Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The death of darkness

I saw my friend James at a church supper after being out of touch for several years. It was like we’d never been apart.

We talked, laughed, hugged, sang and prayed together. I met his wife for the first time and celebrated with them over the way God had healed wounds in their marriage and family. It was a great evening; we didn’t want it to end. We said goodnight, promising each other we’d meet again soon.

A few weeks later, James was dead. Chronic illness caught up with him. He hung on for days in the hospital, but his body was worn out.

This life seems so strong and sure for a season — and then it’s over. We try to escape death, delay it, appease it, fight it, deny it. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the poet Dylan Thomas advised. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Rage all you want; death will come for you one day. But darkness, its close companion, is a choice.

“There was the true Light, which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. … But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,” the Apostle John declared of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:9-12, NASB).

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself said, “This is the judgment, that the Light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NASB).

Men love the darkness, but God sent His Son, the Light of the world, to rescue us from eternal darkness. By His resurrection, Christ put darkness to death. Two millennia later, however, not everyone knows it. That’s why missionaries and other servants of God go to places of darkness, no matter the potential cost. They bring the Light of the Gospel not only through their words and actions, but by their presence.

“There have been several attacks recently,” wrote a worker who lives in one such place. “Often the gunfire and explosions would cease, and I would think it must be over, but it would start again. I was sharply reminded that we are here to pray.” To pray, to be, to love, to speak, to lift up the flaming torch of Christ amid great darkness.

On a recent plane trip, IMB President Tom Elliff struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who asked him, “What do you do [for a living]?”

 “I chase darkness,” Elliff replied.

 Bewildered, the passenger inquired, “Are you in lighting?”

“In a way,” Elliff told the man.

Reflecting on the encounter, the IMB leader said: “We are indeed ‘chasers after darkness,’ looking for the black holes of sin in our world and thrusting into that darkness the Light of the glorious Gospel of Christ.

My friend James experienced darkness in his life, but when Christ filled his soul with light and salvation, he became one of the most joyful witnesses I’ve ever known. This Easter, I know James is celebrating the resurrection in the presence of the Risen One.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Where is the next James Madison?

If you want to stand in the room where America as an idea was conceived, visit Montpelier, where James Madison grew up, lived most of his life and died.

Montpelier is a beautiful place, nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. On clear days, you can see the peaks rising in the distance through the second-floor window in the library of the restored plantation house. I stood in that spot recently and trembled at the magnitude of what took place there, in the mind of one man.

You can imagine Madison looking out that very window for inspiration during the months he spent alone there before the historic summer of 1787, poring over his own books and the many volumes of history, philosophy and politics sent to him by his friend and political ally, Thomas Jefferson. When he emerged from his self-imposed intellectual retreat, Madison carried the ideas that would form the basis of the U.S. Constitution and its first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights.

Without those founding documents, our nation — which was then a shaky confederation of former colonies on the verge of squandering their hard-won independence from England — would not exist. And you would not enjoy the right to speak, worship, vote and assemble with others as you please. Neither would untold millions of other people across the world, freed from their chains by the ideas Madison not only forged but ceaselessly labored for, wrote about and campaigned to see ratified. 

To be sure, the encouragement of Madison’s great mentor Jefferson (who also wrote a little something called the Declaration of Independence) was crucial. So was the instant credibility George Washington brought when Madison persuaded the beloved revolutionary general to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Many others contributed to the basic principles that went into the Constitution, both during Madison’s formative years in the Virginia legislature and during the long, hot summer of the convention itself, where he spoke more than 200 times.

But without Madison in his finest hour, where would we be today?

“As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer,” wrote historian Garry Wills. “No man could do everything for the country — not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That was quite enough.”

He would go on to serve two terms as president, lead the young country through the War of 1812 and live until age 85, the last of the Founding Fathers to pass off the scene. Yet in that pivotal year of 1787, James Madison was 36 years old. And he was far younger when he began grappling with the ideas that would make him the “Father of the Constitution.”

