God was there before I arrived.
A few years ago I visited a meeting of pastors in Suceava, Romania. Though we were one in Christ, we were mostly separated by language. And since I couldn’t really follow the proceedings, my mind drifted and I began to look around at the faces of those in the room--their worn faces, and subtly joyful eyes. What stories, struggles, and triumphs lay beneath? What had these saints endured for The Name, and for the Church?
At 45 years old, I was one of the youngest in the room, and as an American I knew I had an easier life and ministry by comparison. American pastors may have their challenges, but most of these men had pastored churches under the Communist rule of Comrade Ceausescu and his dreaded Securitate. Respect.
The language barrier prevented me from learning as much as I would have liked to know about their lives and churches during that time. Who doesn’t like a good war story? But soon, my mind was drawn to consider what had sustained them, and I began to think less about these pastors and more of their Shepherd. Their presence here ultimately revealed more about His faithfulness than theirs, didn’t it?
So perhaps the barrier was a Grace, to keep me from making small heroes of these men. I’m sure like the rest of us they are far from perfect. As in any gathering of blood-bought saints, they surely held stories of faithfulness and hid stories of failings. Yet here they were, trophies of His grace. Instead of mere hagiography, I was drawn to honor the greater Hero, The Lord of the Church …to Whom be the glory forever.
Even more years ago, in the 1990’s, I visited Romania for the first time. I was on one of the thousands of short-term mission teams/tours that poured into Eastern Europe after “The Wall came down.” Growing up as a child of the Cold War it seemed easy to believe this was a land of Godless Atheists. This idea was amplified by the missions milieu I worked in, which generally viewed Eastern Europe as a kind of spiritual Wild West … or East as the case may be, where you could ride into uninhabited territory, stake your claim, and start God’s work turning the soil.
This, of course, revealed more about our ignorance than it did about the reality in Romania or its churches. What was terra incognita to me was a hard-plowed, patiently farmed field, and a precious, often precarious fold, whose sheep had been tended and defended at great cost by the brothers I sat with in Suceava years later. They had been here all the time. How had I missed them?
Could I claim ignorance? Hadn’t I read Tortured for Christ by Romania’s own Richard Wurmbrand as a child? Yet when I came to Romania that first time, it neither occurred to me to look for the faithful Church, or even expect to find it. We believed our own vision of Eastern Europe as a spiritually empty wilderness and were enamored with our own role as bold pioneers.
When we did encounter evidence of national churches, to our shame, we simply accepted at face value the collective assessment held among our new churches, that those “old” churches were “dead,” and thus irrelevant. Since neither I, nor anyone I knew had personal experience with these churches, this lay somewhere between slander and character assassination.
Ignorance, in our case of the willing kind, made it easier to believe this narrative. And the narrative, in turn, served both to dismiss the existing churches and create a clean start, while at the same time confirming the necessity of our new work and congratulating our arrival. In such an isolated, self-referential mindset, it's easy to believe our new thing is the only thing, and that God's arrival coincided with our own.
It's easy to believe our new thing is the only thing, and that God's arrival coincided with our own. - Tweet this
The sad irony for me is that the many “new works” and the “frontiersman” I worked with rarely lasted more than a few years, springing up and withering, often in sad fashion.
Meanwhile, the Church that was supposedly dead continues on, seemingly unaware of the earlier reports of its demise. Its roots were sunk deep in stormy seasons, and it is not easily withered. It continues to bear faithful witness and fruit in what is generally tough soil.
I have learned and am still learning. If I had it to do over again, I would go to the mission field expecting to find something rather than nothing. If I saw nothing, I’d take a long hard look at myself, and ask what I was willing to see or not see, and why.
There are still places in the world where you might hack through the bush, meet the natives, and say the name of Jesus for the first time. But more often than not, missions today is about partnering in some way with existing churches, even to plant new churches.
So I think we should expect to find the Church in most places. We should also not be quick to dismiss what and who we find. Even, and especially, when we don't understand it. We should seek to honor the Church we find, and as much as we can to seek to serve it, seek its health, its joy, its reformation, its multiplication. The Church is God’s Bride, His Body, His plan for reaching the nations, and displaying His Glory.
I’ve learned and am learning that The Church is precious and beautiful and difficult … and indispensable … and almost everywhere … long before I ever arrive.