Observations from the Ancient Mission Field

During our recent trip to the Holy Land, God allowed my wife and I to personally experience, not just the lands where our Lord walked, but also the lands of pioneer missions in Greece, the Aegean Sea and the coast of Turkey. As a missionary kid and former missionary, I cannot describe how thrilling it was to see the places where the Apostle Paul took the Gospel message to foreign nations and cultures. We toured the open ruins of ancient Ephesus and Corinth, as well as Mars’ Hill in Athens.

My imagination came alive as I saw each open marketplace (agora), imagining Paul interacting with the vendors, tourists and athletes. My heart was burdened as I walked by the columns and doorways of massive temples dedicated to ancient Greek gods, that he too would have walked by. My stomach turned as we viewed the debris and artifacts from brothels and houses of temple prostitution. Paul stood as a pioneer missionary, sharing the message of forgiveness and hope through the resurrected Jesus, calling people to turn from their sin and live godly lives in the midst of a spiritually dark and perverse generation.

As we seek to take the Gospel to our local communities, and to unreached people groups around the world, it is often discouraging to see the rampant idolatry, paganism and blatant immorality. We are so few seeking to reach so many. Yet, the pioneer foreign missionary of the New Testament faced overwhelming challenges as well.

In Ephesus, Paul faced rejection and opposition, but still met regularly with a few believers, and discipled and trained them for two years. With God’s blessing, “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). This led to a city-wide revival that virtually collapsed the idolmaking industry of the region. In Corinth, Paul teamed up with fellow tentmakers selling tents to those traveling to the local athletic games of the peninsula. He built relationships, using their sports and religious culture to point their understanding to the truths of God. For 18 months, he taught God’s Word, which also produced negative social reaction because of the spiritual fruit. This rough, godless culture would challenge that local church for many years, but God was faithful to bring them through.

I don’t know the cultural and ministerial challenges you are facing, but you are not alone. God’s servants have walked this road before us. The same God who was faithful to them will be faithful to us. May we take to heart the words of this experienced missionary: “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).

The Gospel In A Multicultural World

Romans 1:16

I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force on earth. I believe that Paul’s words in Romans 1:16 are true. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, but not to any particular nationality, ethnic group or social class, but to “everyone that believeth,” whether they be Jew or Gentile, male or female, wealthy or poor, black or white, city-slicker or redneck. I believe that when the world sees this unconditional, cross-cultural Gospel at work and on display as it ought to be, it sees the glory of Almighty God shining brightly in a dark world.

You see, the world knows all about division, prejudice and discrimination. Ever since the Tower of Babel, man has been divided by languages, nationalities, cultures and genetic differences – all originated and continued by the sin of pride. Not only that, but the world’s philosophy is all about preserving and protecting your personal preferences, getting things just the way you want it and like it, because “that’s what you deserve.” You can “have it your way,” whether it’s a hamburger or a local church.

But if I understand the Gospel correctly, all those manmade and sin-caused divisions are restored through the cross of Jesus Christ. People that are divided and different from each other come together into ONE BODY, the local, New Testament church (Matthew 28:19-20). In the Great Commission, we, as soldiers of Jesus Christ, have been commanded to make disciples, not just of our own family, nation, culture, ethnic group, language group, but of every people group that has been scattered about the earth, including around our own communities. And that is when God promises His power and presence to the end of time.

That is the beauty, glory and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, the power of the Gospel of Christ in a multicultural world. God wants His saved, regenerated, redeemed people to come together as one, to worship Jesus Christ, and to take His message to a lost and dying world, near and far. When the Gospel is transforming lives as it should, the church will be a church where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The walls come down!

