The Mission of God and the Missional Church
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2011 by Mark D. Roberts
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Today, I’m beginning a blog series that considers what it means for the church to be missional. The use of the word “missional” to characterize the church is relatively new, but it has become widespread. In fact, people use the word “missional” so much that it seems almost to be losing its meaning altogther. This, I believe would be a great loss for the church and the world.
So, in this series I’m going to examine what it means, from a biblical point of view, for the church to be missional. As we’ll see, this has everything to do with God and God’s own mission in the world.
In my early teenage years, nothing captured my imagination like the television classic, Mission: Impossible. Intricate plots, dire situations, ingenious devices, split-second timing – all of these combined to keep me on the edge of my seat for 60 anxious minutes. If you’re too young to remember the original television series, the recent Mission: Impossible films help to remedy your deprivation. But there are only three movies; there were 168 original episodes on TV.
As the show began, Jim Phelps would play a tape that outlined some enemy plot crying out immediate attention. Only Mr. Phelps and his organization, the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), could remedy the desperate situation. Their assignment was perilous in the extreme. Failure would be disastrous, both for the world and for the IMF. If a member of the IMF were to be caught or killed, “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” The taped voice gave Mr. Phelps the opportunity to accept or to reject the impossible assignment. Then it concluded with those famous words: “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.” Its smoky demise led straightaway into the show’s memorable theme music.
For the sake of high TV ratings, Mr. Phelps always accepted the assignment, gathered his team of experts, and with unequaled skill managed to defeat the forces of evil, usually situated in some rogue nation. The impossible mission turned out to be possible for the IMF, but just by the skin of their teeth. Chalk up another one for human ingenuity and technological sophistication!
As human beings we also face an impossible mission, but one that is truly beyond our potential. The problem: human sin and its results. The mission: to undo the dire effects of sin, to bring reconciliation between us and God, and to extend that reconciliation to all creation. In the quotable phrase of N.T. Wright, it’s the mission of “putting the world back to rights.” This mission’s degree of difficulty? Utterly impossible. No amount of human cleverness, no collection of spiritual gizmos and disguises, will mend the breach between us and God, and heal all that is wrong with the world.
For limited and sinful creatures like us, overcoming sin and its results is indeed an impossible mission. “But with God everything is possible” (Matt 19:26). God alone can fix what we have broken. God alone can restore what is beyond our power. God alone can reconcile us to himself, and, as a result, bring reconciliation to a shattered world.
But, amazingly, God has chosen to use us for his mission. He has chosen us as members of his Impossible Mission Force. More accurately, we are part of God’s Possible Mission Force. As believers in Jesus Christ, we have been drafted into the unique mission of God. To be sure, we cannot make reconciliation with God occur. That’s God’s job and he has accomplished it marvelously. Yet he has chosen us to be his agents of reconciliation who share in his mission of healing all creation (2 Cor 5:18-21). Because we experience intimate fellowship with God through Christ, we are also partners with him in his mission in the world.
What is God’s mission? How does God accomplish that which is impossible for us? What should we do as members of God’s mission force? How do we execute our assignment in the world? These questions are answered throughout the Scripture, which, thank God, does not self-destruct five seconds after we hear it!
Before I lay out our mission as God’s people, I want to place that mission in a broad biblical context. We will best understand our task when we see it as an extension of God’s mission in the Old Testament, that which is culminated in Jesus Christ.
The Mission of God in the Old Testament
God created human beings so that we might have fellowship with him and serve as faithful managers of his creation (Gen 1-2). God was to be the King who reigned over heaven and earth, and we were to be his royal family, those through whom he would implement his reign.
Yet we sinned against God, disobeying him because of our prideful desire to equal to him. We were not satisfied with fellowship with the King as his prince and princess. We wanted to be king and queen ourselves. Our sin was not some minor peccadillo, something a holy God could simply ignore, but rather outright rebellion against his reign. The result of sin was pervasive brokenness, in our relationship with God, with each other, and with creation itself (Gen 3). We shattered the gift of divine fellowship and the perfection of God’s world.
From the moment of the first sin, human beings have tried to evade its implications. We have made excuses. We have tried to earn our way back into God’s favor. But no human scheme ever works. Only God can mend that which we have broken. And that is exactly the mission he graciously adopts: to reconcile us to himself, to one another, and to bring reconciliation to creation. Reconciliation, therefore, is the means by which God will restore the fellowship that was broken through sin. Even though we have rebelled against him, God still wants us to have fellowship with him and to serve as stewards of his renewed creation.
God begins to fulfill his mission by forming a special people – Israel – with whom he will have intimate relationship and through whom he will bless all nations (Gen 12:1-3; Exod 19:3-6). He reveals his gracious nature to the Israelites and rules over them as their king (Exod 34:4-7; Judg 8:23). But they repeatedly rebel, rejecting God as king and preferring to serve idols (1 Sam 10:19; Ezek 20:16).
What seems like an irreparable setback in God’s plan, however, in fact prepares the way for the crucial step in his reconciling program. God uses the occasion of Israel’s rebellion to make promises of his future reconciliation. “Someday,” the Lord says through his prophets, “I will restore my chosen nation and, in the process, reach out to all nations on earth.” God will save his chosen people from their distress through a unique individual who will extend divine salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6). This unequaled Savior will be the suffering Servant of God, who bears the sin of all humanity, offering His life for us so that we might be made whole as we are reconciled to God (Isa 53). Centuries before God’s Redeemer comes, the Jewish prophet Isaiah speaks words that will one day fill his mouth:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to announce that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come (Isa 61:1-2).
In that time of favor, God will remove the plague of sin and restore his rightful reign upon the earth. That which has been damaged because of sin will be mended, as God reconciles people to himself and to each other. It will be a day of great rejoicing, as Isaiah acknowledges:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns! The watchmen shout and sing for joy, for before their very eyes they see the Lord bringing his people home to Jerusalem. Let the ruins of Jerusalem break into joyful song, for the Lord has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord will demonstrate his holy power before the eyes of all the nations. The ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God (Isa 52:7-10).
Someday God will reign! God’s people will be comforted and reconciled to their Creator. God’s salvation will reach even to the ends of the earth.
In my next post I’ll connect this Old Testament mission of God to the ministry of Jesus.
The Mission of Jesus, Part 1
If you were to ask the average Christian, “What was the mission of Jesus?” you’d no doubt hear that Jesus came to die on the cross for our sins, so that we might have eternal life. I believe this is true, profoundly and wonderfully. But I also believe it’s not the full story. The mission of Jesus, though ultimately centered in the cross and though leading to life after death, is far more inclusive than many of us have been led to believe. In this post and the next, I’ll give a quick overview of the mission of Jesus as seen from the perspective of the Old Testament mission of God, that which Jesus came as Son of God to fulfill.
