Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Back home again!

Well, I’ve returned to my home after my time in Russia. I often compare the Russians to the people in Swaziland, the one difference being the colour of their skin. There’s a few other differences as well. The one is the Russian’s love for flowers, something which I have seldom if ever noticed in Swaziland. The Russians just love flowers and in spring people selling flowers have a blooming (pardon the pun) business. The other difference is the Russian’s love for dogs. In the building where the Bible Centre in Samara is situated (they rent some rooms in an office block) a big dog wanders around. It was a stray and the people in the office block started taking care of him. One things I have always noticed in Swaziland is that nearly everybody does have at least one dog but very few dogs are in a good condition. Most of them are extremely skinny and look unhealthy.
But in many other aspects these two groups of people are much the same: things like poverty, their musical ability (the Swazis are better, but the Russians are also good), their almost simple faith in God. And yet a few things happened on my visit to Russia that did show me that, in spite of the things God is doing through our church in Swaziland, we still have a long way to go in other aspects. On three occasions I was invited to share with groups of Russian church leaders the story of our ministry in Swaziland, how it had started and what God is doing for us and through us. On two of these occasions I was deeply humbled when the people who were present asked me for our bank details as they would like to collect money to help us in our ministry. What impressed me about this was that I know something about the financial situation of most of the Protestant churches in Russia. Their expenses are huge (in most cases they do not have their own church buildings and they have to rent buildings, mostly theatres or something similar for their weekly gatherings) and their income is low. Nobody would blame them if they felt that they would rather use the money which they receive just to survive. This is the reason why it surprised me so much that, in spite of their own poor financial situation, they are still willing to offer to help others. This made me think of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:2-3: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 Posted by | Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Giving, Home-based Caring, Mission, Poverty, Russia, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland, Tithing | Leave a comment

Enjoying mission

I’m still in Russia. This morning it started snowing, whereas, since we had come, it had been fairly warm. It cooled off during the night and when I woke up this morning the landscape had been transformed into a beautiful fairytale scene, with snow covering the trees and the ground and millions of snowflakes falling to the ground.
I had been in a discussion yesterday with a woman who is busy with a certain ministry here in Samara in Russia. What really touched me, was to see the passion and enthusiasm she has for this ministry. It is clear that she absolutely loves doing this work. I can honestly say that I have the same feeling towards my work in Swaziland. A few months ago someone was telling me that he needs to take a break from his ministry on regular occasions in order to energise himself to continue with the work. Granted: We are all created differently. Some people need breaks more regularly than others.
What I do realise however is that in the countries where the most missionaries are working and which are usually also the poorest countries, like those in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, the local people do not have any understanding for our Western need to “take a break” in order to energise ourselves again. I am given six weeks leave every year. Two weeks are used each year when I visit Russia to teach at this Bible centre. The other four weeks I usually take during December when I try and spend some special time with my family. All the other paid workers in our church in Swaziland have the same privilege. Yet I have never found anyone of them ever asking for official leave. It’s not as if they are working day and night. On the contrary, all of them are working at a much slower rate than I am used to (which probably also explains partly why they don’t easily get heart attacks,) but what I do notice – and this is the point I’m trying to make – is that they seem to be energised through the work that they are doing and not through other things which take their mind off the work.
And this made me think how important it is to enjoy the ministry to which God has called us. Obviously there are times when things are not always going well. Obviously there are times when one will get despondent. And surely there is a need to “take a break” from time to time, even if the main reason would be to spend more quality time with our families. But looking yesterday at the way in which this young woman radiates her passion for the ministry she is in, made me realise that, ultimately, we need to get our strength and energy for mission, not through things that take our mind away from our mission, but from the work itself that we are doing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Church, Indigenous church, Mission, Poverty, Russia, Swaziland | Leave a comment

