Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"The Decade from Hell"

Listen to an audio version of this post at

Ten years ago this month, many people were wondering if the world would end with the beginning of the new millennium.

It didn’t happen, although in light of subsequent events, some might wish it had. TIME magazine recently dubbed 2000-2009 “The Decade from Hell” — a “10-year gauntlet” of trials and tribulations (see,8599,1942834,00.html).

A partial list:

-- the Sept. 11 attacks, which ended any lingering hope of a peaceful post-Cold War world

-- innumerable smaller terrorist attacks from Madrid to Mumbai

-- wars and insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Congo, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Somalia and many other places

-- earthquakes that killed tens of thousands in China, Iran and Pakistan

-- a tsunami that swept away more than 200,000 people in Asia and Africa

As if those events weren’t devastating enough, a major economic downturn beginning in 2008 continues to cause untold hardships across the globe for hundreds of millions of workers and their families.

In a struggle that captured far fewer headlines, many Christian believers died for their faith during the decade — including eight Southern Baptist missionaries. Countless other followers of Christ have suffered violence, imprisonment, harassment and other forms of persecution for living and sharing their faith.

Would it have been better if the last 10 years had never occurred? To answer yes is to misunderstand God’s sovereignty. If He is the Lord of all history, He is the Lord of recent history. He uses all things, even tragedies and actions others intend for evil, to bless the nations and bring glory to Himself.

In a December 1999 column, I observed:

“The tumultuous 20th [century] staggers to an end this month. … Historians will recall many things about it: two world wars, the fall of old empires and rise of new ones, the devastation wrought by communism and totalitarianism, the Holocaust, the spread of democracy and capitalism, man on the moon, the computer, the Bomb. …

“[But] the fresh movement of God's Spirit is the real story of the century. How else to explain the staggering growth of the church, the Gospel's spread to countless places worldwide — not just in the West — and the glorifying of God's name among peoples who've never heard it until now? God isn't finished with us. … His Spirit is quietly, inexorably, powerfully moving — like a vast, unseen river.”

God is still moving. After the great tsunami and the Pakistan quake, whole communities and regions previously cut off from the Gospel experienced the love of Christ through relief and rebuilding efforts initiated by Christians. Military conflicts have opened spiritual doors as churches and mission workers aided suffering populations and refugees. The lives of believers who remained faithful under persecution have changed history among the people they love and serve.

Ten years ago, Rasheed* didn’t know Jesus Christ as Lord. Today he is one of the leaders of a growing movement of Muslim-background followers of Christ in India. But he’s paid the price for his new commitment. As I write this, he is recovering from a broken rib and other injuries — the result of the latest (and worst) beating he has suffered at the hands of people angered by his stand for Jesus.

He remains too weak to talk much, but one of his friends related what happened:

“Rasheed shared with a couple of Muslim men who both became [believers in Christ]. One of them went home and told his family. The men in the family gathered others from the community, and six of them found Rasheed and angrily asked him questions about what he had taught this new believer. As Rasheed attempted to explain, they began to beat him. One of the men pushed him down, and he hit his head on a pile of bricks as he fell. Another continued to beat him with a cricket bat until other villagers stopped the beating and took Rasheed to his brother.”

Rasheed is learning what the earliest disciples discovered in similar times: It isn’t easy to be a real follower of Christ. It’s hard. It costs everything — especially when you’re one of the first to commit yourself to Him.

But one day, Rasheed and the many souls he is leading to Christ will look back on “The Decade from Hell” as the moment when they found the way to heaven.

*(Name changed)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A tale of five cities

(Watch video about followers of Christ in Jakarta at

My son wants to go to school next year in New York City.

In midtown Manhattan, no less — the Big Apple, the belly of the beast, the postmodern Babylon.

“Are you crazy?” a few friends asked (or implied) when I told them we would be visiting a school located there. No, I’m not crazy, although I had a few second thoughts driving through the Lincoln Tunnel into New York’s frantic traffic.

If my son ventures there, the big, bad city will present quite a challenge for him — more challenge than I could have handled at his age. But I envy him. He will attend an exciting Christian college that prepares young minds to confront the world as it is.

And he will experience the world as it is rapidly becoming: urban.

The stories about Jakarta, Indonesia, posted today at (“Jakarta: City of God” and “Second chance brings changed life”) are the last in a series called “A tale of five cities.” Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit and profile five great cities on four continents: Buenos Aires, London, Nairobi, Mumbai and Jakarta (combined population: up to 70 million people). The purpose of the project was to grapple with the realities of declaring the Christian Gospel to a global population that is now more than 50 percent urban for the first time in history. You can read other stories in the series at

To review some of the numbers:

* A projected 88 percent of population growth over the next generation will occur in cities in the developing world. Half of India’s billion-plus people will live in cities by 2020.

* Urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by mid-century — 70 percent of humanity — according to United Nations forecasts.

* Nearly 80 percent of South America’s 380 million people live in cities. A third of Argentina’s population, for instance, lives in greater Buenos Aires.

Whether cities fit into the fast-multiplying category of 500,000 to 1 million people, “mega” size (1 million or more) or “super-mega” (above 10 million), they tend to share common characteristics. They attract the young, the rich, the poor, students, job seekers, minorities, immigrants, refugees. Cities speak many languages and encompass many cultures and religions. Sometimes different people groups within cities mix and meld. Sometimes they form distinct, exclusive communities — cities within cities.

In London, called “a world in one city,” you can hear more than 300 languages spoken. The city is home to at least 50 non-indigenous communities of 10,000 or more people each. Mumbai, approaching 20 million people, plays host to India’s Bollywood movie stars, its richest business tycoons — and Dharavi, reputedly Asia’s largest slum. Hindus dominate Mumbai, but 2 million Muslims live there, as well as members of nearly every caste, religion and people group in India. Nairobi is a hub and magnet for all of east Africa, attracting immigrants and refugees from every major people in the region. One area of the city, “Little Mogadishu,” functions as a kind of capital in exile for Somalia, Kenya’s anarchic neighbor.

Cities are aggressively secular — and zealously religious.

“Secularism is the predominant ‘religion’ of the city, but every other ‘ism’ is here in strong force,” says a Southern Baptist missionary in London. “The largest Sikh and Hindu temples outside of India are in west London. London is the Islamic capital of Europe. Satanism and all kinds of mystic practices are also alive and well.”

Cities are hectic, fragmented and violent. Despite their large numbers, city dwellers often live in isolation and fear. They are hard to reach — physically and spiritually — in their locked offices and high-rise apartments guarded by vigilant doormen.

