Friday, June 29, 2007

But Is It Biblical? (Dependency Part 2)

I recently saw an advertisement by a ministry stating that they are partnering with church leaders in restricted nations through a sponsorship program where, for about a dollar a day, you could free national pastors, missionaries and evangelists in various developing world countries from having to work to supply their needs and those of their families. According to the ad, many of these Christian workers spend most of their time providing the necessities of life for their families. But with your help, apparently, they could spend more time spreading the gospel and ministering to others.

At first glance, one might think that such support makes perfect sense. Why not free up a national pastor, evangelist, or missionary from the burden of having to spend most of their time working to provide the necessities of life? Such an appeal makes sense to our Western sense of efficiency. Anything that helps spread the gospel faster to more people must, of necessity, be good and right.

I recognize that such programs are fueled by good intentions. But good intentions do not always lead to good practices.

One of the most valuable books that I own is by Christopher R. Little, entitled "Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-first Century" (Peter Lang Publishing, 2005). Despite its ridiculous price ($75 USD), it is a book that is truly worth owning and studying. From its first sentence, I knew that this was a book that I was going to want to take seriously: "The greatest need of the church in mission is to reflect biblically and thereafter act upon that reflection."

Little is absolutely correct! His point is so obvious that it should not have had to be said, but it does; the Bible needs to be our authority for how we carry out the mission of God in the twenty-first century. We need to reflect on the scriptures and then strategize accordingly; being sure that our practice is as orthodox as our beliefs. Otherwise, as Little says, we end up putting unnecessary obstacles in the path of the missio Dei (mission of God).

Little identifies six reasons why Paul insisted in supporting himself in his ministry through his trade as a leather worker (probably a more accurate rendering of the phrase "tent-maker"):

1. Such a philosophy of ministry was a carryover from his Jewish heritage that valued hard work and self-sufficiency, and resisted the idea that people should profit from the teaching of the Law. Now, later Paul does affirm that there is nothing instrinsically wrong with local leaders receiving financial assistance from local sources, but Paul had no desire to see himself as an agent of anyone else apart from the God who supplies all of his needs.

Leaders in restricted nations who receive financial aid for their salaries (which people inevitably find about) are often seen as agents of the west, under the payroll of western governments. They are viewed with suspicion which casts a cloud over their credibility and that of their church, increasing the threat of persecution. If someone is to be persecuted, let it be for righteousness and not for financial reasons.

2. Paul knew that he was under divine constraint in relation to how he conducted his ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, he makes it clear that he would rather die than receive remuneration for his labour in the gospel. To Paul, being self-sufficient was a matter of obedience of God. If he could work, he needed to do so. Otherwise, he was being disobedient to the Lord.

3. His approach prevented Paul from placing obstacles in the path of the gospel. Paul knew that money speaks. By working, he was able to connect with anyone as an equal, nor could he be accused for preaching for profit. The gospel was, therefore, protected from being misinterpreted as a means to financial gain.

I have already referred to the increased danger that financial compensation places on persecuted believers. This cannot be stated too strongly. Aid is one thing, but long term, regular support is inevitably disastrous, leading to such things as anti-conversion legislation in places like India and Sri Lanka.

4. Paul's modus operandi permitted him to achieve self-sufficiency. This was not easy, as 1 Thessalonians 2:9 makes plain. Paul worked from early in the morning to late at night. But somehow, this did not impact his ability to spread the gospel. So, why is it that we automatically assume that providing for one's own upkeep and that of one's family must, of necessity, limit the spread of the gospel? Paul made no such assumption. Indeed, he seems to hold to the opposite view.

5. By combining mission with his trade, Paul successfully adapted to the first-century Graeco-Roman world. It was not uncommon for traveling philosophers to work and propagate their message at the same time. Indeed, the more credible ones did exactly that. Paul's practice was an ideal way of contextualizing himself and the gospel to the pedagogical techniques of the first century. This is also true in Islamic countries where religious leaders are not paid.

6. Paul saw his policy of working for a living as a strategic means of evangelism. Besides the synagogue and private homes, the workshop was a place in which Paul shared the gospel. This is seen in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 as well. Working alongside of industrious people like Aquila and Priscilla, Paul was able to convert them to Christ. Paul is best understood as a person busy at leatherworking while busy at preaching the gospel. The two complimented each other rather than competed.

Instead, what do we do? We buy motorcycles and technological gadgets that make developing world pastors and evangelists "more effective" (just like us!).

7. Paul's life as a self-sustaining worker in service to the church was meant to be an example to others to emulate (2 Thess. 3:9). Paul clearly saw that he was a model worth following.

