Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Prayers for the backslidden

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Jehoshua was one of the most dynamic church leaders in a challenging region of Asia. He was bold, evangelistic, a gifted Bible teacher.

That was before the fall.

He had the kind of charismatic personality “that people naturally fall in love with and follow,” says a Southern Baptist missionary in the region. “In the past, he has been a lover of the Word and taught many groups he himself had led to the Lord and then pastored.

“But he fell into sin and is now hiding from the Lord, sinning all the more.”

Carlos, a friend of Jehoshua’s, also was growing in his faith. But when the missionary who was discipling him left town for a month, “he, too, slipped back into dangerous sin. … He is wanting the Lord, not the sin, but feels trapped by it just as Jehoshua does.”

Missionaries have visited the two repeatedly to encourage them. Each time, “they are open to studying the Word with us and listening to the Lord with us and even have experienced Him deeply each time. But when we leave, they haven’t sought the Lord on their own.”

Other new followers of Christ in the area are watching. They’ve seen Jehoshua and Carlos crash and burn spiritually. Should they keep following their Savior and Lord by faith, despite the difficulty — or take the easy way out and slip back into the old ways, too? You can see the question in their eyes, according to missionaries.

We’ve become sadly familiar with high-profile moral meltdowns among religious leaders in America, where temptations of all kinds abound. Popular preachers, like showbiz celebrities, often begin to believe their own press clippings. Some fall prey to pride, power or the pressures of a fishbowl existence. Others stumble into adultery when they let down their guard.

Church leaders are at least as vulnerable as leaders in other walks of life, probably more so. Nobody blinks an eye when the devil picks off a famous athlete or a movie star. But if he can ruin the ministry of a well-known pastor, disillusion the flock and bring ridicule upon Christ’s church, that’s a good day’s work for the principalities of darkness.

How much more does Satan relish destroying newborn churches in the cradle among peoples who are hearing the Gospel for the first time? It’s the kind of spiritual infanticide that will keep souls in chains for generations to come.

Corrupting the church from within is also more effective than persecuting it. External attack often strengthens believers, forcing them to commit themselves fully to Jesus in order to survive and grow. Willing surrender to sin, on the other hand, poisons the church and sabotages its ministry.

Sometimes we romanticize the lives of Christians in tough places. They must be much stronger spiritually, we reason, since they endure sacrifices and brave dangers we’ve never experienced. Maybe they are stronger. But they’re just as human. They face the same day-to-day temptations: pride, rebellion, lust, discouragement, willful self-deception. They, too, can fall just like the one-time spiritual brothers of the Apostle Paul who rejected a good conscience and “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19b, NASB).

What can we do to prevent such tragedies in the lives of struggling believers around the world? We can pray.

“Prayers for the backslidden” is the title of the appeal missionaries sent on behalf of Jehoshua, Carlos and others in their corner of Asia. Here are some of their prayers, which we can apply to struggling believers worldwide:

* Lord, help them to understand and receive your grace and forgiveness so they will repent of their sin and love You with all their hearts. Make them strong and courageous to stand up for what is right and choose to walk Your paths. Cause them to fall deeply in love with You, Your Word, Your voice, Your presence and power.

* Lord, let them know You as Living Water to their souls, as the Bread of life to satisfy their every need. Purify their hearts. Pick them up from the pit where they’ve chosen to be stuck in mud, and place them in the Water of life where there is cleansing and joy. Show them the way out, and give them courage to head there. All the things they run after are leaving them still unsatisfied, but You, Jesus, can quench every thirst and satisfy every need.

* Lord, we pray also for those who have come to Christ through Jehoshua and Carlos. Don’t let them be led astray by their leaders’ sin. Protect Your lambs, every one of them. Don’t let any of them be lost to the enemy. Raise up the believers to be bold enough, hungry enough, to want to meet together to worship You, read Your Word and follow You all the days of their lives. Build Your church so that believers will have a passion so deep they will love thousands into Your kingdom.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Talk to Muslims -- not at them

I have a Muslim friend named Alaa who arrived in America with his wife and four children last year.

They escaped Iraq about half a step ahead of death.

Alaa celebrated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Later, he aided a U.S. soldier who was shot during a skirmish with Iraqi insurgents on Alaa’s street in Baghdad. Within 72 hours, Alaa had been targeted for revenge by local militia thugs. His second son was kidnapped. The kidnappers crushed the boy’s hand with a trunk lid as they tossed him in the back of their vehicle. They beat the child daily while demanding a small fortune for his life.

Desperate, Alaa ransomed his son with his life savings and the help of relatives. He went into hiding with his family. His house was destroyed by insurgents. Three months later, the family fled Iraq. After two years in another country, they finally entered the United States as refugees.
Alaa and his family have received a lot of practical help since they got here, from lodging and transportation to medical and job assistance. Most of it has come from Christians — and Alaa is very thankful. “They help me every time!” he says with amazement, smiling broadly.

The family is struggling to learn English and make ends meet, but they love America. The kids make good grades in school. Better days lie ahead.

Does Alaa sound like the kind of guy who secretly plans to take over America for radical Islam?

