Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jesus in disguise


Christmas 1914 on the Western Front witnessed a remarkable event.

The Great War, now known as World War I, had begun. Years of unimaginable death and destruction lay ahead. Yet during the week leading up to Christmas a century ago, many German and British soldiers put down their weapons, crossed battle lines and shook hands. The informal “Christmas Truce” brought enemies together to talk of home, exchange food and cigarettes and engage in impromptu soccer games. Some even sang hymns and carols together.

In the darkest places, Christmas brings light. Enemies make peace. Old hatreds die, and mercy is born. Christ is glorified.

On the first Christmas, God willingly entered enemy territory, disguised as a helpless child, to make peace with those who had rejected Him over and over through the ages. Only a few recognized Him when He walked among us. Even fewer followed Him. He was reviled, betrayed and denied before being put to death on a Roman cross. Yet He changed everything through His life, death and resurrection.

Have you encountered the Lord in disguise?

Jesus told his disciples: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me: I was in prison, and you came to Me. … Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:35,36,40b NASB).

This Scripture passage formed the essential mission strategy of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took Jesus’ words literally. For her, every hungry person, orphan and refugee was “Jesus in His distressing disguise.” The more distressing the disguise, the greater the need for our love.

In 1946 she sensed a “second call” from God to leave her original vocation as a teacher in a Calcutta convent and go to the streets, which were filled with the refugees of communal violence, poverty and indifference. One day she stumbled over a starving woman, eaten with worms, lying in the gutter. She picked up the woman and took her to a hospital, refusing to leave until someone cared for her. City authorities eventually gave Mother Teresa an abandoned Hindu hostel, where she could take the nearly dead to die in the arms of love. Thus was born her mission to “the poorest of the poor.” In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, gradually expanding her ministry to lepers, disaster and war victims, the unborn — even affluent Westerners afflicted with loneliness and isolation, which she regarded as the worst diseases of the developed world.

Mother Teresa carefully schooled her missionaries in simple acts, like touching.
“We train ourselves to be extremely kind and gentle in touch of hand, tone of voice and in our smile so as to make the mercy of God very real and to induce [others] to turn to God with real confidence,” she said before her death in 1997.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: Have you ever encountered Jesus in a “distressing disguise”? How did you treat Him?

Maybe He showed up in your town recently, speaking a strange language and carrying all His possessions in a plastic U.N. refugee bag. Maybe He’s sitting in the county jail, with no visitors except an overworked public defender. Maybe He’s working at the convenience store near your house and has nowhere to go for Christmas.

Maybe He’s living in an Ebola-stricken area of West Africa, in a refugee camp on the Syrian border or among a spiritually lost people group never touched by His modern-day followers, wondering if anyone will come bringing light and hope.

Were Jesus’ words about visiting Him by visiting others symbolic? Perhaps. But Mother Teresa’s lovingly practical approach to the “least of them” makes a lot of sense to me. One thing is for sure: God Himself personally visited us on the first Christmas in the form of a child, walked with us as a man, died and rose for us as a Savior.

One day in eternity, He we will ask us who we visited in His name.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Creed: His glory their reward

Here’s a creed worth adopting — if you dare.

As a follower of Christ: I am called not to comfort or success but to obedience. Consequently, my life is to be defined not by what I do but by who I am.
Henceforth: I will proclaim His name without fear, follow Him without regret and serve Him without compromise.
Thus: To obey is my objective, to suffer is expected, His glory is my reward.
Therefore: To Christ alone be all power, all honor and all glory, that the world may know. Amen!

Those 83 words challenge a number of things we hold dear as modern Americans: personal independence, success, comfort, unlimited options. They comprise the creed, which is first memorized, then lived out, by students accepted into Fusion (, a challenging year of mission training and action for college-age Southern Baptists.

Fusion, now in its 10th year, is a partnership between IMB and Midwestern Baptist College, the undergraduate program at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. It puts students through far more than an academic overview of missions. They spend the fall semester living and studying in a close discipleship community, participating in specialized training programs, doing ministry and evangelism in the Kansas City area and holding each other accountable to their commitment. For the spring semester, they head overseas to join IMB missionaries in various locations. Fusion teams are trained to go to the least-reached people groups, so they often travel to physically challenging or high-security areas around the world.

Wishy-washy believers need not apply. Well, they can apply, but they won’t stay wishy-washy for long.

Gwen Noonan* found that out for herself when she signed up. Noonan, now 20, entered the Fusion program in the fall of 2012. She was as an enthusiastic 18-year-old from California searching for exciting ways to serve the Lord. In Fusion training, she soon learned that God seeks more than our service; He seeks our whole being.

“During our contingency training, we were put into scenarios that felt so real even though they weren’t that I really had to ask myself whether or not the gospel is worth my life,” she said. “Is Jesus, really knowing Him, worth all that I have to go and glorify Him in the nations?”

She also learned about Karen Watson, whose words and life helped inspire the Fusion Creed. Watson, another Californian, was one of four Southern Baptist relief workers killed by unknown gunmen in Iraq in 2004. A former law enforcement officer known both for her toughness and her passion for God, Watson knew the risks of working in Iraq. She had willingly returned there shortly before her death after several previous close calls with death. 

