earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel

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December 2017 Prayer Update

Leaders in just about any field reach a level of success when they are able to step away from their work and watch everything move forward without interruption. When we missionaries say we are trying to work ourselves out of a job, we are anticipating the day in which gospel work is wholy entrusted to local churches. Didn’t John relay a similar idea when he wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4)?

It is now my joy to write this in the back of the Bible Institute classroom while Tanzanian pastors are teaching others the gospel and how to share it with their neighbors. Others, meanwhile, are out preparing a property to be used as meeting place for a church plant in Bulyaheke. And yet others are taking steps to teach their fellow church members principles of biblical stewardship.

Training for Savings Groups

The microfinancing project mentioned in previous prayer updates involves starting savings groups out of Tanzanian churches. You can read more about what this looks like and why we are doing it here.

Each church has selected two members (one man and one woman) to facilitate the formation of savings groups. Following training earlier this month, facilitators are now moving towards launching groups by the end of January. As we explained in the post linked above, these groups are designed as means to teach and encourage biblical stewardship of our things.

New Bible Institute Class

A new year of Bible Institute classes begins this week with a new group of students. At 40 students, the class is large and includes new faces from the church plant in Bukokwa and others who have heard the gospel from previous students. Some are able to attend this time since we are meeting in Nyakaliro—much closer to their homes than classes in Shadi.

This class is the first opportunity for most to consider the consequences of keeping the gospel to ourselves. The other remarkable news of the week is that the Tanzanian pastors are teaching the entire class for the first time. I have the privilege of coaching them through.

Matters For Prayer

  1. As people are being trained in evangelism and Bible teaching, please pray for courage to say what needs to be said and faithfulness to say what God has entrusted to us in His word. Consider specific situations of evangelism, Bible Institute teaching, and small group Bible study.
  2. Lord willing, a new church will soon be born in Bukokwa. 19 were baptized last month. The whole group (about 30) is now studying the churches’ statement of faith and constitution before forming their own membership. Please pray that the teaching will result in faith in and unity in the gospel.
  3. A week after New Year’s Day, the Gass family moves to Nairobi for the birth of Gassito #3, who is due at the end of January. Please pray for health and safety. May I also add that we pray specifically that this time we may avoid fleeing to the hospital in the middle of Nairobi rush hour traffic. Thanks!

We’d like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Kwa Kiswahili, tunasema heri ya Krismas! Mungu awabiriki wote!

December 19, 2017   No Comments

Explaining Our Microfinancing Project

So far I have only briefly referred to our microfinancing project. Microfinancing, however, is such a broad term and what we are doing is fairly specialized. Let me explain. [Read more →]

December 14, 2017   No Comments

Challenges in Training Teachers

Since Bible Institute enrollment is growing and we continue adding new courses, there is a need to spread out the teaching load. Tanzanian pastors are stepping up to bear that load. Indeed the best reason to involve them is our desire to see Tanzanians discipling Tanzanians. While they are making tremendous progress, the effort has uncovered some challenges we didn’t anticipate. [Read more →]

December 1, 2017   No Comments

November 2017 Prayer Update

We have a children’s book about a surprise that we enjoy reading with Ian and Kyla. The book’s title, Waiting is Not Easy, should help you figure out the plot line leading up to the surprise. (Spoiler alert!) At the end the two friends are rewarded with a surprise worth waiting for: a view of the stars. Those last pages (maybe ironically) remind me of the privilege of our ministry here.

The greatest joy we have in ministry here comes in sharing another’s discovery of God’s greatness and goodness. The end of that children’s book is two friends sharing something that was appreciated only by one of them before. Likewise, the hope and energy that drives our work here is a dialogue that resembles this one:

us: Do you see that? [as we are pointing to God’s greatness and goodness through the Scriptures]
friend: Yes! Wow.
us: I know. Isn’t that great?!
friend: What do I do now?…Where can I get more?

