Reviewed by Micah McCormick
Dispatches from the Front is a book about missions. But unlike many missions books that focus on the theological underpinnings for missions, or (what is probably more common) books that offer pragmatic tips as you head overseas, this book is a personal journal. The author, Tim Keesee, directs Frontline Missions International, and part of his job is to travel to some of the world’s most gospel-barren areas and report stories of the good news triumphing even amidst suffering. There is also a DVD series with the same title (Dispatches from the Front), and those at all familiar with the DVDs will recognize that much of the narration for those documentaries is drawn from the journal entries that make up the book.
I heartily recommend this book for a number of reasons. First, it draws the reader to Scripture. Keesee has a Puritan-like knack for weaving a passage of Scripture into the flow of his thoughts. Sometimes such recollections occur in response to the simple beauty of nature. For example, a soaring eagle reminds him of Isaiah 40 (p. 94). At other times, Scripture becomes an anchor for the soul amidst weighty burdens—when he sees servants of God who pour out their lives for the cause of Christ, he references 2 Corinthians 1 (p. 130). In all things, the people of God should not lose heart (156), a reference to 2 Corinthians 4:16. His most quoted passage is likely Matthew 16:18—throughout the book, Keesee reminds the reader that Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!
Second, the book will expand your vision and stir your heart. Although we know in our minds that Christ’s kingdom will spread from shore to shore, we are often too preoccupied with our own little corners of that kingdom. But in the process, we become slaves to the trials of the moment and ignore the successes of the gospel. We might be plodding, but others are thriving and we can take hope in that. The Lord is on the move, and he is not “stymied by statistics” (46). Some of this heart stirring comes in the form of conviction—a converted Muslim tells Keesee that the world seems more willing to embrace the gospel than Christians are willing to give the gospel (34). Aashish, an Indian minister who trains other men, often reminds these men that “pastor” is not a title but a responsibility (147). Along with Tahir and Aashish, there are a whole host of other workers and each one is a testament to the sovereign power of God. Not seeing much evangelistic fruit in your church or your personal life? Read Dispatches from the Front and be encouraged that God is indeed saving a great multitude of sinners!
Third, the book should help to renew your focus on the simplicity of the gospel and God’s means of grace. Keesee tells of his friend David who works in Albania under the banner of three action steps (you might want to get a pen for these): pray, meet people, and tell them about Jesus (65, 73). Bombed out buildings become a reminder that buildings are not all that important in the grand scheme of things. In fact, many Christians in Sierra Leone “know better than most that bricks are just so much mud. The gospel advance would be slowed down—even stalled—if they concerned themselves too much with buildings” (175). So what do Christians with such a Spartan mentality spend time doing? Letting worship services linger over seven hours (39) and examining baptismal candidates for four hours (38). What a joy to be reminded that we don’t need all the bells and whistles to grow as disciples of God.
Fourth, the book helps to demythologize missions. What I mean is that, while this book honors missionaries, it doesn’t put them on an untouchable pedestal. In Keesee’s words, “often when we read about ‘God’s giants,’ we read history backward. Our heroes stride across the stage of their generation, every decision drawn by the compass of destiny to their rising star. Even defeats, we know, are just a prelude to the victories that will come a few pages later. But that’s reading history, not living it” (79-80). Missionary life is not all wrestling with wild animals and casting out demons. Missionaries have daily rhythms and face regular setbacks. They have to get their hair cut. They like to laugh. They don’t always know what to say. They are Christians like you and me who depend on God’s grace.
Fifth, Dispatches from the Front provides a wonderful model of excellent writing. Keesee’s vivid prose draws the reader in and paints captivating pictures of landscapes both physical and spiritual. The book is not a piece of sensationalistic journalism, but as the title suggests, it is a kind of war report from the front lines. It is not a sappy Hallmark card. The poetic descriptions of sights and sounds and struggles linger in the reader’s memory. As Keesee describes the nature of the book in the prologue: “The following are the stories of kingdom advance—dispatches written along the way, often scribbled in the moment, praising our Captain’s brilliance, describing his victories, and telling of his gracious, sleepless care as he walks among us on the front lines” (20).
In the book we learn of a “Barney Fife-like deputy” (216). We can imagine women hauling up baskets of green mud crabs glistening and pawing in the light (107). We are told of the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s palace, of its stripped walls gilded with graffiti and his throne room converted to a place where soldiers shoot free throws (230). In the Gansu province of China there is a sleeping Buddha, a figure “who seemed quite indifferent to both the penitents bowing low before him in a cloud of incense and to the bird droppings on his flaking gold face. The whole sad scene was one of the utter emptiness of idolatry” (89).
Keesee has a kind of unaffected candor that permeates the book. He is not afraid to speak of the danger of weak teaching, but he also is not on a mission to call into question every evangelistic technique or profession of faith. He is not offering his agenda or program for missions but merely reporting, in a thoughtful and thankful manner, what he has seen. When he does offer a passing critique, it comes as a gentle aside (e.g. rather than speaking of a missionary church planting mindset that amounts to cultural “imperialism” or “colonialism,” he reflects on the church planting that looks more like church “franchising,” and he notes his own growth as a learner from disciples in other cultures).
My only real unfilled wish for this book was that I would love to have even more follow-up on many of the characters and churches that were introduced. Did so and so ever make a profession of faith? Did that church ever get off the ground? I realize that in many of these cases we won’t know the end of these things until glory. But perhaps a second volume could fill in the ellipses for some of these beginnings.
I could offer scads more in the way of anecdotes and commendations, but why would you want to read those when you could get a copy of the book and read it for yourself?
Micah McCormick (PhD, SBTS) is Assistant Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church in New Hyde Park, NY.
Buy the books
Dispatches From The Front: Stories Of Gospel Advances In The World's Difficult Places