A Model for Missions in a Brave New World

A Model for Missions in a Brave New World

Mack Stiles on the need for gospel-centered churches at the heart of missions


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Mack Stiles: My name is Mack Stiles. This is on missions and globalization, mostly on missions. I think the globalized is just to make it sound relevant. In one sense, globalization has always been with us. Silk Road was globalization. Speed happened with the railroad, cables of communication were laid in 1851 between the U.S. and England. Those tools of technology were for the powerful, the wealthy. Globalization is really more about the democratization of communication and trade and travel. I’ve watched it happen. Globalization happened personally. We were directing a program in Kenya in the ’80s, a short term program, totally immersive. We lived in Kenyan homes and with Kenyan missionaries over the course of a number of months every year for six years. It was a powerful program. I remember in the ’80s getting a fax machine. It was awesome, and we took it, and we drug it….the thing was about the size of a suitcase. We drug it over to Kenya, I donated it to the Kenyan student movement over there. In Tunisia, in the early ’90s, I had a friend tell me that we could actually log on to a thing called the internet and talk free, but I had to go on campus at the University of Tunis to do it, and I thought, this thing’s never going anywhere.

We were directing a program in the Guatemalan highlands in the shield triangle, the site of the Guatemalan Civil War. We were taking students up there. Don’t tell their parents, but we actually went there before the peace accords were signed, and we were going into a war zone. We didn’t know we were taking students into a war zone. I’m sure it was not covered by our student ministries insurance plan, but any rate, I remember that one year, we were in Guatemala working with the shield people and all of a sudden people had cell phones. It was awesome because up to that time, only three people on the entire city of Nebaj where we were living had phones and it became family business. You had to go and pay them. I can remember sitting in a line of a group of people with phones and with payments. Some people had chickens, some people have money, you know, whatever. And all of a sudden that was over because cell phones had come to Nebaj. I remember smartphones, after we had moved to Dubai in 2007, showing off and actually being able to do smart things on my phone, sorta, at the time. And now I can talk to my two-year-old grandson. We live in Kurdistan in Iraq where I’m pastoring a church there, and I can talk to my two-year-old grandson who knows how to use his mother’s FaceTime. He can call me at all hours of the day when he gets a hold of his mother’s cell phone on FaceTime. This is astonishing.

I don’t think globalization is really…The whole thing about globalization came together for me until one of our staff, his name is Shannel, he is a delightful young man. He’d come to faith through the student ministry in Dubai. He’s from South India, but he grew up in Dubai. He is essentially from the Arabian Peninsula. He was living in Dubai. He is a part of our student ministry, so get this. So, Americans, a group of Americans, three American couples go to Dubai to start student ministry. We get there, and we have multicultural ministry happening, multicultural church, and Shannel is a part of that. So, Americans are discipling Shannel from south India who lives in Dubai. Now, Shannel wants to reach out to Gulf Arabs. He wants to learn how to do that. He’s with Gulf Arabs all the time in his classes. And so, he decides to go with us to a program to London where we do outreach in a London friends program to Gulf Arabs who go to London to learn colloquial English skills. And it was there that Shannel shared the gospel with Saudis, but also he didn’t lead any of them to Christ. He leads a German to the Lord, I think his name was Andre, and Andre moves to America and Shannel is very concerned about him finding a church. So, he gets on the 9Marks webpage and finds a healthy church in New Jersey, and it’s a Korean American church that the German joins. Okay. You want to work that out? I mean, so Americans got to Dubai working with a man from South India who goes to London out of his concern for Saudis and leads a German to the Lord who goes to New Jersey and works, lives in, and is discipled by a Korean American church.

I mean, brothers and sisters, globalization is upon us, and it is an astonishing opportunity for the gospel. Astonishing opportunity for the gospel. Now, it’s got its downsides. I was in North India, we had gathered a bunch of folks who were pastors, Hindu converts, pastors who wanted to come and learn about healthy church principles. We were teaching about healthy church, and it was a 9Marks seminar. Things were going great. These guys were wonderful, very, very quiet pastors in sort of rural areas of North India. Everything is quiet until we get to the section on elders. And Andy’s teaching, and he says, “We believe that elders should be men.” All hands go up. This is the first time I was like, “Whoa.” This is the first time they’ve even said anything. So, clearly [inaudible], they say, “What about Joyce Meyers?” Every one of them knew about Joyce Meyers because they can watch her on the internet.

So, there are some downsides to globalization. How do we prepare? What do we do for these things? I have a method. I have a solution for a globalized world. It’s called the healthy church. Biblical, healthy church is the means of God to advance his glory among the nations. Jesus thought it up. The director of our mission agency, he thought it up. The church is God’s method for evangelism, discipleship, and missions. We do not need the latest fad. We do not need the latest missiology thinking. What we desperately need, desperately need on the field is missionaries who know and trust biblical principles for planting biblical churches. The church is God’s proven instrument of missions. It will not be defeated, yet sadly, I often see people chase after fads and methods that may not always be bad, but they take away the focus, often the funds and the training from the development of gospel-centered, cross-focused, Bible-drenched communities of members who are believers who’ve covenanted together to love each other in Gospel love and be a display of God’s glory. That’s what the world needs in missions. When I say that, I say that a lot, gospel-centered, cross-focused, Bible-drenched communities of members who are believers, who’ve covenanted together in gospel love to care for one another for a display of God’s glory.

