Discovering New Doors for the Great Commission
By Omar Beiler and Jerry Parsley With Scott Harrup
Pastor Smith at First Assembly of God is worried. A year ago his church pledged $50 a month to support a new missionary headed to a sensitive region in Eurasia. He has not received a single newsletter in that time. He is wondering if the church’s initial $600 investment has gained any results on the field.
But he cannot see what is happening 5,000 miles away.
It could be a scene straight from a TV spot for the latest Sport Utility Vehicle. A dozen or more young people on mountain bikes compete for the best position on a wooded trail. You expect them to burst into a clearing and set up camp alongside gleaming Jeeps or Land Rovers.
But this group is a mix of twenty-somethings from one of the more impoverished regions of Eurasia. The bikes are courtesy of visiting Americans. The goal has nothing to do with corporate sponsorship.
The Eurasians need to hear a message that can change their lives, not merely their lifestyle — the timeless claims of Jesus Christ.
Their American hosts befriend them over the course of the tour. In a rural setting the young Eurasians can freely talk about things that, if mentioned in the city, would compromise their relationships with friends and family — perhaps even threaten their freedom.
Somewhere along those wooded miles of trail, first one and then another rider makes a decision. The gospel, under the gentle influence of the Holy Spirit, takes root in lives previously untouched by eternal truth.
The challenge is to get that field report back to Pastor Smith and all the other partnering churches that made this outreach possible. Because in this part of the world, the World War II adage is still in effect: “Loose lips sink ships,” particularly any ministry vessel promoting Christianity.
Forget the Headlines
If the visiting ministry team of American bikers had taken their cue from international news services — or even the journalistically less-sound missives of Web-based human rights organizations — they would have contented themselves with an outdoor evangelistic encounter in the American Rockies. No worries about confrontation with a majority religion or with a government peopled by adherents to that religion.
Western culture looks askance at the militant leanings of some regions’ political and religious centers of influence. With surface tensions high in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. military response, the natural tendency is to cocoon oneself within the perceived safety of home. That mindset never created world change.
On the other hand, wherever the gospel can penetrate, dramatic change takes place. Like the apostles of old who challenged the restrictions of the Roman Empire, a new breed of apostles is heeding Christ’s call to take the gospel into all the world. All the world includes those regions where there is no official recognition of or welcome for foreign followers of Christ.
The Assemblies of God’s history is one of consistent world missions outreach. Ninety years ago Assemblies of God missionary pioneers were opening vast regions of Africa, India, and the Amazon to the gospel, and to the societal development that accompanies Christian principles. Those early missionaries paid dearly to reach tribes and remote communities untouched by a biblical proclamation.
One might think that by this point in history — with 21st-century mass communications beaming the good news round the clock to a potential audience in the billions — no such areas exist. Such thinking could not be more wrong.
Studies indicate there remain 2,650 in Eurasia and 16,000 unreached people groups in the world. These cultures or subcultures do not have a church, do not have a Bible in their own language, and do not have cross-cultural gospel witnesses reaching their communities. Translated into men, women, and children, these people groups amount to more than 2 billion people in Eurasia alone — the region most concentrated with such groups.
Christians will only perpetuate this spiritual blackout if those who enjoy religious freedom are content to stay home, intimidated by the prospect of taking the gospel where it is not officially welcome.
Giving Caesar Plausible Deniability
Thankfully, more and more men and women with a passion for the Great Commission are discovering another vista within this socio-religious panorama. Yes, governments may officially take a stance against public evangelism. But official stances do not mean ironclad prohibition.
For many years now, Assemblies of God personnel have lived and served in regions once characterized as closed. Increasingly, Assemblies of God World Missions leadership is acting on the belief that there is no truly closed nation. There are only regions requiring a greater degree of creativity in serving people’s spiritual and material needs. The key to establishing ministry anywhere is to understand the social, religious, and political cultures, and then identify open doors.
From the point of view of local authorities, there are advantages to allowing ministry personnel to operate within their borders. AGWM only sends people of the highest professional and ethical standards. Ministry representatives often come into impoverished regions with an influx of financial support and humanitarian relief. The presence of Western humanitarian organizations, particularly those understood to operate from a religious motivation, allows the host government to claim a certain degree of openness and freedom.
