From my first encounter with the Lao I fell in love with them as a people. I love the sound of their language – the acoustic dance of phrases that repeat the meaning in playful couplets – the style of their interactions with each other – someone has to be the older sibling and someone the younger. When you speak Lao it isn’t enough to know the right words, a person has to arrange them in ways that are easy and pleasant to hear. There is a right way to speak in every situation, a way that has been in place and reinforced by the old ones for generations. The Lao are highly relational people who understand the obligation of friendships that last forever. Until very recently it was unusual to see people who were hungry or homeless in the capital city of Vientiane because relatives always took in orphans and widows. The hospitality of the Lao finds few rivals. There is always enough food for one more person. I have yet to pass a group of Lao having a meal without them urging me to come sit and eat with them. Villagers with very little in this world have gladly shared their last chicken with me for dinner and a blanket to shield me from the cool mountain air.
I was driving in the northern mountains one year when my Russian made jeep broke down. The men in the village stopped what they were doing and began to work on fixing it. For eight hours in a cold misty wind they did their best to help me. Seeing me freezing in the cold a grandmother urged me into her home, light a fire, fixed a meal and told me stories from the village to pass the time. Such is Lao hospitality. My heart will never recover from the encounter with Lao generosity. But as I sit writing these words in a little dusty Lao village an important question comes to mind. Many Christians have experienced the warmth and charm of Lao friendships and labored among them for many years sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Why has it been so difficult to reach the Lao people with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Lao society, like many Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim societies, is a highly integrated hierarchy. In most of these societies there is a long tradition of hospitality but this hospitality comes with a catch. Everyone is welcome as long as you are planning to return to your own home or stay and submit to the local power structures and customs and religious rituals that reinforce them. To live in Lao society is, on the one hand, to experience an incredible sense of community, and on the other hand, to never quite shake a nagging sense of oppression.
While most Lao appear happy and at peace with their circumstances it is also true that given the opportunity to leave the country for life in a more open society, a large majority of Lao would find it difficult to resist leaving. The process of getting a visitor’s visa to a western country is a very long and thorough one due to the experience of having so many Lao visitors fail to return their homeland. Certainly poverty is a significant factor here. But the search for economic freedom is I believe just a symptom of a much deeper hunger for freedom in general.
Today the government of the Lao PDR has made significant strides toward providing freedom in the areas of economics and very recently in religious freedom. My recent trip to Laos revealed that churches are re-opening and very few Christians remain in prison. Praise God for this wonderful answer to prayer. But the issue of freedom in Lao society runs much deeper than the present political realities of Laos. It suggests, I believe, a deeper spiritual thirst that is reflected in society generally.
At first glance the persecution of Christians during the 1990s in Laos was puzzling. Why would the government feel that such a small group of people – made up mostly of ethnic minorities – be considered a threat. When I asked a Christian brother this question he simply smiled and said, “It is because we Christians are free.” Of course! That is the same reason the mighty Roman Empire persecuted Christians in the early centuries of the Church. By giving their allegiance to Jesus, Christians then and now have always known a freedom that makes earthly power structures jealous.
Anyone who has given their allegiance to Jesus has begun to realize freedom in new ways and at multiple levels. They experience freedom from the power of sin, the accusations of guilt, the spiritual powers they once feared and repeatedly tried to appease, and, yes, even from political oppression.
No one but Jesus rules a Christian. Christians submit to the powers of this earth, and they also refuse to bend their knee to the powers of this earth at the command of their Lord Jesus Christ. The early Christians of the catacombs knew this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this as he climbed the platform to be hanged in Nazi Germany, and Christians in Laos today know this too.
Today the challenge of proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ in nations that are highly integrated, power oriented, and religiously confident, towers before the Church as the unfinished missionary task. Much is being written about the unreached Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim nations where so many have never heard of the freedom in Jesus.
Getting the task of world evangelization done among the last unreached people is considerably complicated. Missionaries in these nations are seeking answers to difficult questions such as,
• “How should missionaries gain access to these people when missionary visas are not granted?”