When I say that to people, they say, “If we could do that, it would be beautiful.” And it is. That’s what we’re about. And that’s the goal. Sadly though, a lot of people don’t know how to get there. I don’t know of anything more important right now in modern missions than this need for healthy churches to be established on the field. I’ve been involved in missions for decades in short terms and 20 years, the last 20 years, in the Middle East, yet I meet these missionaries who call themselves church planters who are not able even to define a church. I’ll ask them, well, what is a church? And they don’t know. And let me just belabor the obvious. If you don’t know what a church is, you’re going to have a very hard time planting one. Everyone agrees what the goal is, a vibrant church, but how to get there, right? So, some people wanna build hospitals, other dig wells, some distribute food, and others do various ministries from afar or short-term programs.

Listen, I’m not opposed to any of these things. I’m gonna list these things. Well, I wrote a book on short-term missions. I’m for them. I’m not opposed to any method. I’m just saying all these things that we do, training seminars, and conferences, and businesses mission, prayer walks, and vacations with a purpose, okay well, maybe I don’t like vacations with a purpose, but parachurch ministries and NGOs galore. ls any of that wrong? No, of course, not. But wouldn’t it be better? I mean it’s just that you think it’d be better to have a healthy church locally on the ground. That could be a training center, a model, a hub of the thing that we want to see reproduced indigenously. Just a local healthy church. Yes. That’s what we most need, and I would even go so far as to say don’t do that other stuff if it’s possible to build up a local church. It’s not always possible. I understand that.

I have this friend, you know, so…I have been, and personally, of all, I’m a poster child for businesses mission. We started a supercomputer company in Dubai, and it was awesome, and it really provided…but let me just take a dig at businesses missions since I’ve been involved in a way. So, I have this friend named Gary Ginter. He’s a businessman, and he says, “I meet these people…” he’s got this real gravelly voice. “I meet these people who, you know, they talk about their travel agency, you know, they put a business card out as a travel agent. If you’re gonna lie about something, put brain surgeon on there, you know, get some respect. I mean, if you’re gonna lie about something, make it worthwhile.” So, you know, there’s all these methods, and fads, and things that we don’t necessarily have to do.

So, the dumbest thing in the world is if you can establish a healthy church, to go establish a travel agent as your platform. Let church be a platform. Let church be the center of our mission’s activity. So, right now we’re in a situation in Erbil where we have a local church, and I’ve got 10 staff on my staff. We’ve got about 50 members and probably another 75 people coming. We do not need 10 staff. You know why I have 10 staff? Because I want them to be the ones that are missionaries to the rest of our community in Northern Kurdistan. I want the church to be the platform for missions if that makes sense. If you can do that, we should think about that because we can generate more stuff.

Anyhow, let me give you just a brief testimony to understand where I’m coming from on this because I want you to understand I’m a parachurch guy, and I’ve gotten some pushback on my push for healthy churches. I graduated with a degree in microbiology. I didn’t do anything in microbiology. Bless my father’s heart. He put me through university. My love was ministry. And so, I went on staff with a campus ministry thinking we’d do that for a couple of years. LeeAnn, my wife, is right here. She and I got married while we were in university. It took us a little longer than a couple of years to get to the field. It took us actually two decades in student ministry, which was wonderful. I love student ministry. But in 2000, we partnered with some other families with a vision to establish student ministry among students in the Arabian Peninsula. So, in 2001 and 2002, we left for Dubai. It was directly after 9/11. Actually, I banged my for sale sign in the front yard of my house the day after 9/11. The real gut check was 9/13 when the house sold. That was, wow, we’re really going. But anyhow, it was real noble to bang the sign in. It was less noble when the house sold. I had another thought, “Darn, I should have asked for more money.” Anyhow, it was a great time to go, and a right statement. It was a statement. We’re not afraid. There are things worth risking for, and one of them is the gospel.

We found open doors for student ministry. You know, I was astonished at the response of so many students to the message of the gospel, and as the student ministry grew, we quickly realized we needed a healthy church. Parachurch, by definition, doesn’t work without church. I mean, it’s para, it’s alongside of. So, our team of three couples rolled up our sleeves, pitched into a church reform to reform the one evangelical church that was there in a city of over a million people. I became an elder in the church pretty quickly, and it was a hard time. I didn’t have Mike McKinley’s book, “Church Planting Is for Wimps,” but he’s got it right. Church planting is easy, church reform is really difficult. It’s what’s hard, and especially cross-culturally because we had all these cultures coming into the church with expectations of what church was. And so, what you get in the end, if you don’t have biblical principle, is church to the lowest common denominator. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, had given land for the Evangelical Church in the late ’90s. We took our time, but eventually built the building and moved in in 2003. In 2004, it was maxed out, 700 people come, and we don’t know who they are because there’s no real form to the church.

And about that time, in 2004, the senior pastor decided he didn’t want to be the senior pastor anymore. And I was asked to head up the pastoral search committee, which is essentially like handing the church over to me because everybody is real busy and Dubai. And I went to everybody on the pastoral search committee, and I said, “Listen, I know you’re busy. I know you don’t have time for this, I’ll do all the work.” And I said, “Well, listen, you do all the work. Okay, I’ll be on the committee.” So, I mean, it was like I was just handed this church. First thing I do, I call Mark Dever on the phone. I say, “Mark, you know, I need a pastor.” He says, “I got a great guy, John Folmar. And so, John and Keri visited in 2005. We shut down the pastoral search committee. I mean, it was the quickest pastoral search committee in the history of the church, I tell people. So, I think we existed maybe a week-and-a-half. And that was it, you know, rubber stamp. John and Keri were fantastic. They moved in the end of that year, 2005. We had worked hard to get the churches in good a shape as we could for their arrival, three or four years really before they got there.

