Archives For Missions

Next Stop: Zambia

Preston Sprinkle —  January 21, 2013 — 3 Comments
African lady walking

Outside Lusaka

My trip from Nepal to Zambia felt like a time warp. You can go ahead and erase all those images in your mind from UNICEF commercials and BrAngelina adoption trips. They may reflect other parts of Africa, but they don’t reflect much of life in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. There are poor people here for sure, especially outside the city, but there are also quite a few middle-class and even upper-class Africans who haven’t earned their wealth through corruption. My trip from the airport witnessed many SUV’s, BMW’s, and well-dressed businessmen on their way to work. There are plenty of American sized grocery stores, a few malls, and many large homes all with high electric fenced walls. As far as the church goes, unlike Nepal which is 2.5% Christian, about 80% of Zambians confess some sort of faith in Christ and in 1996 it was declared a Christian nation. You may think this is great news. And in some ways it is. But just as the post-Constantine Christianization of the Roman Empire created mass problems for the church, the lip-service many Zambians give to Christianity presents its own challenges to the gospel here. And then there’s the whole “health and wealth” movement that has infiltrated so many countries in Africa. Zambia is no different. Apart from the nominalism and the prosperity gospel, others Zambians will repackage traditional animistic beliefs in Christian lingo, making it tough for westerners to sort out a genuine confession from renovated voodoo. There’s still much work to be done here.

And the Zambians are doing the work. I’m shocked—as are most western missionaries who visit Lusaka—at how self-sustaining and theologically rich

Me with pastors Kalifungwa and Mbewe

Me (white guy) with pastors Kalifungwa (left) and Mbewe (right)

many churches are here. There’s an informal network of Reformed Baptist churches in Lusaka that are extremely healthy compared to many churches in Africa. Heck, compared to many churches America. To put it in perspective, two of these Reformed Baptist pastors, Robert Kalifungwa and Conrad Mbewe, have raised up and sent out 20 fully supported missionaries in the last 10 years! They have planted churches all over Zambia and beyond. And all of this is home grown. Pastor Mbewe, whom Desiring God labeled the “African Spurgeon,” told me over lunch that “most Americans think we’re running around chasing elephants.” I about coughed up my burger in laughter—partly because his booming laugh shook the room, and partly because he’s probably right. The fact that the restaurant was playing Kenny Rogers’ “the Gambler” only added to the irony.

Once again, the church of Zambia doesn’t need us to come show them how it’s done. In many ways, I’d love for them to come here and show us how it’s done. However, they are inviting the west to partner with them in what they are already doing. And the one main area where pastors Kalifungwa and Mbewe said they could use a lot of help is with Christian education.


Conrad Mbewe, the “African Spurgeon”

And that’s why I’m here: To explore potential ministry opportunities with African Christian University (ACU), a Christian liberal arts school that’s looking to launch classes in 2014. And to make this leg of the trip super exciting, my own pastor Matt Larson flew all the way out to join me!

I can’t wait to tell you about this amazing school. It has the potential to drastically improve both the spiritual and material poverty of the continent. I’ll talk about ACU in the next blog, but first let me introduce you to our host Dr. Ken Turnbull.

Ken is an American missionary who’s heading up the ACU project, and he has a fascinating journey. Ken has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a post-doctorate from Cal Tech. He spent a number of years as a tenured professor at University of Arkansas where he had a vibrant and promising career. And then, at the age of 40, God called him to the mission field. A few years later, he and his wife packed up their 5 kids and moved to Mozambique where he spent 3 challenging years working as a church planter. Long story short, he got connected with pastor Kalifungwa who told Ken his vision about the college and the rest is history. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen a scholar of Ken’s caliber with such a promising career do what he did. Move over Albert Schweitzer

So Ken has come here in his own words as a “support to what God has already

My pastor Matt Larson (left) talking with Ken Turnbull on the site where ACU may be built

My pastor Matt Larson (left) talking with Ken Turnbull on the site where ACU may be built

been doing in the hearts of these African pastors.” He’s truly serving, not controlling, this African-based, thriving ministry. He’s adamant that he’s here not as the big boss, but as a servant to the local pastors. The indigenous nature of this thriving ministry is enough to get me excited. But it’s ACU’s fascinating vision that’s put hope in my heart that in spite of the corruption, in spite of the poverty, in spite of the violence, in spite of the theological anemia that’s swept across much of the continent, there is yet hope for Africa. And after talking with Ken over the last few days, I’m becoming a believer that such hope lies in ACU and ACU-like projects. They have the potential to transform a continent. I’ll tell you why in the next post.

