Why I quit the job I loved after 23 years in missions. (Part II)
Truth be told, I most likely would have never have quit the job I loved if we had never landed in Tajikistan in the spring of 2000.
We had felt for some years prior to that move, that God wanted us to live in the 10/40 Window as a family. We sensed the Lord leading us to Tajikistan primarily because of its Muslim population and its seemingly “pioneer setting” for church planting. In the fifteen years previous to moving to Tajikistan, we had been involved in full-time missions work in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, the Philippines and the US.
We loved what we were doing and believed we were having a real impact on the people we reached out to. All of that suddenly changed as we set foot in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on a quiet spring morning in March 2000. It was our first real exposure to the Muslim world and overwhelming poverty.
The two together create a mind-boggling, incredibly difficult environment to preach the Kingdom of God.
Earlier on we had experienced the harsh realities of extreme poverty in Guatemala and the Philippines and had “dabbled” with the Muslim world in Istanbul, Turkey but nothing prepared us for what we were to live through for the next four years. By living in Tajikistan, “pre and post 9/11”, we were confronted (and challenged) with everything we knew as church and missions.
We saw a tremendous amount of dependency created by Western (and sometimes not so Western) missions and their respective agencies. For example, one church that was started by foreigners and “passed on to the locals”, when we met them several years later the congregation could not even afford to pay the electric bills of the church, let alone any other financial obligations.
We saw well-trained and well intentioned missionary doctors who, along with their supporting churches and agencies, tried to introduce western medicine to the nation, only later to be frustrated to see that after the conferences, special training, free supplies and such, the natives reverted back to the “ancient paths” of folk medicine and talisman objects.
We also heard of “small businesses” created by well-meaning foreigners that led to jealousy amongst family clans. Some small businesses succeeded, yet some businesses were snuffed out by the local Mafia as the new businesses took some of their profits at the local bazaar.
In all honesty, it was more than we could deal with. We continually went back to the Lord and the NT for help! We felt that what we had to offer was not going to help but only add to the problem!
“An unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
It was in studying the book of Acts and the entire New Testament that we started to hear clearly from the Holy Spirit and experienced quite definitely being “guided into all the truth” (John 16:13) about what God intended for the church and missions. Some have felt that in this we are elitist or haughty. Hopefully that is not the case and is more the insight born out of real conflicts we lived through living in the Muslim world as we did.
Now we feel like EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) trainees, who after just their first day in class, are legally responsible to respond to emergencies they come into contact with because they know a little more than the average person.
Below is a short listing of what we came to know:
1. For us the answer started in seeing that the only church the New Testament knew was the house church. When Paul wrote his letters to churches he also sent his greetings to “the church that meets in their house.” (Rom 16:5, I Cor 16:19; Col. 4:15)
The NT church was a simple as that: a gathering of believers meeting in their own homes. We knew that everybody in Tajikistan had a home, therefore they had all the necessary equipment needed for a church planting movement to happen in their land without one foreign dollar supporting it!
“If you had asked, ‘Where is the church?’ in any important city of the ancient world where Christianity had penetrated in the first century, you would have been directed to a group of worshiping people gathered in a house. There was no special building or other tangible wealth with which to associate ‘church’, only people!” (Walter Oetting, The Church of the Catacombs)
2. The next thing we started to see was the great discrepancy between the apostolic church planting method clearly seen in the NT and current missionary practice.
For example, we noticed that Paul and his co-workers were never more than 3-4 persons as they entered a foreign, unreached mission field for the first time. Contrast this with the current practice of sending in teams upon teams of young people to cities already teeming with missionaries.
When we got to Tajikistan in 2000 there were already well over 50 foreign missionaries in the capital alone. Each mission organization brought with them their own form of doing church and theological doctrine!
To make matters worse, in poorer nations the missionary is quickly labeled “Teacher” and is recognized as an expert in any field just because he/she is a foreigner or “white-skinned” — even though they may or may not have had any higher education in a given field.
Jesus recommended something much simpler and much more below the radar: take no bread, no money, no bag, no tunic, no shoes or staff.
“When Jesus sent the 12 apostles on a ministry trip, He said, ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.’ To the seventy, He actually said, ‘Like lambs among wolves.’ (Luke 10:3) The point is that they would never be a match for their opposition! Jesus sent His followers out in a helpless condition even telling them not to take any supplies with them (Luke 10:4ff). He didn’t want them to have any illusion of self-sufficiency. No lamb is self sufficient. Jesus, the “Good Shepherd”, who was willing to lay down His life for His sheep was their only real resource and hope. And He proved Himself to be more than sufficient.” (Dr. Tom Griffith; rolcboston.org)
Is There a Missionary in the Bible?
3. Another discrepancy that we started to question and examine was the fact that there is not one person in the NT called a “missionary”.
The NT calls them apostles and they were few in number, most were uniquely hand-picked (Acts 16:3) and they were always traveling about in small bands — never staying in the same place very long.
On the other hand, huge numbers of missionaries have flooded the world on every continent today. This year over 1 million short-term missionaries (2 weeks – 2 months) will leave the shores of the USA! Add another million to the group from Europe and Australia.
Somewhere we have to admit the math just doesn’t add up!
Of course, in saying all this we are not pointing fingers at what people have done for the sake of Christ in foreign fields since William Carey left for India in 1793. (BTW, Carey is considered to be the “Father of Modern Missions” and stayed on in India for 40 years.) We are profoundly aware of the costs and commitment made daily by many awesome people who have ventured out to take the Gospel “where Christ is not known”!
My wife and I are just examining the “apostolic principles” that are laid down for us in Scriptures.
In the footsteps of Paul
The apostle Paul considered his apostolic mission finished when there was just a fledgling group of believers gathering together in Christ in a given location. Often this happened within a year! He considered that area reached and he pressed on further to the utter most ends of the earth. “There is no more place for me to work in these regions.” (Rom 15:23)
Why would we want to do it any different?
What I dream about in the future of missions and apostolic work is the emotional equivalent of “the church that meets at their house.” There would be no structure, no name, no money, but simple tent makers, fishermen and tax collectors with nothing but “dung” for a resume.
Inauspicious and benign yet the most powerful spiritual force on earth!
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
Jeff and Maria Gilbertson