The support of national workers by churches and individuals in the West is one of the most celebrated forms of "partnership" being promoted today. Rarely, however, does anyone take the time to seriously consider the first question that should have been asked, "Is it biblical?" I think it is obvious how Paul would have answered.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why Am I Concerned About Dependency?

A couple of years ago, I was challenged by someone who asked why I was so concerned about the creation of dependency on Western aid amoung Christians in restricted nations. "What has this to do with persecution?" I was asked. A good question, to be sure. The ministry of The Voice of the Martyrs is that of serving the Persecuted Church. This is our sole focus.

But the truth is, dependency has a great deal to do with persecution. Indeed, if I were asked what I believe to be the great threat to the spread of the gospel in today's world, I suspect that my answer might surprise many of you. I do not believe that it is persecution or restrictions on religious liberty. In many cases, persecution is the fruit of faithful witness for Christ, instigated by religious, social, and political leaders who view the spread of Christianity in their community with alarm. In response and in a desire to maintain their version of an acceptable status quo, these leaders attempt to stop or at least control the activities which they see as a threat. Two thousand years of history, however, proves the truth of Jesus' words when He said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church. Indeed, the gospel is spreading today as never before, often most virulently in societies where opposition is vicious and unrelenting.

No, I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glace, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of "partnership."

Such programs are varied and wide-ranging. Some claim to be "revolutionizing" world missions through their approach of having western Christians sponsor national missions, churches, evangelists, missionaries and pastors. Claiming to be more efficient and culturally adaptable, such groups appeal to the western desire to be cost and labour effective by claiming that such an approach provides more "bang for the buck." Or alternately, they bemoan the fact that these poor servants of God have to labour so hard to meet the needs of their families that they have no time to spread the gospel (to which I respond, "Paul didn't seem to have that problem. See 1 Thessalonians 2:9." Indeed, Paul seemed to think that his approach was the best possible strategy for spreading the gospel. But then again, I suppose we know better in the 21st century).

A careful study of the issue, however, demonstrates that dependency on western resources to spread the gospel has proven, in most cases, to be an absolute disaster.

Wayne Allen in his 1998 article in the Evangelical Missions Quarterly "When the Mission Pays the Pastor" demonstrated conclusively how churches in Indonesia that numerically through the use of culturally appropriate methods, led and financed by local believers and open to allowing God to direct them. Their growth, however, plateaued or halted when westerners began to subsidize national church workers. Why did the initiation of subsidy coincide with the cessation of growth? Interviews that Allen conducted with village leaders and personal observations suggest the following possible causes:

"First, a loss of lay involvement. The initiation of subsidy signaled a move away from reliance on lay leadership to reliance on a professional clergy....The lay leadership increasingly came to feel that the work of the church was the responsibility of the paid clergy.

Second, loss of focus. The paid workers began to concentrate more on pleasing the missionary, who paid their salaries than on meeting the needs of their churches. Further, the paid workers lost the vision for evangelism. They increasingly gave their attention to ministering to the needs of the congregation, neglecting to visit the neighboring villages to preach the gospel. Finally, over time the paid workers became increasingly aware of how little they were being paid. This resulted in increased focus on how to increase their level of remuneration, and less attention on the work of the ministry.

Third, loss of devotion. When the churches realized that the missionary was paying the salary of the pastor, they lost their sense of ownership of the pastor. They increasingly came to see the pastor as the missionary's hired worker. They increasingly felt no obligation to give toward the pastor's support. When the pastor saw that the congregation was not concerned with providing for his support and well-being, he devoted himself even more to pleasing the missionary who paid his salary. The pastor also increased his efforts to persuade the missionary to increase his salary."

There is a fourth issue that Allen does not address. Paid workers are often viewed with suspicion by members of the community which he/she is trying to reach and not necessarily because he or she is a follower of Jesus. To receive payment from someone in many cultures is not to be viewed as a partner but as an employee or a client. To be supported by outside (and especially Western) finances is to raise a cloak of suspicion upon the recipient's motivation for serving (or even being a Christian), and his loyalty to the country. The recipient is no longer viewed as "one of us" but "one of them!" This sometimes results in increased persecution and rejection of the gospel and not necessarily because of Christ but because the gospel has become wrapped up in dollar bills.

So why am I concerned about dependency? Because if it harms the persecuted church's witness and may even lead to persecution, it must concern me!

If you are presently involved in sponsoring the salaries of national workers either individually or as a church, may I urge you to do four things:

1) Consider other ways that you can assist God's work.

2) Encourage the organization that you are supporting this worker through to change their practices. A more biblical and sustainable approach would be to assist members of local churches with self-generating loans, job training, and stewardship teaching so that the church can become more financially stable, enabling them to support their own workers.

