities to create Virtual Bible Schools, penetrating some of the most difficult places from the teeming cities of China to the veiled lands of Islam.


Lambs Among Wolves, Part 2: Call to Prayer

4:30 every morning. In a city on the banks of the Nile River, the azaan, the Muslim Call to Prayer, blares into Pastor Jeremiah’s bedroom. The noise comes from five mosques bristling with loudspeakers, which purposely were built around his home. The Muslims despise the fact that there is a little church and Christian orphanage in their town because—well, just because men love darkness rather than light. When I first heard this surround-sound wake-up call, I nearly fell out of bed, but Brother Jeremiah is used to it. He told me cheerfully that he answers the Call to Prayer by getting up and praying—not to Allah, of course, but to the Lord. He prays for the needs of the orphans, for physical and spiritual protection, and for the Light to shine in that dark place.

In the last issue we looked at the growing persecution of Christians in our day. In our comfortable Christianity, we usually forget the reality of persecution in much of the world and the fact that more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. This is a call to our churches to action—this is our call to prayer.

An unexpected knock interrupted the house church meeting. The believers inside, still grieving over the death of one of their leaders, had been on their knees into the night praying for the release from prison of another one of their pastors. A knock at the door in the dead of night—was it the police or just a stranger who had lost his way and saw a light in the window? “And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. When she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished.” (Acts 12:13-16)

Isn’t it ironic that when the Lord delivered Peter out of prison that night that every door opened up before him—except the church door? This wonderful passage provides a kind of comic relief in the midst of Herod’s persecution. A prayer meeting interrupted by the very answer to those prayers, and if we are very honest with ourselves, these first-century Christians seem strangely familiar—like the 21st-century variety. We pray, yes; but we usually keep our expectations low so that we won’t be disappointed with the results—and we rarely are.

What does this have to do with our church’s response to the rise in Christian persecution in our day? It is interesting that one of the first recorded prayer meetings following Pentecost finds the church on their knees on behalf of a persecuted believer. Even though their faith was small, their God was not. Hebrews 13:3 commands us “to remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.”

The purpose of such praying is not just for deliverance for suffering Christians, but also for boldness (Acts 4:29; Ephesians 6:19-20) and for the further glory of Christ, something accomplished both by life and by death, from the pulpit and from the prison cell. For sometimes God’s purpose is accomplished through suffering. A courageous Christian journalist in Turkey once told me that if human rights organizations had been active in Joseph’s day, they would have sought his immediate release after being unjustly jailed; but God had a higher purpose than just delivering Joseph. Through the prison experience combined with God’s timing, He would not only deliver Joseph but also deliver nations.

Still though, we are to pray and to help and encourage persecuted believers, because as the writer of Hebrews explains, they and we are “also in the body.” All born-again believers worldwide are brothers and sisters through faith in Christ and are part of His Body. Just as the Lord identifies with His people in their suffering (Exodus 3:7; Acts 9:4,5), so we are to identify with them as well. If we truly embrace this truth, how can we remain indifferent to a family member’s pain?

Besides prayer, another way we can demonstrate our love and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ is by writing to government officials. Writing can make a difference and is also good stewardship. As the apostle Paul used his Roman citizenship on several occasions to further the Gospel cause or to protect believers from persecution so we should use the privileges of our citizenship to further the Lord’s work and speak up for those in other lands who cannot speak for themselves. You can find helpful guidelines about how and what to write at HYPERLINK "http://www.frontlinemissions.info/action.php" www.frontlinemissions.info/action.php

Let me encourage you to set aside time in your church to pray for persecuted Christians—perhaps having a special Sunday for the Persecuted Church with a message in the morning and a prayer time in the evening. For more focus, some churches pray for a specific persecuted believer each month, dedicating time at their weekly prayer meeting. If there are specific or high-profile cases that would be helped by letters to officials, then organize your “troops” in a letter-writing campaign, following the guidelines. Remember, though, that most persecution goes unreported. CNN usually doesn’t cover it, and it won’t make headlines in Time or Newsweek. So prayer should also be directed on behalf of Christians in particular countries where persecution is the hottest.

