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Podcast: The Gospel’s Global Advance (Tim Keesee)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Global Christianity

In this interview, Tim Keesee shares from his own experiences talking with Christians around the globe, reflecting on his work as a missions journalist, the reality of persecution, and the best way to approach a short-term mission trip.

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A Company of Heroes

A Company of Heroes

Tim Keesee

This book, written by a missions journalist as he traveled throughout 20 different countries, highlights the lives of Christians past and present whose examples of endurance, courage, sacrifice, and humility will connect readers with God’s unstoppable work across the world.

If you like what you hear, consider leaving us a rating and review on iTunes, Spotify, etc. Positive ratings help us spread the word about the show!


Full Transcript

01:24 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast, Tim.

Tim Keesee
Thank you, Matt.

01:28 - Dispatches from the Front

Matt Tully
You’re probably best known for your documentary series Dispatches from the Front. It’s a video series that follows you as you travel around the world visiting Christians all across the globe on virtually every continent. Where did you get the idea for that series, and were you at all surprised by the response that it received?

Tim Keesee
For as long as I can remember I’ve kept a journal and when the Lord allowed me to go to Eastern Europe—which was our starting point of our mission work—and I was seeing history-changing events unfold, and gospel doors opening, I wanted to share what I was seeing, and I would publish excerpts from those journals. And it was really important for me to help my friends and other Christians at other churches to be able to travel with me, so to speak, on those journeys. I think sometimes those of us who have the amazing privilege to travel and see the world and see the global church can sometimes be a little bit impatient with Christians who don’t get it or don’t see it.

Matt Tully
See what? Or get what?

Tim Keesee
See the extent of the gospel’s power and see how Christ is building his church all over the world. And they may get snippets of it here and there, but I wanted them to feel like they were in the middle of it so they could experience the joy that I was experiencing in seeing glimpses of the glory that I was seeing. So I wanted to bring them along.

I was told some years later by a filmmaker, “The way you write, if we added film to this it would take this to another level in terms of communicating the message.” And so we did a pilot program and I was really taken back by the multiple generations of people—young, old—from different types of church backgrounds, responding to the message of the gospel that was being communicated through these stories.

03:58 - The Beginning of the Ministry

Matt Tully
Before the video series, when you first started sending these dispatches back from your travels, what form did that take? When was that? And then, was it snail mail to a newsletter list of some sort? How did it start?

Tim Keesee
I’m more of a nineteenth-century guy, so I refer to it as mail, not snail mail.

Matt Tully
You can tell what generation I’m from.

Tim Keesee
Yeah, I understand. Totally. I published excerpts from my journal in our mission newsletter, and then I would share some of them in a monthly newsletter that I would mail out. So a few thousand people perhaps read those. But that would be back in the 1990s. I especially started journaling and sharing when I was in Bosnia during the war in the early 90s, seeing the devastations of the war in former Yugoslavia and seeing the work of the church in mercy and in gospel witness in those settings. That was my first experience serving in the context of a war zone and also serving in a predominantly Muslim context as well.

05:21 - World Travels

Matt Tully
How many countries would you guess you have been to at this point?

Tim Keesee
Probably around ninety.

Matt Tully
Ninety. Wow. How long do you typically stay in a country while you’re traveling? Or does it vary depending on the trip?

Tim Keesee
It’s gonna vary. Now, there have been times when I was away for six, seven weeks, close to a couple of months. But I don’t really care for that. Most of the time I try to keep trips to two to three weeks.

05:53 - Family Life

Matt Tully
Does your wife ever come with you or are you typically on your own?

Tim Keesee
She comes whenever it’s a good fit for her. She has a lot of responsibility at Frontline Missions, where we serve together. And she’s also a little bit of a homebody . . .

Matt Tully
So, interesting dynamic being married to you—a world traveler.

Tim Keesee
At the same time, she is just such a vital part of what I do. She always has been. So I think we make a good team.

06:26 - Recent Travels

Matt Tully
What was your last trip? Where were you? How long were you there? And what did you see there?

