This next event took place ten years later in another part of the country, among very different people. Brethren missionaries first started their work in the Lumi area of what is now Sandaun Province, this was in the early 50s. There was a good reception of the Gospel and 40 years later there was now over 50 Assemblies in the district. My wife, our year-old daughter, and myself were there to serve these Assemblies. An obvious need was to improve the reading ability and study skills of the elders and other church leaders. PNG people are used to demanding physical work. They will labor outside all day and enjoy it, but sit them down with a book and their eyes get heavy.
About 30 elders came in to Lumi for two weeks to improve their reading and Bible study skills. I lead them through the very basic steps of inductive Bible study; observation, interpretation, and application. We started with observation, and as we studied a passage of scripture I had them find and write down every person and group of people, including human, divine and angelic beings, that are mentioned in the passage. This was a tough assignment for most of them and we spent days practicing. We added more and more as the two weeks progressed.
One morning a man came early and asked if he could address the whole group, as he had something he needed to say. He was perhaps the oldest in the group and had worked with the early missionaries; a well-respected man, so I agreed. When everyone arrived, he came up front and told us he needed to apologize to each and everyone, including me. I had no idea where he was coming from. He continued, “Yesterday you could probably see I was very upset and I need to confess to all of you.” (Still no clue where he was going with this). “I wasn’t angry with any of you, I was angry with God and I need to tell you about it. You see, I have been with you every day last week and now, and what we are learning is so very, very important. But I am angry and complaining to God as to why it took 40 years for this training to come. You are all young enough to learn, but I am an old man now and it seems it is too late for me.”
I prayed silently, “Lord, help me. What am I going to say now?”
I then said to the whole group, “Thank you, papa Afu, for being honest with us. I am not sure what to say, but let me try a couple things we can consider together. 1. Things were different when the early missionaries were here. No one knew how to read and write, so the missionaries focused on these things. Look how many people read now! 2. You say the missionaries didn’t teach Bible study methods like we are doing now, but perhaps they tried and people just weren’t ready for it back then.” There were many nods of agreement. “It looks like this is God’s time for these things to be learned.” 3. “But I want to encourage you, papa Afu, to not give up with this study. We still have a few more days together. Let’s pray together that the Lord will help you, and I know that everyone in this group will be glad to sit with you – at any time – and help you along. Let’s see what the Lord does.” Everyone seemed pleased with this answer and we prayed together as a group.
The point I am raising with this story is that in Western countries we take so much for granted. Reading, writing, analytical skills, objective reasoning etc. are skills we learn early and use throughout our lives. This isn’t true everywhere. It is of utmost importance to communicate the gospel in the forms and expressions that help receivers understand it properly. When helping believers grow and develop into ministry leaders we may need to assist them in very basic skills like these people in Lumi district.