• “How can Christian faith be communicated well in these contexts?”
• “How can allegiance to Jesus be expressed in ways that do not isolate Christians in these nations?”
• “Can the Christian faith be understood as a local faith instead of a foreign import?”
Getting this task done is also proving to be costly in a number of ways. Consider some of the common characteristics that the unevangelized Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu nations share.
• These people of faith are generally very resistant to the gospel. It often takes years of patient and loving witness before people give their lives to Jesus. I worked daily for more then ten years with one couple before they gave their lives to Christ.
• As already noted above these nations normally do not grant missionary visas creating a need for missionaries to have both theological and professional training in order to be effective.
• They represent a large portion of the world’s poorest people making it necessary that Christian witness address very practical medical and economic needs.
• Many of these nations regularly persecute Christians and the possibility of martyrdom is real for local and expatriate Christians. Every year more than 100,000 local Christians die for their faith (World Christian Trends 2001).
I returned to the United States in 2001 to serve as the Director of the Alliance Graduate School of Mission at Alliance Theological Seminary. Since then I have heard many North American Christians suggest that the task of world evangelism should now be focused on the homeland and/or turned over to the churches of the southern hemisphere in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
I praise God for the growth of missions among these nations that we once sent missionaries to ourselves. Their role in world evangelization is already a very large and important one. Their missionaries come from strong and vibrant churches of faith.
Furthermore, no one including myself would deny the reality of the spiritual need in the United States. The task is urgent as the west continues to enter a post-Christian era. How to communicate the gospel in the postmodern era in the west remains a huge challenge.
But the task of world missions is not finished and the Lord has not released the Alliance in North America from the obligation to give ourselves, and our children, to the task of reaching the world for Christ.
The Church in United States will continue to play a critical role in the task of world evangelization for many generations to come unless we refuse to take it up. Consider that in spite of the fast growth of the Church in non-western nations in the year 2050 the United States will still have more Christians than any other nation on earth. When you couple this fact with the increasing spiritual vitality of the non-Caucasian, non-suburban churches, and the institutional and theological vitality of mission organizations in the US I can only conclude that the predictions of the eclipse of US missions is premature at best.
Rather than retreat into local concerns at home it is time for our churches to re-establish their commitment to world missions. But let me clarify some things about this call.
First, this is not a call to short-term missions. Short-term missions is playing a valuable role in raising awareness of the spiritual and economic need around the world but it is not a viable means of accomplish the missionary task left to us (see 2003/4 edition of Into All The World magazine, “Case Study 2: The Cost of Short-Term Missions” pp.104-106). Most all the missionaries I know agree. These are not missionaries who are sour on receiving short-term missionaries. These are missionaries who know that it often takes years of dedicated learning of a language and culture, and sustained loving witness before the people from these nations are ready to enter the Kingdom of God.
Reports of large numbers from conversions to Christ through short-term visits are often over stated. In many societies around the world praying a prayer of repentance and following Jesus to the exclusion of other spiritual allegiances are two different issues.
Churches in the United States should also consider the financial high cost of short-term missions. Would these resources be more wisely invested in meeting the tremendous needs that remain in areas that demand men and women who will spend a life time among people groups who are highly resistant to Christian faith? Short-term efforts are important but they will never be enough to finish the task.
Second, giving more money is not going to be enough. This is not an appeal for North American Christians to dig deeper in their pockets. Frankly, money is the easiest thing for we North Americans can give. While none of us feels like we have enough a realistic comparison with the people of this earth forces us to face our amazing wealth. We could all probably give more, and we should, but I do not believe that more money is the key to getting the task done.
Third, praying more that God will bless our missionaries’ efforts and those of other Churches around the world is not enough. Prayer is only empowered when it is working in partnership with active obedience. We are called to go, to get the task done, not to pray that other people or churches will be raised up that we can support with our prayers and our finances.
