By Jan Wols
A rugged landscape lay before us. Step by step, we gradually pushed our tired bodies farther up the mountain. A short while ago, we hiked along jungle trails in the tropical valley, sweat running down our backs. Now as we ascended, the heat of the lowlands gave way to a cold mountain breeze. In this rapidly changing landscape, the cooler climate will not support temperature-sensitive tropical plants. Only the heartier species do well here. In this region of clouds and mist, the mosses reach high on every tree trunk and branch.
As we continued to hike the trail along the mountain ridge, rain began to fall. The cold breeze, combined with the soaking rain made us miserable and we began to tire more quickly. Sitting down would only cause our muscles to stiffen, so we persisted in our trek up the mountain.
When I began to hike this endless mountain ridge, I wondered, “Why in the world do the people walk on top of these ridges?” Now, seeing the steep clefts on both sides, I understand that there is no other place to walk. The wild rivers make the valleys hard to travel as well.
Kaiko walks quietly behind me, keeping an eye out for hazards. He walks at a distance — far enough to give me confidence, yet close enough to help if I need it. He thinks I can do it.
Kaiko is one of the elders of the church in the Ata tribe. The elders had invited me to come to visit the young churches in their neighboring language group. It turned out to be six days of climbing steep mountains to visit eight village churches.
Everywhere we visited, we were received well. At the beat of the garamut drum, a carved hollow tree, the people gathered together, leaving their bush knives and cooking pots behind. One woman came bringing her baby in one arm and holding another child by the hand. The people came to the building in which the church meets. Accompanied on the garamut they sang songs. Later, they asked if I wanted to share anything from the Word of God. Unfamiliar with their languages, I spoke in the trade language, Melanesian Pigin English. For those who were unable to follow along, the main points were translated for them by an interpreter.
It was so good to see the village churches functioning. Some of the churches are the fruit of the labor of our missionaries. Some are the fruit of the ministry of these tribal believers, sent out by these independent churches. In addition, others have gone beyond their language borders and have planted churches in the villages of neighboring tribes.
As a mission organization, we assist our western churches by sending their missionaries with the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ to work among the yet unreached language groups in the world. The number of language groups that have not heard the Gospel in their own languages is so great that it seems an impossible task. What seems to be impossible for us is already foretold by the Apostle John as he writes the words of our God: “…for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation…” Rev. 5.9.
In our western world we have elevated missionary work to a “for specialists only” class. But here I am standing in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, in the middle of a people that have been reached without a lot of western gadgets. Simple, obedient, bilingual people have walked beyond their language borders and have passed on the Good News of Christ to those who needed to hear it. When I see that, it adds to my faith. God will do what He has foretold in His Word.
In the history of missions, we have kept the leadership of the tribal churches too much to ourselves. As a counter reaction to our mistakes, we have stressed too much the independence of the new churches. Now we are moving closer to a balance of the two extremes. We see young, strong and healthy churches planting churches in other villages within their language group. We see them use their culture to reach beyond language borders into other groups. With respect for what the Lord is doing in those churches, we are learning to partner with them. We seek to assist those churches by providing assistance in areas beyond their abilities. We do not seek to change good cultural practices. We don’t want to manipulate their circumstances so they will become dependent on us. We respect their use of culturally relevant ways to do the work, and trust the Lord to apply His Word and see its outworking in their culture.
The tribal churches are using bilingual believers to multiply the work beyond their language barriers. Through those believers and the cultural understanding they have gained, barriers are disappearing. We as western missionaries only assist them in technical areas such as literacy and translation. In this manner, the work has turned from being the work the mission organization to being the work and responsibility of the local churches.
Do we still believe that our God is going to fulfill all of His Word? We do! That is why we continue to travel on! By His grace we will be part of His plan. There is no greater privilege!
Pray for these young churches as they partner with God to see His plan fulfilled.