Serving God in humility

I’m still in Russia with a fairly full schedule – teaching during the day and meeting with local church leaders during the evening and trying to catch up with my email and other administrative work at night.
While in Northern Africa, on my way to Russia, we stayed over with a prominent local church leader in that country. As in most countries where Christians are in the minority, most of the Christians are very poor. We passed through an area where about 90% of the people living there are Christians, but I can assure you that neither sticks nor stones nor Bible verses will convince any outsider to live there! The smell is awful! The living conditions cannot be imagined by anyone living in the type of housing that we are used to. Yet they have started a church in this area which is flourishing and growing and where thousands of people are attending.
In contrast to this the church leader whom we stayed with had a meeting with other church leaders while we were there. They were busy making arrangements to receive a very prominent female TV evangelist in their country who would be conducting some seminars. (Fortunately I can’t remember her name.) She had told the local church leaders that they will have to fetch her at the airport in a rented vehicle. She specified that it should be the very latest model Mercedes Benz. When enquiring about accommodation they offered to find place for her in a five-star hotel. After informing her about the facilities available in the hotel she told them that she’s not satisfied with that and she wants something better. Eventually they found her a seven-start hotel at a modest $800 per night where she will be staying while in this country!
I nearly became sick when I heard this. I’m not saying that she should live in the area I described above. But where does this person get the audacity from to demand the latest model luxury vehicle in which she should be transported and then sneer at the mention of a five-start hotel which isn’t good enough for her? How is it possible to demand accommodation at a price per night that the local Christians will not even deserve in a whole year?
As I listened to this story I just realised how easy it is for Christians to become so comfortable in their personal circumstances that they cannot relate at all to those whom they are called to serve. And in any case, how can you serve someone if you are visiting those people with a proud attitude instead of with a humble spirit? I couldn’t help thinking of the words of Jesus in Mark 10:42-44: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”I can hardly think that demanding to be chauffeured in the very latest model Mercedes Benz and demanding to be accommodated in a seven-star hotel complies with what Jesus expected from his disciples.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 Posted by | Theology | 2 Comments

Facing Persecution

Well, this is my first post on the blog since arriving in Russia. What a country! It’s so amazing to me to see each year, since I’ve been coming here the first time in 2001, that the infrastructure keeps on improving. On Sunday, as I was preaching in the church I was amazed to see how many people are attending. Every year this church is also growing in number (although it is still fairly small) and it was a real pleasure to be there. I had flown with a Northern Africa airline and spent two days with local Christians in the country of origin, visiting other Christians, getting an opportunity to visit a huge church and also going to a Bible School where I was asked to take one of the lectures on missions before continuing to Russia.
While speaking to the local church leader in this country and later speaking to a pastor in Russia, I realised that the persecution of Christians is a reality. Some of the persecution is very subtle. In Russia the times are past when Christians had to fear for their lives, But Protestant churches are still viewed with great suspicion and TV programs in which sects are discussed, often include mainline Protestant churches in such programs. Oh boy, it was quite a shock today to find out that I am considered to be part of a sect while teaching here! Hopefully, as times go by, the situation will change.
In other countries, such as the one I visited on my way to Russia, persecution is a much greater reality. The pastor I met with has been threatened. Attempting to convert anyone to Christianity is against the law and may be punished by death even though Christians are allowed to meet freely.
South Africa has, as far as religion is concerned, one of the most liberal laws in the world, For many Christians this is a great concern. I for one feel that it may be to our benefit as the preaching of the gospel can freely take place. Laws within a country will not promote the gospel of Christ. All that can really promote it is when people experience in their own lives the benefit of serving the living God.
One of the blogs I follow concerns the persecuted church. You can see the blog here. The fact is that persecution is a part of the daily life of millions of Christians all over the world.

Monday, April 21, 2008 Posted by | Theology | Leave a comment

To Tithe or not to Tithe

George Barna recently released the results of research he had done on people’s attitudes towards donating and tithing. The full report can be accessed here.
One of the things which he reported was that more Christians believed in tithing than who actually did it. According to his research only 5% of adults (in the USA) actually tithed. Surprising to me was to see that those who would describe themselves as evangelical Christians had the largest percentage who tithed (24%). What was even more surprising was to see that of the charismatic or Pentecostal Christians, only 11% actually tithed. If anyone had asked me, I would have dared to say that the numbers would have been switched around.
Writing on the origins of tithing, Barna says: “Strangely, tithing is a Jewish practice, not a Christian principle espoused in the New Testament. The idea of a tithe – which literally means one-tenth or the tenth part – originated as the tax that Israelites paid from the produce of the land to support the priestly tribe (the Levites), to fund Jewish religious festivals, and to help the poor. The ministry of Jesus Christ, however, brought an end to adherence to many of the ceremonial codes that were fundamental to the Jewish faith. Tithing was such a casualty. Since the first-century, Christians have believed in generous giving, but have not been under any obligation to contribute a specific percentage of their income.”
I would agree that the strict law of tithing will not be found in the New Testament. But in the New Testament we find principles which, I think, speak even louder than the laws about tithing. One of these examples would be to give cheerfully. And when I give cheerfully, I could easily give more than 10%.
One of the terrible mistakes which earlier missionaries made in Swaziland was to force church members to give a certain amount (in those days it was 2 Emalangeni, about 25 US cents) per year, otherwise they would not be allowed to take part in the holy communion! A system was developed where each church member had a little book, known as a “ticket” (amatikhedi), in which their contributions were recorded and only after they had given the prescribed amount were they allowed to take part in the communion. This system had the required results. Due to the shame linked to not being allowed to take part in the communion, every church member diligently paid their 2 Emalangeni. But that was all. They paid no more than this – whether they could afford it or not.
Fortunately those times are past. From time to time some of our members will still mention the “amatikhedi”, but nobody uses this system anymore. Of course, it is much more difficult to teach people to give cheerfully than it is to force them to give in order that they can take part in the communion, but it is definitely worthwhile to do it in this Biblical way.