Hundreds of years after the Hebrew prophet Isaiah delivered the message of the coming kingdom of God, another man recognized as a Jewish prophet emerged on the scene, bringing a message reminiscent of Isaiah’s. In a nutshell, he proclaimed: “At last the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near! Turn from your sins and believe this Good News!” (Mark 1:15). Could this man, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth, be the one whom God sent to “bring good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns” (Isa 52:7)?
One sabbath day, Jesus went to the religious gathering place in his hometown. He was given the scroll containing the prophecies of Isaiah. Turning to the 61st chapter, he read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come (Luke 4:18-19).
There was nothing particularly unusual about the fact that Jesus read this text. It was well-known and beloved among the Jews of Jesus’ day, who hoped for God’s kingdom. But then Jesus did a most exceptional thing. As those who had gathered stared at him, he said: “This Scripture has come true today before your very eyes!” (Luke 4:21). With this simple sentence Jesus made an audacious claim. In effect, he said, “I am the one appointed by the Holy Spirit to fulfill this prophecy of Isaiah. I am the long-expected Redeemer of Israel, the Servant of God who will bear the sin of humanity. I have come to complete God’s mission of reconciliation.”
The passage from Isaiah 61, which Jesus applied to himself, highlights several essential features of his mission. First of all, he was sent by God in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18). Even though Jesus was the divine Son of God, he was empowered by the Holy Spirit for his ministry. Even though his birth was a miracle of the Spirit, at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus received the Spirit in a dramatic way (Luke 3:21-22). From that time onward he was guided by the Spirit (Luke 4:1).
Second, Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news (Luke 4:18). At the core of his earthly ministry was the proclamation of God’s reign. The Gospel of Mark provides a concise summary of Jesus’ message: “At last the time has come! The Kingdom of God is near! Turn from your sins and believe this Good News!” (Mark 1:15). Notice that Jesus’ own preaching was not primarily about himself, but about the coming of the long-awaited kingdom of God, that which the prophets had promised and for which the Jewish people prayed every day.
What is this kingdom of God? In the Old Testament, the kingdom of God was not somewhere up in the sky, or something we experience only after death. Rather, it was God’s reign or rule on earth, a reign that would continue into eternity. The establishment of God’s kingdom on earth brings reconciliation between people and God, and extends that reconciliation throughout the world. Hatred and injustice are replaced by the love and justice of God. Sickness and death are consumed by God’s wholeness and eternal life. Human rebellion against God’s reign is replaced by loving obedience. (For much more on Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God, see my series: What Was the Message of Jesus?)
Tomorrow I’ll continue my quick overview of the ministry of Jesus.
The Mission of Jesus, Part 2
Yesterday I began to summarize the mission of Jesus in light of the mission of God in the Old Testament. I based my discussion on a passage from chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel. Here’s that passage, once again:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come (Luke 4:18-19).
On the basis of this text, which is a citation from Isaiah 61, I explained that:
1. Jesus was sent by God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news.
Today I’ll continue where I left off yesterday.
Third, Jesus was sent to enact the good news.
Jesus practiced what He preached. As a part of his announcement of God’s coming kingdom, Jesus proclaimed release for the captives, seeing for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He backed up his audacious proclamations with compelling demonstrations. Those in bondage to demonic powers were set free (Luke 4:33-35). The sick were made well and the blind given sight (Luke 7:21-22). Jesus liberated those who were bound by social injustice and prejudice (Mark 7:24-30; Luke 5:12-15; 7:36-50; 8:43-48; 10:38-42; 19:1-10). Even as he called his followers to love their neighbors and their enemies (Luke 6:35; 10:27), Jesus also loved with exemplary compassion (Matt 9:36; Mark 10:21; Luke 7:13). He not only spoke of God’s reign, but also embodied that reign in his own person and ministry. Where Jesus was, there was the kingdom of God (Luke 17:21). His enactment of the kingdom demonstrated the validity of his preaching, and drew thousands to hear his good news. It showed that the coming of the kingdom was focused in him, his proclamation, his ministry, and his person.
Fourth, Jesus was sent to form a community of the good news.
Although not explicitly stated in Luke 4:18-19, when the poor, the blind, and the captives received the good news of God’s kingdom, they also had the opportunity to join the community of kingdom people, who, once reconciled to God, experienced reconciliation with each other as well. In Luke 5, Jesus called a few fishermen to form the core of his disciples, promising that they would now fish for people (Luke 5:1-11; 6:12-16). The community of Jesus’ followers live under God’s reign, demonstrating love and justice as servants of God and of each other (Mark 10:43-44; Luke 11:42; John 13:34-35). Even during the earthly life of Jesus, his followers were empowered to join in his ministry, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign and demonstrating that good news through works of healing and liberation (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1-17). Their sharing in the ministry of Jesus foreshadowed an even greater work to come.
So, even as in the Old Testament, God’s mission involved forming a people through whom to restore his kingdom on earth, Jesus’ mission was not simply about getting individuals right with God. He was also in the business of forming a people to proclaim and live out the reality of God’s kingdom. This is perhaps one of the major oversights in much of American Christianity, which has allowed the individualism of American culture to obscure the essentially communal nature of Jesus’ mission. Yes, he came to secure individual salvation and to call individuals as his disciples. But full salvation includes restoration as God’s people. True discipleship is always a shared endeavor. There are no “lone ranger” disciples in the kingdom of God (or at least there shouldn’t be).
Fifth, Jesus was sent to consummate the good news through his death and resurrection.
Though he embodied and inaugurated God’s reign on earth, human response to Jesus was still limited by sin. Without experiencing the most profound kind of liberation – from sin, our rebellion against God – we cannot be reconciled to God. Until we are cleansed from our sin, we can long for God’s kingdom, but we cannot fully enter it. Jesus was sent not only to proclaim and to demonstrate the good news of God’s reign, but also to consummate that good news by overcoming the barrier of sin. He came, “not to be served but to serve others, and to give [his] life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He was sent to fulfill the mission of Isaiah’s suffering Servant of God, the one who would be “wounded and crushed for our sins,” upon whom “the Lord laid . . . the guilt and sins of us all” (Isa 53:5-6). Because God’s rightful reign over us was shattered by sin, the shattering of sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus enables us to be reconciled to God. Once reconciled, then we can live in full fellowship with him as citizens of his kingdom. The cross of Christ invites us into the kingdom of God and restores us into intimate fellowship with him as God’s subjects, servants, and beloved children.
In my next post I’ll show how this kingdom-centered mission of Jesus has been passed on to us.
Sent by Jesus to Continue His Mission
In my last two posts I summarized the mission of Jesus. In a nutshell:
1. Jesus was sent by God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news.
3. Jesus was sent to enact the good news.
4. Jesus was sent to form a community of the good news.
5. Jesus was sent to consummate the good news through His death and resurrection.
By dying upon the cross for our sin and by rising from the dead in victory over sin, Jesus fully activated the good news. We can now be reconciled to God and live forever in unbroken fellowship with God. We can begin already to experience the new creation, even as we wait for the complete renewal still to come (2 Cor 5:16-21). Yet the once-never-to-be-repeated work of Jesus in dying and rising did not finish his ministry on earth. That ministry was to continue through the community of his disciples whom Jesus sent to continue his work.
