Friday, July 8, 2016

Elijah's Other Mountaintop Experience: A Story for the Future of Churches of Christ

“So, what’s church like in America?” 

It’s a question we’ve heard a lot in the weeks since our return from furlough in the United States.  And it’s a hard one to answer.

Since 2003, my wife and I have been part of a mission team serving the Makua-Metto people in Mozambique, Africa.  Our context here is predominately Muslim; Protestant churches make up less than 1% of the population. The Mozambican believers asking this question typically worship with only a dozen or so people in their villages each Sunday, so hearing about hundreds of Christians gathering regularly to praise God is difficult to process.  They smile in wonder; it sounds amazing and incredible.

But, this past year as our family traveled around the U.S., what my wife and I sensed a lot of was tension and anxiety.  It is common knowledge now that Churches of Christ in America are in decline and this recognition has left the church with some serious questions:  Didn’t we used to be the “fastest growing church” … Why aren’t we growing like we did in the past?  How should the church interact with a culture that seems to be moving away from vestiges of a Christian heritage? Why are so many of our children leaving the churches of their youth? What do we do now? Which way do we turn?

There are a number of different ways to approach these questions. Outlining the seven steps or five changes that churches should implement could be a useful exercise, but it seems to me that what would actually be most helpful for our fellowship as a whole would be finding a story that helps us find our bearings in the present context.

And there’s a story from the history of God’s people that I believe is extremely relevant to American Churches of Christ today.

...

To read more check out my recent post at wineskins.org

if you find yourself in the wrong story...


"I have a new second favorite children’s book.

The Napping House by Audrey Wood is my absolute favorite  But there’s now another children’s book that is coming in a close second.

It’s a book by Mo Willems, an imaginative retelling of a classic tale. His version is called, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. Not three bears. Three dinosaurs. You like this book already, don’t you? …I could tell."

To read more check out my recent post at Story Warren.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

home again!



Well, we’re back home in Mozambique!  We’ve been on the ground here for about six weeks now, and we are so grateful for the love and prayers and support we received from so many of you as we wrapped up our teaching year in the States to move back to Montepuez.

We felt energized and encouraged by the year stateside; we spent the summer traveling around to visit many of you before locating in Searcy, Arkansas for the school year.  Alan taught Bible and Missions classes at Harding University and at Harding School of Theology, I was taking classes at HST for my master’s degree, and we spent much of our time mentoring and recruiting college students for missions and ministry.   The girls were enrolled in school in Searcy, and they handled the transition so well – we were so grateful for that gift of grace and for your prayers over them!  We also cherished our time with the Donelson, Downtown, New Heritage, and Fernandina Beach churches; we were thirsty for those connections, and we were deeply refreshed in our relationships with YOU, both old and new.

And it is hard to believe it is over!  We came back to Montepuez at the beginning of the dry-cool season complete with thick layers of dust in the house, but after about a week and a half of scrubbing and trying (sometimes successfully) to repair all the broken things, our house began to feel like home again.  We were very surprised at the ease of speaking Makua after a year away – even our Mozambican friends have commented on how we didn’t forget Makua.  We have delighted to reconnect with our friends here; several have commented on how they weren’t sure they believed we were really coming back, and several also told Alan that he’s looking fat and very white! 

The critters and creatures have also welcomed us back; within six weeks we’ve run over a black mamba on the way to a village church, killed a rat in the house, Alan has already had malaria, and Abby has caught too many baby geckos to count (she catches them and relocates them to the rooms in the house where we have the most mosquitoes).  Our teammates Rose Perry and the Westerholm’s and our friends the Wakefield’s welcomed us back with more than two weeks of dinners, and our Mozambican friends have brought us peanuts and pumpkin and beans and corn flour and cassava.  Our first Sunday worshipping in a village, the church served us xima (stiff cornmeal porridge) with fresh pork (usually only for special occasions), and I was tickled to realize my plate included part of the jaw bone complete with two large teeth (that was a first).  The girls are enjoying reconnecting with their friends, going barefoot 24 hours a day, and rediscovering all their old books and legos.

It was an eventful year here in this part of Mozambique while we were away; many of you gave generously to the famine relief program during the hunger season.  Over $140,000 was raised to help provide rice to families whose food had run out due to the lack of rain the previous year; we have heard so many people express their thankfulness – your gift has been received with gratitude.  The church deacons and our teammates worked extensively to get the food where it was needed most in an organized manner; many Mozambicans have especially mentioned our teammate Jeremy Smith’s tireless efforts in the rice distribution, and we are so grateful for his loving service.