“When God calls there are no regrets,” Watson wrote in a now-famous letter found in a sealed envelope marked “Open in case of death.” She left it with her pastor when she departed for the Middle East in 2003. “I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations,” Watson 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.”

Fusion training confronted Noonan with spiritual reality. “Learning more about Karen’s story helped me realize His Glory really is my reward and really is worth it,” she said. “Knowing the sweetness of Jesus even in the midst of these hard things, knowing Jesus even in His sufferings, was something I would be willing to lay my life down for.”

Noonan’s commitment deepened when she went to her mission assignment overseas, which involved developing friendships with Muslims in order to share the gospel. It wasn’t easy, but she found Christ already was there.

“I went through a time of loneliness,” she remembered. “Jesus was just so faithful during that time, and He used the creed to encourage my heart. [He said] ‘I am so worth it. I have suffered for you and to obey My Father. Abide in Me and know the sweetness of laying your life down.’”

During that time Noonan, a musician, also completed a song based on the Fusion Creed that she had begun writing during training. When she returned to the United States, she recorded “The Creed” and participated in the making of a video featuring the song:

This year, Noonan has become a Fusion “advocate,” one of the alumni who return to help prepare the next generation of Fusion trainees not only for their overseas assignments, but for a lifetime as disciples who make disciples. In January, 59 people now in Fusion training anticipate going in teams to North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia to glorify God. Noonan will lead a team of three young women back to the area where she served last year.

Her reward? His glory. 

*Name changed

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The rise and fall of walls

Walls of the mind and heart are harder to tear down than walls of brick and stone.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago brought great hopes of a new birth of spiritual and political freedom, not only in the communist orbit but around the world. In many ways, those hopes were realized. Old tyrannies began to crumble. The Cold War ended after more than a generation of East-West conflict. Churches and believers long imprisoned by persecution and fear were released into the sunlight of liberty.

The collapse of the Soviet Union followed the glorious opening in Berlin. Waves of Christian workers from the West flooded into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics to assist their brothers and sisters in the faith. An exciting era of evangelism and church planting began.

That era continues, despite the turmoil that has followed Soviet communism’s demise.

“The wall was an outward symbol of an inward reality,” Mark Edworthy, IMB strategy leader for Europe, told IMB writer Nicole Lee. “Communism had erected a spiritual barrier with its incessant denial of God’s existence and its cycle of cruelty. Spiritually, we eagerly took up a hammer and chisel to work against that greater barrier.” A quarter-century later, “we can see greater trophies than stone and mortar as the Lord has continued to build His church throughout the former Soviet sphere.”

But believers are working with urgency in Eastern Europe, Lee reported, “because no one knows how long the door to some of these countries will remain open. The ongoing war in Ukraine highlights the fact that, although the Cold War is over, communism and other secular philosophies are still at work.”  
The social and economic chaos of the immediate post-Soviet years led to yearning in Russia, at least for a “strong hand” at the helm, which has resulted in new tensions with the West in recent years. Those tensions are pushing the world to the “brink of a new Cold War,” warned former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a Nov. 8 event in Berlin marking the Wall’s fall. Gorbachev, whose reforms helped hasten the end of the Soviet empire, criticized global powers for failing to work together to end conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Ukraine.

For now, open ministry continues.
“We really don’t see any comprehensive political pressure that hinders the advance of the gospel. Materialism and consumerism have replaced communism,” said one Christian worker based in Russia. Still, he added, “Our time might be short. Have we planted an apostolic burden among Russian church leaders? There are some who [are passionate about reaching the lost], but we need many more.”

The message is one that has been repeated again and again throughout history: There are no guarantees except for the presence and sovereignty of the Lord. Walls may fall, while others rise. In the political realm, the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing occurred in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall came down. Yet the Chinese church, which suffered one of its darkest hours during the savage persecution of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, continues to grow in size, vitality and passion for global mission.
“God may seem silent on occasion. At other times, people simply don’t trouble to hear his voice,” writes Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, in Christianity Today. “As an example, we might look at the experience of China, which over the past two millennia has remained the world’s most populous nation. The story of Chinese Christianity is a recurrent cycle of mighty boom years followed by what seemed like total annihilation at the time, an obliteration so absolute that on each occasion, it was quite clear that the church could never rise again. That cycle has occurred five times to date since the ninth century. On each occasion, the Chinese church has reemerged far more powerful than at its previous peak. Each successive ‘nevermore’ proved to be strictly temporary.”

Today, the very existence of the church in the Middle East, the cradle of the Christian faith, seems threatened by the advance of Islamic extremists. But God will not leave Himself without a witness. 

“Even when institutional churches vanish, believers persist in many different forms,” Jenkins writes. “As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the frustrated Soviet minister of education, complained in 1928, ‘Religion is like a nail: The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes into the wood.’ Sometimes it goes in so deep, you can’t even see it.”

One day that nail reappears, stronger than ever.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Quarantine fear


There’s a disease on the move that’s even deadlier than Ebola.

It is invisible and highly contagious. It spreads with lightning speed and paralyzes its victims. It turns people, communities and nations against each other.


The disease is fear.

Anxiety and dread seem to permeate our nation — and many of our churches — at the moment. Threats abound: Ebola, ISIS, mindless violence, multiplying enemies. There’s a general sense that the world is spinning out of control and no one knows what to do about it — certainly not the institutions and experts we once looked to for guidance. 

