Pioneering New Mission Fields – Pt. 3

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[Editor’s Note: The third article of this series was written by a missionary who serves with Pioneer Bible Translators and works in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe. ]

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Of Shepherds And Stories

“Our friend is a shepherd. He tends a flock of 200 “sheep” who form the network of house churches that he and his wife have helped plant in the Caucasus region. The members meet regularly around meals in each other’s homes. They sing songs, encourage one another, and tell stories they have learned from the Scriptures. Many of them had become disciples because someone shared a Bible story with them and they thirsted for more.

The shepherd’s wife explained, ‘During meetings we don’t have preaching, since no one is trained to preach. Instead, we learn and share stories from the Bible with each other. Even the children learn stories and some are sharing them with their classmates in school.’”

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“Storytelling is a celebrated tradition throughout this region. Relying on this tradition as a way to share their faith has allowed these believers to enjoy relatively good favor and to remain in their own communities, even though these communities practice a religion that is hostile to followers of Jesus. In fact, some leaders of the traditional religion are now sharing with their own followers stories about Jesus that they heard from the believers.

The members of this flock have found that sharing personal testimonies and Scripture stories at specific times is effective. One believer testified, ‘Sometimes I tell a story from the Bible that speaks to a problem someone is facing. People really appreciate this, and it communicates that I love them and care about them.’

This should not surprise us. Much of what God tells us of Himself is revealed in the narratives–the stories–that we read in the Old Testament. Jesus taught in parables, using stories to explain Kingdom truths and to call people to follow Him. The spoken word that went straight to the heart with power to transform lives during Jesus’ ministry can do the same today.”

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“We ourselves can testify to this. We have been deeply impacted as we have begun practicing the craft of oral Bible storytelling. It is not possible to tell a Scripture story well without first having internalized and digested it, and no one digests the living and active Word of God without being changed in the process.

The shepherd’s house church network and others like it are using a culturally appropriate, reproducible, and sustainable method of church planting and discipleship. The transforming Word of God, written on the hearts of these believers, becomes a testimony to everyone with whom they come into contact.

As people respond to the stories they hear, and as new house churches are formed, new believers want to know more. Our team can partner with those who desire to craft additional Scriptures into oral story form. Our role includes helping ensure accuracy in the translation and telling of each story. We also make recordings of each story that can be used as a reference. ”

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“One beauty of oral Bible storytelling as a translation strategy for reaching Bible-less, church-less people groups is that church planting and discipleship do not have to wait until people learn to read or until the Bible is printed. The church that forms around the sharing of translated Scripture stories will eventually desire a printed translation. When that happens, they will already have the beginnings of a print translation team in place.

Our teams desire is to partner with leaders like the shepherd by continuing to help them accurately craft Bible stories into oral form. We want to mobilize local believers who take these powerful stories and tell them in the heart languages of all the peoples of this region. It is our hope that through the transforming power of the stories they will learn to know the Good Shepherd as a friend.”

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[Editor’s Note: Bible translation work had been almost solely done by means of the “printed Scriptures” up until just a few years ago.  In 2005, I went to the first “World Wide Scripture Use Symposium” in England.  I was fascinated at that time when I first heard about “storying” or “dramatic oral presentations” of the Gospel.  But considering the high level of illiterate people in these minority people groups that we work in, it makes a whole lot of sense to bring the Gospel to the people in an oral form.  Pray that we will continue to find excellent avenues to pursue this aspect of bringing God’s Word to the nations.]

Population in this region: 14.4 million people

Languages in this region: 33

Languages without Bibles: 30

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Used by permission from Pioneer Bible Translator’s monthly publications.  If you would like to receive this quarterly magazine, click on the link here for “The Latest Word ” and subscribe to it.

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God Looks On The Inside

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John 7:14 – 24

14 Then, midway through the festival, Jesus went up to the Temple and began to teach. 15 The people were surprised when they heard him. “How does he know so much when he hasn’t been trained?” they asked.

16 So Jesus told them, “My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me. 17 Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own. 18 Those who speak for themselves want glory only for themselves, but a person who seeks to honor the one who sent him speaks truth, not lies. 19 Moses gave you the law, but none of you obeys it! In fact, you are trying to kill me.”