Ministry personnel can enjoy effective, long-term outreach as long as they recognize the parameters in which they must operate. Any in-your-face methodologies, even though they may appear to be expressions of evangelistic zeal, are recipes for disaster. The gospel can propagate person to person when outreach moves forward on the strength of carefully nurtured interpersonal relationships.
In Northern Asia, for example, AGWM ministry personnel are active in a spectrum of community outreaches and educational projects. The local government knows of their presence and their practice. There has never been a single case of enforced deportation.
From the point of view of missionaries on the ground, working within the system rather than against the system steadily creates ever-growing opportunities for personal evangelism. But, unlike ministry in an open environment, there are few avenues for getting word back to supporting churches at home. Often, missionaries are unable to tell their best success stories. If churches misunderstand that silence, the results can be catastrophic.
Sorry, No Promises of Pretty Postcards
Yes, it is exciting to receive a newsletter, e-mail, or even a video from a missionary one’s church is supporting. Think of the many churches that faithfully give to missions and regularly post news from around the world on a missions display. People want to know their contributions count, that their dollars are funding effective overseas ministry. When a missionary accepts a monthly pledge and travels oversea, his supporters expect him to write home with at least a semblance of regularity.
But missionaries serving in some regions are constrained by the need to respect a fragile détente with the host government, and by the security needs of local believers. Not long ago, one missionary following that procedure avoided sending any surface mail home, then watched in dismay as his monthly support plummeted $1,300. AGWM leadership heard of the need and personally solicited additional support, but the dip in funding illustrates a dangerous lack of trust on the part of some congregations.
Churches must recognize the level of sacrifice missions personnel make when they undertake outreach in such challenging environments. They are putting themselves and their families at risk for the cause of the gospel. They are prioritizing souls over public relations. The lack of a communiqué from the field must never be misconstrued as lethargy or a lack of commitment on the part of the missionary.
Information moves unimpeded in today’s world. A newsletter intended for a supporting church can find its way onto a church Web site or into an e-mail. Once online, anyone using a search engine to root out disapproved religious activity can retrieve that message. Jane might think she is doing Missionary Smith a favor by e-mailing a prayer request to 10 trusted church friends. But the mention of Missionary Smith’s name on the Web within a church context could become the factor causing her to lose her visa or receive a disturbing invitation from local police.
Of much greater concern is the fate of local believers. Should a nation’s government force a missionary family to leave their country, they will most likely make a safe transition to another location and continue their ministry. But ministry partners on-site do not have the luxury of relocation. Their house church gatherings could be shut down and their members could be persecuted or worse.
What is the alternative? Any church that has a heart for reaching the world’s most challenging mission fields can invite a missionary assigned to that field and listen with Holy Spirit-sensitized ears to that guest speaker’s message. It may not be a message peppered with statistical fireworks. Specific locations and people may of necessity be blurred. But that missionary’s passion will speak for itself. And the discerning congregation will recognize a worthy recipient of its missions support.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Churches misunderstand the ministry dynamics within a creative-access nation. Consider this situation.
It is a crowded Aeroflot flight awaiting take-off from Moscow. An AGWM representative has just visited the region and interfaced with local church fellowships. He is reflecting on the latest evidence of the Holy Spirit’s move among churches that once operated on the edge of survival.
A burst of enthusiasm a few rows behind him interrupts his thoughts. He turns, already knowing what to expect.
Sure enough, there sits another energetic outreach team from the United States. Their matching neon t-shirts sport John 3:16, or Romans 3:23, or some cleverly worded week’s theme. Testimonies are flying across the aisles of people confronted on street corners, in public squares, and at various scheduled outreaches. It is usually unclear just how many contacts have made salvation decisions, but there is no doubt that they have broadcast the good news far and wide.
From the point of view of this departing group of teens and counselors, another blow has been struck for the gospel behind the former Iron Curtain. They are going home to proclaim spiritual victory to family members and friends who underwrote their 7 days on the front lines of spiritual warfare.
But these people miss the bigger picture.
First, the fact they can travel openly in this region is a testimony to the careful and prayerful work of many believers during decades past. Second, their weeklong presence is only a surface evangelistic tactic, again made possible by others who are committed to long-term, even lifelong service.
