It’s summer festival season in the Christian world. I have just finished working at one and will shortly be heading to another. Up and down the land we will gather together in muddy fields to worship and hear speakers who have been brought in representing all kinds of churches and ministries, from across the country and around the world. We’ll all have a great time worshipping Jesus in our wellies and being inspired by some good teaching.
But there’s something bothering me. In fact it’s been bothering me for a while now.
The people we invite to speak at our festivals, events and conferences have indeed got something to say. But let’s be honest, they aren’t just there because of how they can preach. They are there because they’ll sell tickets. They have written books, have oodles of Twitter followers or lead the latest exciting and growing ministry to have grabbed our attention. And so we’ll deem them worthy of our attention and the ticket price.
Don’t get me wrong. None of those things in and of themselves are wrong. And I have been someone who has helped to plan conferences and weighed up who we think are good speakers with something to say, and who people will actually come to hear – because they aren’t always the same thing. But what about the people who are living out faith in the obscure, out-of-the-way places? Those who haven’t written books or blogs, have never heard of Twitter but have stories to tell that would humble us, teach us and leave us hungering for more of Jesus?
Last summer I met one such man. He probably won’t ever be asked to speak on a main stage or platform at one of our gatherings, so I’ll tell you about him now and the impact he had on me.
I met Pastor Timothy in Poipet, Cambodia, where he serves within a ministry called the Cambodia Hope Organisation (CHO). He is a small man with a big personality and an even bigger smile. He works with the tiny house churches dotted around the countryside, teaching and encouraging them, discipling new believers and singing songs about Jesus with the children. I’ve never met a man more full of the joy of the Lord.
Cambodia’s history has been a troubled one. During the mid-late 1970s the Khmer Rouge regime, under dictator Pol Pot, brutalised the country working millions to death in the Killing Fields and murdering thousands more. The young and fragile Cambodian church was decimated and remains small to this day.
Just before we went out to Cambodia two of the Khmer Rouge leadership had finally been found guilty of crimes against humanity in UN backed court proceedings and had been sentenced to life imprisonment. As we travelled out, we wondered what kind of impact this ruling would have on the people we would meet. Would it bring a long-awaited sense of justice or some kind of closure? Would there be a moment when it would be appropriate for us to ask?
One evening as I sat with Pastor Timothy at dinner the topic came up. Here was a man who had lived through his country’s darkest hour and had family members killed because of this murderous regime. How did he feel about two of its top guard being held to account for their actions? What he said next simply floored me.
He said that the Bible tells us that no one deserves heaven, but even the thief on the cross had the opportunity to respond to Jesus and be forgiven. His only concern for these men was that they should hear the good news about Christ and have the opportunity to respond.
I was speechless.
Even now as I write this, almost a year later, I am moved and challenged in a way that brings me close to tears.
What’s more, after a few moments, as the conversation moved on, Pastor Timothy was asking us to send people who could teach them more from the Bible as they were so eager to learn and knew that they needed input from people who had studied the Word and could pass on that knowledge. In my heart I wondered if there was truly anything more that anyone could really teach him. He had already grasped the outrageousness of grace and forgiveness in a way that many of us never will.
Pastor Timothy was one of several people I met on that trip whose lives and witness have stayed with me. As I left Cambodia, challenged and inspired, I reflected on the many heroes of the faith there must be, hidden around the world, following Jesus in extraordinary ways and ushering in His Kingdom in some very dark and forgotten places. How many of us could be taught something profound from their lives and example if we ever heard their stories?
One or two of them might make it to one of our conferences this summer. But if they do they will probably be tucked away in a seminar tent, during an early morning slot or up against some much sexier topic in the programme and so will speak to twenty people. So if you’re going to a Christian festival or event this summer, please do have an amazing time and I hope that the main speakers will bless you with their teaching and that it is a place of growth and restoration for you.
But do yourself a favour and look closely at the programme to see if there might be some hidden stories waiting for you to find. They might just be from the most impactful people you ever hear.
(Pastor Timothy having his first taste of Scottish shortbread!)