20 The crowd replied, “You’re demon possessed! Who’s trying to kill you?”

21 Jesus replied, “I did one miracle on the Sabbath, and you were amazed. 22 But you work on the Sabbath, too, when you obey Moses’ law of circumcision. (Actually, this tradition of circumcision began with the patriarchs, long before the law of Moses.) 23 For if the correct time for circumcising your son falls on the Sabbath, you go ahead and do it so as not to break the law of Moses. So why should you be angry with me for healing a man on the Sabbath? 24 Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”

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In the section of John chapter 7 just before this passage, we saw that Jesus was trying to keep a low key profile.  As some would say today, it looked like he was trying to “fly under the radar”.  It must have been difficult for him seeing as the annual “Feast of Tabernacles” was meant to be a joyous time for all Jews, and especially in Jerusalem.

And then suddenly during the middle of the week of celebration, we see Jesus marching straight up to the Temple and beginning to teach.  I wonder what was going on in his mind.  Could it be that he saw the shallowness and superficiality of the faith of many of his countrymen and he wanted them to come to know his Father like he did?  Or more probably, he could no longer stand the hypocrisy and the abuse of religious power that the Jewish leaders exercised over the people and Jesus finally had to speak up against this.

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The encounter that followed was very dramatic.  Jesus taught with great boldness concerning God and His Kingdom and the people were amazed at this.  They saw that his message was full of spiritual power, but they had always been led to believe that a person had to go through the Rabbinical schools (their form of theological seminaries) to have such power and authority to teach and preach like Jesus did.

But Jesus points out that religious pedigrees and positions are things that are important to men, but not to God.  What is really important is to lead people back into a living relationship with God.  Even if it means pointing out the sin in one’s life that is keeping that person away from God.  Jesus knew that his teachings struck at the hearts of those selfish hypocrites of his day, and he calls them out to the table by stating that they even have it in their heart to kill Jesus, and thus kill his message that would convict them.

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The truth is laid bare when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy over actions done on the Sabbath.  They claimed that no one could do any work of any kind on the Jewish day of rest.  And yet they had the command of God for circumcision, which was older than the Law, that they said allowed them to break the Sabbath rest.  In other words they used one law to break another law.  And they felt quite justified in their rigid legalism.

On the other hand, Jesus did a tremendous act of compassion by healing a lame man on the Sabbath.  But rather then praise Jesus for his action, they accused him of breaking a religious law.  To God, this is so absurd!  To allow a religious rule to overshadow meeting the needs of hurting people goes against the very nature of God.

Jesus pointed out what the real issue was when he said, “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”  Whenever we put the focus on conformity to external behavior (which is what legalism is all about), we lose sight of what is really important, the true condition of the person’s heart.  It is not difficult for a person to do “all the right things” and still be miles away from God in his heart.  But if a person’s heart is pure and open and receptive to God and His grace, then all his external actions will match the inner beauty of his heart.

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And that brings us to some important application here.  Let us be very slow to judge and condemn another person simply on the external behaviors that we might see.  We must instead take the time to get to know that person and what is going on in the inside of him or her.  We do not need to promote conformity to rules to be the basis of thinking that person is right with God.  We need to help nurture a person’s relationship with God.  That is a heart issue.

In closing, let me remind us all that Jesus gave a stern warning to us in his analogy that we might have a plank sticking out of our eye (metaphorically speaking) while we judge someone else’s sin (which he compared to as a speck of dust in their eyes).  Let us clean up our own heart before we think we can help clean up someone else’s heart.

* If this article has been helpful to you and a blessing, please invite your friends to come visit this devotional blog site.

Taking A Look At Bible Translation

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Special Bible Translation Videos

In many of my articles over the past two years, I have tried to explain what is involved in doing Bible translation work.  Explaining the process of translation, starting with a rough draft and then the numerous checking stages after that, can be done in words.  But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  And so that is what I will do for this article, provide you with some links to see some video clips that demonstrate and explain the ministry of Bible translation.

