By Randy Hurst
Dec. 4, 2011
When a devastating tsunami struck Indonesia six years ago, the island of Sumatra suffered the worst damage and more than 170,000 people died. Churches of our Assemblies of God Fellowship responded rapidly and generously to care for the suffering and help rebuild communities.
In the following days, people who wanted to help asked me what would be the best investment of their relief dollars. I replied that I sincerely believed that what made the greatest difference in the relief efforts had been given long before the tsunami struck. The funds that made the greatest impact were those given each month for years to support Jeff and Liz Hartensveld and Terry and Lulu Paschall — missionaries without whom no AG tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia would have been possible. The Hartensvelds and the Paschalls knew the culture, the language and the people. They had built relationships and could mobilize Indonesian believers to spring into action … making the emergency funds given by our churches in the U.S. count to meet the greatest needs.
From the beginning of our mission, Spirit-filled missionaries have reached out to suffering people. Why? Because the commands of God’s Word and the Spirit of Christ within them would not allow them to “pass by on the other side” when seeing someone in need.
The church is God’s ordained agency for reaching the lost ... and for touching the poor. But significant differences exist between how we minister to those in physical need and what secular and parachurch organizations do.
The greatest difference is simply this: Our missionaries and national churches are already there when crises happen.
More than 2,700 Assemblies of God missionaries serve with a network of more than 330,000 local congregations in 217 countries and territories throughout the world.
This network of missionaries and national believers is the most efficient means of providing food, clean water, medical care and education to the poor because they are already there — in place to touch poor and suffering people with the compassion of Christ.
National believers act more quickly, efficiently and effectively than outside relief agencies and ministries. And because national believers live there, they remain long after outside relief agencies leave. They continue reaching out in the love of Christ, sharing His gospel and connecting people with a church where they can come to know and serve the Lord. Most of the greatest opportunities to minister to the suffering and advance the gospel happen in countries lacking significant media coverage.
AG World Missions enables our Fellowship to accomplish together what we can’t do separately — providing the long reach between responsive hearts and desperate needs.?
Already There … in Indonesia
When the tsunami struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2005, at least 300 relief agencies arrived within the first month.
After three months, all but 30 had left. When the television cameras go off, people leave.
But the Assemblies of God still had people there.
Missionaries and national believers began immediately reaching out to the suffering with food and medical care. Just two days after the tsunami, medical personnel from International English Service, an Assemblies of God congregation in Jakarta pastored by missionaries Dave and Gigi Kenney, were already in Banda Aceh, the most devastated area, providing food and medical care to wounded survivors.
In the United States — and even around the world — churches called or faxed to report the amounts of offerings they were sending through AG World Missions. Based on these commitments, missionaries in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India were authorized to purchase food and other relief supplies, and they immediately began ministering to the suffering.
In Indonesia, missionary Jeff Hartensveld and his congregation in Surabaya focused on ministry to children — many of whom had lost one or both parents in the tsunami. Over the next two years, 67 school buildings were rebuilt, teachers were equipped with clothing and supplies, and people helped to recover what was needed to resume their trade and earn a living. Relief goes beyond just satisfying hunger and soothing pain. It helps people rebuild their lives.
The term “relief,” as it relates to crisis response, almost certainly traces back to the Book of Acts: “Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders” (Acts 11:28-30, NASB).
Of 32 references in the New Testament, this is the only time the Greek word diakonia is translated “relief.” In every other instance, it is translated “service” or “ministry.”
Unfortunately, in today’s world the word “relief” is often used only in connection with temporary or short-term assistance.
In any crisis situation, rapid response is critical. But long-term relief efforts go beyond immediate help to include recovery and rebuilding lives. Our missionaries and national believers are among the first to respond. But they also stay — long after many major relief organizations leave.
The devastation caused by the tsunami, particularly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, was so extensive that relief work continued for years. The only reason relief could be conducted simultaneously in these countries is because of the personnel and churches that were already in place. In the process, missionaries in the field told of the heart-touching gratitude of tsunami survivors who were helped, as well as inspiring testimonies of people who came to faith in Christ in the midst of the crisis.
Already There … in Kenya
Last month’s Pentecostal Evangel World Missions Edition featured the drought and starvation in East Africa.
This region of Africa has a long history of calamity and civil unrest. In 2008, Kenya experienced severe ethnic tensions, and tragedy resulted. An AG church in the town of Eldoret was burned to the ground. At least 50 people died, and more than 100 were hospitalized for severe burns. In what had been one of Africa’s most stable democracies, an estimated 300 people were killed within three days after the re-election of Kenya’s president. Victims were burned alive, shot, beaten and hacked to death with machetes. Within a week the number of dead grew to 500, with 250,000 left homeless.
