Many people know very little about Central Asia. Maybe they know of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, but have certainly never heard of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan or Baltistan. This region is the least served numerically by missionaries and least reached with the gospel. There was some interest initially after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but that wave of popularity has passed. Greater Central Asia is a region of about half a billion people, and the gospel has potentially reached two per cent - but in reality only about half of one per cent are Bible-believing Christians. People International is unique amongst mission agencies in that we focus only on Central Asia. Taking a pan Central Asia view, we decided to take a lead on this issue by launching our ‘Where are the beautiful feet?’ to put Central Asia back on the UK church’s agenda.
Why have so few heard the gospel in Central Asia?
Central Asia has traditionally been a closed region to the gospel. This is due to a combination of factors. In former soviet countries which are nominally Muslim but run by neo-communist regimes, there is a closed approach to anyone thinking about faith for themselves. The Persian countries are closed to Christianity. Turkey is nominally secular but fiercely nationalistic and “to be a Turk is to be a Muslim”.
The people themselves, however, are a wonderful, incredibly hospitable, deeply religious people. You could more easily have a spiritual conversation with someone there than with a neighbour whom you have known for years in the UK. So, if you build up a picture of a government or people who don’t want you there, an inhospitable climate (-25ºC to 40ºC across the year!), people knowing so little of the region, and the fact that anywhere ending in ‘stan’ tends to cause alarm in the UK – it’s seldom an attractive option.
What has prompted you to launch this appeal?
There is an urgent need for gospel workers in Central Asia right now. Each of us thought everyone else was recruiting ferociously for this part of the world and we were the ones who weren’t. But phoning around the other missions revealed the overall picture to be no more than a handful of missionaries are going out from the UK to this region this year. It was the same last year and probably for the year to come. This is too important not to do something about.
The Biblical basis for the appeal is taken from Romans 10:13-15: For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (ESV)
What is it that you’re challenging churches about?
People International is challenging how people are sent into mission. I have been influenced personally by a new book ‘Do you feel called by God?’ by Michael Bennett. He is saying that the way in which people have been presenting themselves for service has been done in something of a vacuum, in the absence of the church taking the lead, and asking if the church has forgotten how to identify, train and send people? He reminds us that in the New Testament people were appointed by the church rather than offering themselves. Now we often say that mission societies don’t send people, it’s the church which sends. However, more often prospective candidates contact mission societies first, and then ask the church to endorse their application retrospectively. The challenge is for the church to retake the leadership role. Will the church look for the needs in the world, seek the Lord as a church as to where they should be sending people, and then from within their number identify and send people to those regions?
What might this look like in practice?
I have a colleague who, along with his wife, was approached by their church some years ago saying, “We think you should go to Azerbaijan. We feel the Lord is drawing us as a church to this part of the world - will you go?” Further afield I have been impressed by the Korean church where the church leadership take an active role and directly approaches people. But this is something which horrifies the UK church! As church members we need to learn to be more open to the church leadership approaching us to take on roles both in our own fellowships and overseas.
There is a fundamental need first to identify if someone is qualified to go into full-time gospel ministry - the qualities of good character and the right gifts are clear in the New Testament and there needs to be teaching on this. Then we need to look at what knowledge and skills they have and where they would best be suited in the world. It may be that the church has a heart and a burden for a certain part of the world, or it may be that the church identifies individuals who have something specific to offer and consider where they would be best suited.
This is where mission agencies work well in partnership with the church: the church knows the person, the mission agency is experienced in helping to identify temperamentally where people might best fit, and is also aware of the challenges and the difficulties in each situation. The mission agency can help by placing the mission partner in a team where they can get support and to whom they are accountable locally, a team to encourage and challenge them in their ministry. The mission agency can also manage the more practical side of things such as medical, education and financial issues. The bottom line is entering into a partnership with the church to ensure that mission partners can thrive in the ministry they have been sent to.
What do you see as the biggest difficulty for the UK church in moving forward in this challenge?
A big difficulty for the church is to take back the initiative to send people. For too long we have relied, in this vacuum, on the Lord speaking to people and them volunteering for service - in all areas of ministry not just overseas. There is also an issue in getting people to learn how to commit themselves, and in learning to submit to the leadership of the church in our individualistic culture. There is the matter of people being willing to be sent – perhaps giving up a successful career to go to another part of the world. And there is also the question of moving away from our very safety conscious UK climate - understanding that as Christian missionaries sent to any part of the world there is no ‘celestial insurance policy’ that covers us. Clarity on the theology of risk and the sovereignty of God is vital! But the major difficulty to overcome is for people to perceive the need for mission workers to be sent.
In trying to highlight the needs of perhaps the most challenging region of the world it can feel like fighting with one arm tied behind your back. We struggle to tell the inspiring stories that we would like to and we never use people’s real names or their locations, because this can put people’s ministry in jeopardy or in some cases threaten their lives. We want the oxygen of publicity, but we don’t want the consequences, so for many years we have been very cautious and haven’t really stuck our head above the parapet. Despite being around for more than thirty years most people will not have heard of People International; however this is just too important - we have to make the cause of Central Asia known.
What are your hopes for the future?
The forming of the Global Connections Central Asia Forum is helping massively - partnerships are starting to be forged and people are starting to work together like nothing I have seen before. I would really like to see this develop further. But ultimately I would love to see the church in Central Asia fully established, sustainable and able to fulfil the mandate the Lord has given us – within its own borders and to the rest of the world, becoming a missionary sending region itself!
For further information on Beautiful Feet see www.peopleintl.org.uk/feet
The region of Greater Central Asia is covered by this map. It consists of the Turko-Persian peoples – those of Turkic-based or Persian-based language groups.