I highlight Madison’s youth at the time in order to pose a question: Where are the Madisons of today? More specifically, where are the spiritual Madisons?

We keep hearing that the Millennials, born after 1980, are leaving churches in droves (or never joining in the first place), that they are wary of making commitments to faith communities, government, school, marriage or any other institution. They like having unlimited options, we’re told, and prefer digital social networks to joining or forming the groups that traditionally have held society together.

The Pew Research Center supplied more confirmation of those attitudes in its study released March 7, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.”

“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood,” the study reported. “Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry — and optimistic about the future. … [H]alf of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and about three in 10 say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.”

You have to give Millennials credit for being optimistic about the future, given the crummy economic and career prospects they’ve been handed. Maybe that’s the natural energy and hope of youth. The grim economic outlook of recent years, not to mention massive student debt, also explains part of their reluctance to get married and enter into other major social or financial commitments. The issue of trusting others, however, is revealing.

“Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust,” Pew reported. “In response to a longstanding social science survey question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’ just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers [born from 1965 to 1980], 37 percent of [the Silent Generation, born from 1928 to 1945] and 40 percent of Boomers [born from 1946 to 1964].”

People tend not to interact with those they don’t trust — and definitely won’t willingly work with them, join churches or other voluntary organizations with them, or cooperate with them to keep civil society functioning.

Perhaps you’re a Millennial believer in Christ, but you’ve decided to take a pass on being part of a local church. It’s an outmoded institution encrusted with irrelevant traditions, you say. You’re “spiritual but not religious,” so you intend to worship on your own or with a few close friends. You plan to do ministry and missions that way, too, rather than bothering with bulky religious organizations that might waste your time and money.

It’s your choice. But consider this: What if James Madison had decided to go it alone after the American Revolution? He could have stayed at Montpelier and enjoyed his big Virginia plantation — and let others worry about a fledgling nation on the edge of collapse. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and plunged into the long, exhausting task of dialogue, debate, compromise and coalition-building that went into creating the United States of America out of the competing interests of 13 ornery colonies.

The church, a far older institution than the United States, is also the Body of Christ. Christ commands that we not only worship, serve and proclaim the Gospel alongside other sinners saved by grace, but that we love them. What a concept.  

In order to form a more perfect union, we must commit ourselves to renewing the imperfect one we have. We need you to be a part of it!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Karen Watson, 10 years on

Karen Watson knew Iraq was dangerous.

She had left the chaotic country months before, exhausted and afraid, as it descended deeper into violence. But she went back anyway. Not as a soldier, but as a Christian relief worker, armed only with love and humanitarian aid.

 That decision cost Karen Watson, 38, her life on a dusty road 10 years ago. But she had no regrets about going back. Karen wasn’t big on regrets; she had experienced too many of them already in her short life. She was big on obedience.

 “When God calls there are no regrets,” she wrote in a now-famous letter found in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death” among some things she left with her pastor, Phil Neighbors, at Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif., when she departed for the Middle East.   

 “I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations,” Karen said in the letter. “I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward.”

She had joined the wave of foreign relief workers who rushed to Iraq after U.S. and coalition forces overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. But relief groups didn’t realize how quickly large areas of Iraq were becoming death traps as factional attacks and terrorism mounted.

On March 15, 2004, Karen and four other Southern Baptist humanitarian workers were driving back to Mosul after a day of visiting villagers in need of clean water. Gunmen pulled alongside their vehicle and opened fire, killing Karen and her co-workers Larry and Jean Elliott died on the spot. David McDonnall died hours after the attack. Carrie McDonnall, David’s wife, suffered multiple wounds but later recovered.

I had the opportunity to write about these workers and four other Southern Baptist missionaries killed in terror attacks since 9/11 in a book, “Lives Given, Not Taken: 21st Century Southern Baptist Martyrs” (http://imbresources.org/index.cfm/product/detail/prodID/1330), published in 2005. It gave me the chance to read their letters and journals, to talk to the widows, friends and colleagues, parents and children of these workers about their lives.