In the midst of this tragedy, missionaries and national believers acted quickly. Bryan and Kimberly Burr, missionaries in East Africa, also serve as Convoy of Hope representatives for that area. During the crisis in 2008, they worked alongside other missionaries and national believers to provide food, mattresses and blankets for desperately needy people.
The current crisis in East Africa has been even more intense. The result is a growing epidemic of malnutrition, sickness and death. As many as 10 million people are at risk, including at least one-third of the region’s children.
Probably the site of greatest suffering is Somalia, where widespread civil unrest and brutality by militant groups further compound the problem. To escape the violence, huge numbers of people are fleeing the country. Many die before they reach help; those who survive often endure the horrors of rape and cruelty from rebel forces.
Close to half a million refugees have come to Kenya; others have fled to Ethiopia. Sudan and Djibouti will likely be inundated as the situation drags on. The Horn of Africa is in the worst drought in a decade and on the brink of one of the greatest famines in recent history. These nations are ill-equipped to handle such a massive influx of people, especially as they deal with the effects of drought within their own borders.
This is where Kenya Assemblies of God believers are making the greatest difference. In most towns and villages where desperately hungry people are fleeing, an AG church is already there. They are able to provide for physical needs and present the hope of the gospel. While other relief agencies are working in just one refugee camp, missionaries and the Kenya national church are minstering throughout the entire region of north Kenya.
Already There … in Pakistan
When a massive earthquake shook northern Pakistan in 2005, Keith Talkington, pastor of Protestant International Church in Islamabad, had the foresight to set up a relief organization and legally register it with the government.
Five years later, when disastrous flooding occurred, the church’s agency was able to begin relief work in a particular area long before outside organizations gained access. Many lives were saved because of this immediate response. From August 2010 through February 2011, the organization’s teams provided primary medical care to more than 62,000 flood victims and initially served a total of about 40,000 meals. They also established a locally supported mobile medical clinic that continues to help people in the area.
Len and Diane Stitt were directors of another Christian relief organization in Pakistan that offered hope to desperate people. During the earthquake in 2005, they delivered supplies to more than 15,000 families, ran a feeding program that fed thousands, and helped rebuild 20 schools.
Many places where we can offer the most significant relief efforts are in sensitive or restricted countries, so we cannot publicize what our missionaries and national churches are doing or tell how relief efforts and related ministries are being conducted. Having relief funds on hand enables us to respond strategically, providing help where the most good can be accomplished, the gospel can be proclaimed, and churches can be established.
Relief efforts enable our missionaries and national churches to make a visible impact in a way that serves as a strong testimony, particularly in countries and places where traditional, overt evangelism is restricted or prohibited.
Already There ... in Japan
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of people were in desperate need. All of Japan was in some way impacted by the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear meltdown. In a matter of moments, Japan became a nation in desperate physical, emotional and spiritual need. With buildings destroyed and a nuclear crisis threatening, the Japan Assemblies of God seized a timely opportunity to minister the love and compassion of Christ.
Because of the potential for nuclear crisis, some governments discourage their people from entering Japan, particularly into the hardest hit regions. However, relief was desperately needed. Thousands of people were on the edge of survival.
An AGWM/Convoy of Hope assessment team and a large container of supplies were delayed in Manila, Philippines, for days, unable to enter Japan with aid because of the radiation threat. Impassable roads, fuel shortage and danger of radiation kept nearly all relief efforts at bay for what seemed like an excruciating amount of time. Some relief workers who did manage to make it in soon pulled out due to heightened danger of nuclear radiation.
Thankfully, missionaries and national churches were already there, ready to help offer food, water, clothing and shelter to desperate people struggling to survive in near-freezing temperatures. Within days, Japan AG personnel delivered aid to churches in the hardest-hit areas, and teams of pastors and Bible school students provided relief items to the suffering. As a result of these efforts, Japanese believers hope to see their churches grow and reach out to the needy in their communities.
Japan is home to 211 AG churches. Because AG World Missions already had missionaries and established ministries in Japan, many people were in key locations to help make a lasting difference.
Why being there makes the difference …
Historically, many missions organizations have diluted their missionary purpose and become merely agencies of social reform at the exclusion of proclaiming the gospel. But in the Assemblies of God, compassion ministry always integrates ministry to both physical and spiritual needs.
In some countries, compassion ministry is the primary means through which doors open to the gospel. As a result of our response to disasters and other crises, people have accepted the gospel message, and new churches have been established.
Our missionaries live among needy people and develop close relationships with them. Whether giving medical care to the suffering or feeding the hungry, our missionaries always attempt to share the good news about Jesus and connect people with a church. Even with all the good that many secular and parachurch organizations do in the world, God ordained the Church to be the extension of His heart to care for the poor, the suffering and the lost. Ours is a comprehensive mission.
