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I thought I was prepared for most of the questions that would come at us as we returned to the U.S. We had been planning to start a year of home assignment in the U.S. in December but because of my father’s death we hurriedly moved it up to the beginning of October. I knew that there would be questions about how long we’d be in the area, where we are staying, and when we’d be going back.But there was one question that totally blindsided me. Some people have asked, “Are you going back to Thailand?” Are we going back to Thailand?! In my mind, the answer was obvious. “Of course we are going back to Thailand!” Why would anyone think that we are not going back?
Why is there so much bad preaching in evangelical churches? Is the Bible really so hard to understand? Do the majority of preachers intentionally and knowingly play fast and loose with the Holy Scriptures to promote their own agendas? The answer to both of those questions would seem to be “NO”. In this post, I would like to suggest the most probable sources of unbiblical preaching, and then some solutions to address the problem.SOURCE 1: Human Tendency to Self-RelianceThere is a tendency in our fallen human nature to find a standard of moral goodness that we can meet. We want to feel like our own personal success and happiness is in our control. This tendency comes out in people’s demands for “practical” sermons. “Give us something we can do”, say the people. “My sermon needs to be practical”, says the preacher. And moralism rears it’s ugly head. Listeners eat up sermons on “Five Ways to be a Better Parent” or “Three Ways to Have More Joy”, so preachers keep giving it to them. It is a vicious cycle because listeners become accustomed to such a diet of moralistic preaching and preachers feel like they need to keep giving it to them. Listeners develop a distaste for anything that doesn’t readily give them something to DO, and protest that the few Biblical sermons that they do hear are too “doctrinal” or “academic”. Hearing about what Christ has already DONE for us is not enough. In our fallen human nature, grace and the deep things of God are difficult to understand. “Do better” is easy to understand and plays into our desire to control our lives.
Because the need for people to hear the Gospel on the mission field is so urgent, it is sometimes claimed that doing a lot of Biblical studies or earning a degree in Bible is not necessary to be a long-term missionary. “People just need the basic Gospel, and you don’t need a degree for that”, it has been said. There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, once someone becomes a Christian, you need to disciple them. And you’ll need to help new believers form themselves into a church community. And to do that, a missionary is going to need to know a LOT more than just a basic Gospel outline.
For the past two weeks, we had a short-term team with us from America and I have had both the pleasure of working with them, and also the responsibility of translating for them most of the time. Though my Thai ability is not superb, it is usually sufficient to get the job done. However, I know that pronunciation is not my strong suit and part way through this past Sunday’s sermon, I was hoping against hope that I was getting a certain word right. I wasn’t.As my friend Luke preached in English, I did the best that I could to translate what he said into Thai. All was well until he took us to Zechariah 10:3, “My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD Almighty will care for his flock, the house of Judah, and make them proud like a horse in battle.” From that point on in the sermon, Luke used the word “warhorse” quite frequently.
With the increasing popularity of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, there are lots of advantages for missionaries to use these media for both local ministry, and ministry with supporters in the home country. I have been using Facebook for about two years now, and Twitter for one year. There is lots to like but it is a continual challenge to make them work for me as a ministry tool and not turn into an entertaining distraction. I speak as one who uses both Facebook and Twitter and is continuing to think through how best to use them. Facebook and Twitter are not used in exactly the same way, and depending upon what you want to accomplish, you might choose one over the other. In general, Facebook is good for connecting people that you actually know, whereas Twitter is good for connecting with people who share common interests. Soren Gordhamer’s article, “When Do You Use Facebook vs. Twitter?” gives a more detailed breakdown of why you’d choose to use one over the other. However, for the purposes of this post, I am going to lump Facebook and Twitter together because there are a lot of commonalities between them.
