How about shaping your 2020 travel plans around something different? Read on…
One of the groups of posts that I have received most feedback about is this one, outlining what Unengaged People Groups are, and why so few are going to them (from a western, reformed perspective). Millions in our world are left with little or no access to the good news of Jesus, and very few of our churches are aware, or perhaps are able to think through how to shape their whole church-life around such a heartbeat – God’s heartbeat for the nations.
Having already introduced Unreached People Groups and Unengaged People Groups (see link above), I have a third category today which I’ve been learning about recently, which will help clear up a number of issues.
Frontier People Groups
What are Frontier People Groups?
Why isn’t ‘Unreached’ and ‘Unengaged’ terminology enough?
There are many problems with the term “Unreached”, and its definition as a people group with under 2% evangelical believers. It means that both the Republic of Ireland and Yemeni people (in Yemen) fall into the same category. But they’re not. In the Republic of Ireland, there has been Judeo-Christian framework shaping the land for hundreds of years, the Bible freely accessible and indigenous evangelical churches growing fast. In Yemen, to the best of my knowledge, none of this is readily available, apart from perhaps the Bible online in a written (variant?) of Arabic. Yet both are called “unreached”.
Hence the addition of “unengaged”?
Well, yes. Unengaged People Groups don’t have workers amongst them, don’t have the scriptures in their language, and have no local indigenous evangelical church movement. But there are still problems with this definition, or at least the usage of it.
Often agencies have been working together to ensure that the most “unengaged” peoples are reached. And as soon as a team, or individuals go to that people group, they become “engaged”. Now if that people group is under 50,000 people, fantastic! But what if that people group is 5 million people? Is this one team now engaging them all? Sadly they are often taken off lists of “unengaged” at this stage, with little understanding that teams are only language learning (not really engaging people), and could well be chucked out (in many Creative Access Nations) very quickly.
There are also some places, where other locals from surrounding areas, could indeed reach into this people group, without a total outsider coming to them, as they have similar culture, language or heritage. We might like to differentiate between these “Unengaged” groups, and unengaged peoples who have no chance of that happening.
And so we arrive at Frontier People Groups.
For definitions of them you can see here and here.
There’s a danger that such terminology can soon swamp us and dull our imaginations by forcing non-Biblical (though not un-biblical) definitions on us as a narrow framework. But given the lack in emphasis towards the least reached, in our misisonal giving and sending, I hope such definitions will instead sharpen us and be of much use in the years ahead.
And where some of these Frontier People Groups may be inaccessible, some may be dangerous to visit, and some may be unwise to visit on holiday, there are others which the more adventurous amongst you could indeed think about visiting and getting a feel of whether you or your church could be pray-ers, senders or supporters of those who go to such people groups with the good news of Jesus.
It was the “Introduction to Mission” module at a local Bible College, and I was lecturing there for the first time. A bit out of my depth, in a room full of people who had far more experience of mission than I did, I sometimes (rightly or wrongly) resorted to my favourite topics, tangents or strong points, to fall back on familiar territory.
Nearing the end of day 2, I went off briefly on one of those excursions into a short bit about “Unreached People Groups” as I’ve written about here before. As I turned back round to the class, I noticed a blank face or two and a voice spoke up:
“But where is that in the Bible, Sir?”
And it was at this point, I admitted that indeed the exact definition and outworkings of Unreached People Groups, as defined by the Joshua Project, International Mission Board (of the Southern Baptists) or other major organisations, are not in the Bible. That’s why this was only a passing mention in a far fuller Biblical course. Something I hold lightly to, though perhaps for the number of times I mention it, you wouldn’t think so!
Yes, we’d seen aplenty that God’s heart was for all nations, right from Genesis onwards. Even as we read prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus, around Christmas, many of them have this “all nations” scope.
“His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth”
Micah 5:4 (speaking of what the eternal God would do, being born in “little” Bethlehem)
“My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people – a light for revelation to the Gentiles…”
Luke 2:30-32 (Simeon realises the significance of this birth is far more than just for his own people)
And we could go on…(instead, why not get your hands on Chris Wright’s “Mission and the People of God” or Chester’s “Mission Matters”?)
But despite these constant mentions of the nations or all peoples, it still doesn’t help us define what that looks like. And that’s where this article on The Gospel Coalition (and this one too) strikes back at current tendencies in missiology.
And what the authors mention is certainly true. Three things struck me from 10 years taking trips to more unreached, unengaged parts of the world:
The “Unengaged” world (as defined here) has comparatively few resources (it used to be around 1% of all evangelical mission giving), and few seem to care enough to shape their church mission policies and individual lives, to sacrificially prioritise these peoples. There are great needs that brought about the wave of thinking about “unreached people groups”, that still exist. Let’s not shy away from this area, thinking it is the “sexy” topic of the time.
We cannot zap Jesus back by completing the great commission, as soon as the last tribe hears the last word of our good news presentation in their language. Mission is about far more than gospel presentations, Discipleship (Seeker) Bible Studies or responses. The great commission speaks of teaching people to obey all that Christ has commanded, and the New Testament develops the idea of God’s people – now, the Church.
If we do not take a stronger emphasis on what the Bible emphasizes in discipleship (that discipleship is messy and growing Godly character is never quick), in local church (that a meeting of 3 people looking at the scriptures is not necessarily a church), in evangelism (that pragmatics of hunting “people of peace” and other such strategies cannot define us), then we will not have healthy churches that will survive long-term. We may have exciting stories of dozens of “church” plants. But we may simply be inoculating the culture against Christianity (by making them think they’re Christian), rather than seeing genuine conversion.
So let’s not take our foot off the gas/pedal. There are great needs. But may we steep ourselves first and foremost in the scriptures, to know what to grasp as first importance, and what human principles may be useful but not essential. May we tie our seminaries to our mission-fields and see that it is Godly, equipped people we are sending to plant sustainable, indigenous churches.
How can going to church, be destroying the church? Isn’t it the people who aren’t going to church that we should be worried about?
