earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel
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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

May-June 2017 Prayer Update

Here is the latest digest of ministry happenings and prayer requests. You may follow the embedded links for more details.

Hamisi leads Bible Institute class

Hamisi leads Bible Institute class

Church Planting on the Far Side of the Gulf

Pastors and Bible Institute students from Nyakaliro and Lusolelo are making great efforts to preach the gospel in Bukokwa and Mbugani. By God’s grace people are responding in faith. I made my first visit to these two locations on May 20 and 21 and wrote about the experience here.

The group meeting for Sunday worship in Bukokwa already fills their tent. Meanwhile, a core group is also forming in Mbugani. Members of the church in Lusolelo are traveling a relatively great distance to continue evangelism and encourage those who respond.

Church Fellowship and Construction

As the number of churches grows, so does the cumulative ability to expand the reach of the gospel. Where no single church may have the resources to send and support evangelists, they may collectively. Cooperation is an exciting prospect. It is also potentially complicated. How do 6+ churches agree where to plant a new church? And while American churches are partnering with them to that end, each of the Tanzanian churches has a vested interest in how shared resources are used. At the risk of being crass, there are many hands in the pot! So who decides how big the church building should be? Who decides whether a given piece of land is worth the asking price?

These are some of the questions confronting the churches as they are formalizing the fellowship between them. For us, organizing the fellowship is one way we missionaries are shifting more of the responsibility to answer those towards the churches—those effected most by such decisions. I have written more about these developments here.

One of the recent test cases of collective decision making is the construction in Usagara. There the road to building a permanent structure for meeting has felt long and hard. Construction was progressing on pace with the support of all the churches, but a week ago the government ordered that we wait. It is a relief to us missionaries and a mark of maturity for the Tanzanian churches that they are initiating the steps necessary to reconcile with the government.

Bible Institute

The first group of Bible Institute students completed the first four foundational classes on June 2. We teachers observed the achievement by washing the students’ feet. These students will have the opportunity to move into 2nd-level courses in August, beginning with Bible interpretation. Meanwhile, other students have just begun working on their homework for Spiritual Growth and will enter the class on the church.

Prayer Requests

  1. The first meeting of the new church fellowship is Thursday, June 22. Please pray that this and subsequent meetings would continue to move the churches towards greater maturity and unity in Christ.
  2. Our coworker, Beth Roark has made an unplanned trip to the USA for necessary medical treatment. We thank God that she is currently doing well and seeing excellent doctors. Please join us in praying for wisdom and effective treatment. Also pray for those filling Beth’s shoes while she is away.
  3. We as a fellowship of churches and a missionary family are all working through various demands from the Tanzanian government. We personally would like to move on and put these matters behind us. But above all I would like to ask that we pray for God to be honored in all of our interactions with government officials. Despite my good intentions these interactions too quickly bring me to the end of my patience.
  4. The gospel of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed in Tanzania! Pray that more who hear the good news in Malimbe, Bukokwa, and Mbugani, would be saved from their sins and gathered into God-honoring churches.

June 18, 2017   No Comments

Western Church Planting

Mbugani
My last trip to the west side of the Gulf became my first opportunity to see the progress of church planting in Bukokwa and Mbugani.

Open Air Meeting in Mbugani

Mbugani is a Swahili word roughly translated “in the remote place.” But that name was given to this place before it became a large village. The members of the church in Lusolelo chose Mbugani for its size and need for a gospel-preaching church.

The most notable point about the location is perhaps the ambitious faith of the evangelists, for Mbugani is at least ten times the size of the little village they are coming from. Beyond that is the great distance they must travel to reach their target. Mbugani is more than an hour’s drive from the church in Lusolelo. The pastor bikes the distance several times a week while others are traveling by foot—a hike that must take at least 3 hours. And even so, there is no shortage of people willing to cover the distance, camp away from home and make evangelistic visits.

Evangelistic Meeting in Mbugani
outdoor meeting in Mbugani

The Saturday of my visit (May 20), we held the first open air evangelistic service there. Turnout was actually poor due to multiple funerals in the family of our host, but I hear that response to the gospel is enthusiastically positive.

Worship Service in Bukokwa

Although I have participated in evangelism in Bukokwa on multiple occasions, that weekend was my first opportunity to meet with those who have responded to the gospel there. I preached from Luke 18 and excellent village hospitality before making the six-hour-drive back home (that’s unusually long).

Before the Worship Service in Bukokwa
before Sunday worship in Bukokwa

The group of believers now meeting in Bukokwa is eager to call a minister and identify themselves as a church. They are only waiting for the church fellowship to formally organize before moving forward.

