Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kathmandu and the challenge of Asian cities


(Note: A powerful new earthquake shook Nepal May 12, killing at least 36 people and sending thousands rushing to the streets as more buildings collapsed. The 7.3-magnitude earthquake came 17 days after the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck April 25, killing more than 8,000 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. The new quake will add to the dismal statistics as rescue workers, including Southern Baptist relief teams, once again begin digging out.)

Nepalis have begun the long struggle to dig out of the rubble left by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and destroyed parts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.

It’s becoming clear that the quake did even greater damage in rural areas, where Southern Baptist disaster relief workers and their Nepali Christian partners are focusing aid efforts.

But the death and destruction in Kathmandu highlight the enormous physical challenges confronting many Asian cities.

“With an annual population growth rate of 6.5 percent and one of the highest urban densities in the world, the 1.5 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley [another estimate puts the population at 2.5 million] were clearly facing a serious and growing earthquake risk,” said a report issued by a group of seismologists who visited Kathmandu a week before the April 25 temblor. “It was also clear that the next large earthquake to strike near the Valley would cause significantly greater loss of life, structural damage, and economic hardship than past earthquakes had inflicted.”

Why? Too many people crowded into too little space — in this case, a quake-prone urban area — living in old, crumbling buildings or in flimsy structures thrown together to house people arriving daily in search of jobs and a better life.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people” is a common saying among seismologists. The more people living in inadequate housing, the more potential casualties. “You’re up against a Himalayan-scale problem with Third-World resources,” geologist Susan Hough told the Washington Post.

But the rapidly expanding megacities of South Asia face even greater challenges than earthquakes. The region already counts 12 of the world’s 50 largest urban centers. They need more food, water, jobs, housing and infrastructure for the millions streaming in from rural areas. Most of all, they need the hope found only in Jesus Christ.

“By 2020, India alone will have a shortage of 30 million housing units in big cities,” says Daren Cantwell,* IMB strategy leader for South Asian Peoples. “By 2030 they’re expecting 350 million more Indians to move to cities. By 2050, they expect 700 million to move to cities. The challenge for these cities to provide water, food and sanitation is huge. With this many people coming in, a city can’t assimilate fast enough. So you have these huge slums grow up — like in Mumbai, where you have 10 million people living in slums.”

Yet Mumbai, with a metro population of more than 20 million, also boasts legions of middle-class workers and the most billionaires in India. It’s the pulsating heart of India’s financial, cultural and entertainment worlds.   

“Our focus on cities will be at multiple levels of society, from the slum dwellers to the people living in high-rises to doctors, lawyers, Bollywood [India’s film industry], the whole gamut,” Cantwell says. “Finding the best places to work, the best ways to work and to multiply yourself through your national partners across a city are all things we’re dealing with as we seek strategies to reach these places.”

They’re looking for U.S. partners, too, as IMB focuses more intensively on extending the gospel in and through the world’s cities. On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population — according to a United Nations forecast.

“There are massive needs in cities around the world,” says IMB President David Platt. “How do we take this God-ordained movement of people toward cities, leverage what God is doing and intentionally go to cities, so we’ve got relationships when people get there? They’ve come in search of economic help or prosperity. We hope they’ll find what they need for daily life, but find in a greater way what they need for eternal life. We want to be there, ready with the gospel.”

*Name changed.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Irritating people


Some people really get on my nerves.

People who disagree with me, for instance, because I’m always right. People who agree with me all the time are even more aggravating. How boring is that? People who have no opinion one way or the other are the worst.

Yep, I like to argue, debate, raise objections. If you take a position I support, I might contradict you — just so you don’t go unchallenged. Psychologists say people like me have problems with authority. I prefer to think of it as offering alternatives.

God demonstrates His love and patience by tolerating people like me. And He regularly sends irritating people to challenge my insistence on seeing and doing things my way, which usually leads to disaster. Maybe He is sending some of them your way, too.