Reflections on Nepal

Preston Sprinkle —  January 16, 2013 — 5 Comments

I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates and personal reflections in my last few blogs about my trip to Nepal. If you’re just now jumping in, it would be best to go back and read through my previous posts to get some context for what I’m going to say here.


Me acting like an idiot

Naturally, I’m filled with many different thoughts and emotions as I reflect on my trip. I really don’t want to be that obnoxious American who just came back from a short-term missions trip and now wants to bark at all his American friends who just don’t get it. Nor do I want to come home and forget about the amazing work that God is doing here in Nepal. Mark put it best when he compared reentry to tuning a guitar string. Pull it too tight, and it’s way out of key (the obnoxious short-termer). Don’t pull it tight enough, and it sounds flat (the unchanged short-termer). So don’t hide your $5 Latte’s when you see me around town. I’m not going to judge you. I’m sure I’ll fall back into my own Latte-slamming routine before long. But I don’t want to forget about the many needs in the church of Nepal. I simply can’t forget. They’re now a part of me.

So here are two thoughts that have percolated in my mind this week. First, the priority of indigenous ministry. As I’ve thought and written about missions over the past few years, I keep coming back to this idea. And my trip to Nepal confirmed much of what I’ve thought. In short, local pastors and leaders are much more effective in the “on the ground” ministry than foreigners. We don’t know the language. We don’t know the culture. We can hardly breathe the air! And even when we do spend a few years and become as “Nepalese” as we can, we will always be Westerners. Beki and I had a lot of good discussions about this. “Some missionaries,” Beki said, “come in and take over our churches. After they minister in a church for a while, they say it belongs to them.” Friends: these things cannot be.

Now, please hear me out. I’m not saying that being a missionary to Nepal is worthless. I’m not even saying that taking a short-term trip to Nepal doesn’t do anything. But what I am saying is that whether you come full-time or part-time, you must come underneath and alongside the indigenous leaders—the Beki’s and Babu’s of Nepal. They know the work. They know the people. They know the needs. Let’s join them in their ministry and let them tell us what to do.

The second thought that keeps gnawing at me is money. Nearly every ministry I experienced here in Nepal was to some extent hindered by money. And yet never did any of the leaders or believers here ask for money, nor did they advertise their needs. I’m well aware that in many countries, becoming a Christian is the first step out of poverty, and becoming a pastor is the gateway to western wealth and power. So my eyes were peeled; I was on the lookout for such unhealthy attraction to the west. But there was none of that here. Or at least, I didn’t encounter it with the leaders I met. I practically had to drag their financial needs out of them, and even then they didn’t flash their Puss-n-Boots puppy dog eyes so I would dig into my wallet. But when I did get them to put their needs in concrete terms, I was shocked at how little they need and how far it would go. (I’m well aware, too, of the long-term danger of creating a never-ending system of dependency, where the Nepalese church is always dependent upon the west to survive. If western churches get excited about giving, then this discussion will need to happen.)

I’ve already mentioned some of these needs in the previous blogs, so I can just summarize them here.

  • We saw at least 2 churches the size of a mid-sized American bedroom that were packed with dozens of recent converts (there are many more we didn’t see). Both of these congregations pooled enough money together to lay the foundation for a church building, but don’t have enough to complete it. The cost to finish? $3,000-$5,000, depending on whether they put build a tin or concrete roof.
  • Babu helps support 14 different pastors at $50-60/month. They need about $100/month each to be freed up to pastor their congregations.
  • Babu’s orphanage can only afford to care for 50 orphans, even though he could physically take on 100. He’s turning away kids almost daily for lack of funds.
  • Beki oversees 10 different fellowships and many of them need pastors. Local pastors are being trained. They have the manpower. But lack of money prevents these pastors from going into full-time ministry. (BTW, being an unpaid lay-pastor is not a real option for most leaders here. Ministry is way too time-consuming, sometimes requiring pastors to drive 2-3 hours a day to meet with believers in the church. They couldn’t do this and hold down a full-time job.)