The writer of Acts of the Apostles, the same Luke who wrote the third gospel, begins his account of the early Christian mission in a most curious way:
Dear Theophilus: In my first book I told you about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he ascended to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions from the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1).
Luke says that his first book, the Gospel of Luke, shows us “everything Jesus began to do and teach.” Acts of the Apostles, therefore, must be the chronicle of that which Jesus continued to do and teach through those who believed in him and were filled with his Spirit. The book of Acts of the Apostles might better be named: The Acts of Jesus through his Apostles.
The end of Matthew’s Gospel makes this same point in different language. As the disciples of Jesus gathered around him after his resurrection, he said:
I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
Jesus sent his inner core of disciples into the world for the purpose of making more disciples. These new followers of Jesus would not only believe in him, but also would obey all the commands Jesus gave to his first disciples. The second generation of disciples were to make more disciples, who would make more disciples, who would make more disciples, and so forth until all nations are filled with disciples of Jesus. (In the picture to the right, the Blues Brothers are “on a mission from God,” or missio dei in Latin.)
We who believe in Jesus are somewhere down this chain of discipleship, perhaps a hundred links or more from the original command to make disciples. As disciples or apprentices of Jesus, we are called to do that which he commanded to his original team, such as:
Go and announce . . . that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received! (Matt 10:7-8).
Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other (John 13:34).
But, whereas the first disciples were to minister only among their fellow Jews while Jesus was on earth, after the resurrection they – and we – are sent out to all nations. Jesus explained this sending quite succinctly: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
We who follow Jesus are a sent people, even as Jesus was sent into the world by his Heavenly Father. We are a community sent on a mission together: to keep on doing the ministry of Jesus so that all people and all creation might experience the reconciliation of God. God has designed the church of Jesus Christ to be a “missional” fellowship. The word “mission” comes from the Latin word missio, which means “having been sent.” Since we have been sent to do God’s work, we are a “missional” community together. (For a thorough treatment of the church as “missional,” see Darrell Guder and Lois Barrett, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.)
Christians have often used this kind of language differently, to identify as “missionaries” those whom we send to far away places to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, these so-called missionaries are doubly sent, having been sent by God and by the church. But this language has sometimes obscured the fundamental missional calling of the whole church together and every individual member. If we think of ourselves primarily as sending others away to do “missions,” then we may forget that we also have been sent by God into our particular segment of the world to fulfill God’s mission right where we are, even as we share in the global mission of God.
For example, I rejoice in the fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I pastored for sixteen years, has a long history of support for many “missionaries” who serve throughout the world. This church always cared deeply about “missions,” thank God! But, at times, we overlooked our own mission right on our doorstep. From God’s point of view, Irvine Presbyterian Church was sent to Irvine, California to be a disciple-making community. We were sent to continue the ministry of Jesus, to proclaim and to demonstrate the good news that God’s reign has come through Jesus, and to invite people to be reconciled to God. If we supported “missionaries” without being “missional” ourselves, then we fell short of God’s call to us. (For this reason, I prefer not to use the word “missionary” in favor of the more accurate “mission partner.” Those whom we sent and supporters were our partners in our shared mission, the mission of God.)
In my next post I’ll speak more about how God equips and empowers us for his mission in the world.
Sent in the Power of the Spirit
In my last post I showed that Jesus sent his followers into the world to replicate his own mission of making disciples. We who follow Jesus are to make more followers of Jesus.
It’s easy to accept our charge to do the ministry of Jesus without really thinking about what we’re doing. “OK,” we might say, “That’s just fine. We’re to do the ministry of Jesus. Great!” But when we stop and think about it, we have accepted an astounding and overwhelming mission, one that is seemingly impossible. If we take seriously our sending by Jesus to do his work, our hearts should pound and our knees should knock. How, in heaven’s name, are we to do what he did? Given our manifest human limitations, not to mention our sinfulness, how can we do the works of the divine Son of God?
Doing the ministry of Jesus is a bit like climbing Mt. Everest. This mountaineering adventure is so demanding that it almost exceeds human capabilities. The vast majority of people who attempt to climb Everest never make it to the top. The physical challenges associated with scaling this peak include miles of strenuous hiking, thousands of feet of climbing, negotiating glaciers and treacherous ice fields, and fighting the most extreme weather conditions on earth. Perhaps most difficult of all is the lack of oxygen near the summit of the mountain’s 29,028 feet. This region is called “the Death Zone” because of the harrowing conditions, especially the dearth of oxygen. If you and I were flown to the summit of Everest right now, we would pass out in a few minutes, and die shortly thereafter. There simply isn’t enough oxygen there to keep our bodies working.
Most climbers must use bottled oxygen to survive the ordeals of climbing Everest, though an increasing number of people climb without it. How is this possible? Through the wonder of acclimatization the human body is able to adapt to extreme oxygen deprivation. If you take enough time at high altitude, your body will adjust to the limitations of the air. So, climbers of Everest hike to base camp at “only” 17,000 feet. There they must wait for several weeks, making only short forays to higher altitudes. If they wait patiently, eventually their cardiovascular systems will be empowered for the challenge ahead. But waiting is the key. If they rush ahead, the climbers will fail, and most probably die. Even bottled oxygen won’t help them.
In a similar vein, the risen Jesus instructed his first followers to wait before beginning their mission of spreading the good news:
And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven (Luke 24:49).
No matter how enthusiastic the first disciples might have been, no matter that they had spent three years with Jesus and had conversed with him after his resurrection, they were not yet ready for the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical challenges of proclaiming the good news of Christ to all nations. They had to wait in Jerusalem until their preparation for ministry was complete.
Yet, unlike climbers being acclimatized on Mt. Everest, the disciples were not waiting for some natural process to ready them for their assignment. They needed “power from heaven” and nothing less. Without God’s own power, given through the Holy Spirit, no one can successfully do God’s work on earth. In a sense, the wind of the Spirit is like the bottled oxygen that enables climbers to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And, though a few can scale this peak without additional oxygen, we cannot ever succeed in our mission without the Spirit. But don’t despair! If you have put your trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then you have already received the Holy Spirit. You have an unlimited supply of God’s oxygen! Unlike the first disciples in Jerusalem, you do not have to wait for anything. We have been empowered. We have been sent. We are ready to go.
