Flying through mountains in Alaska

During the month of June, this blogger was focused on other things than blogging, and I apologize.   We flew back to North America from Ukraine at the end of May, and spent basically the whole month of June living out of suitcases, travelling throughout Alaska and British Columbia.  Hence, I had little time to sit down and think through what I wanted to blog about.

Before you conclude that I was on vacation in June, let me assure you that one can travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world and still be “doing ministry”.   Alaska, combined with Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories, is the largest mission field in SEND, not in terms of area (Russia would take that honour), but in number of personnel on the field.   The majority of these missionaries are living in off-road communities, seeking to establish churches in communities where there are no evangelical churches.   Bertha and I were privileged to fly to three such communities during our time in Alaska.  Although our visits were brief, we probably learned more about the life and ministry in “bush Alaska” than in the previous 25 years of hearing and reading reports and newsletters from Alaska.

No roads in Western Alaska – but many rivers

Almost everywhere else where SEND missionaries work, we live in major urban communities.   Many of us live or have lived in cities of more than a million people.   The challenges (and the opportunities) of serving in an isolated community of 100-200 people are much different than those faced in urban settings.   It only stands to reason that training missionaries to serve in these communities will also involve different skills and methodologies, although the principles of incarnational witness and lifestyle remain the same.

For example, in our pre-field training, we emphasize the importance of understanding our expectations, and checking our expectations against reality when we arrive in our host culture.   We talk about the need to become a learner in the host culture.   In our Member Orientation Program, we frequently mention the value of asking questions, rather than coming in to a new culture with all the answers.   The principle holds true in both megacities in Asia and in bush Alaska.  Becoming a learner in a native Alaskan community is very important in order to build relationships and establish credibility.   But the application of this principle in this context is quite different.   In the Alaskan context, asking too many questions is not acceptable, and can be interpreted as invasive.    Rather, learning happens primarily by observation, and questions are limited to one or two at a time, followed by extended periods of keeping your eyes open and your mouth shut!   Ironically, in order to maximize our time in Alaska, I ended up asking a myriad of questions of our missionaries.  They occasionally reminded me that my approach was a good example of what not to do, had I had been talking to the native Alaskans!

Homer, Alaska

In an attempt to prepare people to serve in these isolated off-road communities in Alaska, SEND North (Alaska, Yukon, NWT) has developed their own Northern Ministry Training (NMT).   Bertha and I had the opportunity to participate in and evaluate the training in June. This one-week training program, held at Alaska Bible Institute in Homer, focuses on equipping new missionaries to engage the native cultures of Alaska.  Representatives of various other churches and mission organizations were also invited to attend the training. The facilitators were experienced practitioners, all from Alaska, but not nearly all from SEND.

Although the training is only one week long, it includes a “Track 2” for those who had attended the training last year, and in future years, a Track 3 and 4 are also planned. So rather than giving all the training in one extended time period prior to ministry engagement, these Alaskan missionaries are being given bite-sized training, in regular annual intervals, with sufficient opportunity between each training event to implement what they are learning. Furthermore, by pulling all the new missionaries and many of their team leaders together in one place, networking, sharing of ideas and support for our people living in very isolated communities is wonderfully facilitated.

Alaska Bible Institute, the venue for NMT
Topics that were addressed in Track 1 were introduction to native culture (facilitated by a native Alaskan Inupiat), co-dependency, do’s and don’ts for living in an Alaskan bush community, the history of the Alaskan church, and animism.  In Track 2, training was given in preparing & delivering one-point sermons, addiction recovery, regional church history, ministry cycles, worldview, and a few elective sessions on practical topics such as basic first aid, living without a doctor and things you need to know about flying.   Both tracks together heard presentations on youth ministry, spiritual warfare and Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
NMT embodies the spirit, mindset and goals of SEND U. SEND U is all about lifelong learning (see the logo), and equipping our missionaries to become more effective in mobilizing God’s people, engaging the unreached, and establishing reproducing churches. This same theme of lifelong learning was repeated over and over again throughout NMT.  The very fact that this training is repeated year after year, and builds on previous years, clearly emphasizes the importance of constantly being a learner as we seek to fulfill what God has called us to do.