Let’s take a step back and come with me to the area I have just moved into in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Within 1 mile of my house, we have:
2 Presbyterian Churches (with 2 more just outside the mile walk)
2 Roman Catholic (with another 2 just outside the mile)
2 Church of Ireland congregations (with another just outside the mile)
1 Independent Methodist (with 1 denominational Methodist just outside the mile)
1 Congregational church
1 independent evangelical church
1 pentecostal church
1 Brethren Gospel Hall (with another just outside the mile)
Without visiting them all, I could fairly confidently say that within a mile of me, at least 7 of these churches would hold to historic evangelical doctrine. 2 would be reformed in their understanding of doctrine and practice.
I go to none of them.
Instead, I choose to drive 6 miles into the city, to a church which has its membership on average commuting similar distances.
What difference does this make to church life?
Dr Carl Trueman in his (free) lectures on the Reformation, famously said that the greatest impact on the church post-reformation, was the invention of the motor car. In our cars, we become the arbiters of churches.
In our cars we can get to churches miles away in minutes (I travel to mine in 12 minutes on a Sunday).
In our cars, we can be tempted to go elsewhere. Many of those who I’ve sat beside in church recently (deliberately sitting beside new-comers where I can), said they’re just popping in to visit from their home church – miles away.
In our cars, church discipline (in the positive sense of the term), no longer is effective, as we can jump in our cars and drive to the next church, where the elders know nothing about our character or actions.
In our cars, we no longer see each other as much, as we all live so far from each other. Scripture has 52 “one-another” actions which the church community are called to practice. Can we do them from distance? Debatable.
In our cars, if we were to do these “one-another” practices, we would spend a good chunk of our time driving, and thus dwindle our time with non-Christian friends (who are unlikely to see the need to drive the same number of miles, past perhaps past 50 other churches, in order to go to one which meets our theological niche or stylistic preference).
Is geographical proximity necessitated by New Testament Church principles?
Of course not! You don’t find Paul stating that the main problem in the church was their lack of geographical proximity. But you do find the New Testament authors giving 52 “one-another” practices they see the Church ought to be fulfilling, whilst living as a missional community together. I could imagine geographical proximity was never a problem in NT times, apart from, for example, Ethiopian Eunuchs passing by, who might need to go and plant their own church amongst their own servants and people.
Take a look at this next picture, in the same city (Belfast) that I live in:
Lots of churches still here, but now the breakdown might be more like:
3 Roman Catholic Churches (with another just outside the mile walk)
1 evangelical church
1 brethren Gospel Hall (just outside the mile walk)
1 Church of Ireland hall (1 Church of Ireland just outside the mile walk)
Here, for a similar density of population, in a Irish Nationalist community, we have only one evangelical church (that I’m aware of). I could imagine some places in West Belfast where there would not even be this.
Is it really a problem?
In some ways, no. Middle class people, due to cars/transport, are not geographically bound anymore, particularly in the cities. Our friends are not our nieghbours (often). Consider 3 scenarios:
If I was to live in London, the people I see most during the week are my colleagues in central London, or my friends I meet with after work. Not as many are bound by the area they live in. Many travel on the Underground 30 minutes to meet for coffee or a pint.
If I was to live in Ballingeary or Goleen in rural West Cork, it would take me over 30 minutes to drive to an Evangelical Church. But many farmers, although tightly knit to their communities, drive this distance to the shops or for other things.
If I was to live in Khemisset, in central Morocco, with a population of over 130,000, I might have to drive well over 1 hour to find an accessible underground church community (given as a local I may be not allowed to attend a foreign-led one). This may be an advantage to me, as I may not want to be seen going to a local fellowship.
But really, is there not a problem?
Could I suggest there are several problems here, which are destroying the church, because of travel. We can come back to each in due course.
By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in “one-another”ing, each other (discipleship)
By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in evangelism because we turn it into an individualistic burden instead of living out authentic community: “that they might know that you are my disciples by your love for one another”
By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we refuse to keep the main thing, the main thing. We divide over secondary issues and often form our identity round them (great as they may be). In this, we fail to prioritise the most unreached areas, instead prefering our own style or theological nuance.
By traveling miles to church, we are telling some communities (whether linguistic, geographical or cultural) that they must become “other” in order to believe. The trouble is, this “other” isn’t often commanded by scripture.
Now all this I say with two caveats. (1) I am part of the problem and (2) I have no intention of moving house or church right now. I would like to think I’m a bit of a unique case (don’t we all??) but lest I get caught up in justifying myself, I’ll refrain from telling you all about it, and allow my elders and church family to ask those questions, my neighbours and friends to decide how effectively I’m living for Jesus amongst them, and my friends of other denominations to see whether I’m dividing us all by placing too much weight on secondary things or not.
You can read more about these specific issues numbered above, here:
It was a household name in travel for well over a century, but yesterday one of the first ever travel companies, shut its doors all over the world for the final time.
Thomas Cook was an English Baptist missionary, intent on freeing people from spending their money on the short-lived pleasures of alcohol and other things which dull the senses, and instead helping people invest in an experience outside of their everyday world – in something that would open their minds and senses – in travel. First only using trains and short trips to other parts of England, but then finally, along with his son, in creating journeys which would take travelers on full voyages of the world! And from it, grew the world’s largest travel company (taking on various names and brands inbetween). You can read more here.
Despite this, I, as a symptom of the way my generation travels, have never used them once in my life (prefering like most millennials and GenZ, to book my travels independently for cheaper), but there’s still something nostalgic that wells up inside me at the thought of them going, never to return.
Like when many companies go under, there’s infuriation from employees at the lack of communication from the top. Over 21,000 losing jobs worldwide, with families affected and very real circumstances to face tomorrow morning for many, waking up without this month’s pay and no work forseeably to go to. So often companies rely on last minute takeovers to save them, and can’t publicise their doom to employees without further risking the company’s last-minute deal making. Watching the shutters come down on our local Thomas Cook office here in Belfast, was harder because there were real people pulling those shutters down, with nothing to go back to.
