Leaving our Baggage Behind

Larry and his family had moved into the village in 1986 to allow the Fulani to peer into the heart of a Christian.

“Please stop trying to make me become a Christian.”
Some of the last words spoken by Aamadu stuck with Larry long after Aamadu had died. Not until years later would Larry (his last name is being withheld for security reasons) realize how these words would transform the way he saw evangelism.

Aamadu was the imam (Muslim leader) of a Fulani village on the edge of the Sahara desert. Larry and his family had moved into the village in 1986 to allow the Fulani to peer into the heart of a Christian. For many of these nomadic cattle herders, these were the first and only Christians they might ever encounter in their lifetime.

As the family moved in, they began adjusting to culture and life in grass-roofed huts. They identified with the Fulani by learning the Fulani language and wearing Fulani clothes. Their children learned how to pound grain and milk goats. Larry and Ann had meaningful discussions with members of the village. But there was still a fundamental problem in how they viewed their work.

“We tended to see our mission as setting up a competing religion in a hostile religious territory,” said Larry. “We carried a lot of Christian baggage.”

The Bottom Line

Over time, Larry and his family noticed that the Fulani were unwittingly pushing them to leave their baggage behind. The baggage of Christian traditions, ceremonies, and churches were of no interest to people like Aamadu.

“Various experiences and encounters with the Fulani would push us to ask ourselves, What is the essential thing the Fulani needed to know to have salvation in Jesus?” Larry said. “We asked ourselves this question every so often and each time we would throw away a few more ‘suitcases’.”

Finally there was only one thing left: Jesus.
Looking back on his conversation with Aamadu, Larry realized something. Yes, the imam had asked him to stop trying to make him become a Christian. But he never asked Larry to stop sharing about Jesus.

“It may sound strange,” said Larry, “but we realized that if Muslims were going to be able to really see Jesus, we would have to extract him from Christianity.”

Friendship Evangelism

Today Larry, together with other missionaries who serve in similar positions with CRWM, look at their role in a different way.

Increasingly they see themselves as followers of Jesus attempting to build God’s kingdom in one corner of God’s world rather than Christians attempting to plant Christianity in hostile religious territory.
“As a follower of Jesus, my identity isn’t tied up in my religion, in Christianity. It’s wrapped up in Christ. As I live out Christ in my daily life, I am building his kingdom,” said Larry.

CRWM missionaries call this “friendship evangelism,” and their goal is to emulate Christ and his love for others rather than focusing on establishing the structures and organizations of Christian religion.
As missionaries focus on Christ as the center of their message, they see the Holy Spirit doing the rest. One by one, as Fulani identify with this message, they call themselves followers of Jesus and gather with others who do the same.

There is nothing wrong with church services, Christian traditions, or ceremonies, Larry added. “Many of these things are really good and helpful to us; they encourage us in our faith, and we are inspired. But sometimes this religious baggage can overwhelm us and Jesus gets moved to the fringe.”

As more and more Fulani people follow Jesus, they create their own Fulani traditions around Christ.

Partners, not Superiors

Evangelism and discipleship is just one of four strategies that Christian Reformed World Missions uses. Missionaries also take part in leadership development, Christian education, and transforming communities.

Like friendship evangelism in West Africa, each of these strategies is molded to the local context and gifts of each partner.
“God has blessed fellow believers around the world with many gifts that we in North America can benefit from,” said Rev. Gary Bekker, director of CRWM. “For this reason, missionaries see themselves as partners in ministry, serving hand in hand with these believers rather than as their superiors.”

The stories that follow illustrate a few of the different contexts in which missionaries serve. In all of these contexts, they ask the same questions that Larry asks: What is the Spirit already doing in this corner of the world? How can I emulate Christ to be a part of that?

Leaving the Baggage in Post-Communist Romania

Lucian Oniga, whom many people call Oli, grew up in Romania under Communist rule. He watched as mistrust and division broke down the community of his father’s church. He still sees many of those effects today, 25 years later.

“Growing up, I could feel what the secret police and Communism were doing to the church,” he remembers. “The seed of distrust grew, and even now I can see the flowers of that within the church.”
It became impossible for Oli’s church to obtain building permits, so they built a church underground instead. Still, the Communist system found other ways to divide the church.

“The secret police planted seeds of anger, envy, and arguing within the Body of Christ,” said Oli. “They were trying to separate us and emphasize the differences among Pentecostals, Baptists, and other believers.”

Peniel Ministries

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Oli looked at the state of many of his fellow Romanian teenagers and wanted to serve them.
“They were looking for significance, for meaning in life, and for a place in the church,” said Oli. “Being one of them, I felt I should do something.”

In response, Oli and some others started “Peniel Ministries Romania,” a ministry for youth in Romania. What began as a small conference for young people has grown into youth camps, seminars for young married couples, and national worship conferences.

“Young people are opening up to the gospel,” said Oli. “They think outside of the box, and they challenge the status quo. In doing so, they search for answers and find meaning in life.”