An ongoing conflict in the churches that we work with here also climaxed during the year we were gone; years of struggle with unhealthy leadership came to a head and resulted in a messy break from that faction.  Although that has been deeply painful for many of the people involved, it seems that the small group of divisive individuals has split off to do their own thing while the majority of churches are forging a path forward together.  This has meant that several church leaders are finally feeling empowered to grow in using their gifts (instead of being squashed – hallelujah!), but these are also learning experiences and come with some growing pains, so please pray for those leaders with us.  Several areas in the province have had an explosive number of recent baptisms (from a few to dozens to over a hundred), and we are so excited to see God calling people to himself!  However, our years here have also taught us that the long hard work of transformation by the Holy Spirit that follows an initial decision is where we need to dig in with the bulk of our prayers and our time - please pray with us in this too.

Since we are starting up again after a longer-than-normal furlough, and since it was such an eventful year that we were gone, we have been doing a lot of listening as we reconnect with our Mozambican friends.  We have made a lot of visits to hear their different stories of their experiences and to seek their counsel as to how and where we should be working to help the church grow well.  

A couple weeks after our return we received seven interns from Harding University; Alan was tasked with organizing the internship program during the fall semester, and we enjoyed getting to know this group of interns before they stepped off the plane in Pemba.  They come as learners, like in a job-shadowing role, and they have been good sports!  They have not been shy to try out life in Mozambique, and we are thankful to have them with us for the summer.

Our teammates the Smiths are on furlough in the States; and we were so thankful to be able to see them for a few days at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures before we left for Mozambique!  Our teacher Rose Perry is also on furlough in the States to return in August, and soon after that she will be joined by Jessica Markwood.  We are pumped that Jessica, a former intern, is returning to join our team as a teacher with plans to transition into agricultural work.  

Please join with us in praying for:
·         wisdom for church leaders as they stretch and grow
·         all the new believers to follow a path of true transformation
·         final approval and stamps on all our residence documents

Please know that we love and miss you; having a longer furlough with more time with those we delight in made it sadder to leave.  We are thankful for all the ways we can communicate BUT we feel spoiled by all the time we had with you face to face! 

Which makes me think of last Saturday.  That day we were at a very big wedding; the grown daughter of our carpenter friend was getting married, and since he is one of the kindest, most generous Christians in our town, the wedding was very well attended – most of the denominations in town were well represented and had even organized lively singing groups.  It was an all-day celebration with lots of worship and singing, and I was moved by the unity and togetherness on display.  I don’t mean to naively describe a superficial unity; I know that each denomination represented that day has their own (very real) struggles and dysfunctions, groaning like in labor pains.  But to see the different churches worshiping together is a taste of God’s New Creation, already begun but not yet complete.

May you live daily into the Reality of that Hope!

With much love,
Rachel (and Alan and the girls)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Recognizing Poverty Rules

"Absolute Poverty" is one of the giants that oppresses the Makua-Metto people. After a long research process of trying to discern how to encourage a holistic response to poverty that fits well within our context, I developed a series of lessons on poverty that received a lot of positive feedback from our Mozambican friends.  That material has now been published (in English!) in the Missio Dei Journal.  If you are interested, you can check it out here.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Magic and the Quest for Blessing among the Makua-Metto people

I recently published an article with the International Journal of Frontier Missiology called "Building a Better Bridge: The Quest for Blessing in an African Folk Islamic Context."  In deals with topics including evangelism, magic and even zombie slaves!  If you are interested check it out here.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Newsletter May 2015



Greetings from Montepuez!

Well… we're about a week away from leaving for furlough and wanted to send out another update to let you know what's been happening in our part of the world.  The rainy season is over, our Mozambican friends have collected this year's harvest, and the last few weeks have been busy as we've tried to finish up different projects and say goodbye well to people here.  Our normal furloughs only last about four months, but with this one, we'll be gone from Mozambique for one year to serve as the visiting missionaries-in-residence at Harding University in Searcy, AR for the 2015-16 school year.  Knowing that we'll be apart for longer this time has made these goodbyes even harder.

In April I invited the women from the three different village groups I studied with last year to a celebration here at our home.  We ate, worshipped, and studied together, and  they all camped out in our guest house, gazebo, and yard.  We worshipped again the next morning, and talked about Jesus washing his disciples feet when he knew he was leaving soon, and how we should be following that example of servant-hearted love.  Then the women took turns washing each others' feet and putting a new pair of flip-flops on them.  The celebration was a good wrap-up to our studies last year, and it also served as a good-bye party since we'll be gone for a year.