But there’s also deep frustration and regret from travellers. If any are like me, we (foolishly or otherwise) don’t often spend money on travel insurance often. In fact, many these days save huge amounts or take our loans in order to afford travel. For them, although they’ll get back home eventually, the dream has turned into nightmare. And even for the many that have insurance, some have their honeymoon ruined; their family reunion shattered; their once-in-a-lifetime adventure, gone. It’s not as easy as pointing fingers at individual responsibility,
The travel brochure image that was once tangibly real and in our grasp, now lies on its way to our recycling boxes, tear stained and no longer trusted. What seemed to jump our from our Instagram feeds on our screens and be ours to enjoy in full 3D colour, has gone back to being imprisoned behind cracked screens, still as distant as ever – perhaps moreso, for the fact that our appetite to dream, to save, to book another holiday will indeed seem far less mouth-watering a second time round.
Surely many smaller travel companies, who were already be feeling the weight of major political upheavals in Brexit, or fears of terrorism in parts of the world; the closing down of travel visas; or uncertainties of environmental policies impacting travel; will sense the weakening of this type of market will indeed be upon far more than the giant corporate brand too.
However it will be only a minor hiccup and a small dent in the overall travel industry, that was already bypassing such big corporations for other ways of globe-trotting that are less prone to the direct stare of environmental campaigners like Greta Thunberg. But leaving aside such large questions as will continue to loom over the travel industry and against human nature, may I finish by doing as I do in each chapter of my book, and asking for God’s guidance, wisdom and help in all of this, as we seek to respond well as Christians? None of us can predict the ins and outs of what will happen in the future, and although hindsight is a wonderful thing, my analysis of the past (or future) will not help many, compared with the very real promises of the One who made Travel, and the panorama He gives us over all time.
For the Thomas Cook employee:
Loving, Heavenly Father, We find ourselves facing sudden times of unexpected great loss, Without job; Without livelihood; Without means of providing for others; And even in the bitterness of how it all happened, We turn to you.
We turn to you as the author of travel; We turn to you as the provider of all good things; We turn to you acknowledging that no matter how insightful we are, We cannot predict what will come to any of us.
And so we rest on you and you alone this evening. You are the unchanging rock. Would you use the hard events of the last 24 hours to help us trust you? Would you warm our hearts again with your goodness, And forgive us when we trusted more in our own provision?
And for these moments when things are taken away, We pray we would know your presence and leading in very real ways, As we are united to the One who lost everything, To provide for us.
In His name, Amen
For the stranded traveller:
Loving, Heavenly Father, We praise you, the great creator God, Who made all of this earth. We’re excited to explore it, and plumb the depths of the good things you have given us. But even more, we’re excited to know you, Because you will be infinitely better than your creation. For you were the one who came to rescue a stranded creation, that rebelled far from you. We’d love to know your heart for this world – how you see it.
And so we pray you’d do just that. That in our disappointment, you would show us greater joys. That in our frustration, you would create in us thankful hearts. That in the unfulfilled longings of this world, that you would cast our minds and hearts to the new heavens and earth to come.
By the power of the Spirit, In your Son’s name, Amen
Thanks for all your feedback, phone calls and comments from a wide range of folk about my last blog post here. It appears our setting on this island resonates with many places in the world. I want to quickly respond to a few common questions that many asked, as a means by which to generate further conversation – please do keep chatting! As numerous people replied with these questions, having similar conversations with me, please don’t think I’m speaking about you specifically if you see ‘your’ question(s).
“Clearly no Christian says they have their full identity in their flag. Can we not have part of our identity in it – in the place God has us born?” (about a dozen people said this)
God has lavishly given us everything in life that we have (including our new identity in Him). The only question we have, is how we respond. Because I have been given everything, I hope to say I have everything to give, and God within me to empower me to do so, even when that’s hard. It is hard to read Philippians chapter 2, and still ask questions of “what can I keep speaking about loudly in my identity?”. We follow a Christ who thinks not of His own needs, but that of others as he lays down His life for His enemies, even to death, death on a cross. The Apostle Paul responds to the Corinthian church to say (1 Cor 9:20-22) that he would give up anything for the sake of the gospel, even across cultural divides. If you are British, how can you use that to God’s glory, and to love your enemy (or your neighbour as yourself)? If you are Irish, what about you? Yes be proudly British or Irish, but let’s realise:
every culture is beautiful in some way (Gen 1 – do we celebrate others’ beauty?)
every culture is fallen in some way (Gen 3 – do we repent and show humility?)
the Kingdoms of this world in most ways are temporary and are NOTHING (stronger language could be used) compared to the glory of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8 – do we hold loosely to even what we are most precious about?)
“I am not called to speak Irish, to play GAA or to live in a nationalist area. That does not make sectarian or make me responsible for the problems you write about.” (about 6 people messaged, though many more have similar feelings that I’ve chatted to)
In our individualistic western world, we speak a lot about “callings” and individual responsibility. Some of that is Biblical of course, but a lot of the Bible was written to groups of people. But our trouble is, that as The Church (capital C), we do not enjoy what our groom gives us to enjoy. If we all sit back and say “it’s not my responsibility”, we miss the fact that Christ thinks that for our good and His glory, we could enjoy his heartbeat for all peoples – most of all, His enemies (us all, at one time). We are not all called to “go” to the areas with less Christian presence, but we all should ask ourselves what part we are playing in showing Christ’s love to such places, and consider why we are not willing to go. (There are many gospel reasons to not go.) I’ve written about this a lot here. Ulster has generally shown great vigour in going to the ends of the earth (praise God!), but hasn’t figured yet how to go to Samaria.