“In a big city, the spiritual strongholds are loneliness and fear,” says missionary Randy Whittall, Southern Baptist team leader for Buenos Aires. “It may seem crazy to think about being lonely when you’re surrounded by 13 million people, but they are.”

How are Christians responding to the challenge of postmodern cities? Not very well, at least so far.

Local churches in the cities I visited tend to be tradition-bound, fearful of reaching beyond their comfort zones, overly dependent on buildings and property (prohibitively expensive in major cities). Mission organizations and other Christian ministries talk about “reaching the cities,” but struggle to find effective ways to do it. Missionaries in many countries have focused for generations on reaching rural regions untouched by the Gospel. While they have toiled in the hinterlands, cities have mushroomed.

“We still have the mindset of rural missions,” observes Whittall. “But the mission of the 21st century, however much we don’t like it, is going to be in the Beijings, the New Delhis, the massive, polluted, crowded urban areas where billions of people live.”

What works in such places varies, but smaller tends to be better.

The effective urban Christian workers I met cultivate global prayer networks and pursue city-spanning “seed-sowing” (Gospel distribution), to be sure. But they follow up with focused community ministries among specific people groups, winning hearts and minds for the Gospel — as in Jakarta, London and Nairobi. They start small cell groups and house or apartment churches that multiply over time, as in Buenos Aires and Jakarta. They intensively train committed local believers to make disciples, who in turn train others, as in Nairobi.

In Mumbai, the faithful discipleship of just two Muslim-background followers of Christ by a Southern Baptist worker has sparked the beginning of many worship groups among Muslims in the city.

“I wouldn’t say so much that we’re failing [in the cities] as that we’ve never tried,” says the worker in Mumbai. “We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in. They need Jesus Christ.”

Whatever it takes, it’s time to try.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where gang rape comes from

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A 15-year-old girl steps outside of a school homecoming dance and guzzles alcohol in a hangout spot on campus.

She collapses. She is robbed, beaten, stripped. She is raped — not once, but again and again, allegedly for at least two hours. More than 20 people reportedly participate or watch. Nobody tries to stop the attacks. Nobody calls the police.

You’ve probably heard about the incident, which occurred Oct. 24 outside Richmond (Calif.) High School. It made national headlines because of the sheer cruelty of the assault — and the fact that so many bystanders did nothing, or joined in.

“There’s something about the coldness of it ... the attitude of both the people involved and the people who saw or knew about it,” said Dara Cashman, of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, after the Oct. 29 arraignment of three young suspects in the attack.

“It’s just very cold.”

When a crime this chilling captures the attention of a society already saturated with violence, explainers get into the act. Why didn’t a bystander or witness call the police? Communities ruled by crime and fear don’t tolerate “snitches,” law enforcement officials say. Liberals often point to the brutalization caused by generations of poverty and racism. Conservatives tend to talk about the breakdown of law and order, families and traditional values.

Such explanations often “presuppose that humans are basically good before society messes them up,” observes Collin Hansen in Christianity Today. “So we need to identify and fix those dimensions in our society that lead people astray. Surely factors such as the bystander effect, poor schools and broken families testify to what happens when cultures forsake common goods that restrain sin. But the Bible depicts a more realistic view of human nature.”

The Old Testament, in fact, frankly recounts several gang rapes (read Judges, chapter 19, for one heartbreaking instance). “The biblical writers do not seem surprised” by such abuses, Hansen notes. “Rather, they identify the crimes with rebellion against the Lord … .”

Sin, in other words.

Willful rejection of God’s commands leads to worship of self above all else and evil against others. It’s an old, old story. It was the main problem then. It’s the main problem now.

The vicious abuse of a 15-year-old girl for group entertainment is cold, to be sure. But it’s no colder than trafficking a child into the sex industry for profit, or ignoring the cries of the poor, or systematically destroying someone’s life with whispers and lies.

If all the bloodbaths of the last century have taught us anything, it’s that the more things change (technology, social mores), the more human nature stays the same. We are sinners — individually and collectively — and the only solution to sin is Jesus Christ.

Simple? You bet. Simple truth. You don’t need an advanced degree to understand the Gospel. Here it is: The world is lost in sin. We need to repent and return to God. He offers mercy and redemption, through Christ alone, to all who worship and follow Him as Savior and Lord.

Charles Mwangi is staking his life on that truth. A Christian in Nairobi, Kenya, he believes God has called him to reach hurting people in the tough slums of the city.

“Charles has remained faithful in the face of intense persecution from a local gang,” reports a Southern Baptist missionary in Nairobi. “His house has been vandalized and one of his Bible ‘storying’ groups was recently attacked, resulting in the robbery of the attendees’ cell phones.”

Charles prayed he would have a chance to share the Gospel with those who mistreated him. The opportunity came, Charles shared — and two of the gang members repented and accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. They now attend the same Bible group they robbed.

Law enforcement didn’t change the gang members’ hearts. Nor did community programs (although local believers and missionaries participate in social ministries in Nairobi). Jesus changed their hearts.

When enough hearts change, communities change. Whole societies and cultures change.

We need to remember that in a hyper-political age. I occasionally tune in to certain “Christian” radio programs that used to offer inspiration, teaching and global missions information along with a biblical perspective on social issues. Now it’s all politics, all the time, with barely a nod toward missions and evangelism. Even if I agree with the politics, the single-minded emphasis bothers me.

Don’t get me wrong: Christians have a sacred responsibility to speak out for what they know is right in an increasingly hostile public square. But we need to keep our priorities straight. We are citizens, first and foremost, of the kingdom of God.

His priorities are as simple as the Gospel: Love the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Glorify Him in your community and among the nations by proclaiming His salvation. Make disciples among all peoples.

I sat recently in a church association meeting and heard a shocking statistic. In a representative survey of the almost 500,000 people who live in the region where my church is located, a grand total of 14 percent affirmed this statement: “My faith is important to me.” That’s right, 14 percent — in central Virginia, home of Lottie Moon, guiding star of Southern Baptist missions.

I’m a lot more concerned about that statistic than who’s voting for whom.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Candles and prayers

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Sometimes great historical change comes amid fire and blood. Sometimes it comes amid joy and singing.

The joyful kind unfolded one unforgettable night 20 years ago.

The Berlin Wall fell Nov. 9, 1989, without a shot being fired. As Germans on both sides of the wall gleefully tore it down over the ensuing days, communist rule in Eastern Europe began to crumble (see it as it happened at Within a few years the Soviet empire collapsed and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. Thus ended more than 70 years of tyranny that killed millions of people, oppressed hundreds of millions and regularly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation.

