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Archive for the ‘Missions’ Category

I have a confession- I like to pick on philosophers.  To give an example, I’ll share a funny story from an OT prof in undergrad.  He was at a conference for Christian professors, intending to go to a session for OT professors.  He accidentally ended up in the session for philosophy professors and couldn’t get out.  What transpired (with perhaps some hyperbole) illustrates why I couldn’t go into philosophy.  According to my professor, they never actually arrived at the topic of discussion because they spent the entire time arguing over how certain words were best defined.  From the perspective of my professor, these were the worst kind of philosophers- talking about everything except the important things.  (Before Cousin Jeremy flays me, I should note that I’m needling.  I actually really enjoy philosophy… in 30 minute doses.)

As cumbersome as constantly worrying about proper definitions can be, philosophers of this ilk are on to something important.  What we mean by certain terms that we drop in casual conversation is of utmost importance, especially when we are discussing matters of eternal importance.  So while I do believe one can go too far down this road, constantly worrying that their words have no meaning until they explicitly define them for their listeners (which, of course, could descend into a never-ending cascade of defining the definitions), I think it is good to make sure that everyone is more or less on the same page.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been recalling my interactions with adherents to other faiths overseas.  I’ve had conversations over meals or cups of tea/coffee with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists regarding their faith, Jesus, Christianity and a whole host of other topics.  These are instances where I’ve had to be sure that the other person is at least in the same ballpark as I am.

Let me give an example.  When a Muslim from another country asks me, “Are you a Christian?” it would be easy for me simply to say “yes.”  After all, I am.  But what I mean by “Christian” and what they mean may be, and probably are, two different things.  Instead of answering the question, though, I usually ask them what they mean by “Christian.”  The reason is this: “Christian” carries certain cultural connotations for them that it does not carry for me.  Most non-Christians in the non-Western world assume all Americans are Christians.  Many of them watch American TV via satellite (I’m caused some confusion overseas for not knowing the latest American pop phenoms) and assume that what they’re watching is representative of American culture and, thus, Christianity.

Christians sleep with multiple partners (example: a female friend was teaching English to a group of Muslim girls in Asia when they asked her about prom night.  They had seen on TV that American girls lose their virginity on prom night and were intrigued.  Keep in mind, their assumption is that these girls on TV are Christians).  Christians get drunk frequently.  Christians never go to church, never pray, never worship, and never mention God unless they’re swearing.  Christians use crude language.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Christians always support the American government, especially when they are attacking Muslims.

So if I answer “yes” to the question, I may be confirming some or all of these points, and potentially many others (I should note that not all non-Westerners think these things about Christians, but many do).  Is that what I want?  But if I ask them to explain what they mean, I get an inside track into their perception of Christians.  I can affirm what is true, deny what is wrong and clarify what is confusing.  But most importantly, I get to talk about Jesus, who is the centerpiece of all I believe. 

This goes for any number of terms we’re accustomed to leaving undefined: sin, salvation, God, heaven, hell, and so on.  These potential problems are multiplied when talking with a Buddhist, for example.  At least when I’m talking with a Muslim, I know that we can stand on common ground on a couple points: they have concepts of sin, heaven, hell, creation, etc., that are similar to ours.  Even though we understand God differently in many ways, at least we are both monotheists (though Muslims often don’t think we are) and don’t need to be convinced of God’s existence.

Buddhists, on the other hand, don’t even believe in a god.  Because of this, bad karma is different from sin, because they don’t believe in a God who can take offense to an immoral act.  Salvation and enlightenment are very different, as are nirvana and heaven.  Resurrection?  Forget abotu it.  If I’m going to talk with a Buddhist, I must take time to explain what I mean and let them into my worldview, just as I try to enter theirs.  It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Applying it to our context here in the West, I wonder if we should take time to define our terms more clearly for people.  A coworker might ask you on Monday morning, “what did you do this weekend?” and you may reply, “went to church.”  Do they know what that means?  What would change if you answered, for example, “worshipped God in a community of redeemed sinners”?  Would that open more doors to talk about what it really means to be the church and to follow Jesus?  I’ve used this approach before when a coworker asked if I were an evangelical.  I asked them what they mean by that term.  I’m happy to affirm my status as an evangelical, properly defined.  But if my coworker is thinking mostly in terms of how I vote in the elections and what TV programming I watch, then I don’t want to affirm those things.  Even if I line up with most evangelicals on many issues, that’s not what makes me an evangelical.  My belief in Jesus, as He is portrayed in the Bible, and the saving power of the Gospel is what makes me an evangelical.