Again, I don’t want to be that abrasive short-term-reentry-guy who glorifies third world churches and looks down upon the American church. Believers have issues wherever they are, and there are no perfect Christians—not even in Nepal. But let me vent just a little. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the American church generally speaking spends many thousands of dollars a year (a conservative estimate) just to pull off a polished service every Sunday. It’s hard to tell if all the money invested into services and programs is actually fueling the Great Commission, or whether it is merely luring sheep from the other church down the street. Either way, we can trim. We can do with less. We don’t need all the costly bells and expensive whistles we think we do. And again, I wonder if all the costly clutter actually prevents us from valuing Jesus. I don’t mean to be snarky, but please convince me that I’m wrong. I love it that at one point Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley resisted the mega-church dream and gave away 50% of its yearly revenue to outside ministries. I love it that Anthem church in Ventura county (where I attend) every year gives away a huge sum of money on “generosity Sunday.” (I think we gave away more than $30k dollars last time.)

Let’s keep going! Let’s push harder! Let’s hold off on updating that 5 year-old sound system so that 50 kids can find God at Babu’s orphanage, rather than becoming sex-slaves. Let’s keep striving for simplicity in our churches so that pastors in Kathmandu can be freed up for ministry, and so that the much needed (not just wanted) church buildings can be built. Every church should be striving to be ridiculously generous toward other more needy ministries in impoverished areas. The apostle Paul spent more time in his letters talking about the redistribution of wealth within the global body than he did on justification by faith.

Someone once visited Mother Teresa and asked her, “What can I do?” She answered, “Find your Calcutta.” I think we might have found our Calcutta just north of the Indian border. Pray, and look for yours.

Behind Enemy Lines

Preston Sprinkle —  January 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

We saw two worlds collide in our last couple days in Kathmandu.

on moterbike

Me and Beki, ready to fly!

On Thursday, we visited a small village up in the mountains between Kathmandu and Mt. Everest. The road wasn’t as deathly as our trip to Hetauda, but I was able to offset my safety by riding on the back of a motorcycle. The others guys piled in a clown car; I’m not sure who was more risky. The ride was exhilarating, though I choked down enough exhaust to take 5 years off my life. I now know why Beki’s pastor-mentor died a couple years ago of lung cancer, even though he didn’t smoke. After a 3-hour ride, we arrived in the village and Beki began to tell us about how the gospel had reached the city a year and a half ago.

Long story short, an old lady had a serious stomach problem, and after six months of unsuccessful medical treatment, she met a Christian who healed her and the word spread throughout the entire village. Shortly after, her daughter and son-in-law came to Christ, and they are now helping lead the church. Currently, there are about 40-50 converts in this small village: old people, young people, upper caste and lower caste. The gospel has scaled these remote mountains and reclaimed them for Christ. The scene reminded me of what Jesus told Paul in Acts 17: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking…for I have many in this city who are my people.” God’s people were tucked away in those mountains, and the gospel found them.

I left the village with a bit of that “frustrated joy” I had when I left the jungle church. These zealous believers are living out their faith publicly for all the villagers to see. But they are without a pastor. The first converts help lead the people, but they need more oversight, someone who can nourish the people with wisdom, teaching, and encouragement. Beki hops on his motorbike to visit the village twice a month, but it’s a 6-hour journey round trip. Plus, Beki oversees 9 other such fellowships in and around Kathmandu. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the local pastors are doing it. But they are spread quite thin with financial resources.

old lady in village

A recent convert in the mountain village

To put it in perspective, there are over 50 pastors in training at Himalaya School of Theology—a master’s level theology program overseen by Beki in Kathmandu. Once these aspiring pastors graduate, they’ll be ready to go out into mountain fellowships like the one we visited. The problem is that many of the believers in these churches can’t afford to support a pastor, and finding work is already tough. Beki told us that some people in the village were selling their organs to buy food. Others are able to keep both kidneys, but still live far below the poverty line by any standard. So there remains a thick wedge between zealous pastors and needy young converts. Frustrated joy—I don’t know how else to put it.

The gospel was victorious in the mountain village. But this world collided with the one we saw the next day.

On Friday, we visited two significant religious sites: the main temple to Shiva (one of the three primary gods of Hinduism), and the Boudhanath (think: temple)—one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu. Shiva’s temple was the most sobering. I don’t know if it was the smog, the cloud of incense, or the burning of dead bodies over the holy river, but there was a spiritual thickness in the air. Smoke from flesh mingled with incense filled the air. Shrines with phallic images filled the hills. Steady drumbeats filled my ears. Sadness and fear filled my heart. The trendy, hippie, coffee-shop Hinduism that Californians toy with doesn’t exist in Nepal. Satan still has a frightening foothold on this country.

Buddha Temple

On the balcony of a Buddhist monastery in a stare down with the Buddha.