Two weeks after that was the Provincial Women's Conference in Pemba, where around 130 women convened in Pemba for a three-day meeting of worship and study together.  We got off to a bumpy start as the big truck carrying 90 women from Montepuez broke down an hour outside of Pemba, followed almost immediately by our truck losing an entire wheel.  It was both scary and very weird - the best guess we have is that at some point someone took off most of the lug nuts while trying to steal our tire but wasn't able to finish the job without getting caught.  We were amazed and very thankful that no one was hurt and that a couple South African mechanics who work for Caterpillar passed by and actually pieced our truck back together so I could drive it slowly to a garage in Pemba (the truck is fixed now =)).

The rest of the conference went well; there were eight teaching sessions, lots of singing and dancing, an out-of-season rain shower that meant that all 130+ of us had to squeeze into the smallish church building and sleep like sardines.  At 5am on the last morning we all walked the 4km down to the beach; a few of the women had never seen the ocean, and it was very funny watching all our friends splash and play in the water.  To me, the chance for these women from all over the province to be in the same place and worship together, also to plan and learn patience with each other, is just as important as the content of the teaching sessions.

Alan has taken about 50 men he's been discipling and studying with to a waterfall about three hours away from Montepuez.  Men from different areas have come in, spent the night at our house, and then taken the day trip together.  Only a handful of them had been there before, and it was fun to see these men acting like boys as they saw a waterfall for the first time.  Alan used the water as a teaching illustration and shared how the power of water they are witnessing is nothing in comparison to river of living water that Jesus has opened up in them.  He has challenged them to keep up the work of disciple-making and sharing living water with those around them.

Over the last few months Jeremy, Chad, Alan and two Mozambican missionaries have taught on deacons and helping the 13 different church clusters choose them.  Following the counsel of our consultants Monte Cox and Evertt Huffard who came last year, we've been using the story in Acts 6 (where the church named servants to address a specific need) to help us address the leadership challenges here.  The main problem the 50+ Churches of Christ in Cabo Delgado are facing is huge distances between each other.  So each cluster has been encouraged to select deacons to serve the church in various capacities as well as choosing a deacon for "coordination and collaboration" to help the churches work together more effectively.  

In the past the American and Mozambican missionaries have often set the agenda, but it is exciting to transition into a different phase of partnership with the Makua-Metto leaders.  All of the clusters have gone through the process of naming deacons and setting aside one for communication and collaboration (over 100 total have been selected, about 30 of them women and the rest men).  Unfortunately, one of the Mozambican missionaries has tried to block this process and it has been sad seeing him burn up his influence as Makua-Metto church leaders are seeing through his protests and perceiving his motivation as coming from a desire to hold onto power and control.  His attempts to undermine the process have added a sad note to what should have been a joyful process.  This week, we'll be having a meeting with those 13 deacons to lay out a collective vision for working together well and putting that challenge behind us. 

At the end of February we were excited to see the baptism of the first believer in the village of Nikokwe.  That village has never had any kind of church (Catholic or Protestant) and has always been closed to any Christian presence.  At the end of last year, though, a man named Fransisco made contact with believers in a nearby village and decided to follow Jesus; his baptism was the first baptism ever in Nikokwe.  Fransisco is well respected by his extended family and village leaders; he used to work as a tailor but has suffered from glaucoma and now cannot see at all.  He covets prayers for healing, and we are also praying that God would multiply his and the church's witness in Nikokwe.

Unfortunately the very next week, Caunia, one of our very close friends and a man who was instrumental in reaching out to Fransisco, passed away.  Caunia loved God deeply and was hungry for God's word in a way that is rarely seen; Alan really misses him a lot.  Please pray for the church in Nkunama, where his family lives, that God would raise up more people and new leaders in that church.

Sunday was our last time to worship with the church in Chipembe before we're gone for the extended furlough - the believers in that cluster are the group we've known the longest, and we really feel at home with them.  So while we love worshipping there on a Sunday, there was a sad feeling all around, knowing we're about to be so far apart for so long.  We rejoice in their faith, their love for God, and the Kingdom connection we all have, including the solid hope of resurrection.  But we also really miss them when we're not together, and given the mortality rate here in Mozambique we always face the knowledge that some will not be here when we come back.

At the same time we're missing our families in the States so much that it hurts!  We are aching to hug our parents and our brothers and our sisters-in-law, and we also have 3 nephews/nieces that we haven't even met yet, and 2 more who will be born while we are there.  We'll be landing in Dallas in May, and then continue on to Tennessee in June.   A good chunk of July will be spent in Nashville with our Donelson church family, and then in August we will head over to Searcy for the school year.  Abby, Ellie, and Katie will have their first taste of school in the States, and we would love your prayers that their experience will be smooth and full of God's obvious care.  Alan will be teaching classes at Harding University, promoting missions and disciple-making, and I will be continuing my classes with Harding School of Theology in Memphis.  At the end of the school year we'll hop back on a plane to head back home to Mozambique.  Please keep this transition in your prayers - we know it will be both fun and challenging to fit back into life in the U.S.

