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Big house, car, name or disease, poverty and suffering?

This question has been in my mind lately thanks to some wonderful brothers and sisters who we meet with weekly for Bible study. They are very honest about the struggle to believe and live out the things we learn from the Word as believers; some Bible truths are so hard to swallow and occasionally you will have people openly say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t believe that’. Being the one in ‘full time ministry’ has left me sometimes with the task of attempting to answer some of these objections but even then I have always gone home with questions half answered or not satisfied with the answers.

I am seated at my reading table and this question of what’s God’s will for me comes to my mind. I believe it’s a question in the minds of many, caught between the prosperity gospel movement (decree and declare) vs. persecution and suffering. I think that while many disapprove of the former, the latter is not attractive, it’s gloomy and doesn’t sound like good news at all. Surely disease and suffering is not good news. It’s almost a case of fake vs nothing.

I must confess that I do not have a satisfying answer, maybe just a thought. But there is no better place to look for it than in the Bible, the Word of God, his breath and indeed that which he has clearly given for our benefit. It’s able to instruct us and make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). The assumption here is that we believe in God and in Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father and that our Father cares for us and that his word is for our good. If so, then we are on the same page.

Back to the Start

It is clear from Genesis that God had designed the earth to be a beautiful nice place (Gen. 1:31). It was good and man was the epitome of that as God creates him in His own image and places him in a beautiful garden that had everything; food, rivers, different trees bearing fruits (Gen. 2), and God himself is around having fellowship with man. He was even entrusted with the responsibility of managing the earth and everything else on behalf of God. Certainly it’s easy to note that God wanted the best for mankind, nothing you can ever imagine or desire in life now is better than what was in the Garden of Eden – Love, food, joy, power/authority (Adam calling the lions and hyenas). It’s amazing, no hustle, everything is wonderful.

But we all know that did not last for long, man wanted more. More than food, love, authority and fellowship with God. The devil was there shouting ‘yes you can’, ‘you’ve got all it takes’, ‘you have the seed of greatness’, ‘exploit your full potential’. In other words ‘you can be god yourself’. The devil masquerades as a herald of good, as one who wants the best for man yet that is not what he gives. We should be wary of his schemes. He is the father of all lies who always pretends to be on our side, he comes in shoes of peace but brings destruction, dressed in truth but speaks lies. He hasn’t changed! Even so-called evolution has not changed him! Same old! We well know the results of man’s attempt to be God – the curse on the people and of the earth itself. Everything that was good is no longer that good. Even the wife that had excited Adam is no longer that good of a helper; she wants to be the ‘man’ as well.

Away from the garden (and all its goodness) and from God, death and murder now becomes part of man. Rivalry and competition is the order of the day, the ground no longer producing food without hard toil. Instead of love, hatred. God’s will for man was to enjoy God, delight in what He created and to glorify him forever but the rebellion turned everything upside down.

How about Now?

But God’s will is still on course for he had already planned how the beautiful, joyful and tear-free relationship would happen and he continues to call out for man! Where are you? From Genesis all the way through the Prophets, God continues to call man to himself but man continues to believe in a lie, and is clothed with shame and sin (Gen. 3). But God has a plan! His plan is to clothe man with Christ’s righteousness, to restore that fellowship for him to be able to enjoy God and his creation (Rom. 3:21-22). The new creation in Revelation is like the Garden of Eden reloaded! It’s full of rivers, love, power, and more than that God is there 24/7. No thieves or corruption, no unemployment (everyone is a full time worshiper and ‘reign-er’), no tears, no death- we live forever (Rev. 21:1-8).

All that sounds nice and good but what about now? Surely we are not in the new creation yet as is quite evident. We are on a journey towards the new creation (for believers). It’s like being on the way to collect your salary, you might not be able to buy stuff on the way but you will after you have received it. You might be hungry on the bank queue but you are assured of at least being able to buy food in the end. Those illustrations are not exactly suitable as our journey is full of unknowns, brokenness, fear, disease, hunger, death, mourning but the goal is sure, certain and fulfilling. We must keep ourselves focused on the goal and not be derailed on the way. An athlete will have people on the sides cheering him and others ridiculing him and he must be careful not to focus on any of them but to keep looking forward. Whether a ‘fat’ bank account or only an M-Pesa account, whether we suffer want or disease or persecution or whether we have plenty, God’s will is for us to remain anchored in Him and focused on the new creation. His will is not just wishful thinking but a sure, certain and planned joy and fellowship.

