Saturday, May 28, 2016

Decision with Historic Impact

It’s not often that one has the chance to stand on the very spot where a single decision changed the course of human history. That is exactly the privilege I had yesterday when, along with a group of new friends, I stood in the middle of the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater located in North Africa.

The year was 203 A.D. It was a time when persecution against Christians was widespread across the Roman Empire, but which had done little to stem the growing movement of faithful Christ-followers. Among them was Perpetua, a young woman of noble birth from the city of Carthage and her faithful slave, Felicitas. Discovered to belong to an outlawed band of Christians, they were both condemned to face wild beasts in the amphitheater. Despite last-minute pleas from her father to recant, Perpetua, instead decided to be true to her faith and face the beasts. It was a choice whose impact would ripple down through the next several centuries and set the course for the future of Christianity. Boldly nursing her newborn baby one last time, she handed it to her father, and along with Felicitas, climbed the stone steps to the amphitheater’s main floor where they were gored by wild animals and eventually put to the sword by gladiators.

Believed to be among the crowd of spectators that day was an attorney by the name of Tertullian. According to tradition, not only did the experience propel him to Christianity, but ultimately to become a biblical scholar of great reputation. His influence ultimately shaped the training of a protégé by the name of Cyprian who, in turn, became the mentor Augustine, a young Berber from the nearby city of Hippo Regius (Algeria.)

Two hundred years after that fateful day in the amphitheater, Augustine, serving as a leading church bishop, presided over the Council of Carthage during which the historic affirmation of the New Testament canon was made.

Next to ruins of the basilica where in 397 AD the Council of Carthage
confirmed the canon of the New Testament
What made my experience of standing in the midst of those famous ruins even more moving was to be accompanied by a small band of young North African men whose life decisions to follow Christ are in many ways as dramatic as those of Perpetua and Felicitas. Having endured life-threatening rejection from their families, some know in no uncertain terms what it may mean to become a minister of the Gospel in this part of the world.  Yet they have jumped at the chance to help me and my traveling companions to research how, when and where to facilitate locally-led Bible translation projects so that every language group of North Africa might have God’s Word in its mother tongue. Wow—talk about being privileged and humbled at the same time!

It may not be the context of a Roman coliseum, but without question, the price of living out our Christian faith in our contemporary world is certainly becoming more and more challenging and equally demanding of life-shaping decisions. Thank God for the historic example of these young women that inspire and encourage us to be equally faithful and courageous in our world today.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Beyond Mapping at Global Mapping

I have spent the past three days at another great board meeting for Global Mapping International (GMI). And once again, I leave amazed at some of the new resources and services this small ministry has been able to create for the benefit of those serving in missions around the world.

For example, during the past twelve months, GMI has published seven new books all on important topics relevant to contemporary mission leaders. Here is a highlight of just three of them:

Help Your Missionaries Thrive by Harder and Foote. Based on recent research data GMI produced for a client foundation, this book will help mission executives understand the critical factors that shape the success of today’s missionary field staff.

Serving God in a Migrant Crisis by Patrick Johnstone. With the current crisis of Middle East migrants flooding into Europe, this book could not be more appropriate for helping today’s ministry workers know how to respond. Building on his tremendous experience during the past two decades of authoring Operation World, Johnstone uses his insight to challenge how to use this crisis as a means of sharing God’s love.

Our Anchor in a World Adrift by Hirst and Legasphmunar. This short work, co-authored by GMI’s president, John Hirst, is a great way to put into perspective seven global trends that are changing the status quo as we know it. Beyond simply giving statistics of social impact, the book encourages the reader to use an anchor of faith to help find stability and purpose despite the traumatic changes global trends might bring.

I’m looking forward to digging into these new GMI books and also using them in some of the teaching and workshops I’ll be involved in during the upcoming months. If you are interested in them as well, they’re all available in both print and digital form from Amazon as well as from GMI’s own website:

By the way, they’ve also produced a nice little “trailer” video on the Migrant Crisis book that will give you an idea of what it’s about. And, I’m proud to say, the video is narrated by my daughter-in-law, Sarah Lewis! Check it out here:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Trends of Hope

As I now reflect back on the MANI 2016 Conference that took place in Addis Ababa from March 7-13, there are three themes in particular that are both encouraging and significant in terms of indicating the future of mission effort in Africa.

With African Emerging Leaders at the MANI Pre-conference
Theme #1 – Young Emerging Leaders. Beginning with a pre-conference and extending through special breakout sessions during MANI 2016, there was an emphasis on emerging leaders. MANI has always encouraged younger men and women under the age of forty who are involved in mission, but this time it was amazing to see both the quality and passion of this rising generation. I was privileged to be asked to give one of the keynote addresses at the pre-conference. Borrowing a metaphor from George Ayittey’s well known Ted Talk about the Hippo and Cheetah generation of African leadership, I suggested how leaders of tomorrow are going to need to think and behave differently than the previous generation in order to help the church truly respond to the incredible challenges Africa is facing. Judging from the enthusiastic response and the desire these young leaders have in being mentored in new ways to avoid past leadership failures, I think there is reason for great hope as we see the next generation of African church and mission leadership take charge.