Last week, and on the very same day, two short videos were released online.  The first one, produced by Wycliffe Bible Translators, does an excellent job illustrating the stages and the challenges of Bible translation work.  Take a look at this video clip using a fictional language from Asia:

The Bible Translation Process

Now that you have a little taste of what it takes to translate the Bible into another language and culture of the world, you will want to take a look at this next video.  This video clip was just produced by our mission group, Pioneer Bible Translators, and it helps us to see the bigger global picture of Bible translation.  We know that God sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Savior of the whole world.  But there are still over 2,200 languages in the world that do not have even one verse of Scripture in their language.

Watch this next video clip and try to gain a new perspective on what needs to be done in world missions:

Answer The Call

Now that you have seen these two quick video clips, I want to invite you to view a message that I preached to some churches in eastern Canada a few weeks ago.  I was invited to share about the ministry of Bible translation, which I am always happy to do.  In my message, I outline “The Task”, “The Challenges” and “The Vision” of Bible translation.  The message is about 40 minutes long, so I would like to invite you to sit back now (or at a later time) and catch the vision of what God is doing in the world.

Here is the link to the video message I delivered:

Catch The Vision

I hope you have enjoyed watching these videos as much as I have enjoyed preparing this article and spreading the word of what God is doing through ordinary people like you and me to take God’s Word to the ends of the earth.

Remember the Good Moments

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Who Am I?  Part 15

Two weeks ago I made brief comments about how God provided for our needs, even if the situation was less than ideal.  One thing is for sure, God did take us out of a bad situation and He did provide a new setting where we could be a family and be active in ministry.  (You can read about the last chapter of my life story by clicking here.)

Unfortunately, it did not last a long time.  From the time I was interviewed until the time I left for Prince Edward Island driving another U-Haul truck was just less than two years.  On the one hand, I could say that it was a good thing, as moving to PEI ultimately led me to discover and join Pioneer Bible Translators.  On the other hand, I can look back with regret and consider this church experience as the next one of my great failures.

And yet, even as I say that, I know that neither statement is completely true nor completely false.  As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I do know that at the one year mark there was a Board meeting to decide if they would keep me on as the minister for another year.  The vote was “yes”, but it was not a majority vote.  Nine months later, I decided that this was not the place for me to stay.  So what really happened?

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The history of the church is a bit fuzzy now for me after all these years.  I can tell you that this church was built in the mid 1800s and was the first church of our movement to be built this far west in Canada (Manitoba was considered “Pioneer Country” at that time).  The stone work and the wood crafting was phenomenal, and it had an overarching balcony over the main sanctuary that allowed for a capacity of over 250 people.  It was considered a grand church in its day.

There had been some great preachers there over the years, but as is the case for most small towns, the number of attending members continued to decline over time.  By the time I came for my interview, the church had an average attendance of 25 people.  It was rather sad to see such a grand hall be so empty looking, not just during the week, but even on a Sunday morning.

When I was interviewed by the Search Committee, I expressed my desire to come and be a Preacher / Church Growth Evangelist.  It was very evident that the members of the committee were quite excited about this prospect.  They recommended me to the church at large, I preached on Sunday, and then flew back to Alberta to await their decision.  It came back within a few days – they voted unanimously to hire me.

And so in December of 1990, we arrived and stayed in one member’s house while they did the finishing touches to remodel the suite that took up most of the church balcony.  One month later, our second son Glen was born and we moved soon after that into the suite.  There is no doubt in my mind that Glen’s birth and then living as a foursome in the small but quaint balcony suite were the most positive aspects of life for us at that time.

It didn’t take long though to see that the energies I was attempting to pour into revitalizing the church were meeting some opposition within the small group.  Of the few families that were left, there was one “clan” still there who had some powerful people, at least in terms of their opinions.  I came to realize the truth of a saying that one of our Bible College teachers used to say, “The young are out to change the world; the old are out to change the young.”

Interestingly enough, it was the middle-aged clan members who showed resistance to trying new ideas and welcoming new people as I worked at growing the church.  In fact, the hand full of old singles ladies and I got along very well.  I recall with great fondness how I would hold my mid-week Bible studies, working our way from Genesis to Revelation, and it was the same 4 or 5 old ladies who would come out and catch my vision and passion for teaching God’s Word.