Whether we are sharing the gospel, teaching institute students, or meeting with pastors, arguably the best we can do for them is to help them “[behold] the glory of the Lord” so they may be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). By God’s grace, we have shared in moments like this recently.

Our God

Our latest Bible Institute class met last week to consider the first theology course of our new curriculum. The premise of this course is that the strength to do good works, resist sinful temptation, and endure trials comes from knowing our God. We considered how our hearts are idol factories and how acknowledging how God’s threeness enriches our faith. We also looked at how God makes good out of hard things.

For me, this course was a delight to prepare. But seeing students experience light bulb moments is even better than my joy in writing the course.

Membership Interviews in Bukokwa

There are over 20 new believers in Bukokwa currently making steps toward baptism and forming a new church there. This past weekend I joined Jonas (pastor of the mother church in Nyakaliro) and James (the church planter) in interviewing prospective members. The purpose of these interviews is to verify (as best as we are able) that the prospective member believes the true gospel.

membership interviews

membership interviews in Bukokwa

This can be a challenging purpose to fulfill when most are not able to describe what they believe about salvation and why they want to join a church. Most interviews turn into a discussion about the gospel. Personally, my favorite part of the process is talking about God’s grace in salvation. For those (many) that think God forgives only the most obedient servants, we get to show them how God’s salvation isn’t earned but rather given freely by faith (Ephesians 2:8, 9).

Matters For Prayer

  1. Join us in thanking God for fruit being born out of Bible Institute teaching. Join us in praying that through this teaching students will grow in Christlikeness from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
  2. Lord willing, a new church will soon be born in Bukokwa. More than 20 are planning to be baptized this week. Please pray that the related teaching will result in faith in and unity around the gospel.
  3. This week we kick off our church-based microfinancing project with orientation seminars in the churches. Think of it like training wheels for laying up treasures in heaven. And pray that through it churches will grow in their discipline to steward what God entrusts to them.
  4. Join us in praying that God would make the Tanzanian churches sources of light in dark places (Phil 2:15). May God zealously guard the testimony of His Name among His people through biblical discipline and spiritual growth.

On behalf of all of us, we wish you a blessed Thanksgiving.

November 22, 2017   No Comments

Counter-Cultural Church Planting in Mbugani

Something is happening in Mbugani which is proving to be a added challenge to the church planting effort there. All throughout the region (and maybe most of Sub-Saharan Africa) church choirs and choir music videos are extremely popular. At least in this part of Tanzania Christians co-opted the love for traditional dancing competitions and made church choirs sensationally popular. Much like troupes dance and drum for the greatest crowd, church choirs now compete for popularity and prizes. In Mbugani, some have added a dash of entrepreneurial thinking—and poof—church planting becomes a profitable business!

Mbugani

The Pattern

Since the start of the evangelistic effort in Mbugani, the church from Lusolelo found themselves competing with choir competitions. So many of these outdoor meetings are taking place that some groups start theirs at sunset. We conceded that our voices and speakers aren’t amplified enough and have moved our efforts further away from town center.

Main Street of Mbugani

Residents naturally attempt to associate us with groups who have preceded. They ask, “When are you going to build a building?” Some have made offers: “You can meet on my property, but we need a building for the choir.” And after several months of sharing the gospel there, many who initially responded positively begin to get restless.

If we were to follow the pattern of church planting now established in Mbugani, this is what we would do: First, we would choose a resident with a centrally located home. Then, we would build up his house to accommodate choir shows. Finally, we would bring in speakers and large choirs to begin meetings. To add a spiritual veneer to the operation, we would conclude each meeting with a short Bible message. But the key to the whole operation is timing the offering sometime before the sermon. Since many people come just to see the choir, if you place your offering after the sermon, far less will be collected.

The Response

We’re not following that pattern.

