Opportunity in adversity

The lockdown period has been different for everyone. Even different for the same person on different days. How easy it is to know that the gospel should give us perspective in all of this. Yet how hard to bear that in mind when our world collapses in on itself and we feel stuck in a rut.

Some days I’ve felt capable to try new things, to imaginatively create new patterns of life and to grow in godliness. Other days one is satisfied if a half-day of work has been done and one is able to fall asleep trusting a sovereign God, looking forward to better days!

But there are opportunities to look outwards and upwards, that may help us as well as grieving what we have lost. The road ahead could be hard for churches – social distancing will make things hard, and even when we have social distancing, it still appears we may not be able to have congregational singing for a while, if our recommendations are anything like other nations. The volume of air projected out of us when singing is bound to be different to when we’re sitting quietly apart from each other. For those longing to get back to congregational singing, this will be a painful realisation.

Rarely have I been moved more than being up in the Scottish islands, listening to the songs of the Bible being sung by young and old alike – a truly moving experience.

But its been encouraging to hear of one church in Italy who are seeing opportunity in this adversity. An adversity, I must add, that is not unique to this season for the worldwide Church – many settings will not be able to belt out Christian anthems together, due to fear of being reported by Police (secret or otherwise).

Rather than campaign for us to be allowed our rights far quicker (which may be questionable health-wise), or having people focus on the vacuum that is left by not singing (or for that matter, disobeying potential guidelines and singing anyway), this church have decided to do something positive:

Learn a new language

What?! How is that replacing singing? And why on earth would one expect a whole congregation to learn a new language? Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?

Well, a church near Turin have decided that they can sing congregationally, if they use sign language! Perhaps “learning a new language” is a bit of an over-statement. I’m guessing it’s learning some basic words from a simple song or two, or perhaps a chorus that can be repeated. And before anyone tells us that they could never do that, let me suggest that we learn plenty of similarly big things as whole churches, without batting an eyelid. What a humbling thing that brings parent, child and single person onto an even footing as we learn things together – in fact, I would fancy the chances of the young ones being far better at this than we are! What joy!

Irish Sign Language

Here’s 3 other ways I think they’re on to something!

  1. We can raise awareness of some of the neediest communities in the world for the gospel. You see, although the Church is gradually awakening to the great needs of the gospel amongst Unengaged People Groups and God’s heart for the outsider – the least reached – the population of said groups is growing fast enough that it’s a hard task to ever make a dent into the numbers. And then in most of those people groups, one has subsets like deaf peoples, who sometimes (depending on culture) are dis-connected from the dominating culture of those around them (given they don’t share a common language). It means many like the Joshua Project, count them as separate peoples.

But what are the chances of them being reached? Well even if the main predominant culture within that demographic is eventually reached with the gospel (which we’re still far behind on), the chance of a small sub-section of that community (one that tends to be quite insular, for obvious reasons) being reached, in this different language, is hard to imagine in many places. So many of the deaf communities fall high up on the least reached lists. They may not be the most strategic numerically, but then again, when was Christ’s Kingdom ever primarily shaped by reaching the most people, as quick as possible? King Jesus has a very different outlook on life, which by many of our models, seems weak, ill-advised and utterly frustrating.

  1. What a great way to engage or to make ourselves aware of the deaf communities on our own doorstep too. Who are they? Where do they meet? Do any churches in the local area provide sign language interpretation or assistance? One small church in Carrigaline, County Cork has been giving their devotionals on Facebook with an intrepretation too (they’re uniquely equipped to do so, but have shaped lots of life round being able to serve the deaf community as well).
  1. In learning some basic words about the gospel in another language, you’ll often find yourself thinking afresh about the meaning of it, and how best to communicate such. Could we be brought to marvel at the gospel again, by being children and struggling to learn some basics in another language like this? For those that wouldn’t be keen on this taking place in service, I suggest we teach other new forms of language and communication to people already, in our services, and expect them to pick it up and learn. Taking it slowly shouldn’t disrupt the tone of the service.

But wherever you are, and whatever your congregation may be able to manage or not manage, can I encourage us to look outwards and upwards, and to perhaps in doing so, start to see opportunity, amidst the adversity and loss.

In the meantime, let’s not forget what we lose: it is massive.

May this international collective warm our hearts as we reflect:

PS: Thanks Kim for flying the Irish flag in Sydney!

Travelling to Frontier People Groups

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.

For a deeper rationale on why such terms are needed, you can read here and see diagrams/learn more 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.

Are Unreached People Groups Biblical?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Business as mission

I’ve had the privilege of travelling Ireland recently with someone who is an expert in business as mission.  Working in major corporations for his whole life as he travelled the world, he’s decided to spend the last ten years of his career encouraging Christians to take business seriously, to take mission seriously and to do them both together, whether here or abroad in lesser reached places.  You won’t find any of his friends in business just doing it to get access to places.  No they’re serious and authentic business people.  And I many of us should be too – not having to abandon business to serve Jesus.

What a great way to use travel!

Here’s one website he recommended:

http://www.bamedu.com/

 

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Photo copyright Peter Grier 16/03/18

 

“Some want to live within sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell”

[This is part 4 of a 5 part series on seeing God’s glory across the nations.]

“Some want to live within sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell”

These are the famous words of CT Studd, England cricketer, and missionary from Cambridge University off to China and then to Africa, pioneering mission in unreached and unengaged places.

These words have inspired thousands to live recklessly for Jesus’ sake, refusing the comfort of where there are many Christians, for the wilds of pioneering life, going where Christ is not know.