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I believe it was when I moved the piano to the side and introduced some choruses while playing my guitar that was the beginning of the end for me there.  The “power players” resigned from helping with worship, and the older people were not able to lead or assist.  And so I was left alone in that ministry.  Jill saw the end coming, and hung on with me for a number of months more.  It ended up that she moved with the kids first to PEI while I stayed to end my 2-year commitment to them.

In between the beginning and the end though, I do remember the family moments we had there.  And there were some young couples that we really bonded to while there.  And certainly our “Old Ladies Bible Study” held precious moments, and I still use some of those materials today.  I haven’t mentioned about the outreach I had with a friend in town for a year to young people at a  Christian drop-in center.  Some of those young people gave their lives to Christ.  How precious is that?

And so I have a choice.  I can remember this 2-year experience as one of my great failures, where not only did the church not grow, but a few years later had to close its doors.  Or I can remember the special intimate times I had with family, and with dear old saints, and with brand new young Christians.  So you tell me, what really happened there?  I may not have built up the church building in that town, but I do believe I helped build the Kingdom of God in the hearts of those people who mattered most to me.  That is what I will remember most.

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God’s Perspective (Phil. 1:12-18a)

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Looking At Things From God’s Perspective

Philippians 1:12-18a  Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

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In our study of Philippians, it was hinted at in verse 7 that Paul had suffered imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel.  Now he makes it very explicit that he in fact is a prisoner, and it is because he preached Christ that he is in chains and being called on to defend publicly the claims of Christianity.  Meanwhile, there are some Christians who continue to preach Christ, but not out pure motives, but out of selfish motives which are causing a disturbance among the true believers of Christ.

For this fledgling church in Philippi, things seem to look very bad.  The founder of their church, and the man who could be the most encouraging to them is in jail.  And there are glory-seekers and hot-shot “preachers” who appear to be causing trouble for this small, but growing Christian movement.  From their perspective, everything looks bad.  And so Paul writes these verses to show them that in reality, what looks bad, is in effect really a good thing.

Consider this quote, “The letter to the Philippians was written in part to address their concern for his circumstances in prison and its affect on his ministry. From their perspective, imprisonment meant a huge setback. Paul shatters this notion in 1:12, claiming that his circumstances actually served to advance the gospel rather than holding it back.”  (Runge, S. E. (2011). High Definition Commentary: Philippians. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

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I think this is an important spiritual principle of life for us to learn well.  What we may consider to be bad and detrimental to the advance of the Kingdom and God’s work, can actually be something that God can use in a more powerful way than we can ever imagine.  Romans 8:28 promises us that God can bring good out of every situation.  I have seen that to be very true in these last three years of my ministry and life.

At the beginning of 2008, I felt like I was on top of the world in my ministry experience.  And in fact, I was being asked to help with training nationals in East Africa, to return to Papua New Guinea on a regular basis as a translation consultant, to help open up a new field of work in the subcontinent of Asia, to teach new missionary recruits in the States, and to be the head of our mission group in Canada.  And then this muscle disease hit.

I literally went from being a globe-trotter to barely walking across our living room floor.  Over the coming months of 2008, every aspect of global ministry had to be released and let go except for occasional trips to PNG to do consultant checking work.  I thought that it was the end of my ministry life.  But instead, as I trust God to give me strength, I have seen God bless others in mighty ways that I might never have seen happen before as they witnessed God’s power working through me to get this work done.

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The second thing that discouraged the Philippian believers was seeing many other people “preaching the gospel” but in such a way that these people were getting all the attention and glory.  Paul talks about these kinds of people and he uses the Greek word “eritheia“.  This is a strong word and can be translated as “rivalry” or perhaps better “selfish ambition”.

The “Translator’s Notes on Philippians” says that “Paul meant that these people wanted to be important. They wanted people to respect them and obey them rather than Paul, so they tried to get more people to follow them than Paul had.”  Do you remember the evangelistic fiasco of Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker?  Or the scandal caused by Jimmy Swaggart?  What shame they gave to true Christians.

