By Pete Isenberg
The pickup rumbled northward from Madang, Papua New Guinea, on the two-lane coastal road. Hours before, our group had prepared packs for a several-day outing and set out to visit a local village. Now 17 bumpy miles later, our missionary leader slowly pulled over and announced, “Here we are!” Yet I wondered, “Where is here?” All we saw was a wall of green forest on either side of us. But taking the cue, we climbed out and strapped on our packs for the ensuing trek.
Cultural Faux Pas
As we started toward the jungle, several smiling villagers emerged. The missionary exchanged greetings with them and motioned for us to ascend the trail. Our hosts, Peter and Augusta, welcomed us into their hut and began preparing a meal for us and the others in the village who would be joining us. I helped Peter gather firewood while my wife, Ann, tried to figure out how to assist Augusta with the food.
As the sun later fell below the horizon, Peter invited me to sit in the place of honor on a mat on the ground beside him. Augusta then brought out large plates of food (much of which I couldn’t identify), and set them in front of us. As the guests of honor, we ate first with Peter while rest of the company waited. As I looked down at my plate, I saw that Augusta had given me plenty. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure I can finish all this.” But I knew the right thing was to eat what was put in front of us, so I enthusiastically began consuming as much as I could.
Twenty minutes later, I was done. I couldn’t eat another bite. Although I had eaten most of what was on the plate, there was still a bit left. I laid the plate down on the ground in front of me, signaling I had finished. Then Augusta picked up my plate—and handed it to the next guest so they could eat. I was horrified. In my effort to be a proper guest, I had just eaten food that was intended to feed several others as well.
That was one of many lessons I’ve learned in recent years about reaching other cultures for Christ.
Those Who Haven’t Heard
Four years ago I made the transition from preaching at New Hope Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, to serving as a training coach with Pioneer Bible Translators. I was blessed to serve the Roanoke congregation for more than 17 years, and the Lord used that experience to prepare me for what I’m doing now. I never thought I would be a full-time missionary, and indeed it is an unusual situation to be a “missionary” based in Dallas, Texas. More than once since making this transition I’ve experienced the pain of culture shock. Few things are more humbling than thinking you were being a good guest only to find out you were being a glutton.
What makes it all worthwhile is being part of an organization focused on the world’s most spiritually impoverished people. There are about 180 million people on earth who still don’t have a single Bible verse in their heart language or a church among their people group—despite the passage of a couple thousand years since Jesus charged his followers with making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). To date, there are still more than 1,800 language groups whom we know need Scripture yet have none.
I didn’t grow up in church but was privileged to grow up in a place with access to Scripture and church. I’m thankful I had the chance to hear the gospel several times before I made the choice to follow Jesus. Yet I’m haunted by the statement of Oswald J. Smith, who commented, “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” Indeed, can we help but marvel at the injustice that there are people who will never hear God’s Word because there simply isn’t any way for them to hear?
As worthy as the church’s efforts have often been through the years, is there a higher priority than ensuring that people have the chance to hear the Word of God? Paul reminded the Romans that “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). Pioneer Bible Translators is committed to providing enduring access to Scripture. We believe this access is essential if we are going to see transformed lives through God’s Word in every language.
When the Lord charged the prophet Ezekiel with the responsibility of being a messenger to his people, he also held Ezekiel accountable for their blood. The Lord explained that if Ezekiel warned them and the people didn’t heed his warning, their punishment was their own fault. But if he failed to speak God’s warning to them, he would be responsible for their judgment (Ezekiel 33:7-9).
Will not the Lord similarly hold us responsible when we have had nearly 2,000 years to accomplish the task of sharing the gospel of Jesus?
Most of us recognize the priority of the gospel reaching the ends of the earth. But if this is so, why haven’t we done it yet? With all the resources and personnel the church has had at its disposal, why are there still entire people groups who are Bible-less and churchless? The answer, in the words of Greg Pruett, president of Pioneer Bible Translators, is that “the low-hanging fruit has been picked.” The places left in the world where the message of the gospel has not yet penetrated require considerable resources to access. Missionaries committed to reaching these dark corners of the earth face forbidding obstacles. Limited access, persecution, hostile governments, and extreme poverty combine to make some areas very difficult to reach.
The Kingdom Is Advancing
Despite these obstacles, the kingdom is advancing even in these remote places. (In the four years since I began serving in this ministry, the number of language groups with known translation needs has shrunk from more than 2,200 to about 1,850.) In addition to the vital role prayer plays in the process of world evangelization, this advance of God’s kingdom has occurred due to at least three other encouraging factors:
1. A persistent spirit of unity.
The various organizations that are part of the Bible translation movement work together. (For one example, see The Forum of Bible Agencies International [forum-intl.org].) We are thankful for the many organizations with which we partner to finish the task of taking the Word to the world.
2. Investing in those we send to the field.
At Pioneer Bible Translators, I serve primarily as a training coach. Every recruit in our organization is assigned a training coach who walks the journey with them from the time they become recruits until they arrive on the field. We believe this relationship goes a long way toward ensuring that our recruits are spiritually prepared for the challenges they will face when they begin ministering in a culture that lacks the presence of the body of Christ.
I’m currently coaching 28 people—a lot of people to pray for and invest in at one time! But these relationships are mutually rewarding, as we have conversations that include everything from logistics to personal worship. Since most of our missionaries will go to places where there is no church, it is vital that they have a healthy and robust faith in Jesus without having to rely on the physical presence of other Christians.
In a recent Skype conversation with a couple I coach, the husband reflected on the training they are receiving. He said that as valuable as their classroom training has been, their greatest growth has come from their partnership development. When our missionaries prepare for the field, their focus isn’t on fundraising. Rather, their focus is on partnership—on inviting Christians to be part of what they are doing through prayer and relationship, not just money. The conversations in living rooms, coffee shops, and fellowship halls where they have invited people to join in their ministry has been a vital part of their preparation. They know that when they go, they won’t be going alone.
3. A cooperative approach to ministry.
We are not all called to the ends of the earth. Yet we are all called to be part of the body of Christ reaching the ends of the earth. When we pray or when we give, we partner with those God has called to go. Serving together, we are likely to be the generation who will see the Word made available in every language on earth for the first time since Jesus walked among us.
The embarrassing cultural lesson I learned in Papua New Guinea three years ago has reminded me how much still needs to be done. But when the body of Christ unites in prayer and cooperation with the Spirit of God, I’m encouraged in believing the kingdom of God will reach the ends of the earth. There will be great joy when his words are fulfilled: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). n
Pete Isenberg serves at Pioneer Bible Translators as a Training Coach and West Africa Branch Chaplain. He and his wife, Ann, live in Grand Prairie, Texas.