He experienced his fill of radical Islamists in Iraq: They nearly killed him. Today he’s mainly interested in becoming an American citizen. He also welcomes discussions of the Gospel, because he’s seen it lived out by people who care about him and his family.

I thought about Alaa as 3,000 or so Muslims gathered to pray Sept. 25 near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The event was billed as “Islam on Capitol Hill,” an opportunity to “illustrate the wonderful diversity of Islam.”

Various Christian groups expressed concern about the event, which failed to draw anywhere near the 50,000 Muslim pilgrims organizers had anticipated. National Muslim organizations reportedly declined to participate. Questions were raised about the motives of the sponsors, who proclaimed “Our time has come” as the event’s theme. One organizer, Hassen Abdellah, was part of the legal team that defended one of the attackers in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The public-relations timing of the rally also was less than ideal, coming as new plots by homegrown Muslim terrorists to attack U.S. targets, foiled in recent days, grabbed headlines.

Most of those who actually showed up for the Washington gathering quietly prayed in the shadow of the Capitol. The colorfully dressed crowd appeared to be a mix of U.S.-born and immigrant Muslims.

One of the main speakers and organizers, Imam Abdul Malik of Brooklyn, N.Y, made no secret of his ambitious agenda. “America, I announce to you it is my intention to invite your children to the worship of one God (Allah),” said Malik during a 40-minute address. “It is my intention to remove every idol from every place. Nothing physical — it is a confrontation of ideas.”

He also paid tribute to the freedom of speech and religion America affords: “What we’ve done today, you couldn’t do in any Muslim country. If you prayed on the palace lawn there, they’d lock you up.”

Many Christians living in Muslim lands would heartily agree with that statement.

Some Christians who came to the Washington event protested it — and Islam — with banners, chants and at least one blaring megaphone. Others watched, listened, prayed and sought opportunities to engage Muslims in conversations about God and faith.

The second approach is a more effective mission strategy — if you’re interested in talking to Muslims rather than at or about them.

“I say for people to get out and interact with people, to get to know Muslim people,” said Daryl Thomas, a Muslim carpenter from New York who attended the Washington gathering. “That’s basically what it is, just not knowing. So whatever’s in front of you, whether it’s the media or someone who doesn’t like Muslims, you start to believe it. So you’ve got to get to know (us) for yourself. Get out and visit mosques just a like a friend would invite you to another church.”

He’s right.

Like it or not, we now live in the crossroads of the world. America has become a fragmented, chaotic marketplace of ideas, cultures, religions and philosophies. It’s frightening and frustrating at times.

It also presents one of the greatest mission opportunities in the history of the Christian church.

Chances are Muslims live, work or go to school near you — or soon will. Befriend them. Help them. Listen to them. Share Jesus with them.

That’s what I’m doing with my friend Alaa.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Note to the boss: Thank you

Dear Jerry Rankin: I knew this day would come, but I wasn’t looking forward to it.

You’re retiring next summer as president of IMB (International Mission Board). When you made the announcement to our trustees, I thought back to the days leading up to your election 16 years ago.

At the time, you were a missionary and mission administrator who’d been in Asia for 23 years. By your own admission, you were quite happy on the field where God had called you — and you weren’t all that excited about dealing with Southern Baptist bureaucracy and politics back home.

You said you felt “inadequate to the task.” You were reluctant to take on the gargantuan job of leading the largest evangelical missionary-sending agency during “a peak of controversy regarding control of leadership roles among Southern Baptist Convention entities.”

You weren’t the only one with doubts. The convention was still reeling from years of painful struggle over its theology and identity. Your distinguished predecessor, R. Keith Parks, had crossed swords with multiple critics while leading the mission board toward new strategies to reach the world with the Gospel.

I can’t speak for other folks, but some of us grizzled reporter types in the old IMB newsroom thought you were going to get taken apart limb from limb in the first year.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. I think we all underestimated you.

You’ve led us through some tough times, to be sure. You’ve taken your share of criticism — some of it fair, some of it misguided and wrong. I’ve grumbled myself a few times.

Today, though, I want to thank you for stepping up and taking the heat, even when it hurt. For spending countless nights away from home in dodgy airplanes and dingy Third World airports. For attending innumerable meetings. For preaching thousands of mission messages to churches at home. And for walking beside thousands of missionaries and Christian servants in some of the darkest places on earth.

More than that, thank you for being a disciplined and visionary leader from day one.

I’ve never heard you speak to an audience or congregation without using these three words: “a lost world.” Not once. I got tired of hearing it — until I realized it wasn’t a phrase but a consuming passion within you. The fact that so many millions of people have yet to hear the name of Jesus Christ actually breaks your heart. I want it to break mine.

By far the biggest challenges IMB missionaries and staff have faced during your tenure have involved not convention politics or economic difficulties but the “main thing”: How do we reach a lost world with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ? As a leader, you have never taken your eye off that all-important task, given to us by the Lord Himself in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations …”

All nations, not just the ones that are open, friendly or willing to grant missionary visas. And not just all “nations” as we understand them in the political sense, but all peoples — in all their staggering cultural, ethnic and linguistic variety. That is how God sees the world, and He wants all the peoples of the world to worship Him in spirit and truth.