But there’s only so much lay elder and a couple of members can do. If you’re involved in a church reform, especially overseas, you need the senior pastor polling for church reform. And John made that happen in a powerful way. Again, what I mean, when I talk about where we’re going is it’s from the church of the lowest common denominator to my mantra, which is a gospel-centered, cross-focused, Bible-drenched community of members who are real believers, who’ve covenanted together in gospel love to care for each other for a display of God’s glory. That’s where we were headed, and John and us partnered together, and it began to take shape, a number of years there with John at the church until the church, United Christian Church of Dubai, decided to plant another church called Redeemer, Redeemer Church, under Pastor Dave Furman. I led out in that with another elder. There were three elders, founding elders of the church. It was an exciting, and sweet and joyful time to plant a church alongside Dave and Gloria, after the travails of a church reform.

And many more churches were starting to form all across the United Arab Emirates. Churches were planted. Many good people coming. Josh and Jenny Manley up in Ras Al Khaimah. Jeramie and Jennifer Rinne in Abu Dhabi from Boston, Blaine and Kelly Boyd in Al Ain, Anand and Priya Samuel in Sharjah, Steve and Katie Jennings up in Fujairah, Brian and Joanne Parks, who are one of the original couples that went with us to start student ministry, started another church in Dubai. And these have become vibrant engines of healthy local church on the ground. They’ve become training centers, and models, and hubs of the things that we want to see reproduced indigenously. And just by the way, during all this time, this is about 15 years now, an arc of 15 years, the student ministry flourished. And I think it was because God blessed our love for the church. I think God was saying, “Yeah, I love the church. You love the church.” We saw the power of the church in the ministry that we had come to do. I was the national director of that movement. By the time, it was about 2015, we had 15 full-time staff. They spoke nine different languages. We were on 20 different campuses every week that continues to this day. Hundreds of students are involved in Bible studies on campuses, some of them underground, some of them have actually been recognized by the university.

But over those years I saw the power of what can happen through a healthy church and the establishment of healthy church. So, from the seminary of hard knocks, I’ve come to hammer out some things over the years about what’s most needed for churches that I want to share with you, seven things, that I think are critical for a globalized age. Now, it’s easy to generate excitement about missions among the young, and I’m for that, I’m a mobilizer. So, I’m a part of the Cross Missions Conference team, and I love that team, and I love mobilizing students, but it’s easy to do. What’s hard to do is train people to go, well, what we need is not just people who are jacked up about missions, we need them to understand and know what they need to know about missions.

So, for this brave new globalized world, seven things.

Number one, the church, home church, your churches should identify missionaries. Acts 13, the church identified Paul and Barnabas to be sent out. Now, we face a lot of obstacles in America, especially to identifying missionaries, because we live in a privatized, increasingly individualistic society. People, I mean, all the time, tell me, “Oh, God has told me to be a missionary.” And I want to say, “Well, hey what do the elders of your church think?” “Oh, I hadn’t talked to them.” I want you to talk to them. Talk to your elders. If you have elders, I want you to talk to them. I regularly meet on the field self-identified missionaries. They’ve not been sent by anyone. They just show up telling everyone they’re missionaries. It’s a bit like baptizing yourself. You know, it doesn’t work. But for some churches, for some reason, it’s good enough. It’s like, “Here, take the money and go. Oh, well you wanna be a missionary? Okay.” No, don’t abdicate your church’s responsibility to say yes or no. You should be the ones deciding.

I’ve yet to meet a self-identified missionary who was qualified. I meet self-identified missionaries all the time that are doing great harm. Send people who are mature. Paul and Barnabas were apostles in the church. Can you imagine what it was like for the church to lose Paul and Barnabas? That’s who needs to be sent out like they did from Antioch. That’s the pattern. And missionary should at least be on an elder trajectory. You know, Don Carson is the one who has said, “The notable thing about the qualifications for elders is that it’s not that notable.” I love that. You know, you read 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1, you realize really Paul is just describing what should be just committed believers, committed Christians, except for one thing, they must be able to teach. And we must remember that teaching is one of the main functions of a missionary. We need missionaries who can spot and teach against bad missions. They can teach the problems about rapidly reproducing churches or the latest current missionary fad. They need to teach why prosperity gospel is pernicious and anti-gospel, which has caused to us actually more problems in Iraq than any other bad missions teaching. Or they can teach about the biblical problems with the insider movement or Muslim idiom translations. A missionary is a sent one who goes to all nations according to Matthew 28, to make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them all that Jesus taught.

So, I would like to call churches, number one, not to abdicate the responsibility to identify and support the right people in missions. Stop supporting unqualified people because it makes my life difficult, for one, but also it’s a disgrace to Jesus. Look, if you wouldn’t put them on your church staff, you shouldn’t put them on a plane.

Number two, make sure they know and love the gospel. They need to know the gospel. They need to live the gospel. They need to speak the gospel. That’s the subtitle of my book, “Marks of the Messenger.” Know, live, speak the gospel. Now, I know everybody in this room, I would expect would believe that the gospel is central to missions. And when I say gospel, what I mean is the gospel is the message from God that leads to salvation, whether you find that word “gospel” in the Old Testament or the New, it always means the message from God that leads us to salvation. That’s the gospel, and it’s basically broken up into four parts or four questions. Who is God? Who am I before a holy God? What has Christ done and how do we respond? God, man, Christ response or creation, fall, redemption, consummation. It doesn’t matter how you compact that beautiful gospel message, it just needs to be understood, and people need to explain it.