Sent to Proclaim the Good News, Part 1
Like Jesus, we have been sent to proclaim the good news. In addition to telling his disciples to wait for the Spirit to empower them, Jesus explained what the Spirit’s power would accomplish:
When the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Even as the Spirit came upon Jesus in his baptism to anoint him for preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, so the Spirit empowers us to spread the good news about Jesus. Notice that the content of our good news is a revised version of Jesus’ own message. Whereas he proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, we bear witness to Jesus himself, to what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. We have the privilege of announcing to people that Jesus died for their sins so that they might be reconciled to God and therefore live forever under God’s reign, both in this life and in the life to come. Our good news is more than: “You can go to heaven when you die.” It is “You can be reconciled to God right now. You can begin to experience true fellowship with the God by living under God’s reign because of what Jesus has done for you” (see 2 Cor 5:16-21).
The language of the kingdom of God, so embedded within Jewish culture and Old Testament theology, can easily confuse us today. But this is nothing new. It was also confusing for non-Jewish people in the Roman world, the very people to whom Jesus sent his disciples with the good news. Therefore, the early Christians developed other ways to communicate the gospel so that their hearers might understand and respond in faith. Rather than announcing that the kingdom of God had come through Jesus, they proclaimed him as Savior and Lord. The salvation and sovereignty of God’s kingdom was now expressed with emphasis upon the salvation and sovereignty of Jesus. Same basic reality – new language!
This modified language, which also has its roots in the Old Testament, retains its power in our world today. Most of us became Christians because we realized that we needed Jesus to be our Savior, the one who delivers us from our sins and reconciles us with God. By trusting in Jesus, we also accepted him as Lord, the rightful ruler of our lives. Thus, through embracing Christ as Savior and Lord, we were reconciled to God and entered into the kingdom of God as his subjects, even if we had not yet heard those precise words.
In American culture, the good news of Jesus as Lord and Savior has lost some of its original meaning. One of the most powerful cultural forces in our country is individualism. We glorify the “rugged individualism” of our heroes, “Lone Rangers” who defeat the forces of evil all by themselves. (Though even the so-called Lone Ranger had his Indian companion Tonto! But think of more recent heroes such as Rambo, the Dark Knight, etc.) When the message Jesus as Lord and Savior gets pressed through the image of individualism, the result is a partial gospel: Jesus died for my sins so I can have a relationship with him and go to heaven when I die. Now this is true, but not complete. Jesus also died for the sins of the world. And God’s intention is not just to get us to heaven individually, but to form us into a transformed community that will be used by God to help transform this world.
Thus, many Christians today are discovering that the gospel of the kingdom of God communicates more fully in our culture. It calls us, not only to personal faith in Jesus, but also to be part of His kingdom community and to join him in his work of recreating the world.
Other Christians maintain the central message of Jesus as Savior and Lord, but make sure these terms retain their original, biblical flavor. Jesus as Savior not only saves individuals for life after death, but also is bringing wholeness to people, families, societies, and the whole world. Similarly, Jesus is not only my personal Lord, but also the Lord of the world, the One before whom every knee will one day bow. Thus the good news of Jesus matters, not just to individual souls, but to families, businesses, churches, and even nations.
Sent to Proclaim the Good News, Part 2
In my last post in this series, I began to explain how Jesus has sent his followers into the world to proclaim the good news. This is one main reason he has filled us with his Holy Spirit. Traditionally, Christians describe this task by the word “evangelism,” an English version the Greek verb that means “to tell good news.” But something gets lost in translation for many of us, since the word “evangelism” can fill us with dread rather than joy. The idea of “proclaiming good news” or “evangelizing” conjures up images that don’t fit most of us and terrify many of us, both potential “evangelists” and potential “evangelized.” We may picture Billy Graham preaching to crowded stadiums. Or we may envision the rainbow-haired man at the Super Bowl, holding up a placard with “John 3:16” emblazoned upon it. Or we may fear that sharing Christ with others requires us to approach strangers, no matter how shy we may be.
Unquestionably, God calls certain Christians to special ministries of evangelism. I am eternally grateful for the work of Billy Graham, whose preaching led me to faith in Christ. But I am not called to be Billy Graham, and neither are you, I’d imagine. You and I are called, however, to tell the good news of Jesus in a way that reflects our talents, personalities, and spiritual endowments.
How shall we do this? In fact it’s much simpler and less scary than it might seem. Are you ready for one key to proclaiming the good news of Jesus? Here is it: Just be honest! Or, as my mother used to say to me, just be yourself! Talking with people about Jesus doesn’t depend upon your mastery of a sales pitch. In fact, the less you “sell” Jesus the better. But as you honestly share your life, your convictions, your hopes, even your doubts and fears, with those around you, the good news will inevitably and naturally emerge. Moreover, as in any healthy conversation, be sure to listen to others.
I think, for example, of a college friend named Lance. He was a brand new Christian when I met him in my dorm at Harvard. Lance was a brilliant engineer, but not especially adept at verbal communication. In fact, he was rather shy and awkward. But Lance simply talked about his faith as if it were a normal part of his life. Imagine that! If he was on his way to a Bible study and a roommate asked, “Where are you going?” Lance would tell the truth. Unlike some of us, he wouldn’t try to hide his Christian activity by saying, “Oh, I’m off to some meeting” and leave it at that. Nor would he use his roommate’s question as invitation to start preaching, “I’m going to a Bible study and so should you, unless you want to burn in Hell.” Rather, Lance would simply say, “I’m on my way to a Bible study.” Before long, his roommate would ask why he went to the study. Again, Lance would be honest: “Because I am a Christian and I want to know more about the Bible.” Pretty soon Lance and his roommate would be talking comfortably about Christ – no hype, no salesmanship, no terror, just honest communication. All of this could have happened, of course, with mere human ability. But remember that Lance was also empowered by the Holy Spirit, who gave him courage and helped him to speak truly about Jesus.
When we realize that “proclaiming the good news” doesn’t require us to do something that terrorizes us, but merely to be honest, many of the barriers to personal evangelism fall down. But I find many Christians hesitant to share their faith in Christ for two additional reasons. I’ll address those in my next post in this series.
Sent to Proclaim the Good News, Part 3
In my last two posts, I’ve been explaining how we who believe in Jesus have been sent by him to share his good news with others. In my last post, I said that one of the easiest ways to do this is simply to be honest. As an example, I talked about one of my friends in college, a man named Lance who, though he was a new Christian and not especially articulate, nevertheless had many opportunities to share his faith because he was honest about it.
Nevertheless, many Christians hold back. I’ve found two main reasons why. The first I’ll discuss in the post; the second will be the focus of my next post.
First, some are afraid that if they attempt to speak with others about Christ, they will botch it up. They fear that their lack of biblical knowledge will keep them from being effective, and even turn people further away from Christ. Certainly the more you know about the Bible, the better you’ll be able to explain the good news about Jesus. That’s one major reason to devote yourself to Bible study. But if sharing your faith is a matter of being honest, not winning arguments or hawking your spiritual wares, then you can tell people about Jesus without worrying about how little you know. In fact, many of the most effective “evangelists” are brand new Christians whose knowledge base is tiny, but whose enthusiasm for the Lord is contagious.
