Cardboard houses all in a row. Yet in the middle of it a church was there, serving and preaching the beautifully good news of heaven in what seemed like a hellhole of human existence. God’s church, alive and well, had come to the slums.
A small, cinderblock room tucked invisibly between two street shops. The open-air sales stands were two of literally hundreds along dirt roads so noisily crowded with bikes, rickshaws, people, and cars that finding the believers meeting there was close to risking your life. But there they were, packed inside and seated on the floor. God’s church, alive and well, had come to those streets.
A back patio of sorts behind the two-room house. Strung from the roof was a clothesline that hug lowly, weighed down by clothes, distracting your attention from the toys, open fire pit, and garbage all around the edges. In the middle? A pastor shepherding God’s people with the Word and by the Spirit, graciously leading them towards obedience to all that Jesus commanded. God’s church, alive and well, had come to that village.
A closet-sized space lit only by a small window and a cracked door that led to a roof-top overhang. And this was after five dark flights of stairs. Yet, the light of Life was seen immediately as the faith family gathered there in God’s name greeted us like we were their long lost family returning from a journey. God’s church, alive and well, was in the building.
Those are just a few of the snapshots I experienced in my recent visit to south Asia. I was beyond humbled, past amazed, and miles deeper than blessed. I’m left prostrate before a God so lovingly gracious and powerfully mighty that I’m appropriately fearful, more than ever, to speak on his behalf. I think the best word for this is “awe.” Yeah, that’s where I’m at. In awe of Yahweh, the eternal Three in One.
Yet, speak is what I feel compelled to do. And, oddly, more than ever. I desire to tell of his impeccable character, his incredible works, and his unstoppable plan. Not because he needs me to; heaven knows God doesn’t need anything. If only those on earth knew that.
Or because I need to. Using my service to God as some sort of self-medication designed to make me feel worthwhile is wicked idolatry and evil blasphemy. God will not be served up as a self-esteem fix. No, he will be worshipped, not worked. If you want to sense value, look at the cross. Stare at what God did for you, not what you can do for him.
But I know I—we—must speak because God’s glory leaves no other option. Declaring his marvelous praises becomes what we do, not because God needs it or we need it, but simply because we can’t not speak. Knowing who he is, as well as seeing all that he has done, is doing, and will do to accomplish his redemptive plan across the ages of the past, present and future demands our voice. So although we’re acutely aware we’re uttering words that represent the Risen and Ascended King, we venture out to speak. In awe, yes. But silent? No, that’s not an option.
With that in mind, I want to share three observations regarding God’s unstoppable plan to make his name great among the nations and spread his glory over all the earth that we, especially as Americans, need to ponder. Yes, this most recent trip brought these realizations to the surface. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. God’s current work of sanctification in my life revolves around adjustments he is making in me concerning the Great Commission, and much of it started last summer in my sabbatical. I truly look forward to sharing more in time. But for now, here are three observations for you to consider as you think about the indescribable greatness of our God and the life-generating power of his glorious gospel.
When it comes to the Great Commission in other parts of the world, I have observed that . . .
. . . More is happening than less. I tend to think many leaders, agencies, and missiologists want us to believe little is happening in regards to making disciples. It seems more and more invented concepts and assumed stats are created to, albeit unintentionally, corner us with guilt. (More later on that.) Frankly, you could begin to get the strong impression there is someone standing behind you with a knee in your back whispering with clinched teeth, “You’d better get to work, or else!” Do we even remember we’re actually on the winning team?
Breaking news—God has won and he is at work! It was upon the finished work and victorious authority of Jesus that the Great Commission was uttered. Acts subsequently records the gospel going to the ends of the known world. Today, that commission, rooted in the same victory and authority of our Captain, continues on unhindered.
Yes, there is work to do, and God, through his people, is doing it. In fact, just as the early church reported back to Antioch all that God had done, today the reports from the fields are equally exciting! Yes, persecution is intense in certain places, and needs are great in many locations. But in the middle of those very places God is doing something miraculous. Thousands are coming to Christ in repentance and faith; hundreds and hundreds of churches are being formed. God’s family globally is growing and moving.