A couple days ago, a missionary friend called me up and asked, “What do you think about all this stuff with the red shirts in Bangkok?” He was referring to the conflict between red-shirted protestors and the Thai government that has turned downtown Bangkok into a virtual battlefield. Since he is a good friend and fellow missionary, I gave him my full unedited opinion of the situation. However, that was a private conversation, not a public announcement. I tend to be cautious and try to maintain a position of neutrality when I talk with Thai neighbors and speak with people at church. Although I have some strong opinions, there are reasons why it is usually better not to voice them or to get involved in the political scene here. In general, missionaries are well advised to stay out of local politics in the countries where they are serving. Here’s three reasons why:
1) It’s Not My CountryI am in Thailand as a guest. I must receive permission to stay in the country and I do not have the right to vote. Thai political issues must be decided by the Thai themselves and it is not my business to tell them how to decide their own issues. Simply put, it is not my place to be telling the Thai how to run their country or who they should vote for.2) Don't Know EnoughThai politics is huge tangled ball of yarn that I am only beginning to sort out. The issues run deep and historical, cultural, and religious factors come into play. At this point my Thai language ability is good enough that, for the most part, I can track with the news on the TV or radio, but that doesn’t mean that I have an accurate grasp on what is really going on. I’ll pick up the Thai newspapers sometimes and read the stories but, unlike many English language papers, Thai papers often don’t give summary background information in the articles so I don’t always know who the article is talking about or what their importance is. It is kind of like coming into the middle of a long running soap opera and having to catch up on the story line as you go. I have been learning bits and pieces of Thai politics for several years now. I know enough to have some opinions and talk with close friends but not enough to make any learned proclamations as to what should be done.3) Avoid Putting Words in God’s MouthIf a pastor in his own country expresses a strong political opinion from the pulpit, it can easily be perceived by many as the official position of the church (whether it actually is or not). On most political issues, churches shouldn’t even have official opinions because it is not the job of the church to govern the country. That’s the government’s job and it is fully appropriate for individual Christian believers to be involved in politics, as they are citizens of the country as much as anyone else. While it is certainly appropriate for pastors to teach what the Bible says on moral issues (like prostitution, for example), it is inappropriate for him to offer his political opinion as God’s opinion when the Bible doesn’t say anything one way or another (such as many economic issues). Otherwise, he will be foolishly creating division and dissension where there need not be any.
Missionaries are in a similar situation. As ministers of the Gospel, we need to be sure that we are not presenting as Scripture more than Scripture really says. I fully believe that both pastors and missionaries should teach what the Bible teaches about the relationship of the Christian believer to the government (Romans 13, for example) and provide principles for political involvement. It is very appropriate for a pastor or missionary to help a believer think through the Scriptural principles and real world ramifications of their political involvement, especially if there is the possibility of physical harm or illegality involved. Some forms of law breaking may arguably be appropriate at certain times (peaceful civil disobedience during the civil rights movement, or having a sit-in at an abortion clinic come to mind). Other acts of law breaking (such as firing a rocket propelled grenade into your local government office) bear closer scrutiny and any Christian who is considering engaging in such acts should be challenged to justify his actions according to Scripture.
A full discourse on Christians and government is beyond the scope of this post, but let me conclude by saying that political neutrality doesn’t mean that missionaries don’t say anything about politics. Rather, it means that they publicly avoid taking sides for the sake of avoiding giving people the impression that God supports any particular party or candidate. For the missionary living abroad, it is helpful to avoid the perception that you are sticking your nose in other people’s business, where it doesn’t belong. To take sides in local political issues runs the risk of alienating people unnecessarily and compromising the message that you’ve come to bring. The missionary’s job is to bring the message of the Bible to people, help them understand what it says, and what it is that God requires of them. Maintaing political neutrality helps keep the main thing, the main thing. And the main thing is the Gospel.ENTER YOUR EMAIL TO GET NEW POSTS IN YOUR INBOX
After mentioning our up-coming home assignment (or "furlough") in our last prayer letter, we received a curious email. “I didn't know missionary work also has furlough. In our education sector in the States, furloughs are mandatory for schools due to budget cuts. Is your furlough due to a budget cut or do you just need a break?” This email reminded us that outside of missionary circles, there is some confusion about why missionaries go on home assignment. Is home assignment just a code word for a funding raising trip? Is home assignment just a big long missionary vacation? Is home assignment like a sabbatical? Do missionaries go on home assignment when they get fed up with their host culture and just need a break? There is a bit of truth in all of the above. But there is also a lot of misunderstanding. In this post, I’d like to look at some reasons that missionaries go on home assignment in hopes of creating greater understanding between missionaries and their supporters back home.