“But what should I do,” you might wonder, “if I get questions I can’t answer?” I once raised this very issue with Gary, my high school pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
“I’ll tell you what to do,” he said. “I’ll give you an answer that always works, every time.”
“Wow! That would be great!” I replied, expectantly, but with a bit of skepticism. “How can I answer a question I don’t know how to answer?”
“It’s easy,” Gary continued. “Here’s what you say: ‘I don’t know.’ It’s really that simple.”
His advice shocked me. Somewhere along the way I had picked up the idea that I needed to have all the answers before beginning to talk with people about Jesus. In retrospect, I realize what a silly idea that was. But, at the time, Gary’s counsel set me free to be honest, not all-knowing. Since that conversation with Gary, I have probably said “I don’t know” more than thousand times when talking with people about Jesus. I have found that my willingness to admit my lack of knowledge, far from turning people away from Christ, often encourages them to be more open. They seem to trust me more if I freely confess my theological limitations.
I should add, however, that I will often follow the admission “I don’t know” with an offer: “But I’d be glad to try and find out for you.” The questioner usually feels honored that I’m willing to do research on his or her behalf, and it’s easy to pick up the conversation about Jesus at another time. Moreover, I get the chance to learn something of real value. There are abundant resources available – books, articles, CDs, leaders, websites – to help us formulate solid, biblical answers for any question a person might ask.
My friend Lance, so free in talking about Jesus yet so limited in his knowledge, kept saying “I don’t know” until both he and his non-Christian friends became a bit frustrated. So he decided to take advantage of the relationships he had with other Christians in our dorm. He asked me and a mutual friend, John, if we would be willing to meet with his friends for a bull session about Christianity. John and I were thrilled because we loved to share our faith with people, but weren’t quite as forthcoming as Lance, even though we knew more than he did about the faith.
I’ll tell you what happened in that meeting in my next post in this series.
Sent to Proclaim the Good News, Part 4
In my last post I mentioned that my college friend Lance, who was so free in talking about his Christian faith, didn’t have the knowledge to satisfy his friends’ inquisitiveness and criticisms. So he asked me and our mutual friend John to meet with his friends’ for an open forum on Christianity. They would bring all of their questions and objections, and we’d try to answer them.
John, Lance, and I were nervous when the night came for the “big discussion.” At first we were afraid that no one would show up to talk. But as the living room of Lance’s suite began to fill with eager questioners and agnostic doubters, John and I soon became fearful that we wouldn’t be able to handle the questions put to us. Perhaps we’d let Lance down, not to mention the Lord!
As the discussion began, John and I were doing pretty well explaining some of the details of Christianity. Mostly it was the usual stuff: How can there be only one way to God? How can a good God allow suffering? But then one student named Chet raised an objection to what we were doing there. It was the first time I heard a line that has since become so common in our society.
“It’s just fine with me if you want to believe all this stuff about Jesus. I really don’t worry about that,” Chet began. “But I am offended by your idea that you should tell me about it. You’re implying that you are right and I am wrong. You’re assuming that you have something I don’t have. That’s pretty arrogant. And it’s not very friendly. So you can be Christians. But please don’t tell me about it or try to convert me.”
This man gave expression to the second reason many Christians hesitate to talk about Jesus with others. In our postmodern culture, we have the freedom to believe just about anything (supposedly). You can believe that wearing a crystal will give you inner peace, or that you receive guidance from the spirit of Barbie, and that’s fine. You can make up your own religion if you want. But try to get others to accept your beliefs? Now that’s a different story. That’s perceived as arrogant, politically-incorrect, and downright obnoxious. And who wants to be any of these things? So, many of us hide our faith in Christ because we don’t want to offend. (Ironically, these days, many atheists are the most vehement proselytizers of all.)
Not only was Chet’s objection a new and challenging one for me, but it seemed to torpedo the whole discussion we were having with Lance’s friends. If Chet was correct, then John and I weren’t being good neighbors in our effort to share the good news of Jesus.
In the silent seconds – which seemed like hours – following Chet’s comment, I prayed quietly for God’s help. I could have said, “I’m not sure how to answer your question. I’ll need to think about it for a while.” But I hoped to come up with a more compelling answer, especially with so many folks gathered to hear. As I prayed, I received a gift from the Holy Spirit, a way of responding to Chet that would satisfy his concern and keep the discussion rolling. I had one of those experiences promised in Scripture, which are so common among Christians who share their faith. The Holy Spirit empowered me for bearing witness to Jesus.
“Chet,” I began, “I think I understand your point of view. But I want to try and explain why my sharing Christ with you is actually the most friendly and caring thing I can do. Suppose I saw a great movie, one of the best I had ever seen. If I told you about the movie and recommended that you see it, would you be offended?”
“No,” Chet responded. “That would be fine. This sort of thing happens all the time.”
“So, even though I would imply that you were missing out on something, that there was some lack in your life until you saw the film, it would be OK to tell you the ‘good news’ about the movie?”
“Yes, in that case it would be OK. But that’s not the same as recommending your religion.”
“I agree, but let’s keep on going. Now, suppose I discovered the ultimate cure for cancer. And suppose that you had cancer and were undergoing chemotherapy. As your friend, should I tell you about my discovery, even if I implied that your chemotherapy treatment was not the best?”
“Of course! If you didn’t tell me about your discovery, you’d be a real jerk!”
“Suppose I knew that you had cancer, but you didn’t know it. Should I tell you what I know, even if you don’t like to hear it.”
“Definitely. That would be the only right thing to do.”
“Well, then, you can understand why I want to tell you about Jesus. Whether I’m right or wrong, I think Jesus is the best thing in the whole world. Infinitely better than any movie. I also think that we are all victims of sin, something far worse than cancer, and that Jesus alone can heal us. So, knowing Jesus is more important than being cured of cancer, in my opinion. Of course I could be wrong in my beliefs, but, given the fact that I believe them, how can I not tell you?”
“I guess if you didn’t talk about Jesus,” Chet concluded, “then you’d be a real jerk! You sort of have to do it.” (Actually, Chet used a word other than “jerk,” but it’s not the sort of word I print in my PG rated blog.)
“Then you understand the bind I’m in right now,” I said. “You don’t want me to talk to you about my faith. And I don’t want to offend you or insult you in any way. But I truly believe that being a Christian is the best kind of life there is. I am convinced that through Jesus you can have a deep, permanent relationship with God and be part of God’s restoration of the whole world. If I didn’t tell you this, I would be withholding from you the best news I know. If I kept silent, then you could rightly accuse me of being unloving and unkind – or even a jerk!”
