Monday, March 31, 2008

Humility in sharing the Gospel

Last week I was in Glorieta, New Mexico, at the Dying to Live conference, organized by the University of Oklahoma Baptist Student Union and University of Southern California Christian Challenge (BCM). The week, praise God, changed a lot of lives.

Our speaker and his wife are well-traveled missionaries who have spent much of their sharing the gospel in countries where it is dangerous to do so, and dangerous to convert to Christianity. Over the course of the week, they painted a picture for us of lives lived in service of the advancement of the Gospel - with humility, willing to get out of the way of all that God is doing. His points were so important that I'd like to highlight and comment on a few of them. (It's not quite as good as liveblogging the conference, but it's something, at least!)

His wife opened the week with the observation, "Serving God is not a matter of location but of obedience," and this was a continual theme throughout the week. Whether in North Africa or East Asia or Midwest America, the key factor in the advance of the Gospel is our obedience to Christ - not where we are. God longs to bring salvation to this world. He died to bring salvation to the lost. While we were certainly encouraged to consider where God might call us to serve (and rightfully so!), he and others were faithful to remind us that all of us are called to serve. Some may be more particularly gifted to the task of evangelism and "missions," of course, but all of us - without exception - are called to go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them all that Christ commanded.

I was glad when he pointed out that this meant that many are called to go where the gospel has not been. He told an amusing story of his own discussion with a missions sending board. When they asked him expectantly about his own "call to missions" - some personal experience in which he felt God was telling him to particularly pursue overseas missions - he simply recounted reading Matthew 28:18-20 and realizing that all are called to share the gospel. The anecdote highlighted just how foreign some of our ideas are to a simple reading of the Bible.

Indeed, one of the primary themes of the week was realizing that there are many things we do - many good things, even - which are not necessary. While the structures we have built in the West - our denominations and seminaries and institutions and printing houses - are in many ways good things, they are not necessary things for the gospel. (That is not to say we ought not value them: for without them we could not have the blessing of rich teachers like John Piper available to any American anywhere. These are good things. But not necessary.) When we strap our conventions to the Gospel, we hinder it, and we can get in the way of all that God is doing. We can, through our good intentions, bring increased persecution to our brethren in nations less secularly free.

The contrast between secular and true, spiritual freedom was highlighted effectively at numerous points. Not least were his examples of the true stories of people he has known that have undergone extraordinary persecution - years in jail, beatings, and so on - who have nonetheless considered themselves perfectly free to share the gospel. This was a stunning contrast to our state here in America where most Christians are in bondage to fear of misunderstanding, fear of ridicule, fear of man, to share the gospel on a regular basis. We who are freest in the world, from a secular perspective, are often less free in reality than our brethren who, from the world's eyes, are far less free.

He asked us to consider the fundamental question: "Is Jesus worth it?" Is he worth my life? My wife's? My children's? My friends'? It is far easier to declare Christ worth our own lives, I think, than it is to declare Him worth those closest to us. Could you watch your loved one die for your actions of declaring Christ?

He asked us to be mindful of how we evangelize - both here and abroad. He asked us to understand that our actions, however well-intended, have consequences. Many of the believers he has seen undergo persecution did so not for knowing Christ, but for having a non-transferable, culturally structured Christianity.

At the same time, he noted that persecution is normal for Christ-followers, however much we may believe the contrary here in America. The primary cause of persecution in the world is people coming to Christ. We are not to pray for there to be no persecution: we are to pray for those in persecution to be faithful witnesses. He argued - and I agree - that the measure of the move of Christ and His good news is the amount of resistance. (Indeed, as I was discussing later with a friend, we might even take the stance that persecution is normative, based on the evidence from the world at large and from history.) This, of course, poses the question: just how much is the kingdom of God advancing here in America?

He encouraged us to understand the importance of oral transmission of truth. 80% or more of those in the unreached peoples of the world are illiterate. If we are to reach them, we must know Scripture. We must hide it in our heart. We must memorize it - specific passages, and entire stories. And how much more able will we be to share truth, even here in our own cultural context, if we know the truths of Scripture by heart, rather than always having to open our Bibles?