Karen Watson’s story struck the deepest chord in me. She overcame a difficult early life, a broken family, devastating losses of loved ones and years of emotional pain to become a bold and joyful servant. She packed a lifetime of loving Jesus into the nine years she knew Him as Savior before her death.

“Don’t make Karen into a saint,” urged a close friend. “She would hate that. She was pretty wild when she was young. But when she became a Christian, she turned around 180 degrees.”

So who, exactly, was Karen Watson? One tough gal, to hear some tell it. Before becoming a believer, she ran a pool hall. Later, as a detention officer with the Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, she handled potentially violent jail inmates and trained other deputies to quell disorder, by force if necessary.

During her first year as a believer, she was offered the  job with the Sheriff’s Department — and she seized the opportunity. Karen had a deep sense of justice, of right and wrong, which had been violated many times during her years of pain. Law enforcement represented a way to try to right some of those wrongs. And as a young Christian, Karen had by no means become a quiet, retiring nun. She was in charge — and when she felt it necessary, in your face.

“She was a straight shooter. She didn’t sugarcoat anything,” said Lt. Kevin Wright, her commanding officer and closest friend in the department. “I would hear her footsteps coming down the hall and know I was going to get a lecture about something. She would come in, close the door, sit on my desk and say, ‘We gotta talk.’”

Karen did her best at all times and expected everyone else to do the same. No slack, no excuses. Nearly everyone in the department liked her, though, because she backed her words with action, commitment and loyalty. “She was the kind of person you wanted on your side when the going got rough,” Wright said.

Inmates liked her, too. She was firm, but fair. “She was compassionate with them,” Wright recalled. “They knew they weren’t going to pull anything over on her, that she was strict and would enforce the rules. But she was willing to listen to them.”

Once Karen gave her heart to Jesus, He began the patient process of softening her, a process revealed in the journals she kept throughout her walk with God. They are a series of love letters from God to Karen, and from Karen to God, recording her pursuit of Him with all of her mind, body and soul.

“I'm not going to give anything to my Lord that will cost me nothing,” she wrote, way back in 1998.

 Many times during her life, Karen — like other children of broken homes — battled anger and bitterness, depression and loneliness, perfectionism and insecurity, the compulsion to rebel against authority. She also struggled with fear throughout her time in Iraq and freely admitted it.

But courage isn’t the absence of fear, as one of her pastors reminded listeners at her funeral. Courage is the laying aside of fear to obey God, trusting Him with the consequences.

When she was assigned by IMB to help coordinate post-war relief projects in Iraq, she sold her house and car and gave away most of her other possessions — whatever wouldn't fit in a large duffel bag. After relief work began in earnest, she worked with others to coordinate the distribution of thousands of food boxes sent by Southern Baptist churches and the rebuilding of damaged schools, among numerous other projects. One of her most cherished ministries: the “Widows Project,” a program that helped mostly nonliterate Iraqi women learn to read, gain work skills and generate income.

“Karen built relationships everywhere she went,” said a colleague. “People remember her. They remember the light in her countenance. They remember her friendliness.”

The spiritual battle intensified for Karen as the brutally hot summer months of 2003 passed. Threats against foreign civilians were increasing. She personally experienced several close calls in the Baghdad area as bombings and street attacks mounted. Gunfire woke her up at night; sleep seldom returned. It became overwhelming.

Karen left Iraq for several months, not knowing if she would ever return. She rested — mentally, physically, spiritually. She savored the feeling of having lunch with friends at McDonald’s without having to look over her shoulder or listen for explosions and gunfire. She studied Arabic. She spent many hours in prayer. As time passed, she confronted her anxieties about what was happening in Iraq. She studied key passages of God’s Word with close friends — grappling once again not only with current fears but with old wounds and heartbreak.

“Lord, in all my weakness I need Your strength for the future,” she wrote in her journal.

Karen was convinced it was time to return to Iraq. Shortly before she left, she bought a beautiful gold ring with several small diamonds. The purchase surprised friends, since Karen usually saved much of her small salary and lived on next to nothing.