Today’s children grow up in the shadow of international terrorism. But they don’t have to crouch under their schoolroom desks during air-raid drills like many of us did back in the 1950s and ’60s — as if that would have protected us from an atomic blast. They don’t have to wonder if the world will end tomorrow in a mushroom cloud of “mutually assured destruction.”

The fall of the wall came with a suddenness that surprised even the people who expected it. Despite the pressure for change coming from all sides — even from Soviet reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev — the East German state was prepared to fight a long, twilight struggle against freedom. It probably would have crushed any attempt by its people to force political change.

“We were ready for everything,” a top East German government leader admitted after the fall. “Everything except candles and prayers.”

Candles and prayers — offered up with incredible courage in peaceful public demonstrations by East German Christians and others who joined them — sparked the fire that eventually consumed the tyranny in their land. True, larger political, social and economic forces set the stage for change. But the believers who put their lives on the line in those last fearful days of communist rule helped turn fragile possibility into reality. Their bravery inspired others throughout Eastern Europe to do the same.

The years since have seen many waves of change sweep the former Soviet empire. The early days of euphoria and freedom gave way to economic struggle and chaos, particularly in Russia. Some nations have solidified democratic institutions; others have moved back toward authoritarian rule.

Missionaries and Western evangelicals flooded into Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. At first they found a warm welcome from people hungry for truth. Later, some governments began to limit access. Orthodox church leaders in the region began resisting what they called “cults” and “sects” encroaching upon their territory. Secularism and the headlong pursuit of long-denied material luxuries competed to squelch the call to spiritual things.

And a deeper darkness continues to haunt the region.

“This area is defined by the lingering shadow of communism — the oppression of spirit and repression of freedoms that robbed people of their identity and dignity,” writes an IMB (International Mission Board) worker based in Eastern Europe. “The residual effect of this passing regime now permeates society as a sense of hopelessness. A cavernous void exists in the very soul of the people that longs to be filled — a void left by an atheistic system that imprisoned its inhabitants in demeaning commonality. Though the population had longed for political freedom, it arrived with a sense of disillusionment.

“The road back to true freedom will require more than a new government. It requires hope.”

Case in point: The three out of every four Russians who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction — or have a family member who does — need hope. Some are finding it in Jesus Christ.

Russian Baptists have opened 80 rehabilitation centers over the past 10 years to help addicts. The home- or apartment-based centers typically house eight to 10 people. They receive practical help and encouragement along with the hope of new life in Christ (see a short video about the ministry at

About half of the recent church growth in one part of Siberia “has come from people in recovery or related to recovery,” reports IMB missionary Andy Leininger. “We are seeing God at work in some powerful ways and want to reach the millions in Russia who are slaves to addiction.”

The mass movements to Christ that many evangelicals envisioned when the Berlin Wall came down haven’t occurred — yet. But the hope Eastern Europeans seek can be found only in the Gospel of grace.

Candles and prayers lit the fire that brought down the wall. They will yet bring true freedom to the millions still struggling to emerge from its shadow.

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.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Back to school for 130 million

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Another school year is gearing up — a good time to focus on one of the fastest-growing “people groups” on the planet: college students.

Worldwide, the number of college students has more than doubled — to 130 million — in the past 50 years, according to Ken Cochrum, global campus strategist for Campus Crusade for Christ.

“If taken as a whole, this generation of college students would constitute the world’s 10th-largest country,” Cochrum reports in the August edition of Lausanne World Pulse. “Governments of developing nations have realized that their future depends upon a well‐educated population who can compete in today’s borderless ‘glocal’ economy.”

Those governments, joined by corporations and advertisers, “invest millions of dollars each year attempting to influence students and the choices they will make for the rest of their lives,” Cochrum observes. “What about the church? What level of urgency and intentionality do we give to making disciples and building Christ-centered movements among students today?”

Good question.

Cochrum lists some of the major urban centers that have become magnets for students — Moscow with 1.2 million, Mexico City with 400,000, Rome with 250,000. The list grows, along with the hopes of millions of families riding on their sons and daughters seeking higher education.

I met several elite university students in Moscow a few years ago. They attended a professional development seminar based on Christian principles.

The seminar stressed the “soft skills” seldom seen in Russia’s highly competitive business climate: relating to others, constructive criticism, encouragement and teamwork.
“We’re really trying to help students with their understanding of human relationships,” explained one of the seminar leaders, a Southern Baptist worker. “How do you treat people if you want to build trust? One of the most important principles we focus on with them is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated — with dignity and value.
“We’ve had students who’ve finished the initial phase of training say to us, ‘This is going to change my life.’ Or they’ll say, ‘The Golden Rule is the most important rule in all of life.’ These are lost people saying what Jesus said. It really is business training, but it’s amazing what the Holy Spirit can do when we present truth.”
Maxim, an international business major, had tears in his eyes after the final session as he thanked the leaders. He wrote on his seminar evaluation form:
“I’d like to find out my values. Would you help me? Do you think that career is the meaning of life? When I’m dying, I want to be sure that I was a good man, that I’ve walked through a right life. Is there truth in business that’s going to help me?”
The next step: an invitation to one-on-one mentorships with Christian business professionals. After that, responsive students are invited to home worship groups to delve more deeply into the Gospel. When they become disciples, they will become leaders for Christ in Russia.
Churches and mission ministries probably will never have enough resources to reach every searching student like Maxim. The way to keep up with the global student explosion, Cochrum believes, is to nurture student-led movements that multiply disciples and leaders.

“Healthy student-led movements of spiritual multiplication serve as a leadership engine for the body of Christ,” he says. “Students don’t remain students forever. Within five years most of these 130 million will be on their journey to the marketplace. They will begin leading families and paying taxes. They will shape fields such as government, scientific research, education, sports and entertainment.

“Today’s students will determine tomorrow’s culture. … The next few years represent a significant window of opportunity.”

And let no one underestimate their spiritual potential. American Protestants counted fewer than 1,000 missionaries worldwide before the YMCA launched the Student Volunteer Movement in 1888, led by John R. Mott. By 1920, the movement had directly mobilized more than 8,700 missionaries for reaching the lost — and influenced many more to go — setting the stage for an unprecedented era of Christian expansion worldwide, despite the wars and upheavals of the 20th century.

A new student-led movement might do the same in our time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Doomsday (the movie)

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Don’t make any long-range plans: The world will end in fire and flood on Dec. 21, 2012.