“The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear,” observes David Brooks of The New York Times. “It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.”


Some threats are real; others are the product of hysteria and saturation coverage of death and destruction. But we aren’t sure which is which. So we hunker down behind locked doors and dire predictions of worst-case scenarios.  


“There is no doubt that we will stop this [Ebola] outbreak, end the deaths, and, if done right, build the tools to prevent another large outbreak like this,” writes epidemiologist Larry Brilliant in The Wall Street Journal. “But it won’t be easy. Fear, panic and politics have gripped Americans, with the potential to do untold damage to our nation and the global economy. Our real enemy is a hybrid of the virus of Ebola and the virus of fear. As the famous World War II British poster reads, we need to keep calm and carry on.”


Easier said than done. Instant media spread facts and knowledge as well as rumors, misinformation and doubt. Many Americans now apparently fear anyone coming from Africa, even if they arrive from countries nowhere near the West African region affected by the Ebola outbreak. Some African immigrants who came to America years or decades ago report being ostracized or treated with suspicion since the Ebola scare began.

Eighteen Oklahoma high school students reportedly stayed away from class recently when their parents heard rumors on social media about three students who had just returned from a mission trip to Ethiopia, thousands of miles from the Ebola zone. “Our students were not exposed to Ebola,” Inola School Superintendent Kent Holbrook assured a local TV news reporter. “There was no person that was sick on the trip. There was no person sick [in] Ethiopia while they were there. There was no person [sick] on the plane.”

T.J. Helling, a local youth pastor who helped organize the mission trip, told the TV reporter the three students “did more in the last 10 days [during the mission trip] than most people do in their lifetime for other people. We need to remember that we’re here to encourage them and support them, not beat them down.”

I called First Baptist Church of Inola, where the three students attend, and talked to an adult member there. She said the fear in the community “shows that the world is lost. But our reaction to the fear shows Christ in us. I’m telling our students, ‘It’s easy to show love and grace to a kid in Ethiopia on a mission trip, but you need to show the same grace to the kids you see every day at school who are fearful of death. God may be building character in you.’

“The church can’t react in fear,” she added — at home or abroad.

Amen, sister. First Baptist of Inola is an example for us all in these uncertain days.

Fear is real. Don’t deny it or mock others who feel it, even when their fear seems irrational. That would make us hypocrites, because we all struggle with it. A friend of mine who did Southern Baptist mission work for many years in the Middle East currently mobilizes churches in the United States. He regularly interacts with Christians and church groups who fear all Muslims, fear everything happening in the Middle East, fear even the thought of going there — or befriending someone coming here from the Muslim world.


“I acknowledge the fear. It’s real; I get that,” said my friend. “But we’ve got to look at it through God’s eyes. If God can turn a terrorist named Saul into [the Apostle] Paul, He can turn some of the hearts of the people in ISIS. Jesus is the only solution.”


Jesus calls us to look at the world through His eyes — and to look at Him, not the dangers and troubles that terrify us. Matthew 14 describes the night He came to the disciples walking on water:

When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matt. 14:26-31 NASB)


If bold, impetuous Peter, who walked with Christ Himself, experienced fear when He looked at the world, don’t be surprised if you do. Acknowledge it. Confess it to the Lord. Then look into His eyes, not at the fearful circumstances of our times. Step out of your safe, cramped boat. Befriend a lonely immigrant. Cross a border — and challenge some friends to go with you.


Jesus is already there, even in the darkest places, waiting for you to follow.


(To explore ways to follow Jesus into a dark world, visit

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Darkness and light in the Middle East


Sometimes the tears, the tragedies, the sheer horror of it all overwhelm Christian workers trying to help refugees fleeing war and terror in Syria and Iraq.

Jayson Keath,* a Christian strategy leader based in the Middle East, recently visited a Syrian refugee family now living in a country inundated with traumatized Syrians. One of the small children in the family was missing a finger — severed by a slammed car door as they rushed to escape the violence in their homeland. The parents had to knock the child unconscious so pursuing Syrian soldiers wouldn’t hear his screams of agony.

“It wasn’t so much their pain that gutted me,” Keath says. “It was the void of hope in every face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or felt darkness so strongly.”

Can the situation on the ground in Syria and northern Iraq get any worse? Much worse — as illustrated by ISIS (Islamic State) militants and their genocidal campaign of conquest across the region. The rise of ISIS amid the rubble of two failing states offers evidence of something larger, according to one despairing Arab observer.

“Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” wrote Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese journalist and Washington bureau chief of the Al-Arabiya satellite news network, in a recent commentary for Politico titled “The Barbarians Within our Gates.” 

“The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago,” Melhem asserted. “Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism. …  Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?”

Melhem speaks for millions of disillusioned people across the Middle East and Northern Africa who feel caught between larger forces struggling for power. Is there any hope for them?

Yes, says Keath. And he wants Christians watching the struggle from outside the region to know the other side of the story. Hope that was hidden from many in earlier, quieter times is being introduced to people searching desperately for it now.

“The world is captivated by the crisis that has been generated by the movements of ISIS in northern Iraq, the plight of the Yazidis and other minorities,” Keath says. “The world is watching, and all they’re seeing is the advance of evil — sheer, utter evil. But there are two realities at work. There is the advance of evil. There is an evil one who is not only lurking but is actively trying to kill and maim and destroy and keep eyes blinded to the light of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

 “But there’s also the advance of the Gospel. Everywhere we see these things happening, we see the Gospel advancing in ways that we did not imagine before.”