And then I recall meeting a missionary in the back hills of Honduras in 1979.  He spoke of all the thousands of dollars that he had gotten churches to donate to his work of planting churches.  Meanwhile, he had built himself a virtual rustic mansion as he did his work of “ministering” to the nationals.  I heard a few years later that his financial “irregularities” caused him to resign and fade back into American life.

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So what are we to think about these kinds of Christians who speak about Christ, but are often in it more for the money and the glory?  Paul says in verse 18, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.”  I must say that I feel bad for those who were hurt or disillusioned by these Christian hot-shots.  But then I also have to recognize that there were still many true and lasting decisions for Christ made under the Bakker’s work or under Swaggart.  And there are still some good functioning churches up in the hills of Honduras.

So the bottom line is this:  we are to serve our God with integrity and honesty.  And we are even to be thankful for the fruit that is borne even by these masquerading Christian leaders.  Above all else, we are to give thanks to God whenever the name of Jesus is exalted, whatever the motive might be.  We are to rejoice in this, just like Paul did while he was in prison.

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God’s Little Salesman!

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I can still remember my first experience of trying to present something of value to another person and hoping that the person would want what I was offering.  I was very young at the time, probably only about eight or nine years old.  And thankfully I was not alone in this endeavor, as I was out with my older brother at that time and we were doing this together.

Now you are probably asking by this point, “What in the world was Norm doing?”  So I will tell you.  My brother and I were out trying to sell raffle tickets at a bowling lane.  I don’t remember what the prize was, but for about a dollar per ticket, people had a chance to win some nice item and also help the Youth Bowling Association.  You see, all the guys in our family were bowlers – my father, my two brothers and myself.  And selling raffles tickets was one way we raised money for the youth programs and to go on special outings in western Canada.

So there we were, my brother and I, going from lane to lane asking people if they would like to buy a ticket.  On the first time we went out, to my recollection, my brother sold about five tickets after going down the twenty or so lanes of bowlers, while I had sold about five books of tickets totaling about fifty tickets.  This seemed to work so well that we came back a few more nights and found the same thing happen, where I would sell five to ten times as many tickets as my brother.

Now an interesting fact about this story is that there was to be a special award given out to the top youth sellers of these tickets.  The prize was to go on a Greyhound trip to Banff.  So guess what happened?  Yes, you guessed it.  I was one of the top sellers of tickets, if not the number one seller.  But when it was time to turn in all the proceeds and the ticket book sales, it turned out that there was an age restriction for the youth that could go on the trip.  And I was too young.  So my brother was credited with all the sales and got to go on the trip instead of me.  Oh double darn and rats!  : )

But the question was asked later, “Why was Norm able to sell so many tickets, especially after his brother had just gone down the row of lanes and asked the same question to the bowlers, but who had not bought a ticket?”  Well, what can I say.  I was a cute kid.  : )  But I think there was another answer.

As I have been involved in church and mission ministry over the years, many people have commented to me that I have a real passion when I am presenting something that I really believe in.  There is a fire and a deep conviction within me that what I have to offer is something that you would also want to have.

I think that if I had chosen a business vocation, that I could have been a great salesman.  (Anyone want to buy a prime piece of swampland?  No worries about traffic congestion or problems with your neighbors.)  But God has always had something else in mind for me.  I was not to be focusing upon presenting an excellent product to other people, but rather I was to be single-minded in presenting a unique and excellent Person to other people.

Ever since I met Jesus when I was 12 years old, I have whole-heartedly believed in the Person of Jesus and what He has to offer to the world.  Namely, our redemption (paying the price for our sins), and forgiveness of those sins (He has removed them as far as the West is from the East), and our adoption (we have become children of the Living God and heirs to the riches of Heaven).

Now that is something to get excited about.  And whenever I get the chance to share about God’s mission to bring the world back to Himself, I get really fired up with a zeal and a passion that has attracted many people to what I have to say.  For they can tell that this is not just a casual interest in Christ that I have, but a true and living relationship with the Everlasting God.  And that is something worth talking about and offering to the world.

“When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.           1 Corinthians 2:1-5