“Sinn Fein/Westminster are blackmailing us. I will never give in, even if thousands of lives are at stake (through abortion). The blood is on their own hands.” (few were brave enough to express what two readers did, to this extent, but several agreed)
Politics is a messy game, for sure. But I would think twice about gambling with thousands of lives. If I was a hypothetical unionist supporter (which I’m not revealing here whether I am or not), and I could save thousands of lives for giving up an Irish Language Act Bill which I resented, then surely even if I felt I was being blackmailed to do it, I would? One is demanded by scripture, the other is not. In Biblical times, they were called to primarily serve God and flowing from that, to honour the King, regardless of who was on the throne, even when their tax money went to corrupt and evil men (c.f 1 Peter, Rom 13). God will be the final judge of who is responsible or not but I personally will do my best to stop them and be vocal about it, even if I’m blackmailed for it. But as I said before, perhaps we lost this one when we voted perpetually for sectarian division, year after year.
“Playing GAAhas too many connotations with political things for me to touch it.”
Let’s go back to Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Firstly, as a Jew, He deliberately goes via Samaria (he didn’t have to). Choosing to go to Samaria, when war-like hatred was shown between the people, had its connotations. Secondly, as a male, he chose to sit with a lone, promiscuous woman in the heat of the day at a well (see here for the history of wells). That had its sexual connotations in middle eastern culture. Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with connotations. What He did seem concerned for was mission, flowing from a pure heart. For us, that might mean we choose not to go up to women in nightclubs and offer them a drink as a means to show Christ’s love (perhaps a parallel modern situation). But it will mean we cross borders (metaphorical ones and real ones) for the sake of the good news.
“You are secretly just promoting your [insert political thought here eg: nationalist, globalist] politics and forget that you yourself are highly politicaland are only asking those of a certain political view to pipe down.” (three people publicly, many more privately)
I will happily admit that nobody is neutral. I have my politics, and people may assume what they wish. Nationalists in the north think I’m Unionist because of my schooling and sport association. Unionists in the north assume I’m nationalist because I’ve lived in Cork and write blog posts like this.
But my argument does not lie on any political view. I argue neither to downplay national sovereignty, nor to advocate a nationalism of any sorts. Setting aside John 4 that we’ve already considered, let’s turn to Galatians. Paul (in chapter 1) sets our his stall that he has received this good news by revelation, and that He hasn’t spent time anywhere else to learn such an unusual gospel (chapter 2). It demands that righteousness comes freely from outside of human action – circumcision makes no difference! Titus is relieved – he sits in the corner of this debate, wondering whether he’ll need to be circumcised as a new follower of Jesus. The answer resounds clearly – no! Salvation is a free gift, needing no such thing added to it. But turn to Acts 16 and we suddenly see Paul circumcising Timothy! Why? Has Paul changed his mind?! No! It’s because they are going to a Jewish area to reach out.
Was Paul advocating a type of globalism that stuffs Jewish national identity when he dismissed the need to be circumcised? No! Was he advocating a nationalist perspective when he circumcised Timothy? No! He was doing all that he could to reach the people at hand, while sacrificing what was secondary importance. I’m sure Timothy minded – it’s painful! And it’s not even needed as a Greek – so why bother? Hardly as if many people check! But he was willing to lay down his identity to reach others. Nothing to do with politics. But at the same time, utterly political. And I could go onto other passages. Me advocating this has nothing to do with what politics I support. (But it is utterly political in action)
“By speaking of a mission organisation like that, you are doing something very unhelpful. They are not like that in general. You will put people off going on mission through writing such things.” (4 people)
May I suggest that the only people I’ll put off going on such teams, are the people looking for a perfect mission organisation or experience? But I hate to tell you, they don’t exist. But they don’t exist because the one true mission organisation that God has given the world, is The Church (from which flows these Acts 13-like mission teams). And it’s a bunch of messy (but both sanctified and being sanctified) people, who all make cultural mistakes and place their identity in many false places, all too often.
I lead teams year after year for that mission organisation and would flag-wave endlessly for them (not that kind of fleg). They have taught me so much of what I know about evangelism. And as I said in my first blog post, I LOVE that these mistakes are being made (if we learn from them). Like my colleague Izzy says, we must not be paralysed by thinking we must be perfect. And I am the first to have made, and still make MANY mistakes in my own culture, never mind in others. And I pray that my team members and others will forgive me my mistakes, will point them out to me, and help me change to have more of God’s heart too, as they have done even in this (I hope).
Finally, let me tell you about one of my friends.
She is my age, was brought up in a protestant, unionist home, and continues to live round the corner from me, under the shadow of Windsor Park, where the kerb-stones are painted red, white and blue and my car arriving with a Cork-registration plate gets the neighbours out to their windows. She works a normal job. She has never learnt a word of Irish, couldn’t tell you who is playing in the GAA All-Ireland final this Sunday, and attends a protestant church in the heart of east Belfast.
But she does this, whilst enjoying Jesus, dying to herself, and living for Him. She is still thoroughly British, but her friends (non-Christian) when asked about her all say “she is the only person who loved us when we moved house here”; “she loves different cultures like I’ve never seen before”; “she is one of us”.
Because every morning she wakes (when she remembers), she asks Jesus, in light of what He’s done, to help her lay her life down to love some of the most unreached people in the world on her doorstep. She abandons some of her clothing choices, to fit in with them. She eats differently, so that she can share meals with them. She changes hobbies, to enjoy what they like to do. When asked about Israel and Palestine, she side-steps questions or asks good questions back again, even though she has views of exactly what’s right and wrong. She finds they don’t find her sense of humour funny the same way her close friends growing up did – she suffers it. She finds a church community, who will welcome outsiders, or learn how to do so with her help. She even learns their language and takes all her annual leave visiting their country, to do so. Yes, I’m not talking about nationalists. I’m talking about Arab neighbours.
Somehow that makes sense for her. But if it makes sense for her, why doesn’t it make sense for us, even in our normal jobs and normal lives to support and have such a heartbeat, even when we can’t be the ones “going”?
