This is an article from the March-April 2002 issue: Putting Church on the Back of a Camel

Striking Camp with the Nomads

Striking Camp with the Nomads

Excerpted from Peoples on the Move, the new book by David J. Phillips

Nomads have a special place in God's plans. For most of us, the word nomad conjures up the idea of self-sufficient people, who are both resourceful and irresponsible, mysterious and dangerous, who are to be envied for being free from the restraints of ordinary society. We envision nomads as both carefree and stubbornly keeping to an uncomfortable life.

The nomads are an important but often ignored part of humankind. The varied estimates of their numbers demonstrate the difficulty of knowing exact figures, but the total of nomads would be large enough (added together) to populate many countries. The significance of nomads is even greater because many peoples who have a history of nomadism are still in contact with it; some may revert to it; or their culture may still be influenced by this history.

Nomadic peoples represent a unique challenge to Christian mission. It has been said that Christianity has had virtually no success in converting nomadic pastoralist peoples, and this could be largely true of other types of nomad. We must examine why this is so and see whether we need to change our approach.A number of factors are conspiring against the no­madic life—including unsympathetic government policies, repeated droughts, the end of collectivization in Central Asia, the advance of irrigation and cultivation, the pres­sure to commercialize pastoralism, the competition of industrial goods and transport, 
population pressure on common lands, and, more simply, prejudice and bureau­cracy. Further, the lure of modern life has challenged them to adapt their lifestyle or abandon it.

Now is the hour of the nomads! They have been left until last, and time is short. To evangelize these people, we have to serve them spiritually and materially in a way that enhances their identity and maintains a viable nomad­ism. We set out on what is, for most of us, an unfamiliar journey to understand the nomads and find out how as Christians we can help them. Learning how to reach nomads will challenge many of our well-established ideas. Working with this group of people requires a specializa­tion similar to that required of those working in Christian radio, Bible translation, urban evangelism and among destitute children....

A church is only people

It is extraordinary that the first evidence of Chris­tianity that people have today is an institution called a church. Unfortunately, the word “church” carries connota­tions of elaborate buildings, well-established timetables and rituals, hallowed traditions and unfamiliar structures of leadership—as if they are to last as part of this world forever. Most mission agencies are committed to repro­duce the accumulated wisdom in the church structures of their home countries as the ultimate desirable result. This idea is congenial to the workers and entails a ready-made package to overcome the inconvenience of the 
converts’ slow learning.

The Western-style church is time- and property-ori­entated. Christian activity centered around a building with a weekly timetable is alien to people who live according to where the grass is growing. This structure therefore re­inforces the nomads’ misconceptions of Christianity. The relationship of the members and leaders can be conveyed, rightly or wrongly, by the seating arrangement—even in an informal camp meeting. Many times the building of a special meeting place or mission “station” (meaning some­thing stationary) can be the death knell to work among nomads; it could either be ignored or distort or destroy the nomadic cycle, and demonstrates the workers’ igno­rance of the value of nomadism to the people. Christianity could easily become synonymous with disrupting their way of life....

Is our dependence on familiar practices and structures due to a lack of faith? Vincent Donovan expresses this by saying that the gospel may be preached and the church may well result, but it might not be the church the mis­sionary had in mind. However different that church is in its structures, from any church that we might know, it must be recognized as the church of Christ among that people. While this is significant coming from a Catholic, it is also necessary for evangelicals, whose emphasis on the gathered church still smuggles in Western ideas of organization and social structures that have their origins in the seventeenth century...

Disciple development

Our assumptions about the nature of both the church and worship have to be examined. Christians do not belong to a church, but the church is derived from the re­lationship of the disciples to Christ. A conscious attempt to “plant a church” and then make disciples gives priority to an abstract concept with a lot of extraneous content. We then forget that all the New Testament says applies to each individual Christian. The accountability of each dis­ciple is diminished by much that is only tenuously derived from Jesus, and the authority of church structures can also substitute the Lordship of Christ.

We have to recognize that Christ himself is more at home in a nomad camp, with its humble hospitality, its small group fellowship and its storytelling way of ex­changing news, than in a Western church. We should not look for the pattern of the church in a separate doctrinal treatment entitled “Ecclesiology,” but we should rather start with the nature of God himself...

As we have already noted, the gospel and the church were first called “the Way.” A church among nomads has to start with individuals practicing the walk of faith. This faith necessitates trusting the Creator alone, who is transcendent and provides the renewable natural re­sources, and includes wise stewardship and contentment with having what is sufficient for one’s needs. This leads on to teaching that God loves and expects love in return, towards himself and others, and that God judges unbelief and individual and social wrongs.