3) Encourage others to not get involved in such programs and to discontinue if they are. There is big money being made through such sponsorship programs. In 2004, the four largest groups in the world who focus on sponsoring national workers distributed over $53,000,000 USD worldwide. This does not include the amount that they kept for administration. That is a lot of money. Many groups have found that sponsoring national workers is a great way to increase donations. I suspect that until such groups realize that it is no longer profitable to engage in dependency creating programs, they will not change their ways.

4) Get behind ministries who are working at creating sustainable ministries for those who, when they are persecuted, are persecuted for Christ's sake and not because of their financial links with westerners.

If you want to learn more about dependency, how to avoid it and how to overcome it, order Glenn Schwartz's new book When Charity Destroys Dignity which you can now order online from The Voice of the Martyrs.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Faith as a Uniting Factor?

In a recent speech before the national meeting of the United Church of Christ, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama accused the religious right of hijacking faith for political purposes. "Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart," he stated.

Interesting.... Faith as a uniting factor. Since when? Certainly as I look at history, religious conviction has rarely had a uniting influence on a national level in any country and in the U.S. less so than in most. But more importantly, from a biblical perspective, I am not even sure that this is either possible or desirable. Jesus, Himself, said that he did not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword (Matthew 10:34). The following verses make it clear that faith in Jesus is not a united factor but a divisive one. This is evidenced by the persecution faced by Christians around the world today.

Before Mr. Obama wraps himself in a religious cloak and suggests that we should just all get along, perhaps he should take a closer look at what faith really is.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Persecution is a 'normal' part of living as a disciple of Christ"

I received an email this weekend from a family member of a Christian worker who was brutally killed for his faith a few weeks ago. For this person's security, I won't say more than that. I was surprised to learn that he is working on translating my book, In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship and astounded when he wrote, "Working on the translation of your book helped me to be better prepared for what happened." He writes how he is living under continued threat himself and then says, "So I am even more convinced than before that your book is necessary to help the church see that persecution is a ‘normal' part of living as a disciple of Christ."

I was deeply touched by this and grateful to God for the privilege of serving Him in this way. It motivates me to continue my research in this subject and to work at making this teaching available to my brothers and sisters around the world. Already the book has been translated into Ukrainian, Russian, Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. Ongoing or plans for future translations include Urdu, Turkish, Tamil, Singhalese, Tigrinya, German, Arabic, French, and Amharic. Between Bernie Daniel and myself, we plan to continue to take this teaching to leaders around the world, equipping others who will teach others what is means to be a cross-centred messenger of a cross-centred gospel. Pray that God would supply the strength, personnel, and the resources necessary to expand this vital part of our ministry here at VOM Canada. Pray too that God would open the doors to the right opportunities to train key leader worldwide. If you would like to know more about VOMC's educational training ministry called Via Crucis, click here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Say What?

What else really needs to be said? (Source for cartoon:

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Character of Paul

In one of the how-to texts I'm currently reading about writing fiction, I came across an interesting passage that uses the story of Apostle Paul to demonstrate effective character development:

To show what makes a character, you must come to a crucial choice that almost breaks and then makes the character. The make-or-break decision gives you plot. Think of Saul on the way to Damascus: While persecuting Christians, he is blinded by a vision; after that, he changes, becomes St. Paul, the greatest proselyte. Something stays the same, however; he is equally zealous, before and after. No matter what you think of the story of Paul's conversion, keep it in mind as a paradigm for character writing (Josip Novokovich, Fiction Writer's Workshop).

I read the author's "no matter what you think" statement as the author's way of acknowledging that Paul's story has power even for those who do not consider the Bible to be true. It's definitely one of the most well-known Bible stories. I think its popularity comes from its climax, in which a classic' bad guy' is transformed into a ‘good guy' in a shock of holy light. Even nonbelievers must admit that Paul is, at the very least, a compelling ‘character.' After all, as all writers and readers know, the best stories are those in which the characters truly and deeply change.

What currently intrigues me about this story now, however, is not what changes in Paul but what stays the same: his zeal. Paul is not suddenly instilled with religious fervor in that blinding flash. God doesn't require him to become docile and quiet; He directs the passion which Paul already possesses toward His holy purpose. Paul walks into the light of his newfound faith without having to check his entire personality at the door. His soul is simply renewed and redirected when he is redeemed.

A number of conversion stories that VOM receives have a similar ‘plot' to Paul's (such as this one from India). Militant Hindus and Muslims turn from violent and murderous persecutors into passionate and dedicated Christian workers. No matter how many times I hear such reports, I remain amazed and inspired by how God calls his children to faith. He is able to bring them into his good service and grant them new hope by building upon what is already present---using even those qualities which some might initially consider negative or harmful. Yet more proof that it is wrong for Christians to dismiss even the cruelest and most fervent of persecutors as ‘hopeless.'

