Wednesday, September 9, 2015

‘God is bigger than your cancer’


You find out who your friends are when tough times come around.

My wife and I have discovered over the past year that we have a lot of friends.

It started last fall, when Hwa (my wife) found a lump in her left breast. It was malignant, Stage 3 cancer. It had spread beyond her breast to the lymph nodes under her arm. It was also “triple-negative.” Without getting into a bunch of medical jargon I don’t pretend to understand, triple-negative cancer is typically aggressive and doesn’t respond to several standard treatments. Powerful chemotherapy is the way to go. If that doesn’t work, you might be in a world of hurt.

Wait a minute. Something like this is what happens to “other people.” But it was happening to us.

I was numb, but I put on a brave face so I could support Hwa. She’s much stronger than I am, but she was scared. Would the cancer spread farther? We didn’t wait to find out. A great team of doctors and nurses recommended a game plan, and we followed it. Surgery removed the tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. Next came six rounds of chemo, which attacked cancer cells that might have gone elsewhere. After that, 35 radiation treatments blasted the danger zone.

Since about halfway through chemo, our oncologist has been telling us he thinks the cancer is gone. A final scan later this year, we hope, will confirm that Hwa is in the clear. Her hair is growing back and she’s gaining strength and energy every day. The cancer could return someday, but we take life one day at a time now.

God, ever faithful, has bathed us with His love, His presence and His Word from the day Hwa was diagnosed. What has amazed us, however, is the many people He has used to encourage us. This column would be book-length if I mentioned them all, but to highlight a few:

n  Our daughter, Heather, created a handwritten book of personalized devotions — one for each day of Hwa’s treatment.

n  Former missionary Kim Davis delivered fresh bread, hot out of the oven, every Monday during chemotherapy.

n  Church ladies brought overflowing bags of lovingly prepared meals every two weeks for months on end. They wanted to bring them every week, but we didn’t have enough room in the fridge. Work friends from IMB brought many more home-cooked goodies. Yes, I’ve gained weight.

n  Church folks showed up unannounced to do yard work. Brothers and sisters from the Indian fellowship related to our church paid a special visit at Christmas to pray and sing worship songs in several languages. Yes, they also brought food. 

n  So many cancer patients and survivors — some longtime friends, some people we had never met before — have loved us, counseled us and given us the benefit of their spiritual insight. “God is bigger than your cancer,” said one wise friend who has been through it. He is also bigger than all the fear and uncertainty, all the medicine, treatments and other overwhelming stuff.

n  Jeannie Elliff, wife of retired IMB President Tom Elliff, died July 20 after the cancer she had struggled with twice before struck again. Yet in the midst of her illness, she took the time to encourage us, just as she encouraged thousands of people during a lifetime of church and mission ministry. 

n  People prayed for us and continue to pray. Missionary friends thousands of miles away have prayed. Our church family has prayed. Co-workers have prayed. People we hadn’t heard from in years contacted us to tell us they were praying. Thank you. We still need it.

The love and faithfulness displayed by others throughout this experience has reminded us of Jesus’ words to His disciples at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34,35 NASB).

I hope we’ll be a little more faithful in loving others the way we have been loved, starting with other believers. But not ending there. Maybe we’ll be more compassionate toward lost and hurting people all around us who have never experienced such love.

It’s a dark, cold world out there. The body of Christ, His church, is the warm shelter for His children — and the shining beacon in the darkness to others searching for Him.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Number your days

                                                                       Kyra Karr

“So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom,” prayed the psalmist (Psalm 90:12, NASB).

How, exactly, do you go about numbering your days? Is it even possible, when you don’t know how long you will live? The psalmist had some thoughts on that, too: “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10).

Soon and very soon. The average life expectancy for Americans is 78.8 years (81.2 for women, 76.4 for men), according to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The 10 leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke, unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease and suicide.

In truth, the leading cause of death is mortality. It awaits us all, even 18-year-old dudes who think they will live forever. Sorry, dudes, but insurance actuarial tables beg to differ.

Suppose you live to 90. Sounds like forever — until you pass the halfway point of getting there. I’m well past that halfway point, so this topic holds significant interest for me. But even if you’re a kid with “forever” in front of you, “numbering your days” is a useful exercise if you want to use them to serve God.

How will you spend them? Consider well; God is observing your choices. “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil,” the Apostle Paul advised (Ephesians 5:15-16, NASB). You can spend them loving God and following Him, or you can spend them on yourself.
In these days of medical advance, your life might contain many more than 90 years. Or far fewer.