We can be most effective at touching people with compassion because we have first planted the church. The most efficient means of administering relief is through our 345,000 Assemblies of God churches worldwide. Disasters can be opportunities for believers in the U.S. to hold up the hands of fellow believers overseas, enabling them to minister to needy people. American churches provide the touch by giving. The Assemblies of God missionary family and national churches provide the reach by connecting the givers with the need.
In their ministries throughout the world, our missionaries and national pastors do more than touch the needy during times of crisis. They are also called to serve in ongoing compassion ministries. Many of them have daily feeding programs for children, where they can learn about Christ and grow in the Lord. Others serve in schools that offer impoverished children an education and the truth of the gospel. Through building relationships over many years, the hope of the gospel is demonstrated in their daily lives. This is just another example of the incredible efficiency and effectiveness of the church as God’s great agency of compassion. -
In Chinese, the word for “crisis” is a combination of two words — danger and opportunity. Fear focuses on the danger. Faith sees the opportunity. In the crisis spots of our world, God opens doors of opportunity for us to demonstrate His love and proclaim the message of Jesus. Sometimes national crises, whether they be civil wars or natural disasters, afford us an opportunity to minister in places where sharing the gospel is limited.
A few years ago, an earthquake struck in a country where American missionaries cannot preach publicly or establish churches or Bible schools. The need for immediate medical help opened a door of opportunity for American health care professionals to go and minister to the suffering. AGWM sent a HealthCare Ministries team to offer medical care. Team members could neither pray with people nor give them a tract or verbal witness of Christ. Nevertheless, people associated their presence with Christian believers in that country. The HealthCare team provided a platform for local believers to witness to their friends and neighbors. This opportunity was made possible by the compassionate ministry and relief efforts of the HealthCare team.
In another country that can’t be mentioned, a major disaster opened the door for ministry in an area where our missionaries have never been able to enter with any sort of Christian witness. Not only were initial physical needs of food and clothing met, but destroyed buildings were rebuilt. To local residents, these buildings represent lasting testimonies of compassionate Christians. As a result, the Church has been established in this area.
Unfortunately, the occurrence of major disasters is steadily increasing. Every day more people are starving, suffering and dying. As with the Good Samaritan, we must not pass by when someone is in need.
We believe the words of Jesus: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36, NASB). Feeding the poor and caring for the suffering are both kind and Christian. But if we must choose between ministering to physical needs alone or doing so while presenting the gospel and providing a spiritual family where people can grow in Christ, the choice is clear. Unless the needs of people’s eternals soul are addressed, any effort to meet their physical and social needs is both incomplete and temporary.
It is important for people to understand what we do. It is equally important to understand what we do not do. The fourth part of our statement of purpose in Assemblies of God World Missions proclaims: “We are touching poor and suffering people with the compassion of Jesus Christ and inviting them to become His followers.” Assemblies of God compassion ministries do not merely touch people’s physical needs. They also reach people with the good news about Jesus.
As stewards of the resources God has placed in our hands, we should want our giving to count. Efficiency is important, but it is not the only issue. We should also be concerned about effectiveness.
Effectiveness is measured not only by what happens now. True effectiveness has a long-term impact. In Assemblies of God World Missions, relief is always done in partnership with established national churches. When lives are touched, the impact is not temporary or fleeting. People are connected with a church where they can grow in Christ and, in many cases, receive long-term help — learning how to improve their economic circumstances by practicing biblical principles of labor and stewardship and how to care for one another in Christian love.
Some people point out that relief efforts provide only a temporary solution. Yet God’s Word tells us: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so” (Proverbs 3:27, NKJV). If it is in the power of our hands to do something, we must obey God’s Word and do what we can in the love of Christ when crises occur. Relief efforts can accelerate the ability to advance the message and testimony of the Church in a short period of time.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among thieves was half dead and unable to help himself. Today when disaster and calamity strike, people are often put in a similarly precarious position. We, as followers of Christ, have the opportunity to come alongside and do as the Good Samaritan did. There is no indication in Scripture that the Samaritan assumed financial responsibility for the man for the rest of his life, but he gave the help that was needed until the man recovered.
We can’t possibly meet all the overwhelming physical needs in this world, but we can help temporarily in significant ways in the most desperate circumstances.
In times of crisis and hopeless circumstances, people can be drawn to the peace and hope found in Christ. Reaching out to them is the right thing to do. And in many places, our missionaries and national believers are already there … ready to make an eternal difference.
RANDY HURST serves as communications director for Assemblies of God World Missions.
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