So maybe the philosophers are right.  Maybe we do need to take a few minutes to define our terms and explain clearly what we mean.  Keep in mind, I’m not advocating abandoning our terminology in our culture, doing so will only spring forth new terms that will eventually become ill-defined.  I’m pushing us to assume less.  I’m pushing us to ask more questions, to get into the minds of those we talk to and understand where they’re coming from.  Doing so will open more doors that will otherwise be shut.  Spending more time explaining what we mean will give us a chance to talk about Jesus, which is what we should be trying to do anyway.

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Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

In the wake of the short term trip from which I returned a few days ago, I could not help but think of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  No doubt, this passage has been the center of many sermons on missions, and for good reason.  On a mount in Galilee, the risen Christ offers a few sentences to His disciples that close Matthew’s gospel.  Last words were no small thing for Matthew’s audience, so their importance is doubly highlighted.  As such, these three verses remain a centerpiece of discussions today about the spread of the Gospel of Christ.

Whenever I consider this passage, my focus tends to land on verses 19 and 20.  After all, herein lies the meat of the command.  Here is what we’re supposed to do (make disciples), how we’re supposed to do it (going, baptizing, teaching), and to whom (all nations).  However, as I reflect more on the passage as a whole, I am increasingly struck by verse 18.  I believe the importance of this verse cannot be overstated, and what follows hangs on the truth therein.

Verse 18 is an undeniably strong affirmation of Christ’s Lordship over the universe.  Our obedience to the command in verses 19 and 20 is predicated on Christ’s authority.  This theme runs throughout the canon of Scripture.  God’s being precedes our doing.  The work of reconciliation, of redeeming fallen creation, is always at His initiative, not ours.

We see this pattern emerge in the first chapter of Genesis.  When God speaks all creation into existence, out of nothing, entirely on His own, He firmly establishes His complete, unchallenged Lordship over everything that is.  When humankind is spoken into the picture, our very existence is defined in terms of God.  We are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  We know who God is before we know who we are.  Conversely, we cannot properly know who we are until we know who God is.  Good anthropology flows from good theology.

When sin enters the world a few chapters later, it is God who begins His work of redemption.  God is the one who initiates with Abram, and chooses a people for Himself, through whom He reveals Himself, and blesses all nations.  God is the one who gets hold of Moses and frees Israel for His glory.  Chapter by chapter, book by book, we see God as the one at work in revealing Himself, and affecting His redemptive plan for humankind.  From anointing judges to ordaining kings to appointing prophets, it all starts with God.

When God becomes man in Christ, He brings His reconciling work to an entirely new level.  Christ in turn charges His disciples to continue in His work: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21).  The order is clear once again: The Father sends Jesus first (v.21a), then we are sent by Him (v.21b).  God is the starting point in both clauses.

Also, lest we forget, the latter half of verse 20 in our Great Commission passage reminds us that God has in no way stopped His work, and simply passed the Heavenly baton to us.  No, Christ is with us “to the very end of the age.”  Indeed, even a casual reading of Acts indicates that the book is much less about the “Acts” of the Apostles, than the “Acts” of the Holy Spirit.  God didn’t quit after the Ascension and leave the rest up to us.  Quite contrary, He’s dialed it up a notch or two.

When we arrive at the missionary scene, then, God has already been long at work.  Stories upon stories from the mission field testify to this.  A missionary meets a Muslim man who had a dream about Jesus the night prior; a woman feels an emptiness in her heart that longs to be filled; a teenager finds a Bible, and questions of God burn on his heart.  Salvation always comes through God’s prior work, never by our clever words, strategies, or programs.  After all, it is the Holy Spirit who testifies about Christ, and convicts the world of sin (Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11).

In this way missions is best understood as joining in God’s Mission.  It is by His authority, His initiative, and His Mission that we make disciples of all nations.  This is our starting point for missions.  Missions is the project of aligning ourselves with God’s Mission, which is already well under way, and firmly in His capable hands.  As such, we labor with confidence, knowing the certainty of the outcome, because it is God’s undertaking, not ours.  Praise be to God that we are asked to be a part of His great work!

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A few weeks back I received the latest copy of Missions Frontiers, a magazine that ships to my apartment every other month.  The first thing I would read, like probably all of its subscribers, was Ralph Winter’s editorial.  In this past issue, for the first time in the 30 years of the publication, Winter did not write the editorial.  It was noted by the new editor, Rick Wood, that Winter was dealing with lymphoma and was no longer feeling up to the task.  I knew he was sick, so it didn’t necessarily surprise me.  Still, it took me off guard last week to find out that Ralph Winter had died, on May 20, 2009.