Sadly my non-Christian friends (the ones who I’ve been close enough to give them opportunity to speak into my life) have seen all too clearly where my identity has seemed to lie, at times:
You’re so busy rushing around doing Christian things, we never see you. (My identity was perhaps in missional activity rather than Jesus)
You never come on nights out with us. (In first year of uni, my identity was so busy trying to be holy by abstaining, I forgot to love people well, perhaps by staying up to help them when they came home drunk, or in other ways)
You get far more passionate about [insert topic] when we talk, than anything else – is that what you value? (Caveat: let’s remember some cultures are more direct than others – let’s not try to “out-Jesus” each other in our speech)
But ultimately it’s God’s Word, applied to God’s World well, that will expose our hearts and convince us that finding our identity and worth in who Christ is, and what He has done, will be ultimately satisfying. Though sometimes God even uses our non-Christian friends to do that through His common grace!
So my prayer for both you and I today, in light of this whole discussion about British identity and culture, is that God will help us travel this earth, in tandem with His heart. And that it will radically alter how we live here on this island. None of us can pretend we’re not enculturated (/bathed in a culture). There are no people who see everything and act neutrally. But there are those who pray that the Spirit would illumine and show them what is their culture and what is the gospel, and seek to live in light of that distinction, deliberately amongst many who are “not like us”.
As my last post generated lots of controversy (not something I try to do on blogs posts, nor was it something that ought to have been controversial) and still has discussions ongoing of various natures, I thought I’d post something that we can all have our hearts warmed by, that unites us all.
I love world music, and from a secular level Nitin Sawhney opened my eyes to the spectacular diversity within even an individual culture, nevermind all cultures! His compositions, curations and investigative journeys into other cultures through the world of music, are something I’ve loved over the years. He gives a taste of incredible musicality mixed with his intellectual intrigue here in his TEDx performance.
But from a Christian perspective, I came across this, thanks to a friend who sings in the Sydney Missionary Bible College band “Badminton Road” who are about to launch an EP later this year. What a beautiful glimpse of Heaven! Would it make you want to travel differently in regards to language and visiting believers where you travel? I hope so!
(The original story here was changed at the request of one of the characters in it, who had previously identified himself to others by telling the same story to them. I would never willingly/knowingly share a public story of someone identifiable, unless they were willing to be identified in it. The story now here is a conglomeration of several real stories of a similar nature which happened a few years ago.)
The sun was blazing and in County Kerry our Christian summer volunteer team were back running our program for all the family. This afternoon, we were running a kid’s club, as their parents watched on. As we started into learning our Bible memory challenge (a verse from the Bible), I suddenly was aware that I might need to intervene. As many teachers do, we were using a “pointer” to point at each word as the kids were saying it and keep them on track. Only our pointer this time round was a huge blow-up red hand of Ulster such as the one pictured below on the Northern Irish flag.
And for those of you who didn’t know, the red hand of Ulster is a political sign not warmly welcomed in County Kerry (to put it mildly). What was I as team leader to do? The team members largely identified as Ulster people. But it would have completely alienated them from the locals, nevermind taking away from whatever was said later by the team. But then again, making a scene about it would also draw attention to this. I sat back and waited for a subtle moment I could move it, and breathed a sigh of relief. Until…
Until the story. We often tell stories to teach spiritual truths to the families listening, and as many in (previously) Catholic Ireland, knew all the Bible stories (or thought they did), we sometimes taught other stories with a spiritual meaning. But this one had me nervously twitching again. The fictional story had opened with 2 characters, and one of them was King William riding on a white horse!
And for any who know their history and the Battle of the Boyne, you’ll know who King Billy and his white horse was, and know that he wouldn’t have been all that welcome in Kerry!
Two small slips that could perhaps have been not noticed, or could have built a culture that meant the volunteer team was regarded as foreign, and rejected because of their insensitive use of politics, language and culture.
Well, thankfully (given the team was a Christian one) we’d been studying John’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life that morning, and in chapter four we encounter a situation even more radical than these. A Samaritan woman meets Jesus (a Jewish man) and a show-down ensues. Jews vs Samaritans. The Northern Irish troubles would have perhaps seemed minor in comparison to what was going on between rivals then. Perhaps current day Israel and Palestine moves us closer towards the old scene.
But the thing is, a show-down doesn’t ensue. Jesus, side-stepping controversial issue after controversial issue, takes the woman by the hand (metaphorically) and leads her towards where she can find a true, satisfying identity – in Him. Whatever he says (and he doesn’t completely avoid the issue), helps her get over any confrontation, shame or difference, and makes her run off to the town to tell everyone that He’s the best thing ever to happen.
And so, what did I do when the 2 things above happened? Well the Red Hand, nor King William were necessary to the event, nor was it wise to have them, even if it was publicly permitted and deeply cherished by some team members. In an attempt to follow Jesus’ example, at laying down what is dear to us for the sake of the good news, I quietly slipped the the Red Hand away for the rest of the week, and amongst much positive feedback to the story-teller, suggested that they don’t ever use King Billy and his white horse in a story again.
Sadly though, it was not appreciated.
“We have every right to celebrate our culture. This is part of who I am. It’s hardly as if we’re forcing them to believe our politics by simply using these things.” was the rebuke of one team member.
“This is part of who I am!”
What had I done? Had I really just denied someone their very being? What they felt was at the heart of who it was to be them?
Well, no, because as Christians we have our primary identity in someone who is not of these Kingdoms – in Jesus Christ. All other senses of identity come radically far short of that one, whether national identity, sexual identity, race, language etc. Everything else (important as they are,) flows from the beauty and purpose we were created for. Had I taken their identity? No! Not even the devil himself can take away our identity in Christ and all we were made for.
But these happening in County Kerry really just echo a far bigger problem for Northern Irish (evangelical) Christians. Let me explain…
A more complex identity problem…
I was at a prayer meeting tonight about the liberal abortion legislation about to be forced (undemocratically) upon Northern Ireland. For those not in the know, the devolved government has not met in Northern Ireland now for several years, and so Westminster parliament was putting together some emergency legislation to deal with this, when radical abortion amendments (more than the rest of the UK currently has) got included into it.