Friday, April 18, 2008 Posted by | Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Giving, Mission, Swaziland, Tithing | 2 Comments

Praying the “Sinner’s prayer”

One of our dear friends recently told me that she wants to go and visit her father (living in the USA). This is in spite of some bad experiences she had with her father in her childhood years. Her father, who is, humanly speaking, very close to the end of his life, is not a Christian. Our friend told me that she wants to see him one more time before he dies making use of this last opportunity to explain the gospel to him so that he can pray the “Sinner’s prayer” so that she can be at peace that, when he dies, he will be with God.
Because I know the heart of this person, I fully understand that she by no means used this words lightly as if, the mere fact that he had recited a few words, would save him from eternal hell. Both she and her husband are fully committed Christians who place a very high premium on their family members as well as other Christians to live a new life in Christ.
But not all people understand it this way. For many, the “Sinner’s prayer” is still a magic formula which, once recited, becomes the guarantee to eternal life. I’ve written fairly extensively about my feelings on this in a post which you can read here.
At the same time I realise this person’s predicament. Her father is dying. Who of us would be satisfied that your father had died and entered eternal hell without God – especially if you had not done anything to change the situation? I led the funeral service after my own father’s death in 2000 and with the pain of having to cope with his death I also had the joy of knowing that he is with God. She won’t have this joy, unless if her father accepts the Lord literally on his deathbed.
One of the things which I always say when teaching on evangelism, is that we are not saved through a prayer. We are saved through Jesus Christ. My prayer could be one of the ways in which I acknowledge that I have accepted that salvation in faith. But the prayer as such cannot be my guarantee that I am saved.
So what would I have said to our friend if she had asked my advice? This is difficult, merely because this is such a deeply personal and emotional issue. Saying to her that she’s wasting her time because her father cannot be saved merely by reciting a prayer seems very unloving and insensitive. She didn’t ask my advice and I didn’t offer any advice. But I would probably have encouraged her to go if she had asked. I would have told her to share once again (I believe that she must have done it before) the full story of the gospel with her father. Her father should once again be placed before the decision whether he wants to accept it or not. And, if at that point, he does want to accept Jesus as Saviour, then she should assist him in doing this. And then she has to accept that, whether he had been sincere or not does not lie in her own hands. But what if he still refuses?
She made one remark which I corrected. She said something like: “There probably isn’t a better place to accept Christ than on your deathbed.” To which I responded: “No, you’re wrong. Accepting Christ on the deathbed is a last resort. But then you do it mainly just to get into heaven. And God wants to give us eternal life while we are still on earth. So, I can think of much better times to accept Christ than on your deathbed!”
With which she, laughingly, agreed.

