Since I took a church in Hillcrest South Africa and Jesse took a church in Washington DC, we have been looking for a central location to meet so we could hang out and so Jesse could lose at chess. I’m not sure the location we chose was geographically central in any way, but our hearts were both knit to a common cause that drew us to the Himalayas. There is an enclave of first generation believers hunkered down in the inhospitable religious terrain of classic Buddhism. Jesse and I were give the privilege of coming alongside their pastors to train them in theology and practical ministry issues. This is where we have been hanging out the past few weeks.
The Himalayas boast the highest altitudes on earth, and forge the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine. I never tired of seeing peaks towering well above the cloud line. The people who inhabit this majestic territory are of hardy stock. They breathe thin air all their lives and wrench rice crops from their paddies year after year. The brunt of the Monsoon is felt in these mountains and winter temperatures are constantly teetering on deadly.
The people live in a serene harmony with nature and each other. They are a happy, humble, and hard-working population of many tribes and dialects. The Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Tibetan cultures all intersect in these mountains to form pockets of hybrid Buddhism with traces of Hinduism. The gospel here almost always falls on rocky ground. And yet, there is a burgeoning evangelical presence that can only be explained by Jesus’ triumphant promise in Matt 16:18 “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Unfortunately, I can’t belie too many details in this public a forum. The pastors we were ministering to live in a country that is struggling to come to grips with what religious freedom looks like in practice. One tour guide gleefully admitted “We have Christians in our country because we have freedom of religion.” When we asked where the church was, he replied nonchalantly that he didn’t know because it met in secret. Of course, the natural follow-up question was, “Why do they need to meet in secret if there is freedom of religion?” He hadn’t considered that before.
We met pastors who had served jail sentences and who had been beaten publicly for their allegiance to Christ. We went there to train them, but we learned way more from them than they did from us. Book knowledge seems so superfluous when presented to people who are living out their faith in the gnashing teeth of persecution. I take consolation in the knowledge that Peter in his epistles encouraged the persecuted church of the 1st Century with outlining meaty doctrine and complex truths about Christ and salvation.
The pastors, some of whom walked between four and seven days (let that sink in) to attend the training sessions, were the most tenaciously focused audience I have ever addressed. They sat immovable on the hard floor imbibing incessant teaching through a translator for six to eight-hour stretches at a time. Any time we suggested a break for their benefit, they responded with good-natured chiding that we were too feeble to keep teaching. When we insisted that they stand up, stretch their legs, and move around to get the circulation going, they counter-insisted that we keep preaching while they complied!
I was humbled, challenged, and invigorated by these amazing believers. Of the dozen or so missions trips I’ve been on, the three to persecuted regions have left the most lasting impressions on me of what a privilege it is to know the gospel and to proclaim it to others.
I cannot state it strongly enough: if you are at all able to go on a missions trip, you absolutely MUST. Islam has their Haj, a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca for every Muslim who has the means to do so. Christians have short-term missions trips. Not everyone can go on an STM, but everyone who can, should.
In one sense the mission is never completed. Right now there are 2 billion unreached people. By the time we reach them there will be more. But the way to impact the ends of the earth is to reinforce the work Jesus has started in local churches the world over.
After the time I spent with those pastors I am more in love with local church than ever, and more confident that the way to storm Hell’s gates is in congregations. And if that was the only lesson I learned, I could still say “Mission accomplished.”