by Mark Overstreet
Last week, I returned from a trip to Africa. We were far away from the big city, spending time with local partners among unreached tribes, praying and discussing how we could serve the surrounding people groups so that they could hear, understand, and believe the gospel.
In this part of the world, millions live without the gospel because they have no access to the Bible in their local language.
Millions more are dying from preventable disease, unclean water, and starvation.
Among many of these communities, women and children often suffer unimaginable oppression and neglect. Livestock are valued more highly than a wife. A newborn calf is valued more than a daughter. In a culture of herdsman, cows, and goats are valued more than human life.
During one of our meetings, Ali* told us about the warriors–teenage boys as young as 12–whose families require them to protect and defend the tribe. Ali explained that they often shield themselves from outside influence, forming rigid gangs that glorify violence and conquest. Many of them die before they reach the age of 20.
How could these warriors hear the gospel? Could the good news penetrate their hardened traditions? The more we work among these unreached tribes with our local partners, the more we understand the value of hearing and understanding their history, beliefs, and perspective on life. In many cultures, worldview is quietly shaped over decades, centuries, sometimes millennia.
On this trip, when we gathered together for worship, under a tree far outside the village, after hours of singing, dancing, and prayer, one of the warriors stood up and began to speak.
He led us through God’s word. He spoke of how we were all created in the image of God. I was stunned by his quiet humility, his careful articulation of each word, his boldness to stand out among the warriors.
Afterward, Ali explained how he had begun a small group discussion late in the evenings with the warriors, listening to their hardships. For months, he listened and sympathized with their plight. He understood their challenges, and he wanted them to know he cared. He began connecting their stories with similar passages of suffering and conflict from God’s word.
Slowly, God turned their hearts.
They fell in love with Ali, and their meetings became a safe place where the warriors could share their hardships, their experiences, their failures. God used Ali to change the warriors’ hearts toward God, spreading disciples among their gatherings. They understood that suffering could be used by God to give them a new path in life.
Today, many of the warriors believe and bring their peers to worship. Through Ali’s listening, they heard about Jesus. Through his hearing, they understood and believed.
God created thousands of peoples and cultures as a display of His wonderful glory and attributes (Rom. 1:20). If we want the beauty of Christ known among warriors—whether on distant continents or among hardened warriors—we need to be reminded that learning comes from listening.
In order to speak the gospel into a life, one must understand the channels of communication that exist and connect local culture with the culture of Christ in the gospel. Language is one link in a long chain of communication God created for transformation. In order to navigate successfully those paths, we must listen often, and pay attention to the quiet, the subtle, the understated.
Like Ali, may we listen more, sympathize often, and remember that we, too, were once hardened warriors against God’s kingdom.
Through the power of relationship, hearing the word of God, and sharing the love of Christ by listening, may our service as ambassadors of hope and the good news of Jesus among the unreached be conformed to His image: the One who speaks—and listens—as He lays down His life for the world.
*Names changed for security reasons.
Mark M. Overstreet (@moverstreet) is Founding Partner/CEO with SRV International. Mark serves fourth world cultures in leadership development and community transformation. Through worldview analysis, communication strategy, and contextualization, he co-labors with global organizations in areas including healthy partnerships, orality, mission, program architecture, strategy, and evaluation.