by Nik Repkin
Going is often easy. Staying in a lost group with viable ministries and approaches is an awesome challenge with multiple obstacles.
With the modern missionary movement shifting into high gear to access unreached peoples, maybe we should pause and ask, “What are the obstacles to giving a viable Christian witness to those who have never heard?” New buzzwords abound as the AD2000 movement, and others, lead the evangelical community to look through the 10/40 Window, striving for a church among every group by the year 2000.
Looking at these obstacles will move mission personnel beyond sticking pins in maps, gaining institutional satisfaction from the initial command to “Go.” “Going” is substantially easier than “staying,” developing a viable long-term, Christlike presence among peoples who have yet to hear clearly, especially where many are openly hostile to the gospel.
Here are some of the obstacles, not necessarily in their order of importance.
1. A harvest mentality. The New Testament word for evangelism is to “tell” or “proclaim.” Somewhere along the line we have added the seemingly mandatory element of harvest. We need to review our responsibilities as ministers of the gospel and God’s responsibilities. The missionary task is to clearly share the gospel until all peoples have had an opportunity to hear; baptizing and discipling those whom God has quickened into faith.
Our harvest mentality affects sending agencies as well as missionaries. Two colleagues of mine from Kenya visited the same church in the States while on furlough. One works with the responsive Giriama, the other with Somalis. The former reported massive numbers and new churches. The latter had seen one Somali accept Christ and three other “seekers” return to Islam. Guess which missionary received increased support from the church?
Among Muslims in the Horn of Africa, the rate of people who come to know Jesus is approximately one per year per church-based evangelical agency. Over the past 50 years eight of every 10 “seekers” have returned to Islam. What is the key to our service here? Certainly not a harvest, or even the promise of one. Is a harvest of souls contrary to the will of God? Absolutely not! But focusing on the fruitful or harvest areas of the world, to the detriment of those who have never heard of Jesus, is not balanced or biblical.
The key is obedience to “go . . . tell . . . and disciple” all people groups.
2. We know one way to “do church.” Eighty percent of the unreached cannot read or write. A Somali nomad explained, “Show me how to put your church on my camel before you talk to me about your Jesus.”
Many of the unreached dwell in enemy-held territory with few, if any, churches, pastors, Bible studies, etc. Remove church buildings, corporate worship, pews, and hymn books from believers’ environments and where does one meet God? Sharing the good news is intrinsic to “being in Christ.” What effect does the absence of Bibles studies, corporate worship, baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper have on those called to minister?
Couple this with an inherent Western desire to transfer Christian attributes to nonbelievers who have never benefited from exposure to a Christian environment, culture, or country, and the risk of spiritual burnout is high. Often I have seen the heartache of my colleagues who wanted nonbelievers to exhibit the attributes of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, and so on, when those people had never known, or been around anyone who knew, the author of those attributes.
As a doctoral professor was quick to chastise, “Don’t be surprised when pagans act like pagans!” Discovering new ways of “doing church” is mandatory in many unreached settings.
3. Security. Institutions grow and perpetuate themselves by generating funds through the promotion of their programs and personnel. How then do sending boards, seminaries, and mission publications handle ministries they cannot talk about? The need for institutions to promote themselves at times exceeds the needs of the ministry. How does one publish the baptism of a former Muslim businessman when doing so may cause his death?
Yet how does the ministryraise funds, recruit personnel, and garner prayer support? What a tension! Many agencies cannot handle such ambiguity and therefore avoid the areas that cannot accept traditional methods of church planting and reporting. In the Western psyche, often the desire to keep our personnel out of harm’s way exceeds the corporate desire to allow the lost to hear about Jesus.
4. Persecution. As we began our ministry in the Horn of Africa four years ago, a colleague pointedly told my wife and me, “If you are ‘successful’ in sharing Christ with your target people so that they come to faith, you will get someone killed.” I shrugged this admonition off as being the framework for a good deputation story, until three of the first believers I ever discipled were murdered for their faith.
Seventy percent of the believers from one of our target groups have regularly been extracted from their environment by well-meaning evangelical agencies. I do not subscribe to “extraction theology” within persecuted environments. Yet 60 percent of believers left in such a setting experience extreme persecution up to and including death. Colleagues have come to me in despair as new converts are beaten, expelled from families, shot, and killed.