It is a blessing to be able to read Acts 9 and know that it is far more than an entertaining piece of fiction; it is God's truth. Pray that the lives of our brothers and sisters who came to Christ as Paul will testify to the truth of His grace and pray that nonbelievers will come to separate the fiction of false belief from the fact of Christian faith.

Reflections on Islam

Whether Islam is a religion of peace or if Islam is different from Islamism is really rather irrelevant, as George Jonas has said repeatedly in his essays in the National Post. Essentially all terrorism in the world today is done in the name of Islam by Muslims. To repeatedly moan that such terrorists are not real Muslims is increasingly unconvincing and misleading. It is true that the face of terror and religious violence is not the only face of Islam. But it is one of them. Islam is not a united faith. To change metaphors, Islam is a house with many rooms and a number of them are occupied by those who believe that offensive violence is a legitimate tool in the service of Allah. Even moderates will admit that Islam is going through a difficult transition in recent years; for some, the transition is one that would take it back to its violent past if they are successful.

There are the voices who will sanely speak to this reality? They are, admittedly, few. George Jonas, whom I mentioned earlier, is one of them. Over the weekend, I finished reading his latest book, Reflections on Islam (Key Porter Books, 2007). Jonas is a columnist with the National Post and the CanWest News Service and one of the finest writers in Canada in my opinion. Reflections on Islam is a collection of his essays on Islam written between early 2001 and late 2006. Many of them I had read when they were first published and found them helpful then just as I still do. His arguments and opinions reflect an uncommon common sense that has been almost wholly lacking since 9/11. This is how the publisher describes the book (and while I often distrust publisher descriptions, this one is accurate):

On September 11, 2001, four hijacked airplanes changed the world. Or did they? The 9/11 attacks shattered the modern illusion about Islam as a wholly peaceful faith. They raised the possibility that this seemingly new struggle between East and Westbetween secular democracy and Islamist theocracyis just the latest variant of a much older contest between Islam and the non-Islamic world that has been now simmering, now flaring up, for the last 1,400 years. If we have failed to see the skirmishes along Islams perimetersin Kashmir and Kosovo, in India and Pakistan, in Chechnya and Xinjiangit is simply because we have refused to look.

In Reflections on Islam, award-winning author and columnist George Jonas explores a range of issues that have come to occupy our daily attention. Is there a difference between Islam and Islamism (and does it matter if there is)? Are we in the midst of a clash of civilizations? How is the confrontation between theocracy and democracy manifesting itself outside of the Middle East? Was it a mistake to invade Iraq, or simply a mistake to stay? At what point do liberal impulses on matters such as multiculturalism and immigration becomes short-sighted and dangerous?

Witty, provocative, and eloquent, this collection of essays written between early 2001 and late 2006 showcases Jonas at his best. Reflections on Islam should be required reading for anyone grappling with the defining issues of our age.

Reflections on Islam can be ordered online from both Chapters and Amazon. I heartily endorse it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Islam's Bullies Find a New Cause

Muslim demonstrators around the world are once again demonstrating what a religion of peace Islam truly is in response to the announcement that Salman Rushdie was awarded a knighthood last week for services to literature. Cries for the death of the British blasphemers were heard in the streets and parliaments of Pakistan and Iran. Flags and effigies of the Queen, Prime Minister Blair, and Mr. Rushdie were burned in the streets. A group of hard-line Pakistani Muslim clerics bestowed a special religious title on Osama bin Laden in response to the British knighthood; "Saifullah", or sword of Allah. Pakistan's religious affairs minister, Ejaz ul-Haq, told lawmakers on Monday that "if someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the 'sir' title. "Don't blame us for any violence!" religious and political leaders warned. "This act of knighting a blasphemer creates religious hatred."

Rubbish! These demonstrations are evidence of pre-existing religious intolerance and an attitude that says, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but hurting my feelings will cause me to break yours!" This schoolyard bullying by those who seem intent on holding the West hostage to their Islamic sensibilities is getting outright annoying. The very countries who get irritated by the West when they feel that we are imposing our values on them when we call attention to their human rights abuses seem intent on imposing their values on us through the use of threats and acts of violence whenever we apparently offend their religious feelings.

I sincerely hope that the United Kingdom does not apologize for knighting Rushdie or discreetly pressure him to refuse his knighthood. Not that I am a big fan of the author. Frankly, I haven't read a thing he ever wrote and am unlikely to do so. But on principle, the decision of the Queen to knight him is none of Pakistan or Iran's business. It is time Her Majesty's government made that very clear. And the media can do us all a favour and ignore the protesting crowds who obviously have nothing better to do. Remove the cameras and I can guarantee you that they'll all go home.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Please Write on Behalf of Dmitry Shestakov

On January 1, 2007 Pastor Dmitry Shestakov was arrested in Andijon, Uzbekistan. In a raid on the registered Full Gospel Church where he pastored, National Security Service police asked Pastor Shestakov to step outside with them for five minutes. They immediately escorted the 37-year-old pastor to the local police station.