We have to start with the isolated Christian, who needs to develop the ability to nourish his faith for peri­ods independent of others. Most of the problems in the Christian life grow out of an inadequate knowledge of God. We fail to rely on the teaching and reminding role of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26; 16:13, 14). Do-it-yourself Semi-Nomadic Peoples packs of Scripture and instruction, prayer guidance, and even songs, are needed on cassette. In many cases these are also needed in literary and graphic form. Discipleship has to be learned within the herding or peripatetic group, ideally with at least one other sympathetic companion of the same sex ....

All we have suggested concerning Christians befriend­ing the nomad, living alongside and demonstrating that the Christian life can be lived within the nomad context, leads to mentoring. Individuals who are pondering the gospel of the pastoralist Creator through the traveler Son need to be mentored. The dispersed and mobile nature of nomadic people will require traveling to regularly visit a number of these individuals. This was the norm in the New Testament church as leaders and members constantly moved between the local churches, transmitting both oral and written teach­ing. Most journeys would have been on foot and taken weeks. This is not uncommon for many nomads today. In this way the nomads should be aware that they belong to a universal community of Christ. A judicious use of examples of Christians from biblical and church history should demonstrate that fellow disciples form a long line from the past to the future, just like their own ancestors and tribal history ....

“The Way” church again?

The nomad is already used to a social life that may consist of close contact with no more than a few dozen people for most of the time, and long lonely periods with only two or three companions. Developing personal rela­tionships is more important than organization. Nomadic people also have their larger gatherings and celebrations, often only once a year, involving religious observances and extended family rites of passages such as circumcisions, initiation rites and weddings.

A similar social pattern of small groups, with occa­sional larger gatherings, should be possible for the church among nomadic peoples. We will see small groups meet­ing with cassette recorders for months at a time and only coming together with other believers a few times a year. These gatherings can take the place of pilgrimage com­mon in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. But the local no­mad church, consisting of the scattered believers perhaps within a few nearby extended families, will have to learn in time to develop evangelistic and fellowship contacts in the wider nomadic society of clans and tribes. It will then have to adjust to the dynamics of both small groups and occasional larger meetings.

A new model of the church, like the cell church, needs to be worked out. But most of the concepts of cell and house group churches have been developed in large urban settings, to make large impersonal congregations more personal and interactive. In the nomad’s situation, the entire church may consist of only small groups meeting together occasionally, and requiring greater participation from each member. Jesus used dialogue with small groups (Mt. 16:13, 15; Mk. 14:17-19; Lk. 22:24ff.; Jn. 3:2-14; 4: 5-29; 14:5-8). Full participation works in groups of up to a dozen, the question and answer method with double that number, and monologue from the “expert” takes over in groups of more than 35 people.

What form the church among nomadic peoples will take is one of the crucial questions that still has to be resolved, and wepray that the Holy Spirit will show the answer....

The nomad as missionary Christians pastoring these small groups may be able to fit partially into some local tradition of religion teacher. Traveling holy men and peddlers visiting the camps are common, and similarly an evangelist or catechist visiting to encourage the tiny groups would be possible. Their authority is not based on constitutional or traditional institutions, but comes from a knowledge and conformity of character to Christ himself, as well as from their ability to meet the practical problems of faith and moral issues. They need to be taught so that they can re-teach others through storytelling and other aids that convey both basic truths and further applications later.

A church that is “nomadic” in its attitudes will be a missionary church. This new nomadic pattern of the church is already taking shape. The Christians of a partic­ular nomadic people meet together at a well, without any church building, and read and pray wherever they travel. No missionary can claim to have started this work. The gospel has spread among them by audiocassettes played over and over. Two brothers, under a God-given convic­tion of sin, came to a market looking for the Messiah, a man called Jesus, who could forgive their sin. They came across a short-term missionary worker who, with a limited 
knowledge of their second language, was able to tell them how to find him. The result is that these few Christians have spread the witness not only to their families, but also to many more people than would have been possible if they had been based in one place...

The nomad has learned to live with few personal pos­sessions, is accustomed to being mobile and has experi­enced poverty, hunger and long periods of hard unpaid work. He or she has also known despair and fatalism and what it is to be despised. Such a Christian would be able to reach the largest sectors of the Two-Thirds world. One wonders how the modern missionary movement has got so far without a special effort to reach nomadic peoples, and without the participation of Christian nomads!

Special skills required of workers

A young Kyrgyz stared in horror at a visitor travel­ing on foot and by bus: “You haven’t got a horse?” It was inconceivable to him that someone could not ride a horse. This initial perception of the people can be important. The Fulbe may consider a person who arrives in a Land Rover as someone to be exploited, but a person who rides a horse is someone to be respected. Unfortunately, women do not ride horses in that culture. The reindeer-herding Koryaks accepted Robin Hanbury-Tenison because he had been a deer farmer in Britain. The nomads are also amazed when an outsider can herd cattle correctly; 
but it is just as important not to pretend you know how when you do not! It is easy to discredit oneself trying to handle camels without previous experience!

