The Persecuted Church

22 08 2013

persecuted

 

The world’s eyes have been glued to what is currently happening in Egypt. I have been surprised that the media has actually covered many of the church burnings that have taken place. The reason that I am surprised is because in most of the uprisings and protests that have taken place throughout the Middle East, church burning and persecution of Christians has taken place without the media reporting on it. In Egypt’s case, the Muslim Brotherhood has used the crackdown on the protests as an opportunity to loot and burn churches and Christian businesses. The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English language newspaper said attacks on churches coincided with assaults on police stations, leaving most police “pinned down to defend their stations or reinforcing others rather than rushing to the rescue of Christians under attack.”

The reality is that the persecution in Egypt is just the most popular of a long list of these things happening currently all over the world.  Statistics show that this year alone 163,000 people will die because of their faith. It is estimated that by 2025 that number could rise to 210,000 per year. There is any number of reasons for persecution, and it is not just because of religious differences, although that usually plays a major role. Other reasons include politics, finances, anti-Western bias, and racism. Many times all of these issues are rolled up into one that supports the persecution taking place. There is also a disturbing myth among Western Christians that persecution causes the church to grow. In fact, since persecution in the country of Turkey began the percentage of Christians has dropped from 32% to 0.2%. Syria has seen a drop from 40% to 10%. Iran saw a drop of 15% to 2%. Persecution is something that will always be with the church and will even ramp up as the Great Commission comes to completion, but it is not good. Persecution is the result of a fallen world and a real enemy that must be fought against. This enemy is not flesh and blood, though, so our fight must take place in the heavenly realm through prayer.

The atrocities that we are seeing on television should prompt us to fight the spiritual battle. We must first pray that God would be glorified. God is not surprised by what is taking place in Egypt. We need to pray that the believers and Christian workers there would have faith and use this as an opportunity to share the love of Christ with others. We also need to use this as motivation for ourselves individually to get better informed and learn about the persecuted church so that we would know how to pray. Lastly, I would challenge you to consider going to these places. There is nothing quite like a real, physical hug to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ. It could be your visit and encouraging words that gives strength to the church to continue fighting the good fight.





Give Recognition

15 08 2013

recognition

Now we ask you, brothers, to give recognition to those who labor among you and lead you in the Lord and admonish you, and to regard them very highly in love because of their work…
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

Not too long ago we hosted a couple who are missionaries to a country in Central Asia in our church. I had the opportunity to interview them during the morning worship service. At the conclusion of the interview, I shared the above passage of scripture with our church and asked our congregation to help me honor them. Our church gave them a LONG standing ovation for their service and work for the Lord. It was an incredibly touching moment as I watched as our church gave recognition to these two unsung heroes of the faith. After the clapping died down and we all were seated again, with tears in their eyes, this missionary couple gave all the glory to God and rightly so. I know this couple personally, and I know how humble they are, so they certainly did not expect this outpouring of love. I simply stated that we were doing what the Word of God told us to do.

One of the top reasons for missionaries leaving the field and pastors leaving the ministry is simple burnout. When we lived overseas, our closest Christian, American friends lived more than three hours away. I understand how lonely it can be for our missionaries. It is only on rare occasions that they are able to come together and worship in their heart language with other believers and just talk about everyday things. Paul understood this as well, and that is why, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he wrote this passage of scripture.

Our church has the opportunity to partner with some fantastic missionaries all over the world. Our number one reason for participating in these partnerships is to come alongside them in their work to reach the unreached people group that they are working with. Our second reason for participating in these partnerships is to encourage them and to keep them going strong. I believe that if we can help to increase the longevity of our missionaries on the field, then we can increase the work. I tell all of our short-term teams that are heading out that I want it to be like Christmas morning when you arrive. Our teams going to Central Asia, for instance, will never be able to share the gospel to someone in their own Central Asian heart language, but they can encourage the missionaries that are there and do know the language. In verse 13 of our passage it says to regard them very highly in love. To me, this means that we should encourage them, pray for them continually, remember their birthdays, do something for them on holidays when it gets really lonely, keep up with their children’s lives, email them notes, and even go and visit them just to visit with them. You may be wondering if we actually spend thousands of dollars in airfare just to go and visit our missionaries, and the answer is a resounding yes! Paul tells us that we should regard our missionaries highly.

In light of this scripture, what can you do to encourage our missionaries and ministers and pastors? Can you go on a mission trip to hang out with the missionary kids? Can you write your pastor an encouraging note? Can you send a gift to one of our missionaries on their birthday? God’s plan is not for lone rangers to go out into the mission field and work it by themselves, but to have His church come alongside those who are following Him to the uttermost parts of the earth and participate as co-laborers and encouragers.