On January 30, he was officially charged with operating an illegal religious organization and distributing literature promoting religious extremism. On March 9, he was sentenced to four years in an open work camp. On May 25, after he refused to repent for his "crimes", he was transferred to a closed labour camp in the city of Navoi to serve the rest of his sentence.

Uzbek prosecutors have long been seeking to imprison Pastor Shestakov. Harassment began in May 2006, apparently in response to the conversion from Islam to Christianity of a number of ethnic Uzbek families.

Please write a polite letter to the Uzbek president, requesting the release of Dmitry Shestakov. Please do not mention The Voice of the Martyrs, or make comments about politics, or include anything that could be considered insulting to the president or Uzbek authorities. Write to:

His Excellency Islam Abduganievch Karimov
Prezidentu Respubliki Uzbekistan
700163 g. Tashkent
ul. Uzbekistankaya, 43
Rezidentsia prezidenta

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Faith of our Fathers

Today, being Father's Day, in churches across the English speaking world, the hymn "Faith of our Fathers" will undoubtedly be sung as we remember and express our appreciation for our fathers.

But did you know that "Faith of Our Fathers" was written by a Roman Catholic priest named Frederick William Faber to remind Catholic congregations in England of those who were martyred during the reign of Henry VIII in the early days of the establishment of the Anglican Church in Great Britain? The text first appeared in 1849 in Faber's collection, Jesus and Mary; or Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading. One of the omitted verses from his original text expresses this thought:

Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We would be true to Thee till death.

Of course, this verse was omitted or changed by Protestants when they discovered the hymn.

But the sentiment behind this song is profound, although I expect that many congregants miss it when they sing its familiar words. The call of the song is to follow Christ even to the point of death, to remember those who have already made this sacrifice and to follow their example, and to provide a model for the coming generation in the hope that they, too, will follow Christ with the same dedication (see verse 2 below).

Verse 1

Faith of our fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword!
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene'er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to Thee till death!

Verse 2

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free.
How sweet would be their children's fate
If they, like them could die for thee!
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to Thee till death!

Verse 3

Faith of our fathers! God's great power
Shall win all nations unto thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then be truly free.
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!

Verse 4

Faith of our fathers we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach Thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life.
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to Thee till death!

Verse 5

Faith of our fathers we will strive
To win all nations unto Thee!
And thro' the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then be truly free:
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We will be true to Thee till death!

Fathers, can we truly sing these words? Do we want to see our children live lives that invite persecution because of their zeal for the Lord? Is it our desire to see them give their lives for the Kingdom of God greater than our desire to see them succeed in life through the possession of a good education and occupation? Do we actively encourage them in this direction? Do we provide a model of such priorities? Could we honestly say, How sweet would be my children's fate if they, like believers around the world today, could die for thee?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Remembering the Church in Belarus

Today is the second day of a three day fast by Protestant Christians in Belarus. Its purpose is to draw attention to religious rights violations against religious minorities by the government. Then on Sunday, June 17, Protestant believers from across Belarus will pray for religious freedom in their country.

Already the most religiously restrictive nation in Europe, the situation in Belarus has worsened recently. More than two dozen priests, foreign citizens, have been deported. Three Protestant churches have been closed. Church leaders have been imprisoned for holding services in their homes; others have been heavily fined.

Please join in praying for our brothers and sisters in Belarus. They are also asking that Christians from around the world join in writing to Belarusian authorities, asking for changes to current legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations. The law stipulates that all unregistered religious activity, communities with fewer than 20 members, and any religious activity in private homes (apart from occasional, small-scale meetings) are considered illegal. Religious communities that do not have a registered umbrella body are not able to invite foreign citizens for religious work and all religious literature is subject to censorship. Registration is often a difficult process and many organizations, including some with thousands of members, have been unable to register.

Syarhei Tsvor, a deputy bishop of the United Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith recently told Radio Svaboda, "The law bans any religious events in dwelling houses, without a special permission, and we have 197 houses where services are taking place. At any moment these pastors can be arrested. We shall pray to God to protect us, as we had no reply to our written appeals to authorities."

You can support the campaign of our brothers and sisters in seeking protection of their rights of freedom of conscience if you write letters to following addresses:

House of Representatives, Parliament
220000 Sovetskaya St., 11, Minsk, Belarus

Administration of the President of the Republic of Belarus
220016 K. Marx St., 38, Minsk, Belarus

Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus
220010, Sovetskaya St., 11 Minsk, Belarus

Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus
220016, K. Marx St., 32, Minsk, Belarus

Wedding Bells at The Voice of the Martyrs

Wedding bells have been ringing for members of the VOMC family during the last week.