So what’s God’s will for me? It is satisfaction, hope and trust in him and Jesus Christ and His promise for an eternity together with him. So whether in suffering or disease, or nice family and car, he wants me to have him forever. God’s will is for me whether in poverty or riches, health or sickness, is to be satisfied and for him to be glorified in me. That I will honour God in awe and he shall be the object of my worship, be thankful to Him and that I will be daily putting my trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.

Peter Kamau

(Ministry Training Facilitator, iServe Africa)

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As we have already seen before, Jesus’ earthly ministry is largely about preaching. Mark the evangelist says “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:14-15). At the start of his ministry, Jesus preaches. Someone said that ‘God had only one Son, and He made Him a preacher.[1] In Matthew’s gospel, we see huge sections of Jesus’ teaching, the most famous being ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7). In Luke’s gospel, after Jesus goes to the temple, he picks up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, reads it and “then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone were fastened on him. He begun by saying to them, ‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:17-21). We see again that his ministry is that proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. In John, Jesus powerfully teaches Nicodemus on the need for him to be born-again and about his mission “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:13-15).

Scripture also attests elsewhere to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God being the word of God. He is the Word become flesh (John 1:14). He is the one who was heard and seen, looked and touched by the apostles’ hands. He is the one proclaimed by the apostles- the Word of life. (1 John 1:1-4). The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom, he also made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is the Word of God. To proclaim the Word is to proclaim Jesus.

The apostles were charged by Jesus to preach. The great commission in Matthew 28:16-20 has the command to make disciples. This involves a number of things, chief of which is preaching (teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you). ‘Christ Himself knows best how to build and prosper His Church, and we have His order as to what is best done in that connection.[2] We see then after Jesus is ascended to heaven, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles empowered by the Spirit, proclaim this Christ. Peter opens up Joel and preaches Christ- fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22). He explained the scriptures and “with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:40-41). The church was formed and grew by the preaching of the men who had been with Jesus.

The apostles gave themselves over to the preaching of the Word. We see later on, when there was a temptation to divert their attention to other things, they resolved to give their attention to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. (Acts 6:4). Their writings are full of their commitments to preach Christ and exhortations to preach Christ (Romans 1:16-17, 1 Corinthians 2:2, 15:1-8, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Peter 1:10-12).

The church in the 21st Century has a lot to learn from Jesus and his apostles. It’s time we prioritised preaching and do it well.

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[1] Greg Haslam, Preach the Word!: The Call and Challenge of Preaching Today (Lancaster [England: Sovereign World, 2006), 34.

[2] Haslam, 34.

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Peter Kamau preaching during iServe Africa Ministry Training Course 3 in May

Throughout the bible, preaching seems to be one common factor that characterizes the church. In fact, from the Old Testament, one distinguishing mark of God’s people is that they are really a people under his Word. This word is brought to them by prophets who acted as God’s mouth-piece. Noah is described by Peter as a ‘herald of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2:5). Moses, as a deliverer of the Israelites from Egypt, had a major role of speaking to the Israelites as well as to Pharaoh. We see in Exodus the first thing that Moses and Aaron do when they go to Pharaoh is to speak “thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people Go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1). After this, Moses’ ministry continues to be that of a preacher. After Moses, God raises up other leaders who continue to speak God’s word to the people. In particular, they remind them of the covenant and their obligations. It is worth noting that whenever there’s were no people speaking God’s word, then God’s people would be in problems. At the time of Eli the priest, problems arose with his children who were so corrupt and forgot what their role was. We are told that “And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” (1 Samuel 3:1). It is in this period when God raised up Samuel to serve him. The rest of the Old Testament has many other people like Ezra, prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea and Malachi who speak the word of God to the people.