Suddenly the pro-life Christians are crying, and rightly so. If correct in our views, we are talking about mass slaughter of innocent life. And there appears no way to stop the ending of thousands of voiceless lives in the womb, unless the NI government reconvenes by October 21st of this year. Highly unlikely.
But what one lead campaigner said to me recently revealed an awful lot of why 20,000 signatures, 75,000 postcards to MLAs, and hundreds of thousands of emails will never work.
“Peter, 2 years ago I would never have traded the Irish Language Act for an abortion-free NI, but now I think I would.”
The evangelical Christian identity is too caught up in protestant politics.
What do I mean?
Well for years, many evangelical Christians were more vocal about their British political viewpoints than they were about being heard and seen to live out the values that Jesus would have us live out – loving our enemies, laying down our rights for the sake of loving others, and seeking to best understand and cherish those who strongly disagree with us. Being Christian for some, was, certainly in the eyes of their colleagues or close friends, inseparable from being British. Or at least there were as many passionate arguments about each of them! They would say their identity was firmly in being “protestant” or following Jesus. But to anyone else looking on, it was a muddle of religion and politics all thrown in together, and often a vitriolic or ugly one at that.
For years, many Christians have voted for certain parties that they thought held to “Christian values”. But in doing so, we’ve ended up endorsing political segregation, with no government. No-one really seems to have minded though, given the impasse in talks. Most seemingly would rather have no Irish Language Act and no government, and watch the province spiral down and suffer economically and otherwise, than to concede and give way to an Irish Language Act and other suggested things. According to them, there are many hills to die on, and most of them are painted red, white and blue.
And now we eat our fruit from our tree of bitter divides. Having voted for parties that would never sit down together and didn’t seem to make a big deal of ending sectarian divides in NI, we have ended up with no government. And in ending up with no government, we have ended up with this abortion fiasco, imposed from outside.
Let me be straight – yes, there are some deluded (and perhaps, evil) people to blame for this, thinking they are acting honourably to free women. But instead of just pointing fingers at “them over there”, could it be that in voting for constant segregation (or people who didn’t consider it top priority to end such attitudes), we are reaping the fruit of our voting?
Or will those in government who claim to be pro-life, finally see that if they are consistent in their beliefs, that conceding Language Acts and other such things, will be NOTHING compared to the loss of life that would occur through abortion?
But I fear the battle was lost long ago, and humanly speaking can’t be won now. Sinn Fein won’t be forced last minute into talks, no matter how many emails or postcards people in the country send.
And so how did we get from a beach in Kerry to here? Well, it’s a more complex version of the identity question. And sadly one that many in the country will learn the hard way. That if you speak up as passionately for your politics as you do about Jesus and His Words/views, then your identity will soon become a blur as well, and tragedies like the one that’s unfolding may occur.
Sadly, there may be an even greater tragedy than thousands of unborn lives being lost too. The type of Jesus that is often held out in Northern Ireland, is dressed up in a British flag, and will be so repulsive to any nationalist that few churches will ever form in such areas and eternal consequences will need to be wept over. It’s why one of the most-reached English speaking people groups (Northern Ireland) sits directly beside the least-reached English-speaking people group (Ireland) in the world. If that isn’t a tragedy largely produced by this identity confusion, I don’t know what is.
But lest I be seen to point fingers here, may I sit with everyone reading and say that politics is no easy game. Just because I have been vocal about segregation in society, and never voted for those who endorsed violence or sectarian behaviour, doesn’t mean I have clean hands. There are no easy options of who to vote for, and I don’t come endorsing one way and condemning others. But as Christians, we must keep our identity firmly in place before letting our secondary views flow in light of it. And that, will mean giving up things that are costly to us elsewhere in life. It’ll hurt. But it’ll lead to our flourishing and the growth of His Church.
And for now, I weep. I pray. And we see what the next month holds…
“I’m travelling to find myself. To find who I really am. To discover the potential within me. Too experience all the world has to offer.”
Or so many say about travel. And it’s true. But what if you could do the same from home? Would it be boring? What would it look like?
I got introduced to Alain de Botton through his book “The Art of Travel” and several TV shows that went along the same lines. And much as I travel in tandem to a different pulse of life and in a alternative direction to what he tries to persuade us all of, he’s someone I still find intensely thought provoking and wonderfully helpful in life’s paths.
So when I heard that a conversation card pack had been launched by him, I set my usual scepticism aside and bought it. Normally, I would think such things are a cringeworthy waste of money, that could be spent on asking the same questions, without the cards infront of me. But when a church pastor on Twitter who I respect, said he would happily give every ‘Fresher’ (first year) one of these upon entry to university, my ears pricked up.
Sadly in our current age, deep conversations are not always had. In Ireland, perhaps not without a pint or two in one’s hand. In other cultures, perhaps at other times, or in other places. But increasingly, the soundbite, technological world that we live in, darts from trivial topic to the next in a line of banalities, and doesn’t often deepen. If people get too serious, or chat about something for too long, jokes are quickly made, and many turn away from such displays of earnestness or knowledge. Do we perhaps fear those we think have a ‘powerplay’ over us and don’t want to be shown up for what we do not know? Or might it be because knowledge is genuinely used for ill, or in a lacklustre way that sends us yawning and reaching for our drink again? Or have we just lost our wonder and awe at the incredible world around us?
For those who bemoan this current state of society, I do wonder whether there was ever a “golden age” in this regard? The old geographically-limited, (often more conservative) cultures or decades, where people spoke only to their family, neighbours or village each day, did not breed the same diversity or curiosity perhaps as modern-day culture allows for.
Nor do I wish to assume that those who can hold conversation on one topic for a period of time and travel deep into conversation with it, are necessarily better off, morally superior or more gifted than those who cannot. Some cultures go direct into a subject, whereas others circle around it. Many tertiary educated people are taught to think in certain ways, but this should not necessarily exude better things than those who do not learn in such ways.