Compelled

13 08 2013

compelled

 

The author of Hebrews tells us that when running a race, we should, “…lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us.” (Hebrews 12:1) Most people lump both of these items that we are supposed to lay aside in the sin category, but I do not see it this way.  I believe we are talking about two very distinct things that we are to lay aside. One is easy to understand, and that is sin. We know that we cannot run the race with our legs tied together with sin. I believe that most people get this. Where we run into trouble is when we start talking about every weight that we should lay aside. These weights are not sin. I believe these weights may even be good things, but we are told to cast them aside. What is the author talking about here? Because of our lack of understanding on this subject, I believe Satan has used this to deceive us into doing a lot of good things, but not doing the main thing.

Americans, and especially the younger generations, love service, ministry, philanthropy, social justice, etc. There is no lack of ways that you can volunteer your time and donate your money. What I am afraid of is that many Christians are giving their lives to good ministry, but that ministry is not the race that God has called us to run. The best way for me to explain this is to give you an example. A hot topic right now, and rightly so, is the issue of slavery. It is hard for us to believe that slavery still exists in our world, but it is thriving, the most despicable slavery being those young children, both boys and girls, being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves all over the world. Because of the atrocities committed and publicized, the public, and especially Christians, are taking up the mantle to fight for the freedom of these oppressed images of God. Even non-believers are fighting this fight. There is a huge movement to end slavery. As Christians, though, we need to go a step further. We need to understand that a person freed from slavery will still eventually die and face an eternity without God unless they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior on this side of life. Therefore we are compelled to share the gospel with these people who are freed. The non-believer can feel satisfied when the person has been freed from slavery. The Christians can not simply stop there. The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) compels us to share the gospel. You may even say that you understand that, and I think most Christians do whether they act upon it or not. But we, also, cannot stop there.

If the Great Commandment compels us to share the gospel, then the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) compels us to plant churches. Matthew 28:19-20 tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. Notice that it says “disciples” not “converts.” This is crucial for us to understand. The race that God has lined out for us is not just to tell people about Jesus, but to go further than that and disciple those who convert. When we look at the whole of the New Testament, we clearly see that God’s plan for making disciples is to plant these new converts into new churches and teach them the commandments of Jesus. Therefore, the ideal situation would be for a person freed from slavery to become a follower of Jesus and become apart of a church made up of other people who have been freed from slavery, so that they can be discipled in order to repeat the whole process. This is not my plan. This is God’s plan.

The weight that we need to lay aside are these good works, like ending slavery. That certainly doesn’t mean that we stop working toward that end, but that we go further with it because we are compelled to do so by the Word of God. The end goal is not to free people from slavery, but to plant reproducing churches that transform this earth through their kingdom-building work. This goal takes more work, more strategy, more thinking, more prayer, and more guts to accomplish, but it is the race that God has called us to run.

My prayer is that you don’t get caught up in all of these “good” weights, but that you would lay them aside in order to plant churches for the glory of God.





God Created the Nations

2 08 2013

created

So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth…
Genesis 11:8

When Noah and his family exited the ark, God told them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Genesis 9:1). They did the first two really well, but they completely disobeyed the third command to fill the earth. They certainly were fruitful and multiplied according to the record in Genesis 10, but instead of scattering all over to fill the earth, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and started building a city with a tall tower as the centerpiece. God came about that time to see this city and the tower that they were building. God decided to make them obey this first commandment that He had given to Noah by confusing their languages and scattering them over the face of the whole earth. Thus we have the creation of the nations or tribes.

As Christians it is important for us to remember that God created these different tribes, people groups, cultures, languages, and ethnicities. It is also His desire to see a representative from each of these tribes redeemed and worshipping before His throne (Revelation 7:9). This means that as God loves His creation, so must we. Certainly these cultures, just like our own, were affected by the Fall. They are full of sinful attitudes, sinful traditions, and sinful superstitions. But we must recognize the fact that God has called us to love them and be a witness to them, and that eventually we will live with them forever in eternity for those who follow Jesus. We tend to think that eternity will be made up of just our culture group with Chris Tomlin leading the worship. This is called ethnocentrism. This malady causes us to lose sight of anyone but those in our own culture, and in its worst form causes us to be racist. God is calling us to love the nations, not to despise them. This includes the Northern Pashtun Tribe who predominately make up the Taliban. We have made enemies of them, but God still loves them fiercely and calls us to do the same.

As Christians, we are called to be in this world but not of it. This means that what we do as followers of Jesus does not always make sense to the world. One of these things is to love all the people of the world so much, that we would lay down our life for them. Christians will say that they love the Vietnamese. What they usually mean by that is that they have the best soup kitchens, but how many Vietnamese do they even know personally? Do they consistently pray for the Vietnamese people to come to Christ? Would they be willing to move to Vietnam in order to reach the millions of Vietnamese that have never heard the gospel? This is a different way of living. As followers of Jesus, we are not afraid to make friends with our Muslim neighbors and to attend their mosque with them. We intentionally frequent international food restaurants with the purpose of meeting representatives of unreached people groups. We can point to places on a world map that most people have never heard of. We invite international students to our homes during holidays. We go to some of the most dangerous places on the planet.