Thanks for keeping up with us.  We look forward to seeing many of you stateside!

Please pray with us for:

  • Peace and unity in the church, especially among leaders
  • Success in receiving permanent residency documents before we leave
  • Safe travel
  • Prayers for girls especially as they transition to life in the USA for a year

Grace and Peace,
Rachel, Alan and the girls

Friday, April 24, 2015

Jesus and social media - an email conversation



Jesus,

I've been looking into your work over the past few years and I wanted to offer my services.  I got your email address from someone in your company - so I hope this message makes it to you.  You may not have heard of me, but I've made a fortune for myself and my clients as a social media consultant.  

Usually I'd charge a lot for this advice, but I'm intrigued by your work and the potential to turn you into a worldwide brand.  To make that happen is going to take a lot of work and focused attention by you and your entourage.  Honestly,  I'm not sure those dozen or so people you're hanging out with have what it takes to take this movement global.  I'm mean a bunch of them are just fishermen, right?  How can you expect them to do it?  Look, I've seen it before, famous people often have to leave people behind to really make a name for themselves.

I've been in contact with Judas.  He said he's serving as your CFO, and he seems to be the only one of your board who has good business sense.  Judas asked me to send a quick proposal about the kind of changes I could help your organization implement.

First of all, your website needs a lot of work, giving your right-hand man, Peter, the 'site keys' to your digital kingdom wasn't such a great idea.

Secondly, your Facebook presence is uneven.  I mean, Jesus, you don't have to 'friend' everyone.  I can understand why lots of people want to take selfie's with you, but you don't have to put all of them on your page.  Especially the ones of you hanging out with people in bars or at house parties.   Those images (especially the stuff on TMZ) send mixed messages and can alienate your base.  Also, I've noticed that you ignore a lot of the twitter replies from religious people but anyone with a sob story gets a word of grace in reply.  Let me remind you to engage your primary audience.  It's those religious people who'll buy and read your book…  there's already a book deal in place, right?

Thirdly, you need to manage your message more.  Streamline it.  I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I have to mention one specific example related to branding.  You keep referring to yourself as the 'Son of Man.'  That title is confusing.  Drop it.  Other people are calling you the 'Son of God' - Why not use that moniker?  We could create a great logo for you in no time.

Fourth, you need to spend more time with wealthy donors.  Judas said you've disturbed a number of them with your political commentary.  All that talk about the poor is great for the crowds, but in private it would be better to focus on affirming the big contributors.  Keep threatening the status quo and they'll be less inclined to donate to your campaign.

Fifth, about the YouTube videos.  I've tried to watch them all - and not just the healing ones that have gone viral.  Look, I like the teaching ones, especially the "Sermon on the Mount" one uploaded by Matt.  It's got practical advice, which is good, but I think what you're asking people to do is unrealistic.  Let's ratchet it down a bit and lower expectations for your followers.  I mean, you don’t actually expect people to live like that, do you?  The healing videos should be the bulk of your digital content.   Oh, also, I like it how you tell stories.  Storytelling is hot these days.  But remember that your ticket to fame and notoriety is through your miracle work.  That's what people are clamoring for.

Finally, I've heard you're planning a trip to Jerusalem.  Honestly, some people in your company have shared with me the cryptic things you've said about what'll happen when you get there.  I've checked with my contacts in Jerusalem and the word on the street is that the establishment isn't ready to receive you.  I think going to there at this stage is a mistake.  It would be better to set up a worldwide tour (I can see the t-shirts now): NY, London, Rome, etc.  Forget Jerusalem for now - trust me, you could have a much bigger impact this way.

Also, as a personal note, I'm intrigued by what you've said about everlasting life.  I'd like to buy some of that :)

Kindest regards,

Rich
R.Y. Ruler Marketing Consultants

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Rich,

Thanks for sharing your ideas.  I'm not sure you really get my main objectives, though.  The only way you'll really get a handle on what I have in mind is by going on 'tour' with me.  Why don't you cash in those stock options of yours and come follow me?  Share life and what you have with the poor, hang out with me and my company and then I think you'll get a better understanding of what eternal life is all about.  What do you think?  I'd love for you to join me.

Jesus


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Jesus,

Unfortunately, it's not a good time for me to change jobs at the moment.  I'm sad I can’t take you up on your offer.  Maybe some other time.  I'll keep watching your career from a distance. 

Rich