 As the visible Christian church in the Middle East faces threats, attacks and persecution from many directions, a new church is being born among Muslims deciding to follow Christ as Lord after seeing Him in dreams and visions, reading the Word of God and seeking out other believers.

And not just Muslims, adds Keath. Members of traditional Christian groups on the run from ISIS and other extremists in Syria are finding shelter, aid and friendship among evangelical believers in the region — and hearing the whole Gospel as they never have before.

 “Now they’re meeting in discipleship and growing,” he says. “Maybe God is moving in a way to lead those in the ancient church back to Christ, because that is happening. There are others — Orthodox from Syria and in another country bordering Syria that have come to faith in Jesus for the first time. There are multiple people groups that we’re talking about; there’s Sunni, there’s Shia, there’s Alawite, there’s Bedouin, there’s Orthodox, there’s Assyrians and Kurds. We can find believers now from all of these people groups that have come to faith as a result of the Syrian crisis. … Yes, the world needs to respond to the crisis, but there are enormous opportunities to confront people with the Gospel of Christ who have never been confronted with it before. All these people groups that I just listed, we never had access to them before [in Syria]. …

“The same thing is happening in Iraq right now. It’s not just the Yazidis and Christian minorities and other minorities; it’s the Sunni Muslims who are fleeing Mosul and other areas who are coming out by the hundreds of thousands. We have had no engagement of Iraqi Sunnis — and now we have an opportunity to do that. It’s not just the immediate response; it’s ‘Lord, what space are you creating for the Gospel to go forth, and how do we steward that opportunity?’”

With new opportunities come new and increasing risks across the region. But risks won’t stop the work God has begun.

 “We will not accept that we cannot engage in these countries,” Keath says. “It’s just a matter of what is our presence and what does that strategy look like? How do we continue to see Gospel penetration in these countries? Yes, there will be strategic shifts. [But] the Gospel is going to continue to advance.

 “God is moving; the nations are stirring. It’s going to happen. It may not involve us every time, but it’s going to happen. It is happening.”

 (To learn more and join what God is doing amid the turmoil of the Syrian refugee crisis, visit:

*Name changed

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Platt: Opposition reveals our beliefs

(NOTE: This is the last of three articles featuring new IMB President David Platt’s views on various missions issues. Read the first article here. Read the second here.)

Pressure reveals character, we all learn sooner or later. And opposition reveals what we really believe.
Do we believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ enough to lose friends, social status, a scholarship or a job over it? Do we believe it enough to suffer for it? These are questions followers of Christ in many places have to answer on a daily basis. In America, the land of the free, not so much. We still enjoy the religious liberty embedded in the founding ideals of our nation.

But the rise of militant secularism — and increasing efforts to make the practice of biblical faith socially and legally unacceptable — are slowly raising the cost of discipleship in the United States. That’s probably one of the factors behind the decline of “cultural Christianity” devoid of real commitment. 
Maybe that’s a good thing, observes new IMB President David Platt.

“In one sense, I’m thankful for the trends in our culture, and even in the church, that are causing us to ask, ‘OK, do we really believe the Bible?’” said Platt, who discussed a range of missions-related issues during an interview following his Aug. 27 election to lead Southern Baptists’ global mission enterprise.
“Do we really believe this Gospel that we claim to believe?” Platt asked. “Because more and more, cultural Christianity is just kind of fading to the background. People are realizing if you actually believe in the Gospel then that’s not as accepted as it once was. It’s actually looked down upon as narrow-minded, arrogant, bigoted and offensive. Obviously, we want to be humble in our embracing of the Gospel, but it’s becoming more costly in our culture in a way that’s good — in the sense that this better prepares us [for] what we’re going to be a part of around the world.”

Paying a higher cost to live and declare the Gospel here, in other words, will make us better and more effective servants among the nations — where the cost may be far greater. The reward will be greater still.
“We’re not going to shrink back in light of the resistance that’s there,” Platt said. “We’re going to step up, rise up and say we want to see His glory proclaimed no matter what it costs us, because we believe He is our reward.” 

American Christians have enjoyed the blessings of religious liberty and freedom of expression for a long time. Perhaps those freedoms, coupled with the material prosperity of the richest economy in human history, have lulled us into expecting things will always be as they have been. That is a naïve complacency that flies in the face not only of history but the Bible itself.

“We need to realize the clear New Testament teaching that it is costly to follow Christ, that the more your life is identified with Christ, the harder it will get for you in this world,” said Platt. “We need our eyes opened to that reality. I think we’ve been almost seduced by the spirit of cultural Christianity that says, ‘Oh, come to Christ and you can keep your life as you know it.’ No, you come to Christ, and you lose your life as you know it. The more you’re active in sharing the Gospel, the more unpopular you’ll be in many ways, the more resistance you’ll face. …
“[But] it helps you realize this is what our brothers and sisters around the world are facing in different places. If we’re going to join with them in spreading the Gospel, then we need to be ready to embrace that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,’” he added, quoting the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:12. 