Tim Keesee
The last trip was a trip to Southeast Asia and then I was down in Australia and New Zealand speaking at a church and seminary down there. So nothing too exotic. Gorgeous and encouraging to see God’s work in that part of Australia. But the time before that I was in the Middle East in a Hezbollah stronghold with a pastor who planted a church. A former Muslim, a pastor named Mohammed, and Christ saved him and is now positioning him to reach his people. And so it was very powerful for me to see the courage, the faith, the love of these people in the face of so much hate and a culture of death that is strong in that strain of Islam and in that part of the world.

07:42 - Perspective Gained from Travels

Matt Tully
As you think about the time that you spent with this pastor Mohammed, does that change the way that you view our churches and pastoral ministry here in western countries?

Tim Keesee
I do see so many beautiful things about how they create community, how they love each other, the focus on fellowship and hospitality as gateways for the gospel message to adorn the gospel message. I’m always amazed by their Spirit-given courage.

Still, I think it’s important that we don’t set Christians up on the other side of the world as being something other than we are:sinners saved by grace. We can tend to say, or think, Oh, God’s really working over there. Those Christians are super Christians. And over here, we’re not quite up to all of that. I think that in some ways diminishes the power, the reality of the gospel and how Christ is building his church all over the world. He has authority all over the world and that includes here, and the gospel still works here. And he is still calling men and women to himself here and they are following their cross-bearer here. So I don’t like to emphasize too much that, Over there they’re amazing. And over here we’re just struggling to . . . I don’t see that at all. I see that as men and women are making Christ's priorities theirs as they are pursuing him, that he is using them. And so there are some amazing Christians over here, and there are obviously some amazing Christians over there.

09:39 - Misconceptions about Global Christianity

Matt Tully
Are there other misconceptions that you feel are common among Americans when they think about Christians around the world?

Tim Keesee
They’re sinners saved by grace. They are definitely in a different kind of circumstance than we are in this country. But they are brothers and sisters with all of the failings, and joys, and need of the Spirit and I think that informs how we pray for them as well. We know what they’re going through, just as in Hebrews 13:3 says: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” So the writer of Hebrews helps us see that this is like a family member that we are embracing, and praying for, and identifying with because of the gospel.

10:42 - Insights into Scripture

Matt Tully
So much of Scripture that seems particularly relevant in some of those more difficult, hostile contexts, and it can be a little bit hard in America—where we’re so used to the freedom and the abundance—to understand fully and grasp experientially. Do you see that, that someone can have insight into certain passages because they have a lived experience, whether it’s because of persecution or other issues?

Tim Keesee
Definitely. We can’t fully appreciate the context they’re in. I think of Pakistan, for example, having been with believers in that country and seeing this tiny minority so discriminated against from cradle to grave. We don’t have any real context for that.

It’s important to remember in our context that the first phase of persecution is intimidation. You see that in Acts 4. They were just threatened and then sent away, told, If you keep down this path there’s going to be serious trouble. This was being spoken by those who crucified their master not long before. So intimidation is always the first assault against the Christian. And if that intimidation causes them to be quiet, to shut their mouth, and keep their faith personal and private and silent, then nobody has a problem with it. It’s when we speak, it’s when we open our mouths and declare the work of Christ, the good news, that’s when the trouble starts.

12:47 - The Church in China

Matt Tully
Some of our listeners may be aware that things are getting pretty rough for Christians in China right now over the last few months. I don’t know exactly how long you would say it’s ben changing, but fairly recently things have gotten noticeably worse. Can you explain what’s happening and how the church there in China is responding?

Tim Keesee
First of all, praise God for the power of the gospel in China. Perhaps the greatest numerical movement in growth of the church in church history has happened in China in the past twenty to thirty years. And there have been waves of persecution coming like waves beating on the shore. And now they’re in a time of renewed pressure on the church, and the communist leader, Xi Jinping, is committed to forcing the church to submit to the state, down to having a so-called Bible that is in accordance with Communist and Communist-Chinese principles. So there is enormous pressure on the church. Many have been arrested, property confiscated and destroyed.

And yet I heard just a few weeks ago from some dear friends in China right in the middle of the arena under the pressure and the assaults, and they are saying, “We have not experienced this kind of joy in many years.” And Jesus is with them in their suffering. And that’s the only explanation of why, under all the pressure that they’re experiencing now and the arrests and the threat of arrest and confiscation of property, they are saying we are growing and we are growing in our joy for Christ and for the gospel. They’re sharing . . . they’re not holding back. Jesus is with them and he is using them in this time.

