Thinking in terms of “black and white” is common in Christian mission. After all, people are either saved or lost, Christian or not, right? While this kind of binary thinking has its place, it sometimes obscures reality, particularly when it comes to something as complex as cross-cultural mission.
One of my former Muslim friends likes to say that the first few years after he came to Jesus he did not know what he was. He did not know if he was “Christian” or “Muslim,” everything was confusing. He told me, “the only thing I did know was that I was clinging to Jesus!”
Many people feel like having everything boiled down to good or bad, right or wrong. It makes them feel safe. Not only that, but it is actually easier to think this way.
Despite the incredible complexity God gave our minds, the physical organ of our brain is basically lazy. Without getting too deep into neurological science, due to the nature of biology, our brain seeks the easiest way to process information because that conserves energy. Thus it is easiest to think in terms of black or white because it is simplest.
But a quick look around your home will remind you that most of us enjoy more than the three primary colors. Because of the beauty it brings into our lives, we have learned to think in terms of nuance and shades.
In the same way, our missiology is greatly enriched when we push beyond our natural tendency of binary thinking. While it takes real work to carefully consider nuance and shades of meaning, the effort is more than made up for by the beauty of seeing God’s incredibly rich handiwork woven into a great redemptive tapestry.
You throw a surprise party for your spouse, only to end up fighting in front of friends about the costs. You make a quick stop at the store only to run into an old friend you had not seen in years.
Life is full of times when things happen that we did not expect, both bad and good. When I moved our family to Central Asia almost 20 years I never imagined that two graduate degrees later I would end-up an anthropologist. It was a pure gospel move, nothing to do with academia was on our on the radar screen.
When we step into God’s mission on the earth (as opposed to asking him to enter ours), we can never know all the things that will result. Sometimes we receive what hoped for, such as the old Muslim grandfather who came to Christ in a village. But often the things that leave the deepest mark on us are the unexpected consequences of obedience.
These can be the unexpected horrible, as in when our daughter Aliyah almost died in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Or it can be the unexpected wonderful like when I published my first book while living in the same city. Both were the direct consequence of living out God’s mission in Central Asia, yet neither was foreseen or desired.
In missions we often talk about trusting God for results because we have very little control over how people will respond to the gospel. But “trusting God” also involves unintended consequences, good and bad, which await just the other side of obedience.
There are several points where less than 100 miles of Mediterranean Sea separate ‘Muslim’ North Africa from ‘Christian’ Europe. That’s about like a trip across Lake Michigan From Chicago to South Haven. At one point the sea is actually less than 9 miles across!
I’ve just spent the last week at one of these narrow choke-points between civilizations. Last night, after teaching a seminar on effective church planting among Muslims, I was approached by an excited young man from the Czech Republic. He told me how God called him to this historic cross-road at the same time as thousands of Muslim refugees began to flee the political upheavals that have been rocking North Africa the past few years.
He said, “The governments here are doing a lot for the refugees, feeding and housing them. They are really trying. Its such an opportunity. But the people, the Christians, they just resent them.”
It seems that missional blindness is a common spiritual disease. The God who is not willing for any to perish brings unreached Muslim peoples to the very doorstep of the church, and all we can think about is how they might use up some of our overabundant resources.
Or course it will not do to just wag our fingers at those lazy, unspiritual Italians or French, not when the American church is, by and large, squandering a similar moment. Close to 250,000 Muslim refugees are estimated to have been resettled in the US the past 15 years. They may not be literally washing up on our shores like in Europe, but they are certainly filling our inner cities.
In Matthew 25 Jesus called those those who cared for strangers his “sheep,” as opposed to the “goats” who did not. In this I think he was teaching much more than simple human compassion. He was telling us that by such actions the world will see the character of this God we claim to serve, thus glorifying him in our deeds.
In contrast, when God’s people ignore his concern for the stranger and alien, it only reinforces to them the idea that ours is the “Christian God,” rather than the true heavenly father who yearns to gather all his children under is loving care.
I’ve this past fall I had the privilege of visiting the great nation of Russia–not once but twice. One of those trips was focused on challenging and equiping national Christians to reach out to the Muslims in their midst.
(BtW, for those who love statistics, Moscow now has the largest population of Muslims of any city in Europe, 5+ million)
Anyway, I found it interesting that our dear Russian brothers and sisters struggle with their feelings about Muslims pretty much the same way American Christians do. They intellectually know they should love Muslims in the name of Christ, but they still feel afraid since they are different.
Perhaps the simple fact that I am referring to Russian brothers and sisters can help us. For many Americans, the words “Russian” and “brother” or “sister” do not naturally go together. Because of geopolitics many Americans cannot see past the few differences to the many commonalities we share.
In a very different sort of way, I hope we can learn to see the commonalities we share with Muslims. While they do not (yet) share our faith, they do share with us deep commonality as people created in the image of God. They are monotheists. They have families and fears. Some of them are proud and pompous as a New York Stock broker, others are as gentle humble as my granny Ann.
Don’t get me wrong, the differences are real, but often the first step in mission is seeing the commonalities we have with people instead of the differences.
More and more missionaries are finding that orality is a key to church planting and discipleship among unreached people groups. However, when most people hear the term “orality” they assume it is the opposite of “literate,” a synonym for “illiterate.” But orality is much broader than reading or not reading, it is about a person’s preferred method for receiving moral instruction.