The Boudhanath was a bit more serene. Bubbling with tourists and Buddhist monks, this beautiful temple has a seductive lure to it. The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha stare at you wherever you go, and the idols that fill the monastery radiate a placid glow. The hope that gleams from the believers in the village is absent here, however. Tourists and worshipers frantically spin prayer wheels, burn incense, and give money to local monks to pacify their guilt, grope for unattainable perfection, or just scratch a spiritual itch that never goes away. The façade of peace doesn’t produce many smiles in this temple. Only anxiety.

It’s now Saturday morning as I write this blog and we will be boarding the plane in just a few hours. Mark, Adam, and Dathan will head home to California, while I’m heading on to Zambia with a stop in Delhi to visit some friends. My heart is filled with so many thoughts. After I get my head above the smog I’ll write another blog summarizing my reflections. For now, pray for Beki, pray for Babu, pray for the local pastors who are joyfully furthering the kingdom of God here in Nepal—behind enemy lines.

Frustrated Joy

Preston Sprinkle —  January 14, 2013 — 6 Comments

On Monday morning, we left Kathmandu for a two-day stay in Hetauda—a decent sized city in southern Nepal. Though only 60 miles away, it took us 4 hours to get there on the “death road” as we called it. The scene was comically frightening. Four Americans packed into a small backseat that uncomfortably fits 3. A one-lane road for two lanes of traffic spiraling up and down the hazy mountains of Nepal. Every 10 seconds another oncoming truck whips around the corner, forcing our clown car to the edge of a 2,000-foot drop. I’m continually impressed at the skill of Nepalese drivers. And I’m thankful that I upped my life-insurance before I left.

But we made it safe and sound to the orphanage in Hetauda, our residence for the next two days. After lunch, Babu—the Indian missionary who runs the orphanage—took us to a small village-church in Simara, a city about an hour away. Much like the “basement church” in kids at orphanageKathmandu, the church was filled to the brim with worshipers belting out praises to their King. And once again, I’m struck at how the church in Nepal is bursting at the seams. Such growth is creating a real problem, however. The cold winters and monsoon summers make buildings a necessity for their cherished gatherings, especially in the south. What’s sad is that it only costs about $3,000-$5,000 to build a church that would meet the needs of this growing church. But that’s a ton of money for a church where the pastor makes less than $100 a month.

After hanging out at the orphanage the next morning, we headed to a church that met in the middle of the jungle. What we saw there blew our minds. We bumped along through the jungle road dodging monkeys and sugarcane farmers. Finally, we reached our destination: a medieval looking village situated between somewhere and nowhere—an hour away from the nearest real town. I felt like I was back in time. And I’m pretty sure this gloomy hamlet had never seen a white person before. As I looked around for the church, I was directed to what looked like a 300 year old barn built for hobbits. The $20 a month it costs to rent the building is all the Christians can afford. And once again, the place was packed. Sugarcane churchNot a single square inch was empty as 40-50 believers gathered for worship. I could literally touch the worship leader and the bongo player from where I sat without getting up. And the sound we heard was sweet—some of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard. Former Hindu men and women crying out to the One who snatched them from Satan’s kingdom, in the middle of the jungle where no westerner has been. Amazing. Quite simply—amazing!

Once again, they have a great need for a building. They have been able to lay the foundation but are in need of $5,000 to finish the work. They told me that their current building can’t fit any more people, even though Hindus keep coming to Christ. In the summer months, cobras curl up under the floor of the second story sanctuary (think: “loft”) making worship quite dangerous. They could use some cement walls to keep them out. And the floor of the sanctuary is so rotted that even Babu joked that he ups his life-insurance when he preaches there.

Yet this jungle church continues to grow. And its walls continue to bend at the sweet sound of blistering praise.

As I debriefed with Babu the next day, he told me that he not only runs an orphanage—the only one in Hetauda—but he also runs a Bible institute and oversees 14 different pastors/congregations. Knowing the size and poverty of these churches, I asked “How do these pastors survive?” “We support them,” Babu said. “You support them? How do you

Babu with his daughter Sweetie

Babu with his daughter Sweetie

support them?” Babu quietly answered, “We use some of our support to support the pastors.” As I glanced over at Babu’s own house that lies unfinished, I quickly saw where the money comes from. Babu gives from his own empty pocket to financially enable Nepalese leaders to shepherd believers packed in tiny churches. “If I can ask, how much do you give them?” Babu responded: “Some get, maybe, $50 a month, others $60. It all depends on their need. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to put petrol in their motor bike to visit the people.”