The magnitude of that command led you to become not a denominational bureaucrat but a revolutionary. As a field missionary who started out in an earlier era, you first had to revolutionize your own thinking about missions. You embraced new strategies you once questioned and aggressively spread them throughout a global enterprise.
You declared that the International Mission Board would no longer talk about reaching the whole world while sending missionaries only to part of it. Rather, we would mobilize Southern Baptists and other Great Commission-minded Christians to do whatever it takes to plant churches among every unreached, unevangelized and unengaged people group.

In a day when people demand hands-on involvement, you declared we would move beyond simply sending missionaries. Instead, we would make local Southern Baptist churches — regardless of their size — full strategic partners in the task of global missions. That is their biblical role, after all, something often forgotten in the age of professional missions.

It’s not always easy working with a revolutionary — especially one who advocates continuous revolution in pursuit of a grand vision. You have initiated two major IMB reorganizations (the latest is still unfolding) and many smaller ones during your tenure. Missionary and staff assignments have changed and changed again. Strongly held beliefs about mission methods have been repeatedly challenged. Comfort zones have been abolished.

And you’re still pushing and prodding us to take the next step.

Has it been worth all the blood, sweat and tears? As an occasionally queasy rider on the “Rankin Express” for the past 16 years, I say yes.

A large, traditional mission board now embraces new and even experimental strategies to impact lostness. An organization once known for going it alone now aggressively pursues mission partners overseas and church partners at home. I’m not exactly objective, but in an era suspicious of all institutions, I honestly believe IMB is more relevant than ever to people who seriously want to reach the nations.

You helped get us to this point, Jerry. Where your continuous energy comes from, I don’t know. Deep prayer, I suspect, and powerful coffee.

Thank you for being passionate and not just talking about it. Thank you for taking spiritual warfare seriously. Thank you for being obsessed — in a holy way — with a lost world.

When a reporter asked about your legacy a few years back, you responded: “I would like to be able to say, ‘We can no longer identify a people group that doesn’t have access to the Gospel.’ To me, that’s the essence of what we’re about.”

We’re not there yet, Jerry. But we’re a lot closer than we were 16 years ago.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Human family: 7 billion by 2011

The latest world population numbers and forecasts tell us what we already know: The human family lives more and more in the global South and East.

The rest of us are becoming country cousins, scattered through the isolated hinterlands of the North and the West.

That’s an absurd exaggeration, of course — but not as absurd as you might think.

Most of humanity is in Asia and Africa. If “God so loved the world,” as Scripture says, it stands to reason that He would focus passionate attention on the places where most of “the world” lives. So should we.

The global population will reach 7 billion in 2011, only 12 years after topping 6 billion in 1999, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). The Washington, D.C.-based agency released its annual World Population Data Sheet in August with accompanying analysis of global demographics by region, age, income, gender and other categories.

“Even with declining fertility rates in many countries, world population is still growing at a rapid rate,” says Bill Butz, the bureau’s president. “The increase from 6 billion to 7 billion is likely to take 12 years, as did the increase from 5 billion to 6 billion. Both events are unprecedented in world history.”

Africa’s population just topped 1 billion and will double by 2050. Asia, now at 4.1 billion, will increase to 5.3 billion by mid-century. The population of Latin America and the Caribbean, 580 million, will climb to 724 million by then.

With 307 million people, the United States is the third-largest country in the world — far behind China and India with more than 1 billion each, but ahead of Indonesia and Brazil. U.S. population is projected to reach 439 million by the year 2050.

But Eastern and Western Europe are shrinking as growth rates decline and even reverse — the potential death knell of nations in the long term. Europe’s current population of 738 million is projected to fall to 702 million by 2050.

Future growth will come almost entirely (97 percent) in the developing world, according to projections, with the fastest growth in the poorest countries.

Here’s a stark example: Canada and Uganda have nearly the same populations today — 34 million and 31 million, respectively. Uganda, however, likely will more than double Canada’s population by 2050.

“The great bulk of today’s 1.2 billion youth — nearly 90 percent — are in developing countries,” says Carl Haub, PRB senior demographer and co-author of the data sheet.

About one in every five people on earth, then, is between the ages of 15 and 24. Eight in 10 live in Africa and Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s youngest population and will for many years to come.

True, the overall world population is aging: Global median age is projected to increase from 28.9 to 38.4 by 2050. But for now, youth rules — demographically speaking.

The implications of these numbers for Christians are many. I’ll emphasize just one: responding to the ongoing youth explosion in the developing world.

“During the next few decades, these young people will most likely continue the current trend of moving from rural areas to cities in search of education and training opportunities, gainful employment and adequate health care,” Haub predicts.

Major investments in their health, education and job training will pay major dividends, says the PRB report — stating the obvious. The lack of such investment, on the other hand, will result in massive frustration, suffering, criminality and violence.

The same is true in the spiritual realm. The church universal must — must — do whatever it takes to assist, evangelize and make disciples among the young people of the global South and East in this generation. They deserve the very best we have to give.

Anything less would be a tragic abdication of obedience to God’s mission in our day.