“It looked like a wedding band,” said a friend. “I wore a wedding band before I got married, too, to remind me that Christ was my husband, that I wasn't alone.” She asked Karen if that was what she had in mind.

“Yes,” Karen replied with a radiant smile. “I guess that's it.”

When Karen’s friend learned of her death in Iraq only days later, she wept with everyone else. Then she remembered the wedding ring — and her weeping turned to tears of celebration: “It was her wedding day. Christ had so prepared her as a bride that she was completely without blemish. I don’t know if I have ever been with anyone who was more ready to meet Him face to face.”

Only Karen — and her beloved Bridegroom — know all the reasons why she returned to Iraq, and why she died there. But in the end, her joyful sacrifice wasn’t for needy Iraqis.

It was for Jesus.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

World weary


Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/195/19559/19559-107657.mp3

Did you see the picture of Marwan, the 4-year-old Syrian boy recently found wandering in the desert near the Syria-Jordan border?

A news photo of the refugee child went viral on social media. It attracted far more attention than the hundreds of Syrian refugees who cross the same border every day and night to escape the murderous war in their country. Turns out Marwan wasn’t alone; he had temporarily fallen behind his family members, who were among about 1,000 Syrians making the chaotic border crossing that particular day. Relief workers reunited the child with his parents about 10 minutes after the photo was taken.

People around the world responded to the photo because it depicted a lost child, dragging a plastic bag with his few belongings, seemingly alone in the world. Who wouldn’t feel compassion for this little boy? His personal, heartbreaking plight is easier to understand than the struggle of millions of refugees experiencing the same thing.

 “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” That statement is attributed to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who knew something about engineering death on a mass scale. He understood that most people can’t fully comprehend events affecting great multitudes — especially if those events are happening far away.

Media have radically changed the global landscape since Stalin’s time, however. News travels instantaneously. Digital devices bring us images of tragedies, wars and disasters 24/7, if we choose to watch. But that poses a new problem. The constant onslaught of events and information dulls our senses. We have our own daily problems. We turn away. Americans in particular, living far from many of the world’s conflict zones, tend to turn inward.

“It’s not that Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it’s that their interest is finely calibrated,” observes geopolitical analyst George Friedman. “The issues must matter to Americans, so most issues must carry with them a potential threat. The outcome must be uncertain, and the issues must have a sufficient degree of clarity so that they can be understood and dealt with.”

There aren’t that many global crises that neatly fit such criteria in these confusing times. The outcome of the war in Syria is uncertain, but its multiple causes and combatants are anything but clear to us. Does its eventual outcome, regardless of who wins, threaten us directly? Hard to say. One could say the same of the current troubles in Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, Thailand, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and other places. Trouble is always brewing somewhere. Let them sort it out, we say. We’re tired of being the world’s policeman. 

“Whether this sentiment is good or bad is debatable,” says Friedman. “I would argue that it is a luxury, albeit a temporary one, conferred on Americans by geography.”

Weary of years of war and overseas entanglements, many Americans are ready to withdraw behind our spacious borders — physically or psychologically — until something so big happens that we can’t ignore it.

That’s a national choice. But God calls His followers to greater things. If we serve Him, we are citizens of the world, no matter how chaotic the world may seem. In my last column, I asked how we can continue to go into the world and make disciples as a new age of upheaval dawns. Withdrawal is not an option for world-hearted Christians, because it implies one of two things: fear or indifference.

God is not indifferent about the world. He is passionately concerned about every people, every culture. The more suffering and turmoil a nation is experiencing, the more intensively He is working to bring His grace and mercy.

“This past month we have seen an amazing outpouring of God's Spirit,” said IMB worker Brady Sample,* who lives in violence-torn Kiev, Ukraine, a nation on the edge of cracking apart. “God is moving. This event is causing people to pray, and while they are praying for peace in the land, God is trying to bring peace into people’s hearts.”

No matter how difficult the destination or the situation, He will go with us. In fact, He’s already there, waiting for us to meet Him.