Kyra Karr, age 30, a missionary, wife and mother of three young daughters, died in a traffic accident Aug. 13 in her home state of Georgia. She didn’t have the opportunity to return to Rome, Italy, where she and her husband, Reid, began serving after their appointment in 2009.

This young woman had been sharing the gospel with others since she was a teenager. She had “found her groove as a mom raising her kids in Italy,” according to a missionary colleague. She was ministering to children through the church, helping new missionaries learn the language and mobilizing Christians in Rome to help women victimized by sex trafficking.

“Kyra was the aroma of Christ in Rome. We sensed it. We breathed it. We were blessed by it,” said her pastor in Rome, Leonardo De Chirico. “Kyra was a glimpse of what it means to be absorbed in Christ.”

“I think her life would encourage anyone considering missions to go all out, to not waste time, to pursue it because we don’t have a promise of tomorrow,” said another missionary.

No one is promised tomorrow. Shakespeare grappled with that reality in his sonnets, which are essentially meditations on time, death and love. Which is stronger? “Love’s not Time’s fool,” he wrote in Sonnet 116. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

Perhaps Kyra’s Karr’s hours and weeks were brief. But she numbered her days well.

(Interested in spending your days serving God and His global mission? Explore the possibilities.)  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Time to choose


Believing in Jesus as Savior isn’t hard. Following Him as Lord — that’s the hard part.

We want to do things our way, not His, because we do not love Him enough to obey Him.

The saddest part of the story of Jonah, one of history’s most reluctant missionaries, is not that he took off in the opposite direction when God told him to go to the wicked city of Nineveh. It’s not that he got angry and depressed when he finally preached to the city and saw all the people there repent and believe. It’s not that he cared more about his own personal comfort than the souls of the Ninevites (see Jonah 4).

The saddest part is that he fled “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 NASB). How could he love the Ninevites if he didn’t love the Lord?

The Lord certainly cared about the Ninevites. They had committed all sorts of abominations, but they didn’t know any better. He asked Jonah, “And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons … ?” (Jonah 4:11a NASB). But Jonah was too preoccupied with himself, his needs, his cold heart, his foolish pride.

That’s us. That’s me, at least. I want to serve God only. I want to follow Him. I want to make disciples among the nations — just as soon as I finish all the other things I need (i.e., want) to do. I’m like the young Augustine, called by God out of a fourth-century Roman culture saturated in immorality, who famously prayed, “Lord, grant me purity — but not yet.”

Tomorrow, Lord, I will give You my whole heart. I promise, just like I promised yesterday and the day before that.

The Apostle James had little patience for two-timing believers:

“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’? But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:4-8, NASB).

Double-mindedness is a plague in the American church, which now finds itself in hostile surroundings similar to those faced by Augustine and James’ halfhearted disciples. Our culture no longer accommodates the gospel; it despises it. That’s a blessing in this sense: The days when you could comfortably fence-sit with a toe in each camp are coming to a close.

The time for choosing has arrived.

The culture will tolerate a one-dimensional Jesus who accepts everything, judges nothing and requires neither inner transformation nor outer change. The Jesus of the New Testament is someone else altogether: He refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, telling her angry accusers, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NASB). After they left one by one, He asked her, “‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more’” (John 8:10b,11).

Revisionists love to edit out that last part, but it’s the whole point of Jesus’ encounter with the woman. Once He dismissed the hypocrites, He bestowed the amazing grace and mercy of God on a sinner, but commanded repentance and obedience.

Years ago a missionary in Zambia visited a village that expressed interest in the gospel. He asked to see the village chief to seek permission to return. The missionary sat in the shade of a mango tree, waiting for the chief to come. A few minutes later, he noticed an old man hobbling toward him through the sand, leaning heavily on a stick to support his lame leg. The old chief considered the missionary’s request and gave him permission to return.

The missionary and a volunteer team came back a few weeks later to share the gospel through Bible storying. After four days of teaching, a line was drawn in the sand. The villagers were challenged to walk across the line if they were willing to turn away from their sin and make Jesus their Lord.

The first person to move was the old chief. He struggled across the line, dragging his crippled leg. When he finally made it, he looked up and declared to everyone, “I want Jesus to be my Lord!” He later was baptized, setting the stage for transformation of the whole village.

That’s a decision we need to make anew as followers of Christ. The line has been drawn.