So why don’t we see more of this in our local churches? The tragic reality is that this is simply not the norm in most churches. As I look all around me, at church ministry all over, we rarely get to see this on display (even in my own church). When you look around, you see:

I. A Divided Christianity

It is true that many churches have no genuine burden to reach other nations through world missions (no Faith promise program, no missions support, or it is a very low priority). But even more churches have no genuine burden to reach other ethnic groups and cultures that exist all around them. It’s like these people don’t even exist! I have observed that there is often just as much racism and prejudice within the Body of Christ as there is in the world. We tend to justify this or conveniently work around this sinful perspective by saying, “Well, those groups don’t like our kind of music. They prefer to worship in a different way. They speak a different language than we do.” So what do we do? We go about starting separate churches for whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, wealthy people, poor people, traditional people, contemporary people, younger people, older people. Everybody with a church that looks like them, sings like them, dresses like them, talks like them, worships like them – and nobody has to deny themselves or sacrifice their personal preferences to reach someone for Jesus! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? No wonder Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Where is that in the Bible? How can we pretend that this pleases God? How in the world does that bring glory to Jesus Christ, or display the true power of the Gospel, and send a message to a lost world that Jesus Christ forgives and unites? It’s every group for themselves.

By the way, that is not what it will be like in Heaven. In Heaven the worshipers will be singing about Jesus, saying, “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9). You will look across a sea of faces and see “a great multitude, which no man [can] number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, [standing] before the throne, and before the Lamb,” praising and worshipping “our God for ever and ever” (Revelation 7:9,12b). And that is how it ought to be here on earth – in the Body of Christ: local churches that reflect the world to which we minister.

But churches have always struggled with this. Despite understanding the Great Commission, God’s people, God’s soldiers, from the early days of the church, have been more about staying close to home, within our comfort zone, building ministry kingdoms and buildings, and building a name for themselves, instead of taking the Gospel to a multicultural world. We gravitate to what I call:

II. The Jerusalem Syndrome (Acts 1:4-8; 2:38-41; 5:27-28,42; 6:7)

The church at Jerusalem was the first church, by far the largest church, and the most blessed church when it came to an abundance of leaders. However, when it came to fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, it was a poor example for us to follow. The church in Jerusalem was told to make disciples of all nations and ethnic groups (once they received Holy Spirit power), commanded to be witnesses unto Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.f Yet the church in Jerusalem grew bigger and bigger and bigger (some estimate between 60-100,000), reaching their own people only. Numbers were good! The church was growing! They were being faithful to preach and teach in their local Jewish community, but were neglecting the Great Commission. The Commander had given the orders, but the soldiers weren’t fully obeying. That is, until God had to wake them up and shake them up by putting their very lives in danger and sending a persecution that literally scattered them around the world (Acts 8:1). Only then did Christians go out to spread the Gospel – yet still only to the Jews, people just like them. Their churches, for the most part, looked the same. They were Jewish churches.

Too many of our churches suffer from the Jerusalem Syndrome. We are faithful to preach and teach the Bible (even have growing numbers), but primarily to people just like us. We may even send money to reach other cultures in other places, but we are unwilling to reach other cultures in our own community. If the community around us begins to look different than us, we get so uncomfortable, we will either relocate to find a community that looks and acts like us, or we will dig in our heels to preserve our likes, culture and preferences, even if it means watching our churches wither and eventually die. I’ve seen it; you’ve seen it. Meanwhile there are real human souls that desperately need to hear of a Savior that loves them. They need to hear that in Christ we can be one. They need to see that we may have nothing else in common (humanly speaking), but if we know Jesus we are brothers and sisters, part of the family of God. We can come together to worship and serve the same Savior. They need to see people of genuine compassion, willing to do things differently if it means reaching people for Christ. The Jerusalem Syndrome can destroy the Lord’s work, and keep the glory of the Gospel from truly shining.

But I believe there is another church, that truly models and illustrates the Great Commission in action. It shows the true glory of the Gospel of Christ in a multicultural world. Instead of gravitating toward the Jerusalem Syndrome, I believe we need to be stirred and challenged by:

III. The Antioch Model (Acts 11:19-26)

Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, located about 500 miles north of Jerusalem. It was a Greek cultural center, on the Orontes River, close to a Mediterranean port (Seleucia), in the province of Syria (modern day Turkey).