We understand that the gospel doesn’t just get us saved. It’s a way of life. We walk in line with the gospel, as Paul says in Galatians 2:14, as Tim Keller says, the Gospel is not the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of Christian life. And I would say that’s true for missions, the gospel is not the ABCs of missions, is the A to Z of missions. It’s critical to make sure that the gospel is central in any potential missionaries’ life. So, if you go to foreign lands, you live cross-culturally, let me just say this, it is astonishingly easy to forget. Many missionaries forget. I know missionaries who have not shared the gospel in years. They learn to go, they learn how to live, but not how to make disciples. So, I know it sounds flat obvious to say love the gospel, but the hardest thing in missions is not the sacrifices you make by being away from your home culture, or the medical care you forsake, or the worries you have for your children, or the difficulties of cross-cultural living, or being separated from your family, all the things that I know well. The hardest thing in the midst of all the other stuff is to remember why you’re there. You go to make disciples by his word. This can be a little scary.

You want to hear another story? I have another story. Sort of not completely. It does fit. It’s a little scary. So, I get a phone call, and it’s the prime minister’s office. And the question is, “Are you ordained?” I say yes. And, “Are you pastoring a church here in Kurdistan?” I am. “Well, the prime minister has a good friend,” actually, it turned out to be his bodyguard, “who’s getting married, he’s a Christian, and he’s getting married, and we need a pastor.” I said, “Well, when is it? And let me look at my diary.” And actually I was speaking to an underground Muslim Kurdish church, and I was not gonna cancel on them. So, I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I’m booked.” So, I was disappointed a little. But anyhow, so they called back a couple of hours later, the prime minister has rearranged the wedding. And I had this thought, I think I’m probably the only one in the country that can do this. And he says that it doesn’t matter where you are, he will come get you in his helicopter. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” What can I say right? So, I hang up. LeeAnn and I go to the wedding. There’s only about 30 people there. I think there were more security details at this wedding than there was actual, you know, family and friends.

There were more guns there than a Texas wedding, let me tell you. There was really a [inaudible 00:29:26]. Anyhow, I make the decision this is worth getting kicked out for. Anyhow, I just saw Mark Dever tweeted, “There are no closed countries, just places where your second sermon is a little more difficult,” right? I was like, “Yes. I’ve got to go for it.” I preach Ephesians 5. I read there it is, right? The gospel. Marriage is an image of the gospel. I do not pull punches. I am going for every part of the gospel, eternal judgment, I talk about repenting of sin, I mean, the full layout of the thing. The bodyguard is German, and his bride was Russian, complete pagans and, you know, I don’t know why they wanted a preacher. Anyhow, so they were the most nervous bride and groom I have ever met. I don’t think they heard a word I said. Prime minister, on the other hand, wrapt attention, flies out on the helicopter, tells his bodyguard, Ruben, “I want to know more about that gospel.” Wow, you know. Now, part of that is I have to make these decisions not to be frightened, right? To be bold with the gospel. And I have to make that decision every time I share the gospel. Not just in Kurdistan, not just Dubai, but every day, you know. You do too. And you should do it now. And don’t send someone if they’re not sharing the gospel right now, because it’s only going to get harder. Wouldn’t it be great that getting on a plane would make us evangelists? It doesn’t. How great that would be, just pay 1500 bucks, and you’re evangelist, right? I’d do that. I’d do that in a heartbeat, right? No, it’s those daily decisions. You’ve got to do that.

Third thing, make sure they love the bride of Christ. In 2016, we took on a new role. I became the senior pastor of the Erbil International Baptist Church. We have people from all over the world who are members, 30 different nations every time we gather. I have absolutely love establishing things that most churches take for granted. So, every time we install some part of church that’s critical, a statement of faith, for example, there’s never been a statement of faith, a covenant, a constitution, it’s a time for not only me to train elders and our members, which are new too, we have brand new members, meaningful membership. We’re raising up people that understand church better, and I’m learning myself. I’m preaching expositional sermons. Is this Western? No, it’s from the Bible. It’s from the Bible. We are English speaking, but we have two or three translations going on at once, Kurdish, usually Arabic, sometimes French, we have a lot of Francophone African folks in our church that show up. It doesn’t matter to me that we’ve got pews. It doesn’t matter to me that we have a PowerPoint. Actually, it does matter to me about the PowerPoint. I hate the PowerPoint. I hate it with a holy hatred. Sometime I’m gonna sneak into the church and bang on it with a hammer, and primarily because when the power goes out, which it does regularly, the power goes out five, six times a day in Erbil, the grid is shot. The PowerPoint goes down, and everyone jumps up around and tries to get the thing rebooted. It doesn’t work very well, and I’m like, “Can we throw that thing away?”