The quick development in Bukokwa has something to do with the involvement of Bible Institute students from Nyakaliro. It was the students who did the work of evangelism in Bukokwa–and they did well! Pastor Jonas says that the students’ enthusiasm for their ongoing studies has spilled over to the group from Bukokwa. And as a result, there are now more students enrolled in the Institute from Bukokwa than Nyakaliro. This multiplication of disciples through these churches is the reason for the massive uptick in student numbers this year. Praise God!

June 4, 2017   No Comments

February-April 2017 Ministry Update

Our monthly ministry and prayer update this time has become a quarterly update. It is time to get you caught up on all the good news! Permit me to capture the developments in lists.

Bible Institute

I’ve just updated the blog with an overview of the current Bible Institute curriculum. See that post for an explanation of what classes we are teaching and the results we are seeing. The post includes a new video recorded to tell you about our class on spiritual growth.

I am currently involved in the Bible Institute in these ways:

  1. My teammate, Dan Eads, and I write and teach the new courses collaboratively. While Dan is doing nearly all of the teaching, I have overseen the course writing and revision.
  2. I took my first shift teaching an entire course at the end of March. With over 50 students enrolled, it happened to be our largest class to date. God kindly used the input of the pastors, our co-teachers, to fill the gaps in my Swahili and scrape me off the ground at the end of each day.
  3. We are now preparing to offer a course on Christian family at the end of May.
missing

Story of the Bible, March 2017

Constitution Revisions

The Tanzanian churches are now in the process of revising their constitutions and creating a governing document for their fellowship of churches. The next fellowship-wide meeting, May 2–3, will bring together each church’s revisions and hopefully produce documents ready for approval.

Constitution Summit, February 21, 2017

Constitution Summit, February 21, 2017

Here are some reasons why this is a big deal:

  1. Though the churches have constitutions already, they have generally disregarded or misused their constitutions for various reasons.
  2. There is enough collective maturity between the churches to recognize the necessity and proper role of such documents.
  3. As the number of churches has grown, so has the complexity of their relationships to one another and to us missionaries. Explicit agreement can go a long way in preventing misunderstanding and offense.

Church Planting

Church planting efforts are ongoing in Malimbe, Bukokwa, and Mbugani. Meanwhile in Usagara, we have introduced mid-week meetings to start preparing a new group for baptism and church membership.

Here are some ways we can be praying for each of the young churches/church plants:

  1. In Malimbe pray that God may save, grow, and enable people to remain geographically close.
  2. For the 30+ currently attending the worship services in Bukokwa, please pray that God may develop a strong unity in the faith.
  3. For the evangelistic efforts in Mbugani, please pray that God may continue working in hearts to save and develop leadership for a future church.
  4. In Usagara, let’s pray that God may continue to foster a love for hearing, obeying, and sharing His word.

Prayer Update

  1. Please pray that the Tanzanian churches would be given the wisdom and patience to revise their church and fellowship constitutions so that unity and faithfulness between them is reinforced.
  2. Join us in praying that the Bible Institute classes we are creating will prepare the churches to serve God and one another especially in their personal spiritual growth, ministry to each other in their churches and in their homes.
  3. Please pray for the young church in Usagara which is growing numerically and being challenged with financial and spiritual difficulties at the same time. May God protect them, increase their faith, and strengthen their resolve to be faithful.
  4. With regard to the church planting efforts in Bukokwa, Malimbe, and Mbugani, please pray that the gospel will be understood and believed upon. Pray that groups would gather for the purpose of worshipping and serving the God of our gospel.
  5. Please join us in praying that our personal and family worship would be refreshing and effective in making us more like our Savior.

April 20, 2017   No Comments

Three Day Tour

Since the beginning of 2016 I have made monthly visits to Nyakaliro and Lusolelo. The rough roads and the Gulf that separate those villages from our home would otherwise make it difficult to keep in touch. A weekend trip gives me some dedicated time to encourage the pastors (Jonas and Laurent) and participate in their church planting or teaching efforts.

Typically, I leave home on Saturday morning, arrive in Nyakaliro late afternoon, and then participate in evangelistic visitation or spend the evening with Jonas. I stay overnight there. Sunday morning I preach in one of the two churches and spend the afternoon with Laurent.

Now that both of these congregations are working to start new churches, the weekend agenda can fill up quickly. My monthly visit in January expanded to 3 days to include the monthly pastors’ meeting. [Read more →]

February 16, 2017   No Comments

First Wedding in Usagara

wedding party in the tent

In June a young couple from Usagara got engaged. We then worked together through the process of giving a bride price. This past Saturday Shukuru and Anna got hitched before their family, friends, and fellow church members. We knocked out a wall to accommodate everyone (you can do that when walls are reed mats!).