(What could God do with your life if you choose to follow Him? Explore the possibilities here and here.) 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The quiet exodus of women from church


Take a look at the history of Christian missions and you will notice a consistent pattern:

From the beginning — and I’m talking about the Book of Acts — women have been among the strongest mission supporters, the most faithful prayer warriors and the most generous mission givers. Against daunting odds, they also have proven to be some of the boldest, most committed missionaries sent by churches in more recent times. Think Lottie Moon and her heroic co-workers in the formative stages of the American mission movement.

So what happens to missions tomorrow, or 10 years from now, if significantly fewer women vitally participate in the life of local churches?

That’s one of the worrisome questions raised by new research released in June by the Barna Group, a Christian research organization. The findings show an increasing percentage of American women, even among those who self-identify as believing Christians, joining the current social shift away from church involvement.

“Historically, men have been less likely to regularly attend church than women,” Barna reported. “Just over a decade ago, the gender gap was three men for every two unchurched women. In other words, fully 60 percent of unchurched people were men. Today, only 54 percent of the unchurched are men. In other words, the gender gap has narrowed from 20 points to just eight points in the last 10 years.

“Here is the landscape of women and their churchgoing: While just over half of all adult women have gone to church in the past week or past month, nearly four in 10 have not been to church in the past six months. This last group represents the majority of unchurched women — they are the dechurched. … It’s not that most of these unchurched women are unfamiliar with or inexperienced in church, but rather that at one point they decided church was no longer for them.”

They aren’t necessarily abandoning the faith or rejecting the church. Most are just slipping away. Barna identifies five trends in the quiet exodus:

n  Competing priorities — “When asked to rank several priorities in their life, women far and away ranked family relationships as their top priority (68 percent),” the report said. “Church or religious activities did come in second — but a very distant second (11 percent) and only marginally inched out personal time/development (10 percent).” Surprisingly, work or career ranked as the top priority for only 5 percent of respondents. Unsurprisingly, it was the second-highest time commitment. In other words, whether women love their jobs or not, they’re spending a lot of time at work.

n  Busyness — “In the end, many women today are just busy. Really, really busy,” Barna concluded. “And they are experiencing a tension between things they might want to do and things they actually have time for. … [More than 70] percent of women feel stressed out, 58 percent are tired and 48 percent say they are overcommitted. The percentages are even higher among moms with kids at home. Nearly nine in 10 women say they want to improve in at least one area of life, and what is the area they cite the most, over work, family and friends? Church. [But] the simple fact of the matter is many women — and especially moms —feel like they just don’t have time for church in today’s busy, fast-paced life.”

n  Lack of emotional engagement and support — Only 17 percent of women responding to the survey said they feel “very” supported at church. More than 40 percent sense no emotional support at all there. This isn’t some vague, touchy-feely thing; it is a “relational disconnect,” according to Barna. Faith is about relationships with God and people. If women don’t form strong relationships with others at church, they will look for them elsewhere.

n  Changing family structures — Most churches are geared toward traditional family structures: husband, wife and kids. Singles of both sexes have long felt like an afterthought in many church settings. Most American women are marrying later (mid-to-late 20s); many of them want to establish themselves as self-sufficient individuals before even considering marriage. What does the church offer them?

n  Changes in belief More than 60 percent of unchurched women overall say they are Christians, even if they haven’t attended church in at least six months. But only 46 percent of unchurched Millennial women self-identify as Christians. Two of every 10 American Millennial women now identify as atheists, according to the report.

“Many women — particularly those still identifying as Christian — may want to believe that they can hold to their faith even as they find less and less time in their life for church,” wrote Roxanne Stone, Barna Group vice president, in an article for Today’s Christian Woman. “However, Barna’s research over the years has shown that people who are disconnected from church — even those who self-identify as Christian — are less likely to engage in other faith activities, including Bible reading, prayer, volunteering and charitable giving. … Whether we want to admit it or not, church attendance roots believers in regular faith rhythms and increases many other related faith practices.“

Those “related faith practices” include the chief purposes of the church in the world: to love and worship God, to lift His name everywhere and to make disciples of Christ among all peoples.

Counteracting the movement of women away from vital church involvement will be a huge, complex challenge in the days ahead. But if you’re a church leader, here are a few questions that might help you get started:

Can busy moms and working women find real relationships in your church that help relieve the stress and isolation of their frantic lives, while drawing them toward God? Can young women searching for personal identity find encouragers in your church who will help them find their identity in Christ? Can women looking for deeper life purpose than their endless to-do list find exciting ways through your church to serve Christ and share the gospel in your community and around the world?