During months of praying about leading IMB, Platt said God had instilled in him a “deeper, narrowing, Romans 15 kind of ambition, where [the Apostle] Paul said, ‘I want to see Christ preached where He has not been named.’” The whole concept of unreached peoples, “of nearly 2 billion people who have never heard the Gospel, is just totally intolerable.”
The reality, however, is that most unreached people live in places where religions, cultures, governments and extremists oppose — sometimes violently — the transmission of the Gospel and the making of disciples. Western missionaries and churches, accustomed to relative freedom, continue to struggle with that fact and all that it entails. But there’s nothing new about it if you read church history. What’s more, God continues to use what the world intends for evil for His good purposes. Just as it did in the Book of Acts, persecution today tends to strengthen, unify and embolden believers, even as it multiplies churches.

“Making disciples of all nations will not be easy, and the more we give ourselves to reaching unreached peoples with the Gospel, the harder it will get for us,” Platt said. “But the beauty is the more we identify with Christ [in America], the more we’ll be ready to identify with the sufferings of Christ [overseas] as we go. And we’ll realize, whether here or there, the more we give ourselves to this mission, [the more we’ll] believe in the depth of our heart that He is our reward and that the reward of seeing people come to Christ is worth it. This is just basic theology of suffering in mission. How has God chosen to show His love most clearly to the world? Through the suffering of His Son, a suffering Savior.
“So how is God going to show His love most to the world today? Through suffering saints, through brothers and sisters who identify with the suffering Savior.”

(Watch related video clip: Opposition clarifies mission task)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Platt: Bible still the best mission plan


(NOTE TO READERS: This is the second of three articles featuring new IMB President David Platt’s views on various missions issues. Read the first article here. The third article will post Sept. 11.)

David Platt sat down for a wide-ranging interview the morning after his Aug. 27 election as IMB president — and offered a number of insights into the way he hopes to lead Southern Baptists’ global mission enterprise.
Platt, 36, who succeeds Tom Elliff, is the youngest leader in the history of the 169-year-old Southern Baptist mission organization. In the first part of the discussion, he touched on the value of mission institutions and structures — sometimes questioned by younger evangelicals — if they help nurture Spirit-led movements. He also talked about the “massive” potential of IMB to mobilize local Southern Baptist churches, cooperating with each other, to plant churches around the world.

“That’s the beauty in what God has created, even in the Southern Baptist Convention on a large scale — 40,000-plus churches working together, and the IMB keeping that coalition focused on reaching unreached peoples with the Gospel,” he said.

(Read the full story, “Platt looks ahead to mission challenges.”)

During the conversation, Platt also emphasized the necessity of looking to the Word of God— not only for guidance and power, but also for mission strategies.
“God’s Word doesn’t just tell us the content of mission; God’s Word informs in very practical ways the strategy for mission,” he said. “How can we most effectively multiply churches and make disciples? This is what we see in the Book of Acts: local churches sending out missionaries who are making disciples that form into churches that are then multiplying churches. That’s what we’re after. Let’s put everything on the table — no question out of bounds — and ask, ‘How can we most effectively mobilize churches who are making disciples and planting churches among unreached peoples?’”

The New Testament pattern of missions offers many approaches to missions that still work, Platt observed, including:

§  Bottom-up, not top-down
“There’s a fundamental paradigm that we want to operate out of that sees mission and the role of the IMB not from a top-down, but as a bottom-up perspective,” he stressed. “The temptation is to view a denominational entity as the agent for mission: ‘We [IMB] send missionaries, and we do strategy, and we support missionaries. So churches, we need you to send us people and money, and we’ll carry out mission for you’ — as opposed to flipping that and saying it’s actually the local church that is the agent that God has promised to use for accomplishing the Great Commission.

“How can we as the IMB come alongside the local church and equip and empower and encourage the local church to send and shepherd missionaries? That’s how I want us to posture ourselves, saying to the local church, ‘You can do this, and here’s how we can help.’”
(Watch the video clip, “Bottom-up, not top-down.”)

§  Mission teams
“We want to send people who are making disciples together here overseas to make disciples there,” Platt said. “Again, this is a picture we see in Scripture: Jesus was always sending people out in twos, at least. Paul and Barnabas went out together. You don’t see people going out, with rare exceptions, alone in mission. How [can we adapt] what we’re doing here somewhere else strategically in the world, for the spread of the Gospel there?

“I think about some missionaries from our church who were appointed [Aug. 27]. They’re going to join an IMB team overseas that’s comprised of brothers and sisters they were with in a small group here. They were making disciples in Birmingham, Alabama, and now they’ll be serving together for the spread of the Gospel in the Middle East.”

(Watch the video clip, “Mission teams.”)
§   Multiplying resources

Not everyone is a church planter in the mold of the Apostle Paul, Platt acknowledged. Paul himself relied on a wide network of Christ followers in the cities and regions where he preached and made disciples. The same is true today.

“I remember the time a guy came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m an engineer. My wife’s a teacher, and we just figured out we could get a job doing engineering and teaching in (a part of East Asia) where there’s not a lot of Gospel presence. Can we just go there? We don’t know if we count as missionaries or not. We could actually be self-sustaining there.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you count. You will be crossing cultures for the spread of the Gospel. You’re moving to be a part of making disciples there.’