However, if I look at my life and see no deep relationships where I delve under the surface of the superficial and enjoy the hidden mysteries of people’s character, the vibrant colours of their personality or the reality behind why their hearts beat the rhythms of life which they do, then I must pause a moment. Why is it I don’t ever converse on this level? Could I find more our about myself by doing so? Might I learn how to love others better, or to disagree well with those from diverse backgrounds? Dare I suggest, that I find myself corrected, sharpened, encouraged and changed by similar expressions to me?
And that’s where these cards come in. They’re not cheesey, they ask great questions for the western, individualistic mind, and they could both simultaneously reveal far more about yourself than you’d want to find out, and surprise yourself with the strengths and ways of living that you have been gifted in. It could be a step to becoming self-aware. A step to finding who you are.
Alain chooses 9 topics, which are in my mind, perhaps the top 9 spoken of or dreamt about every day on university campuses. You can see them in the picture above. (Has he missed one? Let me know your thoughts.) And of course, “Travel” is one of those top topics the current generations are buzzing about. Here’s a few of the questions to get your juices flowing:
are you more attracted to a nomadic or settled life?
if you were in a city and had to choose between a good meal and a bad hotel, or a bad meal and a good hotel – which would you prefer?
what makes a person a good travelling companion?
would you prefer a view of a desert or of the sea? Why?
I could imagine these cards being used in various ways. Some will use them in a formal classroom setting. Others may bring them out for dinnertime conversation. But many will simply read them, and be provoked to ask better questions, or to steal them for everyday conversation!
Like everything in life, you’ll like some of it, and may not like other bits of it, but perhaps it could even be a springboard to making your own cards too? But be warned, Christian traveller – please do not make these a tool to preach at people. If you make your own cards in order to get “better” questions, please do ask yourself why your worldview or thought-process doesn’t like the questions given. Do you not know how to relate to the questions at hand? Do you not understand why such things could be fascinating or wonderful glimpses of a Christ-centred eternal reality? Are you seeing life through such narrow lenses that you only want to ask a couple of questions to everyone? Perhaps I might dare to suggest that if so, these question cards might teach us more than what you think we have to bring to others.
Disagree? Or curious?
Well perhaps you can ask me more and we can listen to each other well. Let’s travel together and chat, side by side, and see where it takes us.
But regardless, can I ask you whether you’re willing to start to cultivate such deep relationships with diverse people? It’s not easy!
(Book review: Cawley, Muddy Pearl, 2019) Disclaimer: As well as knowing the author, I received this book as a free review copy from the publisher, ahead of its release in July. This by no means changed my view of the book or meant that I ought to give it a positive review.
One of the things I love about travel, is the stories one hears from people from all sorts of backgrounds. From adventure stories that thrill us as we start to wonder where truth stops and fiction starts, to heart-breaking tales of messy reality that leave us deeply moved and wondering whether we should be acting differently. Stories inspire, illustrate and capture hearts and minds.
I was looking forward to this book for that exact reason – stories of God at work from campuses around the world. I know the author, Luke, having worked alongside him in UCCF (IFES in Great Britain), and I’ve always appreciated the power in his communication, and his ability to think independently. And I wasn’t disappointed – the opening chapter was of a student evangelistic gathering that was stormed by the Police in a far-off country, and leaders arrested. Boom – I was gripped!
But I was also wary. Have you ever met a traveller who never shuts up? Or someone who really thinks they’ve got incredible tales to tell, but leaves you stretching for you drink to hide your yawn? Having worked in student work and attended conferences and gatherings across Europe and beyond for over 7 years, it’s not just entertaining stories I am after – there are plenty of them around already! But thankfully this book is different.
Launched this coming week at The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) World Assembly, each chapter is carefully chosen to tell of the values that make a great student movement. But when you’ve only 12 or so stories to pick, it could be easy to pick the best, funniest and most glorious that paint IFES in a wonderful light. But Luke doesn’t. And the book is all the more wonderful for it. Here’s just a whisper of what it contains:
Chapter 2: Tales of Proclaiming Jesus (Indonesia and Middle East) “Proclamation doesn’t work in our culture” is quite often what I get told in various settings where I visit. Setting aside the easier context of Europe, where tens of thousands are hearing the good news proclaimed through small CUs running high profile events and week of events, and where the IFES Europe “FEUER” conference is training hundreds to do so, Luke takes us to the most unlikely of places. Highly relational, highly Islamic settings, where openly discussing evidence about Jesus being God is forbidden. So how might proclamation of good news there work? In its own messy way, Luke tells us!
Chapter 3: Tales of Promoting Justice (Guatemala and USA) “We don’t have any justice issues here – we just need to preach the gospel” is a line that I again, often hear on campuses in Europe. But somehow in the south of Ireland, one of the largest Christian denominations is largely Nigerian, yet we see few Nigerians in our Christian Unions – why? And somehow in the north of Ireland we claim that we want everyone to meet Jesus, but we’ll refuse to shape our lives round ending the segregation in society to make that possible. Justice matters. Everyone expected Guatemala to be in the chapter. But no-one thought the USA would be here. Luke tells the controversial story of #blacklivesmatter and how Urbana tackled it – was it wise?
Chapter 4: Tales of Engaging the University (Sri Lanka and Great Britain) If “reaching every student with the good news of Jesus” becomes our mantra, where is the place of equipping graduates to have a full-orbed worldview, a whole-person discipleship, that looks to have Christians in every sphere of campus life, making a difference and living for Christ? Vinoth Ramachandra (Sri Lanka) has been a long-term advocate of this, though it is not his story that is told. This chapter brings a wonderful depth to a good news that ought to impact every area of life, through humanly insignificant ways of lone students and academics.
