How Montana Prepared Me for International Missions

tipiFor the past five years, our church has partnered in multiple ways with Montana Indian Ministries and Pastor Bruce Plummer based on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. In this partnership we have been part of effective evangelism through service by partnering with local Christians who will continue discipleship long after we have gotten back on the plane. This mission and ministry is a worthy end it itself. However, my experiences as well as those of our teammates, have served and can serve as preparation for missions and ministries in other places around the globe. Here are several things I have been exposed to and a few things I have learned:

All “Nations”

It is important to note that in some significant ways, this mission and ministry actually is international missions. This comes from a proper understanding of the word “nation.” Native Americans themselves grasp this as they refer to themselves as “nations.”  A nation is a “people group” – a group that shares common traits, religion, language, way of life and cultural distinctives. Once you begin to understand the differences between Gross Venture, Assiniboine, Cree, Crow, Cheyenne (Northern and Southern), etc. you begin to have  a further delineated understanding of people groups that further prepares you for understanding tribes and “nations” throughout the world.

Spiritual Warfare

We must remember if our aim is to share the Gospel, we are engaged in Spiritual Warfare. In fact, if you are a believer and it’s not your aim to share the Gospel, you are on the defensive of spiritual warfare already (and you are losing the battle). We have to be prepared for this, and the way to prepare is detailed in Ephesians 6. Spiritual warfare is all around us. It’s more real where you are than you think, you are just not paying attention. That notwithstanding, the palpable nature in a place where many do not worship the Son of God is intense and the darkness feels darker than you know until you have been there. What is important in these moments is to remember that He is the Light of Men and even the darkness is not dark to Him. Do not go in to battle without preparing to go in to battle. The most important thing we can do is pray constantly. If your assignment is to “prayer walk” take it very very seriously.

Local Partners

It is important to remember what our role is when we go to other places to participate in global evangelization. If there are pastors and missionaries on the field then it is our job to help them and not hinder them. The best way to know how to is to ask straightforward questions. We have a role in the disciple making process, but if we have not moved our lives to these places among these people then we will not be the most effective at this, so it is important that we follow any and all instructions we receive. If there is a local Christian presence, it is also important that we recognize we have come alongside them to partner with them and to investigate what ways we can help stimulate and support what God is already doing. We did not come to “save” whatever people group we are among but to help our brothers and sisters in this process. God saves them, we are just the messengers.  I have grown to know and love others in different places in the globe of different tribes and tongues and there is nothing like the partnership in the Gospel we share. Look for and forward to these opportunities. In many places, they will be the ones who actually get to carry the Gospel to the most extreme unreached because frankly they can go places you and I can’t. If we are not humbled by carrying the Gospel and aiding others in carrying the Gospel, then it may not be the Gospel we carry.

Minority Status

There is nothing quite like realizing how different you are all the sudden. When you are accustomed to being the majority culture and suddenly find yourself as a minority surrounded by a great majority, it can be a bit shocking and maybe a little unnerving.  Preparing for this is only helpful for missions and ministry, particularly if your background is similar to mine. This also prepares you to identify with what is the experience of the vast majority of the scattered peoples in the world. Curious stares by children and looks from adults ranging from interest to disdain will be commonplace no matter where you go. My wife, with her beautiful red hair, is an even further curiosity in some places. In other places in the world we have even had people take our picture just because of how different we are. So prepare yourself and smile for the camera (if culturally appropriate) !

Cultural Sensitivities

You will offend people. Unfortunately you may not know it. This is why it is so important to have familiarized yourself with the culture to which you are going to spend time as much as possible. How loud do they speak? Do they maintain prolonged eye contact? Do they shake hands? How do they feel about feet ( I know you may not like them either, but it some places they really don’t like them)? Will there be venerated or religious objects or symbols around that I wouldn’t have even considered? It is essential in sharing the Gospel, which is offensive, to minimize incidental offensiveness as much as possible by being culturally sensitive.  The best way to prepare or this is to ask a Christian brother or sister who is either from this culture or who has spent a great deal of time with this culture.

Hospitality Culture

Native Americans are very hospitable as are many cultures throughout the world. It is important to both gracefully receive and extend hospitality.  Where I am from, people will offer things and we often over politely decline. This is unacceptable among Native Americans. Anything from a cup of water to a personal gift is to be received and not declined.  In other places you might need to be careful with complimenting certain things, because individuals may feel obligated to give it you.  In other settings, hospitality is extended in order to merit or earn grace, karma, etc. Though that is an uncomfortable reality, receive the hospitality with a genuine heart with the intent of sharing the Gospel.

Real Poverty

There are impoverished people in every region and amongst every people of the globe. However, if we cannot imagine going to sleep on something that is not a bed or even in a “house” or going to “bed” unsure of where our next meal will come from, then we do not understand real poverty. If we engage at any meaningful level this is something we will encounter no matter where we go.  It is important that we are prepared to encounter real and extreme poverty so we know the best ways to help (which are not always what we think).

Differing Worldviews

If your intention is to share the Gospel with any people group, worldview considerations are of the utmost importance. One thing they all share in common (including non-Christian Native Americans) is not understanding exactly Who Jesus Christ is and what He came to do. On Reservations the overwhelming majority are monotheists who believe in a single Creator. This is a great place to begin the conversation. In other parts of the world, people have no concept of a Creator in the established philosophy and religion. At any rate, no one really cares for the One Who has created his or her heart unless their hearts have been newly created (Romans 1).  It will serve you well to be familiar with the local worldview(s) in order to have effective conversations.  However, I can also personally attest to the power of the Gospel that transcends worldviews.

I will add: though we share a lot in common if our starting place is as a Christian and our minds are formed by the Bible, there will still be vast differences in worldviews with our brothers and sisters around the globe. Though it will be easier to discuss these issues with Christians, there will still be areas of local sensitivity. Just be aware and prepared to be forgiving and to be forgiven.

The next several items are practical in nature but will greatly serve you in preparation.

Uncertain Hygiene

You may not get a shower. It may not be available. This can range from a limited time to a way of life. If you cannot sleep for more than few days without a shower, then you need to prepare for this possibility. In some places where you get a “shower” there may be no stall and there may be little water pressure. There may be an extreme limit in available clean water. Long showers are rarely appropriate.  So, pack some hand sanitizer and prepare to get dirty for the Gospel.

Uncomfortable Bathroom Situations

It’s going to be uncomfortable. Count on it. In our time with Montana Indian Ministries we have grown accustomed to porta-potties (I may or may not have participated in a covert operation to temporarily relocate said porta-potties). In other places in the globe you will inevitably find yourself behind a tree or in a “squatty potty” and your digestive system will enjoy choosing this time to do acrobats for you. In some places only natural waste is flushable (if indeed there is any flushing involved). Here is another area to be aware and prepared and you do want to bring your own paper and wipes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Extreme Weather Conditions

Montana is notorious for extreme weather in both directions. You can experience 100 degree heat and ice in the same twenty-four hour period. The saying is, if you don’t like the weather, just wait around ten minutes. Extreme weather (heat, rain, cold) will be fact wherever you go to serve and to share the Gospel. Pack appropriately and prepare to endure, drink plenty of water, and wear appropriate shoes.

Unreliable Internet

We live on the internet. It is no longer a destination, it is where we live our lives. There are many positives to this constant interconnectivity and many negatives. With this said, Montana prepares you to know you may go days on end without an Imessage or email. In some situations around the globe you may have to be cautious about what you post and how you post it. To prepare for these situations, try doing internet fasts before travelling and taking all your extra time (which you will have) to pray and prepare.

Travel

Going from here to there is often for many the hardest part of sharing the Gospel. This can be as small as crossing the street (which seems to loom pretty large for most people) or as big as a few connections and layovers to the other side of the globe. The only way to prepare for travel is to travel. Being on a plane for several hours and making connections to get to Montana will prepare you to multiply it times three to go to Africa or Asia. An important note however is to remember getting on a jet does not make you a missionary. If you are not crossing the street, then you are not prepared to cross the continent or the ocean.

The Challenge of Cohesiveness

It is important for the sake of the Gospel that we do our best to live peaceably with all those we are working alongside of. Personalities will come in conflict. The question is, how will we respond and make reparations where necessary? I have been on mission trips in which the “team” consisted of my wife and I. We have struggled with this and this is only multiplied by the number of personalities. It is important to prepare to bear with one another in all patience and humility. You will ultimately grow in respect for one another and in awe of a God who can put together people who are so different for His global purposes.

Now Go.

If anything on this list has caused you to second guess going somewhere close like Montana or even further like Southeast Asia, then you need to reconsider immediately. Though exhausting and draining, spiritually and physically, making disciples of all nations and participating in global evangelization is well worth every possible cost and sacrifice you can imagine. So, let’s seek to be obedient, and let’s get to work!

Flag Day 2016

June 14th is marked on the calendar as “flag day.” When my wife and I rode a trolley that morning through downtown St. Louis, with the Stars and Stripes at half-staff, little did I know what sort of flag day it would become. Before the day was over, an overwhelming majority of the Southern Baptist Convention would vote for a resolution repudiating  the continued display of the Confederate battle flag. I voted with them and I hope some of my personal background and role as a local church pastor in the Deep South will help you not only understand why I voted this way but also why I hope my brothers and sisters in Christ come to the same conclusion. Just a couple of weeks ago driving through metro Atlanta, my eyes locked on to a shiny red tailgate. Just to the left of the latch were raised chrome letters and numbers reading “John 3:16.” Directly underneath this Scripture reference was a vinyl bumper sticker emblazoned with a Confederate battle flag and the words, “if this flag offends you, leave!” If we fail to recognize the inconsistency in this tailgate message, our failure is to our shame.

This real life example is what the resolution was about. If this brother or someone likes him reads this post, I hope you will reconsider what is seen by millions as a conflicting message and remove your bumper sticker. 
Those who have known me who may even at this moment disagree with me can assure you I do not need a “history lesson,” I do not need to look up “heritage” and “hate” in the dictionary, I do not need a lesson on “the Saint Andrew’s cross.” I have read the biggest books on the war between the states, I have visited most of the major battlefields, I have been in battle reenactments, Confederate memorial services, and have in my past written in defense of the Confederate battle flag in publications. As a youth, I was part of an organization that saluted this flag with, “affection, reverence, and undying devotion.” There quickly came a time in my life of growing greatly uncomfortable with this sort of language. I can now articulate that feeling knowing I had warring worship and allegiances in my idol factory of a heart. Ultimately there came a time in my life where the Cross of Christ overshadowed the cross of the confederacy and my love for the body of Christ outgrew my love for the entire corpus of American history. 

Here are a few compelling lines of thought as to why I chose to vote the way I did and why I would ask you to consider affirming and applying the resolution in your own sphere of influence. 

History compels us

Those of us who have and continue to emphasize the “history” of the Confederacy and this particular battle banner are either ultimately ignorant of history or ignore history. By effect what we do is make more of four years of history now 152 years old than we do of the subsequent 152 years of history.
The day Grant returned Lee’s sword at Appomattox Courthouse the history of the flag his soldiers had carried was very young. Though present and cherished by many thousands of veterans in subsequent decades, the flag was picked up by nativist and racist domestic terrorist organizations ( I also have little tolerance for reminders that “the Klan” mostly opposed illegal federal occupation and brought justice to wife beaters and others. The klan’s antics have by far been more horrible and horrific than honorable at any time in history and most of those examples are smoke screens for selective vigilante violence against minorities .) This example should be enough for us to understand why people have a “problem” but the flag’s usage continued and saw an explosion across America and especially the Southeast in the height of the civil rights movement finding itself in demonstrations against integration from the Alabama state house to the schools of Arkansas. The most recent prevalent uses of the flag (90’s, 2000’s) have been by domestic terrorists and anti-government extremists (including the gunman in Charleston.) Maybe these images have been fueled by a biased news media, but that doesn’t change whether or not these images exist and those images were not born in a vacuum. 
It does not matter whether or not the flag’s use and abuse is fair. What is ultimately unfair is to ignore these things as if they never happened.

For every one of you that can see your two or three times removed great grandfather fall clutching that banner at Manassas or Malvern’s Hill, there is someone who can see his or her grandfather or great grandfather beaten or lynched on the other side of that flag from Meridian, Mississippi to Marianna, Florida. Though those events are removed by up to a century, we cannot remove the reality of either event. Honestly, in my personal Mississippi bubble growing up, I was in environments where the short history was celebrated and eminent, while the long history was concealed and ignored. 

I have met few if any brothers or sisters of a different heritage who will condemn you for caring for your family and family history warts and all, but emblems with historical baggage are not your ancestors, and we must understand the difference and the sincere hurt felt by many. 

Honesty compels us

Closely related to a full history of an “embattled banner” is honesty with the usage of symbols. Though born in a historical context, symbols can and do take on a life of their own. Symbols, such as words, do not have meanings but usages. I recently heard a very striking example in that the word “furher” is not acceptable in polite society in Germany. It simply means “leader” but Hitler and the third Reich blew that meaning out of the water. 

Consider this anecdote regarding the Confederate battle flag. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was not marching in Selma or Albany for voting rights but in Chicago against slums and unfair rent, the peaceful demonstrators were met by angry Italian and Polish immigrants waving Confederate battle flags. Most assuredly none of these 1st and 2nd generation ethnic minorities had grandfathers at Gettysburg, but they had seen this flag used as an intimidating totem against King’s demonstrators in the South. So here’s the same symbol, in the north, not the south, waved by immigrants with accents, not whites with southern dialects. Odd, but true. At this point a symbol had a use devoid of any context regarding the late “war of northern aggression.” It was instead being used by northerners for aggression against their neighbors. 
People always matter more than symbols, save one (the Cross of Christ, see Galatians 5:11, 1 Cor. 1:23), and it’s that symbol that makes them matter. 

Our Inheritance compels us 

Everyone who is in Christ is of the same heritage and receives the same inheritance. We are after all, “joint heirs with Christ.” To an extent when we become a follower of Jesus Christ, we repudiate our family tree and heritage of blood for a tree that makes us all family by the power of one blood.

In some cases, I have found a greater kinship with brothers and sisters in southeastern Asia eating fish head soup and rice, than I have found around the table of people who look like me eating catfish and drinking sweet tea in the southeastern United States.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:28 – 29 

I actually once had a man relate to me after a racial reconciliation message, “I hear what you’re saying preacher, but we will never be equal in this life.” He heard the message, but he didn’t get it, we are equal in this life (in our heritage in Adam) and we will be made equal in eternal life (in Jesus.)

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. – Ephesians 2:13 – 14 

Humility compels us

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves . Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3 – 4  

When we refuse to take away a bumper sticker or change our shirt or whatever it is when we are sharing the gospel of Christ not only with but alongside others who may endure great emotional harm because of our choice of visible actions, we are not counting them more significant than ourselves. Our southern pride has trumped the humility of the cross, and we’ve not taken a minor action to prove a major love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we’ve placed a stumbling block in the way of those we hope to hear the message. And this, as Dr. James Merritt pointed out on the convention floor about three rows behind us Tuesday afternoon, is unacceptable as he observed, “all the Confederate flags in the world are not worth a single soul of any race. . . ”
Finally, I want to pastorally affirm and apply this resolution that the overwhelming majority of messengers at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention voted for. Let me explain what Southern Baptist pastors like myself are asking of our flocks and our brothers and sisters in Christ. What we are asking, is for you to visibly love your brothers and sisters in Christ and unsaved neighbors more than you love your fleshly heritage (Philippians 3:8). What we are asking is for you to love an eternal kingdom more than a failed four year American government experiment. What we are asking is for you to cling to the old rugged cross more than the ole rebel cross. What we are asking is for you to love your (international) Savior more than being a (white American) Southerner.

It is not just about a flag of a defunct country, it’s about a throne in a forever kingdom and those who surround it from every tribe, nation, and tongue. 

It is time for those of us who put the “Southern” in Southern Baptist to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. 
Stand up, stand up for Jesus! ye soldiers of the cross;

Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss:

From vict’ry unto vict’ry, His army shall He lead,

Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

Where the Fire is Hottest

watergiftLast week at the Together for the Gospel conference, I had a new experience. For the first time, I heard Dr. David Platt sound his usual resounding call to the nations with me knowing I had to some extent answered. Don’t let me misrepresent myself. A little over a week, strange food, and jet leg are no sacrifice. However, I did get to look through the open 10/40 window and see at least, in part, what is before us. Due to a  life-long friendship, I have a direct connection to a part of the world where one of the five largest unreached people groups still are lost in darkness, superstition, idol worship, and daily dissatisfaction with life. I’ve walked the streets, I’ve smelled the smells, I’ve seen the people. I’ll never forget my first impression of smells: incense, cigarette smoke, and human feces – in that order. I’ve heard the bells, the chants, and the cries of family members for their lost loved ones we’ve only read about in Operation World or on the Joshua Project. So, when Dr. Platt, president of the largest Evangelical mission sending agency in the world, once again issued the call for local pastors to continue in prayer, giving, awareness and going, I heard it in a way that I had not previously been able to. I felt an immense gravity and responded in tearful Godly grief as thousands of brothers rose to sing:

Facing a task unfinished

That drives us to our knees

A need that, undiminished

Rebukes our slothful ease

We, who rejoice to know Thee

Renew before Thy throne

The solemn pledge we owe Thee  

To go and make Thee known

Where other lords beside Thee

Hold their unhindered sway

Where forces that defied Thee

Defy Thee still today

With none to heed their crying

For life, and love, and light

Unnumbered souls are dying

And pass into the night

When firemen respond to a blaze they are very purposeful about putting out a fire as soon as they can. I do not pretend to understand it all, but I know that to be most effective they aim at the hottest part of the fire and that part also takes the longest to extinguish. I think this real life allegory is helpful for understanding the current state of World Evangelization.

10 40 window

With that in mind, may I once again direct our attention to the place where the fire is the hottest? Within this geographical area there are over 2 billion people and approximately 6,000 unreached/unengaged people groups. There are people within this area that could go all day (if not a lifetime) without ever meeting a Christian unless one goes to meet them. The promise of Jesus Himself and the testimony of scripture itself is not only that they will hear (Matthew 24:14) but that some will respond and be around the throne (Revelation 5, 7).

I recently read one of the best articulations of this truth in Randy Alcorn’s Money, Possessions, and Eternity, “Christ is glorified not simply by the total number who worship him, but also by the fact that this number includes representatives from every tribe, language, people and nation. Therefore, we must be making concerted efforts to see that missionaries, whether from our country or another, reach the ‘hidden’ people who have not yet heard the gospel.”

Something else I was beyond privileged to see when looking through the window, is the immense passion and power of the local partnerships in the gospel. So, let me briefly elaborate on the allegory and Alcorn’s statement. When firemen show up to put out a blaze, it would be very unusual to not see cooperation and response from neighboring fire departments from different counties and municipalities. No fireman, and no fire department puts out a blaze alone. There is only one question a fireman has in those moments, “Does this guy know how to put out a fire?” If the answer is “yes,” you need him. Alcorn also emphasizes “missionaries from another country.” This is key, and let me be clear – I do not believe the people our Sovereign God will use to complete the task of the Great Commission will look like the average American. You see, too long we have been mistaken in our blinded way of thinking that Europeans and those of European descent have a gospel to take to everyone else. The reality is, the spread of the gospel is from the Church to the world. We are gentiles ourselves, after all. If I had to guess (and this is a hopeful guess) I rather think those to complete the task will look like the average Asian, or multiplicity of Asians. I say this with tears on my cheek, warmth in my heart and a smile on my face because I am thinking of people I personally know who are meeting in homes and baptizing in tarps. Praise be to God. The point is this: the task will not be completed without humility, and it never could have been.

So, go. However, a note, prepare to be uncomfortable. Dr. Platt often speaks of “death defying missions” but I will remind you that you will enter “comfort defying missions.” This includes and is not limited to language barriers, the possibility of having toilet paper – or not, a toilet – or not, strange food, strange smells, bad traffic, extreme weather conditions, the likelihood of getting sick, and most likely unreliable Internet if at all. Are you ready?

Pastor, even if it’s once and only once I promise you will never think of a missions offering or preaching the great commission the same way again if you have led a small group of nationals in a discussion of the great commission, or seen resources given to a local partner to make an evangelical outreach in a village happen and later hear the report that people heard the gospel for the first time and were saved.

That necessarily leads to give. Give. Give money. Not thoughts, money. If there is one resource the American church has – that’s it. (Praise God we have much, much more than that). However, there is no replacing your faithful giving to buy a bowl of rice and some chicken so someone many come to a gathering, to keep a family on the field, to buy needed resources, or to give local partners an opportunity to grow deeper in their faith and in fellowship with each other. These things are necessary and we should joyfully give to make investments in the bank of Heaven. On earth it will simply rot.

Let me include one more key observation. The fire is not just a fire to put out, it’s a fire to brave. You see, there are souls inside. Someone has to go in and brave the possibility of houses collapsing and backdrafts. That’s just part of it and it is very sobering, but it’s the only way people will make it out alive. That work, dear pastor and church member, is the work done by missionaries and most especially local partners.

So, pray, above all, pray. God will Sovereignly use your prayers to bring people to Him, to sustain those on the front lines, and raise awareness at home in a way we ourselves do not even realize. In one of the most encouraging and confounding scriptures regarding intercessory prayer the Apostle Paul writes,

 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 2:8 – 11

When I think of the modern missions movement and consider the work of individuals and their teams like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor and Lottie Moon, I am always astounded to consider, “they started in the right place.” It may be worth noting that more than one of the first Apostles are said to have gone to regions in India. The work started where the fire was and is the hottest, and the illustration is apt.  We must contend for those tribes, nations, and tongues and preach the Gospel of the kingdom so they may erupt in white hot worship before the Lamb upon the throne before it is too late and they are plummeted to the fires of Hell.

As the old song says, “Millions [now billions] grope in darkness waiting for Thy word, set my soul afire, Lord, set my soul afire.”

Let’s let Dr. Platt have the last word,

“What will it take for the concept of unreached peoples to become totally intolerable to people in the church?”