Here are a few examples of especially irritating folks. If they rub you the wrong way, too, maybe God is trying to tell you something:

n  People who are more interested in doing God’s will than arguing about it. They challenge those of us who waste time dissecting, analyzing and rationalizing what God has clearly told us to do.

n  People who love God so much that they glorify Him with their words and their lives. Young believers who do this with extra freshness and enthusiasm are doubly irritating. They take away our excuses for coasting and complacency in the spiritual life.

n  People who serve others with love. Not just because they’re supposed to. Not just so they can check “ministry” off their to-do list. They serve others from a sincere love of Christ that naturally overflows to all they meet. Does that mean we ought to do the same?

n  People who have a heart for the world. They make it their business to be aware of what’s happening beyond their little circle. They see the suffering and need in places of poverty and turmoil. More than that, they see the pain of billions who wander in darkness without Christ, like sheep without a shepherd. And as Christ wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41,42), they also weep. Then they do something about it. They remind us how much we need to get beyond our own safe, familiar zones and out into the world.  

n  People who listen first, with teachable hearts, and talk later — or maybe don’t talk at all. These folks drive me crazy, since words are my specialty. They painfully remind me that words aren’t enough. God speaks in the silence of our hearts as we listen to His Word and His Spirit. Usually, the only response required is obedience.

n  People who pray. They might be the most irritating people of all, because they convict the rest of us of our prayerlessness, indifference and lack of hunger for being with God, seeking His face and responding to His Spirit.

I could go on. There are lots of other exasperating people who believe the command to make disciples among all peoples still stands, who are willing to go anywhere God leads, who aren’t willing to settle for less than all that He desires.

Thank God for them. They show me — all of us — what is possible in a life truly given to Christ.

(Want to be “irritating” on a global scale? Here are some ways.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The world in 2050


The number of Muslims in the world will nearly match the number of Christians by 2050.

That’s the main headline from “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” a study released in April by the Pew Research Center. If current population trends continue, the report says, Muslim ranks will increase by 73 percent (to 2.8 billion) — more than twice the growth rate of Christians, who will expand by 35 percent, to 2.9 billion. Total world population is projected to reach 9.3 billion by mid-century.

Other projections for 2050:

-- Hindus will increase by 34 percent to nearly 1.4 billion.
-- Four of every 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
-- While remaining majority Hindu, India will become home to more Muslims than any other       country, topping Indonesia.
-- Atheists, agnostics and others who affiliate with no particular religion will decline as a share of the world population, even as they increase in numbers and influence in North America and Europe.

It’s important to keep two things in mind about this study (and others like it). First, it’s more a demographic survey than a religious one. Muslims are increasing primarily because of fertility rates and young populations in regions where they predominate, not because non-Muslims are converting to Islam. Second, terms such as “Muslim” and “Christian” are broadly defined.

“The projections are based on the number of people who self-identify with each religious group, regardless of their level of observance,” the report emphasizes. “What it means to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or a member of any other faith may vary from person to person, country to country and decade to decade.”

Still, the projections highlight the global church’s challenge for the next generation.

“The chief contenders for the hearts and souls of those living in the 21st century will be Muslims, evangelical Christians and secularists,” predicted Patrick Johnstone, British mission leader and former editor of “Operation World,” in an interview I conducted with him in 2012.

“Who is going to be the most successful?” Johnstone asked. “Islam is growing, largely by biological growth, not by conversion. Evangelicals are growing massively by conversion. Secularists are adding to their number every year, but are dying as a breed, because they are not having enough children to replace themselves.”

Evangelical Christian faith, once based largely in the United States and Europe, spread far beyond its traditional strongholds in the second half of the 20th century. The expansion was fueled by the post-World War II missionary movement — which made Christian disciples among a myriad of peoples, who are now taking the gospel to others — along with the spread of education and communication. The end of Western colonial power in many countries, initially a challenge to churches born of missionary efforts, actually spurred the global Christian movement by forcing national Christian groups to depend on God and themselves — not outsiders.

“One day in eternity, I think we will look back and see God’s hand in so many things,” Johnstone observed. “[M]any people thought, with the missionaries and the colonial regimes gone, Christianity would be pushed out. It did the exact opposite. It became indigenous and exploded. In many countries that are now broken politically, the churches became the source of stability and hope for the future.”

