In missions, there is a lot of discussion about reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on what source you read, there are anywhere between 5,000-7,000 unreached people groups around the world. This amounts to roughly 2.7 billion people. There is an area where most of these people call home. In global missions, this area is commonly referred to as the 10/40 window (located between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator) which is comprised of northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Many missions sending agencies focus on sending their missionaries to these areas of the world. These countries are typically dangerous to Westerners, especially to those who are preaching the Gospel where some can be kicked out of the country, imprisoned, and in some cases face execution. There is a large need for Christian workers to go to these hard to reach places and introduce the abundant life of Jesus Christ into these people's lives for the first time… offering them salvation, hope, and joy that comes through having faith in King Jesus.
But, what about the billions of people around the world that do not fall into the 10/40 window? There are many countries in the world that are considered "reached". But, many of these countries have such a low population of believers of Christ that they are really no different than some unreached countries. In many of these countries that have been reached, generations have since passed and now we have a new segment of society of either unreached people groups or devout atheists. For example, here in the country of Albania where we serve it is considered a "reached" country. But, the percentage of born-again, truly transformed believers of Christ is nearly infinitesimal (less than 1%). Right out the front door of our house there are hundreds of people in our neighborhood who have never heard the Gospel before. But many of their parents or other family members have seen the Jesus Film many years ago. When Communism fell in 1992, missionaries from the West flocked to Albania eager to introduce millions of Albanians to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. This, after being closed off to the West for 40+ years. Every village in Albania had been essentially reached. There was even an influx of thousands of newly professed believers of Christ. And, Albania was figuratively checked off the "unreached" list by many missions sending agencies. As a result, many of these missionaries left, with little or no follow up. Many churches that were planted early on have since died out. And now we are once again back to square one, a country with a very small population of believers and with a large segment of society whose generation today have never heard the Gospel.
And, of course there are countries that have long ago been considered Christian countries, once beacons of light to other countries around the world sending thousands of missionaries to the darker recesses of the world. Most of these "Christian" countries exist in central and northern Europe, but also including North and South America. However, in these countries we are now actually seeing a reversal of people coming to faith, where the Christian population is actually declining and many are leaving the Christian faith and the church they once grew up in. Many have become disenfranchised with traditional “Churchianity” and are embracing alternative religions or no faith at all. For the first time last year in America, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religious faith, being outnumbered by a combination of other faiths or no faith at all. As a result, missionaries from other countries like South Korea and Nigeria are actually sending Christian missionaries to the US and Canada, introducing Americans to Christ and involved in new church planting efforts around the country. And in Europe, in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, churches are now being converted into mosques, museums, and market places. And, some of the highest populations of atheism are no longer found in Communist countries, but in places like Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and The Netherlands.
So, what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the declining population of those who profess a faith in Christ? What do we do with the increasing population of atheism? Well, global missions should truly remain global, not confined to a certain segment of the world's population; encompassing the entire globe, not just a focus on the "unreached" people groups of the world. I propose we open the window a bit more. Let's not limit it to the 10/40 window. Let's open it up 20 degrees more to include the former "Christianized" countries of the world such as Europe and North America. The way I see it, if we don't open the window, we will be calling America and Europe "unreached" countries 25-30 years from now. And, I mean that literally; where generations will have passed, and newer and younger generations will have never heard the Good News of Christ.
This leads me to another question. How do we reach those who are already reached? How do we reach out to those who have indeed heard the Gospel before but for whatever reason have chosen to reject its message? My guess, and I’m not claiming absolute certainty on this, is that many of these “reached” people are hearing a form of Christianity that is both westernized and institutionalized. A form of Christianity that finds it basis from an Enlightenment-era form of reasoning, focusing more on morality, debate, the afterlife, and following a list of do’s and do nots. And, I don’t believe this is the same Gospel message that Christ taught. People need to see love in action. Not only do they need to hear it through proclamation, but it needs to be modeled and demonstrated through our lives and our actions. They don’t only want to hear what you have to say unless they truly know you care about them… now. People want to know how can a belief in Christ possibly benefit and change their life now, here, while on earth. One of my favorite quotes that I think best encapsulates the paradox of abundant life now and life after death is this:
“Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.” (Shane Claiborne)
We need Christians to not only mobilize around the world to distant and far off countries, but to remain in their own cities, towns, and villages. We need Christians to share the Gospel through both word and deed in their communities. And, I don't mean the stale, institutionalized form of Christianity to be propagated. I mean, the get-in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty form of missions. Where we no longer focus on rules and morality, but focus on helping others, loving the least of these, and bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. We need to stop obsessing over immorality and obsess with loving others no matter who they are. And, I’m willing to bet this will require leaving the comforts of our own environment and our own biased socio-political ideologies. We need to bring the Light to the darkness and not expect the darkness to be the Light before we bring it.