To all of us in fields related to missions, Ralph Winter was a giant.  We speak of missions and evangelism in terms of “people groups” rather than countries.  It seems so obvious to us now: within the geo-political boundaries of a country (say, India) there are any number of people groups that may or may not actually have much connection to each other, despite living under the same flag.  They may have different languages, customs, religions, etc.

So, while the gospel may have reached the Tamil Hindu population, that doesn’t mean India has been reached.  What about the Muslims in Assam?  They’re an entirely different people from the Tamils.  They present a whole different set of challenges to missionaries that must be reckoned with.  The fact that the gospel had penetrated the boundaries of India does not mean that all the peoples of India had been reached.

This is taken for granted by most of us, especially the under-40 crowd.  But before Ralph Winter, it wasn’t so widespread.  I’m not saying he invented the concept of people groups or was even the first to trumpet this understanding, but I think it’s safe to say he was the most influential.

I’ll share one more personal tidbit about Ralph Winter.  Winter was writing something about parachurch missions organizations.  Now, we local church types tend to be critical of parachurch organizations.  Winter noted, however, that churches often failed to live and preach the gospel to all peoples as we see commanded and exemplified in the New Testament. So, he reasoned, he could just as easily refer to churches as paramission organizations.  That has stuck with me ever since.  I don’t ever want my church to be an organization that operates outside the mission of God.  Much of Winter’s life was dedicated to keep that from happening.

I encourage you to poke around the website for the U. S. Center for World Mission, an organization Winter founded.  If you’d like to look into subscribing to Missions Frontiers (donations requested) you can go here.  And if you’d like to pray for unreached people groups, I highly recommend you surf around Joshua Project for a while.

Ralph Winter had a dream of seeing the gospel preached to all nations (people groups) before his death.  I’m sad to say this did not happen.  But his dream was based on the Great Commission, and that has not changed, not matter how many of its faithful spokesmen pass away.

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Coming off the reposting of my review of Thomas Oden’s book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, I was thinking about some of the implications studying early African Christianity would have for modern missions.  As one who works for a missions organization and helps train future missionaries, I’m constantly looking to draw out practical application from studying the Bible, theology, church history, etc.

In my review of the book, I note that Oden points out how studying the early African church can benefit the modern, growing African church.  African church leaders can learn from how their ancestors handled church disputes, draw encouragement from the example of African martyrs, and so on.  Keeping in mind that most of the world places high priority on (1) their ancestors and (2) ancient wisdom (unlike many of us, who think newer is better), this is an important point that we can help pass along as the African church grows.

There’s another area where we can apply this insights to missions.  I’m reminded of a story that the late J Christy Wilson told about sharing the gospel with a Turkish med student who was in the hospital.  Wilson, who was a missionary to Muslims in Iran and Afghanistan before he went on to Gordon-Conwell to teach missions, was able to bridge the cultural gap with this Turkish man by pointing out the important role Turkey had in the early church.  Paul was born in Turkey.  The Apostle John lived in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey.  Many of the important churches, including the 7 churches of Revelation, were in Turkey.  What this did was enable this man to see that Christianity is not a white man’s religion or an import from the West.  It’s roots, it’s foundation, are non-Western.

Applying this same idea to African Christianity is actually quite easy.  Some of the greatest church fathers and theologians were Africans.  Augustine was a Berber born in present day Algeria.  Whether you always agree with him or not, Augustine is the most influential extra-biblical theologian in church history.  He was African.  Now, some may point out that he wrote in Latin and think this is an argument against what I’m presenting, as if writing in Latin somehow made him less of a Berber.  I’d simply point out that if Augustine wanted to write for a wide audience, he had no choice but to write in Latin (or Greek, I suppose).  He could have written in his native Berber tongue, but then his writings wouldn’t have travelled very far.

Let’s think about the Trinity for a second.  I’ve had Christians tell me that this is a Western academic construction, one that we need not import onto people from other cultures who may be turned off but such theology (or think of it as Tritheism).  I find it interesting that the man who coined the term “Trinity” was Tertullian, who was from Carthage (in modern day Tunisia).  The greatest early church defender of orthodox trinitarian theology was Athanasius, who was from Egypt (and referred to by his opponents as “The Little Black Dwarf”, for those who insist on Christianity being a white religion).

From a missiological point of view, any genuine connection you can make with a native culture is important.  Showing a Berber how Christianity was built in part because of Berber Christians can help remove the foreigness of the religion and its colonial connections.  It’s nice because you don’t have to contrive it, you’re simply pointing out historical fact.  Remember: many of these cultures pride themselves in ancient customs and traditions passed along from their ancestors.  Reminding them (or showing them for the first time) that many of their ancestors were passionate followers of Jesus Christ and helped build His church is part of them reclaiming their heritage in Christ.

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