To continue to advance, however, the evangelical movement must avoid pride and complacency, Johnstone warned.

“Are the very successes of evangelicalism sowing the seeds of its spiritual demise by grieving the Spirit of God through pride, division, disobedience, carnality, moral laxity, theological error or prayerlessness?” he asked. “Nominalism is not the preserve of more traditional churches — it is increasingly a problem for third- and fourth-generation evangelicals.”

He also urged U.S. and other Western churches and mission agencies to pursue “multi-polar global leadership” with their Asian, African and Latin American brothers and sisters. “Wherever you look in the Christian world in the 21st century, mission teams and strategies that remain mono-ethnic are not going to survive,” Johnstone said. “I sometimes jokingly say that the perfect multicultural team would have a Brazilian evangelist, a Korean church planter, a Chinese to manage the accounts, an Australian to mend anything that's broken and an American to handle planning and goals.”

Good advice. The church also needs to put away its fear of Muslims and share the gospel with them in the love of Christ. In some places that will require life-and-death risk.

In other places, notably America, it requires only a willingness to be a friend.

(Explore ways to lead your church into God’s global mission.)


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Looking for home


Maya, age 7, loves bananas, cartoons and her pink teddy bear.

She had to leave the teddy bear back in Syria when her family fled to Lebanon to escape the worsening civil war. “It’s probably riddled with bullets now,” Maya says. She’s probably right: Homs, the city they left, is now essentially a pile of rubble.

At least she has a stuffed blue Smurf to keep her company. But she doesn’t have many human friends her age in the “home” she occupies with her parents and her teenage brother, Hammoudeh. For more than 1,000 days, they have lived with other Syrian refugees in the crumbling Gaza Hospital in Beirut. It ceased to be a medical facility during Lebanon’s own civil war decades ago, but has played host to generations of refugees from the region’s conflicts.

It’s more comfortable than the tents, sheds and hovels many Syrian refugees endure in Lebanon. But Maya — a goofy, giggly girl with tons of energy — feels like she’s growing up in a prison.

“I’m a kid! I want to have fun,” Maya complains. “Who am I supposed to play with? I’m surrounded by 10 walls. … When I get bored, I go outside. I don’t find anyone so I come back in. I keep going in, out, in, out. I drive Mum crazy!”

Syria’s civil war bled into a fifth year in March, so Maya has little chance of going home anytime soon. She doesn’t understand the larger forces that are destroying her homeland, or why she and her brother can’t go to school, or why her mother seems sad most of the time. She laughs and dreams and makes the best of an awful situation. But she knows something is wrong with a world that snatches a home and a teddy bear from a little girl. You can see it in her eyes.

Let Maya tell you her own story here. It’s one of five brief, quietly powerful video portraits of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, part of the Al Jazeera series “Life on Hold.” Watch them all if you want a glimpse of what it means to live in exile. You can even post a message to Maya.

You will also meet young Omar, who misses his assistant chef’s job and his sweetheart back in Damascus. He cares for a leg shattered by an exploding shell before he fled Syria, reads the Quran, prays, checks out the latest songs and videos online, and waits. Haifa, a widow who closed the hotel she owned in Damascus to seek safety for her three children, misses home so desperately that she wants to go back — even though conditions are far worse now than when she departed. “At least if I die, I die in Syria,” she says. Hajj, an older man who cares for his sick wife, wonders if his 200 olive trees have withered and died. He has lost 38 family members in the conflict.

Al Furati, an award-winning poet and former government worker, cries for lost friends, co-workers and simple pleasures back home. He worries about his children missing years of school, part of an entire lost generation of young Syrians. He sits in a tent with his wife and children, writing mournful verses late into the night: “Why is my country draped in the black of night? And why are Syria’s hands hennaed with blood? … Your children are now crying and your women are wailing, your precious soil is awash with the blood of your men. I feel your heart is breaking like the valley of lament, I know that your wound is too deep to heal.”

