tribesrow2015

Join me on a vision trip.

Potential missionaries – or supporters – take a “vision trip” to imagine together how God might lead them to impact a particular people group.

Our vision trip takes us to a nation filled with numerous tribes. We’ve heard reports that these populations have a great need for the gospel, that these tribes are still largely unreached, and that darkness abounds within many of them. But these tribes are also highly influential within their nation as a whole, as well as being extremely open to influence – whether ours, others’, or their own educators’ and chiefs’.

The vision trip’s timing is fortunate: Representatives from nearly seventy of these tribes have recently gathered for a great annual contest (known to the natives as the “Tourney”). Elite warriors from each tribe compete in contests of endurance and skill, while thousands more surround the games to root for their delegates. By the time of our visit, only four tribes remain – four potential champions, finally whittled down from the original dozens.

This event could provide an excellent window into these tribes, so we watch.

We notice immediately that each tribe rallies around an individual identity, a nickname or costume that seems to bond its members rather mystically. Three of the remaining tribes have been named after animals – a common waterfowl, a fighting rooster, and a tenacious canine. The last tribe’s name derives from its region’s historic industry. But these four tribes defeated others, just as unique, to reach this point – many of these also named for animals, from Wolverines to Razorbacks, and others that hope to embody the spirit of Musketeers, Mountaineers, or simply the Irish (known as “Gaels”).

(The variety of tribal names reflects the striking variety of these tribes – a diversity between locations that might not be recognized by those unfamiliar with this mission field.)

The Tourney inspires much festivity, and all the more in these final stages. Dancers are prevalent – as are musicians, food, drink, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are here, and can even be found celebrating alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but face much taunting throughout). And often, above the din, tribal chants can be heard: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

But we look closer.

We can’t deny the deep passion in these tribes, among warriors and watchers alike. When competitors win the crowd’s elation is profound. But losing warriors may weep with bitterness that would be shocking if we hadn’t seen fervent zeal displayed all along. We view transcendent “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. These brief contests reveal passion and enthusiasm that have yet to be tamed – not only in contestants, but in their tribes. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom will be important to add to this zeal, of course – but with this energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

It becomes clear that creativity and intelligence abound within these tribes, as well, and it’s not surprising that national and world leaders will come from within their ranks. Meanwhile, we also notice that the bond between tribe members – known as “spirit” – is not frivolous. It is through this sort of community and comradeship that truth can travel quickly – but so can falsehood.

As we continue observing the Tourney with missionary eyes, we are thrilled that God might ask us to reach such a unique people. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and investment 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 great opportunity 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 tribes from which the contestants come. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.

This is the 2017 version of my annual “sixty-eight” essay.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 39 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and I proudly wear shirts from 4 more that were donated by ministers or alumni.