A couple of examples come to mind of what it looks like to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to people through both word and deed:
I am reminded of my friend Don who lives and works among a shunned people group called the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. He has relied solely on faith to open a workshop in the slums of Tirane, Albania, enabling local Roma and Albanian men with new works skills and an opportunity to provide a better income for their families. At the same time, he spends time investing in the spiritual lives of these men through sharing the Gospel and conducting small Bible studies in his home or workshop.
I am reminded of Pastor Jeony who also lives and works near the slums in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He has helped facilitate a school program that enables children and their parents to receive an education and job skills, allowing them to leave their lives working in the disease-infested city trash dump. This educational program doesn’t go without hearing and learning about Christ. Each morning the children gather at the school to sing praises of worship to Jesus and learn more about God through the reading of Scripture.
Closer to home I am reminded of Shane who essentially moved from the comforts of his middle to upper class background and decided to live among the homeless of Philadelphia. This led him to start a new community revitalization project in what many would consider a gang-infested, drug-laden, and impoverished neighborhood. He, along with several others helped restore what was dismissed as hopeless, into a newly revitalized beautiful community where the homeless now live and thrive. All of this was accomplished alongside the teaching about God’s love, grace, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in action. This is how I believe we reach the reached with the Gospel message. There is certainly a place for the public proclamation of the Gospel, especially in unreached countries. But, in places where the Gospel is already being promulgated in churches, on TV, the radio, and bookstores; love in action is where people will truly see who Jesus is. And, this is what I believe the new wave of missions is to look like. Incarnational and holistic approach to ministry. Bringing justice where there is injustice. Enabling the poor to leave poverty. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, the unloved, and the oppressed. Helping men, women, and children see themselves for who they are, loved by God. Restoring them into the people that God intentionally desires them to be… created in His image, reconciled, rescued, and redeemed. Not for just the life after we die. But, for the life here and now. Making all things new. And, bringing God’s kingdom onto earth just as it is in Heaven.
On this beautiful day here in Tirane, on the 1st day of the year , I reflect back on the year 2012 with great rejoicing and contemplation. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "It Was a Very Good Year". Looking back, it was indeed a very good year. It was a year where we witnessed a huge move of God right here in our Roma community. Earlier in the year, we saw seven young men (Erjon, Ilir, Indrit, Rildi, Xani, Masarjo, and Ledio) profess a new faith in Jesus Christ. These guys were later baptized and to this day consistently attend our Bible study each week in our home. Some of these guys have even brought visitors with them as they are understanding what it means to go out and make disciples of others. During the summer, we saw three neighbors come into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. One of these believers, Nazifi, whose wife Bona was already a believer, has been very excited about his new faith and is eager to see a community of believers grow in his neighborhood. In November, our friend Bushi, who lives amongst the Roma on the river also professed a new faith in Christ. His wife, Ejla, already a believer, is our househelper who comes to our home four days a week to not only work for an income, but spend one-on-one time being discipled by Marcella. Our teammates Don and Krystal who live about 5 minutes from our home have also seen a handful of men, women, and children come into a new relationship with Jesus this past year. Perhaps the most exciting thing to see is this new community of believers come together and worship as one body. Led by our team leaders, Dave and his wife Julee, this past year we have had a handful of gatherings hosted at our home and at our neighbor Nazifi's house. Each time there has been a sizable gathering of worship, fellowship, and learning as we come together to give honor and praise to our King. These are some exciting times and all of us look forward to seeing what God will continue to do in our community this year.
Compared to more "rougher" places to live, Albania is a relatively easy place to live. But, it can also be at times very difficult especially living in an impoverished community. As a family, God has sustained us and carried us through this year where we had to rely on Him and His grace day-by-day. Although in most part there were many highs this year, there were also some lows worth noting. For example, we experienced the coldest and wettest winter on record in Albania's history last year. As a result of these record freezing temps, our water pipes froze and bursted, leaving us without water for several days. Many days we often experienced complete power outages, leaving us without electricity (and heat) for many hours and sometimes up to a day. We experienced a few problems with our vehicle this year, getting into a few major fender benders (none of which were our fault), and dealing with mechanical problems. Our car is just shy of 10 years old, and we hope it will last several more years here. But, it definitely has taken a beating since being here in Albania. As one friend recently told me, "it has become Albanianized!" The engine light always remains on and it has enough rattles, shakes, and noises to make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound like a smooth Cadillac.
