Today I arrived in Pemba, Mozambique after more than 50 hours of traveling. I had wanted to visit the ministry of Rolland and Heidi Baker at Iris Ministries for some time, and today I was arriving. My wife and I had met Heidi Baker in Singapore a couple of years ago and since then it seems that the circles our lives were living began to regularly intersect. Pastors I knew were suddenly connected to Iris Ministries. Friends visited their work. What had been an unknown name to me 3 years ago was suddenly all around me, culminating with Noit and I meeting Heidi.
Our two ministries seemed similar as did our context. Both Cambodia and Mozambique are recovering from the effects of long civil war. Their ministry focuses on Church planting, caring and feeding for orphans, well drilling, and training pastors, which are all things we do, but it seems that Rolland and Heidi are on a much bigger scale than us even.
Their reputations had preceded them and so I had expectations for what I was going to see. I knew the ministry was large, so I expected to see many vehicles with an organized and visually appealing center. I knew that “spontaneity” was something important to them, so I didn’t expect too much structure, but I knew with a lot of foreigners there would be order and clear instructions. Oddly, however, I did not have a specific idea for what I was supposed to be doing at the center. So I was personally equipped to teach if I needed too, enjoy children, become closer to God and learn what I could about running a large ministry.
Today I pulled into their base camp at Pemba. It sits directly in front of the beach, a beach which seems to stretch for a thousand miles. From what I saw their base sits on about 5-7 acres of land. The first thing I saw was a giant play ground. It was well used and swarming with kids! All around were many buildings. All of the buildings are painted dark red. Some are clearly under construction and others were just pitifully made. There were many different kinds of buildings. Some large, some small, some square some round. Most did not look very well built. There was no grass or gardens, just dirt. I had no idea what any of the buildings were for, but it was clear they were well used.
There were however, hundreds of kids running about. Inter-mixed with all the kids are foreigners. They were easy to spot. Most had shaggy hair and baggy clothes, much like many back-packers look like. They were all over the compound playing and talking with other kids. I could see why there was no grass. Even if they had plenty of water, there were so many people running around and playing it would never survive. The foreigners were, as I was told, young people from all over the world who wanted to learn about missions and how to love God more. There were more than 330 who came for three months this year all the way to Pemba. I saw a group of young people in a round hut and asked what that hut was for. They said it was the prayer hut and people could go and pray anytime they wanted to. So, these twenty or so I could see just randomly chose to pray individually and together at 4pm on Saturday when I visited the center. They leaders said it is regularly occupied. That, I would say is unusual for today’s young people to be doing.
Apart from my surface scan of the facilities, what I saw was Christ in action. This was just a random time I came to visit the center. Yet, at that random time it was swarming with people. I am told it is always swarming with people. However, when I think of an “ideal” church I have a different image. I had different expectations of a large vibrant ministry. I think of well built buildings surrounded by manicured lawns. I think of a large cross with a perfectly shaped building. I think of strategically arranged trees, with a small perfectly clean playground tucked neatly in a corner. I think of it being “busy” for a few hours on Sunday morning. My expectations were that this missionary family would have built a ministry modeled after a large church or ministry in the United States, but it was far from the reality.
That is why I was impressed with Iris Ministries at first impressions. Not because of its beautiful buildings and visually appealing buildings, because I didn’t really see any, but because people were using every inch of the property. If the people really are the church, then this was more a church than what I had seen in a long time.
More than that, I felt like this large ministry was possible to replicate and learn from. It was not out of reach. Many times I walk into a ministry office of a large urban church and my thought is, “this is impossible.” I could never afford those amazing sound systems which costs tens of thousands of dollars. We could never afford the large purpose-built sanctuaries costing millions of dollars which are designed to host world-class performances every weekend. I could never afford the religious structures, but you know what. . . that isn’t the church. That is religion. What I saw at Iris Ministries was that it was possible. It doesn’t cost any money to have fun with kids. It doesn’t cost any money to pray. It doesn’t cost any money to disciple or counsel another person. This is what Iris was clearly successful at. They had stripped away the “fluff” and materialism of modern “churches” and what I was seeing was the core expression of the Biblical church. My first impression is that, a Biblical expression of the church is still possible today.