“When people begin to get that kind of vision for the gifts and skills and education God has given us here, it may not just be for us to stay here, but we can use these gifts in strategic ways in parts of the world that are unreached with the Gospel,” Platt said. “If we can connect that couple with what God is doing through church planters who work specifically with the IMB and come alongside them, that’s just a win-win.

“When we begin to think like that, we can blow the lid off the number of people who can go overseas.”

(Watch the video clip, “Multiplying resources.”)

In the third and final installment, Platt will talk about missions in hostile cultures — at home and abroad.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bad news, Good News

The cascade of grim global headlines overwhelmed a friend of mine recently. He announced that he couldn’t take it anymore — at least until tomorrow.

“I don’t know why I care,” he wrote. “I don’t know why I bother. I check the news. Bad. All bad. Unless the news is horrible, it’s bad. Why care? Why bother? Why not just play ‘Angry Birds’ and pretend it doesn’t affect me? It sounds easier.”

Perhaps you can relate. I know I do. Violence and hatred rage everywhere. Wars, skirmishes and suffering flare up where we don’t expect them, and where we do. Ukraine and Russia. Syria. Iraq. Israel and Gaza. West Africa. Death and disease abound. Innocents are infected, blown out of the sky, kidnapped, driven from their homes, shot in the crossfire. In some places, the bad guys seem to be winning — if we can even figure out who the bad guys are. It’s too complicated, too confusing, too depressing. It’s tempting to tune it out.

Most people do.

Not my friend, however. Despite his frustration and discouragement, I know he won’t stop reading, watching, caring and praying. He’s an intelligent and compassionate young man, for one thing. He’s concerned about world affairs. He makes a point of keeping up with what’s happening and tries to understand it, unlike many others.

Most important, as a child of God, he’s in touch with the mind and heart of God, who so loved the world that He gave His only Son to redeem it. If He loved even those who hated Him, we must do likewise.

“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” the Apostle John teaches. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:8-14, NASB).

It’s only His love, through His Spirit, that changes a broken world. By His grace, He chooses to use us, if we submit to Him. His love is more than enough to make up for our lack of it.

Another young person I know returned recently from a youth mission trip to Amsterdam, the Dutch capital. She and the group arrived there the same week in July that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch. People on the streets of Amsterdam were just beginning to experience the shock of the tragedy as the youth team walked through the city and distributed more than 6,000 copies of the Gospel of John.

Some people they encountered rejected the small gifts of truth. Like many Europeans, the Dutch consider themselves secular and post-Christian. But many accepted it— many more than the Amsterdam-based Christian worker helping the young people expected — and they began reading it. Perhaps they were looking for something to hold onto, something to hope in.

While interacting with them, my young acquaintance learned some things about herself. She realized she wasn’t as tolerant, as patient or as loving as she thought she was.

“But through learning all these ‘I am nots,’ I learned who God is,” she said. Distributing the Gospel, “even if they were going to reject it a second later, is so much more important than my comfort. … I learned to really care for and love the Dutch people.”

So it is with all who seek to follow Him. It’s not who we are; it’s who He is. And He has overcome the world.

(Explore ways to follow Him into the world at )

The ‘idiotic’ call to go


A pair of media blowhards fired off some harsh comments as Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the American medical missionaries who contracted Ebola in West Africa while treating the sick, were being flown to the United States for treatment in recent days.

“Idiotic,” sneered pundit Ann Coulter. What were they doing “slinking off” to a Third World “cesspool” in the first place when we have so many problems at home? It’s pointless, selfish and expensive, Coulter declared. Aren’t there needy people right here? Can’t you serve Christ in America?

If these two missionaries chose to go someplace that dangerous, chimed in rich guy Donald Trump, let them deal with the consequences. Don’t endanger people here by allowing them back into our country with a deadly virus.

So much for centuries of Christian medical missions. So much for a tradition of healing bodies and souls that goes back to Christ Himself. Let ’em die — the sick and the healers.

Others have commented eloquently in defense of the two missionaries and their motivations. I especially appreciate the words of Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “American Christians are not ‘slinking off’ to foreign countries in order to escape the United States; they are going in obedience to the command of Christ. True Gospel missionaries — those faithful to the command of Jesus Christ — are not driven by ‘narcissism,’ to use Ann Coulter’s word, they are indeed heroic. More than heroic, they are simply faithful.”

The good news: A positive witness for Christ has spread far and wide as news organizations have covered the faithfulness of these two missionaries. Millions have been inspired by their commitment.

Many times over the years, however, I’ve heard sincere church folks express essentially the same opinions as Coulter and Trump about cross-cultural missions — perhaps with a softer edge. “Why do we have to send missionaries way over there?” they ask. “We have lost and needy people right here. Times are hard. We need to take care of our own first.”

Hearing those excuses for ignoring Christ’s command to go into all the world, rehashed yet again, reminded me of another medical missionary: Bill Wallace. He never made it home. 

Wallace, a young physician from Tennessee, went to China as a Southern Baptist missionary in 1935. Those were hard times, too — maybe harder, since America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Plenty of Tennesseans had little or no medical care, but Wallace up and went about as far away from home as he could go. 

Why? The tall, shy Knoxville native wasn’t much for words. If a Depression-era Ann Coulter had challenged him, he probably would have shrugged and grinned.