The church-planting-as-business pattern does explain what we are observing in Mbugani. There are a small number of churches for the size of the town (and practically no gospel witness). At any one time there far too many choir meetings masquerading as churches, but these groups don’t last. They are there long enough to turn a profit before interest in a particular group fades and transfers to another.

evangelists from Lusolelo in Mbugani

While there is a great need for gospel-believing churches, there is an overabundance of non-gospel meetings and choir competitions. This explains why many residents don’t understand why we like preaching the gospel so much. We haven’t built anything yet; we haven’t held enough large outdoor meetings. We have spent many hours sharing the gospel and opening God’s word in homes. Nearly each time someone asks, “Why don’t you build a place for meeting?”

What should our response be? While others may peddle the gospel with cheap entertainment, we are encouraging one another to rely on “the open statement of the truth“ (2 Cor 4:2). Our hope is that we may walk together with people in Mbugani long enough for them to see that there is more to the truth than what others are peddling (4:5–6). Our prayer is that our message may adorned by perseverance that none of the other groups can match (4:7–18).

October 24, 2017   No Comments

September-October 2017 Prayer Update

Pastor William Samweli has started to preach through the book of Philippians. We are spending much of our regular visits together studying the passages and discussing how to preach them. Our study has brought to mind the partnership you all have shared with us over these past five years. Like Paul we pray with joy because of your labor together with us in the gospel (1:5). I likewise have no doubt that your prayers and gifts are bearing fruit in us and the advance of God’s word. Yet I find Paul’s abounding confidence in the final outcome an encouragement to trust in the One who finishes what He starts (1:6, 19–20; 4:7).

Usagara in the wind

Church members scramble to support the tarps in high wind during worship service in Usagara.

Difficult Matters

In our August prayer update, I asked for prayer generally over various “difficult matters” in the Tanzanian churches. The government-ordered shutdown of building in Usagara was one of those matters. While progress is being made, it still isn’t clear how or when this will be resolved.

Another such matter has resulted in the removal of one pastor from his office. The church called for this minister to step down only so that he may better care for his family. We can be grateful that this was a carefully made decision in the interest of prudence rather than the final step of discipline. The outpouring of assistance from the other churches still another positive result of this matter. Coworker Dan Eads, writes more in his latest update.

Sprinting to 2018

We took some time off in September and came back to begin a sprint through the last quarter of the year. Bible Institute presses on with new courses and 2nd-run revisions. I continue regular visits to support church planting efforts west of the Gulf. We are also preparing to launch a church-based microfinancing project as an effort to practice biblical stewardship and build up our neighbors’ resiliency[1].

Prayer Update

It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace…in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Philippians 1:7–8)

  1. We thank God for a break from our normal in Tanzania and the opportunity for Matt’s parents to visit us. The time was blessed in so many ways. One of which was the our doctors’ confirmation that Laura’s pregnancy is healthy.
  2. We missionaries meet with the Tanzanian church fellowship this Monday, 16 October, in order to inform them how we will be working with them to grow the churches towards healthy independence. Picture something part biblical exhortation and part strategic vision casting. Please pray that the result may be a single-minded resolve to serve and trust the Lord.
  3. As Laura adjusts to a new role as homeschooling mom, please pray for God’s grace in her health, strength, and adjustment.
  4. Sprinting is exhausting! Please join us in praying for spiritual endurance to serve others with words of encouragement, counsel, and teaching. Pray that we ourselves may be refreshed to that end.

  1. Resiliency in the context of poverty here refers to the opposite of vulnerability to adverse economic, social, and environmental conditions.  ↩

October 11, 2017   No Comments

August 2017 Prayer Update

The theme of thankfulness we picked up in our July prayer update might as well continue into this month. As our neighbors’ food stores begin to run low, the end of dry season (July and August) can be hard. But before cultivating for the coming growing season, these months can also be less busy, providing time for other things. Between Bible Institute and other visits, we look for ways to walk with our friends through these challenges. We also make opportunities for hearing God’s word together and find blessings in conversations like this one.

