January 2008 – Missionaries are men and women who sleep on grass mats on dirt floors, learn to eat repulsive foods and fend off wild animals at night – right? Isn’t that the stereotypical snapshot we’ve stored in our mental photo album?
There may be some basis in reality for such a stereotype, but the truth is that missions today is a broad field with opportunities to serve God in ways we may never have considered. Short-term mission trips use people in the fields of medicine, teaching, evangelism, construction and more.
And don’t forget missionary puppets. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have thought of that one. Last summer, I had the good fortune to travel with Hope Church’s (Tupelo, Mississippi) fine arts mission team to Birmingham, England, to minister at Kingshurst Evangelical Church (KEC).
“I loved it,” said Bubba Lollar, member of the Hope team. “Going as a fine arts team and expressing the Gospel through the arts was a unique experience.” Our unusual team included four preteens, two teenagers and eight adults.
The team incorporated drama, music, evangelism, puppetry and dance into our presentations. All of the art forms we used seem quite routine to us, perhaps something we take a little too much for granted. Our British audience received them with rapt attention and expressed deep gratitude for worship forms they considered innovative.
KEC is located on a busy street and surrounded primarily by middle-class neighborhoods. The church is 40 years old and has been served by only two pastors, founding pastor Edwin Orton and Bob Bogart, who was called as pastor in 2004. Bob and his wife Debbie call Hope Church home.
A flame diminished
Sunday morning worship attendance at KEC is around 75. If they reach more than 100, their modest sanctuary will be packed.
“That’s a pretty good sized church for England these days,” said Bogart. He sees first hand how the fire of the Gospel that once burned bright in the country has grown dim over the last 50 years. His observation reflects a documented decline in the impact of Christianity in all of Europe, in Great Britain in particular.
“For many Americans, the expression ‘Christian Europe’ is an oxymoron,” said Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and culture analyst. Both secular and Christian media have labeled Europe “post Christian” and concluded that the continent is totally secularized.
KEC, however, stands as a bright light that not all is lost. The church’s full calendar of activities stretches far beyond the church’s small numbers. On a monthly basis, about 18 community groups use the church for meetings. A half-day child-care program operates five days a week and a three-hour lunch-club program for seniors meets three days a week.
Consequently, our team had the opportunity not only to lead regular worship services, but also to present the arts in some of these community groups, some of which are an outreach of the church itself. In addition, mission team members were able to share personal testimonies with these groups.
Our teen members shared with KEC’s mid-week teen group and our younger children shared in children’s groups. We all participated in puppet shows and musical presentations.
“We all have skills God can use in missions,” said Wes White, executive director of Global Outreach International (GO). White said the Hope fine arts team is a perfect example of that principle – we can all be used.
The Bogarts are commissioned as missionaries by GO. They are among some 200 full-time GO missionaries in 39 countries. The home offices also coordinate about 130 short-term mission teams each year.
White says a short-term mission not only allows us to serve others, but we’re likely to learn some things along the way. Over his years of working with thousands of missionaries, he condenses those lessons to three main things:
▶ God loves everyone the same. “It’s a powerful concept when we come to realize that God doesn’t like us better,” White said. “We didn’t do anything to deserve what we have. It’s only by God’s grace as to where we were born.”
▶ God can use you for His kingdom, even if you’re not a preacher. “If you don’t believe that, just look at the Hope team,” he said.
▶ People the world over are really the same. “Whether we live in a thatched hut or run a multi-level corporation, we have the same basic needs,” he said.
Lollar said the experience at KEC cemented God’s call on his family to go to the mission field full-time. Over a period of some three decades, he has already served as pastor, associate pastor, minister of music and director of a campus ministry. Currently he is director of Congressman Roger Wicker’s district office in Tupelo.
However, he and his wife Rockie have prayed for 15 years about their passion for missions. Now, they are in the process of selling home and possessions and establishing a support base before they move to Birmingham to join the Bogarts on staff at KEC. They have four adult children, so only six-year-old Myleea will join them in their move.
And she’s ready for the challenge. During our day-trip to sightsee in London, most of us were nursing tired feet outside Westminster Abbey when Myleea and her dad struck up a conversation with Mr. Brian, a personable cab driver waiting for a fare. Lollar shared his faith in Christ, but the driver rejected any belief in eternal life.
“You live, you die, and they bury in a wood box,” he told Lollar.
Myleea kept saying, “Let me tell ’im, Dad,” until finally Lollar relented and asked Mr. Brian if he would listen to Myleea.
The man knelt down and Myleea began excitedly: “God is real, Mr. Brian. He loves you so much He sent His son to die for you.”
“I sure hope you’re right, Darlin,’” he said. Their conversation was interrupted as a fare appeared and took the cab driver back to work.
But as Mr. Brian got in the car, he was serenaded by Myleea singing enthusiastically, “Our God is an awesome God, He reigns. …”
A spark rekindled
Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, reflects some of the general sentiment regarding the church’s loss of influence in Europe. His books such as God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis analyze the data and have received significant attention in Christian circles.
Jenkins and other scholars report such startling facts as this: From 1979 to 2005, half of all British Christians stopped attending church on Sunday. Furthermore, all indicators suggest that the nation is following the path of other European countries where the church’s role in culture has dimmed dramatically.
Still, ChristianResearch.org reports that according to England’s 2001 census, 72% responded that they were Christian, though 66% were not affiliated with a specific religion or church. But the number claiming the Christian faith was up significantly when measured against estimates by other culture-watchers: 63% by Christian Research, 53% by the British Social Attitudes Report, and 66% by the 1999 European Values Study.
Christie Davies, professor emeritus of sociology at England’s University of Reading, said the nation’s moral collapse began soon after World War II. Davies is author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.
And he warns that the U.S. should pay close attention to the path of Christianity in Britain because the U.S. has often followed the lead of Britain in cultural patterns and phenomena.
Pastor Bogart is realistic. He knows that a revival will not come easily, but he is committed to his calling to re-introduce the Gospel to a nation in great need.
Our Hope mission team members are changed from our experience with the Bogarts at FEC. Having been more familiar with mission outreaches to Third World nations, the picture in our minds was more like that described in the opening paragraph above. But we now have a second picture as well, a picture of what the word missions means in a nation such as England, with its long and solid prosperity.
“What will my special memories be?” mused Anna Avery Edwards, 10-year-old Hope team member. Anna Avery has had a heart for missions and missionaries for as long as she can remember. Her family prays daily for missionaries that Hope Church supports.
“I will always remember the busy church, the incredible sights, and most of all the beautiful people,” she said. “My first mission trip was a life-changing experience for me.”
“Life-changing,” echoed Bubba Lollar. “That’s an understatement. We saw a country that was once on fire for Christ and has now grown cold. But we saw a spark or two of that fire still burning. That’s really an exciting challenge for me and my family.”
Jenkins offers cautious optimism. He refers to “smaller hardcore activist minority movements” – evangelical congregations in the Church of England. He says they’re not large in number but they are big in influence.
“There are a lot of Christians in Europe, and there’s a lot of Christian sentiment remaining,” Jenkins told The Catholic World Reporter. He went on to say that the organized church in Europe is, indeed, in deep trouble, but in the big picture he sees signs of hope for a resurgence of the faith.
KEC is one stunning snapshot of that hope.
For more information on short-term missions contact Global Outreach International at www.globaloutreach.org or call 662-842-4615.