How can you emotionally and spiritually justify the fact that the consequence of witness is often more serious for the one receiving the witness than the one giving it?
The real issue is biblical. Is Jesus worth it? To you as the witness bearer? To the one believing Jesus’ claim? Is Jesus worth not only dying for, but causing the death of one who embraces Christianity? In orientation I often challenge the new volunteers and career personnel, “If you do not believe that Jesus is who he claims to be—the Way, the Truth and the Life, the very Son of God and the only way to heaven—then please keep your mouth shut. Don’t get someone killed for something you are not sure about.”
5. Ignorance and prejudice toward Christianity.To be Somali is to be a Muslim. Ask most Somalis if they are Muslims and they laugh. There is no division of “church and state” within Islam. It is an economic and political movement as well as a religious entity. Often I have new personnel ask believers who were Muslims to identify their nationality. The reply is usually with sadness, “I have no country; I am a Christian.”
Their world view holds that to be a Somali is to be a Muslim. Conversely, they believe fervently that to be an American is to be a Christian. Didn’t Israel recently seek to expel an Israeli family for becoming Jewish Christians? For them, to be an Israeli is to be a Jew.
Therefore, what types of “Christians” have many non-Christians known? Soldiers, diplomats, workers with NGOs and UN agencies, and so on. The expatriates from these groups often drink alcohol, commit adultery, and eat unclean foods. They are all “Christian” in the eye of the people. The 30,000 U.S. troops who came into Somalia to “Restore Hope” were, in the eyes of Somali Muslims, “Christians” come to “crusade” against the Muslims.
Many believe that Christianity, as represented by the West, is a faith of abortion, high crime, and drug abuse. Therefore, a true follower of Christ does not often begin on level ground among the unreached. We start at minus three or four.
6. Climate. A friend of mine mapped Africa by climate and temperature. Then he displayed the location and number of missionaries. As the temperature climbed, the number of missionaries went down. Finally, he illustrated the locations of unreached peoples, especially from Islam. As the temperature rose, so did the percentage of the unreached.
Many of the unreached live in environmentally unfriendly regions. In a way, Islam “fits” its environment. Reaching the unreached will require consciously moving from one’s comfort zone. Four career missionaries recently entertained two teams of volunteers in a Horn of Africa country where the temperature averages 52 degrees centigrade (or 125 degrees Fahrenheit) three months a year. What a challengeenvironmentally to incarnate Christ in that climate!
7. It’s expensive. Over the last few years Somalia has been destroyed. Prices to support expatriates soared with the United Nations intervention. Housing rose to $4,000 per month. It costs $30 per day to rent a two-wheel drive vehicle and $40 for four-wheel drive. Church-based groups with expertise ministering to the unreached in the Horn often cannot afford to do so.
Must we live more modestly? Yes. But often the only way to access unreached people is through projects and responding to human needs. Must nationals be used to carry the gospel to their own people? Yes! But where the church is scattered or nonexistent expatriates will continue to be important for quite some time. Our agency has scheduled 197 flights to five countries in only six months—only seven of these are already paid for. What financial foundation is needed for evangelicals seeking to cross borders into groups closed to normal incarnational methods of missionary service? “Tentmakers” must continue to be emphasized. But in some places making “tents” is not possible.
8. High personnel maintenance. Living on the “cutting edge” eats up mission personnel quickly. Often it involves communal living, isolation from the greater Christian community, harsh climate, and extreme spiritual warfare. Many agencies do a credible job in calling out the called, equipping, and sending out personnel. Then they forget them.
Consistently, I’ve seen godly persons last no more than six months to a year among the unreached. Quickly the isolation, persecution, danger, and lack of a pastoral support system cause stress and burnout. Reaching the unreached will require intentional, regular care, intervention care when special crises arise, and referral care when the normal care just is not enough. We must take care of our people.
When my youngest child was a toddler, his older brothers would sometimes pick on him as siblings sometimes do. When they apologized, he learned to say, “Sorry is just not enough!”
When it comes to reaching the unreached, going is just not enough. Going into all the world is often easy, for God does reward obedience with open doors. Staying in the midst of a lost group with viable ministries and approaches is an awesome challenge with multiple obstacles. Recognizing these hindrances is the first step for agencies, churches, and missionaries in overcoming them.
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