Thursday, April 17, 2008 Posted by | Theology | 2 Comments

A Multifaceted Gospel

Christianity Today recently published an interesting article with the title: A Multifaceted Gospel and the sub-title: Why evangelicals shouldn’t be threatened by new tellings of the Good News. I am presently busy with Scot McKnight’s book: Embracing Grace. But over the past few months I have read numerous authors, each trying to give a certain angle on the gospel, all of them having a certain part of the truth but all of them giving their subjective view on how they see the gospel.
The article ends with the following: Hence, we need variety and creativity in our gospel witness. A chorus of voices from N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard to Allen Wakabayashi and Brian McLaren calls us to rediscover the kingdom of God. Scot McKnight tells a story about the restoration of cracked eikons (image-bearers). Kevin Vanhoozer places the gospel in the context of an unfolding drama. James Choung’s True Story offers a “four worlds” diagram in which we are designed for good, damaged by evil, restored for better, and sent together to heal.
Let us continue to explore and share the gospel in ways old and new. Whether we talk about justification by faith or defeating the powers, sight for the blind or reversal of entropy, freedom for the oppressed or healing of the nations, it’s all good. The gospel is all of the above, and so much more.
I like what the author, Al Hsu, is saying, although I am fully aware of the dangers contained in the title. But, as I read the Bible, it also is clear to me that even within the Bible there isn’t a single well-formulated doctrine on salvation. Having been involved as lecturer for EE III for many years, I personally prefer to explain the gospel according to how Paul explains it in his epistles, especially Romans 1 – 6, but at the same time I place much greater emphasis nowadays on passages such as those found in James, about faith without works being dead and Matthew 25, where Jesus says that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” I don’t want to take anything away from the message of salvation through grace alone, but if that had been the only message necessary for us to hear, then the Bible would have stopped there.
The message of God’s grace and salvation is so much more than merely being saved from our sin. Yes, it is that and in a way which is nearly impossible for us to comprehend fully. But it is so much more than merely that, because God wants to give us so much more than merely to save us from sin and giving us life after death. In the words of John, He wants to give us life in abundance and we, who have already been saved, are instrumental in making this come true for others.
Too often Christians stagnate once they have assurance of their own salvation. But coming to faith is just the birth. After this l(L)ife starts! And that is why we do need to accept all the facets of the gospel, believing that Jesus not only wants to save us to get us into heaven but also because He wants to see His Kingdom come on earth.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 Posted by | Alternative Society, Evangelism, Evangelism Explosion, Grace, Mission, Social issues, Theology | 1 Comment

I’m off to Russia again!

Within 24 hours, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way to Russia again. Since 2001 I’ve had the opportunity, once a year, to visit Samara, a city about 600 miles south-east from Moscow. After the Iron Curtain fell in Russia, many church organisations from various places in the world flocked to this country to preach the gospel. In 1999 God also called a young, unmarried, female science teacher from South Africa to start a Bible School. In 2001, after she visited South Africa, I received an invitation to go to Samara, at that time to assist in training people in evangelism and then, since 2003, to teach on the topics of eschatology as well as the book of Revelations. And now this will be the eighth time that I go to Samara.
Despite Russia being open to religion, Protestant Christians are not always popular. During that first year, while we were busy spending time in the parks (it was during summer), speaking to people about the Christian faith, one old woman made the remark that, when she was a little girl of about five, a soldier ripped a crucifix from her neck, threw it on the ground and stamped on it with his heave boot, telling her that God was dead. For more than seventy years she believed what he had said. Suddenly we appear on the scene telling her that God is not dead! One can understand how difficult it is to believe this.
Many missionaries in Russia are making serious mistakes, being focussed more on their own ideals of rapid church growth rather than being there to serve the people. In many ways mission in Russia is the same as in Africa. It takes a long time for people to really trust the missionary and this trust will have to be deserved, not through money or good sermons, but by the way in which the local people are respected and served.
I will be spending two days in Cairo with some local Christians and then on Saturday I will be flying to Moscow and then to Samara.
For those who diligently follow this blog. I will be posting the next few days. This is the miracle of blogging sites where posts can even be scheduled for the future. Tomorrow I will be posting something on A Multifaceted Gospel and on Thursday I will post something on the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If time allows, I still want to write something on tithing which I will post on Friday. I will hopefully be “on the air” again on Sunday and will probably share something of my experiences in Russia this year.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Eschatology, Evangelism, Evangelism Explosion, Mission, Russia, Short-term outreaches | 8 Comments