We need some knowledge of animals, or our min­istry among pastoral groups will probably be limit­ed....Knowledge of estate management, dairy farming, shepherding, soil analysis or any other such related skill would be useful. One agency needed to recruit a Live­stock Management Specialist, a Community Health Educationalist and a Alcohol Abuse Counselor for Mongolia in one year. The Agricultural Christian Fel­lowship of the UCCF or related bodies elsewhere could help here, both in finding experienced workers and in giving some orientation to non-specialists.

In most cases, short periods of familiarization with animals would be sufficient for non-specialist workers. Obviously, to gain visas for particular projects profes­sional qualifications are needed for some key workers. Training and skills learned through military service or any experience of camping and hiking are an advantage.

An important way of identifying with the people is to own some animals yourself, using local people to herd them and yet being seen to be involved in the same problems. Often a person accepted as a religious teacher loses respect if he herds his own animals. It is common practice for wealthier members of a society to hire herd­ers. The full adoption of orphaned or abandoned nomad children can also help in gaining acceptance into the tribe, but it obviously raises much wider issues.

Peripatetics do not necessarily need Christians who have the same skills as themselves, but other skills to help them. But being willing to learn their skills, and perhaps having some previous training in an appropri­ate craft such as blacksmithery or basket weaving, will help us not only to appreciate the problems of the work, but also to perhaps begin a development project to make their work more viable. The nomads also need someone who is able to do what they cannot do for themselves.

More fundamental still is the ability to incarnate Christian living among the nomads, in a way that they can appreciate. Those who have experience among nomads see a clear need for orientation courses beyond the training provided by most missionary college courses and mission orientation periods. Many feel the need for an internship that tailors the formal missionary training to the nomadic situation, with a testing of the practical commitment to the people.

Suggestions for training include desert camps similar to WBT jungle camps in temperate climate conditions to teach appropriate skills in real-life situations, and “ad­venture” treks into the Sahara. YWAM organizes Safari Trips. The Christian College Coalition runs a Middle East Studies Program with 13 weeks in Cairo for service projects, lectures and conversational Arabic and visits to Israel. This gives North Americans an experience of Muslim urban life, between academic years at various Christian colleges. A few years ago the Christian Col­lege Coalition ran a similar course involving experience of pastoral 
and nomadic life in Africa and the Middle East ....

A sustained Christian commitment

...Many years of contact to overcome the nomads’ suspicion and fear, with few or no visible results, is difficult. It has been said that evangelizing an African people takes 50 years. The first 25 years may result in 25 converts, but the harvest only comes in the second 25 years. The assumption that goals can be accomplished in a decade never gives the workers, or the changing of the worldview of the people, a chance. A Tuareq commented that without real commitment and a more explicit pre­sentation of the message, when there is opportunity to do so, we can give the impression that we do not really believe the 
message ourselves.

This factor of commitment also touches on the great­est fear of the nomads when considering conversion—that Christianity will lead to their being socially isolated, with­out someone to care for, marry or bury them. But the lesson from Christ is clear.The incarnation is permanent,the Son remains a man forever.

Even his absence in the ascension is a continuation of his commitment, and he has only left temporarily to deal with his adopted people group’s best interests as their representative with the divine paramount Chief of all peoples! He will return.

The missionary or, failing that, a team in relays, could be a visible sign of God’s commitment to the people. When the worker can no longer live in the country, the people should be assured that the absent worker continues his or her interest in prayer and any other means to promote their spiritual interests,including perhaps contact with expatriate communities of the people. It would be beneficial to have teams called and trained together. To achieve the best results in sport and in warfare, teams are trained together before going on an assignment. The bonding between the workers will be more apparent to the people, and the absence of some members of this missionary “family” will be better explained as family business. The arrival of workers who have hardly known each other before that missionary assignment must seem a strange and unconvincing “tribe.” A team provides for relays of workers being present as well as meeting the needs of the scattered groups of a nomadic people.

These teams probably require a range of generations to be convincing. Younger women have problems in be­ing accepted as religious teachers among Muslim peoples. Older workers, including women, are often more respected as “holy”or wise.This is illustrated by a Wodaabe man who regarded his thirty-five-year-old daughter as no longer a “woman,” but rather as an “old man,” because she had arrived at a mature understanding of life through her experiences of suffering...

Reprinted by permission from Peoples on the Move: Intro­ducing the Nomads of the World, by David J. Phillips, William Carey Library/Piquant, 2001. To order copies of Peoples on the Move, see the advertisement on pages 20-21.


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