It’s a cultural form, but it’s so unimportant. I’m so unworried about cultural forms nowadays. What I’m worried about is, are we preaching a relevant gospel? The thing I love most about churches, opening God’s word to people that are hungry for the word week after week. Last year, I did a six-month series in 1 Corinthians. It was so relevant. I couldn’t believe it, the context and the blueprint for church in 1 Corinthians that we as Westerners…not all of you are Westerners. So in the West, you might not even see 1 Corinthians 5 on church discipline. It was riveting. Here’s why I know it was riveting because the power went out. I stand up to speak. power goes out. I mean, and for some reason, it was really bad one, and it was stygian darkness, you know, it was January. It was like I’m preaching, and I can’t see anybody. Nobody could see me. I can’t see my notes, someone hands me, you know, a phone, their phone flashlight and I get my phone flashlight, I’m reading my notes, and every now and then when I wanted to make a point, I’d put my flashlight up to my face like this, and, listen to me church. You know, I can’t see them, but they could see me. I’m like at the ghost story at the fireside chat for the kids, you know. And so, about five minutes before the service is over, the lights go back on and everyone’s awake. I was like, “Oh, why are you still with me?” No one had left.

Chapter 11 on women’s head coverings. You talk about relevant. We had people come from the community to hear what I would say about head coverings, which of course Chapter 11 on head coverings, it’s about gender identity, really. It’s not about head coverings. Every week we have people from all faith backgrounds attending. Almost weekly someone tells me it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a church service. Almost weekly someone tells me, “We can’t get over the love in this place. We’ve never seen anything like it.” And our church welcomes them. We’re a young congregation, there’s many issues, but they share their faith. They’ve got evangelism down. Numbers of people have come to faith in Christ from unreached people groups. I wrote them this week because I miss them, on Friday. How was the service? How did things go? Oh, great. Eight Iranians came. First time ever in church, they heard the gospel. They’re asking questions. What a privilege, week after week, to announce the gospel good news in a land that knows nothing of God’s reconciliation, or forgiveness, or love, a culture filled with retribution and vengeance.

The message of Jesus gives hope, reconciliation, life. Every week I say, “We’re so glad you’re here.” Listen, you don’t have to be a Christian to be in our church, you know. So, Christians are not welcomed in the mosque, right? So, Muslims are always, “Oh, wow.” They sometimes sneak in because they’re curious. So, you don’t have to be a Christian to be here. In fact, you don’t even have to become a Christian to keep coming. We love to tell the good news of Jesus and how your sins can be forgiven, so keep coming. But to love the church, you need to know what the church is, as I’ve said.

Historically, what the church is, is a gathering of believers that sit under the word and practice baptism and communion, the sacraments. That’s it at its most basic. But even given this historical definition of church, I find many missionaries calling their team meetings church. I had a conversation with a missionary. Good guy. I love him. Passionate evangelist. Never been in a healthy church. Never really been a part of a church. I said, “Brother, I’d love for you to come to church.” “Well, no, I don’t know that it’s reproducible. You all have PowerPoints.” So, grinding glass in my wounds. And I say, “Well, I understand. I understand.” He says, “We have a home church.” I say, “Can I put my thumb in that a little? Do you all invite Arabs to your church or Kurdish folks?” “Well, well, no, it’s a, you know, security risk.” “I understand. Have you baptized anyone?” “Well, no. We’re all Christians.” “So, it’s just Americans sitting on cushions, right?” “Yeah. Well, just Americans. Yeah. I mean that we have a guy from Europe,” And I said, “Okay. All right. Well, I understand. Do you preach or is it an inductive Bible study? You just have a Bible?” “Yeah, we have an inductive Bible study.” I love inductive study. I lead them all the time. No problem about that, but I just…So, no elders?” “Well, no. No one’s really qualified.”

I said, “Look, look, brass tacks, say something bad happens in your church. Say there’s an affair.” Sharp intake of breath. “How did you know?” I said, “I didn’t know. I was picking something that I thought wouldn’t happen.” There had been an affair. “Okay. Hey, let’s just take it from there. Did you love them back into the community? Did you care for their marriage? Did you seek forgiveness or did you fire them?” “Well, no, we fired them. Can’t have that on the mission field.” It’s like, brother, you’re not a church. I don’t care. Maybe a good Bible study. There may be a great team meeting, but it’s not church. Don’t call it church. Keep doing it and come to my church.

Number four, they must see the wisdom of others for the church. There are things that we do that are wisdom, a statement of faith, a covenant, a constitution. Those things are wisdom based on other people’s understanding that have come over years, and sometimes people look at and, “Oh, you know, I’m a part of a different kind of culture. We don’t do that.” Let me tell you a story about why we practice meaningful membership, just for example. I think this is a part of healthy church principles. So, wisdom of church. Two things, I’m gonna put two things together in the interest of time. Oh, by the way, I’m gonna leave time for question and answer because I’d love to hear your questions on these things. So, make sure they love healthy church. And look, let me say this, I am not an advanced man for “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” I’m not. I’ve just lived it out. I’ve lived out the nine marks. I’ve seen it happen, unfold in its beauty because it’s biblical principle. The “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church,” if you haven’t gotten it, go to their booth and get a book free from them. Tell them Mack sent you. And I think they’re giving them away free. Get free books. Get all of them. Don’t let them take any back.

Mark Dever didn’t invent the nine marks, the Bible did, and they are principles, and they are cross-cultural. The most cross-cultural thing that we can give to other cultures is biblical principle. I feel desperate about that. We cannot decide what another culture needs and then go do that for them. We are not that good. Only God is that good. So, invariably, it doesn’t matter what you try, what kind of method you use. If it’s not biblical principle, you will fail, and it will fail. It’s got to be rooted in the scriptures because it’s super biblical. So, I say all the time, look, I don’t want an American church. I don’t want an Asian church. I don’t want an Arab church. I don’t want an African church. I want a biblical church. That’s what we’re about. That’s what we’re trying to do. So, membership is one of the principles that we’ve introduced, and often it’s a difficult principle for a healthy church. So, four, see the wisdom, five, make sure they love healthy church principles.