While short-term outreach is laudable wherever it can safely take place, it sometimes gives participating churches the wrong idea of how to go about overseas ministry in sensitive regions. They might believe a radical evangelistic tactic is worthwhile, and that risking eviction is a badge of honor. But they are hindering more than they are helping.
In contrast, whether the ministry mechanism is mountain bike tours, microenterprise development, or a friendly coffeehouse, the goal of committed AGWM personnel is to build long-term relationship and grow long-term presence. The best way to effectively accomplish this is to identify partners in ministry, and then selflessly work with those partners to transform a community.
Lasting Partnerships, Lasting Impact
Western missions projects with name recognition will not be the primary means of reaching the aforementioned 2,500 unreached people groups. For the most part, anonymous people from within their homeland will reach them. Western contact will bring an initial influx of resources and spiritual groundwork. Western missionaries will translate some Scripture, start small fellowship groups, and train a few leaders. But indigenous leaders will complete the greatest part of the task.
This has been a founding AGWM ministry principle. This focus has never changed. Because the Assemblies of God takes an inclusive stance toward other ministries, the gospel is accelerating in partnership rather than stalling over corporate identity.
Whenever we have someone called to a region, we do everything we can to equip and send him. If a national church has someone it wants to send to a region and we can partner with him, we will do our part to get that person to that region. If a Bible society wants to put the Bible in the language of a people group that has no Scriptures, we will partner in that project.
It comes down to fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission with every available means. At times this means getting behind a national believer or fellowship. Sometimes it means sending an American missionary. But with 2,500 unreached groups and more than 2 billion people, we will never be able to send enough missionaries or enough funds. Our partnerships are the means for successful and significant outreach.
In the end, it really does not matter if Western missionaries ever build a single Assemblies of God church in a region as long as people in the community are coming together as fellow believers. Our Fellowship does not send representatives around the world to plant the name “Assemblies of God.” We go all over the world to plant the hope of Jesus Christ.
More Than Money
A missionary budget presents a staggering array of expenses. Missionaries to creative-access nations face the double challenge of raising a budget without the freedom to itemize every use of pledged funds.
We would remind churches on the front-end of financial missions involvement that money is not the primary component of missions support. Every church, regardless of its budgetary commitment to missions, can partner in prayer with a missionary.
Soliciting prayer support is not a tongue-in-cheek mechanism for avoiding a plea for funds. Prayer is the lifeblood of missions outreach. This is particularly true for missionaries working in an unofficial capacity, often in isolation in a challenging region. The opposition and spiritual darkness they face are monumental. Without prayer, they will not make it.
Prayer is also effective onsite. In the early days of church growth in one former Soviet nation, for example, local believers developed a simple but well-received community outreach through prayer.
The local economy had collapsed. Many people were losing their homes — usually just small apartments — because they could no longer pay rent. Christians would respond to want ads for those apartments and show up for a tour.
“This is a beautiful apartment,” believers would say to the owner. Then, before the owner could be misled into thinking a sale was imminent, they would add, “We have no money, but we would like to pray with you that your apartment will sell.”
Many apartments did sell. That community of believers continues to grow.
“We have no money … but we would like to pray with you.” There is no missionary, no matter how challenged by the financial demands of ministry, who will not welcome such a pledge as gold.
Just as I Am
In perhaps an ironic turn of events, ministry in the world’s challenging regions has opened doors for a broader spectrum of believers to serve the Kingdom. Missions is no longer the purview of the credentialed minister. Creative outreach through microenterprise, for example, requires the expertise of committed entrepreneurs. Reaching into a nation through its university campuses requires qualified educators. And, we must not forget those mountain-biking athletes in Eurasia.
As we write this article, a man we cannot name is completing his Ph.D. in a field of science at a U.S. university with the assistance of AGWM funding. He plans to take his expertise to a part of the world where that discipline can connect him with other researchers — a part of the world where Christians represent just the tiniest fraction of the population.
Entrepreneurs, educators, athletes, scientists … the list is endless. Our Fellowship is expressing a broader missions philosophy that sees the Holy Spirit calling people from all walks and stages of life into strategic service. Whether a candidate is just out of college or recently retired from a career, we are finding ways to honor the Spirit’s touch on his life.
We are equipping global adventurers. Perhaps their story will intersect with that of your church.