Don’t miss the appointment.

*(Name changed)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rumors of wars

2014 will mark a grim anniversary: 100 years since the beginning of World War I.

It was to be the “war to end all wars.” If only.

World War I is rapidly disappearing from modern memory. At the current pace of events, we often forget what happened last week, much less a century ago. We are twice as far removed from 1914 as Americans in that year were removed from the Civil War era. Another world war and scores of smaller ones have occurred in the generations since. Revolutions have shaken and reshaped entire chunks of the globe. Technology has transformed almost everything.

But we should never forget the consequences of “the Great War.” Aside from its staggering bloodshed and suffering (more than 30 million killed or wounded), it brought the end of the old order in Europe and laid the groundwork for a new one. It swept away monarchies and empires, set the stage for revolutions and years of global economic struggle — and ultimately led to an even more devastating global conflict.

Some historians believe we are entering a similar era of endings and beginnings. If Christians intend to make an impact on the world, we must strive to understand the times. We also must deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. If you’re waiting for general stability and peace before you launch out to the nations or lead your church to go, you’ve got a long wait ahead.

 “[T]he coming conflicts and challenges are pretty clear,” writes Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University, in Foreign Policy magazine. “We will hear a lot about the Syrian civil war, the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, conflict in Iraq, the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan — not to speak of what applecart Vladimir Putin plans to upset next, whether the North Korean regime will implode, and whether China and its neighbors intensify their conflict over the rocky outcroppings they all want to own. …

“As we reflect on this [World War I] anniversary year, however, there are deeper rumblings afoot, rumblings that will color and shape many of these conflicts. The same was true 100 years ago. … At the start of that new century, the shape of world politics was about to transform, while class conflict rose and shook the very foundations of the monarchies of continental Europe. Between these two forces, they would wipe out the Austro-Hungarian Empire, remove royalty from power in Germany, bring revolutionary turmoil to Russia, undermine the colonial systems established by France and Germany, and bring a new power — the United States — to the center of the world stage.”

Now the United States and its allies seem to be receding as global power players, by circumstance or by choice, while economic, political and military conflicts simmer around the globe. If that withdrawal or decline continues, other forces will fill the power vacuum.

In some cases, the vacuum itself will bring chaos. It’s an old historical pattern, repeated many times through the ages.

“Why so much anarchy?” asks Robert Kaplan in a new piece for Stratfor, the global intelligence analysis service. Twenty years ago, Kaplan warned in an influential Atlantic Monthly article (“The Coming Anarchy”) of “unprecedented upheaval, brought on by scarce resources, overpopulation, uncontrollable disease, brutal warfare and the widespread collapse of nation-states and indeed, of any semblance of government. ... Welcome to the 21st century.”

Some of those predictions came true; some didn’t. But “what is not in dispute is that significant portions of the earth … are simply harder and harder to govern,” Kaplan reports. He identifies five major causes for the persistent upheaval of recent decades:

n  The end of imperialism: Empires and spheres of influence built by international powers often oppress and exploit the peoples they absorb. But they provide (or enforce) order. When they crumble, freedom may follow. Or chaos and blood.

n   The end of post-colonial strongmen: National dictators replaced departing colonial authorities in many places during the post-colonial era in the 20th century and again after the Cold War. Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak and many other strongmen are gone. But who — or what — will replace them? 

n  No national institutions and feeble national identities: Post-colonial dictators typically ruled by fear and secret police, not strong social and political institutions. “It is institutions that fill the gap between the ruler at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom,” Kaplan explains. Without such institutions, “the chances for either [more] dictatorship or anarchy proliferate.” States with such weak national identities become particularly vulnerable to “non-state identities that fill the subsequent void.” Think al-Qaida, organized criminal cartels and other bad actors.  

n  Doctrinal battles: Religious struggles have sparked many wars in the past. It’s happening again in the Muslim world “as state identities weaken and sectarian and other differences within Islam come to the fore, often violently,” Kaplan notes. Americans tend to focus on radical Islam versus the West. But the great ideological battle now tearing apart the Middle East — from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Saudi Arabia — is the blood feud between Sunni and Shiite Islam.

n  Information Technology: Smartphones “can empower the crowd against a hated regime, as protesters who do not know each other personally can find each other through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media,” Kaplan acknowledges. But they “cannot provide [or] maintain political stability afterwards. This is how technology encourages anarchy. The Industrial Age was about bigness: big tanks, aircraft carriers, railway networks and so forth. … But the post-industrial age is about smallness, which can empower small and oppressed groups, allowing them to challenge the state — with anarchy sometimes the result.”