If not that day, then definitely no later than Dec. 23. It depends on how you calculate the ancient Mayan calendar, which supposedly ends on one of those dates after 5,125 years, at which time earth will be destroyed by a massive solar flare or a collision with another planet.

On the bright side, it might not be the end at all, but rather a galactic realignment or transformation of cosmic consciousness. Or something like that.

Those are the confident predictions of assorted mystics and “experts” who want to sell you their books and videos for only $19.95. But wait; there’s more! A Major Motion Picture about it is coming to a theater near you — this year, of course, so it has plenty of time to go to DVD before the apocalypse.

End-of-the-world stories have flooded multiplexes, TV networks and bookstores in recent years. Meteors. Storms. Epidemics. Aliens. Flesh-eating zombies. Are such stories an excuse for movie producers to create cool digital effects and fill theater seats? Partly, yes. But they also reflect the fears and anxieties of people living in unstable times, according to pop culture critics.

The golden age of bad horror movies arrived in the 1950s, when the postwar world began living under the shadow of a terrifying new threat: nuclear annihilation. Cheesy disaster flicks abounded in the 1970s, after American society seemingly had disintegrated in the wake of protests, riots, assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate.

The latest invasion of doomsday films is understandable, what with the psychological dislocations caused by the turn of the millennium, 9/11, wars, terrorism, pandemics, economic havoc and climate-change fears.

“Terrorists are coming to get you! And the world is going to end, six different ways! But first a word from our sponsor,” is how TIME columnist James Poniewozik describes the media frenzy. “Super-terrorists, natural disasters and mega viruses are not imaginary. But they’re more viscerally scary and easier to apprehend than vital but boring systemic problems like the economy and public health.”

Beyond real or hypothetical disasters, the relentless pace of change makes it harder and harder for people to cope with day-to-day life. Temporary escape into apocalyptic fantasies is appealing.

I love disaster stories. I’ve been a science fiction buff since I was a kid. But that doesn’t mean I believe the planet will explode next week. Nor do most Americans. A study released by LifeWay Research earlier this year found that only 11 percent of 1,600 survey participants agreed with the statement, “I believe that the world will end in my lifetime.”

Still, preoccupation with doomsday scenarios distracts many people from more immediate issues. It also distracts Christians, some of whom spend more time debating the exact meaning of the imagery in the Revelation to John than living and proclaiming the Gospel of John.

A young man I know who is seeking to follow Christ stops by the house about once a week. We walk around the block, talk about the challenges he’s facing and what the Bible says about life. Recently he asked with an anxious tone, “Is the world gonna end in 2012?” He’d heard about the Mayan calendar thing, too. He also described the frightening dreams he had after reading the most difficult and mysterious passages in the Book of Revelation.

I quickly directed him to perhaps the most relevant portion of Revelation for our time: the first three chapters. The risen Christ chastises the seven churches of Asia Minor for leaving their first love of God, for their lukewarm spirituality and for tolerating sin in their midst.

“Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God,” Christ warns the church in Sardis. “So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I come to you” (Revelation 3:2, 3, NASB).

That passage clarifies several things we know from other parts of Scripture: Jesus Christ will return to earth. We do not know the day or hour. Until that day arrives, our best course of action is to repent of our sins and halfhearted worship, return to our first love for the Lord and obey Him in all things.

There’s something else we must do to prepare for His return: Proclaim the Gospel to all peoples. Jesus’ clearest statement about the apocalypse appears in Matthew 24:14 (NASB): “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

Then and only then. So let’s get to work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

To the desert

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The story is told of a third-century Christian monk, Abba Agathon, who lived alone in the Egyptian desert:

One day Agathon was going to town. On the roadside, he met a man with paralyzed legs who asked him where he was going.

“To town, to sell some things,” Agathon answered.

The crippled man replied, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.”
So Agathon carried him to town. When they arrived, the man said, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” After Agathon sold something, the man asked, “For how much did you sell it?” Agathon told him. The man said, “Buy me some food.” Agathon did.

When Agathon had sold all his wares and was preparing to leave, the man asked, “Will you do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me?” Agathon picked him up and carried him back to that place.

As the monk prepared to leave him, the man said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.”

Raising his eyes, Agathon saw not a crippled man, but an angel of the Lord.

Tall tale? Perhaps. The story comes from Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a compilation of maxims and legends attributed to some of the earliest Christian hermits and mystics. They went to the deserts of Sinai, Palestine and other places in the Holy Land, partly to escape the corruption of the cities — but mostly to seek God and do battle with the temptation in their own hearts.

Some of them became unhinged after years alone in the desert. Some were fools. But they were holy fools. Another story about Agathon:

Several monks came to find him in his solitary cell, having heard of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they asked, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a sinner and a proud man?”

“Yes, it is very true,” he answered.

“Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?” they asked.

“I am.”

Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?”

“I am not a heretic,” he instantly shot back.

“Tell us why you accepted everything we cast at you, but repudiated this last insult,” they asked.

He replied, “The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. I have no wish to be separated from God.” They were astonished at his discernment and returned home, edified.

That’s about as complicated as the theology of the early desert monks gets. They didn’t talk much.

“A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts or how that one lives,” advises another saying. “Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.”

Here is a complete sermon from Abba Paul (died circa 415 A.D.): “Keep close to Jesus.”

What significance do the voices of a few ancient hermits have for our frenetic lives? The answer to that question may lie in another question: If they felt compelled to seek holiness in the wilderness, long ages before the countless distractions of modern life, what about us? We, too, need to seek God in the desert — the desert within our hearts. That’s where most spiritual battles are fought.

The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1Timothy 6:12) has “nothing external about it at all,” writes Andree Seu. “You will never see someone ‘fight the good fight of the faith.’ It all happened when you weren’t there, alone on a long country walk, just between him and the Lord. That’s where the blood and sweat and dying occurred. By the time you spotted the fellow out in public — in the visible battlefield … pushing away some lucrative job offer or not leaving his wife — the heavy lifting was already done.”

The same applies to the battles that decide whether whole nations and peoples will hear the Gospel. The big, history-changing spiritual struggles begin in prayer. The strongholds of darkness are defeated by people on their knees. Will a gifted young person pursue a prestigious career or serve in a place most folks have never heard of? Will a potentially great church commit itself to reaching the lost or continue playing it safe?

And always, silent skirmishes rage within each soul. Will you serve Christ today, or will you serve your own desires? “If there is no constant battle, there is probably no authentic life,” Seu contends. “The battle can be joyful, but it is a battle.”