Chet and the others seemed satisfied with this answer. The discussion continued long into the night as John and I shared honestly what we believed and what we had experienced about Jesus. Though you might never find yourself in a college dorm room full of questioners and skeptics, you will discover a delightful freedom to “proclaim the good news” when you open your heart and mind to those around you. Just be honest! And remember, Jesus promises to be with you always, through the Spirit who dwells within you to encourage and to empower you. Sometimes you will come up with an amazing answer to a hard question. But don’t pat yourself on the back. You didn’t make it up. It was a gift from the Holy Spirit.
Sent to Enact the Good News, Part 1
Like Jesus, we have been sent to enact the good news. Not only are we to proclaim what Christ has done for us, but also we are to live out that good news in our daily lives. We must speak of God’s reconciliation and live as agents of reconciliation, as peacemakers in our combative world (Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 5:16-21). As we tell people that God loves them so much that he sent his Son to save them, we must also love them with a divinely-inspired love (John 3:16; Eph 5:1-2). We proclaim the new order of God’s kingdom and express that order by loving the unlovely, caring for the poor, and seeking justice for the oppressed (Matt 25:31-47; Luke 6:27; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17). We strive to live out the reality of God’s kingdom in everything we do. We announce that Jesus has come to make us whole and enact that announcement through works of healing. Remember Jesus’ instructions to his first disciples:
Go and announce . . . that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received! (Matt 10:7-8).
The words and the works of the kingdom go together, in the ministry of Jesus, in the ministry of His first disciples, and in the ministry he has sent us to do.
By doing works of power, those who preach the message of the kingdom enact that message and demonstrate its validity. If Jesus proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom, but showed no evidence for his claim, he would have been rejected as one more religious charlatan. But, by healing the sick, casting out demons, loving the marginalized, and feeding the hungry, Jesus showed that his message was true. Like Jesus, we must practice what we preach so that people around us will listen to what we say and perhaps even believe it.
Our world is filled with cynicism, especially cynicism about religion. We all know too well the stories of hypocritical religious leaders and institutions, those whose works contradicted their words. People today are yearning for something authentic, something that can be trusted, not just more hype or another slick sales pitch. The world will hear our good news about Jesus only if they see that good news enacted in our lives, individually and corporately.
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens in response to his bestselling book, god is not Great. Hitchens’ book is filled with bitter hyperbole and, in fact, outright factual errors (see my series on god is not Great). Many of his criticisms of religion are valid. Many are eccentric and unpersuasive. But what impressed me most as I read this book (twice, in fact), was the sad failure of many Christians throughout history to enact the gospel. The track record of the church in living the good news we preach is mixed at best. I don’t think Christopher Hitchens and those of his ilk will ever be persuaded by words and ideas to believe the Christian gospel. But the testimony of faithful, active believers has a way of getting around even people’s strongest defenses. As we see a recent onslaught of books promoting atheism, we need to respond to them, not only with reasonable ideas, but also with persuasive actions.
Notice that we live out the good news in concert with speaking about that good news. I have heard many Christians say something like this: “Oh, I’m not comfortable talking about my faith. I just try to live it out, so that people will see God in me.” These folk are absolutely right about the importance of living their faith. Jesus says we are the light of the world, people whose good deeds should shine out so others will praise God (Matt 5:14-16). But we are called to live our faith as a demonstration of our message, not as a replacement for delivering it. Enactment alone won’t communicate the good news of what God has done in Christ. If, for example, you are exceptionally kind at work, but never mention why, your colleagues will probably think you’re an exceptionally kind human being. Who gets the glory? You do, not God! Only by doing and telling will people be able to praise God for His work in you. It’s not enough simply to live with Christian values but never talk about the source of those values.
Yet, we must also realize that we can talk too much about our faith, thus shutting the ears unbelievers. If, every time you do some act of kindness, you say “It isn’t me, but Christ in me,” after a while people will tune you out. Wisdom and discernment are needed if we are going to speak of the gospel in a way that helps people to listen.
Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about how we can enact the good news.
Sent to Enact the Good News, Part 2
Yesterday I began to explain how we can enact the good news of Jesus even as we speak of this good news. Such enactment is essential if want people to hear us when we speak.
How can we enact the good news in today’s world so that people might experience the presence of God and be drawn to believe in Jesus? In a nutshell, we are to do the works associated with God’s kingdom. For example, even as Jesus healed the sick and sent his disciples to do the same, so we have been sent into the world as agents of divine healing. This does not mean that you should set up your tent and hold healing crusades. Relatively few Christians are called to such a ministry, and many who claim to be so called seem to be more in the entertainment business than the kingdom healing business. Nevertheless, we can all be channels of God’s healing power in manifold ways. Most basically, we can pray for the sick. By bringing people’s physical ailments before God’s throne of grace, we share in his healing work in their lives. Sometimes healings are immediate and astounding. Often they come more slowly. In some cases God chooses to heal directly. Other times, he works through doctors and medical science. And, of course, there are times when God chooses not to heal a person’s physical body, but to do the greatest healing of all after he or she dies. Healing has always been closely associated with the mission of Jesus Christ, as Christians pray, or as they use their medical abilities, or as they build hospitals and educate people about health.
This, by the way, is one of Christopher Hitchens’ greatest omissions as he criticizes Christianity in god is not Great. For all of our faults, we Christians have done an extraordinary job bringing God’s healing to people. In many parts of the world today, the Spirit heals in dramatic and miraculous ways. Similar, there are Christian hospitals and medical centers all over the globe. Even if Hitchens is not happy with the Christian nature of these centers of healing, he surely must recognize that Christians have, perhaps more than any other grouping of people in the world, helped to bring health and healing to millions and millions of people. Atheism will be much more attractive when we start seeing “Atheist Medical Center” or “Atheist Memorial Hospital” signs in our cities.
Physical healing, however, is just one component of God’s therapeutic work. The ministry of Jesus touches every part of our lives, not just our bodies and our eternal souls. Through the Holy Spirit, God heals minds, hearts, emotions, relationships, and even social brokenness. When a husband and wife on the verge of divorce are empowered by the Spirit to forgive each other and to mend their marriage, that’s a dynamic enactment and demonstration of the gospel. When a woman who has been wounded by her abusive upbringing is given the freedom to be a new, joyous creature in Christ, the good news shines forth. When Christians of different races join together for worship and mission, even though society would fill them with mutual suspicion, the reconciling work of Jesus takes on flesh and blood.
Throughout history, Christians have been on the forefront of caring for the poor and seeking justice for the downtrodden. For example, the Salvation Army was founded by the Methodist minister, William Booth, during the latter years of the nineteenth century. This ministry accepted the challenge of feeding and clothing the poor of London while, at the same time, sharing the gospel of Christ with them. To this day, the Salvation Army is dedicated to the twin purposes of evangelism and caring for the poor.
In my next post I will focus on one of the most moving examples I know of enacting the good news.