It was here where we first see the glory and power of the Gospel in a multicultural world. The Jewish believers were forced to scatter and carry the Gospel to their Judea and Samaria, but they still had their cultural blinders on. They still only witnessed to Jews only (vs. 19). Some were Hellenist Jews, speaking Greek, living around the Roman Empire, but they were Jews nonetheless. Now these Christians began doing something new. They shared the Gospel of Christ to Gentiles. These “Grecians” (from what the context implies) were not Greek-speaking Jews (like in Jerusalem). They were actually Gentiles. Christians finally began to witness to other nationalities and people groups around them.

When this breakthrough in outreach and evangelism took place among God’s people we see God bless in extraordinary ways. When they stepped out of their comfort zone, stopped trying to reach only people just like them, they found that “the hand of the Lord was with them” and they experienced, not a revival, but a spiritual awakening (vs. 21). It was so incredible and amazing that word began to spread, and word reached the church back in Jerusalem. God was doing something out-of-the-box for them, something they had yet to experience, and they went to check it out. They were seeing the Romans 1:16 Gospel on full display. They were seeing the Great Commission carried out before their eyes. “The grace of God” had been poured out upon them (vs. 23).

It is no wonder that this church, with its culturally diverse ministry and leadership (including Jews, Africans, Italians), would be the church that would launch the first missionary movement (Acts 13:1-4). They had a true burden for the world, near and far. From this moment, from this church, the Gospel began to spread to the world, reaching nations, languages, people groups, and bringing together as one bodies of believers that virtually had nothing else in common; nothing, that is, but the blood of Jesus that has cleansed us from our sin, delivered us from the power of darkness, and transferred to the Kingdom of God’s Son. That is the glory of the Gospel in a multicultural world. It’s a little bit of Heaven on eart!

God has given me an ever growing burden to see God build more churches like Antioch, and for God to do so in the congregation where I serve. It grieves me to see such diverse cultures all around us, by the thousands, and yet most of our churches look nothing like any of them. When we do try to reach them, we want to keep them separate, apart, so they can do things their way and we can do things our way, and never truly becoming one body in Christ.

What is it going to take for the glorious Gospel to shine in our multicultural world? Persecution? Suffering? Divine discipline? Do we need to find ways to build better ministry bridges? To reach people that are all around us, yet seem invisible to us? To reach them, and not keep them isolated, but seek to integrate them as part of the Body? Do we need to be willing to leave our comfort zone? Do we need to seek God’s forgiveness for our prejudices, stubbornness and indifference? Do we need to be more flexible in our styles and attitudes? I don’t have the answers. But I know the heart of our Savior for a lost world, and, like Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

The Vitality of Discipleship and Training

 

As a former second-generation missionary I can’t help but compare ministry on the foreign field to ministry in the United States. There are so many things that are considered fundamental and assumed in missionary work, but are often neglected in established works “at home.”

One area that comes to mind is that of discipleship and training. On the mission field there are often no Christian bookstores, radio stations, or Bible colleges. If believers are going to be trained and equipped for maturity and ministry, the responsibility falls squarely upon the local church and pastor/missionary. The necessity forces them to do what is already commanded. It is also understood by most that just coming to weekly services doesn’t accomplish the task of making disciples and training them to do the work (Matthew 28:19-20).

A typical missionary will take time outside of regular service times to disciple believers one-on-one (the most effective ratio). Basic topics are covered, but individual needs and challenges are prayed about and Biblical counsel is given. Sometimes a series of lessons are taught in a small group (like a new believers class). But beyond that, in depth, specialized training is needed if that individual is to be prepared to teach, lead, or even pastor. To meet that need, a missionary (or small team of missionaries) frequently organizes classes or Bible courses to train those servants, while they continue serving in their local church.

But discipleship and training are often missing in local churches in America. New believers are encouraged to attend Sunday School and church services, but are often not discipled individually (or in very small groups). When it comes to ministry training, we tend to contract it out to outside institutions or ministries. We pastors often pray for God to send us people who can teach and lead, yet we have no organized method or model to train men and women ourselves. We leave that exclusively up to Bible colleges and conferences (which have their place), but we forget that the burden of equipping believers for the work of the ministry falls upon the local church leadership.

