This past week I was out in SW Alaska attending the Moravian Synodical meetings. The Moravian church is a pre-reformation protestant church founded in 1457. They administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. They started work in SW Alaska just before 1900. As I stood looking out over the frozen Kuskokwim River, I had to reflect on how different mission work has become in most areas of the world. When I first started doing mission work we were still ministering to groups of people who had never heard about Jesus Christ in a meaningful way. Some had never even heard the name, Jesus Christ. The people living in the hills of the small Asian country where I worked had no access to the gospel. Now I am doing missions in an area where the gospel has been preached for over 100 years. Does this mean that mission work is no longer needed? No. However, the role of the missionary has changed from that of pioneer to facilitator. The late Paul Hiebert wrote that, " missionaries are now 'in betweeners'. They are bridge persons and culture brokers who stand between worlds and help them to understand one another". What does this new role look like? How is it actually accomplished? Many missionaries train local church leadership, provide theological education, and write contextualized bible study and children's materials. Here in Alaska where there are acute social issues, missionaries bring healing by bringing Christ. For me this will mean returning to this place next fall to teach Alaskan Native pastors in the bible seminary.
Some may think that this new role is less difficlut from that of the original pioneers. This is true in some ways. Yes, the church has structure. The bible has been translated into the local language. Native leadership has been trained. However, there are also the challenges of a relativly new church being engulfed in social change, and learning to live as Christians and as Native people.
Thankfully, the hearts of the Native Alaskan people are not has hard as this frozen river. Despite the dramatic changes in their lives over the past 150 years or so, they are patient and open. I have been truly blessed by the people in SW Alaska. They say the land forms the character of the people who live in it. I would agree it is a strong element of formation. It certainly has made me appreciate community, simplicity, patience, and being who you are in the moment without pretence.