Let me tell you the story about church membership. So, we had initially, when we started putting in place church membership, we had pushback. “This is Western, we don’t like this. I come from a shame-honor culture,” or whatever, you know, lots of pushback. Jesus came from a shame-honor culture, by the way. So did Paul. So, I thought, how do I teach about this? So, I said, listen, this is our first membership class. A couple of years ago before I got here, a wealthy Filipino couple came, and they joined the church, and they knew the language of the evangelical community really well. The pastor of this church, which was basically, before the church was formed, was basically just a prayer meeting. But the pastor installed them, on his own, his elders in the church this couple, both of them as elders. And at that point, the Filipino community in the church just disappeared. They were gone. No one asked why. They’re gone. And church continues to go on, and they don’t figure out what’s going on with this couple. They’ve got this business, they seem wealthy. They can’t figure them out until the police show up and arrest them. And even then after the charges have come down to them that they are traffickers, the elders are still going to the jail saying, “Oh, there’s some mistake. They are Christians.”

So, I’m telling this story to our church. If we had had membership, at a membership meeting, the Filipinos who all knew they were traffickers, every Filipino in the room understood they were traffickers, and that’s why they left. And they were unempowered, right? Suddenly their elder in their church is a powerful man who’s breaking the law, and they don’t wanna have anything to do it, but they’re not gonna tell on him because he’s powerful and they could…much is at stake. So, they just decide to leave the church. If we’d had membership, those people would have had a vote. We would have asked them. We would’ve said, “What do you think about putting this man and his wife on as elders?” Right. You know what? Since then I’ve not had any problems with church membership because it’s wise. It’s smart. It’s biblical. It’s the right principle. It’s rooted in scripture. We want to do these things. So, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone says, “Well, I come from a certain kind of…we come from an inclusive culture, so we don’t practice church membership. We come from a shame-honor culture, so we don’t practice church discipline.” I want to call churches out today to hold missionaries responsible to understand biblical principles for church. That’s all. So, if you send a missionary out, make sure they understand the biblical principles of nine marks.

Number six, we need missionaries who understand the power of the church in evangelism. I wrote another book called “Evangelism,” but it’s really about developing a culture of evangelism in the context of the church. So, we had our first baptisms…here’s an illustration. We had our first baptisms in March. We baptized about 12 to 15…well, we’ve baptized a number of people. I can’t remember. Four of the five that were baptized in March came to faith through the church. In June, we had more baptisms, six people from five nations, three from Muslim backgrounds. Right now in our church, we have five people under death threats from their families. So, these are people who’ve said, “I wanna be baptized. I wanna follow Jesus. I know I’m gonna die for it.” That’s the level of commitment. Can you imagine the privilege I have of baptizing someone like that? What a privilege it is for me. They’ve come to faith through the church. Now, if you look at our church, you would think much of it looks like a traditional Western church except for the fact that that we’re super multiethnic. There are, like I said, 30 nationalities. We don’t look like the kind of church that most people in missions would think of having an impact with local people.

So, tell me how this is. If you know the C5 continuum, I’m a C1 church. In other words, I look like a Western church in a foreign context. You can ask me a question about that if you want to understand the C5 continuum, but basically, what I mean is most of the people in the world judge missions based on how far along they’ve contextualized. And that’s because context has become so important. It’s the thing people look to, to judge a church if it’s really doing a good job in missions. Context, in other words, has won the day. There’s dangerous sides to contextualization, and I think there needs to be some more thinking about it because when you contextualize, you usually contextualize the good and the bad. It is next to impossible to say, I’m only gonna contextualize the good parts of culture. All culture is sinful and fallen. All culture has horrible things in it. All culture. And when you contextualize, you must understand that you don’t know the culture well enough. What part of culture? Is it subculture? Is it private? What part of culture are you contextualizing for? And no matter what, no matter how well you contextualize, no matter how well it looks like the local culture, it gives zero indication of whether it’s a gospel-centered church.

The first order of church is not to look around and say, how do we fit? But to say, how can we best honor God with what we have? So, let me ask, again. How is it that this C1 church in a world that has been a tsunami of contextualization so effective, why is that? Well, I think it’s because we’re forming a church based on what the Bible says, biblical principle. And that for us, John 13 and John 17 are more important than context. John 13, by your love for one another, all men will know you are my disciples. And in John 17, by your unity, they will know that I am from the father. So, our love confirms our discipleship, our unity confirms Christ’s deity. That’s the most powerful witness we have. So, at these baptisms, we had a woman baptized, Muslim convert, she’d been thinking about it for a number of years, had been studying the Bible. We baptize her. She brings her husband, first time ever in church, first time ever to hear the gospel, really. And then he left. I didn’t know what he thought of church, and he leaves Church and he writes me, and his English is not very good. I’ve cleaned this up for you, but here’s what he said he noticed. He could not get over the unity of the church across many ethnic lines, John 17. Number two, he said there was no difference between men and women worshiping together. That’s in response to his experience in the mosque. He loved being a family together in church. They had brought their son. That’s, again, a response to the Muslim culture. And number four, like everyone who practically wanders through our door, the love he saw between the people at the church, John 13. And then he said thanks to God for his nice work.