Remember—it was precisely within the environment of severe persecution that the first church grew the most, even getting the gospel to known world in 30-35 years while under extreme attacks and opposition. Likewise, the kind of culture in which we currently live globally is actually the very kind that God uses to give even greater wind to the sails of the good ole’ gospel ship. And I believe he is doing exactly that.
Admittedly, I’ve only seen specific pockets and a few strategic places, but if what I’ve seen, as well as the numerous things I hear from many people in the field, is any indication of what’s happening elsewhere, God is moving his historical, redemptive plan along in a way that should leave us confident, not complacent. Fervent, not fearful. More is happening, not less. Hallelujah!
. . . Nationals are typically most effective. It’s eye-opening and life changing: those already there generally do better than someone coming in from the outside. Again, I’m working with a limited sample/pool, but my experiences in foreign cultures have shown that I’m not the expert; I’m the outsider. It’s the nationals—native believers who are in-country residents already—who have the ear of the people. They simply get more done in less time with less dollars. Usually, nationals are more effective and more efficient.You may be thinking about now, “Of course. Duh!” Then why do we keep sending some sort of “great white hope” into places where there is probably already a local that God is using? Or can use? It’s easy to say we understand this, but have you ever tried to turn the ship? Knowing God is already at work in many places where we falsely think he’s not, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What can we do—and what should we do—to bring more energy and help to those already there?”
Please don’t think I’m suggesting there is no need for western missionaries in other cultures. But it is time to rethink who we send, where we send, and how long we send them. More is happening than we realize, and the sooner we realize that, I think the sooner we’ll be ready to get behind them, not just us.
Furthermore, if this is the general reality (and I believe it is), it shows why churches within our own borders should have a strong church planting focus within their own culture. After all, we’re the nationals here in America, right? And the same principle that works in Asia or Africa works here too. Who better than us—the ones who live here already—to go after the places and people where little gospel influence exists?
. . . Presence is powerful. You may be wondering, in light of the previous two observations, “Why go?” I’ll tell you why: your presence can be powerful.
100% of the places I visited on this last trip, as well as many during my previous visits, have never asked a “how-to” question. None of them wondered about techniques or methods. Not a single debate broke out over a secondary issue. The common denominator, instead, was a joyful recognition that they were remembered. Known. Valued. It mattered that they mattered.
Time and time again during my most recent trip, like a scene rewound and played back, our brothers and sisters in these other places, many of which are under persecution and in great need, expressed their deep gratitude and sincere thankfulness for our presence. They didn’t expect anything tangible or financial; on the contrary, they always found unique ways to welcome us. What they truly appreciated was, of all things, simply us. Yes, the white faces of their faith family from across the ocean.
In fact, one gentleman remarked to me that “ever since I became a Christian, I have heard about you all in America. I was told about your church buildings, that you all pray for us, but wondered if I would ever get to meet any. Seeing you makes me glad! I now know it’s true and that we’re not forgotten.”
Frankly, beyond seeing them, and of course worshiping together through prayer, fellowship, singing, and preaching, I didn’t really do anything. I didn’t build a house, operate a medical clinic, organize a VBS, conduct an outreach event, dig a well, or plant a field. I simply showed up. Live and in person. And not as a celebrity or hero, but as one of them. Just another Christian who was different physically from them yet connected spiritually to them.
Again, this is not to say that the physical things like the ones mentioned above shouldn’t be done at all. Many are worthwhile, and there are places and people that benefit from them. I’m just saying we should realize that going to see a specific field on a short-term basis has value even beyond a hands-on project. And that value is found in the relationship we share with them in Christ.
No wonder I’m becoming more and more convinced that going on short-term trips may primarily be about, at least in many places now, presence, not production. So consider going yourself for the sake of your extended spiritual family. It’s a two-way street of encouragement and investment that sends a very biblical message: we belong to one another.
So there you have it. 12 words that form 3 observations from 8 days in south Asia. Even though they’re just that—observations and opinions—I’m hopeful they’ll lead you to also see the greatness of our God as he ever so sovereignly continues to redeem a people unto himself from every nation, language, tribe and tongue. It is this people, spread across the whole globe, who give glory to God by their life and with their lips, “declaring his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Psalm 96:3). This has been and remains God’s overarching passion. May we make it our mission.