These lows were certainly offset by many highs. In March, we attended a mandatory team conference in Croatia. This was a wonderful time for our family to reconnect with our team and also spend time visiting a beautiful and unique country. In the summer, we traveled back to the US to reconnect with our family, friends, and supporters for 7 weeks. This was also an opportunity for Morgan to receive a checkup by her neurologist for her Myotonia Congenita. The good news is that she is doing very well and it hasn't progressed much. We also found out her medicine is readily available here in Albania. In September, Coleman and I visited Istanbul for a week, where we got to spend quality one-on-one, father-son, time together. This was a crucial year for Coleman since he officially became a teen for the first time. In October, we spent a few days in Vlore, where we also got to visit some neighboring villages and cities to see the many beautiful sites Albania has to offer.
This year was the year for visitors for us. We had two staff members from our home sending church (121 Community Church) come visit us to offer encouragement, see how we're doing, and to see where we serve. For the first time we finally got to meet our Pioneer's Area Leader from Bosnia, Jim Baumgardner. He spent a week with us, teaching a church-planting conference, spent much time getting to know each other, and planning and praying about the future direction of our time here in Albania. We also received two wonderful ladies from our home sending church who spent a week with us. They got to experience what life is like here and observe the wonderful ministries God already has us involved in. Finally, Marcella's mother and sister recently stayed with us for a week, where our kids spent much quality time with them. They also came bearing many Christmas gifts that we were able to enjoy this season, giving us a small taste of home.
As I sit here and enjoy the sounds of our kids playing together, I am reminded about how adaptable kids are. Perhaps even more so than us adults. Our kids have transitioned extremely well to Albania, where they each have acquired many close friends. We give many praises to the school they attend at GDQ. Without GDQ and the wonderful staff, I'm not convinced our kid's transition would have been as smooth. They each have a few close friends that they often spend time with. I am particularly struck by how close Coleman has become with his fellow classmates, all of which are missionary kids, and how naturally they have all bonded. I see great joy in Coleman's demeanor whenever he is with them. Likewise, both Morgan and Drayton also love their close friends and the thought of any of them leaving for whatever reason saddens them. Each of our kids have one or two local Albanian/Roma friends they have likened to as well. We are very grateful for God's provision in this area of our lives.
Marcella and I had a good year. Health wise, it seems Marcella has acquired some significant allergies by living here. And, I have borderline high blood pressure that I need to be careful with. But, overall our health is fine. We remain united and supportive of one another, eager to see what God will do with us as a married couple, as parents, and diciplers. We already see great opportunities to minister to other parents and married couples here. We each continue in our full time language studies and hope to begin transitioning a bit more into ministry by this summer. Not sure what that will look like quite yet, but are continuing to yield to God's leading on that. Our primary mission is simple... to make disciples and help form a church that is self sustaining and duplicatable. Getting there is what is challenging, but we can only rely on God and His purpose to make that happen.
Looking ahead, over the next 5-6 months I will be praying, planning, networking, and strategizing toward a direction that I feel God is leading me in. I don't want to get into any details yet since at this point it is only a vision. But, let's just say it has to do with something that will offer a long term solution to help the Roma come out of poverty. If God is behind it, then I am certain it will come to fruition. As things move along and come together I will share this with you in greater detail. In the meantime, please be praying for discernment and wisdom as I begin moving in this direction.
Finally, we hope 2013 will be a better year than 2012 for many of you. I know of several people who were laid off and are suffering economic hardship... I am confident God will provide. I also know of several who are going through trials of cancer and other illnesses... I pray God will truly heal you. Furthermore, I am grieved by certain events that occurred in my home country last year. Violence and anger has seemingly permeated our land. I hope more lives will be spared both in the womb and outside of the womb. I hope Americans will become more united. And, I hope the church in America will become more involved. There is no greater time than now for the church in America to become more engaged with society. Making change not through legislation or petty politics, but by getting into the trenches of society. Getting their hands and knees dirty, meeting people where they are and effecting their lives in such a way that people truly want to know more about this man of peace we call Jesus.