Sent to Enact the Good News, Part 3
Until 2006, most people were unfamiliar with William Wilberforce. The release of the movie Amazing Grace in that year changed the situation considerably. This film, starring Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce, narrates the first part of Wilberforce’s truly amazing, grace-filled and gracious life.
Born into wealth and privilege in 1759, Wilberforce was known in his early years only for his love of socializing and his several physical infirmities. He had no guiding purpose for his well-to-do yet meaningless existence. When he was elected to the British Parliament as a young man, he sought nothing more than his own fame.
But when a Christian friend shared the good news of Christ with him, Wilberforce recognized the emptiness of his life. He considered withdrawing from politics altogether. But, as he trusted Christ for salvation on Easter Sunday, 1786, Wilberforce sensed a new zeal to serve the Lord within the sphere of government. Ultimately, he seized upon the abolition of slavery as the focus of his Christian and political energies. Though discouraged by many Christian leaders because of the apparent impossibility of the mission, Wilberforce believed that God had sent him into politics to fight against the evils of slavery.
In 1788 he introduced a measure in the British Parliament to end the slave trade, and was resoundingly defeated. Similar measures were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally, in 1807 Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade, though leaving the institution of slavery untouched. This is where the film Amazing Grace ended. But Wilberforce had much more to do.
For the next 26 years Wilberforce continued his crusade. Finally, on July 26, 1833, the emancipation of slaves was insured when a committee of the House of Commons ironed out the details of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill. Three days later, after 45 years of God-honoring effort, William Wilberforce died, leaving an unsurpassed legacy of Christian concern for justice. His efforts encouraged American evangelicals who worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Unfortunately, some Christians have driven a wedge between the proclamation of the good news and the enactment of that news. The 20th century witnessed debilitating arguments between proponents of “evangelism” and “social justice,” as if we had to choose between two activities that are both essential to our full mission as Christians. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that Christ died both to reconcile us to God and to bring reconciliation among people (Eph 2:1-18). What God has joined together, let no one put asunder!
Increasingly in our time, the unbiblical breach between proclamation and enactment of the Gospel has been mended. Many well-known and respected Christian organizations combine evangelism with social action, offering the fullness of healing as a demonstration of the gospel. World Vision leads the world in caring for and empowering the poor. Habitat for Humanity builds homes for the homeless in the name of Christ. Prison Fellowship seeks to lead inmates to Christ, to improve their treatment in prison, to care for their families during their incarceration, and to help them become contributing members of society upon their release. Many churches invest their time, talent, and treasure in spreading the gospel and living the gospel through works of charity and justice.
Plus, growing numbers of Christians are rejecting the division of life into sacred and secular realms. They realize that God created and cares for all things. Thus, they express their faith, not just in special acts of justice or evangelism, but in how they live each moment of each day. Whether they’re at work or at home, on the soccer field or hanging out with their friends, at church or in their neighborhood, they seek to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
You and I have the opportunity to enact the good news wherever we are. At times, we can do this through our participation in some facet of Christ’s ministry. We might visit shut-in senior citizens, or feed the hungry at a homeless shelter, or pound nails with Habitat for Humanity. Moreover, we can show our world the truth of the gospel by loving everyone God’s brings into our path. When we love our Christian brothers and sisters in particular, the reality of the gospel can be seen in our fellowship. As Jesus said to His first followers, so he says now to us:
So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:34-35).
Sent as a Community of the Good News, Part 1
When Jesus sent his first disciples into the world, he sent them as a community, not as a bunch of isolated individuals. How else would their mutual love prove to the world the genuineness of their discipleship? Even when the early Christians left their home churches to share the gospel elsewhere, they usually chose to do so in teams, not as Lone Ranger evangelists (Mark 6:7; Acts 15:22; 1 Thess 3:1-2). Through visitors, letters, and prayers, they maintained close fellowship with the churches that had sent them out. Christian community was that important to their mission, in addition to their well-being as believers.
Christ has sent you and me into the world, not alone, but as members of his church. We share together in the mission of the church and the church shares in our personal (but not individualistic) aspects of that mission. The same Spirit who empowers us for ministry is the One who immersed us into the church at the moment of our conversion (1 Cor 12:13) so that we might engage in our mission as the sent people of God.
Why is our corporate sending so important? First of all, we get our training, encouragement, and support for mission from our Christian community. Here we learn what it means to have intimate fellowship with God and with each other. Here we learn how to communicate our faith to others. Here we learn how to live in a way that reflects the good news to the world. Here we find hope when we are discouraged and receive prayer when we feel overwhelmed. Inevitably, those who try to fulfill their mission alone will fail. Solitary service is indeed an impossible mission.
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Fall 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 2 · pp. 238–42
The Challenge of Jesus’s Great Commission
The relationship between religion and ethnicity is an emerging area of academic study (Min & Kim 2002; Bramadat & Seljak 2005). The scholarly literature indicates that “a major motivation that spurs immigrants to create or join congregations composed of fellow immigrants [is to] share their ethnic backgrounds . . .traditions, customs, and languages” and reproduce or transmit ethnicity to the next generation (Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000). In other words, ethnic churches seek to maintain a culture different from the broader multicultural society or denomination in which they reside because they are strongly attached to their national culture, not in the first place because of theological or biblical convictions. It is the weight given to this ethnic culture that I wish to interrogate in the essay that follows.
Our fallenness sometimes renders us incapable of grasping the scope of the new spiritual family—that it includes redeemed people from every nation
I have spent a good deal of research and ministry time considering whether ethnic churches ought to assimilate into the broader culture or preserve a distinctive cultural identity, and what role, if any, churches ought to play in promoting either assimilation or cultural preservation.
Evangelistic success ought to be one consideration in answering this question. My observation is that ethnic churches certainly tend to be successful in reaching immigrants of their own ethnicity. Ethnic churches are like midwives, helping first generation Christians move from the safety of their native culture into the culture of their new home, while helping them keep their faith. They also do a good job of nurturing faith in their children. Chinese churches, for example, establish English language congregations to “keep their kids” (the second and third generations) and to transmit faith as well as their Chinese culture.
A high percentage of these immigrant churches, however, expect their English language congregations to continue to aim their mission activities exclusively at the same immigrant groups, even when the English congregation has wider social networks. Moreover, among U.S. and Canadian Asian churches, second, third, and fourth generation Christians tend to stay in Asian-ethnic churches or move towards Pan-Asian churches rather than towards racially mixed evangelical churches. In many cases, the English Asian churches are not as multi-ethnic as their communities. In other words, after decades, many of these congregations don’t move on to a more ethnically plural ministry and evangelism. They are decidedly disinclined to evolve into non-ethnic churches or to embrace non-ethnic evangelism. These churches (and they can be of any ethnicity) function largely as culture clubs.
JESUS AND THE CHURCH
I find it instructive to consider how Christ started the new era of the church. He did so with an inclusive idea of who the new family of God would embrace. The scriptures tell us that every human being bears God’s image and is therefore eternally valuable to him (Gen. 1:27). The world and every race in it was so precious in the Creator’s eyes that he gave them his only Son (Jn. 3:16). We are wise to embrace the Lord’s opinion and the priority he puts on “the world.”