Theme #2 – Go North! Without doubt the center of Evangelical Christianity in Africa is focused in the countries south of the Sahara Desert. But, with the recent increase in missionary Muslim influence coming south from North Africa, these sub-Saharan churches are realizing that much more needs to be done to reverse that trend by reaching northward with the Gospel of Christ. Fortunately, there were a few northern Africa countries represented at MANI 2016 by a single person Yet, they were enough to help inspire members of stronger church movements in the rest of the continent to commit to sending more indigenous mission workers to such places as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. So, besides media broadcasts and other ministry efforts streaming southward to those countries from Europe, we should soon be seeing much more complementary mission effort coming northward from sub-Saharan Africa as well.

Theme #3 – An African Theology Foreign mission endeavor in Africa dates back to the mid 1800s. But because of the strong Western influence of those early missionaries, much of the theology of African churches still lacks some of the important contextualization that would make it more relevant to the African mindset. Instead, there is often a tendency toward syncretism or mixing of animistic African culture in with Christian beliefs. During the MANI 2016 conference we heard several outstanding presentations strongly challenging African leaders to grapple with the areas of theology that need to speak more forcefully about living out commitment to Christ in an African context. One of those talks highlighted five areas in the church must be more outspoken: 1-The value of the human individual, 2-The value of children, 3-The importance of the family, 4-Social Justice, and 5-Care for the environment.

Let’s pray that these three themes at the MANI conference are only the first signs of a great new movement that will truly propel Africa as a major global force in world missions during the next couple of decades.

Friday, March 25, 2016

China to Africa: Second Try

The year was 2010. Over eighty Chinese pastors and ministry leaders from the Beijing area were excited about being part of a delegation of two hundred from the People’s Republic of China to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that was to meet in Cape Town, South Africa. Boarding passes in hand, they were just minutes away from getting on their plane when a security officer asked them all to follow him into a special conference room. Anxiety mounted as the minutes stretched into an hour or more. No explanation was given. Finally, when their flight had departed, they were released. News soon came that the all of the two hundred delegates had received the same treatment. It was clear that, for some reason, the Chinese government was not in favor of any delegation from their country participating in such a large, Christian, public forum.

That is why, with a special sense of excitement and praise, the five hundred and fifty of us at MANI 2016 enthusiastically welcomed five of those same Chinese pastors to our Africa-wide conference in Addis Ababa.  I was particularly proud of the fact that my own mission, One Challenge, was the key organization that had facilitated this special visit. There seemed to be no end of interest on the part of African leaders to chat and strategize with them, especially during coffee breaks, meals, and special breakout sessions.

Due to the incredible number of Chinese laborers coming to Africa to build major construction projects, African church leaders have been eager for Chinese missionaries to come to Africa to minister to the growing Chinese diaspora in the major cities of the continent. More than once, I’ve tried to be an intermediary for this plea, seeking a response from Chinese contacts I’ve made in the past. But consistently, I have been told that fledgling Chinese missionaries want to be on the cutting edge of missions, targeting unreached African populations rather than their own countrymen. After all, that doesn’t even demand learning a new language!

That’s why it was particularly heartening for me to hear these five Chinese delegates clearly express  that they are ready to partner with the Africans to reach the growing thousands of Chinese across the continent. “We have heard your cry, and we are ready to respond,” one Beijing pastor said with passion and sincerity.

Praise God that these friends experienced freedom to travel to our MANI event. Now pray that these new bonds of partnership will truly grow into fruitful ministry results in the years ahead.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reunion at the African Union

It's the United Nations of Africa—a huge, modern, impressive facility located in downtown Addis Ababa which is now the place where all of the nations of Africa periodically gather to discuss and decide on key issues related to the political progress of the continent. From March 7-11, however, it was the venue for MANI 2016, a continental missions conference that brought 550 key leaders together to challenge each other on how to advance Christ’s Kingdom in their own countries and abroad.

MANI is a network that emerged out of the AD 2000 & Beyond movement of the 1990s that first challenged Christians to reach unreached people groups and coined the concept of the 10­-40 Window. When it concluded on December 31, 2000, all of the African delegates decided they wanted to sustain the momentum, so they formed the Movement of African National Initiatives (MANI). The objective was to help spawn a missions initiative in every country of Africa that would bring God’s Good News to the remaining unreached as well as mobilize African participants in global missions.

Having served on the MANI leadership team for the past three years, I found myself immediately immersed in the logistics of the conference. From planning the daily agenda to creating and operating the PowerPoint backdrops for all the sessions, it was quite a challenge to work alongside the rest of the MANI leaders to offer a smooth-flowing schedule of events each day. But despite our human frailties, it was clear that God was very able to accomplish his divine purposes of orchestrating strategic encounters among the many delegates from fifty different African countries. One such encounter happened when I introduced Jason Mandrake, the editor of Operation World, to a good friend from Nigeria, both of whom are working on similar visions for initiating global prayer centers that they now may be able to link together.