Today is 12/12/12. Kind of a cool date that we won't see again for another 100 years. Is this a significant day of interest? Well, from God's perspective every day is a significant day. Every day has meaning and purpose. He has designed each day for His will to be done in people's lives as He strengthens those who are in Christ, and seeks to reconcile new relationships with those who know Him not. So yes, today is indeed a significant day. But, with all the mayhem and hoopla over the end-time euphoria and with many looking to the Mayan calendar to signify the end of the world as we know it, what does God's word, the Bible, say specifically about the number 12 and last days?
First, a disclaimer. The Bible is not some magical tome that one can tap into to determine specific dates and times for future events. The Bible does indeed describe events that will occur at the end of times. But, it does not give specific dates and times. In fact, Jesus himself states, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36). So, let us dismiss any claim that the Bible sets any date and time for the end of the world to occur. Nor, is there any "reading between the lines" using numerology to determine hidden secrets and mysteries. This is something often practiced by both pagans and gnostics alike, but is not something recommended for Christians to partake of (Deuteronomy 18:10-14, Acts 19:18-20).
So, when we look closer into Scripture, what is the significance of the number 12? And, how does this relate to us today and tomorrow at the end of times?
We know there were twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49). Jacob, the grandson of Abraham fathered twelve sons eventually becoming the names of each of the tribes of Israel. Their names are: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Isachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each of these sons, along with their respective tribes, played a significant role in God's historical plan leading to reconciliation and salvation through Christ. For example, it was from the tribe of Judah that Jesus came. It was Joseph who played a role in what would become the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt. And, it was from the tribe of Levi that the Levitical priesthood was established. All of these events pointing to a future High Priest and Lamb... our King Jesus.There were twelve judges who judged and led Israel spanning a 300-year timeframe. God used these judges and the events that transpired under their reign to rebuke, discipline, and to restore peace with the Israelites. Some of the significant judges include: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson. The theme played out all throughout the Book of Judges is this: the people are unfaithful to God and he therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemies; the people then repent and entreat God for mercy, which he sends in the form of a judge; the judge delivers the Israelites from oppression, but after a while they fall into unfaithfulness again and the cycle is repeated. This too points us to Jesus, a great Judge who we will all stand before someday, a day where He will judge both the living and the dead (John 5:27, 2 Tiimothy 4:1).
Twelve is the age that Jesus first presents himself to the public. He is found "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:46-47). And, it was also at this age that Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family. (Luke 2:49). This is a significant claim and evidence that Jesus did indeed claim to be the Son of God.
There were also twelve disciples/apostles.
It was through these twelve that Christ taught His grace, truth, and demonstrated His love and mercy available to all people. These twelve would be instrumental in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, teaching and making disciples throughout Israel and beyond it's borders to "the ends of the earth". Some of these disciples would go on to author books of the New Testament, and most of these disciples would suffer martyrdom at the hands of those who sought to suppress the spread of the Gospel.
The Book of Revelation says that 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel (144,000) will be marked with a seal for protection against God's wrath in the last days (Revelation 7:3-8). It will be during this tumultuous time that the earth will be transformed from calamity and evil will be weeded out, eventually leading to a New Jerusalem and a new earth where Christ will someday reign with peace.Speaking of the New Jerusalem, the Bible says the city will be fortified with high walls "with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites" (Revelation 21:12). Furthermore, this new and wondrous city will have twelve stones as it's foundation "on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb"
(Revelation 21: 14). The greatest buildings, castles, structures, monuments, and wonders of both the ancient and modern world pale in comparison to what we will someday see in Christ's kingdom on earth. Until then, in the words of Mercy Me, "I can only imagine".
So, rather than 12/12/12 becoming a date causing great anxiety, concern, and doom-and-gloom. It instead can be a time to cause us to pause for a moment. A moment to allow us to reflect, rejoice and marvel at God's great plan that He has orchestrated for you and me. World events that have transpired and will yet to occur all pointing us to a Savior, a great King, that has saved us and reconciled us to a loving God. I look forward to that day when I bow down in humble adoration before our lovely King Jesus who will sit upon the throne in a New Jerusalem. Not reigning by violence, bloodshed, oppression, and greed. But ruling by His grace, peace, and majesty. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
In America, when someone chooses to follow Jesus, not much is at stake in the way of danger or persecution. For this, I have been very fortunate and thankful to live in a country with such religious freedom as this. However, in places like Albania where we currently live, when someone chooses to make this same choice they must also give serious consideration to the cost. They know this is not some spontaneous decision to be made based on some emotional plea or moving speech made by an evangelist. They know they may very well be ostracized and teased by others in their community for their new faith in Jesus. And, in some cases they may be disowned or shunned by their own family members.