Babu is one of the most zealous yet humble believers I’ve ever met. He used to run the orphanage in the city of Berganj, which Lonely Planets calls one of the worst cities on earth; avoid at all cost. The city lives under a thick blanket of smog, and sex trafficking is one of its major trades. What made Babu move, however, was when the radical Hindus set off a bomb under the orphanage’s bus. Thank God only 1 kid got hurt. Babu and his wife were also thrown in prison for their faith, and by prison think: one steamy cellar packed with 30 thugs who don’t like you, and no toilet. So Babu thought it best to move the orphanage north to a city where the kids would be safer. Unfortunately, as with the local pastors, the orphanage is under supported. They have 50 kids, but Babu could physically take on at least 100. Almost daily, Babu said, they turn away kids. “We just don’t have the money to take in any more children.”

I don’t know what tRoad to Sugarcane Churcho think of my time with Babu. “Frustrated Joy” is the best phrase that came to mind. I’m exceedingly joyful at God’s surprising power that’s penetrated Nepal. To see Nepalese men and women, recently converted to Christ sing out with such authenticity and passion was worth the price of my flight. But I’m leaving a bit frustrated. Frustrated at how easy it would be for the western church to come alongside these indigenous pastors with financial support. Yet I know that until you come and eat the curry, sit at the feet of Babu, and the smell the rotting wood that holds the sanctuary together, it’s tough to muster up the desire to hold off on buying that 2nd flat screen so you could support a pastor for 2 months.

But I have tasted the curry. And I’m not leaving unchanged.

KathmanduIt’s 3:00am in Kathmandu, Nepal. Jet lag has forced me awake. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours and already I’m trying to process everything I’ve seen.

First, a bit of background. My good friends Adam, Mark, and Dathan and I are visiting some Nepalese pastor-friends and seeing the various ministries they are involved in. We’ll be in Nepal for just over a week, and then I’ll head on to Zambia (Africa), where I’ll meet up with Matt, my pastor, and explore potential ministry opportunities. Nepal is a beautiful country snuggled up to the commanding peaks of the Himalayas. The country is roughly the size and shape of California, and a good chunk of the population lives in the Kathmandu area. Already, I’m falling in love with this city.

We landed on Jan 5th and, after dropping our things of at our hotel, we were taken to a church service. The drive through the city was an adventure in itself. Jostling through streets jammed with motorcycles, tiny cars, pedestrians, and dogs; no traffic lines, no lights, and apparently no rules. I can’t believe no one got ran over! Though I can’t say for sure that no one did. Some streets are paved, others are dirt. Some can fit 2 vehicles, though they’re occupied by 4. Shacks, shrines, and old men drinking tea all line the grimy streets. And the smell of curry meshed with exhaust wafts through the air. I haven’t felt so alive in years. Although I love Southern California, I find the rat race to financial prosperity and endless consumerism quite dull.

The church we visited was a congregation of about 25 people. They all have two things in common: they all love Jesus, and they are all blind, including the pastor. We arrived a few minutes late so we heard their voices singing out to Jesus as we walked up the dark stairwell. When we entered the sanctuary, we saw a beautiful sight: a small room filled with Nepalese men and women unable to see, yet they see Jesus. No stage, no band, no chairs, no heat, no eyes, but they have everything because they have been chosen, loved, and bleed for by the King of the universe. And they know it.

Several thoughts filled my mind. The first one was, “what time is dinner?” There were a couple women over in the kitchen stewing up a killer curry for after the service, and the smell of the broth kept dancing through my nose. After 2 days of airplane food and protein bars, I could hardly take it!

The next thought was “hope.” I say I have hope, but sometimes it feels forced. I make more money in a day than these people make all year. I have a house, 2 cars, a computer, a job, a wife and four kids—all with eyes that work. Why long for something more when I have it all? Sometimes Christians get so frantic about economic downturns and national security. I wonder if a little less money, and a little less safety, could be a gift from God to cultivate more hope.

Another thought was “church.” I’ve visited several impoverished churches around the world and I always find their simplicity so soothing. They gather, they sing, they talk about their next evangelistic outreach. They pray (out loud, all at the same time), they sing some more, they pray some more, they talk some more, they listen to the word, they pray some more, and then they eat. I wonder if it’s easier to see Jesus without all the clutter. Or without eyes.

Tomorrow, we’re going to visit people without limbs. We’re going to deliver rice to a colony of lepers outside the city.