The desert monks understood that.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Imam on the move

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Yusuf* was a young man in a hurry when I met him in London nearly two years ago.

Just back from a much-needed holiday, the 20-something imam (prayer leader) of one of London’s Muslim mosques was playing catch-up: juggling meetings, e-mails and text messages when he wasn’t leading prayers. The busy round of activities for the holy month of Ramadan was gearing up.

But Yusuf took a short break to talk about his life and work. And his hobbies: soccer, tennis and a punching bag he pounds at home.

“I love theme parks, too,” he added enthusiastically. “I love the extreme fear rides” — the faster the better.

The recreation gave him a brief respite from his many responsibilities, which included teaching Islam, overseeing the mosque’s school, counseling and office management. He wanted to spend more time introducing what he called the “right message” of Islam to the community — and countering the media-fueled image of Islamic radicals in London. He referred to the radicals as “so-called Muslims who give Islam a bad name.”

But the mosque council — Yusuf’s deacon board, you might say — wanted him to handle even more of what he called “stupid, like, administration stuff” around the mosque.

“You don’t need an imam to do that,” he complained, shaking his full-bearded head and adjusting his skullcap. “The true way of the Prophet (Muhammad) we try to emulate is that he went out and got people and brought them in. But the committee members I am under, their mentality is you need to be here. I have so much stuff to do here that I don’t actually get out and do the stuff I really want to do.”

Yusuf’s family came from abroad, but he’s a Brit — born and bred in England. He attended school with other children but also memorized the entire Quran, Islam’s holy book, in Arabic. Then came time to choose a course in business, law or continuing Islamic studies.

“I prayed and asked God for guidance, and I asked my family members and teachers, ‘What way should I go?’” he recounted. “I went to sleep and I got a sign that following and understanding the Quran and the saints and the prophets in detail is the way for me to go.”

So, at 18, he began an intensive, eight-year course at an Islamic school. Even after that, not all Muslim scholars become imams. “As an imam, you have to be a counselor to people because you are a leader of a community,” he explained. “People come to you with their problems and you’ve got to be able to help them.”

People come to him with plenty of problems — especially family issues. Many Muslim marriages are in crisis. Couples enter his office asking for divorces; he tries to help them reconcile. Immigrant parents come to him deeply worried about their children, who get into drugs, drinking and other kinds of trouble in secular London.

After describing his busy life, Yusuf looked at a text message on his cell phone. He apologized for cutting short our visit and got up to rush to the next appointment.

I’ve wondered in the months since how Yusuf’s life is unfolding.

Does he spend more time in the community, as he wanted, or is he still swamped with “stupid, like, administration stuff”? Many a pastor can sympathize with his frustration about conflicting demands.

I mention Yusuf because Ramadan is approaching once again. The annual season when Muslims fast and seek God begins Aug. 22 this year. For some, it’s little more than a family ritual. For sincere spiritual seekers, however, it’s a time of deep repentance and prayer. That’s why followers of Christ pray for the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims throughout Ramadan.

Imams influence millions of Muslims. Who influences imams? If frequent reports from around the world are true, Christ Himself. As with so many other Muslims who begin to seek Christ, the encounter often begins in dreams.

In Southeast Asia, an influential imam became a believer after repeated dreams about a white-clothed man who told him to study the Bible. He reportedly has led some 3,000 other Muslims to faith in Jesus. He asks them if they have had similar dreams of a man clothed in white robes. If so, he tells them, “That is Jesus. He wants to speak with You, because He wants you to follow Him.”

In North Africa, an ex-imam was jailed years ago after becoming a follower of Christ. He led many fellow Muslim inmates to faith, however. The “Christian imam” has been transferred from one prison to another. The same thing happens each time: He starts churches in the prisons.

In another region, an evangelistic team arrived in a Muslim village to show the JESUS film. The largest wall in the village was the wall of the mosque, so team members asked the local imam for permission to project the film onto it. He granted their request. That night, after the film was shown, he was the first to respond to the call of Christ. Hundreds followed.

Perhaps Yusuf, the busy young imam in London, will respond to Christ one day. Pray for him — and for all the imams of the world.

*(Name changed)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tightening belts -- and helping others

If you just lost your job, you’re probably not jumping up and down over recent signs the economy might be rebounding.

You’re not alone. More than 340,000 U.S. jobs were lost in May. The national unemployment rate has reached 9.4 percent — the highest in nearly 30 years — and is projected to climb even higher before it begins to fall.

The pain from job losses and other impacts of the recession continues to be felt in countless lives and families — and in financial support for churches, ministries and mission efforts around the world.

Even before the economic crisis hit, overall church giving among American Christians had been trending downward. “Committed” American Christians (regular church attenders who consider their faith important) earn more than $2.5 trillion a year, according to “Passing the Plate” (Oxford University Press), a new study of Christian giving. Evangelical Protestants are the most generous in their gifts to churches, but only about 27 percent of them tithe. More than a third give less than 2 percent of their income.

About 5 percent of Christians supply 60 percent of the money that funds American churches and religious programs. Many others who give do so cheerfully — but from their wallets when the urge strikes, rather than from their checkbooks as a habit.

It’s easy to criticize the stinginess of American Christians, who are rich by the standards of most of the rest of the world. But Christianity Today magazine’s recent analysis of the “Passing the Plate” study highlights a daily reality average folks face even in good times:

“[A] major reason Christians don’t give more is because they can’t. Fixed costs in households have increased from 54 percent to 75 percent of family budgets since the early 1970s.

“‘A mere two buying decisions — the purchases of homes and cars — are enough to lock household budgets into tight budgetary situations for decades,’ [researchers] say.”

The recession has tightened family budgets much more. You’re likely feeling the squeeze. I know I am. While we’re riding out the storm, however, let’s be thankful for living in a nation with an incredibly resilient economy. Many others aren’t so blessed.

The recession is “the biggest development in the global system in the year to date,” reports Peter Zeihan in the Geopolitical Intelligence Report produced by Stratfor, an open intelligence service. “In the United States it has become almost dogma that the recession is the worst since the Great Depression. But this is only one of a wealth of misperceptions about whom the downturn is hurting most, and why … .

“[T]he U.S. recession at this point is only the worst since 1982, not the 1930s, and it pales in comparison to what is happening in the rest of the world.” Yes, the recession started in America, “but the American system is far more stable, durable and flexible than most of the other global economies. …”

What does that mean in human terms? As we tighten belts and cut out luxuries, many around the world are facing a life-threatening crisis.