What comes next?

“The real question marks are Russia and China. The possible weakening of authoritarian rule in those sprawling states may usher in less democracy than chronic instability and ethnic separatism that would dwarf in scale the current instability in the Middle East,” Kaplan warns. “The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.”

That might be the political question. The spiritual question for Christians: How do we continue to go into the world, declare the Gospel and make disciples among all nations as yet another era of upheaval unfolds? There are as many answers as there are nations, cultures and peoples.

 But retreat is not one of them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Missionaries: quiet revolutionaries of freedom


Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/194/19402/19402-106979.mp3

Having no faith in the existence of heaven, postmodern secularists dream of a paradise on earth.

This paradise — to be created and ruled by secularists themselves, since there is no God — will ensure freedom for all, eliminate oppression, eradicate poverty and guarantee equality. Perhaps most important, it will bury old religious superstitions once and for all and usher in a new era of universal “tolerance.” Cue global group hug.

“Society will outgrow doctrinaire [religious] belief systems accepted on traditional ‘faith’ and inculcated by authoritarian intimidation,” confidently predicts one futurist. His forecast is echoed by many others. 

Since this brave new world didn’t work out so well during the disastrous experiment on humanity called communism, secularists hold up post-religious, democratic Western Europe as a model. There, old cathedrals stand empty and traditional Christianity appears to be dying, but many Western Europeans still enjoy relative political and personal freedom — at least for now. In the new, post-religious world promoted by secularists, that’s enough. For them, freedom is an entirely material phenomenon, a new stage in the historical evolution of human beings striving to shake off the chains of oppressive institutions, especially religious ones.

Such a view is not only bigoted but reveals historical ignorance verging on amnesia.

Even a cursory study of the West locates the roots of the modern idea of human freedom in the radical Gospel liberation offered by the God of the New Testament. The spiritual revolution begun by the first Christian Apostles and missionaries, while Rome still ruled, was rekindled and powerfully amplified in the emerging modern world by the Protestant Reformation, the printing press and the spread of the Bible to the masses in their own languages. Freed from their spiritual and mental chains, Europeans eventually embraced democracy and the ideals of political liberty.

And what about the rest of the world?

A fascinating cover story in Christianity Today reaffirms a historical reality that will make the secular fundamentalists gnash their teeth: Missionaries have spread freedom and education, aided the poor, worked for the empowerment of women and advanced general human progress almost everywhere they have gone. Not just any missionaries, mind you, but “conversionary” Protestant missionaries — evangelical Christians who have gone into the world to spread the Gospel and make disciples.

 “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries” (Jan./Feb. 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html), by Andrea Palpant Dilley, highlights the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, associate professor and director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. As a young grad student in sociology 14 years ago at the University of North Carolina, Woodberry became intrigued with the connection between the spread of Protestant Christianity across the globe and the spread of freedom and democracy. He has made it his life’s work.

“In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies — in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely — while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict,” Dilley writes. “Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources.”

What he found in country after country was a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom and social progress.

“I was shocked,” Woodberry told Dilley. “It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model — factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years — and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important.”

Woodberry “already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy,” Dilley reports. “Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren't just part of the picture. They were central to it.”