Now, of course, during our baptisms, we tell people not to take pictures, it’s very serious. This particular woman is from Iran. Everyone’s pretty good about that. They get it. No one takes pictures except for her husband who doesn’t speak English, didn’t hear the warning, takes pictures of his wife being baptized. They go back to Iran on holiday. He shows pictures to the family. He thinks they don’t care. He’s sort of a nominal Muslim himself. There’s a lot of relatives that care. Some Salafi relatives care a lot. They put a death threat out on her and him and their nine-year-old son. They’re hounded out of Erbil, they’re hounded out of Iran. They’re hounded out of France. Very interesting. The networks of Iranian folks that would be willing to kill them in France. She called the police in France and said, “I have some people trying to kill me here.” And said, “We’re sorry, we can’t…” You know, they said in French, obviously, “But we’re sorry. We can’t do anything until they try something.” And they said, “But what they’re trying to do is kill me.” And they were, “We’re sorry.” And so, she flees to Northern Europe.

Now, all this time her husband is watching the relatives, and he’s reading her Bible. We think he’s gonna hate us. He’s lost everything, his car, his job, his home. They’re living in a refugee camp in Northern Europe, and he comes to faith. He was baptized two weeks ago. John 13, John 17, brothers and sisters, it’s the power of the church. Now, listen, the Muslim man, this Muslim man, noticed things in our church that would not have been present if we had perfectly contextualized. It just wouldn’t have been there. It would have been monoculture, and we would have separated men and women. Love is a low value in the realm of Islam. It’s not even 1 of the 99 names of Allah, but I’m so grateful this Muslim man saw it so clearly, and I wish more missionaries would embrace the power of healthy church with biblical principles in evangelism. Please understand I am not saying that we should not contextualize. I’ve taken some blowback on this. I’m just saying that it should be secondary to gospel-centered church. And let me say this to those who feel I’m against contextualization, which I’m not, I’m pointing out the power of a gospel-centered healthy church that is overcoming our lack of contextualization. So, if you can contextualize in a biblical way and be a healthy church, go for it. It’ll be even more powerful. But make sure you get the order right.

Number seven, finally, and then I’ll take a couple of questions. Model a healthy church in your church. We can’t do over there what we do unless you do here what is a healthy church. And so, one of the problems for missionaries who don’t know anything about healthy church or what a church is or can’t define the church is the fact that they’ve not been taught that in church here or they’ve only seen dysfunctional churches, or weird churches, or broken churches here. So, be a healthy church here is the best thing you can do for us there, honestly, and I need a lot of money. So, I’m telling you the truth. You should know. I’m telling you the truth. I want you to be a healthy church, a vibrant gospel-centered, cross-focused. You all fill in the blanks. I’ve said it enough. That’s the kind of church I want you to be in your churches back home.

By the way, I mentioned that to a missionary the other day, I said, “I want you to become a member of our church.” She said, “I can’t.” I said, “Why not?” And she said, “Well if I become a member, they’ll cut off my support back home.'” I said, “What? No, give me your pastor’s name. I’m gonna call him on the phone.” If that’s a policy in your church that was made for a different age, don’t do that. Let them become members of our church, or release them to our church, to a healthy church.

I had a missions executive just a couple of weeks ago tell me he’s so excited about sending these people to our city because we’re caring for the missionaries who come to our church. We’re not asking them to run the nursery or play the piano. We’re seeing them in our church as our outreach to the refugee camps. Half of our city are refugees. We’re seeing them as the ones who are learning Kurdish and speaking into the homes of Kurdish people and leading Iranian folks. We’ve just started an intern program for Urdu speakers. We have a Pakistani brother who has a heart for and is leading Pakistani guys to Christ. And we’ve started this little proto home group that’s gonna become his church, and we’ll launch him. So, lots of things are happening like that. I’m excited about caring for people who come into our church with those kinds of hearts that we would see their ministries is vital and valid. We want people to come and be a part of our church for that. One practical thing, another thing to pick up from the 9Marks booth is an Andy Johnson’s book on missions, very practical book for your home church here. Listen, any questions? Real quick. I love taking questions. I have a number of people who can answer them here besides myself, including my wife, and Michael Lawrence is here. Any questions? Yeah, in the back.

Male: Yeah. So, I’m just wondering what the process of membership looks like at your church.

Stiles: Yeah. Sure. So, we have a membership class. It runs four times, and we basically go through the covenant, the constitution, and the doctoral statement, and then one thing on vision and history, history and vision of the church. We want to explain that really well. So, the covenant, constitution, and doctoral statement are kind of the three-legged stools of our church. And this is how I explain it. The covenant tells us how to love one another. That’s what the pastor wants. So, the pastor goes and writes a covenant, which is basically scriptures on how we love each other. A lawyer comes along and says, “Well, that’s great, but what happens when there are problems?” So, he writes the constitution. Theologian comes along and say, “Well, it’s okay if you know what to do when you’re wrong and how to love each other, but if you don’t know what you believe, it’s worthless.” So, he writes the doctoral statement. So it’s kind of a lawyer, a pastor, and a theologian’s understanding of church. I explained that to our people in those three sections, and we take an hour-and-a-half to do each of those three.