Last Saturday, our administrative assistant Sandra Frimpong married Sinatra Frempong here in Mississauga. Many of our staff were able to attend the wedding and the reception and enjoyed experiencing a joyous and exuberant Ghanaian celebration for the first time (both Sandra and Sinatra are originally from Ghana). Sandra will be back in the office next week. I hope that she and Sinatra enjoyed their honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

Today, our Ethiopian project officer, Brother Joshua marries Rahel in a small ceremony in Addis Ababa. How I wish I could be there, as Joshua is one of my dearest friends. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Reha but hope that I will be able to travel to Ethiopia at some point in the next year to do so. Joshua's ministry is one of risk and hardship as he serves the persecuted church in Ethiopia. We praise God that He has brought a young woman into Joshua's life who can share this calling with him.

If you would like to pass on your good wishes to these two couples, please feel free to add your comments to this blog entry and I will be sure to pass them on.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thinking Through Fundraising

I received a letter and quarterly update today from a Christian organization that shall remain nameless. I have no particular axe to grind with them. Indeed, I think that they have generally done a good work. The thing that bugs me about them is their fund-raising material that they send me, which is why I have never and am likely never to send any funds their way.

What struck me first was how the cover letter began when the president of the organization referred to me as one of their "most faithful supporters." Surely they have me mixed up with someone else. Either that or they are serious financial trouble, if my donation history of giving nothing still marks me as one of their most "faithful" supporters. Of course, I realize that this was nothing but a form letter, but such unearned flattery struck me as rather silly, perhaps even a little manipulative. At the very least,
it was not well thought through.

The second thing that put me off was in their quarterly report when they mentioned how I could help persecuted Christians in Nepal. If anyone has followed Nepal lately, one would know that the situation for Christians has actually improved there significantly in recent months. Yet, this organization makes no mention of this development and continues to refer to Nepal as a "Hindu kingdom" (which it no longer is) and tells of Christians facing "harsh persecution" including imprisonment (which they really are not).

Accuracy in reporting and especially in fund raising should be a non-negotiable value for organizations who name the name of Christ. I understand that mistakes can be made, but misrepresentation and manipulation are, in my opinion, inexcusable. Frankly, I doubt that either was intended by this particular organization, although I do know of others who do resort to such tactics. It is a sad truth that there are groups who won't "let the truth get in the way of a good story" or who tend to be a little "evangelastic" with the truth.

To be honest, I am probably more disappointed in this organization than anything. As I said, I respect their work very much. I do think, however, they probably need to either rethink their development strategy or educate their development staff. The problem in many organizations is that development staff is often under-informed on conditions on the field. Those who raise the money frequently know little about the very projects they are trying to promote or the countries in which these projects take place. Development staff is often tempted to undervalue progress in a country or to overstate persecution in order to create a sense of urgency. Either temptation must be strenuously resisted. If the cause if noble, the means of meeting its needs must be equally noble.

(Cartoon is from

Sunday, June 10, 2007

China's Charm Offensive

This week, Costa Rica cut off official diplomatic ties with Taiwan and opened them with mainland China. Business leaders cringed this week as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once again pressed Chinese President Hu Jintao over "shortcomings" in democracy and human rights when the two met at the G8 summit in Germany. On Friday, the G8 leaders agreed to allocate 60 billion U.S. dollars "over the coming years" to finance the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and a further 500 million dollars for the "Education for All" program in Africa. Development and aid experts, however, consider this new pledge as a step backwards, compared to the promises made at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to double development assistance by 2010.

How are these three stories related? At first glance, they might not appear to be and I might not have been thinking of such connections either if I had not recently read Joshua Kurlantzick's "Charm Offensive" (Yale University Press, 2007).

In this fascinating study, Joshua Kurlantzick examines the significance of China's use of "soft power" since the late 1990's to advance its standing and interests in the world. Through the use of diplomacy, foreign aid with few or no strings attached, trade incentives, and cultural and educational exchange programs, China has reinvented its reputation worldwide, developed stronger international alliances and effectively silenced its critics. This is especially true as it has focused its attention on developing world countries in East Asia, Africa, and South America.

The recent actions by Costa Rica clearly demonstrate this, as Costa Rica ended a long-term relationship with Taiwan in response to China's rising investments and trade with the Central American country. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias acknowledged that the decision to go with Beijing was related to Costa Rica's desire to bolster its economy, and he criticized Taiwan for giving "insufficient" aid to its allies. "I was always critical of the Taiwanese, and I can say now that I always told them ... if you want to have friends in the world, you should be more generous," he said. This is exactly what China did.