No matter where you are, relationships are key for sharing the Gospel with people. In Asia, this is especially true. The following video captures well how essential it is to be with people, sharing your life with them as sharing the Gospel. Opportunities to be with people abound if we can take advantage of them. Where we are located, we haven't seen many people coming to know Christ as some in the video have, but it is encouraging to hear that God is indeed working around Asia.
If I wasn't already a missionary in Asia, this video might well tempt me to pack up the bags and sign up.
If you have trouble viewing the the video above, click here to view it directly on Vimeo
Several summers ago I met a young man named Tok. Tok was a student at a local technical college and he and his friend Art were jogging by the local river where I too had gone out to run. We got to talking and the following day the three of us, together with my friend Doug, went out for a bite to eat. Doug and I prayed before our meal, which they had never seen before, and I mentioned spiritual things once or twice during dinner but Tok and Art didn’t seem interested. As dinner got over, and the bill was paid, I wasn’t sure if I would see them again or not so I asked Doug to dig a couple of Gospel tracts out of his bag and I gave them to Tok – one for him and one for Art who had already left. I told him it was about Jesus and the tract would give him some food for thought. He should take it home and read it and let me know if he had any questions.
The Thai church is growing faster than it ever has in the past and there is much reason to rejoice at how God is working in Thailand. Yet, as a new year begins, there is still much need for prayer. Still less than 1% of Thai people are Christians and the challenges to the spread of the Gospel and growth of the church are many.
For those who want to pray for Thailand in the new year, I have put together a brief list of prayer needs. This list is not exhaustive but I believe that it hits upon some of the major needs of the nation and the church. Read it below or download the PDF, print it out and stick it in your Bible to pray for Thailand this coming year.
A number of years ago I sat in a missions class watching an animated video of jumbo jets plunging into the ground one after another while a voiceover told me, “Every year, such-and-such number of people die without ever hearing about Christ, which is the equivalent of so many jumbo jets full of passengers crashing each day, killing everyone aboard.” I forget what the exact numbers were that the narrator told us, but it was quite large. The point of the video was to drive home the gravity of the need to urgently send out missionaries to those who had never heard of Christ. The planes crashing were to help us get our mind around a very large number and to be a motivator to go be missionaries.
Despite 180 years of Protestant missions in Thailand, there are still relatively few churches and few Christians (less than 1% of the population). Missionaries are still needed but we are just temporary catalysts in helping the Thai church attain to sufficient numbers and maturity so that missionaries won’t be needed. And in many places, the LORD is raising up quality mature Thai believers preaching the Gospel of Christ. I wanted to share a video of one such believer, my friend Off who is on staff with Thai Christian Students (TCS). TCS is part of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
The following video was taken this past August during an open air evangelism event at the market next to the Tesco Lotus mall in Lopburi, Central Thailand. There were songs, skits, games, and more direct Gospel presentations. Lots of tracts and nearly 500 Gospels of John were handed out. The goal of this kind of evangelism is not to get people to decide for Christ on the spot, and as such there were no altar calls or decision cards. The goal is to sow seeds and to get people thinking about spiritual realities that they may not have considered before, starting from what people already believe and moving them towards considering the claims of the Bible.
The whole presentation is about 15 minutes but I had to break it up into two segments in order to put it onto YouTube. So, watch Part 1 and then move on to Part 2, which is the continuation of Off’s message. If you’re interested to learn more about what Off and the other folks from Thai Christian Students in Central Thailand are up to, please visit their blog at http://tcscentralthailand.wordpress.com
If you have trouble viewing the above embedded videos, click here to watch directly on YouTube
It has been asked whether missionaries should support themselves with secular employments (rather than accept full-time paid support) for the sake of being a good example to believers? A missionary working full-time in the secular world without monetary support from home would be a benefit to the church in two ways: 1) gives an example of living out the Christian life in the secular world, with integrity and hard work and Gospel witness, and 2) gives an example of how one can do ministry and work in the secular world at the same time.Many Thai churches are very small (less than 50 people) and can not afford to support a full time pastor or church planter. If the missionary church planter sets the precedent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that “real” ministry can only be done by a full time paid professional, then the expansion of the church could be hindered as those with a heart for evangelism and serving the Lord think that they need to quit their job and go to Bible school before then can “really” be a minister of the Gospel. For many Thai Christians with a heart to serve, and a call to ministry, bi-vocational pastoring and church planting is probably the most viable option that will not be a burden to them and their families, and beneficial to the planting and development of new churches.