The son of a doctor, he tagged along with his father on patient rounds. At age 17, while working on a car in the family garage, he heard God’s call to medical missions. He recorded his commitment on the back leaf of his New Testament and never turned back. After college, medical school and a surgical residency at Knoxville's General Hospital, Wallace was appointed a missionary 10 years to the month after he made his garage commitment.

He went to Wuchow (now Wuzhou) in southern China, where overworked missionaries at the Baptist-run Stout Memorial Hospital were praying for a surgeon. Wallace immediately gained a reputation as a quiet and tireless worker, a gifted surgeon and a committed servant of Christ. A colleague once advised that anyone looking for Wallace should seek out the sickest patient in the hospital; Wallace would be there.

War came. Wallace worked through Japanese bombing raids as the stretchers of the wounded lined the halls, once finishing an operation after the hospital took a direct hit. He refused to leave Wuchow as the invading Japanese closed in. To urgent appeals that he flee Wuchow, he responded, “I will stay as long as I am able to serve.” He evacuated the entire hospital in 1944, only a few days ahead of Japanese forces — transporting patients, staff and equipment by boat hundreds of miles upriver. There they tended the sick and suffering of the surrounding countryside until the advancing Japanese army forced them to move again.

Wallace and his band of healers endured incredible hardships, but came back to Wuchow in 1945 when the tide of war turned. He repaired the badly damaged Stout hospital and got back to work. He nearly died from typhoid fever in 1948. After recovering, he worked in Wuchow after the communist defeat of the Nationalist Chinese in 1949, earning even the grudging respect of communist soldiers as he treated their wounds.

But missionaries were no longer welcome in China, and the start of the Korean War in 1950 sparked an intense anti-American propaganda campaign. Wallace was arrested after local authorities “found” a gun under his mattress during a search and accused him of being a spy. “Go on back and take care of the hospital,” he told co-workers after his arrest. “I am ready to give my life if necessary.”

Few believed the official story that the 43-year-old doctor had committed suicide after he was found hanging from a beam in his cell the morning of Feb. 10, 1951. He was quickly buried by friends under the close watch of an armed escort; no religious service was allowed. His remains were not returned to the United States until 1985.

Yes, Bill Wallace “was a martyr,” acknowledged the late Everley Hayes, the missionary nurse who worked with him in his last years and identified his body. “Many think of martyrs as those long-faced people. But I knew a Dr. Wallace who was very much interested in everything around him. He was a martyr not because he died in service but because he so identified with the Chinese people that they considered him one of them. And they loved him.”

After Wallace’s arrest, a commissar summoned many Wuchow citizens to a public meeting and demanded they step forward to denounce the missionary. Not a single person did. The only charge they could make stick, reflected a Roman Catholic missionary who knew Wallace, was that “he went about doing good.” Chinese friends risked punishment to put up a monument on his unmarked grave with these words from the apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ.”

Coulter and Trump might not understand those words — or the reality that God’s love encompasses the world, not just the United States. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol understand. I pray that many more of us will.

(Order “Bill Wallace of China,” the classic biography by Jesse C. Fletcher, at

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Amid the storm, a quiet wind in ‘House of Islam’

The Arab Spring movement for freedom, which brought so much hope and expectation to the Middle East just three years ago, is stone-cold dead — hijacked by Islamic extremists, brutalized by repressive governments, trampled into the dust by factional power struggles.

That’s the consensus in the Arab world, now torn apart by civil war, insurgencies, chaos, political crackdowns and a widening confrontation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Syrian war has produced unimaginable suffering and millions of refugees. Iraq might be on the verge of breaking into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish pieces. A well-armed — and murderous — Islamist “caliphate” has emerged, straddling the crumbling borders between Syria and Iraq and threatening both. Egypt has returned to autocracy after rejecting the brief and disastrous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Next door, yet another round of fighting is crushing the already-fading hopes for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Tunisia, where the protests for freedom that led to the Arab Spring began in late 2010, is the only Arab country where real political reforms have taken hold. The more than 400 million mostly Muslim people living elsewhere in the region will have to wait until the desire for change once again overcomes the forces arrayed against change. Like sheep without a shepherd, they wonder if a better future will ever come.

Meanwhile, wave after wave of attacks on Christians appear to threaten the very existence of the church in the Middle East. Prospects for expansion of the Gospel among Arabs would seem bleak at best.

Or are they?

“Could there be more to this current mess than meets the eye?” asks IMB global mission strategist David Garrison. “Could the Muslim world’s agonizing labor pains be leading to some new expression of life that is yet to be revealed?”

The Arab region is only one of nine “rooms” in the Dar al-Islam the global “House of Islam” that encompasses 1.6 billion Muslims, Garrison writes in his new book, A Wind in the House of Islam (WIGTake Resources, 2014). The wider Islamic “house” includes other “rooms” throughout Africa, the Persian world, greater Turkestan (Central Asia), South Asia and Indo-Malaysia.

Garrison is the author of Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World, which helped revolutionize how evangelicals spread the Gospel among unreached peoples. I highlighted A Wind in the House of Islam in a column last year, before it was published. Now it’s available; I highly recommend it if you want to learn about what God is doing behind the scenes in the Muslim world (order at

Over a period of three years, Garrison traveled a quarter of a million miles throughout the Islamic world, conducting interviews with more than 1,000 Muslims who have decided to follow Christ as Lord and Savior.