15:03 - Praying for China

Matt Tully
How would you say that those listening to us today—people all around the world—can be praying for our brothers and sisters in China specifically? Are there certain things that we can be lifting up to God in prayer for them right now?

Tim Keesee
To begin with, go back to Hebrews 13. Remember those who are in prison as if we are sitting right next to them in the chains as well. Not on the other side of the bars, but sitting next to them. Remember those who are mistreated because we are also in the body. So pray for them as we would imagine our brothers and sisters, our family, suffering through cancer or some fearful thing and circumstance. So in an understanding way try to enter in to what they’re experiencing, understanding that they are taking part in the sufferings of Christ as well in this time. Pray for them as they are in fact brothers and sisters.

Also pray that God would give them great grace so that they would have boldness to speak the gospel in those situations, because that’s when the gospel message shines the clearest. And it’s an encouraging thing to realize—and I’m not minimizing it at all, because the bruises are black and blue, the blood is real, people suffer in those circumstances—persecution is actually a mark of gospel advance. When there’s no gospel at work people aren’t hearing good news and responding to it, churches aren’t resulting from those disciples forming in gathering, there’s no persecution. But when the gospel starts to advance, persecution comes. So actually it’s a mark of progress and not regress.

17:18 - Persecution and the Church

Matt Tully
There’s a famous maxim from church history I can’t recall who said it but it goes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Tim Keesee
Tertullian.

Matt Tully
What do you think about that? Is that a helpful way of thinking about persecution today?

Tim Keesee
I do think it’s part of that upside-down nature of the gospel. As he said, he’s talking to the Roman persecutors, “The more you mow us down the more we grow. And the blood of Christians is seed.” Again, not minimizing the suffering, but realizing that God—who is doing this work, who is behind this work, who is directing this work—is using the sufferings of his people for his glory and for the advancement of his message.

18:23 - Short-Term Missions

Matt Tully
That’s one reason, I think, that the work that you do as a missions journalist is so important—whether it’s through these video series that you’ve created, or through your two books that chronicle your travels and give Western Christians a glimpse at what God is doing around the world. It helps us to pray. It helps us to see these Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ, who we can relate to, to some extent, even if we've never meet them, never spoken with them. So I think that’s one of the wonderful benefits of what you’re doing.

It makes me think, then, of how that’s often touted as one of the benefits of a short term mission trip. It gives people who maybe have never been outside of the States—young people often—a chance to see what another culture is like and what God’s doing in other places. What do you think about short-term mission trips? They can be controversial sometimes, particularly when you speak with veteran, career missionaries or missions workers. What are the pros and cons in your mind?

Tim Keesee
Yes, that’s a good question and there are a lot of directions we could go with that. Frontline Missions has an internship program, so we are involved in short-term missions in that way. Our short-term missions are two months and two years. Our idea of short term is two years. But the first bit of advice I would have for someone going on a short-term team—and I would say it should be a team that is church based, and there should be some mentoring before getting on the plane. Significant mentoring before getting on the plane, mentoring there at the destination, and a good strong debrief afterward, *Where do we go from here and action items. A real structured thing. Not just a vacation. Not just cool pictures for Instagram, but something that is directed and is rooted in their church.

But having said that, everyone of those short termers should go . . . I almost don’t even want to call it “short-term missions” . . . they should go as a short-term learner. Just really go with a posture of What can I learn here? How can I see God at work? And not I’m going to go and I’m going to help the missionary because I’m going to paint or do this ministry, distribute these tracts. I’m helping them. It’s really better if they go and say, Look. I have so much to learn. I need to learn from these veterans. I need to learn from my brothers and sisters in this culture that we’re visiting for a few days. And so I’m gonna learn all I can and then see how God’s going to impact my life through what I’m learning.

21:35 - Western Missionaries and the Gospel’s Global Advance

Matt Tully
Yeah. That’s helpful. So as you look forward ten, twenty, maybe even fifty years—I know i’m asking you to predict the future here a little bit—but what role do you see “Western” missionaries playing in the advance of the gospel around the world versus the role that indigenous Christians will play?