Much of modern missions literature is occupied with anthropology, sociology, strategy, culture and so forth, rather than the Bible. And there are not a few who say that having a passion for Jesus is much more important than knowing theology. Not long ago I listened to a message by Paul Washer that really hit the nail on the head when it came to pointing out this imbalance in modern missions. Although Washer is perhaps a bit too harsh on contextualization, he makes the great point that missionaries need to be messengers of God’s truth - people who know God and his Word and go to tell people God’s truth.You can download Paul Washer’s message, “A Biblical Vision and Strategy for Missions” from the website of Heart Cry Missionary Society.Enter your email to get new posts from "Gleanings from the Field" in your Inbox Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz
A fellow missionary recently sent me the lyrics of the song “So Send I You” which for many years had been hailed as the greatest missionary hymn of the twentieth century. I read through the lyrics and knew that something wasn’t right. The song goes like this:
SO SEND I YOU
So send I you to labor unrewarded, To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown, To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing, So send I you to toil for me alone.
In less than two months now, my wife Sun is due to have our second child. One of our supporting churches recently told us that they wanted to have a baby shower for her in absentia. We thought that it would be good to send something along to be read at the baby shower since she would not be able to be there. As Sun and I got talking, we came up with the following list of challenges and blessings of being a young mom on the mission field. Every woman, and every family, is different and various parts of the world are very different as well, but here are some thoughts on Sun’s experience here in Thailand.
As a young missionary, I (Karl) like talking to veteran missionaries to get their perspective on things. At our recent OMF Thailand annual conference, our guest speaker Larry Dinkins spoke on cross cultural evangelism and overcoming barriers in communicating the Gospel to Buddhists. Larry & his wife Paula came to Thailand as new missionaries in 1981 where they did church planting and theological education until 2002 when they needed to go back to the U.S. for Paula to receive treatment for cancer in her bone marrow. The treatment for Paula’s cancer has been successful and she is in remission. As a result Larry and Paula have been acting as mobilizers and recruiters for OMF in Southern California as well as the Midwest. They are involved in Thai churches in the U.S. and have made numerous trips back to Thailand as well.
(UPDATE, Feb 2012: Since this article was written in 2009, Paula has gone to be with the Lord, and Larry has subsequently returned to Thailand to continue to minister among the Thai people).
After listening to Larry speak at the conference, and later in a recorded lecture, I became curious and sent him an email, asking, “If you could go back to your first term on the mission field, knowing then what you know now, what would you do differently? How would you go about planting a church in Central Thailand if you had to do it all over again?” Larry was kind enough to email me back and here’s a bit of what he had to say:
I love reading articles about missions that both point me back to Scripture and demonstrate intimate acquaintance with the realities of life and ministry on the mission field. "Putting Contextualization in its Place" in the recent 9Marks eJournal is one of those article. The author presents an excellent explanation of how contextualization is found in the pages of Scripture, and is not an idea hoisted onto it. He then goes on to explain how and his team put this principles into practice in their setting in a Central Asian country. The article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but I wanted to share with you one particular section that I found to be a good reminder of what my attitude and approach should be in living with and trying to serve the Thai people.
PAUL'S PRINCIPLES FOR CROSS-CULTURAL MINISTRY
Perhaps the most widely-quoted passage of Scripture that teaches about contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9:1-23:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
It is important to be practical and realistic in ministry, especially when it comes sharing the Gospel and establishing new churches. But is it possible to be too practical? It certainly is when the desire for results and finding methods that “work” outweigh a desire to search the Scriptures and find out what are God’s priorities and God’s methods for building his church.I have just started reading the 9Marks July/August 2009 eJournal on pragmatism in missions. One of the first articles, “Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!” by Andy Johnson frames the discussion well and is a must read. Johnson puts into print what I have been thinking about for some time: Is there some sort of disconnect in the minds of missionaries and other Christians who claim to uphold the authority of Scripture yet deny it in practice?