“Those at the bottom of the ladder do not have far to fall,” notes one analyst for The Economist magazine. “But what happens if you have clambered up a few rungs, joined the new middle class and now face the prospect of slipping back into poverty?”

A recent message from Christian workers in Kazakhstan outlined the financial crisis in that Central Asian country. Currency has been devalued, prices have soared and salaries have stayed the same or fallen. Life has become very difficult for people with creditors to hold off, families to feed, bills to pay.

“In the past, you have been asked to pray about the hold of materialism on this culture,” the message noted. “Many are coming to realize that security is not in material things. Please pray for many who face desperate times. Ask that they will turn to Jesus for hope.”

For others, the situation is even more grim. Baptist Global Response, the Southern Baptist relief and development agency, is supplying grain and vitamin supplements to pregnant women and children in a part of South Asia where up to a third of the people suffer from malnutrition. The “Wise Mother, Healthy Family” project will help at least 500 women and their families with an ongoing distribution of rice, corn and dal, a dietary staple in South Asia.

“A recent United Nations report states that an average woman in this area has five children, that all of her children under age 3 are malnourished, that she works 15 hours a day and is anemic,” said Francis Horton, regional director for the Southern Baptist agency.

“The food situation in this area has worsened dramatically, and this project … eventually could help far more families than the ones currently being assisted,” Horton said. “Their world is becoming increasingly insecure due to economic, political and religious conflict. Please pray that this project would help them understand God’s love for them and that they would experience the full and meaningful lives He wants them to have.”

As we go through our own difficult times, we can pray for those experiencing deeper troubles. We can help them in practical ways. And we can love them as Christ loves them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mumbai is the urban future

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Flying at night into Mumbai, India, you see millions of pretty lights glittering along the curving coast, like jewels on the neck of a queen.

At ground level, in the harsh light of day, illusion gives way to reality. The elegant monarch that once was Bombay is dead. Something altogether different — both exciting and terrifying — has replaced her.

Two-pack-a-day air pollution. Round-the-clock road wars between vast armies of cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws. Sleek skyscrapers, posh coffee shops and luxury high-rise apartments abound, taking their place alongside the grand Taj Hotel, the monumental Gateway of India arch and other reminders of the city’s former glory. But they’re surrounded by slums, filth, stench, violence and the crumbling remnants of old Bombay.

And everywhere, people.

Greater Mumbai’s population is approaching 20 million. That number is projected to rise to 26 million by 2025. India, the land of 600,000 villages, has joined the relentless human trek toward urban centers as the global economy moves in the same direction. Half of the nation’s more than 1 billion people will be living in cities by 2020, some estimates say.

“South Asia, set to overtake East Asia as the world’s most populous realm in 2010, will contain nearly one-quarter of all humanity by 2025,” reports geographer Harm de Blij. “Consider this: There are more people in Dhaka [Bangladesh] than in Greece. There are more people in Manila [Philippines] than in Belgium. There are more people in Delhi [India] than in Chile. Mumbai will soon overtake Australia.”

On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population, according to a United Nations forecast. By that time, predicts a BBC report, Mumbai “will have reached an almost unimaginable size.”

Mumbai, then, “is the future of urban civilization on the planet,” declares Suketu Mehta. “God help us.”

Mehta, author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” (Vintage, 2004), left the city of his childhood in 1977. When he returned two decades later to live there, he barely recognized it. Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, the bustling but livable Bombay he remembered had become — like Jekyll turning to Hyde — the dangerous, uncontrollable beast called Mumbai.

Mumbai has “hundreds of very different ethnic communities, most of whom heartily dislike one another,” Mehta notes. “They [tolerated] one another for centuries” — until the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1990s, which left 1,000 dead and drove more than 100,000 from their homes. The riots tore apart the city’s delicate ethnic fabric and fueled extremist forces in politics and society that persist today. The citywide unity displayed after last November’s terrorist attacks encouraged many, but didn’t erase the memories of past bloodshed.

Bombay’s name change to Mumbai, part of a national initiative that renamed several major cities, symbolizes more fundamental shifts. The steady inflow of migrants and merchants seeking a job, a deal or a patch of ground to occupy has become a torrent. Organized crime bosses control major parts of the economy; their gangs attack each other and victimize the public. More than 100,000 women and children work as prostitutes in the city. The police have become notoriously violent and corrupt. The rule of law is nearly nonexistent. City government is dysfunctional. The courts have slowed to a crawl; justice interminably delayed is almost a guarantee.

On a more mundane level, accomplishing anything in Mumbai requires single-minded determination — and money.

“You’ve got to pay five bribes to get anything done,” complains Suman Nabar, an eye doctor who struggled for years to build a private medical practice. She treats her patients all day — and sometimes cleans the office toilets at night to make sure it’s done right.

“I just wish people would do their jobs,” she says with a tone of exasperated resignation.

Yet for all its staggering problems, Mumbai radiates addictive energy and excitement.

“The chaos is what I’m going to miss when I leave,” says Rose Wynn,* a Southern Baptist worker retiring after serving in the city for more than 10 years. “The chaos and the people. I love it.”

She marvels at how people still help one another, regardless of caste or class. If you fall on the street, someone appears from nowhere to offer assistance. If you’re lost, someone shows you where to go and personally takes you there, if necessary.

Somehow, the city keeps going — like its trains, the arteries that move 6 million people through Mumbai every day. And like Mumbai’s renowned dhabba wallahs.

Mostly nonliterate deliverymen, the dhabba wallahs carry some 200,000 hot lunches each work day by foot, bicycle and train from the suburban homes where they are made to the cross-town offices where they are consumed. That’s more than 60 million lunch tins a year. Of that total, they misplace perhaps 10 — an accuracy rate UPS and FedEx have enviously studied (see a multimedia presentation about Mumbai’s dhabba wallahs at )

“It looks like chaos, but it works,” says an amazed observer.

Could the Gospel follow similar paths across Mumbai and other vast megacities, bringing living bread to millions of hungry souls? The time has come to find out.

“I wouldn’t say so much that we’re failing as that we’ve never tried,” says John Wynn,* a Southern Baptist worker in Mumbai, of the Christian movement’s response to the global urban explosion.

“We haven’t had the focus and the vision to reach the urban masses. The only answer is Jesus Christ. We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in.

“They need Jesus Christ.”

*(Names changed)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A world without newspapers?

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“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

High school kids used to memorize that line from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, sailors go mad with thirst under a scorching sun as their cursed vessel sits, day after day, “idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

Thirsty in the midst of an ocean: Sounds like our relationship to the ever-increasing torrent of information flooding us from every direction. We can’t even begin to absorb it, much less use it effectively.