Chapter 5: Tales of preparing graduates (Kenya and Romania) The Kenyan tale was great. A business-man creating a prayerful, spirit-led stir across corporations and borders. The Romanian one, I’d wondered whether Luke (based there) had just written about his Romanian mates (a few of whom I’ve met). But out of the fog, came insight. A story that I wondered about where it was going, turned into God using failure, ‘wrong’ decisions and more, to grow something from nothing. The raw authenticity of the story made it utterly relatable to so many stories here in Ireland. Perhaps a model for pursuing life as graduates.
Here the book takes a turn in emphasis, taking convictions of a student movement, and figuring out to make them sustainable:
Chapter 6: Tales of Leadership Development (Solomon Islands and Mongolia) What a joy to read something of two messy movements. Both works of God in hard places, but for utterly different reasons. How do we grow leaders from being consumers (or non-Christians) through to leading such movements? Here lies two great examples at varying stages.
Chapter 7: Tales of Financial Sustainability (South Korea and Burkina Faso) There reaches a stage in every movement where finance is an issue. Luke takes one country that is highly “Christian” but sharply in decline, and another that is used to depending on others for support and shows how things can be sustainable in both, despite challenges. Or rather he doesn’t show us. He tells their stories, and leaves us to work things out – a far better way to help us contextualise!
Chapter 8: Stories from the future (St Kitts) And before I knew it, 16 hours later (not all spent reading), I’d finished the book. Gripped by many a story. Challenged anew by what I’d read. Even made to think by the way Luke handled the passages he turned to in each chapter in fresh ways.
This was certainly not what I thought it would be – “Shining Like Stars 2″ – a sequel to Lindsay Brown’s great account of God at work across campuses. Nor is it a history of IFES, although it does contain snippets.
But it is both a stimulating read for the thinker, and a call to action. A tale of God working through weakness, and a springboard for us to be used similarly. A collection of apparently random lifestories from round the world, yet of intimately connected, diverse family members who all have a family name written over their doors. And the name is not IFES. The name is Jesus.
I’d encourage any staff member to pick this up and read it, but also any student who wishes to be encouraged by God at work, and challenged by some convictions which they might help shape CU life. And for those of past CU generations? Come, celebrate what God has done and is doing!
Peter is a Team Leader with Christian Unions Ireland in Munster and Connacht and normally blogs on faith and travel, which increasingly overlaps with the culture of the campuses he works on. You can find his book “Travel: in tandem with God’s Heart” (IVP 2018) in ebook or physical format from any major distributor.
In my 7 years in Cork, I’ve lived with 21 other people in a shared 4 bedroom house. This weekend, they were all invited (plus partners/spouses) to a place on Beara Peninsula in West Cork, for a reunion. Albeit the 10 who could make it were from the latter half of that time period, and largely (apart from one in Spain) all still lived in Cork.
Travelling with people you’ve lived with technically shouldn’t be hard – you’re used to each other sharing life in close proximity, right?
But there’s still something different about travelling together. There’s an intensity of expression, between everyone. There’s unexpected circumstances that need to be worked-out in short time period, that come as fresh challenges, even to those who’ve lived for a long time together. And there’s equally joys that come from fresh expressions of love shown within community, in ways that perhaps aren’t seen or thought of, in the ordinary rhythms of home life.
And it reminded me of the great blessing of diversity, and being made to honour others and their ways of thinking and doing things, as we travelled together, even when some of those things irk me.
Apart from the rising cost of rental property in Ireland during the post-recession housing crisis, this is precisely the main reason I urge myself to keep living in a shared property, even if it is hassle to live with others at times.
I’m reminded that my of life, is not the only way. From small ways to bigger ones. Here are just a few of the kinds of things I’ve found overlapping with travel:
How do I do the dishes or how often? There are many ways of thinking.
What matters more? Cleanliness or hospitality?
What are expectations for how much time and energy is spent on communicating with each other?
What do people value spending money on? How much is there to spend?
What personalities do people have? Extroverts? Introverts?
What hobbies do people enjoy individually or together?
What time of year or season of life is someone in at the moment? Does this mean they’re looking for a slower or more busy pace as you travel?
Given some of these things are quite deeply rooted in our lifestyles, it can be frustrating for others who see patterns in their friends’ lives as unchangeable. “Oh that’s just Peter – he won’t ever change”.
But it need not necessarily be the case for Christians. There is very little in that list which could not change under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the kindness of the Father and the Lordship of Christ.
I can see other ways of doing the dishes that please my housemates – its a tiny issue, in perspective, even if its a daily one!
I can seek to be cleanly and hospitable according to the measure the Bible places on things, but also whilst seeking to love my neighbour (travel buddy/housemate) and God.
I can seek to be generous, no matter how much God has given me to look after. And I can have low expectations of others who have been given less.
I could plan in time to suit my more extroverted or introverted friends, and remember that may mean forfeiting other things.
I can ask how someone is feeling and what expectations they have, as we set off together.
And so each day, the small differences that so easily could be perceived as larger ones, if we let them, can be things that we can thank God for, as we learn to repent of our self-centred way of seeing the world through our own lenses, and instead look outwards to learn from others and seek to live inter-dependent lives amongst each other.
It’s one of the reasons the answer to the housing crisis (caused in some way by the greed of wanting quick fixes to the recession, and so lowering corporation taxes and creating lots of jobs in the big cities, and nothing elsewhere) cannot be to just build self-contained studio apartments for students or others. The loneliness and exacerbated problems following it, will take its toll on society eventually in a plethora of ways. The richness (and frustrations) of life in shared community is a great blessing to a society that is already polarising itself.
I’m well aware there’s horror stories that could be told about sharing housing, and everyone has their own collection! Not to mention the ridiculous scenarios in Dublin of 3 people sharing a tiny single room, or of renting shared bed-space in a house with someone (unconnected to you).
But all in all the principle is one I’ll still stand on – being forced to see through other lenses is a blessing. For those wanting concrete data behind my intuitionism and speculation from experience, I’ll need to go off and do some research. But for the most who’ve lived with others, I’m sure you’ll agree? Let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts!