All will be saved, so why go?

A bishop of Nigeria who, having heard of a tribe who wore no clothes and was not Christian, shed his closes, lived among them, and brought the Gospel to them.

The weekly series addresses nine reasons churches give for not sending workers to fields left unharvested.  One of the deterrents to sending workers there is the mistaken notion that all will be saved in the end. This posting explores the implications of that belief.

Rationale:

If God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to die on the cross for us, then reason, hope, and sheer compassion all lead to the same conclusion: with such a costly sacrifice of God, surely He will grant salvation to all people. All—Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, atheist, all—will be granted heaven by God in the final judgment.

After all, we are told that we are unable to gain saving grace on our own merit or effort.  God alone brings salvation. And we are to think He would keep some out? Unimaginable! Despite our respectful hesitancy, we can only think that God would be hard-hearted if that were His intention.

Pardon me, but spare me any efforts of logic or verses or arcane theology to contradict this universal hope. To do so must ignore the unyielding and inevitable affirmation of divine love.

In this light foreign missions becomes, well, irrelevant at best and insulting at worst. The message is really not a message—who needs to know? This would be like declaring, “I want you to know that you have two kidneys.” Who needs to be told?

Since God is going to save everybody, so why go?

Response

Believing that all will be saved is not foolproof nor above examination. As compelling and desirable as universal salvation is, we must not shirk at giving it a close look.

Our concern here is implications for foreign mission. I will bring up just one objection before turning to mission. Consider the God-given freedom of the will. Can God honor our freedom and also keep His promise of salvation for all?

This God-given capacity sets us apart from automatons. We have the ability to choose—whether it be the cheese we have with a glass of wine or the destiny we cling to. If I choose to freely love and worship God, that is the love God desires–His pearl of great price, we might say. It is offered as my freely given response, not extracted as a pre-ordained mindset without no possible alternative.

I can also exercise that freedom to give God a pass, to choose not to link my life to his, to commit to other gods and ultimately to refuse Jesus Christ. Many do just that: reject the cross of Jesus Christ and his forgiveness and not find in it the abundant life. They just don’t want what God offers, so they choose a life apart from him. If God overrules this person’s free rejection, does he not violate the sanction given to us all? You can’t have it both ways—our true freedom and God saving those who choose to refuse Him.

But this is not a theological refutation of universalism; this is about the choice denied those who have not even heard of Jesus Christ as God’s Son. The number is legion, over one quarter of the world’s population today. Those are the people where the workers are few and their fields barely plowed.

No, I have no inside knowledge of how God will treat those who die never having had the opportunity to choose faith in Jesus Christ. What we can affirm, however, is that all who do believe receive the assurance that, sinners though they are, they may be assured of God’s grace and God’s eternal salvation.

We return to the opening quotation and put back all the words it as spoken by Jesus. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” In those simple words we have the requirement for receiving the salvation of Jesus Christ—believing in him. That does not lead to esoteric parsing of Greek verbs and such. It simply means what it says: believing in Jesus as God’s Son whom He gave to die on the cross for our sin. Faith in that brings eternal life.

As for those who have never heard this Good News, those in unharvested fields, we must leave the conclusions to the God who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world, only hoping for mission motivation to overtake the church.

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?

And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never hearAnd how are they to hear without someone preaching?

And how are they to preach unless they are sent?

As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of

those who preach the Good News.”

Romans 10:14, 15

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The Nation of the Tajakant

The weekly series addresses nine reasons churches give for not sending workers to fields left unharvested. The first reason, which I wrote about last week, was the muddling that arises from the use of the word “Gentile” to define the mission world instead of “nation” or “ethnic people.” If we see the mission field only as Gentiles, we miss the 7,000 nations left in those fields.

One of the deterrents to sending workers there is the mistaken notion that all will be saved in the end. This posting explores the implications of that belief.

Rationale:
If God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to die on the cross for us, then reason, hope, and sheer compassion all lead to the same conclusion: with such a costly sacrifice of God, surely He will grant salvation to all people. All—Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, atheist, all—will be granted heaven by God in the final judgment.

After all, we are told that we are unable to gain saving grace on our own merit or effort.  God alone brings salvation. And we are to think He would keep some out? Unimaginable! Despite our respectful hesitancy, we can only think that God would be hard-hearted if that were His intention.

Pardon me, but spare me any efforts of logic or verses or arcane theology to contradict this universal hope. To do so must ignore the unyielding and inevitable affirmation of divine love.

In this light foreign missions becomes, well, irrelevant at best and insulting at worst. The message is really not a message—who needs to know? This would be like declaring, “I want you to know that you have two kidneys.” Who needs to be told?

Since God is going to save everybody, so why go?

Response
Believing that all will be saved is not foolproof nor above examination. As compelling and desirable as universal salvation is, we must not shirk at giving it a close look.

Our concern here is implications for foreign mission. I will bring up just one objection before turning to mission. Consider the God-given freedom of the will. Can God honor our freedom and also keep His promise of salvation for all?

This God-given capacity sets us apart from automatons. We have the ability to choose—whether it be the cheese we have with a glass of wine or the destiny we cling to. If I choose to freely love and worship God, that is the love God desires–His pearl of great price, we might say. It is offered as my freely given response, not extracted as a pre-ordained mindset without no possible alternative.

I can also exercise that freedom to give God a pass, to choose not to link my life to his, to commit to other gods and ultimately to refuse Jesus Christ. Many do just that: reject the cross of Jesus Christ and his forgiveness and not find in it the abundant life. They just don’t want what God offers, so they choose a life apart from him. If God overrules this person’s free rejection, does he not violate the sanction given to us all? You can’t have it both ways—our true freedom and God saving those who choose to refuse Him.

But this is not a theological refutation of universalism; this is about the choice denied those who have not even heard of Jesus Christ as God’s Son. The number is legion, over one quarter of the world’s population today. Those are the people where the workers are few and their fields barely plowed.

No, I have no inside knowledge of how God will treat those who die never having had the opportunity to choose faith in Jesus Christ. What we can affirm, however, is that all who do believe receive the assurance that, sinners though they are, they may be assured of God’s grace and God’s eternal salvation.

We return to the opening quotation and put back all the words it as spoken by Jesus. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” In those simple words we have the requirement for receiving the salvation of Jesus Christ—believing in him. That does not lead to esoteric parsing of Greek verbs and such. It simply means what it says: believing in Jesus as God’s Son whom He gave to die on the cross for our sin. Faith in that brings eternal life.

As for those who have never heard this Good News, those in unharvested fields, we must leave the conclusions to the God who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world, only hoping for mission motivation to overtake the church.

How then will they call on him in whom
they have not believed?

          And how are they to believe in him of whom
they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of
those who preach the Good News.”
Romans 10:14, 15
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Fields, Gentiles, and Nations

03

Dani women of western China experiencing green chewing gum

 

When I was the Director of Anglican Frontier Missions, I spent many Sundays in different churches where I presented unreached mission fields. Over time, in conversation with clergy and mission leaders, I began to see patterns of reasons not harvesting in these fields. In this series I will present these, along with the responses I developed.

Pretty cheeky of me, right? I mean, taking up negative notions about frontier missions and presuming to set them right. Cheeky and bold, but with the effort not to be offensive. (I am a mild-mannered Virginian!)  Besides, as I noted last week, this series does allow for your feedback.

Reason: This week’s reason is really an objection.  This sample church is already heavily involved in foreign fields, mission to Gentiles. There is sacrificial ministry, mutually beneficial, with tough times and hard learnings, and borne much fruit.

This engagement often results from connections with bishops of the Anglican Communion or leaders of other denominations. These relationships can open ways for interaction between them and us. Another way into foreign mission is through local ministry with international students. These people usually return to positions of leadership and influence in their homelands. The opportunity is great: there are over 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. Unfortunately, history shows that fewer than 30% will get into an American home.

To churches like this sample congregation, they do not ask, “So why go?” but declare, “We are already there.”

Response: Truly, many are involved, and with a long history, humbling times of learning, and benefits for all who have participated. But—

We must take a close look at this term, “fields,” and ask two questions. First, what does Jesus mean by this term, and second, how do we know what fields lack workers?  It should be clear that He is not referring to political countries. Boundaries change. Consider, for example, poor Poland, how the lines of that great country have been altered over the last 150 years. No, Jesus has something else in mind.

The best place to look is Matthew’s Great Commission. There the Lord tells us to make disciples of all “nations.” The Greek for “nations” is ethne, a word we have incorporated as “ethnic.” Most translations render this as Gentiles. That is lamentable. That divides the world once—Jews and others. Whatever is done across cultural boundaries qualifies as work with Gentiles. So, churches can say, “We are already there.”

Unless… unless Jesus is speaking about ethnic tribes, people groups distinct from one another by language, custom, history, religion and more. After all, we cannot paraphrase the Great Commission by saying, “Go, make disciples of all Gentiles.” In the metaphor of fields, Jesus is telling us that many ethnic groups are without mission attention.

China gives us a good example of the difference between a political country and “nations.” . We can be amazed at the number of Chinese Christians, but when we look at the people groups, another picture emerges. Most Chinese Christians are of the majority Han nation. China recognizes 55 minority nations, but actually there are many more than 55. Of these “nations” most have very few Christians and very few workers.

Secondly, how do we know which fields?  One way to that solution is to go by number of Christians. Some fields have scads of Christians—a number of believers beyond counting.  We ask, then, what makes that growth possible? Easy: teachers, Bibles, classes, training, places to worship, absence of persecution, webinars and websites, and, of course, an ample supply of DVDs and notebook courses.

Maybe you can see where this is going. If some fields have all these things and lots of Christians, then what about fields without these. Those would be the ones waiting for the harvest. Those are the ones with few workers, few Christians, and inadequate efforts to evangelize.

Now we can see how these unharvested fields can be identified—by asking about available resources:

        Bibles. In their own language? The entire Bible or portions?  The Jesus Film? Available on the Internet? And, by the way, have the people learned to read?

        Leadership training. How recently has Christianity come to this people? Are there Christian leaders? Are there opportunities for training? What level of teaching is appropriate?

        Modes of communication. Are there radio programs, TV programs? Are these accessible to the people? How about print—magazines, correspondence courses, pamphlets on discipleship topics?

        Aids to society. Are there Christian health care workers, educational personnel, advocates for justice and kindness? These address their areas of expertise, but they also model the Christian life.

        Openness in society. Is evangelism permitted? Encouraged and taught? Can worship take place in the open? Is there persecution of Christians and churches?

Those are some of the key criteria in discerning where a particular nation or ethnic group fits. Fields without scads of these resources also are without scads of Christians, and without scads of workers.

What about those churches that are in well harvested fields, like our sample church? Hold back from their work? Shift to another field? Of course not! Press on! If anything, increase the attention and support for growth. And… don’t discount the power of the Holy Spirit to nudge you towards those unharvested fields as well.

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Unharvested Fields

The area of fields white for harvest but with few workers

A Lenten and Easter series on fields needing harvest

You probably recognize the imagery our Lord used. It comes at the end of Chapter 9 of Matthew. He used the simplest of images to convey this overlooked priority for the church’s mission:
            Fields of people
Harvest that is neglected
Spectacular prospects
Too few workers
Prayer for more

These unharvested fields we refer to as “frontier mission.” That’s because they lay beyond the present mission of the church. Vast resources go for to fields where workers have been harvesting year after year. But Jesus is turning our attention to those people where the workers are few—very few and far behind the harvest needed.

Transferring His imagery to current numbers and locations, the church sends over 90% of our mission resources to where harvesting has a long history. To those fields where the Gospel is unknown, it’s a different story. There are about 1.8 billion  people in today’s world living in unharvested fields, in the dark about Jesus Christ. For these 28% of the world’s population, we allocate about 6% of our resources.

I consider myself an expert in the reasons for neglecting the some harvest fields. I was director of a missionary society that serves the church’s work among those fields. Anglican Frontier Missions concentrated on the 25 largest and least evangelized ethnic groups. As Director I was on the other end of the telephone receiving calls from those interested in the least evangelized people groups. They were few in those days. I soon discovered that my major role was as advocate for these fields. That meant listening to the churches’ mission stories, appreciating what they were doing, and trying to figure out why that did not include the Qashqa’i of Iran, among others. After fifteen years in that role I became an expert in these reasons.

This is a very timely introduction for this series. This coming Sunday I will give a presentation to a church about involvement with frontier mission. Having this presentation in mind has helped to crystallize the challenge. Let me share my thoughts.

This church is one of the friendliest churches I know towards frontier mission. They have a sound mission life, both locally and beyond. Furthermore, this is the church that gave me immense personal and financial support in the early days of AFM. Yes, this is my former parish, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

I have told the rector and missions chair that I will go to meddlin’. That is, I will offer ideas for connections and engagement in frontier mission. I have four suggestions in mind, opportunities that most congregations in the US could consider:

1. International students;
2. A local ethnic group with ties to previous mission outreach;
3. Foreign missionaries supported in the parish budget;
4. A missionary from a local church.

Each has benefits that commend them:

1. Students from other countries, students who will become leaders back in their own lands. Several churches I know are having successful outreach for students in their vicinity. At the nearby University of Richmond there are over 600 foreign students. Most are from China, with India second.
2. Permanent residents from countries where we have previous contacts. For St. Matthew’s that would be Ethiopia. Several trips to one particular area and a bishop from neighboring tribes give a head start in meaningful connections.
3. Overseas missionaries supported by the church. To highlight these pioneer missionaries would take our attention to their dangerous and strategic places and people.  Four Moldovans receive funds in this church’s budget.
4. A missionary going to a country in South Asia. This is the most intriguing because of today’s Episcopal/Anglican world. This missionary was raised Episcopalian and now worships at an Anglican church. She is warm and friendly. She has good relations in both groups and has a relative in St. Matthew’s. Of course, the issue is cooties. Will one group get the cooties of the other?

Now, I attend three churches from three different Anglican bodies. I have my ecclesiastical allergies, and none of them is activated in these three churches.  As a disconnected missionary type with official ties only in Nigeria, you can tell that getting torqued over divisions between Bible-centered, Spirit-filled, etc., churches bores me. Unity in Christ is a possible fit here.

I would say that I will report the outcome next week, but I have learned that the reality is always a long-term sorting out. What I will report on is the first reason for neglect and my response. The report will come the following week—a look at the 10 million Hindu Marwari of Rajasthan, India.

Picture: A field of winter wheat almost ready for workers.

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Reports from Citizens of Heaven

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 4.33.32 PMPhoto – Fr. Jacques Hammel, recently martyred in his church in Normandy, France
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

One of my visions of heaven involves a Starbucks-like setting where ambrosia and manna are served. Around the tables are saints from all eras and diverse localities. The conversation clearly thrills all those listening, for they are sharing the ways God has loved them, how they experienced God’s grace.

This scene, we may say, is the assurance of things they hoped for.

When we read and hear of the stories of the saints of the church, we are hearing reports from citizens of heaven. Until our time of arrival there, we have opportunity to eavesdrop on these who have gone before. The writer to the Hebrews recognized the special value of their stories by including this great eleventh chapter. We can only imagine the taste of ambrosia and manna, but the stories are the stuff of real life.

They knew the promise. They held on because they had heard God promise that He has a city that is not of this world. Theirs was not a faith built upon dreams or fantasy. He promised; it was so.

They were strangers and exiles. This world was not their home. For all their opportunities for comfort, success, and more, they knew that this world was not all there is. The world to come was a reality greater than the illusions of grandeur here.

They knew God was the architect. The best they had experienced here was nothing in comparison with what God has designed. No advertisement—whether it be of extravagant luxury or enviable lifestyle–nothing earthly would compare with the City of God. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined—what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9).

They were bulwarks of truth. Their faith communicated truth, real and trustworthy truth. This world is not all there is; this world has fools’ gold; this world is corrupt and will be destroyed; this world will capture, dehumanize, destroy, and discard.

To be sure they also had trials of faith, times of doubt, and temptations to which they yielded. In vivid detail we read of all these in the Bible, and we know all the saints since then have the same tales. But by the grace of God they “endured to the end.”

We, too, face trials, doubt, and temptations. We, too, have shame and embarrassment for how we have dishonored God and hidden our testimony. As we strain to hear the stories of the saints who have gone before, we gather a bit more faith to believe, stronger courage to witness, and a clearer vision of the city God has prepared.

World Christian Trends 

The section on martyrology in this volume is truly extraordinary. In 40 pages, encyclopedia size, we read a list of martyrs and massacres beginning with year 33. Then the list of martyrs is given by country.

What follows is a random selection of martyrs, chosen for variety of eras and localities. These are people whose excitement and awe fill the conversations around the tables. From them, even from these very brief sketches, we can distill the signs of grace and hope that stayed alive in them, even as they faced death.

Aretas of Yemen, burned with monks and nuns in 427. The blood of the martyrs in that country has barely penetrated the soil. The harvest in this land remains small.

Wenceslas in Bohemia, the saint of the well-known carol, who gave his life for the Lord in 929. He left a legacy of kindness as well as clear faith in Christ.

Peter of Castelnau of Toulouse, France, the city where my French cousins live. Their faith is buoyed by the legacy of this martyr of 1208 and others who secured a stronghold of faith in this part of France.

Daniel of Belvedere from Morocco, a Franciscan monk who met his death in 1220. He was determined to show that to be a Moroccan can also mean to be Christian. That continues to be vehemently denied by the rulers there today.

Tamerlane’s brutality and massacres of hundreds of thousands of Christians between 1358 and 1401. No list carries their names, no plaques or saints days, but each one is known by name by our Lord, each one precious to Him. He has given each a white robe and a seat on the front row.

J. de Almasia of Paraguay martyred by the Agaces Indians in 1536, showing the centuries of resistance to establishing the church in the highlands and savannahs of Paraguay.

L. de Quiros, one of eight Jesuit priests killed in my native Virginia in 1571. I look forward to learning the good and the bad of the efforts to assist the Indian population to embrace the faith of the crucified Savior.

Donna Beatrice, one of the early martyrs of Sub-Saharan Africa, being burned at the stake in Congo in 1704. How many people will we meet who suffered for the faith, who brought many to the Lord, and who influenced generations that followed? We will meet many of these.

E. Trieu and J. Dat were two Vietnamese priests pioneering in Indonesia in 1773. Henry Lyman and Samuel Munson, sent out by the American Baptist missionaries to Sumatra, Indonesia. They met their death in 1834. Sumatra still has several large unreached groups there, the larger ones being Lampung and Komering. Blood of martyrs and prayer will one day bear fruit.

David Dapcha Lama, a Nepalese missionary in the earliest days of Christian witness in Nepal.  He gave his life in 1958 when there were so few Christians they could not be counted.

30,000 Igbo Christians massacred by Muslim mobs in Nigeria in 1966. The fervor for mission in Nigeria has not come without enormous cost.

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a chapter of encouragement. The tales of the saints inspire faith, as well as awe and praise of God. The writer meant for us to eavesdrop, for from them we draw hope and strength as we prepare for our place at the table.

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The Wrath, yes, the Wrath of God

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 4.27.56 PMPhoto – The city of Istanbul


July 31, 2016  The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost  Luke 12:13-21

In the placid waters of the seeker-friendly climates, the voice of the church dares hardly a whisper to warn of disturbing weather provoked by the wrath of God. Hearing this, the friendly seekers would flee–not to avoid God’s wrath but to find different climates and soothing voices.

Of course, the prophet Hosea, the apostle Paul, and the Lord Himself knew no such restraint. Each of them, in the lessons for this coming Sunday, sounded the alarm of God’s coming wrath.

The question is not whether God ever exercises wrath. No, the true question is why God would ever not show His wrath. Is He not a holy God? Is sin not a stench in His nostrils? Then why on earth would we ever be surprised to learn of His wrath?

For Hosea the wrath comes from the faithless turning away from God. For Paul it comes from all forms of impurity. And for the Lord it is the sightless pursuit of more.

We see evidence of all these forms around us today. Let me mention three, and let me hope that my references do not seem prompted by any of the debates we hear today.

1. The disintegration of the prime metaphor throughout Scripture illustrating the steadfast love of God for sinners. That metaphor, of course, is the lifelong union of one man and one woman in marriage. And yet, many today reject that foundational teaching in order to conform the church to the world–in order to sanction to same-sex unions as marriage. Not only is biblical marriage misrepresented, but worse, the steadfast love of God for sinners is diluted to render our sin and God’s forgiveness irrelevant to the human condition.

2. The diminishing of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. There are blatant heresies on this, of course. Even those who wish to appear orthodox offer a formula that slides around the historic creeds. Christ is unique, we hear, but not exclusive. That is, He is unique as the Incarnate Son of God, but He is not the only way to the Father. The doubt that lingers from this is who else could satisfy the sin of the world, what other offering than the substitution of the sinless Savior for sinners.

3. The public discussion relating to pregnancies.  The terminology is often exclusively directed to the mother’s health. The right to abort is the right to preserve supposed danger to the woman. Not mentioned is the unborn child whose life is terminated under this guise. In many cases it is only hours that separate an abortion from child sacrifice.

4. Wanting more and getting less. This applies to seeking more money and never meeting the level of enough, of wanting more sex yet moving to uncontrolled and repugnant patterns, and pursuing “the good life” but never finding satisfaction. All that is as good a working definition of greed as is needed.

As for signs of God’s wrath, again let me point only to the most obvious. In the West we are seeing churches being closed, since the attending people are too few and the supporting income too small. Also in this year we have read of seminaries of four denominations—Episcopal, American Baptist, Lutheran, and Church of Christ—closing for lack of funds and students.

While there is nothing to point to, no divine sign writ in heaven, that identifies these closings as signs of God’s wrath, we may at least state the opposite: If we were exhibiting godly living and faithful mission, we would not be experiencing the breath of Christ exhaling from the life of the church.

A closing word again from de Tocqueville and his book, Democracy in America. “When the taste for physical gratifications has grown more rapidly than their experience, the time will come when men will lose all self-restraint. It is not necessary to do violence to such people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves will loosen their hold.”

World Christian Trends

Last week I wrote that I would use the records and statistics to bring a composite picture of Turkey.  The latest figures of WCT are about ten years old, so I have also gone to Johnstone’s The Future of the Global Church, and the Joshua Project.

The reason for this effort is to demonstrate the value of research in order to have a reliable picture of the country. That will help our approach for prayer and for ministry.

In the case of Turkey we know of two recent occurrences that reshape the face of the country—the influx of refugees from Syria and the failed coup and reprisals of the last two weeks. I will give some pertinent figures for the country before commenting on encouraging developments.

Population:      80 million        Population over 15:     52%     Life expectancy:     71
Ethnic groups: 57                    Literacy rate:               82%     Urbanites:               82%
Access to health care: 75%    to safe water:             92%     Universities:            424

All looks fairly normal from these figures. An indicator of turmoil below the surface, however, comes from the Universal Index for Freedom. Turkey rates 18 out of 100. In the Suffering Index it rates 47. Christian safety rates 39. Indeed, when I visited there over ten years ago, my host commented that outside churches during worship services are armed guards. They are there not to protect the Christians, she explained, but to make sure no Turks attend.

The Muslim population is 97.2% while the Christians are 0.4%.

The statistics on religion are surprising. Research shows 56 denominations (So much for unity, even in a small Christian population.) and 900 workers.  Ten years ago there were 15 Christian periodicals.

But then comes these revealing numbers: The audience for all Christian radio is 1.5% of the population, and there is the equivalent of only one evangelistic offer per person per year. Even in Turkmenistan the average is two. Tanzania has 162.

It is not surprising, then, to note that there are 81 provinces of Turkey without any Christian witness.

One of the world’s largest megapeoples with no witness is in Turkey, but recent reports show that considerable work is progressing there with evidence of spiritual fruit. Also, earlier this year there were about 100 Christians in teams around the country interceding for the people of this great country.

Surely we can adapt the closing verse of Hosea to the people of Turkey:
“They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.” Hosea 11:11.

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The Signs of God

 

July 24, 2016   The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost     Luke 11:1-13

Q team

Last Tuesday I spent the day on the Chesapeake Bay with eight others fishing for cobia. This is a fine eating fish; they come big and fight hard. We went out early and stayed for two tide changes.

After three hours of watching the tips of the rods not move, enjoying the banter of fishermen, and getting hungry, I decided this was the time and place to bring God onto the scene. I told them I would say grace over our lunch and also would address the One who gave us the food, asking Him to show cobia where they could find a snack. I might have even said, “…where they can get hooked on a snack.”

Later, within an hour of our time to head in, we landed two large cobia.

Was that a “sign of God”? Certainly to the woman on board, a friend who is applying to Anglican Frontier Missions. Probably to the others as well. There was talk among them of the Lord sending “seconds”.

But we know that quantifying answers to prayer is difficult, not because the answers aren’t there but because God’s answers are not always so obvious as “fish on line”.

In the sphere of missions there is a place for seeing signs of God. The best quote for this comes from Prior Roger Schutz of the Taizé Community. He wrote in 1960, “Les chiffres sont les signes de Dieu.” Or, “Statistics are the signs of God.”

William Carey knew the importance of statistics for mission work. He wrote a pamphlet commonly known as “An Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the Heathens.” The title continues in smaller type: “In which the religious state of the different nations of the world, the success of former undertakings, and the practicability of further undertakings are considered.” Then he gives 23 pages of tables by continent of the religious state, the former undertakings, and the relative success of these efforts. Carey knew statistics tell the tale.

World Christian Trends 

WCT shows us ways to discern the signs of God, how to sight trends.  The pattern is the same for international missions as for local church. We build upon an irreproachable mandate, use reliable sources, and then find valued analysis.

The Mandate:             WCT lists 23 verbs from our Lord and throughout the Bible that urge measuring by numbers. A sample of these are: Add (Acts 2:41); calculate (Luke 14:28); count Rev. 11:1); list (1 Tim 5:9); measure (Rev. 11:1); survey (Josh 18:6); register (Luke 2:1). From this list come another 51 English imperatives related to what WCT calls missiometrics.

Clearly, God leads us into the dimension of records. How can we know what God is doing, after all, if we cannot see the before and after?

Reliable Sources:        As much as this exercise applies to the task of world evangelization, we also must apply the same principles to leadership in the local church.

Listed first in “50 new facts and figures about trends” is this statement:
“Every year the churches hold a megacensus costing $1.1 billion, sending out 10 million questionnaires in 3,000 languages, which covers 180 major religious subjects.”

The categories for these reports are not randomly chosen. They plunge into the realities of church life. Is there growth in attendance? Is growth by birth or conversion? What ages are leaving, what ages joining? And more, many more areas to be examined.

Who reads these? Maybe your bishop or Superintendent, maybe not. But researchers do. They pore over the findings, study the documents, and track the changes.

Major missionary organizations also carry extensive databases. Some of these are:
Summer Institute of Linguistics for Bible translations (http://www.sil.org/linguistics);
Joshua Project (https://joshuaproject.net/index.php);
Global Prayer Project (http://www.globalprayerdigest.org);
World Christian Database (http://worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd/);
Operation World (http://www.operationworld.org).

In addition to these religious surveys are the extensive reports of the United Nations (UN) and United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In one major section, WCT carries 171 columns of data for each country. The data come from reports of these and other organizations. The lengthy composite reveals quality of life in several key areas, the strength and needs of the church, and key steps towards evangelization. The columns for your church reports also give composites, composites that show strength, gaps, needs, and more. Wise leaders will push for understanding, then push more for reasons, and push again for what to do and where.

Valued Analysis:         Actually the analysis comes in pages and tables of the book; the value must come from the student of these figures.

For instance, planning for work in Cambodia will examine life there. show that only 13 % have access to clean water. There are only 12 hospital beds per 10,000 people.  Cambodia has 40,000 blind people and 672,000 deaf. The country has a very high murder rate of 70 for every 100,000 people. Results of this study must determine the shape of ministry there in the name of the love of Jesus Christ.

The benefits of studying the signs of God through statistics can prevent errors all too common in the church. I will mention three:

Duplication.     This is the arrogance that my particular ministry is so far superior to another’s that I must pursue my effort as if other efforts do not count and are not there.

Neglect.          Evangelization of an ethnic group or a city requires multiple layers. Studying the trends as represented in books like WCT will highlight needs that have been overlooked. In Cambodia, for instance, these numbers reveal the deeper picture of poverty of respect for life.

Hunch.             Factors that determine emphasis in ministry can be less than honorable. Some may be the particular likes or dislikes of the leader, ministries popular with donors, or where the glitz—the photos, the stats, “the bang for the buck”–is greatest. The counterparts of these fit easily into ministry in the local church, do they not?

Before we scoff at studying statistics to discern trends, we should recognize how statistics serve this purpose in other spheres.  During the recent All Star Baseball game in the US, with each batter the TV screen showed layers of statistics to tell us what we might expect him to do. Watching a golf tournament now gives the viewer the exact length of the putt and the % for that golfer on that putt.

Next week: a composite of Turkey—its government, churches, demographics, and society.

 

Photo: Part of a team researching one of the large unreached peoples, in preparation for devising strategies.

 


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