So, what is Orality? The short answer is that orality is a pattern of communication rooted in narratives rather than formal academic patterns of writing. It is a focus on human-to-human communication instead of media-to-human communication. Orality is as different from literary patterns of communication as “Ted Talks” are different from the epic novel “Moby Dick.”
But orality is a wide topic. In some situations it means stories arraigned in a clear order, slowing and deliberately taking people through the whole of redemptive history. There are great resources out there for this kind of chronological Bible storying such as those from the International Mission Board or New Tribes mission.
But other times, touching people through their preference for oral communication is as simple as what we call “point of need” stories that explain what we believe through stories from the Bible, such as those about what Jesus said and did. In other words, a good rule of thumb for communicating God’s message to people from oral cultures is that whenever they have a question about life, Jesus, morality, or our the meaning of our faith—the answer is a story.
(this originally appeared as a posting on the ISSACHAR INITIATIVE
Tucked away on the windswept Siberian steppe is a church full of vibrant Russian Baptists. This small city was a place the Soviets sent exiles and criminals. Today it is the location of the world’s largest uranium dump. And no, I do not glow at night after visiting.
I spent a few days there enjoying the warmth of fellowship with these dear brothers and sisters. As the first American guest they could remember (I wonder why), there were lots of questions, about my family, about theology, even about my view of Russian politics.
But then, surprisingly, the conversation turned to Muslims. Even in such a remote place, there are Central Asians who come through as migrant workers, in the markets and construction projects. One story stood out in particular because it was funny, touching, and insightful all at the same time.
When they were building their church building a few years ago, some of the work was done by a crew of migrant workers from Central Asia. One day as they were working, a middle-aged Tajik man called out to the pastor, “hey, are you a ‘real’ Christian? A real follower of Jesus?”
This soon led to a conversation where the Tajik man explained that he had come to follow Jesus while living still in his homeland. But his father-in-law is one of the top Islamic clerics in Tajikistan, and he has sworn to kill any Christian that baptized his son-in-law. Therefore he had been unsuccessfully seeking baptism for several years.
With great joy the man was soon baptized in a church full of Russian Baptist brothers and sisters. Then, after the building project was completed, he resolutely returned home to an uncertain fate. The pastor said this surprise encounter has caused him to be more intentional about sharing his faith with the Muslims he encounters through his regular job.
It is such a thrill to see the way our great Shepherd searches for the lost sheep of the Muslim world. He even reaches into the frozen reaches of Siberia to show them his love.
In the last few years there has been lots of talk about “Business as Mission” as if it were a new idea. But Christian mission has long been connected to business. For example, mission and long-distance trade were so closely associated in the Church of the East that the word for merchant became a code word for missionary along the ancient Silk Road.
Although few of us today work in dusty bazaars or ride a camel to our job, we can still learn from the way the gospel flowed on the ancient trade routes. Perhaps the most important lesson is that best place to share our faith is the gritty, dusty real world, not the surreal environment of a church service. Anyone can look holy and pious for 45 minutes on Sunday, but someone who lives out their faith in the rough and tumble of the work world is a bright light shining in a dark place.
How does this relate to reaching unreached people groups? First, Christian entrepreneurs, executives and business leaders have the opportunity to live out their faith in an increasingly internationalized workplace. They can be living examples of faith in Christ before Hindu, Muslim and Chinese colleagues. Secondly, Christian businessmen can help provide training, coaching, and start-up resources for local Christians who live geographically near the unreached so they can develop viable businesses which will showcase the beauty of a redeemed life.
Real Christian men and women, engaging in real business, in the real marketplace, are a key piece of the puzzle for taking the gospel to unreached people groups. Personally modeling this, and helping our brothers and sisters in the majority world do the same, could be one of the most untapped resources in the Kingdom.
(this originally appeared as a posting on the ISSACHAR INITIATIVE
I want to make a quick plug for my blogging partner at Circumpolar, Warrick Farah. He just put up a post about the role of dreams and visions in ministry to Muslims – it is fantastic!
Here is the link to that post muslimministry.blogspot.co.il. Check it out when you have time, you will be glad you did.
My latest article just came out in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, “Saying the Shahada: Matters of Conscience, Creed, and Communication.” Normally EMQ articles are only available to paid subscribers, but they keeping this one open as a teaser for new subscribers. The link below will take you to the article.
I just came home from a mission consultation with over 150 people in attendance. These were field missionaries, sending agency people, as well as church and para-church leaders, coming from over 30 different countries.
Yes, you read that right. There were missionaries and other mission leaders from more than 30 home sending countries. This incredible diversity hints at the mosaic that is 21st Century missions.
Many North American Christians have slowly become aware of the global nature of the Church. But it is another step entirely to imagine that Christians around the world are, just like us, sending their own missionaries. Many places that only a generation ago were major mission receiving centers are now home to indigenous mission sending agencies.
For example, I had lunch one day during the conference with the director of a mission sending agency in West Africa. Next summer their agency is celebrating 40th years of sending their own Africans as missionaries to Muslims. They now have African missionaries working in 34 Muslim countries and he was actively looking for new places to engage the task.
Long gone are the days when taking the gospel to the world was the “white man’s burden.” (I’m not sure that was ever true). Today in the Muslim world we joyfully labor side-by-side with brothers and sisters from Korea, India, Nigeria, Lebanon, and a host of other places that most Americans think about as places to send missionaries.
What a beautiful thought, world mission as a mosaic of Christ’s redeeming love among the nations.