Below you’ll find the 2015 version of my annual essay, “sixty-eight.” I hope you’ll take the “vision trip.”

tribesrow2015

Suppose you felt the tug of a missionary calling.

Maybe that call would simply involve sending others to make an impact, or you might feel led to impact a distant people group yourself. In either case – sending or going – a “Vision Trip” to a potential mission field offers an opportunity to “survey the land,” exploring the need and the opportunity.

So imagine, if you will, taking your Vision Trip to a nation filled with numerous individual tribes. You’ve heard reports that these groups have a great need for the gospel, that these people are still largely unreached, and that darkness abounds within these tribes. But you’ve also heard that these tribes are highly influential, and that their citizens are… unique, to say the least.

So you arrive in that country to observe, pray, and consider what God might have in mind.

Your timing is fortunate: The month you visit, nearly seventy of these tribes are meeting in their great annual contest (known to the natives as “the Tournament” or “the Tourney”). Warriors from each tribe compete in games of skill and endurance, and thousands from each represented village surround the contests to watch and root for their tribe.

So of course, you’ll watch this “Tourney,” too – perhaps it will provide a window into the tribes themselves.

You first notice that each tribe rallies around its individual identity. For instance, many tribes have named themselves after animals known for their ferocity – Razorbacks and Wildcats, Tigers and Wolfpack. Some groups honor ancient warriors – Spartans, Aztecs, Musketeers. Other tribes have chosen somewhat less menacing monikers – Ducks, Friars, Terriers, Anteaters  – but these tribes are no less proud. One tribe has taken the name of a nut believed to bring good luck (Buckeyes), while other tribal names – like “Hoosiers” and “Hoyas” – are of unknown origin.

You notice, too, that the tribes are as different as their names: The warriors known as “Crimson” come from a tribe known for its brilliance, the “Boilermakers” from a tribe with many engineers, and many contestants come from tribes with a particular religious bent.

Of course, competition and tribal pride inspire plenty of festivity at the Tourney. Dancers are prevalent here – as are costumes, musicians, food, drink, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are present and may cheer alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but will face much taunting throughout). The entire event is quite noisy – but often, above the din, tribal chants rise: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

The “Research Triangle” is home to several tribes – including the Blue Devils of Duke (above), Tarheels of UNC, and Wolfpack of NC State. Every tribe is different, and each one requires a different missionary approach.

But you’ve come here to observe, not simply watch. And as the competitions begin, you look beyond tribal identities, pageantry, and revelry.

You are unable to deny the deep passion here, among warriors and watchers alike. Some competitors win, and the crowd’s elation is profound. Others, upon losing, may weep with bitterness that would be shocking if you hadn’t seen fervent zeal displayed all along. You view transcendent, singular “shining moments” when Davids take down Goliaths, when boys become men for a few crucial minutes, when weakness is turned to strength to put opposing armies to flight.

Of course, these are just games. But with missionary eyes even this fleeting contest reveals the clear potential in this passionate people, people you suddenly want to see reached for Christ…

First, the enthusiasm in these tribes has yet to be tamed. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom must be added to this messy zeal, of course – but with this youthful energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

You also realize that the bond within each tribe – the “spirit” shared by its members – is not frivolous. The natural community and surprising comradeship could help God’s work spread among the tribes’ members.

Further, creativity and intelligence abound here. Clearly these are future leaders. If God touches even a handful of these enthusiastic, connected, brilliant people, the impact within their own tribes – and beyond, to their nation and world – could be quick and profound.

As you continue observing the Tournament, you begin to be awed that God might ask you to be involved in reaching such unique people. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and resources are vital for building strong and lasting work. But your Vision Trip has reminded you: This mission field offers a powerful adventure and blessings untold. And if these particular people are reached well, they in turn could change the whole world.

All the “madness,” the excitement, the passion, and the valor found in March’s Tournament reflect the beautiful mission field we reach through college ministry. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 46 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last eight years. (As is my custom, I’ll be wearing the “tribal garb of the campuses” – T-shirts from those 46 schools – over the next 22 days of the Tournament.)