The needs of the lost always exceed the needs of the witnesser.

He shared with us a number of stories of how God is moving in supernatural ways among our brethren across the world - and how He is adding more to our number. The miracles of healing God is doing among Hindus in India, the dreams and visions He is giving to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, and the ways in which He unites seekers with missionaries are incredible. God is not hindered even by our lack of initiative: He is bringing salvation the world over. He is accomplishing His purposes for the Gospel. (The two questions this raises, of course, are, "Will we be involved in accomplishing those purposes or not?" and "Why is our faith so dim that our first tendency on hearing these stories is often doubt?")

Humbling were the reasons that Christian-background believers gave for their unwillingness to reach out to those around them.
  1. "They are too lost. They cannot be saved.

  2. "We don't want them to be saved."

  3. "Converts have fooled us in the past."

  4. "It is not cost-effective to reach them."

  5. "The persecutors will destroy our church."

  6. "They will marry our daughters." (Yes, this really is the racism it sounds like.

  7. "We will lose our leadership position." (Big deal in a country where this is often the only leadership they can have.)

  8. "Pay us to reach our neighbors."

  9. The heartache of betrayal.
All of these ought to break our hearts to pray for our brethren in persecuted places - but it also ought to make us stop and ask whether we are perhaps guilty of these same kinds of sinful thoughts and behaviors.

One of the significant issues he raised was baptism, as relates to practice overseas (rather than as relates to doctrine). He suggested that examination of the New Testament and realization of the consequences of missionaries baptizing local believers should perhaps lead to a reevaluation of our behavior. Every baptism recorded in the New Testament was administered within and witnessed by the local community; all but one were within a local believing community (the exceptional case of the Ethiopian eunuch). For a number of reasons, including the perceived superiority of the missionary's baptizing, he argued that it is far better that local believers do the baptizing. They do it on a different timetable, after faith has been proven. They do it in the context of the evangelization of the family. They do it in ways that are less likely to cause persecution for the outsider: if persecution comes it will be for Christ and not for the missionary.

Your call is not to a place, but to lost people.

God's will is not a safe place - all clich├ęs to the contrary - but rather the good and right place to be. (Aslan is not a safe lion... but he is good.)

There is a challenge to those called to missionary work - whether abroad or in the US - to remain among the lost, rather than shifting to "pastor" mode and getting caught ministering only to the saved. There is thus a necessity for teams such that those called to evangelism can pass on those they have brought to Christ to others to disciple them. This is best accomplished within the setting of local believers if possible, so that their reliance is on Christ and their own community rather than on outsiders. Moreover, once a missionary has won a few hearts to Christ - or discovered those already won - it is his or her job to act more as "bait," drawing in possible new believers and getting them in contact with in-culture believers. We must decrease so that Christ may increase!

Two fundamental questions to ask in the cause of the gospel:
  • How does truth travel in your culture?

  • What would you do for Jesus if you were not afraid?
The single consistent theme, hammered home again and again, was that we must have utter humility in sharing the gospel. We must recognize our own expendable nature. We must be willing to get out of the way and let God move how He wants, not how brings us the most credit or glory. We must let the glory of Christ, the advancing of His kingdom, and the salvation of the lost be our only goals - never our own gain.

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

- Chris

2 comments:

  1. Very good and very compelling. Thank you for sharing.
    It echoes several things the Faeh's shared in their last newlettter regarding their ministry in Bella Vista, Peru.

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  2. Hi Chris-
    I can't even remember how I got here! Good post, I think so many people misunderstand our "call" to evangelism. We are all called to "go and make diciples" whether overseas or here. It is very surprising that so many don't know Scripture and I think that's one of the reasons we aren't doing it.
    When I hear people saying they can't wait for Jesus to come back, I tell them He ain't coming back until the message is heard everywhere so GO!
    Be Blessed,
    Rachel

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