Servant leadership

The situation in Southern Africa at present made me think once again about the importance of leaders being called to serve. The political situation in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s northern neighbour, is extremely tense as Robert Mugabe still refuses to disclose the outcome of the presidential election in that country. Swaziland’s newspaper today reported that Zimbabweans fleeing from their own country are now starting to find refuge in Swaziland. At the same time the struggle for a true democracy in Swaziland also continues, with many people feeling that the system of an absolute monarchy, as we have it in Swaziland, is not beneficial for the country and the citizens anymore.
Last Thursday, as we were having our “handing out of the towels” ceremony at Mantambe, which you can read about here, I made some remarks about leadership. Present at the ceremony were a number of politicians, local leaders as well as the member of parliament for that area. I told the new caregivers that the world has dictated to us what a leader looks like. We do certain personality tests in which a person’s dominance is determined or people are placed in a certain situation where they need to display their leadership abilities. In the political sphere people have to make speeches as well and the person who can speak the best and has the greatest ability to persuade someone to accept his or her viewpoint, is considered to be the best leader. (The people really enjoyed that remark!) I’m not all that clued up with American politics, but I have an idea that this is exactly what is happening in the USA today as they prepare themselves for their presidential election. (OK, I know that things are much more complex than this, but the point I was trying to make is that the world has certain ideas about leadership and the church seems to have adopted those same principles.)
One thing which I have always found lacking in our church in Swaziland is people with real leadership potential. Some of them have come forward, but they tend to follow the example of the televangelists, shouting and running around and claiming all kinds of miracles and thinking that they have then become leaders. One of the greatest perks of our home-based caring projects was that people from whom I never expected it in the past, suddenly revealed tremendous leadership potential. We never did personality tests on them. They did not make speeches to convince others to choose them. It happened, I believe, because these people revealed the leadership abilities which Jesus spoke about, which is the ability to serve others.
This would obviously make sense in any Christian project focussed on serving the community. But the longer I’m part of the established church, the more I believe that this is true for the church in general. The church is in need of servant leaders. (And if I look at the situation in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, then I am convinced that if this Biblical principle should be applied by politicians, that the normal people would also benefit from such leaders!)

Monday, April 14, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Church, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Indigenous church, Meetings, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Motivated by love

After having started in January 2006 with one home-based caring group at Dwaleni, in the southern region of Swaziland, I had the privilege yesterday of attending the “handing out of the towels” ceremony at the eighth group which had been trained last week. I previously wrote about the background for this ceremony which you can read here.
Our latest group in an area known as Mantambe totalled 51 people! Before we start with the training, I always personally meet with the potential caregivers. When I met this group initially, there were 40 people which is actually not an ideal group to work with when you are training them in all the aspects of HIV/AIDS, caring, prevention and other related topics. As part of my “speech”, I stress the fact that we do not have the finances as yet to be able to support them financially for this work. They have to know beforehand that they are volunteers who will not be compensated for this work. I therefore invite anyone who had been attending with any other expectation to leave, ensuring them that there would be no hard feelings. I also emphasise the servant nature of this work, where they will often be doing thankless work for no other reason than because they believe it’s the right thing to do. As in the past, instead of my “speech” frightening people away, the group which eventually attended the training grew, this time from 40 to 51!
As we met yesterday, together with one of our previously trained groups working in a nearby area (Ezikhotheni) and also with leaders of the area, including representatives from the chief of the area, the local MP (Member of Parliament) and a number of others, my personal feeling of joy could hardly be contained. The church building which we had used for the week of training was too small to accommodate all the people present and we had to meet outside under some trees (which did not help much, because the sun really burnt me while we were busy.)
At one point the chief’s representative came to speak to me. I know him from the time that we trained the group at Ezikhotheni. He mentioned to me that the Swaziland government also have a home-based caring project. These people are known as “health motivators” and they receive a small stipend from the government for the work they do. However, as he mentioned, the system doesn’t really work. Having seen and experienced the effectiveness of the home-based caregivers which we had trained, he really felt that there was no comparison between the two projects. And he wanted to know from me why the one is effective while the other doesn’t really seem to function well.
I answered him that the one group is motivated by money. Not much – (I think they get less than $20 per month, which for many Swazis is still a substantial amount) – but at least something. Those belonging to our home-based caring project are getting virtually nothing. If and when we get donations of used clothing, we hand these out. At this stage we try and give each of these volunteers a small food parcel once every two months. But none of this can motivate anyone to do the work we expect of them. And my conclusion was that they are doing this work mostly because they are driven by God’s love to do it, in the words of Paul, they feel “compelled” to do it.
Jim Collins, in his magnificent book, From Good to Great, first opened my eyes for the truth that money can never motivate someone to do something. And after more than two years where I have been involved in establishing home-based caring groups in the southern and poorest region of Swaziland, working with hardly any money and where nobody (including myself) has any financial gain from this work, the truth of this has been confirmed over and over again.
But then the opposite is also true: When you are motivated by love to do something, you will probably continue with this work in spite of onslaughts which may come against you.

Friday, April 11, 2008 Posted by | Giving, Health, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Jim Collins, Mission, Poverty, Social issues, Sustainability, Swaziland | 4 Comments