This same methodology of winning friends and influencing people through soft power can be seen worldwide, as Kurlantzick amply demonstrates. Unfortunately, this at the very time when many western, affluent countries are cutting back on foreign aid or attaching strings (e.g. increased accountability). Also, many western countries are cutting back on other aspects of their soft power initiatives at very time that China is increasing its.

One might ask, how does this relate to the persecution of Christians? Why is VOMC discussing this on its weblog? The answer can be seen in how this charm offensive by China has effectively silenced its critics who would try to push for greater religious freedom in this totalitarian state. As Kurlantzick points out, this is the most dangerous part of China's soft power. Despite government promises of reform and the economic changes that have taken place, he reminds us that China remains an authoritarian country where the trend is recent years has been towards increased suppression of those perceived as being threatening to government control.

Increased trade is not promoting greater freedom of expression and belief in China. Rather the opposite is true and as the Beijing Olympics near, these crackdowns on dissidents are increasing so as to have everything under control before the world media arrives. Additionally, when resolutions are proposed at the United Nations to prod China towards greater openness and accountability, China is now able to call upon its new allies to defeat them. This was evident in 2004 when many countries that receive Chinese aid such as Eritrea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were able to pass a "no action" resolution to prevent debate and a vote on a U.S. sponsored resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights regarding China. This is also evident when business leaders in free countries like Canada criticize the Prime Minister when he uses his office to push for greater human rights in China. Such actions are seen as bad for business when the Chinese government-controlled media responds to such criticism by saying that Canada is being "harsh" with China and that such actions "sour" China's mood towards Canada. This rhetoric is geared to pressure the Prime Minister to tone down his convictions and "get back on track" as former Canadian ambassador-turned-entrepreneur Howard Balloch expressed it to the Toronto Star on June 2, 2007.

"Charm Offensive" is available through both Amazon and Chapters-Indigo. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Life as a secret Christian convert

Abandoning Islam for Christianity is such a sensitive issue in Malaysia that many converts find themselves leading a secret, double life.

"If people know that I've converted to Christianity, they might take the law into their own hands. If they are not broadminded, they might take a stone and throw it at me."

These are the words of a Muslim convert in Malaysia, in a BBC report from late last year which I only just ran across this week. The recent ruling by the Malaysian Federal Court against Lina Joy and the upcoming edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter which features Malaysia has caused me to have an increased concern for this nation. Click here to read the remainder of the BBC report and if you are not receiving The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter, may I encourage you to subscribe today so as not to miss the July edition on Malaysia.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

"Thank You" For Your Prayers

I want to thank those of you who have been praying for me while I have been teaching at Toronto Baptist Seminary this week. I am glad to report that I have been feeling very well and my energy levels have been remarkably high (all things considered). This was a special concern the last couple of days since my doctors reduced my prednisone dosage on Tuesday. This usually means that I feel markedly tired for a few days afterwards. However, I have been able to teach for 6 hours each day.

It is a real joy to be teaching on the theology of persecution and discipleship again. The last time I was able to do this was over a year ago in Sri Lanka. I am really hopeful that this means that I will slowly be able to take on other engagements in the months to come.

Again, thank you for your prayers.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Breathing Through the Awe and the Guilt

In the first few pages of Ronald Boyd-MacMillan's book, Faith That Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church, he reflects on the two emotions through which he initially related to persecuted believers: awe and guilt: He says "The awe came from what they had endured. They seemed like super-saints. The guilt came from knowing I would never face the same physical suffering as they, and it seemed so unfair. Their faith seemed so exotic, and mine so mundane."

I certainly admit to wrestling with these two emotions and I suspect that many others do as well. But even though these are common emotions, they're far from harmless. Boyd-MacMillan comes to realize that these are the emotions that "prevent [him] from having an experience of the persecuted that is useful to [his] own life, to [his] own church [and] to [his] own nation."

I believe these emotions are so harmful because they put the persecuted at a distance. If you give in to the awe, you push suffering Christians up on a kind of pedestal. Their faith seems more advanced or, as Boyd-MacMillan says, it seems "exotic." If you give in to the guilt, there's the temptation to distance yourself from the persecuted simply because they make you feel as if your own faith is too "mundane"---or perhaps just too 'easy.'

So how do we deal with the awe and the guilt? Interestingly enough, my answer to this question was inspired by a typo. You see, at first I intended to entitle this blog entry "Breaking through the Awe and the Guilt." Instead, I accidentally typed "Breathing." And as I went to correct it, I realized that it might be a better word to use after all.