“Today, in more than 70 separate locations in 29 nations, new movements of Muslim-background followers of Christ are taking place,” he reports. “Each of these movements has crossed the threshold of at least 100 new church starts or 1,000 baptized believers, all of whom have come to Christ over the past two decades. In some countries the numbers within these movements have grown to tens of thousands.

“Though the total number of new Christ followers, between 2 million to 7 million, may be a statistically small drop in the vast sea of Islam, they are not insignificant,” Garrison continues. “Not limited to a remote corner of the Muslim world, these new communities of believers are widespread, from West Africa’s Sahel to the teeming islands of Indonesia — and everywhere in between. ... And these religious renegades are paying an incalculable price [in persecution and rejection] for their spiritual migration to Christ. Yet they continue to come. What began as a few scattered expressions of dissent is now growing more substantial. Historically unprecedented numbers of Muslim men and women are wading against the current of their societies to follow Jesus Christ. And it is only beginning.”

Why historically unprecedented? Because very few such movements occurred during the first 14 centuries of Muslim-Christian interaction. In his research, Garrison identifies 82 instances throughout history of Muslim movements to Christ (defined as the occurrence of at least 1,000 voluntary Muslim baptisms into the Christian faith over a two-decade time span). Of these 82 movements, 69 are occurring today — and began within the past 20 years.

“These 21st-century movements are not isolated to one or two corners of the world,” Garrison says. “They are taking place across the Muslim world, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Persian world, the Arab world, in Turkestan, in South Asia and in Southeast Asia.”

Specific locations include Iran, heart of the Shiite revival; Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world; Algeria, where a struggle between Islamists and the military saw more than 100,000 civilians killed in the 1990s; Central Asia, ruled for generations by Soviet communism and, for centuries before that, by rigid forms of Islam; and Bangladesh, born in the blood of a war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, ravaged by poverty and natural disasters. Garrison includes actual testimonies from Muslim-background Christ followers — Islamic sheikhs and imams in the Horn of Africa, jihadi warriors from the Afghan frontier, Sufi mullahs from Bengali villages. 

One of them, a 50-year-old Arab Muslim named Sabri,* became a follower of Christ after hearing the Gospel from Nasr,* another Muslim-background believer. Raised in a strong Islamic environment, Sabri says he “began to see the truth from a lie, and I wanted to follow the truth.” He led his family to faith and now leads a network of 400 believers in his area, including 25 disciple group leaders.

“We keep the groups really small because it causes a problem when the groups get large,” he explains. They also use caution in their contacts with traditional Arab Christian churches, which often fear self-identified Muslim converts to Christ will bring persecution — or suspect they might be agents of the secret police. Still, Muslim-background believer groups are growing in the area.

“There are a large number of secret believers,” Nasr says. “We need to say to the masses, ‘Come.’”

If Garrison’s findings are accurate, many more will come.

“Something is happening — something historic, something unprecedented,” he writes. “A wind is blowing through the House of Islam.”

*(Name changed)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Retreat and return

No matter how long the school year dragged on, I knew that once summer came, I’d get to go to my grandmother’s beach house.

Once there, I could count on her good cooking and unconditional love. We fished in the surf or from the boardwalk. We watched the sun go down beyond the horizon as the ocean wind cooled our faces. We talked, but silence was just as good. Being together sufficed.

I think about those summers as the July heat begins to bake. Grandma is long gone, and I miss her. But my spirit still yearns for beaches, rivers, mountains and other places that offer respite from the daily routine.

It’s a desire common to humanity. It predates by millennia the idea of vacation, which is a modern phenomenon. We long for a break — however brief — from the day to day, a pause from the familiar. We crave rest and renewal. A “separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power and a life-enhancing return,” the folklorist Arnold van Gennep described it. 

Church folks call it retreat. Modern-day retreats have become scheduled events with programs, speakers, themes and such. But the older concept of Christian spiritual retreat harks back to the holy men and women of the early church who went into the desert to seek the Lord. They followed the example of Christ, who sought out the wilderness to pray and be alone with His Father before returning to minister to the needy crowds.

The craving for retreat is never stronger than when the world seems to be falling apart. Wars that were supposed to be over aren’t. Old enemies remain and new ones emerge. Political and cultural disputes become more hateful by the day. People refuse to make peace with God — or each other — and hold onto their evil ways. Those closest to us let us down. We let them down. We disappoint the Lord. It’s time for a rest and a fresh start.  

These are times for a retreat in the old sense. Jesus beckons us to come away with Him to a quiet place, there to rest with Him and renew our spirits. Vacation is OK, but it’s a poor imitation of walking with Jesus in the wilderness.

The other great thing about true retreat is returning to the world. Vacations these days tend to be rushed, expensive, over-planned, more tiring than the demands they’re supposed to relieve. When you get home, you’re ready for a vacation from your vacation. But you return from a retreat with the Lord refreshed, renewed and ready to follow Him back into the fray.  

And that’s the real point of retreat: being with God, then returning to the world. He needs servants who have met with Him before they enter the global struggle for souls. If we try to serve Him in our own puny power, we’ll make no impact.

Seek Him in the wilderness and quiet, and renew yourself in His Spirit. Return to the world to shine His light into its darkness.