If God truly created the nations, what should our response be to that? Our lives will look different than even many people who attend our churches and racist jokes will no longer be funny. Since God created and loves the nations, He sent His only Son, Jesus, to the nations, who in turn sent His followers to the nations. This is God’s pattern. The question, then, is are we participating in that pattern or merely acting like the rest of the world.





Why the Unreached Are Unreached

31 07 2013

whyunreached

 

I just spent a week in Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation among a beautiful tribe of people called the Northern Arapaho. I have been to a South American country to work with Indigenous Tribes along the Amazon River Basin. I have walked among a completely unreached, unengaged tribe in the isolated mountains of Central Asia. I have even lived for three years working with an unreached tribe in Tanzania.

Before I get to the topic, some things need to be defined first. What does it mean when we say, “Unreached?” When speaking about a tribe of people being unreached, it is universally recognized by missionaries and missiologists that the tribe in question has 2% or less of their population being evangelical Christians. This is no arbitrary number. It has been studied that in most cases a tribe that has more evangelical Christians in its population than 2% of its total has a viable church that has the opportunity to spread the gospel among its own tribe. You might even go as far as asking why this is important. In Matthew 24:14 Jesus says, “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.” The word “nations” in this passage of scripture literally means “tribes” or “people groups.” Therefore, Jesus is saying that before He returns and ushers in the end of this age, all of the tribes will be reached. We see a glimpse of the future in Revelation 7:9 when John writes about seeing a “vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language…” (italics mine) If this is true, and I tend to believe in the truth of the Bible, then this makes unreached people groups a priority for churches. With only an estimated 6,900 people groups left unreached, we are literally seeing the end in sight. It is possible that we could be the generation that has the blessing of ushering in the return of Jesus Christ.

With all of our technology, communication advances, and transportation ease, why are these last unreached people groups still unreached? I believe, having seen it firsthand, that there are many common reasons that all play a role as to why a group is still unreached. First and foremost, we have to recognize that Satan is still very active in this world and maybe more so as his time runs short. He has had these groups and their land in his grasp for generations and generations, and he will not give them up without a fight. Many of these tribes remain unreached, because the church has not engaged in the spiritual battle. Individuals may have fought in the past, but it will take the effort of many praying for extended periods of time before the battle can be won. I am encouraged that more and more churches are recognizing the fact that it will take more than a 3-year partnership to see these remaining peoples reached. We can no longer afford to move on to another people group after just three years and know that we have accomplished anything. This brings me to the next reason these tribes are unreached. Most of these groups are calloused or hard-hearted toward Christianity. The Muslim Tribe in Central Asia sees it as a Western religion, and if one converts, that one is considered a traitor to his family and culture. The point is that in different ways, Satan has gained a deep foothold in these people both individually and culturally. These are holds that only God can break, and through His mercy, He has chosen to use you and me to be His ambassadors and soldiers.

Although not as important as the spiritual reasons, there are also physical reasons why these groups are not reached. Many of them are very difficult to get to. When I lived in Tanzania, it still took me hours driving on treacherous dirt roads along cliff edges to get to the majority of the people group. We had a team earlier this year go to Ecuador to work with an unreached tribe. Once they arrived in the country, they still had hours and hours of driving on horrible roads, boating on a dangerous river, and living in the rain forest. Not only are these groups, in many cases, physically distant, but they are also culturally distant. The languages are difficult to learn. The cultures are completely foreign to us and hard to understand. The food makes us sick. These and more are all reasons why these groups remain unreached, but if we believe the Bible, then we have to believe that these reasons must be overcome.

In these last days, God is looking for individuals and churches that are spiritually and physically tough to finish the task.





Open or Closed Doors

16 05 2013

opendoors

A number of months ago, I announced here on my blog that my family and I were going to start the process of an international adoption. We began to pray about where we wanted to adopt from, and God began to soften our hearts for the orphans of Russia. Many of you know that in December of last year, the Russian government closed its adoption program to Americans. We began to pray again and felt like God was leading us to adopt from the country of Ghana in West Africa. Well, just about a week and a half ago we found out that the government of Ghana closed its adoption program completely. Basically, we are back to square one and have already spent a chunk of money. This has been a very frustrating turn of events. Our ideal situation in our own minds was to be able to adopt as quickly as possible, mainly because I am no spring chicken any more! I am guessing that God has other plans.

This brings me to my topic. I have had a number of people that I love ask me if this might be God’s way of shutting the door on adoption for us. I believe that in our situation it has certainly given us reason to pause and reflect on God’s plan for our lives. I believe that God can and does use circumstances to help guide our paths, so when He shuts down the two adoption programs that we are in, it would behoove us to stop and listen. I believe that we have done so and feel very confident that God is not closing the door of adoption for our family.