Coming to the New Testament, we see that the priority of Jesus during his earthly life is preaching. We read in the gospel of Luke 4:14-15, after he was tempted, his first mission in to go to the synagogue and start teaching. In Mark’s gospel also we read “And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’” (Mark 1:38). Jesus continues with preaching until when he is arrested and crucified. After Jesus, we see that his disciples (the apostles) too concentrated on the preaching of the good news.

The Great Commission itself is a call to preach “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20). This is what the apostles do after Jesus is taken up to heaven. The book of Acts of the Apostles is full of the sermons that the apostles preach after the Holy Spirit has come upon them. Of course there are signs and wonders that are performed by the apostles but the thing that adds to the numbers of believers is their preaching that brings conviction and repentance.

Preaching continues to be very vital in the life of the church today. It is the means through which God’s people get to hear him speak through the preacher as he unpacks the word. It is essential then that the church continues to have a high view of preaching. But the problem is that the value of preaching is somehow being lost in a majority of the churches. “In reality then, overshadowed by emphases on entertainment, felt needs, psychological approaches, and managerial direction of a multifaceted program of activities for all ages, preaching has diminished in importance in the local church.[1] For new churches that have just been planted, it is necessary that they have preaching as their core.

It has been said that the church in Africa is a mile wide but an inch deep. The church seems to be growing numerically but not in depth. This is a general statement that may not be the exact picture but has truth in it. There’s preaching happening but it is most of it is not biblical. There is a lot of ‘Prosperity Preaching’ that is going on. Prosperity preachers are all over in the media. Recently, one popular bishop tweeted that people were going to get the car they have been dreaming about before the end of the year. This led to celebrations from some quarters and backlash from another. Clear biblical preaching that is rich in the gospel is needed. This is essential particularly for new church plants to see to it that from the start, biblical preaching is at the core of what they do.

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[1] Michael F. Ross, Preaching for Revitalization: How to Revitalize Your Church through Your Pulpit (Glasgow, Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 32.

This is another review by Loyce Naula- medical apprentice in Marsabit.

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As the title states, the book is written aimed at  helping an average Christian to Dig out all the treasures in the Bible so that Bible readers can understand the scriptures truthfully and rightly apply it. Nigel and Andrew give a simplified way they term as different tools to help us unearth the Bible and understand things that seem hidden or seem obvious and we overlook. By digging deeper we understand their significance and learn to observe more hence bible reading simplified.

Beginning with helping us understand what the bible is and how we should approach it, the two help us find answers to these questions throughout the pages of the book; what was the author’s purpose when he wrote the bible text or book? How is it structured and how do the sections fit together?  In what context was the text written? Why are some words repeated? Any vocabulary used, what’s the meaning? What are the writing styles or genre used and why did the Author choose to use it?

The book also help us understand and take note of the allusions or quotations throughout scripture. Something I also found so helpful as well was noting the feel and tone of the text, which so important in understanding and applying the text. One of the final tools, the Bible timeline tool helps us understand the big picture of the Bible from genesis to revelation- it’s important in seeing the small different bible stories and events as one big story, how and where each text fits, and how it helps me to understand and apply the text.

I really liked the way the book was made simple to understand. The worked examples in every chapter of the book make it super practical not forgetting the Dig deeper bible texts summarizing every chapter thus challenging us readers to reflect more on the chapter and practice what we have learnt through a given text. We can use these tools in our personal bible studies and get all treasures in the Bible and live a truly transformed lives as Christians.

Because its written in ordinary language, whether scholars or average Christians, teachers and all ministers can really find knowledge in this book. Dig deeper is the guide to understanding our bible for all its worth for it provides the basic knowledge we need to understand scripture. I recommend it to every Christian to read and enjoy scripture.

Loyce Naula

Book Review

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This is a review by one of our apprentices, Loyce Naula. Loyce is sent to us by Global Link Afrika, Uganda. She serves in Marsabit as a clinical officer.

BOOK; How to read the bible with all its worth

Author: Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

The book addresses what has always been a point of confusion for me and many others. Mistakes and disagreements in Christian faith have arisen over it and yet it’s a vital pillar in Christianity- Understanding the Bible, making right interpretations and applying it correctly the way it’s intended by God.

For a ‘common’ Christian to Bible scholars, Gordon and Stuart give a simplified approach on how to make good exegesis as the first task then faithful hermeneutics without misusing the Holy Scriptures, in that, every text or statement means what it was intended to mean first to the original hearers then to the 21st century hearer. They help us understand how to approach every type of genre, giving practical examples in each; they explain the nature of genre, its historical context, the literary context, cultural relativity and basic hermeneutical observations in each. This helps to understand scriptures from the position of the original readers then turn our minds to us today in our modernized world, different culture and geographical locations.

What really stood out for me is the way they explained the Old Testament and parables, it was great to understand that they are not always allegories with a special hidden meaning but they sounded differently originally due to a different context and therefore would convey a different message to us today. I learnt therefore, that it’s not a place to pick lessons anyhow to apply to us today, but put several factors in consideration before we do so. They made it simpler to understand when they used an example of a joke- it’s never funny when you don’t understand the point of reference used by the narrator. It’s from this that I understand the value of reading outside the bible such as commentaries, historical books etc. They used simple language to understand, not lots of Hebrew and Greek and tried to explain for a lay person to understand.

However, I am not comfortable with the reason they give for God giving the food laws to the Israelites. Gordon gave a reason of protecting them from carrying diseases in the arid climatic conditions and that they would get allergies from such foods. That’s not a satisfying reason to me and maybe I need to read more about it.

All in all, the book is the best guide for understanding the Bible and I would really recommend it for any Christian and Bible teacher to avoid making mistakes. Use the Bible for its worth and avoid being carried away by any heresy commonly taught by our teachers for their selfish interests or just ignorance.

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We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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When there is so much work to be done ‘at home’ should we be sending out missionaries abroad? When our national churches – in Kenya or the UK or wherever we are – are struggling so much with false teaching and lukewarmness and have so few faithful Bible teachers and servant leaders, can we afford to be sending well-trained Christian workers to other countries? In an age of mass migration and refugee flows, when the world is coming to our doorstep (praise God) is there any need to send out missionaries? When sending people across borders is so costly and difficult and when there are still many neglected, functionally-unreached people in our own lands shouldn’t we just concentrate on shedding gospel light into dark corners close to home and de-emphasise ‘going’?

There is a lot of truth and wisdom and gospel-heartedness behind those questions. Undoubtedly there are huge needs and opportunities ‘at home’ and it will be right for many to stay and address those. It is also perfectly true, as many have said, that getting on a plane doesn’t make you a missionary; every follower of Christ is called to Great Commission obedience wherever they are and wherever they go (Mat. 28). And we also need to come to terms with the ways in which global demographics and dynamics are changing – mission from everywhere to everywhere – and root out the deep down ugly prejudice which sometimes makes us (me) anxious about that. And yes, it is often better and more cost effective to send funds to support gospel workers in their own countries rather than sending someone over there.

But here are four suggestions of why, while we want to be doing all those things, we still need to be sending out high quality gospel workers across borders:

These are the days of Elijah

In pastor Joshua D Jones’ strangely titled but extremely good book Elijah Men Eat Meat he draws multiple insightful parallels between our current post-post-modern age and the days of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. In one chapter he focuses on mission and notes the phenomenon of sound biblical churches with a good grip on the primacy of word ministry and a clear understanding of the mission of the church “to preach the gospel and make obedient disciples of Jesus throughout the nations…” who nonetheless

“…lose foreign mission as a focus because ‘we have so many problems here at home.’ Given all the spiritual darkness that we see in Israel, it would be easy to assume that God might put foreign mission on hold. Elijah has no shortage of work to do within his national boundaries. After all, there are plenty of fake prophets to combat and plenty of seduced hearts to turn. Yet, God sends Elijah to another nation to spend two years of his life witnessing to one pagan woman and her son. How does one even begin to evaluate whether that was a wise use of time and resources?”

It seems that the LORD is less concerned about strategy and efficiency and cost-benefit analysis than we are. He is driving an outgoing, expansive, generous, nation-reaching mission even in the worst of times. And he uses that mission to shame and rebuke and incite Israel and make them jealous (cf. Luke 4:26-29; 10:10-15; 20:16; 13:46-51; 28:28).

Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25)

John Paton, the great nineteenth century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) gives testimonies of this in his classic autobiography. Before he went to the New Hebrides he was a much loved and much used pastor in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Church. Many in the church, including elders, tried to persuade him that he was far too valuable to the church in Scotland to risk throwing his life away in a mission to pagans who would probably eat him within hours of arrival (not an unfounded fear since the previous missions to the islands had ended in that way). As it was he was eventually used, after many many trials, to bring pretty much the whole island of Aniwa to the feet of Christ. But perhaps even more significant was the way that he galvanised the Presbyterian churches in Australia and Scotland for a long-term missionary concern for New Hebrides. A very large amount of money was raised from not particularly well off churches and tens if not hundreds of pastors left Scotland and Australia to join the missionary efforts in the South Pacific islands. And what went along with those sacrificial efforts towards foreign missions was a revival in the churches that were giving:

Nor did the dear old Church [Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland] thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized…

For it is a fixed point in the faith of every Missionary, that the more any Church or Congregation interests itself in the Heathen, the more will it be blessed and prospered at Home.

“One of the surest signs of life,” wrote the V.C.R. [an Australian Presbyterian periodical], “is the effort of a Church to spread the Gospel beyond its own bounds, and especially to send the knowledge of Jesus amongst the Heathen. The Missions to the Aborigines, to the Chinese in this Colony, and to the New Hebrides, came to this Church [Presbyterian Church in Australia] from God. In a great crisis of the New Hebrides, they sent one of their number to Australia for help, and his appeal was largely owned by the Head of the Church. The Children, and especially the Sabbath Scholars of the Presbyterian Churches, became alive with Missionary enthusiasm. Large sums were raised for a Mission Ship. The Congregations were roused to see their duty to God and their fellow-men beyond these Colonies, and a new Missionary Spirit took possession of the whole Church. …the Presbyterian Church in Victoria is largely blessed in her own spirit through the Missionary zeal awakened in her midst. Thus, there is that scattereth and yet increaseth; bringing out anew the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

That is paradoxical gospel logic. Foreign missions sending is not a zero sum game. There is a great blessing for sending churches.

Foreign missions can be a powerful means of personal growth for the missionary

God uses many means to grow his people – the primary means of grace of word and sacrament in the local church, the local community of God’s people, the nurture of a Christian parent (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15), marriage and parenting, affliction (2 Cor. 1:9) – but one other that he can use is cross-border mission. An African mission leader in a particular West African country told me that all the guys he knows who are continuing faithfully long term in gospel ministry have one thing in common – they have all been out of the country. That is what has grown in them the spiritual strength and godliness and perseverance for the long haul. This can work on a number of levels – here are six:

  • There is a particular challenge in leaving your home country and people group which forces the missionary to reassess the whole idea of ‘home’ and come to a greater experiential understanding of being an alien and stranger in this world.
  • There is a particular challenge in going into a foreign culture where you are reduced to the understanding and status of a child – unable to express yourself clearly, unable to do simple things without help, constantly making mistakes, unknown and un-respected. A humbling experience that can lead to a greater experiential understanding of being simply a little child in the kingdom of God.
  • There is a particular increase in risk and uncertainty which (hopefully) forces the missionary to rely on the Lord. In some countries the threat level and insecurity is far higher than the missionary’s birth country. I think of two Kenyan brothers who spent last year in countries with very high levels of persecution and threat towards Christians – they testify to how they had to learn new level of trust of God in life and in death. Even if the destination country is quite safe and secure by any objective measure, the missionary almost certainly doesn’t feel as safe and secure as in their homeland – they don’t know which streets are safe to walk, what the noises in the dark mean, who can be trusted, where to get help. And there is a particular vulnerability of legal status as a foreign national – you can always be deported. New battles with fear will need to be fought.
  • There is a particular exposure of sin. This happens in many crucibles that the Lord puts us in – workplace, marriage, parenting – but it is certainly true of cross-border mission that all the unique stresses and insecurities tend to be particularly effective means of revealing the depths of your own heart. A critical spirit or impatience or selfishness that might not have reared its head ‘at home’ comes out strongly in moments of transition and culture clash. We are exposed more clearly as the sinners we are.
  • There is a particular encounter with other ways of thinking and living, other expressions of Christian faith. You are forced to re-examine your own thinking and living and what is genuine Christianity. While living in your own culture your own culture is hard to see largely invisible to you. In some ways, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, reading old books from different times and worldviews can help but there is nothing quite like crossing borders and living in a different place that works to different rules and assumptions to help you see the things you thought were ‘obvious’. You are forced to do some hard thinking about whether you don’t like something because it is wrong or just because it is different. You are given the privilege of having a bit of distance on your own culture as well as a view into a different one and you can start (although you will still be trapped and blind in many ways) to appreciate and critique things in both. In this way your convictions about the really core, trans-cultural, vital things in your faith hopefully get clearer and firmer.
  • There is particular encounter with need. We can read of the unreached millions in Operation World but hearts are stirred by meeting actual people, no longer statistics but precious human souls, people with lives and families and desires and fears. Certainly, wherever we are there are needs all around us – physical and spiritual. But we get so used to the environment we grow up with that we start to filter them out. When we go to somewhere very different from our home country we often see the needs more strikingly and sometimes our very definition of need starts to be challenged. Things we thought we needed, we realise are not needs. Places we thought very needy in one way we realise, through going there, are actually very needy in a different way. I think of a Kenyan who went to the UK and realised that there were extremely spiritually needy people in a wealthy nation. I think of an American who came to Kenya and realised after some time that there was a bigger need than agricultural engineering.

Perhaps this is not the most important reason for foreign missions (all this focus on personal growth can get a bit me-centred) and neither is it an invariable rule (there are plenty of counter-cases of crossing cultures leading to personal hardening and de-sanctification – mission can lead to pride as much as to humility) but it is a genuine positive effect. As Peter found in Acts 10, missions can be just as much, if not more, about the change of the missionary’s heart as anyone else’s.

We need each other

The ideal for the global church is not independency but interdependeny. There will always need to be movement of Christians around the world. Like the circulation of the blood in the body – it is healthy for there to be a circulation of Christians around the body of the church. The weaker parts will need the help of the stronger parts and each part of the body will be simultaneously strong and weak in different ways – in courage, in carefulness, in theological resources, in financial resources, in mission-heartedness, in sacrificial love. The goal is mutual encouragement (Rom. 1:12).

And in the theological endeavour itself, as Amos Yong has observed, the global church has a lot of “resources… to contribute to the conversation” which are currently largely ignored. This is not to romanticise ‘minority theologies’ or to suggest that the Western tradition is always wrong or to go for a relativistic reader-centred view of truth. In fact the majority world will continue to have a huge amount to learn from the Reformation tradition for a long time to come. It’s simply to suggest that God doesn’t give any one part of the global church a monopoly on truth and insight, that the Spirit distributes his gifts across the whole church, across borders, and that we can learn a lot from the way different people in different cultures may be able to see certain aspects of the Word more clearly than we do.

Some mutual learning can happen at a distance (even online) but there is nothing like actually being with and alongside and living and working together in gospel ministry. Much glory goes to God and much growth occurs and much learning happens as people of different cultures interact together and serve churches together and go on mission teams together (BTW multi-cultural leadership and mission teams are an old idea – Acts 13:1-3; 16:1-5; Romans 16).

At the end of the day we will all have blindspots – moral, cultural, theological. We will need to remove our own logs and each other’s specs. And both seeing the logs and the specs can be greatly helped by crossing borders.