Bible Institute

Bible Study in Bible Institute, 8 Aug 2017

Being the Church of God

The Bible Institute met the first full week of August for a class on being God’s church. In this class we intend to confront common bad ideas about what the church is: a building, a performance, a business, etc. We aim to replace those ideas with the biblical metaphors for God’s church: God’s temple, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, etc.

Every congregation has its reasons for meeting and working together. Perhaps it is just because there is somewhere nearby to get together. Perhaps there is a well-established tradition that has become enshrined. Here churches can pop up essentially as means to hear popular songs or form a visible and active community.

The best reason for churches to exist, however, follows from salvation by faith in Christ and God’s setting apart saved people for good works. The students that completed these classroom activities are now being sent out to encourage their fellow church members with that same thought.

Prayer Requests

As you are anticipating a new school and ministry year in the States, we are also rounding a corner. In the few months ahead we begin a new farming season, celebrate 5 years in Tanzania, introduce new Bible Institute classes, and roll out some practical training on financial stewardship. Here are some ways we can turn this corner together in prayer:

  1. We thank God that we are all in good health. Please continue praying especially for Laura’s strength and health as she approaches the midpoint of this pregnancy.
  2. New or revised Bible Institute classes are being rolled out in August, October, and November. In our minds, the Institute is vital for the spiritual growth and healthy independence of the churches. But such a goal isn’t possible apart from God’s work through it all. We are jealous for His wisdom and blessing.
  3. The church in Nyakaliro officially called Bukokwa resident and Bible Institute graduate James Mapinda to lead their church planting work in his hometown. The church in Lusolelo is making a remarkable effort in bringing the gospel to Mbugani. We are praying that the name of our Lord is exalted in these efforts.
  4. Please pray for God’s wisdom as multiple Tanzanian churches are currently handling difficult matters. May they move forward with one mind, honoring God by submitting to His word (Phil 2:1–4).

[Read more →]

August 18, 2017   No Comments

Laurent on Leading Children to God

Prayers for Bad Guy Evangelism

Don’t you love how children begin to grab on to spiritual truths? While I was away on a recent trip to meet with the Tanzanian pastors, Laura and the kids prayed for me. Ian was particularly concerned that our meeting might be overrun with “bad guys.” In the event that “any bad guys come to you looking for their bad guy friends,” he prayed that I would tell them to “listen to the true God!” But for better or worse, no bad guys came to listen to the true God.

Later during the same trip Pastor Laurent and I talked about leading children to God. There at the small table in his mud brick house I had the privilege of benefiting from his wisdom. I can’t replicate for you the beauty of his Swahili or how remarkable this conversation was in juxtaposition to the humble confines of the setting, but I think his thoughts are too good not to pass on.

Ian Camping at Laurents

Ian Camping at Laurent’s

[Read more →]

August 13, 2017   No Comments

Pay no Attention to the White Man in Front

Mbugani is still remote enough that the presence of white skin causes commotion. This can be good and bad for the advance of the gospel. It may attract people to hear. But it may also become a distraction. [Read more →]

August 2, 2017   No Comments

July 2017 Prayer Update

For this update we reflected on recent reasons to give thanks to God and recorded it in a short video. We also included a special family announcement. Follow the link below to see it online.

Prayer Update

  1. Thank the Lord with us that the churches successfully organized a fellowship to coordinate their work together and (eventually) fulfill their requirements to the government. The June 22nd meeting was notable as a mark of the churches’ growing maturity.
  2. We are grateful that our co-worker, Beth Roark, is receiving good medical treatment in the States. Please pray for her recovery from surgery, the success of this treatment, and Tumaini Children’s Home while she is away.
  3. We are preparing two Bible Institute classes for August: one on the church and a second on bible interpretation. Please pray for teachers and students alike so that the Lord may be served in these efforts.
  4. Please pray for Laura’s health and strength regarding the happy news we shared in the video 🙂

July 20, 2017   4 Comments