Two weeks ago, four young men made a public profession of their belief in Jesus Christ. I peered into the eyes of one of these young men that I have recently been discipling as he thought through what it means to become a Christian. And, for a fleeting moment I believe I sensed some fear and apprehension in him as he truly considered the cost. This week, one other young man has surrendered his life to Christ. Covered in tattoos wearing a mohawk, he comes from the "rougher side of town" where drugs and gangs are the norm. He is proud to be a new resident in the kingdom of God and knows what this may entail as he goes back each day to face his friends. Considering the cost.
One of the young men who has been coming to our Bible study who is not a believer... yet, comes from a Muslim home. He tells me his parents are Muslim and he is having to be careful to come to our gatherings. Considering the cost. Another young man who recently professed a belief in Christ has been proudly displaying his necklace with a cross on it to show everyone that he is a new Christian. Last week, a man approached him and angrily ripped the necklace off of his neck saying he didn't "want to see that shit around here!". Considering the cost. And, one other young man who is also a Muslim has been consistently attending our gatherings for numerous months. He tells us he believes that Jesus existed, is real, but is not certain He is the Son of God. Nevertheless, he is drawn to our gatherings each week to hear more about this man we call Jesus. Considering the cost.
I am laying witness to what I believe is a great move of God here in our little obscure neighborhood in east Tirane. I am humbled by the young men that God has placed into my life; both those who are new believers in Christ, and those who are earnestly seeking the Truth. I have seen with my own eyes the transforming power of God in these men's lives. And, even though I am supposed to be the teacher who is bringing a message of hope to them, they are in fact teaching me many things. Namely, what it means to truly consider the cost to become a disciple of Christ. I firmly believe these young men will someday become the core of what will become a new church in our community, and who will one day be a great light upon this dark neighborhood. A light where people will see the never ending love, grace, and hope found only in Jesus Christ.
* If you think about it, will you please pray for: Rildi, Erjon, Ledio, Indrit, and Ilir. These are the young men that have recently considered the cost and surrendered their lives to Christ. But, please also pray for Sabi and Masarjo who are both Muslim and are being drawn to Christ, but still have questions and are uncertain at this time.
Albanian elders playing dominoes on the side of the street.
I was having a conversation with a group of buddies of mine the other day. And, we were all sharing some general observations we had made about Albanians. One of my friends chimed in and said Albanians seem discontent and unhappy. But, on the other hand, families remain together, kids seem joyful and playful, people gather together outside where there is a general sense of joy, happiness, and contentment. In fact, the remark was made that Albanians seem to be more content than many of us Americans do. So, we all agreed that Albanians are likely content, but have a feeling of hopelessness that has permeated their society here. A melancholic feeling of despair where things don't seem to be getting any better for them. You can just see it on their faces.
Many Albanians I have talked to share with me of their disapproval with their government, the economy, and overall living conditions. One Albanian told me while living under Communism he and his family at least had food on their table everyday. Now, they don't. While freedom is certainly valued here, it comes with a price. With a low income, minimal job opportunities, a poor economy, and a government that is reluctant to fully move forward, Albanians are indeed feeling hopeless. Sadly, many Albanians resort to gambling, drugs, and alcohol to medicate this feeling. While others work tirelessly 7 days a week, from sunup to sundown, trying to make ends meet. Many Albanians live on a loan-based system, borrowing money from their wealthier friends and then remaining indebted to them for the rest of their lives. Essentially becoming slaves. If the loans aren't paid back within a reasonable time, often serious repercussions are the result.
As Christians, even we struggle with discontentment at times. I know I do. It's a learned behavior to become content. Even the Apostle Paul had to learn to become content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12). We know the answer is not found in government, economy, or money. The answer to hopelessness and despair is found in Christ. The only way I see it, is that Albanians need to be taught about hope. What hope? The hope found only in Jesus Christ. And, the only way they will know this is by us sharing it with them. The only problem is, there are only a couple of hundred missionaries here. But, there are several millions of Albanians. We need more Christians to come here and share with them the message of hope. The hope that there is something indeed better than this life. An abundant life. A life of hope that can begin now, and will span for all eternity within the presence of a loving and holy God.
"Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."
(1 John 5:13)