Ephesians 4:11-12 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

We can always debate about whether a seven-lesson Bible study makes a person “discipled” or not. We can discuss the role of Bible colleges and conferences to the local church. But what is clear is that ANY intentional approach within the local church is better than NO approach. It is vital that we take discipleship and training seriously in our churches. We often give in to the mentality that three services a week will automatically lead to discipled and trained believers. But that is a critical mistake.

I do not write as one who has this figured out. But I write as someone with an increasing burden to see our churches become reproducing New Testament congregations that will reach our communities, nation, and world for Jesus Christ. May God give us discernment, direction, and determination as we carry out our role within His Kingdom.

Idols in Ministry

Last Sunday I preached on the second of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (Ex. 20:5).  It was a challenge addressing the issue of idolatry, which penetrates us all deeply in one way or another (Watch the video at www.vandaliabaptist.org).  God challenges us to expose and destroy, not just physical external idols, but even idols of the heart (Ezekiel 14) – anything or anyone other than God Himself to which we yield, seek to please, or that we serve with our time, resources, and energy.

It is a struggle we all share because we are depraved, idolatrous creatures.  We are created to be creatures of worship, but our fallen nature seeks to worship anything and everything other than God Himself.  In my message I identified several things that our society and families often idolize.  But I wonder, when it comes to the Gospel ministry and serving the Lord as a minister of Jesus Christ, what are some things that fight for supremacy in my heart?

I can quickly think of several things that we as ministers struggle with.  We find ourselves thinking, worrying and making decisions to address these before we address the bigger priority: Am I pleasing and obeying God?

  1. Attendance numbers
  2. Offering totals
  3. Decisions made
  4. Satisfying critics
  5. Impressing ministry colleagues

The list could go on.  So, my question to fellow pastors, missionaries, and preachers is this:  What are some ministry idols that seek to become more important that worshiping and pleasing our LORD?

Challenging Your Faith In 2013

We know that when the new year is approaching, or has just begun, it is time to set goals for the coming year.  This is especially true for those of us serving the Lord in ministry.  But many times, for whatever reason, we fall back into neutral, repeat the same goals and objectives that we have every year, or we make a list of goals that really require no faith at all, no supernatural intervention from God.

Our goals for a new year do not simply need to be a to-do list.  Yes, they need to be S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, timely).  But our goals need to be the result of seeking God’s face, listening to His Word, and radically committing to take steps of obedience that only God could make possible.  This is truly the only way to live and lead by faith, which happens to be the only way of living and leading that pleases God (Hebrews 11:6).  So with the new year just under way, let me challenge you to evaluate the goals you have set for your ministry, your family, and your personal life.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I spent time genuinely seeking God’s face in prayer about the coming year?
  • Can I accomplish these goals in the flesh (whether God intervenes or not)?
  • Are these goals bigger than my talents, gifts, abilities, and personality?

When you commit to these goals, let me challenge you to share them.  Sharing them holds us accountable, and invites others into the exciting journey of living by faith.

What goals of faith have you set for this year?

Start Your Sermon Prep Early!

Preachers are well aware of the mounting pressure that builds throughout the week as Sunday approaches.  Yes, there are many details to orchestrate for the weekend services and activities, but it all pales in comparison to the weight of sermon delivery.  God’s people come to His house to hear from Him and His Word.  And this burden of ministry rests squarely upon the pastor’s shoulders.

Adequate study and preparation is a process that takes many hours.  That is, if you want to avoid the “Saturday Night Special.”  However, there are so many responsibilities and interruptions that hit us throughout the week.  And with each delay or detour in our plans the pressure kicks up a notch.  In the back of our mind we always know that there is a message to prepare for, and we are not ready.  But, ready or not, Sunday’s coming.

What have I found that works for me (if I just do it)?  Start early.  I mean, Monday morning – or Tuesday, if that is when your work week begins.  Before the staff meetings, before the Wednesday message, before the mail and phone calls.  Start taking notes and drafting your initial thoughts on your text.  Get something down on paper.  Don’t worry if the points are clear, or if it even makes sense!  Just start early.