Tim Keesee
It’s true, it’s beautiful that the worldwide mission force is so much more diverse than it’s ever been before because as Christ is calling men and women to himself from every nation, so he’s also sending them out to every nation. We need to be reminded of that in this country, where we can think that our money and our organizations and our seminaries are the fountainhead of global missions and we are not the fountainhead of global missions. Christ is building his church and he’s doing this work and he is—that being said—he is still calling men and women from Western countries, from this country, to be part of that work. We will continue to have a role to play just as Egyptians and Ethiopians and Chinese and Indians and French and Dutch and Brazilians will have in his kingdom work.

23:12 - Encouragement and Need for Prayer

Matt Tully
What’s been one of the most encouraging, awesome things that you’ve seen in your travels over the years that testifies to God’s power in the way that he’s moving and surprising and amazing in glorious ways? On the other hand, what’s been one of the most difficult or discouraging or disturbing things that you’ve seen in your travels that we can be praying for?

Tim Keesee
I think of just a panorama of brothers and sisters that I have met who came out of dark religion and were converted, changed, born again. And in some cases they were persecutors of the Way, just like Paul. And now they are proclaimers of the Word—powerful proclaimers, bold proclaimers. And so through their lives I’m just reminded once again that Christ is alive. And he is bringing people to himself and the new birth is a radical inside work of Christ that is made to last. I think it's not a single event, but just one person after another I’ve seen in their face and in their ministry, this radical transformation of the gospel.

Matt Tully
Yeah, that is wonderful. Anything stand out as either disturbing or discouraging thing that you’ve seen?

Tim Keesee
I have seen my brothers and sisters in great physical pain from the hands of their persecutors. People who’ve had their homes burned to the ground, women who have been raped, a dad I’m thinking of right now whose son was murdered. So it hurts. It hurts deeply to see their pain and it causes me to pray for them even more. So when we talk about the persecuted church it seems like this big tagline for half the world, but it comes down to men and women who are part of our family, our blood-bought family forever, that we are to suffer alongside of as best we can and enter into this in a prayerful, caring life for them.

25:58 - Dealing with Discouragement

Matt Tully
Have you ever seen things that were just so hard that you felt discouraged. You felt like, “I don’t know if I want to keep doing this. I don’t know if I can keep seeing these things.” Have you ever kind of thought about stopping?

Tim Keesee
No. I say that because I know that everything that Christ has done, is doing, is just guaranteed to succeed. Even when it’s really dark. This story comes to mind:

I was in Pakistan after an attack on a Christian community—300 Christian families. Churches were all burned down and their homes looted, and many of them destroyed, and in that awful situation—and I was there right after it occurred—one of these brothers there came to me, spoke enough English to just start quoting Scripture. Like, he’s standing there in the ashes of his church and he’s saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” And then he just goes through to quote John 14 that Jesus said, “I’ve prepared a place for you.” And then he says—he’s quoting again from Christ in Revelation—“be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.” And I’m hearing this from the mouth of a man who is standing there with all the threats and fears and question marks over his future, and he has an unshakable confidence that everything that Christ promised will come to pass.

27:44 - International Travel Advice

Matt Tully
Last question, a little bit more light-hearted. Obviously you do a lot of traveling. Pretty safe to say you’re a pro when it comes to traveling internationally. What’s one piece of advice that you would offer to our listeners when it comes to traveling internationally?

Tim Keesee
Don’t drink the water.

Matt Tully
Don’t drink the water. Does that mean you’re packing in water for yourself all the time?

Tim Keesee
And travel light. I’m just naming the two most common things that you’re supposed to acknowledge; although, I would say, you know, water is a principal culprit of a traveler’s illnesses. But I think as much as is possible—speaking just as a traveller—get off the beaten path. Get out and ask lots of questions. Take good notes. Be a good listener. Learn all you can. And as a Christian, learn all you can to see God’s glory in what you’re experiencing.

28:54 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well Tim, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast and sharing a little bit about the things that God has taught you as you’ve traveled and seen the mighty ways that he is working all around the world and the gospel is advancing for his glory.

Tim Keesee
Thank you.


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