Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Gathering of Brothers

the mango-tree auditorium :)
When I think about church leader conferences in the United States (US) versus in Papua New Guinea (PNG), I find they are remarkably similar in many aspects. Granted, in the US, when church leaders go to a conference, they might park their cars outside a megachurch’s auditorium, slap nametags in blue Sharpie on their shirts, grab a cup of coffee and maybe a donut, and settle into their padded seats, ready to take notes on their smart phone or netbook.

In contrast, this past January for the Markham Tokples (local language) Scripture Conference, we were sitting beneath a mango tree on logs, plastic chairs, woven mats, and backless benches (occasionally scrambling to cluster under a blue tarp when the afternoon rains hit), drinking kulau (young coconut), snacking on cooking bananas, and a few occasionally writing notes in school-lined notebooks. We scraped our feet across hard-packed mud instead of carpet, illustrated the lectures on a blackboard instead of a PowerPoint, and occasionally chased the chickens and dogs out from under the speaker’s legs (I’m not sure what the equivalent is in the US…). Like US conferences, we used a microphone (in the US, it’s a lapel with a massive sound system…here it was a handheld mike wired to a single crackly megaphone), worshiped with a band (acoustic guitar to PNG tunes), decorated the speaking area (we get tropical flowers freshly-picked from someone’s backyard…I imagine that’s a bit more difficult for the US in January) and even dimmed the lights for devotions (in our case, the sun went down).

Yes, conferences in both worlds are quite similar… but there is one major difference.

In the US, church conferences regularly happen.

In PNG, church conferences regularly don’t.

So, when nearly 40 leaders from six denominations and two languages gathered together in Siruwarang village for the first ever tokples (local language) Scripture conference to be held in the Markham Valley, and even in Morobe Province, it was a big deal. (Seven other languages were also invited, but torrential rains—the same ones that flooded the rivers I blogged about here—inhibited their travels, and they couldn’t come.)

The church leaders met for five days (two for travel) to discuss the work of Bible translation in their languages and the opportunity that it presents for local churches to get involved. I and eight other expatriate and Papua New Guinean staff taught sessions that ranged in topics including the history of Bible translation and the role of Wycliffe, God’s plan for language, what is involved in translation, and how can the church be involved in the work. The sessions were filled with skits, songs, illustrations, and lots and lots of discussion, where the leaders broke into small groups and animatedly argued about their vision for the use tokples in their churches, the obstacles they face as church leaders (and potential solutions), ways they can support translation right now, and how it might look for the churches and languages to begin working together.

 From the opening introductions, it was evident that God has already prepared the way, as each of the delegates arrived already enthusiastic about tokples and its role in the church. Discussions continued long into the night and even into early morning, not even breaking for meals (traditionally, Papua New Guineans don’t heavily converse during mealtime), and ultimately the leaders decided to form committees, begin awareness in their churches, raise support for the current projects, spread the word to the other languages, and start finding more ways they can incorporate using their own languages in their churches.

But the results of the conference impacted more than just language use. Just like in the US (and every other family), siblings don’t always get along, and in PNG, there is not a lot of precedent for (or examples of) denominations working together.  And yet, unity in the body of Christ is essential for Bible translation to move forward and take root. Thus, when these pastors and leaders were able to worship together, pray together, and share the challenges, trials, and blessings of ministry, they left greatly encouraged, having broken down barriers and created bonds and connections that many would not have otherwise been able to forge or even consider possible. “We need to have another conference!” they exclaimed, “We need to invite more people!”

Another pastor in a bright red shirt strode to the front of the audience and clasped the microphone tightly, “God has talk for the Markham District,” he pleaded with his brothers, “The church must come together as one!”

And that’s not so different around the world either.

The kulau tower (our equivalent of the coffee bar!)