Like Boyd-MacMillian, I think it's important to recognize that awe and guilt are logical emotional responses for Christians to have when they are confronted with the reality of Christian persecution. If you think about it, they are the two main emotions which arise when man is confronted with evidence of holiness. Think of when you pray, or sing praise or read scripture. Are they not times when you feel almost paralyzed by your awe for the Lord? Likewise, are there not times where you get tangled up in your own guilt in the face of such supreme love and sacrifice?

This is not to say that persecuted believers are, in themselves, holy (or, to use Boyd-MacMillan's phrase, that they are "super-saints"). But there's no denying that they are powerful evidence of God's holiness at work on earth. It makes sense many of the same emotions that characterize our relationship with God will characterize our relationship with them. In fact, I consider such feelings inevitable. (After all, the devil likes nothing more than to distance us from each other---and awe and guilt are two very clever and effective tools).

So perhaps instead of expecting ourselves to just break out of the awe and guilt, we should prepare ourselves to work through them. Just as breathing is a constant, everyday process, so is dealing with such feelings. There's no sudden or immediate fix. And even when we, like Boyd-MacMillan, realize their harm, there's no guarantee that they won't flare up again. When they do, it will do no good to deny them or to get discouraged; we have to take them to the Lord.

I recently found myself swept up in these feelings when reading detailed reports of the recent martyrdom of three Christians in Turkey. Such a painful and brutal sacrifice of life literally took my breath away. I had to rely on the Lord just to enable me to keep reading. Only He kept me calm, strong and focused.

The main reason I like the word breathing is because of its link to the Holy Sprit. We serve an omnipresent God of comfort who knows the human heart---every impulse, feeling and instinct. He knows can't free ourselves from harmful or misplaced emotions; He knows we will need to "breathe" Him in as we struggle to serve our suffering brothers and sisters. It is only by doing so that we will learn to relate to the persecuted in a way that is useful, effective and in accordance with God's will.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Toronto Star and This Week's Court Ruling in Malaysia

It isn't often that I find myself agreeing with the editor of the Toronto Star. But today's editorial on this week's ruling by the Malaysian Federal Court is an exception. The Star rightfully notes that Malaysia's "image as a moderate, multicultural democracy was dealt a blow last week when the nation's highest court refused to recognize the conversion of a Muslim-born woman to Christianity" and that the 2-1 votes was "deplorable." Click here to read the full editorial.

What is even more surprising to me was to read today's column by Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. Mr. Saddiqui is a man I have often thought of as "Mr-Blame-the-United-States-for-everything" and who never seems to find any fault with Muslim behaviour no matter how reprehensible. While he still cannot avoid taking a shot at the US and proselytizing American evangelicals (whom he blames for creating a siege mentality amoung Muslims worldwide), at least he admits that the Malaysian ruling is an example of the multicultural missteps that characterize that country. You can click here to read the full editorial by Siddiqui.

Personally, I am encouraged by this coverage in the Toronto Star today. It is not often that this paper covers religious liberty issues, especially when they concern Christians and Muslims. I would encourage readers to write to the Editor of the Star and thank him for this kind of coverage of a religious liberty story and encourage him to support more such reporting of important stories like this. We are often quick to condemn the media; we also need to be quick to thank them when they do a good job.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Often Thankless Job of Pursuing the Truth

Wow! I just received three emails this afternoon that were so hot that they almost made my computer steam. Let me give you some background as to why they were sent to me.

I received a copy of a letter earlier this week from an Asian country which I had the foresight to have verified by some of our partners who live in the same country. After working in this line of ministry for almost a decade, I have learned not to take every report of persecution with the same degree of seriousness, especially those that come from people I do not know and which make mention of the need for funds.

Without going into details, our partners replied saying that there were some inconsistencies and factual errors in the letter as they were quite aware of the situation and were, in fact, involved with the individual who wrote the letter.

As is incumbent on me as CEO of The Voice of the Martyrs, I replied to the person who had sent me the letter initially, informing her of the facts as our partners had reported them. This is part of my job; to insure that the truth is told about the persecution of Christians around the world.
Well, my comments obviously got back to the letter writer and some of his friends, as they proceeded to lambaste me in their emails this afternoon, accusing me of not knowing what I was talking about, of criticizing and being disrespectful of a dear brother in his time of need. One went so far as to accuse me of being a Gnostic. Why, I am not sure or how that was relevant; it must be a favorite accusation of his towards anyone he disagrees with. I started a response to these three individuals and then decided against it. I doubt that it would have any positive effects. As one old saying goes, you can be as white as a dove but some people are so colourblind that they will still shot you for being a crow.

There are times when the pursuit of the truth is a thankless job. But I will not be intimidated by those who think that they can bully me into not doing my God-given job of verifying and disseminating facts. The cause of defending the persecuted is not aided by blind loyalty or naïveté.