Lottie Moon was once a young woman — notorious for skipping chapel at school — searching for purpose in life. When she found it, she changed the world.

(Explore ways to participate in God’s mission at

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jim Slack: mission revolutionary


How can God use one faithful life to change the world?

Consider Jim Slack, 77. He retired from IMB in June after 50 years as a missionary, missiologist, strategist, researcher, ethnographer, teacher — and passionate advocate for unreached peoples, especially oral learners who need God’s Word in forms they can understand.

Slack can see out of only one eye these days, but his global vision remains crystal clear. He’s been at the center of several movements that revolutionized modern missions. And he’s not through yet. He has multiple projects in the works, from investigating potential church-planting movements to guiding missions-related dissertations by seminary students.

“Whatever physically I can do, I want to do,” Slack explains in his trademark Louisiana rasp. “I don’t want to just sit around and look at the wall.”

Not much chance of that. Never has been.

Slack was a bright young college grad on the way to law school when a summer of ministry in Hawaii — still a “foreign mission field” in those days — captured his heart and mind for missions. He returned home to tell his wife-to-be, Mary that life plans had changed. She happily informed him that she had surrendered her life to serving God in missions years earlier.

Before they went to the Philippines as Southern Baptist missionaries in 1964, however, Slack worked as a researcher with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham was helping lay the foundations of what would become the Lausanne Movement, which called the church to obey its biblical responsibility for world evangelization by making disciples among all peoples — the panta ta ethne Jesus Christ referred to in His Great Commission command in Matthew 28:19.

“Billy Graham said, ‘We have misunderstood the Great Commission,’” Slack recalls. “The Great Commission is: You shall make disciples of the panta ta ethne — the nations, the unreached people groups.”

Slack put that into practice as a church planter in the Philippines. He moved as soon as he could to Mindanao, where restive Muslims and tribal peoples had never heard the gospel. He trained local believers to evangelize and start churches and participated in key research projects that challenged missionaries in the Philippines and elsewhere to move beyond the reached to the unreached.

While doing doctoral work in seminary early in his missionary career, he encountered a book about the global challenge of evangelizing people who can’t read. He devoured it in a single night and changed his whole approach to missions.

“I wish I’d had that book when I first went to the field,” Slack says. “Mindanao Muslims couldn’t read, didn’t want to read, weren’t going to read. And the tribal people in the mountains didn’t even have a written language.”

Missionary Bible translators were doing heroic work in many cultures. But what was the point of spending years translating the Bible into indigenous languages if people couldn’t, or wouldn’t, read it? Until they were willing and able to read, an alternate approach was needed to deliver God’s Word to the hundreds of millions of people around the world belonging to cultures that communicate orally.

Working with missionary colleague J.O. Terry and others, Slack helped develop Chronological Bible Storying — later shortened to Bible Storying — a simple, flexible, transferrable way to deliver the truths of the Bible to oral learners and make disciples among them.

It has become one of the most effective and widely used mission methods of the modern era, expanding beyond the original sets of teachable Bible stories to songs, drama, pictures, video, audio, webisodes and more. But in the early years, when Slack traveled the world teaching the method, it wasn’t an easy sell.

Slack and Terry came to West Africa several times to “introduce this weird new thing called Chronological Bible Storying,” remembers IMB staff member Roger Haun, then a missionary in the region. “We were kind of hardheaded about it. Even after our missionaries began to warm up to the idea, we were still having trouble with our West African brothers. … [Today, storying] is the main evangelistic tool now used all across West Africa. And there are literally tens of thousands of Africans who have heard the gospel in a way they can understand — and many who have accepted Christ, and will be with us one day in heaven — because [Slack] came and introduced us to that concept.”

After 25 years on the field, Slack transitioned to IMB’s Global Research team during another revolutionary period. IMB mission strategists were exploring the emerging phenomenon of church-planting movements, the new concept of strategy-coordinator missionaries and the global urgency of reaching unreached peoples. Slack made vital contributions in these areas while continuing his campaign for Bible storying.

More recently, as IMB and the North American Mission Board partner to reach the waves of peoples immigrating to America, Slack has trained church leaders in some of the biggest U.S. urban centers to reach the unreached in their midst.