“Information workers, who comprise about 63 percent of the U.S. workforce, are each bombarded with 1.6 gigabytes of information on average every day through e-mails, reports, blogs, text messages, calls and more,” writes Andrea Coombes of The Wall Street Journal. “The average knowledge worker — from computer programmers and rocket scientists to administrative assistants and accounting clerks — spends about 25 percent of the day searching for needed information, getting back to work after an interruption and dealing with other effects of information overload.”

Drenched in this waterfall of data, we often remain dehydrated when it comes to the knowledge and insights we need to understand God’s world and how to respond to it.

Several pastors and mission ministers recently were asked what they read regularly. They cited multiple types of print and digital media, but said they needed more than information.

“I can get information online,” one pastor said. “Give me something I can use.”

Others in the room agreed. They want handles, context, practical tools they can use to get their families and churches involved in the wider world.

At the very moment when all kinds of media are multiplying, however, one of the best tools available for understanding the onslaught of information is on life support: journalism. For all their biases and shortcomings, good newspapers tell us what is happening, where and when it’s happening and, often, why it’s happening. They summarize the world and give us options for responding to onrushing events.
With a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other, we can cut through the clutter, get to the heart of the matter — and act.

A vital free press was important enough to the founders of our nation to appear in the Bill of Rights, right up top in the First Amendment, alongside freedom of religion, speech, assembly and petition. Ben Franklin understood its value: Among his many other talents, he was a dedicated newspaperman. Thomas Jefferson understood it as well.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson famously said.

Well, Mr. Jefferson, we are facing the real possibility of the former. American newspapers might disappear altogether a few years or decades from now — not from state oppression, but from public neglect.

You’ve heard about newspapers large and small closing up shop in one city after another. Perhaps you live in one of those cities. More than 22,000 U.S. newspaper jobs were lost in 2008; another 7,000 employees have been laid off so far in this year. One analyst predicts the last newspaper printing press will stop rolling by 2043. Others think the end will come much sooner than that amid a tough economy, generational declines in readership and the demand for free content (including news) online.

Religious media face all of those pressures — plus the decline of support for denominational institutions. Southern Baptist state newspapers, for instance: They have a long, noble tradition of informing the churches and holding Southern Baptist leaders and institutions accountable to the people. They’re still doing both, but they’re struggling to survive in the new multimedia environment.

Stop whining, respond new-media proponents. Journalism isn’t dying, they assert, it’s just being forced to change like everything else. More good news reporting than ever is available online at the touch of a keypad — sifted and sorted by personal interest. And it’s being greatly enriched by “citizen journalism,” blogs, social media and other new forms of digital interaction.

True enough, but is Google opening news bureaus overseas? Will Facebook send reporters to cover the next war or natural disaster, or investigate corruption in your local government?

The big Web portals still get most of the news they offer to you from major newspapers and international wire services. If those news organizations cease to exist, where will the Web portals get the news of the world that pops up on your homepage or mobile phone?

If you answered “foreign media,” keep in mind that freedom of the press doesn’t exist in many places. The majority of the world’s population lives in 125 countries where the press is “not free” or only “partly free,” according to a study just released by Freedom House, an organization that promotes democracy around the world. “Not free” may also describe the overseas personal blogs and social media you follow.

“Free content” without a free press is worth what you pay for it: not much.

So, I challenge you to buy a newspaper. That’s right, buy it — with cash money from your pocket. Read it. Put it into the hands of a young person in search of knowledge and understanding. Subscribe to a Baptist state paper.

You can’t make an impact on your mission field — which is the world, from your town to the ends of the earth — unless you understand it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An atheist praises Christian missions in Africa

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If you think evangelical Christianity is unfairly caricatured by American opinion makers, you might want to avoid Europe.

There, cultural commissars in some circles compare evangelicals with the Taliban — unfavorably. By their lights, we’re medieval, superstitious enemies of enlightenment and progress who should be silenced for good.

So it was noteworthy when an article praising Christian missions in Africa appeared in The Times of London a few months ago. Even more remarkable: It was written by Matthew Parris, a self-professed atheist (read it at

Parris, a Times columnist and former Member of Parliament, spent his boyhood in what is now Malawi. He returned there last year with a secular charity that assists villages lacking clean water.

“It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities,” Parris writes of the journey. “But traveling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my worldview, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

“Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris has applauded such efforts before, but he used to qualify the praise with a caveat:

“It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write,” he acknowledges. “[O]nly the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

“But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

African followers of Christ, Parris says, have a different look in their eyes. And they look you in the eye, not down or away. The “most impressive” African members of the secular aid agency he worked with in Malawi “were, privately, strong Christians.”

They worked diligently and optimistically, he believes, because they have a different view of the universe and their place in it. They and other African Christians he has encountered over the years don’t fear ancestors, evil spirits or spells. They are curious, engaged with the world. They take action, because they don’t believe they are victims of irresistible fate. They don’t buy into the traditional tribal pressure that keeps villages under the thumbs of chiefs and nations under the thumbs of “big man” gangsters.

Parris rejects the notion, fashionable among many academics, that tribal culture is off-limits to criticism just because it is indigenous to Africa. Tribal values have many strengths, but they tend to “grind down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.”

In stark contrast, “Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective … smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold onto to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”

Contrarians will say Parris is a prisoner of his own culture, an intellectual imperialist trying to re-colonize Africa with a Western individualism that doesn’t work all that well in the West. If Christianity is so great, they may ask, why hasn’t Parris himself become a believer?

True, Parris is much more interested in the cultural benefits of Christian faith than the faith itself. But as a nonbeliever, he recognizes an undeniable fact: The Gospel changes hearts and minds, transforms societies and liberates people from the cultural chains that bind them. In African and Asian cultures that stifle the individual will, Christ shines the light of spiritual freedom. In Western cultures dying from individualism and materialism, He points toward a community — the church — where people love one another as He loves us. His Spirit works within every human culture, but He confronts and transcends cultures when they contradict His truth.

Africa — like the rest of the globe — hungers for such truth.

“Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation,” Parris says, would “leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.”

(Gordon Fort, IMB vice president for global strategy, also grew up in Africa and served there for many years as a missionary. Read his reaction to Parris’ article in this Baptist Press story: “ATHEISM: Both agree, Africa needs God”)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Outlaws at sea, chaos ashore

Outlaws at sea, chaos ashore

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Those pirates tormenting ships off the coast of Somalia are no isolated band of cutthroats on an otherwise placid horizon.