Then they have an interview with an elder where basically we want to know, do you agree with those three things, and are you a real believer? I want to know that you’re a believer. So, we don’t want members to be non-believers. And so, that’s essentially the process. Then we take it to the church and the church votes on those folks. So, we have a constant…we’re a congregational church, so the elders don’t decide that issue. We let the church decide that. It’s been a great training thing for our church. We’ve only had six or seven membership meetings. So, we’re still learning and growing in that. That’s a great question. Yeah.

Male: So, you talked about, you know, the self-identified missionaries causing harm. How have you, like, interacted with describing harm during the [inaudible 00:59:05]. How does that work?

Stiles: Well, sometimes I just avoid. I’m a coward. But if I feel like…most of it has happened because of prosperity gospel teaching. And so, we had a woman in our church who does refugee work, and she was meeting with some people who had been told by a group that she thought was from this prosperity teaching church that if they prayed in faith, they would have babies. They were infertile, these women in the refugee camps, a lot of reasons for infertility in high-stress situations. And they were not Christians. These are Muslims. So, I actually went and met with the pastor of that church, and I just said, he’s a brother I think, and I said, “Brother, I just don’t think this is right.” And yeah, he was alarmed. He said, “I wouldn’t do that either. I wouldn’t ask.” So, I’m just one-on-one…Am I answering your question on…? Yeah, I just want to go talk to…You know, there’s all kinds of whacked-out stuff in the missions where all kinds of cults and people that wander through with various programs and agendas.

And so, basically, what I’m trying to do, I’m mostly focused on our church, so developing our members, people who’ve really covenanted together to build them up in Christ. I’m preaching the word week in and week out. You wouldn’t believe how relevant the scriptures are. So, I just preached, my last sermon was 1 Samuel 4, on where they take the ark into battle and it gets captured, and I saw a great opportunity to talk about prosperity gospel. So, not only would I actually go to that pastor and challenge him about this, as I’m preaching the word just the week in week out, God is surfacing up these real issues through the word to teach our congregation that gives them an undergirding for understanding these things. So, yeah. Yeah.

He’s asking does our church have legal status there. Actually, we are under the Arab Baptist Church, so not officially. We don’t have legal status, but I meet regularly with the Religious Affairs Council there, and we’ve applied not only for official status but also for land and license to build a building. It may or may not happen. We might just continue to partner with the Arab Baptist Church. Why do you ask? Yes, there’s complete religious freedom in Kurdistan. And so, when I met with the prime minister at the wedding, the first thing I said to him was, “Prime Minister Barzani, I want to tell you how grateful I am that religious freedom is important here in this country.” Now, with that said, there’s almost no legal problems if you go kill a relative who’s converted. They’re probably not gonna bring charges against that person and that honor killing, so yeah. So it’s not without difficulty, in other words. Unlike Dubai where there were lots of legal issues, there’s religious freedom in Kurdistan, just Kurdistan not Iraq. Yeah.

Male: [inaudible 01:02:56]

Stiles: Yeah. I understand the impetus for that, and I understand why that might be important. I do not find that in the list of requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. I think that’s a horrible statement ever to make because it is completely unbiblical. Now, I understand there might be good reasons to look for Dominican pastors, right? And I understand why that might be a really important value and why if you have two people of equal ability who could be the pastor of that church and one of them is Dominican and one of them is not why you would choose the Dominican and that context. But I think that’s a horrible thing to say. I think, actually, it ends in racism ultimately. So, yeah, sorry. LeeAnn tells me I’m so gentle and mild with my [inaudible 01:03:51]. No, she follows me around and says, “Well, you know, divide by two with what Mack says.”

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Although, you know, like a lot of young Christians, they’re passionate about evangelism, you know. So, we have some people in our church, I mean, if they’re in a conversation with you for 30 seconds, they’re gonna tell you about Jesus. So, yeah. And we encourage it, you know, we want that, we want boldness in our church in that context. So, yeah, we’re speaking the gospel clearly and boldly. Every sermon has a clear presentation. If you are here with us this week and you are not a believer, let me tell you that I have bad news before there’s good news. The bad news is you’re a sinner, but the good news is Jesus Christ came for sinners, and if you will repent and believe in Christ the risen savior, you could be forgiven of sin and live for all eternity. I say that every week or some like that, maybe multiple times in a sermon because I’m very aware that this may be the only time they ever have heard the gospel. So, every service, every prayer, every song is gospel-centered.

Is the church self-financing? Well, no, they can’t afford me, for one, and they certainly can’t afford 10. So, because we’re using the churche’s platform, people are raising support and coming to be a part of church. Now, the church is self-supporting for what it does, you know, for the church building and the utility and stuff like that, but yeah, the church is not in a place right now to be self-supporting. But I hope it will be. And that’s a value, and we’re headed that away, so yeah, we’re teaching on giving, we’re teaching on finance. We have people in our church who’ve been trafficked, you know, they’re poor. We have a lot of poor people in our church, and so it’s a poor place and a poor desperate place economically in the community. It’s depression. Sometimes I feel like I’m in after the apocalypse movie, you know, it’s just so sad. It’s just so bombed out and sad. It’s not Dubai.

“There are some downsides to globalization. How do we prepare? What do we do for these things? I have a method. I have a solution for a globalized world. It’s called the healthy church. Biblical, healthy church is the means of God to advance his glory among the nations. Jesus thought it up. . . . The church is God’s method for evangelism, discipleship, and missions. We do not need the latest fad. We do not need the latest missiology thinking. What we desperately need on the field is missionaries who know and trust biblical principles for planting biblical churches. The church is God’s proven instrument of missions. ” — Mack Stiles

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.