I have the privilege of serving alongside Christians from China to central Asia to the Middle East and north Africa. I find that their suffering is often profound—but so is their faith. I will never forget one young man I met in Pakistan following a major attack by Muslims. Christian homes and churches had been looted and burned, men were beaten and some tortured, girls from Christian families were hidden in the fields at night for fear of rape. Here was this tall teenager—we will call him Wasim—who stayed with me that day. Christians there could be excused for retreating to the shadows while the ashes of their homes and churches hung in the air and the imams were screaming from the mosques for more blood; yet my young friend had found a picture of Christ in some old Sunday School material and had stuck it on the front pocket of his shirt. He wore his Saviour’s image like an ID badge. Was he afraid? Would a lamb among wolves be afraid? But live or die, Wasim with his quiet courage and no-nonsense faith would trust the Good Shepherd whose image he bore. Wasim and hundreds of thousands like him remind us of our 1st century heritage. Even though most of us are a comfortable distance from the frontlines, we can get into the fight by getting on our knees! Pray for grace. Pray for protection and peace. Pray for boldness in the Gospel so that Christ, Who first suffered for us, would be magnified in and through the suffering of His people. Will you pray?

Lambs Among Wolves, Part 1

“Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves.” Luke 10:3 It was Saturday morning in late October. The sun was already burning off the morning mist over a grove of cocoa trees near the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Four teenage girls were on a familiar path through the cocoa plantation—off to Saturday classes at their Christian school. 14-year-old Theresia, 16-year-old Noviana, and 15-year-olds Alfina and Ida wore their neat brown school uniforms, tugging along their book bags and chattering away. They were best friends; they did everything together—now they would die together. In a moment, in a swirling terror of black masks and slashing machetes, six men fell upon the girls. The few details known of the attack are from Noviana who escaped with deep machete wounds to her face. The other three girls were beheaded on the spot. Their Muslim attackers carried their heads away as trophies, tossing two of them at a police station and a third at the door of a church.

The motivation for these murders was not robbery or rape but simply that the girls were Christians. Only a half-hearted show was made at finding the killers, and just two days after the three Christian girls were beheaded, a Muslim police officer described the situation as “everything is normal.”

The men who did this are part of an Islamic terror group called Laskar Jihad or “Holy War Warriors.” Whether it is Laskar Jihad in Indonesia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Islamic Courts in the Horn of Africa, their extremism has silenced saner Muslims and attracted others to their ranks. This virus of violence continues to spread, leaving Christians in those countries very vulnerable.

Consequently, outrageous hate is never far beneath the surface. For example, in Pakistan because of a financial dispute, a trumped-up charge of burning pages of the Koran was leveled at a Christian. This little spark of an incident, fanned by Muslim clerics, exploded into a mob scene in which as many as 3000 Muslims looted and burned five churches, a school, and numerous Christians’ homes. Unfortunately, this has been an oft-repeated scenario.

I happened to be in Pakistan three days after this particular attack. Smoke and ash still hung in the air. In my journal that night I wrote:

A full moon rises over the canefields around Sangla Hill, and in the twilight a minaret looks like a stake driven through the heart of this city. 300 Christian families live here, and not one of them feels safe tonight. My mind is swirling with all I’ve seen today—charred crosses, churches and homes gutted by fire, the cries of children and the pleas of their parents for someone to protect them. The only comfort any of us have found today has been from the Scripture. Standing outside the charred remains of the Salvation Army Church, a believer named Gulzar came up to me to talk. His broken English was mended by a winning smile and joyful countenance. Gulzar told me that two promises helped him face the fear—and then he began to quote from John 14, “Let not your heart be troubled . . . in my Father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself: that where I am, there ye may be also.” And then my dear brother lifted my spirits and gave meaning to all I have witnessed today, “Be faithful unto death,” Gulzar said quoting our Lord, “and I will give thee a crown of life.”