They represent what author William Langewiesche calls the “outlaw sea” — global coastlines and deep waters increasingly plagued by buccaneers, hijackers, drug runners, smugglers and terrorists.

In his 2004 book of the same name (“The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime,” North Point Press), Langewiesche explored the vast expanses of blue. It’s a place where hundreds of pirate attacks occur each year from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean, where thousands of unsafe, unregulated merchant ships sail the globe under so-called “flags of convenience” to mask their origins and owners. This region beyond nations, which covers three-quarters of the earth’s surface, is a “reminder of the world as it was before, but also quite possibly … a harbinger of a larger chaos to come,” Langewiesche observed.

What “larger chaos”? The Somali pirates reflect what’s happening on dry land: “Failed states” continue to threaten not only their own people but the peoples and nations around them.

Somalia is the poster child for “failed states.” It fragmented more than 20 years ago amid clan wars. No stable national government exists. The chaos has sent throngs of refugees fleeing into other countries, subjected those who stayed behind to terrible suffering at the hands of thugs and warlords — and attracted foreign terrorists looking for bases of operation.

There are worse things than bad government. Anarchy, for instance. Ask the Somalis. Ask the people who endure seemingly endless violence in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, in particular, teeters on the edge of instability as radical Islamists wield expanding influence. Its neighbor and longtime enemy, India, watches with growing alarm.

“As much as India fears Pakistan, it fears Pakistan’s collapse even more,” reports Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic magazine. “The threat of Islamic anarchy in the region is perfectly suited to the further consolidation of Hindu nationalism.” Hindu nationalism, in turn, increases extremism and violence against millions of Muslims and Christians in India.

Everything is connected in a globalized, essentially borderless world. The current global economic crisis proves that proposition beyond reasonable doubt. That’s why Christians in safe, quiet places should be concerned about “failed states” and chaotic areas within states. Not only do they destabilize whole regions and cause massive human suffering, they directly affect the church and the transmission of the Gospel.

Many unreached and unevangelized people live within unstable nations and regions. Reaching them with the message of God’s love becomes all the more difficult where chaos reigns. Missionaries who set out to work in such places often never reach their destination because of risks and barriers. If they do get there, they may find themselves targeted as easy prey. Or, they may be unable to minister effectively because of ongoing danger and disorder.

Believers living in chaotic places also are vulnerable to violence and persecution. However, like the early Christians who evangelized the known world amid a crumbling empire, they find many opportunities to minister to desperate people and guide them toward Christ, the only true source of peace.

People who flee chaos for freer, more peaceful areas often encounter the Gospel for the first time. Somali Muslims who might have faced instant martyrdom for seeking Christ in their homeland can learn about Him elsewhere.

More than 150,000 Somalis have streamed into the city of London as refugees and asylum seekers since the early 1990s. They remain clan-oriented, wary of outsiders and strongly Muslim. However, they are finding friends among London Christians who help them with education, finding jobs and recovering from the traumas they have experienced.

Farah,* a respected leader in London’s Somali community, has a close Christian friend. Farah hasn’t decided whether to follow Christ as Lord, but he believes all Somalis should have the right to understand and freely choose their own religious beliefs.

“This is a man of influence, a man of peace, a man who desires to see better days for his people” wherever they are, says his Christian friend. One day, Farah hopes to return to his homeland and help rebuild it.

One way or another, God reigns over all nations — even the failed ones.

* (Name changed)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hope for the hopeless

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Several years ago I wrote about my friend George. Nice guy. Sincere. Loved to joke around and play basketball. Deeply depressed.

Eventually, he hanged himself.

On the last day of his life, the only words George managed to utter to his father, who later found his body, were these: “No hope. No hope. No hope.”

By the year 2000, suicide had become one of the major causes of death worldwide among men and women ages 15-44, according to a World Health Organization report. Many suicides, the report stated, occur “during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis.”

It’s hard to live, in bad times or good, without hope. You certainly won’t find it on the shiny shelves of postmodern culture. Phony substitutes and countless distractions, yes. Real hope, no. Most hopeless people keep struggling without taking their own lives, but they see little light in their darkness.

Medication and treatment can help the clinically depressed. At the end of the day, however, no therapy or drug, no self-improvement program, no political or social movement, no philosophy, no economic plan or number of possessions can bring hope to someone who has none.

Only the resurrection of Jesus Christ offers real hope — not just to His followers but to all the hopeless people of the world.

The pop atheists of our day want to bury the idea of Christ’s physical, historical resurrection once and for all, along with its impact through the ages. The world would be much better off, they say, if the “legend” of Jesus rising from the dead had never gotten started. That would mean no churches, of course, but also no schools or universities for the masses, no books or literacy, no hospitals or charities, no freedom for slaves, no great classics of Western music and art and literature.

More than all these put together, it would mean no hope for humanity.

Handel’s Messiah, originally an Easter event, celebrates Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. After conducting it for the last time in 1759, the ailing and nearly blind composer acknowledged the ovation by saying, “Not from me — but from heaven — comes all.” He expressed the desire to die on Good Friday “in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection.” He died on Holy Saturday.

Some years ago, a woman who had never been out of China attended a performance of Messiah on her first trip abroad. As the last triumphant notes faded away, she turned to her hosts, trembling with exaltation and urgent curiosity.

“I must know,” she pleaded. “Who were they singing about?”

Messiah is a monument of Western music, to be sure. But if Christ is a part of only the Western cultural tradition, why are many of His most ardent followers in the East? Why are the fastest-growing church movements found in Asia? Why have Koreans become the world’s most determined missionary senders? Why are Muslims in many places around the globe seeking out the Gospel after having dreams about a man they identify as Jesus?

At Easter, local believers in a part of the Arab world celebrate the risen Savior and seek to share Him with their families and friends. They ask Him to soften hearts and minds to the truth that God not only gave His Son as a sacrifice, but raised Him from the dead and conquered death. They pray that gifts of Scripture, Easter parties, even dreams will open the door to sharing hope with unbelieving Arabs.

And they do this in places where persecution — particularly of Muslim-background followers of Christ — is increasing daily. They know something many of us in the traditional centers of Christianity have forgotten or rejected: The risen Christ is the hope of ages, the only hope for the world.

Lift up your eyes to the hills from whence cometh your help — and your hope.

“Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through,” sang Bob Dylan after his resurrection encounter with Christ. “Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground. Take off your mask. He sees your deeds. He knows your needs — even before you ask.

“How long can you falsify — and deny — what is real?”