“Few men living have affected the shape of world missions like Jim Slack,” says Tom Billings, executive director of Union Baptist Association (more than 560 affiliated churches) in increasingly multiethnic Houston. “Of late, he has also focused on helping U.S. church leaders recognize the enormity of the Great Commission task in our own country and challenged us to think differently about what we must do to reach them.”

As America becomes more and more ethnically and socially diverse, Slack offers the same challenge to U.S. Christians that he’s been delivering to missionaries and the global church for decades.

“If we do not win the people groups here, we will not grow,” he says with tears in his eyes. “Friend, we’re going to die if we don’t obey the Great Commission.”

(What impact could God make with your fully surrendered life? Explore the possibilities.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Inspiration and perspiration

                                                  (Bill Koehn at Jibla Baptist Hospital)

Inspiration only gets you so far.

It’s great for starting a major task. As for finishing one — not so much. That’s where commitment comes in.

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest inspirational speakers of the modern age, understood this truth: There’s a time for words and a time for action.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Churchill told the British people 75 years ago in May. It was his first address to the House of Commons as prime minister. A fight to the death with the mighty Nazi war machine loomed. Years of suffering lay ahead. America’s entrance into World War II was in doubt, as was the continued existence of Great Britain itself. Many who heard Churchill’s stark words wouldn’t survive the struggle.

He knew what was coming, had no illusions about it. He’d been issuing warnings about it for years from the back benches of Parliament. So he didn’t try to sugarcoat it. His speech, less than four minutes from start to finish, is a stern call to victory at any cost (listen for a bracing lesson in leadership). He knew that solemn day was not a time for soaring rhetoric. It was a time for getting on with the task at hand.

The same applies to servants of a greater cause: God’s global mission.

Don’t get me wrong: As followers of Christ, we need His inspiration every day, every hour, every moment. We need the constant nourishment of His Word and the power of His Spirit to accomplish anything worth doing. We need to encourage and challenge one another.

But then we need to act. Obedience is the truest sign of faith.

Sometimes obedience is hard — especially after the glorious music fades away and the exciting speakers move on. Sometimes the people who raised their hands with you in those high moments of worship and inspiration change their minds when things got hard. They were willing to go anywhere, do anything, until they weren’t. What about you? That’s when you find out if you are serious.

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, didn’t sugarcoat the task for his young friend Timothy:  “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. … Suffer hardship with me as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1,3 NASB). And Timothy knew Paul was enduring great hardship.

Many centuries later, another great missionary had similar words. Writing to her friend Annie Armstrong in 1889, Lottie Moon had this to say about daily life in North China:

“Please say to the new missionaries that they are coming to a life of hardship, responsibility and constant self-denial. ... They will be alone in the interior and will need to be strong and courageous. If ‘the joy of the Lord’ be ‘their strength,’ the blessedness of the work will more than compensate for its hardships. Let them come ‘rejoicing to suffer’ for the sake of that Lord and Master who freely gave His life for them.”

Sometimes serving Jesus isn’t particularly hard or dangerous. Sometimes it’s just mundane. Boring, even. Blessed are the plodders who do boring stuff faithfully.

One of the most faithful plodders in Southern Baptist mission history was Bill Koehn. He died in 2002 after being shot point-blank, along with medical missionary colleagues Martha Myers and Kathy Gariety, by a Muslim militant in Yemen. Until then, Koehn, age 60, had spent 28 uneventful years running the Jibla Baptist Hospital as administrator. Relatively uneventful, that is.

The hospital faced the daily challenge of ministering to an endless stream of patients from all over the impoverished Middle Eastern nation. At its peak, the 77-bed mission facility employed several hundred workers, treated some 40,000 people a year, performed more than 400 surgeries a month and operated a busy outpatient clinic. Koehn and his staff also endured extended civil war in Yemen, occasional kidnappings, a disastrous fire, numerous financial crises, ongoing personnel shortages, political pressures and legal battles that threatened to shut down the hospital.

Other than that, it was pretty normal.

How did Koehn cope? The former supermarket manager from Kansas was quiet, predictable, a creature of habit. He operated on a strict daily schedule, starting with prayer and Bible study before dawn and proceeding with clockwork precision until nightfall. Unfinished projects, whether at the hospital or in his woodworking shop, irked him.

“You never called Bill after 9, because he was in bed,” said a longtime colleague.

Koehn’s highly structured style enabled him to handle the countless details and headaches involved in running the hospital. Yet he somehow found the time to make wooden toys for the orphanage he loved to visit, to assist needy widows in the community, to drink tea with Yemenis and listen to their struggles and needs.