This was the first wedding held by this church and the first I have ever officiated. It is a personal privilege to have walked with Shukuru and Anna through the engagement process. I might say that these engagement and wedding customs are likely to utterly exhaust a couple financially and emotionally. But I also have seen how it has drawn this young church closer together and how, over it all, the sanctity of Christian marriage is sufficient for quite a bit of rigamarole. Now the party is over, the couple starts their life together, and we pick up our prayers for them.

November 8, 2016   No Comments

Gospel of Mark in TZ Today

Sunday Morning Service in Lusolelo, 25 Sep

Sunday Morning Service in Lusolelo, 25 Sep

After completing the basic teaching which prepared the way to form a church membership in Usagara, I’ve shifted my focus to preaching through the Gospel of Mark. In this context–like the one in which Jesus ministered and just about any other outwardly religious society–people may know about Jesus without truly knowing who He really is. Mark’s Gospel is helpful as an especially hard-hitting confrontation of wrong thinking about who Jesus is.

Mark writes the “good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1). What makes the “good news” good may be lost on as many people today as it was in First Century Palestine. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus can be both Messiah and sacrifice for sin, argues Mark. He is humble enough to bless children and bold enough to challenge the religious establishment. Jesus is both Son of God and friend of sinners.

Gospel of Mark in TZ

Preaching-a-Sunday-sermon-from-Marks-Gospel-in-Usagara.JPG

Preaching through this Gospel presents the chance to address certain commonly misunderstood notions about our Lord. For instance, God is more concerned with the condition of our heart than our pockets. Jesus is more interested in your repentant faith than your status, title, or ability to wow crowds. The following table shows the ideas we’ve been considering as we walk through the Gospel of Mark in broad strokes:

Passage Sermon Theme
Mark 1–3 Let’s get to know Jesus as He really is, not as we want Him to be
Mark 3–6 Those who know Jesus as He really is will be radically changed
Mark 6–8 Loving God as He is more important than keeping traditions
Mark 8–10 Without the death of Christ, there is no good news
Mark 11–13 Prepare for Christ’s return by loving God with your whole heart
Mark 14–16 TBD

October 18, 2016   No Comments

Baptisms and Membership Interviews

We baptized eight believers in Lake Victoria near Usagara this past Sunday. Several of those baptized became believers through evangelism involving William, myself, and Bible Institute students. This step follows the near completion of membership interviews and sets us up for chartering a church in Usagara.

Baptism Service in Lake Victoria

Baptism Service in Lake Victoria

William and I talk about how the activity of these weeks resemble labor pains approaching birth. But honestly, the analogy is weak since neither of us would know anything about real labor pains. Even when it comes to the birth of a church, this is the first time for either of us. All we really know is that at the rate things are progressing we all expect to peak soon!

Blessings of Membership Interviews

We believe that church members must be saved from their sin by faith in Jesus Christ and baptized as an obedient testimony of their faith. Membership interviews are a way for us to ask membership candidates about their faith and baptism. They also provided opportunity to answer questions about the proposed church constitution and statement of faith.

Convinced that a biblical view of membership is essential for the health of the church, I consider the interviews important for a good start in Usagara. But I also found the interviews an incredible privilege. Here are some blessings are worth sharing:

  1. Many of the prospective church members started attending services without much of any contact with William or I. The interviews provided a good excuse to visit each home and get to know one another.
  2. What follower of Jesus wouldn’t want an excuse to talk about the gospel? It doesn’t matter what language is used–it never fails to amaze me to hear “Jesus died on the cross for my sins.”
  3. Where people believed but didn’t quite have the words to describe it, the interviews provided opportunities to teach fundamentals of the Faith.
  4. We regularly found ourselves interviewing one person within earshot of others we haven’t yet been introduced to. Gospel conversations in the interviews naturally flowed in to gospel conversations with many others.
charter members

William making the list of charter members

What Comes Next

We hope to charter the new church in Usagara Sunday, October 2. On that day we will be joined by representatives from their mother church in Shadi, who will recommend that those qualified become members of their own church and elect William as their pastor. The fellowship of Tanzanian churches will need to recognize the new church. And, Lord willing, we will begin construction of the parsonage.

September 23, 2016   No Comments

To Build or not to Build

At some point in the church planting process most churches will want to build a building. In almost every case, the cost of building can present a young congregation with one of its first sizable challenges. When people are poor or property and building materials are expensive, the challenge is more acute. Here in Tanzania it seems the difficulty in building church buildings runs cross grain to what everyone expects a church building to be.

big church

A beautiful church building for $170,000

[Read more →]

September 17, 2016   3 Comments