Probably the most meaningful event of the conference to me was the final session when everyone was challenged to fill the huge stately hall, the symbolic center of African political power, with praise and worship to God. That was the first time it had ever been done. Even my wife, Anita, was able to join in with the worship team and, in typical, joyous African fashion, help lead the delegates in worshipful song to our Lord.

So if the forces of spiritual darkness think they have an exclusive hold on the direction of African politics, they just may have another guess coming the next time African leaders meet in that hall and find the lingering impact of that special celebration of praise to the one true God!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Forgotten and By-passed

It’s not on the way to anywhere!

Main Bissau waterfront road
Guinea-Bissau is a tiny, forgotten West African country stuck between Senegal and Guinea-Conakry. Not only is it isolated geographically, due to huge rivers and an island archipelago, but its Portuguese national language further separates it from all of its French-speaking neighbors. It’s no wonder that the sense of being forgotten, bypassed, and marginalized seems to be written all over the faces of its citizens.

Sunday morning church service
Yet, I have found the past four days here in Guniea-Bissau some of the most fulfilling of my recent travels. I was invited on this trip by Miguel Indibe, the director of ITA, the Institute of Translation and Literacy. Thanks to an introduction bu Bruce Smith, CEO of Wycliffe Associates, I met Miguel two years ago and ever since have been mentoring him in his leadership role. But this was my first chance to visit his country.

Despite being a tiny country with a population of less than two million, it is not short on tribal languages which number about thirty. But of those, only one has a complete Bible and three have New Testaments. However, all Bible resources are super dated making them especially irrelevant to the youth. And the couple of translation projects that are underway are all taking way longer than expected thanks to being at the bottom of everyone’s priority list for completion.

Sharing Wycliffe Associate tablet translation resources
So what has made this trip so fulfilling? First, it was the pleasure of speaking to the 1,200 who were packed into a Sunday morning service all sharing the “joy of the Lord” in typical African fashion. Second, it was seeing the excitement and renewed hope in the eyes of the Bible translation staff as I shared new resources Wycliffe Associates has available for them that could significantly speed up their translation efforts. Third, it was being invited to address a number of national church leaders and helping them learn how to connect with the continental African mission’s movement. The VP of one church group said to me, “No one from Guinea-Bissau has ever participated in a major African or global consultation because we always learn about them after the fact. Finally, you are here telling us of two opportunities to attend African conferences next year. You can bet this time we’ll be represented.”

 Guinea-Bissau may be small and forgotten, but it has a higher percentage of Christians than any of its neighbors. And, from what I can see, they’re ready to be mobilized. It is a privilege for me to play a tiny role in helping to make that happen.

Guinea-Bissua church leaders glad to be encouraged

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Comrades in Ministry

Within the last two days, I received word of the deaths of two comrades-in-ministry who played special roles in my life.

Phil Arendt, a fellow resident of Spokane, WA, quietly slipped away from his family Sunday morning after fighting a year-long battle with a cancerous brain tumor. I got to know Phil when I became CEO of Partners International and discovered this third-career missionary on staff who was personally modeling for everyone how to live out what it means to be a servant partner. After years as a mission pastor in Modesto, CA and equipped with a doctorate in missiology, Phil and his family joined SIM and spent a decade in Ethiopia pouring his life into national church leaders. He joined Partners International upon his return to the US and, by the time I arrived, was already expanding his role as a Bible teacher and leadership mentor around the world. I immediately asked him to become one of my VPs. Phil was truly a pioneer and expert in the area of orality and story telling, bringing into close relationship with PI such organizations as Scriptures In Use and Harvest International. In many ways, what I am doing today follows the example of Phil in terms of his effort to be available globally as a mentor, trainer, and encourager of national Christian ministry leaders in the least resourced areas of the world.

 Gary Bishop came to Mission Aviation Fellowship in 1998 as President/CEO. For the next five years I served as his Vice President for Research and Strategic Planning. Together, we crafted a new mission statement for the organization and reaffirmed MAF’s historic by-line of “conquering barriers.”, MAF was not an easy role for Gary because of not having had any previous international mission experience.  Although he brought considerable business knowledge from his previous role as director of the Pittsburg International Airport, Gary faced the challenge of leading an organization that was in the middle of many strategic changes.  One of those was partnering with the Packer Aircraft Project, the forerunner of the Quest Aircraft Company that now produces the turbine-powered Kodiak aircraft used extensively in mission aviation. Gary’s presence at MAF had a major impact on my life, and it was his encouragement in many ways that led to my eventual acceptance of the role of CEO at Partners International.

After MAF, Gary and his wife, Donna, returned to Texas where he became president of World Bible Translation Center and eventually CEO of Far Corners Missions. A heart attack took Gary’s life unexpectedly on Monday.

As I reflect on the lives of these two friends, I can’t help but be reminded of both good and tough times we experienced together in our respective journeys of mission service. I am deeply thankful for how God used both men to shape me along the way and influence who I am today.