visiontrip2016

Will you join me on a vision trip?

(If you’re unfamiliar with the term, potential missionaries – or missions supporters – take a “vision trip” to investigate a possible calling to impact an area of the world.)

Our vision trip takes us to a nation that’s actually filled with numerous individual tribes. We’ve heard reports that these groups have a great need for the gospel, that the people are still largely unreached, and that darkness abounds within these tribes. But these tribes are also highly influential, and their citizens are… unique, to say the least.

Our timing is fortunate: Members from nearly seventy of these tribes are gathering for a great annual contest (known to the natives as the Tourney – “Tournament” in English). Elite warriors from each tribe will compete in games of skill and endurance, as thousands more surround the contests to watch and root for their champions.

So of course, we’ll watch this “Tourney,” too, hoping it provides a window into these tribes.

We notice immediately that tribe rallies around an individual identity, a nickname or costume that seems to bond tribe members rather mystically. Some names honor ancient warriors – Knights and Musketeers, Spartans and Trojans – while others highlight native industry: Lumberjacks, Boilermakers, Tarheels, Shockers, Aggies. And some tribal names are simply inexplicable: Bearcats and Seawolves; Blue Raiders and Red Raiders and Rainbow Warriors and a much-ballyhooed tribe called “Hoosiers.”

Competition inspires plenty of festivity at the Tourney. Dancers are prevalent here – as are musicians, food, drink, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are present, and they may in fact celebrate 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 can be heard: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

But we’ve come here to observe, not simply watch. So as the competitions begin, we look beyond tribal identities, pageantry, and revelry, to see if God might call us to these lands.

We can’t deny the deep passion in these tribes, 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 a passionate people. And 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.

We also see 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 each tribes’ members.

Both creativity and intelligence abound here, too. These are present and future leaders. If God touches even a handful of these enthusiastic, connected, brilliant people, their impact on their nation and the world could be quick and profound.

As we continue observing the Tourney, we begin to wonder if God might even ask us to be involved – somehow, some way – in reaching such unique peoples. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and resources will be required if strong and lasting work is to be built. But even a quick, competition-filled Vision Trip has shown us: These mission fields offer a powerful adventure and blessings untold. And if these particular people are reached well, they in turn will change the whole world.

All the “madness,” the excitement, the passion, and the valor found in this Tourney reflect the beautiful mission fields from which these tribes come. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.

tribesrow2015

This is the 2016 version of my annual “sixty-eight” essay.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 43 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last nine years. And as is my custom, I’m wearing the “tribal garb of the campuses” – T-shirts from those 43 schools – over the 22 days of the Tournament.

Top photo credit: “University of Indiana campus at duskcc Larry Johnson