Those words reminded me of the lament of another refugee poet: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NASB). Carried away into forced exile 26 centuries ago, the psalmist and his Israelite brothers and sisters could only remember their beloved land and hope one day to return.

I’ve become acquainted with many refugees over the years, whether in dusty camps and border towns or after they resettled in other places such as the city where I live. They include Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Cubans, Afghanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Burmese, Nepalis, Syrians. I’m proud to count some of them as dear friends. Before our own children came along, my wife and I were foster parents to two Vietnamese refugee kids for a time.

I don’t pretend to understand the refugee experience, however, or the trauma, despair, isolation and loss that come with it. It is impossible to fathom unless you have gone through it.

But God understands. He loves. And He gives hope. He commands again and again in His Word that we welcome and shelter the alien, the stranger and the outcast. Jesus Christ, who experienced rejection by His own that we can only imagine, calls us to befriend the wanderers of this world and there are more of them than ever.

Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes since the civil war began. If you want to help them, or any refugees, here are 10 practical ways to do so. And here are a few more: Listen to their stories. Cry with them. Be a friend. Offer the hope only God can give.

Love transcends all borders.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Look for ‘the look'

“The look.” If you’re a parent, a teacher or a mentor, you’ve seen it on young faces.

I’m not talking about the exasperated eye roll or the heavy-lidded look of indifference. I’m talking about that yearning stare into the middle distance — the look of someone in search of direction.

If you’re a disciple maker or mission mobilizer, look for that look.

It’s not that hard to find. Don’t let all the gloom and doom about Millennials leaving the church (or never coming in the first place) get you down. There are plenty of teens, college students and young adults — Christian or not — searching for deeper purpose in their lives and eager for someone to point them in the right direction.

I’ve encountered lots of them. And research about faith, work and “calling” among American adults backs me up. Last year the Barna Group reported that three out of four adults are “looking for ways to live a more meaningful life. Whether such meaning is found in family, career, church, side projects or elsewhere, these are all questions of vocation — that is, the way in which people feel ‘called’ to certain types of work and life choices. … [T]hese questions remain as strong as ever for millions of Americans.” 

Christians have an additional question: “What does God want me to do with my life?”

According to the Barna Group’s report, “only 40 percent of practicing Christians say they have a clear sense of God’s calling on their lives. Christian Millennials are especially sensitive to this divine prompting — nearly half (48 percent) say they believe God is calling them to different work, yet they haven’t yet made such a change.”

What’s stopping them? Fear of stepping out of the safety zone, perhaps. Finances, student debt or conflicting commitments and priorities might be holding them back.
Then there’s the “quarter-life crisis” — that anxious and increasingly extended period between completing school and hitting a stride, professionally and/or relationally, when 20-somethings wander in a bewildering world of countless options and no firm decisions. It’s not a new thing. Bob Dylan captured it perfectly 50 years ago in his classic song, “Like a Rolling Stone”:

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

But maybe all many 20-somethings lack is a nudge, an encouraging word, a coach in their corner. Christians in particular crave “more direction and discipleship when it comes to the theology of calling, especially as it relates to work,” the Barna report found.

Many young Americans are following a multi-career path or working multiple jobs, whether by choice or economic necessity. The traditional 40-hour week for a single employer has changed for millions into a series of temporary jobs, freelance assignments, passion projects and startups. It’s harder to make ends meet, but the new environment affords the flexibility for people to seek something more than just a paycheck.

“A new kind of economy is taking shape, in part because it would seem today’s workforce has decided for itself that making a living is not enough if that living lacks purpose, meaning and impact,” said the Barna report. “[A]dults today are deeply concerned with getting work ‘right’ — nearly six out of 10 say they want to make a difference in the world.”

This represents a huge opportunity for Christians who want to lead a rising generation toward God and His global purposes. The secular façade that covers American culture is just that — a façade. Young adults are just as hungry for God today as ever, whether they realize it yet or not, and they’ll never know peace and purpose until they follow Him. Seek them out. If you can’t find them at church, look for them in the workplace. Join a school mentoring program.