In 2005, a $500,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation enabled Woodberry to hire a platoon of research assistants and launch a major database to gather more information. Armed with those results, he was able to assert:

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

 Woodberry’s findings explode the popular modern myth that most 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries were little more than agents or unwitting tools of Western colonialism. Yes, some fell into that tragic pattern. But many others sided with the people they served in the face of any form of exploitation, local or foreign. They fought the opium trade in China, defended Africans and Pacific islanders from encroaching white settlers, worked for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, struggled against temple prostitution and the burning of widows in India. And nearly everywhere they went, they began schools and hospitals, taught people to read and helped the poor to better their lot.

 “Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where ‘conversionary Protestants’ were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita,” Dilley writes. “You’ll find, too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”

 In most cases, Protestant missionaries of the past did these things not because they were radical social reformers or political revolutionaries, but because their Gospel ministry brought them close to the common people, the poor and the oppressed, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ. 

What is the message for evangelicals in a postmodern age that relentlessly strives to sneer the Gospel out of the public square? Stop apologizing for your missionary roots. Be proud of your spiritual ancestors. Many of them were gutsy heroes who braved all sorts of dangers to take the Gospel far beyond its traditional centers to the ends of the earth.

They changed the world of their day and ours — and they are worth following.






Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Little resolutions, big results


(Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/193/19330/19330-106637.mp3)

The new year has barely begun and you’ve already failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions.

 You have a lot of company. Nine out of 10 people who make New Year’s resolutions give up on them — typically after a week or so, according to the latest surveys.

Don’t take it too hard. New Year’s resolutions tend to be unrealistic, poorly thought out, too general to measure. They can even be counterproductive, cautions Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, who writes about the self-help industry. You fail to meet a self-imposed goal or deadline and feel like a failure. Or, you tie your hopes and dreams to an arbitrary date on a calendar.

 “If you believe that you can only change on the New Year — the inherent message of New Year’s resolutions — you will have to wait a whole year before you get another shot,” Lamb-Shapiro explains. 

 New beginnings are fine, but real progress doesn’t always run on a calendar. Especially spiritual progress.

Sure, we experience mountaintop moments and make life-changing decisions in our spiritual lives: the day we decide to follow Christ as Lord, the first time we lead someone to faith in Him, the day we respond to a call from God to missions or a particular ministry. But daily growth in Christ usually happens quietly, behind the scenes, as we seek Him, love Him and obey Him.

“[T]he transforming work of grace is more of a mundane process than it is a series of a few dramatic events,” writes pastor and author Paul David Tripp. “Most of us only make three or four momentous decisions in our lives, and several decades after we die, the people we leave behind will struggle to remember our lives at all. You and I live in little moments, and if God doesn’t rule our little moments and doesn’t work to recreate us in the middle of them, then there is no hope for us, because that is where you and I live. … This is where I think ‘Big Drama Christianity’ gets us into trouble. It can cause us to devalue the significance of the little moments of life and the ‘small-change’ grace that meets us there.”

Thousands of such moments come to us day by day. How we respond to them determines the course of our lives. Do we choose to seek the Lord in the quiet before dawn, or sleep another hour? Do we choose to meditate upon His Word, or ignore it? Do we choose to notice the lonely person in need of a kind word, or hurry on our way? Do we choose to speak up for Christ when the opportunity arises, or remain silent? Do we choose to pray for the lost, or curse them with indifference?

Most spiritual battles are won or lost in the unseen regions of the heart.

In the 1800s, Scottish missionary Mary Slessor went to West Africa, then a notorious graveyard of missionaries. She braved many hazards and spread the Gospel for nearly four decades. But Slessor wrote a simple truth to her supporters back home: “Praying is harder work than doing.”

Many believe the historic Shantung Revival in China began with the prayers of one person: Norwegian missionary Marie Monsen. Monsen was a missionary second, an intercessor first. No one except God “saw” her prayers. Their impact, however, changed the world.

“You see, Jesus is Immanuel [‘God with us’], not just because He came to earth, but because He makes you the place where He dwells,” Tripp observes. “This means He is present and active in all the mundane moments of your daily life.”

 Silent moments of prayer may seem mundane in this world. Eternity will reveal otherwise.

(Want to change history through prayer? Visit imb.org/main/pray)