This way you have several days to allow your thoughts to gel, to read commentaries and do research, to think of illustrations.  The congregation will be greatly blessed by it, your family will be blessed by a not-as-stressed husband and father, and you will be able to give your full attention to other matters at hand.  I wish I could say I am consistent at this, but the Lord knows the truth. But I have experienced it enough to make it my weekly goal.

What have you found to be helpful in sermon preparation?

Unleashing People

 

There are few things that inspire and energize a leader more than to see those you lead begin to catch a vision and run with passion.  I don’t mean simply doing what they are asked to do; but seeing needs, having a burden and moving to do something about it.  My role as a pastor and leader is to cast vision and equip people to do and be what God wants them to be.  But if that is going to happen, I need to be prepared to unleash people to serve God and serve others.

I do not have all the ideas.  I cannot initiate or lead every endeavor.  I cannot attend every event, meeting or activity.  I cannot personally approve every decision before action is taken.  That would stifle the growth of God’s work.  That would de-motivate people who are ready and willing to move forward.  That would keep significant needs from being met.  That would hinder the growth and development of those I lead.

Yes, I need to cast the vision that God has for us as a church.  I need to point the direction.  I need to set the parameters.  I need to equip people to effectively do what they are called and asked to do.  But then I need to unleash them!  I need to give them responsibility and authority.  I need to delegate.  I need to allow them the freedom to serve, and at times, even to fail (and learn).  I need to give people ownership of the ministries where they serve.   The beautiful result is that Christians get to see the Lord working in them and through them, strengthening their faith, and leading them toward spiritual maturity.

What benefits to unleashing people have you seen and experienced?

Lessons Learned

 I believe it would be fitting for me to share some personal thoughts and lessons learned from the opportunity our church, Vandalia Baptist Temple, recently had to host the World Baptist Fellowship Fall Meeting. The emphasis of this “semi-annual” meeting is always world missions, which is very close to my heart. My wife Megan and I accepted the opportunity with “fear and trembling,” and wanted to give our best for the Lord and His servants. We felt so inadequate, but trusted God to put people in place to help accomplish the task.

It was an overwhelming experience to see God at work. And that reminded me of some important truths:

  1. Planning is important, but God has to meet with us. We did our best to prepare and organize what we thought would be a blessing to God’s servants. Not everything came about the way we wanted or planned. But we knew that if anything of eternal value was to happen, God had to do it, and anoint every speaker, song and service with His Holy Spirit. I believe He did – to His glory!
  2. Prayer makes all the difference. If God has to meet with us and do a supernatural work, then we have to seek Him in prayer. Not just talk about it, but do it. Each service provided us the opportunity to pray over our pastors, college leaders, and missionaries. What a thrill to hear the voices of God’s servants joined in intercession! I believe God’s presence was tangible during those sacred moments.
  3. Teamwork is essential. I know the host pastor often gets much of the “thanks,” but an event like this is never the work of one person, just like every other ministry for the Lord. I could not have done it without my wife, our staff, and our amazing church family. But beyond that, we received constant encouragement, advice and assistance from our Mission Director and fellow pastors. Teamwork is indeed essential, and it is something which I believe God blesses.
  4. There is so much to be done. As I opened my heart and shared ideas for our fellowship to engage the next generation of missionaries, I seemed to have “hit a nerve” (in a positive sense). There is a growing sense of urgency to take whatever steps are necessary to be more effective in world evangelism and in reaching the next generation for Jesus Christ. We face many challenges as churches and as a fellowship, but God has not called us to a task for which He will not equip us. May we work together, pursue excellence, and focus on the cause which unites us all as Great Commission pastors, missionaries, and churches.

It was our honor to serve the World Baptist Fellowship through this meeting. The 26 missionary families and dozens of pastors who came were such an encouragement to our people. God even used this meeting to lead our congregation to its highest Faith Promise commitment in our church’s history! I appreciate every word and expression of gratitude and encouragement that we have since received. God has branded these truths on my heart, and for that I praise Him. Let us “SO RUN” (I Cor. 9:24).