They’re out there, hoping for a guide. Don’t keep them waiting.

(Are you a student or young professional seeking ways to make your life count? Check out http://www.marketplaceadvance.com/)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

David Platt: Counter culture with gospel


It’s hard not to offend people these days, especially if you actually believe what the Bible says about right, wrong, sin and salvation.

Fearing the loss of friends, being dismissed as irrelevant — or worse, being called intolerant — many evangelicals jump on the bandwagon of popular social-justice causes, but lapse into uncomfortable silence on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Some quietly abandon biblical positions on controversial issues altogether.

That path eventually leads to a deeper surrender, however. Because the entire foundation of biblical morality, not to mention the biblical basis of Christian missions, rests on the most “offensive” claim of all: the gospel itself.

“[T]he most offensive and countercultural claim in Christianity is not what Christians believe about homosexuality or abortion, marriage or religious liberty,” writes IMB President David Platt in his new book, Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Persecution, Abortion, Orphans and Pornography. “Instead, the most offensive claim in Christianity is that God is the Creator, Owner, and Judge of every person on the planet. Every one of us stands before Him guilty of sin, and the only way to be reconciled to Him is through faith in Jesus, the crucified Savior and risen King. All who trust in His love will experience everlasting life while all who turn from His lordship will suffer everlasting death.”

That claim — and the idea that God became a man, died on a cross and rose again to embody it — is foolishness at best, anathema at worst to postmodernists, atheists, secularists, Muslims and other subsets of humanity comprising billions of people. It is increasingly costly, even dangerous in certain places, to proclaim it. Some cultures consider it blasphemy; others call it hate speech. That’s really nothing new if you peruse church history.

The main question for self-proclaimed Christians, Platt suggests, is this: Do we believe this gospel?

If we don’t, we should reconsider whether we really follow the Christ revealed in the Bible. If we do, everything else we believe and do must flow from it. We don’t get a pass on the toughest issues engulfing culture today, nor do we get to pick which ones to address. We must counter them all with the revolutionary, uncompromising love of the gospel. Hence the title of Platt’s book.

And the gospel is an equal-opportunity offender, as Platt has discovered in his personal spiritual life. He says God convicted him of his own silence about racism and abortion, among other issues. That’s why he’s speaking to other believers now.

“I sense a trend in the church among evangelical Christians — particularly younger evangelicals, but really broader,” he observes. “We have this tendency to pick and choose which cultural issues we’re going to stand up and speak out on and which we’re going to sit down and be quiet on, usually based on those issues that are most comfortable and least costly for us to speak out on. It is right for us to speak out against poverty and sex trafficking, and I’m thankful for increased awareness of issues like that and the way people are speaking out on those issues.

“The danger, though, is if we speak boldly on issues like that, but then when it comes to issues like abortion or so-called same-sex marriage — issues that are much more likely to bring us into contention with the culture around us — we’re much more likely to be quiet. Before we know it, our supposed social justice actually becomes a selective social injustice. … The same gospel that compels us to combat poverty compels us to defend marriage. The same gospel that compels us to war against sex trafficking compels us to war against sexual immorality in all of its forms.” (Hear Platt on “picking and choosing.”)

That kind of consistency won’t win us many popularity contests, but if we back up our words with lives of grace, truth and loving action, we will change culture rather than surrendering to it. (Hear Platt on whether addressing cultural issues hurts our witness.)

Why court controversy so early in his tenure as IMB leader? Platt began writing the book several years ago, while he was pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. He submitted it to his publisher well before his election by IMB trustees last year. But he remains convinced the time is right for its message to an American church facing fundamental challenges.

“I trust that the Lord led me to write this and knew exactly where I would be when it came out,” he told IMB missionaries and staff in a recent message. “Further, I am completely convinced that these issues are not just American issues … these are global issues … . I want to use any platform the Lord has given to me to strengthen the church in this culture in order that we might send out and support brothers and sisters into other cultures with rock-solid confidence in God’s Word and with wisdom to apply the gospel to these pressing social issues.”