But sadly in the individualistic world we live in, quotations and mistakenly applying thinking like this, have also inspired one of the main reasons why unengaged peoples remain unengaged.

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Mulling over the nations from the hill by Loch Hyne (July ’17)

Because people love to distinguish between church (the building or the people) and us as those who go to unreached peoples.  In this quotation, many will be fed up with church (the people) and use it to justify lone-wolf evangelism, with an organisation that knows more about their mission or understands better their heart.  Instead, rightly reading Studd, would give us a heart to go (as the church) beyond our walls (of a building) to those who don’t have the gospel.

And so the world of mission can quite often be divided:

CHURCH (local) vs: MISSION ORGANISATION

The advantages of church based sending:

  • This is God’s means of working in the world (His wise means Eph. 3)
  • They should know us best (if not, why not?)
  • Churches plant churches (who else has Jesus given authority to?)
  • Others, who maybe don’t have your heart for mission, are brought with you in your journey, the more you keep them on board
  • They are better equipped to partner in encouraging and disciplining us
  • They would send unified teams theologically

The advantages of mission organisations:

  • They have vastly more experience and expertise in particular cultures/settings
  • They have a wider connection base to many round the world, that enables teams to form quickly, without waiting for small church groupings to send people
  • They are often there on the ground, far closer to the action that sending churches
  • They form teams which allow for great diversity and learning, yet keep the main thing, the main thing

And so often the local church will adopt an agency to partner with, to get the best of both worlds as churches are planted.  So far, so good.  What’s the problem?

Well the problem comes on the field.

If you’ve gone solely with a denominational church mission (eg. Mission to the World, a reformed and confessional organisation, I believe):

  • how that “unity” in theology works out in practice is rarely easy!  In fact, sometimes it’s harder to work out, because you come in with expectations that you all are on the same page!
  • it is hard enough getting anyone for the unengaged world, never mind those who are theologically on the same page as you and willing/able to go to the same setting.
  • there are so few Christians around that what will be your response be to other ex-pat Christians in that area?  Often such teams turn inward-looking and are a bizarre witness to new believers, who don’t see why you don’t live out a practical unity beyond reformed and confessional walls
  • How quickly do you really expect your new believers (from no background or prior knowledge of the scriptures at all) to be signing the confession, believing what you do about baptism, or seeing why such things are any way important at all?  I suggest you’ll be three generations before that is likely.  Do you have succession plans on church leadership, so you can pass on to like-minded people after you have to leave?  If not, why are you bothering to take a stand on it primarily?
  • Similar to the above point, how can you ensure that, in many settings where to see anyone professing faith is incredible, that you don’t prioritise secondary issues?
  • it takes great patience to keep your home denomination on board and decisions take far longer

If you’ve gone largely with a mission organisation team having authority on the field (eg: Pioneers):

  • who are your Biblical “elders” who you’re submitting to?  The mission team?  Your sending church?  Your international (overground) church elders locally?
  • If local people, how are you connecting and submitting to your sending church and seeing them grow in this partnership?  If sending church, how are you making decisions locally for things that can’t wait til the sending church understands the situation?
  • what are you going to do about secondary issues within your team?  Much as folk like to say they’re not important, you have to practice something!  Holding unresolved tensions can so often kill a team dynamic and make like hard.
  • what are you going to do about secondary issues among those who come to faith in the culture around you?  Leaving it to new local believers to decide for the future of that church, will always be a disaster, much as it’s a nice ideal!  You’ll need to lead by exampling something to them before they come to decisions themselves.

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Many will think that sitting on our own shores to answer such deep questions will never suffice.  The answers must come from an experience of the pressures of the cross-cultural settings.

And added problems have arisen in virtually every mission organisation recently, as they dictate theologically the direction of missions:

  • if your seminary and church denomination aren’t shaping the theologically mission direction of your team, then who is and who are they accountable to?
  • what are the procedures for not being led astray by pragmatism on the field, which so often result in experimental mission that teaches falsehood (by example) to thousands?
  • how can you close the gap between the “ivory towers” of seminaries and the evangelists on the field?
  • how can you hold such a high view of ecclesiology that you avoid breeding lone-wolf evangelist pr theologians who care little for the church at large and bringing the church with them (or being corrected by the church)?

I’ve already written of one such major problem on the field, that has supposedly led to thousands of “churches” being planted in rapid multiplication.  Yet, few of these “churches” have anything but a group of people who are starting to respond to Jesus’ words, like any evangelistic setting has.  To call them “churches” and essentially say there’s revival happening, is a big call to make.

And I could describe far more practices in other settings too.  Several missionaries in another major mission organisation have recently decided to leave the field because their organisation had asked them to speak to [x] number of people a day about Jesus or be fired.  Such pragmatism and unbiblical requirements end up making a mockery out of sound Biblical teaching, even when the motive is good.  And they in turn will teach the next generation of believer in that place, the same thing.

Down the line, you’ll not only have a warped church scene in many places, but you’ll have a bunch of disillusioned missionaries, feeling they need to work miracle-numbers in order to meet modern trends.  You’ll also have a bunch of disillusioned supporters of world mission, who were being enthralled by these latest methodologies until the lid was lifted and they see the reality beneath it.

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It’s easy to present a picture of dramatic things that says all is well.  (Picture: Inchydoney Beach, West Cork, July ’17)

Don’t get me wrong, new ways to contextualise are needed, and great things have been happening, including in some communities that have been pioneering some of these more controversial “techniques”.  But let us think longterm of the Church, before we usher in the next pragmatic program for church growth, at home or abroad.

May the gap between our sending churches and seminaries, and the mission field be an increasingly small one.  For the sake of unengaged peoples.