The next day I looked into the face of persecution again. A pastor named Masih was lying outside the hospital on a concrete walkway. The pastor had protested to the police in his village after drunken Muslims had assaulted some women in his church. For that, a Muslim gang attacked him, kicking in his skull, severing his ear, and leaving him blind in one eye. The hospital had bandaged over his wounds and thrown him out. It seems that animals get better treatment than Christians do in Pakistan.

Well, not just in Pakistan. In Alexandria, Egypt one person died and 12 were wounded in knife attacks on 3 congregations during Easter services. In Afghanistan, Iran, and much of Arabia, death is the penalty for conversion from Islam to Christianity. Even in Muslim countries that don’t specify such a penalty, a law is not needed because family members carry out the killing on their own. Muslims are not the only persecutors, however. Radical Hindus in India have pushed through sweeping anti-conversion laws in a number of states and have matched them with muscle, assaulting pastors and burning churches. Burmese Buddhists are burning down Christian villages, sowing their fields with landmines, and pulling up crosses out of Christian cemeteries. Under brutal dictatorships in central Asia house church leaders are being arrested and beaten. In Turkmenistan, Christians have even been tortured for possessing a copy of the “Jesus” film.

The list could go on and on, for as Lord David Alton has observed, “Of the world’s six billion people today, over half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life.” In our comfort, freedom, and opportunity, we should remember “the other half” of our Christian family. In the next issue we will consider just what action pastors and churches can take on behalf of persecuted believers.

For Christians in many lands, life is caught somewhere between faith and fear. It brings to mind one of the Gospel’s great missionary passages when the Lord Jesus told the 70 that He was sending them out as “lambs among wolves.” How could He do such a thing—sending His people unarmed into the jaws of death? He could because He did. From Gethsemane to Golgotha the Lamb not only walked among wolves, but even “gave Himself a ransom for all.” And as Christ explained in Matthew 10:24, “The disciple is not above his master; nor the servant above his Lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master.” For these Christians who live among wolves, they bring Light to dark places by their lives—and sometimes by their deaths—and they find comfort in His company.

The Gates of Hell

“I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) A century ago in a work called The Glory of the Impossible, Samuel Zwemer, the leading voice for missions to the unreached Islamic world, wrote of Afghanistan.

Listen to the story of the conversion and martyrdom of Abdul Karim, the Afghan convert: With a real devotion to Christ, he was taken with the intense desire, in the summer of 1907 to enter Afghanistan and preach the Gospel. Crossing the frontier at Chaman, he was seized by Afghan soldiers, brought before the Governor of Kandahar, offered rewards and honors if he would recant, and when he refused, was cast into prison, loaded with chains. He was examined by the Amir, but remained firm in his confession. Then he was marched off for Kabul in chains, with a bit and bridle in his mouth, while every Mohammedan who met him smote him on the cheeks and abused him. Finally, when he was set at liberty, he tried to find his way back to India, was seized by the people in a village, carried to their mosque, and ordered to repeat the Moslem creed. Abdul Karim refused. “A sword was then produced and his right arm cut off, and he was again order to repeat it, but again refused. The left arm was then severed in the same way, and on his refusing the third time, his throat was cut. There is no doubt that whatever the details of his martyrdom may be, Abdul Karim witnessed faithfully to the last for the Saviour Christ, and died because he would not deny Him. There are many secret disciples in Afghanistan who honor Christ as we do, and there is no doubt that at the present time a public acknowledgement of Christianity would mean a cruel death. At the same time, I believe that the Church in Afghanistan will not be established until their have been many such martyrs, who will seal their faith with their blood.”


A century later Afghanistan remains one of the most intractable pieces of the 10/40 puzzle. The latest wave of evangelism has followed the US and NATO fight to free the country of the control of the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda clients, some of whom carried out the September 11th attacks on the US. NATO forces have encountered bitter winters, blistering summers, harsh terrain laced with a patchwork of tribes that are at once divided and united by ancient hatreds. Our troops fight a borderless war with an elusive enemy over a long campaign. Their courage and sacrifice are exemplary, and many have laid down their lives in the cause of freedom. All of this, too, can be said for the first-wave forces of Christians serving in Afghanistan. Their long campaign has also been marked by struggle, suffering, and untimely graves. Yet there have also been victories. Did He not promise this? For Christ said that not even the gates of hell—not even the gates of Islam—would be able to withstand the advance of His Kingdom! The Kingdom outposts are small and scattered and born into the fellowship of His sufferings. Like the six Afghan men I know who meet on a different day and at a different time each week to avoid detection. Or the woman who received a New Testament and after two years invited the missionary to her home and introduced the family members who had received Christ. Holding up the Book, she said, “This is the Truth we have been seeking for years.” There are yet others, even among the Taliban, who need to hear that Christ died for them. So the Kingdom campaign continues.

Any army that’s effective must adapt to the terrain, and so it is in missions. Outreach in a country like Afghanistan cannot be done with traditional missions strategies. Healthcare, literacy, and community development teams will spearhead the work to create opportunities for building relationships and sharing Christ. Will you pray for us and support us as we penetrate one of the last frontiers of the Gospel?

Walking Together

There is a spot near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a little marble circle that marks what the ancient Chinese believed to be the very center of the universe. Today this cosmic bulls-eye is just a place for grinning tourists to stand and have their picture taken. However, many ancient peoples had similar beliefs about their realm being at the center of things. Why else, for example, would one say, “All roads lead to Rome”? While it is an interesting idea that the center of the universe is located in Beijing or Rome, I am not convinced. In fact, I think the chair I am sitting in writing this article may just as likely be the true center of the universe! Seriously though, when it comes to missions, I am afraid that for too long, many of us here in America have behaved as if we were at the center of the universe. walkingtogether-vertical

In olden days, designating a particular place as the center of the universe was easy because to many ancients, their world was flat and relatively small. After a whole “new world” was discovered, though, little maps grew into great globes, and centers were more difficult to designate. Similarly, in the missions realm, the world is very different from the one that William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived in. They and other missionary trailblazers inspired their generation to answer the Great Call. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian. As they crossed continents and cultures with the Gospel, though, things changed. People of every nation, tongue, and tribe were saved through faith in Christ. Churches sprang up, and Christians in many lands began sharing the Gospel with their own countrymen. In the 20th century, political boundaries grew dramatically (there were 55 independent countries in 1900 and 192 countries by the end of the century) and so also grew the political barriers to western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the Gospel was unhindered. In the past quarter century, tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Of course, the largest growth has been in China in the past twenty years through the house church movement. Today there are tens of millions of believers that God brought to Himself largely apart from any western influence. While in the West we could pray for China but not go, behind the Bamboo Curtain the Lord was doing a marvelous work through the Chinese themselves—surpassing in scope and fervency all work previously done in China and producing a truly indigenous Church.

Missionary ranks are, therefore, much more diverse than in the past. In many countries indigenous churches are not only firmly planted but some, such as Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and Ukraine (to name a few), are also sending out missionaries to other countries. Of course, the United States continues to be a driving force in missions today, but others are driving, too, and those who are too poor are riding bicycles or walking—but all are answering our Lord’s order “go ye.”

And so the center of the missions world has shifted a bit. How should American missionaries, mission boards, and the pastors and churches who support them, relate to Christian workers in other countries given the differences between us? It should be a relationship that is not based on our money or our expertise, but one that is characterized by respect and humility. Our approach must be culturally-sensitive and our attitude Biblically-balanced.

Naturally, “Go ye into all the world and make disciples” means that missions involves working with other people. Often they will be Christians who are very different from us with strange names who speak in strange tongues and eat strange food. We usually refer to such people as “nationals,” but really they are just people. When we talk about working with nationals—that is, Christians from other cultures—there may be suspicions, concerns over accountability, and differences over methods and practice. Such responses actually go back to the earliest days of the Church. As Acts unfolds, the “original” Christians (Jewish believers who thought Jerusalem was the center of the universe) grew concerned about the Gentile Christians. Some wanted to impose their Mosaic culture on these Greek and barbarian converts. The controversy which Acts 15:2 describes as “no small dissension and disputation” was so great that Paul and Barnabas had to come off the field and go to Jerusalem to explain the situation. Peter and the other leaders at Jerusalem wisely saw that the Gospel was about Christ and not culture. Rather than impose Jewish legal strictures on these non-Jewish believers, they simply outlined a few simple requirements for Gentile believers for the purpose of purity and unity in the Body of Christ. Then Paul and Barnabas got back to work!

This was not an isolated incident. “Cultural clashes” between Christians in the early Church are recorded throughout Acts. In fact, Paul wrote Galatians in order to deal with the issue in the strongest possible terms. Yet misunderstandings among Christians of different backgrounds and the desire to impose cultural preferences along with the Gospel work is just as real in the 21st century as it was in the 1st.

Every church has its own culture that it cherishes—one shaped by tradition and the handprints that mold a ministry over time. Culture provides a level of unity within a congregation that is important. It is only when a particular culture is elevated to be the biblical standard for all Christians and therefore should be imposed on others that the culture is out of bounds. Just imagine how most of us would respond if a Christian of the Krung tribe in southeast Asia told us to leave our shoes and pews outside the church building. We would probably politely tell him to go home! That example is really not much different than when Western missionaries insist on suits and ties or learning English in order to read the King James Bible. Planting an American-style church in foreign soil usually lasts only as long as the missionary and his money. Such church plants, if they survive, are often fragile and fruitless.

The apostle Paul had a different approach. In I Corinthians 9:20, he said, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without the law, as without law. . . that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the Gospel’s sake.” And so in the pattern of Paul, in Egypt I must never cross my legs while seated before the congregation; while among the hill tribes of Cambodia, I sit cross-legged on the floor while preaching. When I worship with Christians in Pakistan, we clap as we sing, keeping time with a tabla drum. Despite grenade bombings of their churches by Muslim fanatics, their songs and faces are filled with joy and not dread. When I pray with my Christian brothers and sisters in Central Asia, we hold our hands open. Using a tabla with singing or lifting up our hands in prayer is part of their worship culture—just as using a piano, sitting in pews, and mixing men and women together in church is part of our culture in the West. Within Biblical bounds, no worship culture is better than another—they are just different. These are refreshing reminders that the Gospel is for all people in all places.

Working with national pastors, evangelists, and others in the ministry is fruitful and effective. These Christian workers don’t have to learn a new language, adapt to the nuances of a new culture, or spend years on deputation. It is a privilege to come along side them in “joint ventures” starting Bible schools, planting churches, developing radio broadcasts, publishing Gospel literature, and laying strategies together for the further advance of the Gospel.

It is often the case that Americans may have more formal Bible education than Christian workers in other lands; so we may be called on to help provide Bible training to such men and women. But we must never confuse a seminary degree with superiority. Yes, as a minister of the Gospel we should be “apt to teach,” but we should also be “apt to learn” as well. Over the years I have learned so much about prayer, faith, and the power of the Gospel from Christians who were barely literate. They have no credentials, but they have Christ and much to teach us about Him in often profound and practical ways. Therefore, sometimes we teach—and sometimes we are taught. We are not “the boss”; we are just fellow slaves serving the real Boss.

Amos’s question, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” answers itself. Clearly two walking together don’t have to agree on everything. They just have to agree to walk together—to go in the same direction. When working with nationals there must be no compromise of the Gospel, but if there is agreement on direction, on the fundamentals, on majoring on the majors and keeping the minors in their place, the relationship will grow into a partnership and then a friendship. President Reagan used to have a plaque on his desk that read, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished so long as no one cares who gets the credit.” When it comes to missions and partnering with nationals, the same is true, except it must be modified—“so long as Christ gets the credit.”

Rise and Fight Again

riseandfightagain Not long ago a friend and I visited Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania.  That day the Delaware River was a perfect mirror reflecting a crisp blue and white sky—the silver glass waters rippled only by lolling, lazy geese shaking off a nap as we slipped down to the river’s edge.  There, giant sycamores shade the bank where stands an old stone marker which reads:

Near this spot Washington

Crossed the Delaware

On Christmas night 1776

The eve of the Battle of Trenton

There could hardly have been a more striking contrast between that peaceful afternoon and the desperate, dangerous night when Washington risked everything.

Crossing the Delaware was a bold turn at the end of a long retreat.  The fall of ’76 had been a season of setbacks.  Outnumbered and outgunned, many of his soldiers had little to show for their service but their gaunt frames and a knack for digging graves.  At the end of the year, just days away, their enlistments would expire, and in all of the war there was hardly a more close and critical time, as the destiny of a nation wavered on the edge of a knife.  For Washington, the greatest risk was not taking one; so on Christmas Day, in the teeth of a storm, he crossed the river here and captured an enemy that was celebrating too soon—and thus turned the tide in the fight for freedom.  There would be yet five more years of war, but this was the day that defined Washington and our Nation.  

One of Washington’s generals, Nathanael Greene, would remark on their uneven path to victory, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.”  I have often thought of Greene’s words in the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged as a mission—the effort to take the Gospel to the least-reached areas.  It should not surprise us that the difficult places are, well, difficult—and that for Christians in many parts of the world, suffering is as much a part of their faith as comfort is a part of ours.  Despite attacks and setbacks, by God’s grace, He gives them the strength to “rise, and fight again.”

That is what Paul did.  Acts 14 tells us that he was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra, but amazingly Paul got up—and then just as surprising, he went back into the city and finished his sermon!  That spirit lives on in many of our friends on the frontlines.

A young pastor in Pakistan named Sam Masih.  When I first met him, he had been brutally attacked by a Muslim mob who tried to beat him to death and left him with a crushed skull, a severed ear, blind in one eye, and a paralyzed right arm.  Even on that day when we prayed and wept together while he laid bruised and broken, he wanted to stand up.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was back in Pakistan and met our dear pastor.  Despite the loss of an eye and the use of an arm, he is not only standing but serving and shining for Christ.  I wept for joy to see his face again.

I am including here an excerpt from Samuel Zwemer’s book The Unoccupied Mission Fields, published in 1911.  Zwemer was the “apostle to Arabia,” a pioneer missionary who poured his life—and buried two of his children—in the hostile lands of Islam.  These are words worth reading—and reading again:

samuel_zwemerThe challenge of the unoccupied fields of the world is one to great faith and, therefore, to great sacrifice.  Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise.  Faith has the genius of transforming the barely possible into actuality.  Once men are dominated by the conviction that a thing must be done, they will stop at nothing until it is accomplished.  We have our “marching orders,” and because our Commander-in-Chief is not absent but with us, the impossible becomes not only practical but imperative.  Charles Spurgeon, preaching from the text, “All power is given unto Me. . . . Lo I am with you always,” used these words: “You have a factor here that is absolutely infinite, and what does it matter as to what other factors may be.  ‘I will do as much as I can,’ says one.  Any fool can do that.  He that believes in Christ does what he can not do, attempts the impossible and performs it.”

Frequent set-backs and apparent failure never dishearten the real pioneer.  Occasional martyrdoms are only a fresh incentive.  Opposition is a stimulus to greater activity.  Great victory has never been possible without great sacrifice.  Does it really matter how many die or how much money we spend in opening closed doors, and in occupying the different fields, if we really believe that missions are warfare and that the King’s glory is at stake?  War always means blood and treasure.  Our only concern should be to keep the fight aggressive and to win victory regardless of cost or sacrifice.  The unoccupied fields of the world must have their Calvary before they can have their Pentecost.

For Christians with folded hands and routine religion, his words may seem as out-of-date as the book itself, yet may they once again call out to men and women of our generation who would take risks for Christ’s sake, who would take up their cross and follow Him because they love Him more than themselves.

It is a call that we, along with our co-workers in China, India, central Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union, desire to pursue with all our strength in the coming year.  And we thank our Captain that many of you are in the ranks with us, supporting the Cause through the setbacks and celebrations of this long, costly Campaign that began at Calvary and that will end in complete Victory!

Women of the Mountains

poorwoman They beam with joy, these mountain girls whose fate would have otherwise been a life of continual sighing.

In the mountainous Tropoja region of Albania, sons are preferred. Pregnant women are greeted with the expression me një djalë (may it be a son). To ask someone how a job interview went, or whether they were accepted into university, people quip, “Boy or girl?” (i.e., “good or bad?”). For many years, a woman became officially married only after she had given birth to her first son. In some parts of Albania, the main beam of the house is painted black at the birth of a girl as a token of the family’s disappointment and mourning. When a girl is born, the mother weeps, her husband curses, and family members wag their heads at their ill-fate. Many wives have been abandoned after birthing, say, seven girls in a row.

One mother was asked why she should weep at the birth of a little girl. “The fathers curse because they need boys for their egos,” she replied, “but we mothers weep because we know from experience how hard her life is going to be.” Indeed, the life of an Albanian woman is hard (in the way that the life of an ox is hard). Highland women are so strong that “should their [labor] pains begin while on their way into town carrying a load of firewood, they would be able to give birth at the roadside, and then, with the baby and the firewood loaded on their back, set off to do their shopping in town and return home as if nothing had happened” (Robert Elsie, A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture). Even Pastor Gjon’s wife Elira walked 90 minutes down a steep mountain to catch a ride to the hospital to give birth to her first child, Rozafa.

There is nothing wrong with a woman working hard, nor is there anything wrong with enduring hardship. There is, however, something grossly wrong with the mountain mentality as expressed in the revered Code of Lekë Dukagjini: “a woman is a [burlap] sack—made to endure.” This mindset affects all of Albania, but especially the mountain villages. It is common for a man to kidnap a girl to be his wife, without any recourse other than a modest payment to her father. Women are treated as beasts of burden, while many of their husbands are lazy, drunken bums with every cultural right to strike and rape their wives.

This is an area where we unashamedly try to change the culture. Let Albanians keep their traditional dress, folk music, and highland dances; but the Gospel must change the way a man sees his wife, the way a woman sees herself, and the way parents see their newborn baby girls. Men must be humbled; women must discover how much God loves them; husbands must learn about sacrificial love; parents must learn to receive their daughters as gifts from the Lord.

God has blessed our mountain churches with terrific girls and ladies. Pastor Gjon and Elira (with their two DAUGHTERS) are leading by exemplifying Christian family life. Theirs is the best home in Tropoja, where anyone can observe Christ loving His church and the church submitting to her head. Their daughter Rozafa is well-disciplined and happy at three; their newborn daughter Mirlinda is cherished no less because she is female. Their home is filled with laughter, respect, love, and prayer.

There are other testimonies to joy … like Rakela, a single, 26-year old graduate of Shkodra University, “stuck” back in the mountain villages (this is a nightmare for any Albanian college student—unmarried and back in the village). Rakela has rejected several offers of marriage—one to an American—based on her Biblical principles. Some believers in this situation wither away in self-pity, knowing their life will be wasted away working like an ox. Rakela, instead, chooses to focus on the goodness of God and how she can advance the Kingdom. She has evangelized and is discipling seven sisters (and their mother) who are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ.

The Gospel does not promise that each of these mountain girls will marry Christian men, nor does it promise that they will not end up kidnapped or working their husbands’ fields night and day. But it does grant them eternal life and a true understanding of God’s love to them. That is why they beam with joy, these mountain girls whose fate would have otherwise been a life of continual sighing.