In the same way that God uses circumstances, Satan can orchestrate events that present obstacles or opportunities to keep us off track. Therefore we need to be very cautious when it comes to reading into circumstances too much. I believe that Christians too often run into a closed door, call it a door closed by God, and so stop. I see this all the time when it comes to missions. People would like to go on this trip or another, but “God” has the door closed because they don’t have enough money or time. I think that we are raising a generation of soft Christians that value comfort over anything else. As soon as an obstacle is put in our way, we back off couching it in spiritual terms to justify our disobedience. What we are doing is placing circumstances as the most important determining factor rather than the Word of God. Jesus clearly commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations, but we like to add “if” clauses to this statement, for example “…if you have enough money,” or “…if you can learn a different language.” By doing this, we prove our lack of faith in Jesus’ authority and power to accomplish what he has commanded through you.

I graduated with a degree in coaching. I love sports. I now have three boys that are playing on three different baseball teams in three different leagues. Needless to say, my family and I are living at the ballparks this summer. If you asked any of my boys, especially the two older ones, what the most important thing for them to do is, they would say, “Be aggressive.” As a coach, I understand that talent and ability makes a difference, but I love those kids more that try hard. I would rather have a team with no talent but gave 110% every play, than a team full of talent that didn’t care. When I coach a team, I tell my players that I would rather them be aggressive and make mistakes, than be afraid to make a mistake and so hold back. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I would rather make mistakes or fail God falling forward. So when it comes to missions or adoption, which are both close to the heart of God, my tendency is to blow through the closed doors. I think that this should be our leaning rather than the other way. I realize that in the book of Acts, God closed a door for Paul to go to an area. When God closed this door on Paul, he didn’t tuck tail and quit the mission. He simply went to another place. In another instance, Paul was stoned until people thought he was dead, but he got up and went back into the city. We would be screaming at Paul that it was a closed door, but Paul would be shaking his head at the lostness of the city.

This is a tricky topic, because ultimately we all must hear from the Holy Spirit personally and should not judge someone’s decision when they feel a distinct call from Him. My point is that when faced with a closed door, we don’t automatically shut that direction down until it is also confirmed by God’s Word either through the Bible, the Holy Spirit, or other Godly people.





Engaging Islam

4 04 2013

islam
According to an USAToday article, the population of Muslims in the United States will double within the next 18 years. Patrick Johnstone in The Future of the Global Church projects that Muslims will comprise 27.4% of the global population by 2050. That is a 12-fold increase while the global population increases only sixfold in that same period. Most people do not need these statistics to know that Islam is growing and spreading rapidly not only in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but also in the developed countries of the West. I grew up here in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and never heard much of anything concerning Islam. Now our small city has two mosques, and it is not unusual to see women in their traditional Muslim dress out shopping.

For many people, sadly, this is cause for alarm. In many American minds, Muslims are terrorists, period. In 2010 our church had the opportunity to host a friendly debate between a Christian, James Walker – founder and president of Watchman Fellowship, and a Muslim, Khalil Meek – co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Legal Fund of America. There was one moment that really stood out to me during that debate. Khalil was asked a question concerning Islamic extremism. In his answer he made mention that as education of Islam increased, a favorable perception of Muslims increased. I believe that the fear that most Americans, even Christians, harbor of Muslims is based on ignorance, not fact. It is time for believers to engage their Muslim neighbors.

Most believers see the Islamic countries of the Middle East as heathen-filled lands that need to be converted, and, at best, they ignore their Muslim neighbors. We need to understand that the vast majority of Muslims are people just like us – they want to be happy, have a strong family, make good money, and have great friends. As Christ-followers, we need to learn and have the courage to engage our Muslim neighbors. I have used the term “engage” on purpose. For you to engage someone means that you build a relationship with them. When a couple is engaged to be married, they are committing to a new level of relationship. When I say that we need to engage Muslims, I mean that we new to build relationships with them. These should be genuine relationships of friendship, not just a relationship built to see them converted to Christianity. If someone was just trying to build a relationship with you in order to convert you to another religion, you would see right through that. Our Muslim neighbors deserve the dignity and respect that you would give to anyone else.

Learn about Islam. Read their holy book, the Qur’an. Become friends with a Muslim and attend their mosque with them. You will not lose your salvation for doing so. When you truly engage a Muslim in friendship you will find that they are excited about discussing their faith and hearing about yours. We just need to learn to trust in God that he will do his work. We are simply called to build genuine relationships and scatter the seeds of the gospel. We are moving into a new and different world in America, and we can either huddle up for protection and effectively ignore the purposes and commands of God, or we can embrace what God is doing and be salt and light as he commanded us to be.








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