Our fallenness sometimes renders us incapable of grasping the scope of the new spiritual family—that it includes redeemed people from every nation. The ancient Hebrews frequently sought to keep their faith to themselves. Yet, as Isaiah says, God intended them to be a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6). While the Bible reports that non-Hebrews occasionally came to faith, God judged Israel, in part, because of its refusal to welcome foreigners (e.g., Mal. 3:1–5; Zech. 7:10–14).
The earliest Christian church was ethnically Jewish, and there is evidence that Jewish Christians had trouble accepting people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds as spiritual brothers and sisters. Locally born Jews were even cold toward Jews born abroad (Acts 6:1; cf. Acts 2:5a). We also find Jewish Christians resisting the mission to different people groups. In Acts 10:9–48, Peter struggled with the Holy Spirit over associating with those not of his race—Cornelius (of the Italian Regiment) and other Gentiles. But in obeying the Holy Spirit he witnessed the outpouring of God’s presence: “. . . I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right . . .Jesus Christ . . .is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34). Even so, Acts 11 notes that the Jewish Christian church criticized Peter for focusing gospel initiatives outside their race.
1. The Lord gave the Great Commission to an ethnic group of Jewish men
Had Jesus not challenged his followers to implement his vision to reach the nations? Consider the Lord’s words in Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” They were to begin amongst their own, but it wasn’t to stop there: “. . . Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria . . .the utter most parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Despite the fact that Jesus had clearly laid out the logic of the gospel, that it was to be spread to every nation, many in the first generation Jerusalem church were reluctant to evangelize people of other nationalities. Only a few showed any enthusiasm for reaching other races and cultures with the gospel.
2. The Lord intervened to call out individuals of the first-generation ethnic church
If not for God’s direct intervention (e.g., Peter’s vision, Paul’s calling), one wonders what he would have had to do to mobilize the church into world evangelism. We do know that two persecutions (40 A.D. and 70 A.D.) forcibly scattered Jewish Christians from Jerusalem to dwell in geographical areas that were more multi-ethnic. But Paul found himself challenging his own ethnic family for keeping the gospel ethnic instead of sharing it with other ethnic groups. On more than one occasion Paul felt compelled to tell the church that the Lord has made all of the redeemed one in his family. Consider these verses from his letter to the Ephesians: “. . . made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (2:13-14); “His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (2:15b-17); the Gentiles are heirs, sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ (3:6); Christ is the head of this new body (4:15-16).
Paul found himself having to confront those of his own ethnicity for being ethnocentric, showing prejudice in mission, evangelism, and even for giving different treatment to Christians who did not share the Jewish ethnicity (Gal. 1:7-10; 2:11-16). He called Peter to task for behaving as if one race was better than another and for dividing the church (Gal. 2:13a). Separating from Gentile Christians for table fellowship canceled out all that Peter and Paul had preached to those of a different ethnicity—that the gospel was for all, and all become one and equal in the family of God. Paul did not hesitate to label the second class treatment of ethnic Christians as hypocritical and inconsistent with the gospel (2:13). He did not let Peter save face but acted on the conviction that Jesus is the bridge that overcomes division.
Paul had to remind the Jewish Christian church that “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . .for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In John 10:16 Jesus spoke of others not yet reached with the gospel, and it is the Lord’s intention that we cooperate with him in bringing together a body that will have many parts baptized by one Spirit. And Paul interjects that this body will be racially and culturally diverse (1 Cor. 12-13). For a Christian to feel ethnically superior is sin (Phil. 2:1–8). God may require religious segregation (separation from unbelievers), but never racial.
Sure, Paul was mindful that his evangelism would have his ethnic group as its starting point—“to the Jew first . . .” (Acts 19:8–10; 26:20)—but he didn’t stop there. He then took the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s encouraging to hear reports of Korean missionaries who have that same mindset and go to Africa or Canada to do cross-cultural outreach in malls and campuses.
3. The church moved from being an ethnic enclave to crossing cultural and ethnic boundaries
Sometimes it helps to know what we are supposed to do by seeing a vision of where we are going. Revelation 5:9–10 and 7:9 provide us with a picture of the whole family of God singing and worshipping before the Living God Almighty—it is a multicultural, multiracial group praising God “. . . from every tribe and language and people and nation standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” How can heaven be so racially diverse? In part, because of the obedience of Christians to move out of their comfort zone to reach others who are racially, ethnically, culturally, and nationally diverse.
The will of God is that all the redeemed would be one on earth as they will be in heaven (John 17:22). Isaiah said that the desire of God was that his church be a “house of prayer for all nations” (56:7). Mark 11:17–18 tells us that when Jesus used Isaiah’s quote the religious leaders feared him—they wanted nothing to do with nations like this, and so they looked for a way to kill him.
ETHNIC CHURCHES AND CROSS-CULTURAL OUTREACH
So how do you bring a people so invested in their cultural identity to begin to invest in cross-cultural/intercultural outreach? We need to do a better job of teaching our people that God loves the world—not just our own ethnicity, but every nation. Let’s be certain our mission is biblically based, grounded in the Great Commission. We would be wise to grasp the reality that our new eternal identity is to be found in this multi-ethnic global family of God.
But it is one thing to talk about these truths and another to put them into practice. Is your church even comfortable with multicultural expressions manifested within its particular ethnic/demographic context? One significant way an ethnic bi-cultural church can encourage the application of Jesus’s Great Commission is to release, resource, and affirm its English congregations to do mission in ways that are authentic for them. The cultural and multi-ethnic networks of those in an English congregation of an ethnic church tend to straddle two cultures. This should be acknowledged, addressed, nurtured, and commissioned.
We are called to obey the Lord in this area and work for unity in the body of Christ to advance Christ’s kingdom where there are no barriers of race or culture. This being the case, no ethnic church is excused from Jesus’s Great Commission to reach all nations. In fact within our bi-cultural ethnic churches, those that have English-speaking bilingual congregations, the capacity for evangelism may be even greater to do both ethnic and multiethnic outreach because of the scope of transnational social networks.
Scripture tells us that heaven will be multi-racial and multi-cultural. We should conceive of ethnic churches as the beginning, not the end, of God’s vision for his church. If Christ commanded his own Jewish ethnic followers to make disciples of all nations, no Christian individual or church is exempt from the Great Commission today. So who is going to do this? It’s supposed to be us!
- Bramadat, Paul, and David Seljak. 2005. Religion and Ethnicity in Canada. Toronto: Pearson Education.
- Ebaugh, Helen Rose, and Janety S. Chafetz. 2000. Religion and the New Immigrants. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Min, Pyong Gap, and Jung Ha Kim, eds. 2001. Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
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