Between two worlds
Posted on: 17th September 2022
CMS missionaries Malcolm and Leanne serve in a Bible college where the students often find themselves living between two worlds: the world of spirits, and the world of materialism. Here they speak of this experience.
Our city is a rapidly developing centre that has become a technological, industrial, cultural, and educational hub for the north of the country. It is a mixture of the poor and the wealthy—something we are reminded of each time we look out the window or step outside the building complex we live in. Churches here are allowed to exist but do so under the watchful eye of the socialist authorities.
The two most significant challenges to gospel ministry here may at first seem strangely opposed: the pull of traditional religion, and the attraction of materialism and prosperity.
The uncertainty of traditional practices
Out of our window we see a large cauldron where offerings are made to ancestors twice a month. These offerings follow the lunar calendar. Other events such as new year, or occasions such as weddings and funerals, are important times to worship and pray to family ancestors.
Despite appearances, these practices are not considered to be specifically religious. They form part of the cultural and social fabric that make a person a citizen of this nation. Therefore, to turn to Christ (and away from such practices) is to turn away from the very things that make someone part of a family and part of their society. To refuse to participate in such practices is a big deal for new Christians, and can lead to pain and rejection in family relationships.
Consider the situation of Han*, a newish Christian. Han’s mother isn’t sure what will happen after she dies. Will she be reincarnated as an animal or other being? Will she live on in a spirit realm? She neither knows nor seems to care too much. Yet she goes on with her usual religious/cultural practices at home and at the temple, hoping it will help in whatever her future holds. Like many, she appears driven by the fear of what might happen if she stops.
During Han’s first year as a Christian, he wasn’t allowed to speak of his faith to his mother or the rest of the family. It wasn’t until Han helped them during a crisis that they softened and allowed him to abstain from family rituals and worship.
Materialism and prosperity
While these rituals are rooted firmly in this country’s history, the other challenge is newer.
Near our apartment we see luxury cars inching their way through narrow lanes originally designed for bicycles. These fine cars squeezing through small spaces serve as a continual reminder of how rapidly life has changed. Even since we arrived in 2015, this city has become increasingly dotted with shopping centres, cinema complexes and large new homes.
The accessibility of the internet and the ease of international travel have allowed some from our location to see how others around the world live—and now they want it all too: education, money, good jobs, possessions, and travel. They will work hard and not always honestly, to get these things, and they aspire for their children to have better lives than they do. When people do ‘believe in God’ (the local term for becoming a Christian), they often fall away from their initial commitment for related reasons, such as the pressure of long work hours in pursuit of material success.
Where gospel ministry fits
We serve at a Bible college where most of the students don’t fit either into the traditional world of spirits, or the new world of materialism.
They are young second-generation Christians who want to serve back in their local rural communities, usually far away from the city. Most are from ethnic minorities who have lived a simple subsistence life. Many have never seen the inside of a cinema or been on a holiday. We recently had some students over for dinner and discovered that some of them had never eaten with knives and forks. Not surprisingly, most of these students can’t wait to get back to their own homes and villages.
But not all our students want to return to where they came from. Vic* is in his final year. He and his wife come from a village close to our northern border. They are from different ethnic minorities and have two small boys. They have decided to stay here in the city after graduation, even though they find that life here is hard work. They want to reach out to those Christians coming from the country who get ‘lost’ in the city and lose connection with their faith. They also want to mobilise the ethnic minority Christians to reach out to their majority group neighbours while they are here.
Please pray for them as they start on this journey after Vic’s graduation this year. He’ll be involved in church planting with other graduates who want to reach out to the many university students in the city, in an area where there is no local church presence.
And our role? We are here to equip the students at our Bible college with good knowledge of the Word. We also want to inspire them to prayerfully consider the many opportunities to serve God in this country, including work beyond going back to their rural homes. One of our first graduates is heading to a nearby country to do a Masters degree. He’ll be the first to study in English and may return here to teach.
Making a change here requires a long-term vision to use whatever means are available to advance the gospel. Getting into this country and then being allowed to remain here is a challenge for cross-cultural workers. But it has been our privilege to be part of how God is working amongst his people here.
As Leanne and Malcolm ask, please pray that Bible college graduates will have an expanded vision to reach their country and the world with the good news of gospel freedom.