Still, Oli sees division when trying to break denominational and cultural barriers. Leaders from outside ministries often are hesitant to accept Oli’s requests to speak at Peniel events.

“I try to gather leaders, but even after all these years, I see the same distrust. They ask “What’s your motive?’  ‘Who is behind your activity?’”

Rebuilding Trust

It is within this context and these challenges that CRWM missionaries Steve and Jan Michmerhuizen come alongside leaders like Oli to create an environment of trust where people can come together.

Steve gathers youth leaders from the Reformed Church of Romania, the Pentecostal Church, the Hungarian Baptist Church, and many other groups. He leads these groups in discussions about new ways they can work together to multiply the impact of individual ministries.

Together, they ask what the gospel looks like in post-communist Romania and where they can help one another in that vision.
“We bring faith-based youth leaders together, and we talk about work and our strategies,” said Steve. “We share our experiences, our thoughts, and we encourage one another.”

“It’s a fascinating mix of people and talents and passions and callings.”

Hope for the Future

Oli looks back on his first meeting with Steve in awe of the size and power of God’s work in Romania. “I heard people from [other groups] sharing their part of God’s story and I was amazed. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, God is so big, and I have so many other brothers and sisters that I didn’t even know of.’”

Now Oli and fellow youth ministry leaders are applying each other’s strengths to their own youth ministries, whether they are working with children who are living on the street, struggling in school, or questioning their faith.

Oli adds, “I hope in the future I will see a church in Romania that will work together in unity. Let’s dream together of doing something together for Romania and for God.”

Characteristic of Communism

Effect on church

Communist system provides everything

People view the church as having little to offer

Informants report those who speak out against government/system

Distrust, fear of being reported, even within church communities

Only allowed to meet in church weekly

Youth-specific programs neglected

Differences, outliers, are highlighted

Further denominational division

Baggage on the Short-Term Mission Field

What might a short-term mission trip look like if we left our baggage behind?

In many ways, the Prayer Safari in Kenya does just that. When volunteers from North America join church leaders in Kenya, they visit hospitals, police departments, schools, government buildings, and homes. While there, they simply ask the people there if they can pray with them.

“We didn’t leave anyone out,” said Rev. Joseph Nzola, who serves as the head pastor at Redeemed Gospel Church in Machakos, Kenya.

Sustainability and Learning

Although last year’s Prayer Safari was led by Rev. Mwaya Wa Kitavi, Christian Reformed World Missions East and South Africa regional leader, this year Nzola and a few other local pastors organized the event—one of the first steps for the event to become sustainable.

“Local pastors are taking ownership of the safari,” said Rev. John Algera, pastor of Madison Ave. CRC (Paterson, N.J.) and attendee of both Prayer Safaris. “This isn’t just a North American team coming to do something.”

Instead, Algera sees many of his experiences as a learning opportunity.

“Many churches [in North America] can learn from the fervency of prayer in African churches,” said Algera, adding that African people walk for miles to their church every day at 5 a.m. before they start their work.

Prayer Opens Doors

North Americans are not the only ones who are learning to leave their baggage behind at the safari. Local pastors are discovering the value of prayer as a way to open the door for further conversations.
“We were able to talk to people who closed the door on our faces in the past,” said Nzola. “This time around, you could see how grateful they were.”

“I never knew you could simply pray for somebody instead of hitting their heads over with the Bible,” added another local pastor.

Even after the Prayer Safari concluded, Nzola and others continue to meet with some of the people they met. They are also organizing smaller-scale prayer safaris. Back in New Jersey, Algera has monthly prayer meetings with the mayor and other state officials.
“The safari creates a whole new vision to pray,” he said. “People welcome prayer.”

There’s Always the Thief

Those who serve on the global mission field enter with a lot of baggage. It may be literal baggage of medical supplies, dusty work gloves, or donated Bibles. It could also be metaphorical baggage of cultural norms, denominational beliefs, or historical trauma.

But missionaries and local people are learning to leave their baggage behind as they work hand-in-hand to build God’s kingdom.

“There’s always the thief on the cross,” said Larry, referencing Luke 23.” He just knew one thing. He knew Jesus. He put all his hope and his life and death on Jesus.”

“As we work to build God’s kingdom in any corner of the world, let’s ask ourselves, ‘Am I leading them to Jesus, or am I littering the path with unnecessary obstacles? Instead of pressuring people to come to church, ask them, ‘how’s your walk with Jesus?’”

Please Pray . . .
  • that CRWM missionaries and people in North America will be open to the Holy Spirit’s direction when sharing the Good News. Pray that we can demonstrate Christ’s love and allow the Spirit to do the rest.
  • that church leaders in Romania will trust one another, despite denominational differences and historical mistrust.
  • that volunteers who serve on short-term mission trips will have attitudes of humility while on the mission field. Pray that their experiences will impact how they serve at home.

For a weekly email of prayer requests, sign up for CRWM’s ePray at crwm.org/membership.

About the Author

Christian Reformed World Missions