So what will be enough? Only the Church’s obedient dedication to do whatever it takes to preach the good news to the ends of the earth will be enough. What is needed is a new generation of men and women willing to offer their lives in service to Jesus; Christians willing to patiently share the good news with people that are for the most part hardly looking for him. We must issue this call not only to young men and women generally but also to our own children. Are you sharing the need of the unreached peoples of our world with your children? Are you willing to support them and encourage them when God calls them to go?
The call to missions is a call that claims every Christian and every church. No spiritually healthy Christian or church has ever been uninvolved in missions.
But a new commitment to missionary involvement in North American churches today must go far beyond the Caucasian suburban churches that have traditionally been the mainstay of missions. Today the most spiritually vital churches in North America are predominately the African, Asian, Eastern European and Latino American churches in our cities. We need to send our best. These churches must be newly engaged in sending and leading the missionary effort of the North American Church.
At Alliance Theological Seminary we are training men and women from around the world and from a plethora of churches. We are teaching them skills in cross-cultural communication, world religions, English as a Second Language, community development and tentmaking. We are also walking alongside these students to help them know who they are in Christ in deeper and deeper ways.
I consider this task to be a very high calling because I know from experience that there are millions on millions who have never had even one opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
At ATS we are looking for men and women ready to take up the task of world missions in contexts that will demand everything from them. Is the Church in North America ready to nurture, disciple and send out their best to do this work? And what about you, are you ready to accept the call of Christ to missions?
Dr. Bailey served among the Lao people with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in northeast Thailand and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic for seventeen years before coming to Alliance Theological Seminary. ATS is located in Nyack and in Manhattan, New York. The Alliance Graduate School of Mission offers three year (Master of Divinity), two year (Master of Professional Studies) and one year (Master of Arts) degrees. For more information call 1-800-541-6891 or visit www.nyack.edu/agsm or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Stephen Bailey: Publications 2005 to 2007
- “World Christianity in Buddhist Societies” in Communicating Christ in the Buddhist World. Paul De Neui and David Lim eds. William Carey Publishers. 2006. Pp.106-131.
- ”Is Business as Mission Honest?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43 (3) July, 2007, Pp.368-372.
- “The Whole Gospel to the Whole World” ALife 142 (8) August 2007, Pp. 17-18.
- “Contextual Conversion: An Anthropological Perspective” Robert A. Seiple, Dennis R. Hoover and Matthew J.O. Scott eds., Evangelism and the Persecuted Church (forthcoming from Baylor University Press, 2007).
- “Social Life and Worship Preferences: ‘And now,…Here’s God!’” forthcoming in Cultural Encounters January 2008.
Dr. Stephen Bailey: Papers Presented 2005-2007
- “Contextual Conversion: An Anthropological Perspective" paper presented at the Global Leadership Forum: Proselytism and Persecution: The Impact of the Word Made Flesh at Falls Church, VA October 28-29, 2005.
- “Contextual Conversion: An Anthropological Perspective" paper presented at the OMSC Lecture Series "Mission in the Shadow of Declining Empire" April 16-20, 2007.
- "Summary Statement: Christian Missions and the Challenge of Churchless Christianity" at the OMSC Leadership Forum April 27-29, 2007.
- "Engaging Lao Buddhists With the Gospel" at the Advancing Christian Witness in the Lao PDR Meetings Udornthani, Thailand, October 25-28, 2007.
- "The Role of Foreign Christian Organizations" paper presented at the Religion and the Rule of Law Conference Hanoi, Vietnam November 4-5, 2007.
Dr. Stephen Bailey: Workshops and Seminars 2005-2007
- "Missions and Money" OMSC Mission Leadership Forum, New Haven, CT December 2-4, 2005.
- "Children in Crisis" OMSC Mission Leadership Forum, New Haven, CT, April 28-30, 2006.
- Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit, Colorado Springs, CO, August 2006.
- "The Qur'an and the West" OMSC Mission Leadership Forum, New Haven, CT, December 1-3, 2006.
- "Christian Missions and the Challenge of Churchless Christianity" at the OMSC Leadership Forum April 27-29, 2007.