Only servants with that kind of confidence can make a real impact on the world’s lost, who suffer from the worst injustice of all.

“The greatest injustice in the world is the fact that a couple of billion people still don’t have access to the gospel,” Platt says. It is the gospel alone “that has the power not only to change cultures on this earth but to transform lives for eternity.”

Monday, February 9, 2015

Four threats and a promise


Will a new Cold War begin over the hot war in Ukraine? Will the European Union crumble, sparking another global recession? Will Iran go nuclear? Will the tottering Arab world collapse?

Tyranny is cruel, but anarchy may be worse. Ask anyone living in one of the increasing number of failed (or failing) states around the world as 2015 stumbles toward … what?   

“Our age is insistently, at times almost desperately, in pursuit of a concept of world order,” writes Henry Kissinger, chief architect of U.S. foreign policy for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, in his recent book World Order. During tumultuous times, Kissinger engineered Nixon’s historic 1972 opening to China. He also helped craft détente — the easing of decades of nuclear-armed tensions with the Soviet Union.

Today, however, order and agreement are becoming hard to find.

“Chaos threatens side by side with … the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the disintegration of states, the impact of environmental depredation, the persistence of genocidal practices, and the spread of new technologies threatening to drive conflict beyond human control or comprehension,” Kissinger warns. “Are we facing a period in which forces beyond the restraints of any order determine the future?”

If Kissinger can’t answer that question regarding world affairs, I certainly won’t try. But here are four key threats to monitor this year, according to risk assessments from the Eurasia Group, the World Economic Forum, Stratfor Global Intelligence and other globe watchers:

1.      Russia and Ukraine — As conflict in eastern Ukraine intensifies between government forces and Russian-backed rebels, peace prospects seem to be fading. Western economic sanctions (and lower oil prices) have crippled the Russian economy, and the United States is now considering sending arms to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin frames the struggle as a new assault by the West generally, and the United States specifically, on Russia and its essential interests — and threatens a return to Cold War footing. But will Putin stay in power long enough to act on his warnings? He’s popular at home, for now. But the longer the Ukraine crisis goes on, some observers say, the more likely it is that Putin’s regime will eventually collapse under the weight of economic trouble. “And if Russia destabilizes, it is the destabilization of a nation with massive nuclear capability,” reminds Stratfor chief George Friedman.

2.      Europe on the edge — National economies in Europe continue to stall or decline. Unemployment continues to rise, threatening the still-fragile global recovery from the Great Recession. Fear of social and political chaos grows as angry populist movements on the left and the right blame the continent’s ills on the European Union, economic austerity measures, immigrants, Muslims — and Europe’s age-old target, Jews. Ugly anti-Semitism is on the rise in the continent that has promised “never again” since World War II.

3.      State collapse — ISIS isn’t the only “non-state actor” with the potential to overwhelm whole governments. Rebels, terrorists and international criminal cartels have been able to do that for a long time. But this bloodthirsty band of Islamists has morphed from one faction in the Syrian civil war into an army that aims to conquer multiple countries. And they’re not alone. Kissinger: “In the Middle East, jihadists on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide tear at societies and dismantle states in quest of visions of global revolution based on the fundamentalist version of their religion. The state itself — as well as the regional system based on it — is in jeopardy, assaulted by ideologies rejecting its constraints as illegitimate and by terrorist militias that, in several countries, are stronger than the armed forces of the government.”

4.      Iran versus Saudi Arabia — These two states, though challenged from multiple sides, will continue to struggle for effective control of the Middle East, influencing regional conflicts, the Sunni-Shia feud, the security of Israel, the price of oil and other flashpoints. If Iran develops nuclear weapons, the competition could escalate beyond control.

As followers of Christ, what are we to do in chaotic times? Fear not (the most frequent command in Scripture). Trust God. Pray hard. Act in obedience. And keep going to the nations.

Major gospel advances almost always come during periods of struggle and change.

“Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth,” the Lord declares (Psalm 46:10, NASB).

That is a promise, a guarantee — regardless of the historical moment. The church has flourished in harder times than these.