Plodders get things done, even on the mission field.

The Apostle James said our lives are but a mist that will soon disappear (James 4:14), IMB President David Platt reminded listeners June 17 during a “Sending Celebration” to recognize 59 new missionaries and their sending churches at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so we should make our lives count for God now — even in seemingly small things.

“May the urgency of this mission mark us,” Platt said. “May our light shine amidst the darkness, and may our mist count while we’ve still got time.”

Roger Cohen of The New York Times warns about using that precious time to “follow your passion,” as the cliché goes.

“Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis,” Cohen writes. “The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane. … I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day.”

Following your passion is great, as long as your passion is following God. Day by day. One foot in front of another, faithfully. God will multiply every step you give to Him.

(Explore ways to follow God in His global mission.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hope, by the numbers


Hope is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The absence of hope is like death.

I’ve written in the past about my friend George. He was sincere, thoughtful, funny — and deeply depressed. He eventually hanged himself.

On the last morning of his life, George lay motionless. According to his father (who later found his body), the only words George managed to force through gritted teeth that day were: “No hope. No hope. No hope.”

Hopelessness afflicts many more people than the clinically depressed. It torments millions who think that they have nothing to live for, that the miseries of the present will never go away, that the future holds nothing but more despair.

Hope, on the other hand, leads people in even the most difficult conditions to reach up, to believe in possibilities.

That may seem obvious, but there’s new statistical support for it. A major trial study, involving more than 20,000 people in six countries, has demonstrated that targeted aid aimed at getting extremely poor families out of poverty produces big results with small investments — maybe as small as a single cow or a few goats.

“Why would a cow have such an impact?” asks Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who wrote recently about the trial. “There’s some indication that one mechanism is hope. Whether in America or India, families that are stressed and impoverished — trapped in cycles of poverty — can feel a hopelessness that becomes self-fulfilling. Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.”

The aid, minimal as it was, motivated recipients to work harder, save more and show more optimism.

“Could hopelessness and stress create a ‘poverty trap’ — abroad or here in the U.S. — in which people surrender to a kind of whirlpool of despair?” Kristof asks. “Some economists and psychologists are finding evidence to support that theory, and experiments are underway to see if raising spirits can lift economic outcomes. Researchers are now studying whether exposure to religion might have a similar effect, improving economic outcomes. If so, Marx had the wrong drug in mind: Religion would not be an opiate of the masses but an amphetamine.”

Kristof, a widely traveled journalist who has praised evangelical humanitarian work in the past, notes the similarity between the program studied in the trial and the models used by Christian development organizations overseas. He adds, “Much of the news about global poverty is depressing, but this is fabulous: a large-scale experiment showing, with rigorous evidence, what works to lift people out of the most extreme poverty. And it’s exhilarating that one of the lessons may be so simple and human: the power of hope.”

These findings also complement the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. In country after country, Woodberry began to find a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom, social progress and economic well-being.

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.”

By and large, those earlier missionaries weren’t radical social reformers or political revolutionaries. They were bringers of hope. Their gospel ministry connected them to the common people and the poor, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ. Yes, they started schools, hospitals and various engines of social progress. But most of all, they preached the hope of Christ, started churches and made disciples who carried on the work in subsequent generations.

That work goes on today, as missionaries and their partners find new ways to heal bodies, educate minds, transform cultures and bring the good news to starving souls. One example among many: South Asian women often despair of finding a decent life. Many face domestic abuse. Many more are abandoned to care for their children alone but have no skills to find good work.

With an investment of $3,550 provided by IMB’s Global Hunger Relief, 15 women were trained to create quality jewelry that met market demands better than other jewelry produced by local artisans. An export license was obtained to ship the products out of the country to “fair trade” sales partners.

A year later, the new micro-business is generating enough revenue to stand on its own and even expand to help more at-risk women in rural areas.

“We have employed many ladies who were left by their husbands or divorced,” the project director reported. “[One] lady was abused by her husband and went back to her parents and is going through a divorce. She had a desire to go back to school in order to support herself, but her parents didn’t have the money to send her. Our micro-enterprise provides her with an income that can fund her school ambition. We are gaining a reputation in the community for caring for those who cannot care for themselves and have had many opportunities to share.”

Hope. People need it, crave it, search for it. They will risk their lives to find it, and having found it, will risk their lives to share it with others. That’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so powerful and why it is spreading so rapidly outside the secularized West.

By comparison, all the substitutes offered in its place grow strangely dim.