EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/139/13992/13992-78311.mp3.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Years ago, a missionary sat in the dirt with some pastors in post-revolution Zimbabwe.
The newly independent African nation was a dangerous place at the time. Chaos ruled in some areas. The missionary, Tom Elliff (now International Mission Board president), had found a spiritually responsive group of people in one such place.
“Who will pastor those people?” Elliff asked the church leaders. They looked at each other. Eyes clouded. Heads shook.
“We’re not going,” one pastor finally replied, speaking for the group. “People get shot down there. Just last week, someone was shot off the top of a bus.”
Another pastor reported that a missionary had been killed in the area recently.
“Well, at least we can pray,” Elliff said. So they prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send someone.
The meeting dismissed. Everyone left — except one young pastor, barely out of his teens. He limped slowly over to Elliff and said, “I’ll go.”
“Wait a minute,” Elliff cautioned, stealing a glance at the pastor’s thin legs. “You heard what they said about the danger, didn’t you?”
“I’ll go,” the young man repeated firmly. “But you’ve got to promise to bring me a bicycle. I had polio and I can’t walk very well. I’m about eight miles away, so walking out there is going to be tough.”
Elliff promised to bring the bicycle as soon as possible. He returned a few weeks later with a two-wheeler in tow.
“Where have you been?” the pastor demanded. “I’ve been walking out there and back on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Several people are awaiting baptism.”
Dumbfounded, Elliff stammered, “What about those stories of people getting shot?”
The young man smiled. “Brother,” he said, “if God could stop the mouths of the lions for Daniel, he can stop the muzzles of the guns for me.”
Elliff told that story at a recent appointment service for new missionaries. It illustrated the Apostle Paul’s case for missions:
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!'” (Romans 10:12-15).
Even hobbled feet are beautiful when they bring good news. The young pastor answered the mission call when other “stronger” men refused. He also embodied Paul’s other point: In the age of Christ, all distinctions between Jews and Greeks, differing people groups, friends and enemies, family and strangers must fall. The Gospel invitation to God’s Kingdom is for all. Paul himself learned that truth as he read the Scriptures with new spiritual eyes following his encounter with Christ. Once he grasped God’s mission, the one-time Jewish zealot and persecutor of Believers became the missionary to the Gentiles, launching the Christian church as a global enterprise.
Missions, in contrast to sharing your faith with someone who looks, talks and thinks like you, involves crossing lines, some of which aren’t visible. They might be national borders, cultural and language barriers, racial and ethnic differences, religious divisions, sometimes physical danger zones like the one crossed by that young African pastor. Even in the barrier-blasting age of broadcast and social media, transmitting the Gospel to a previously untouched people usually requires personal, face-to-face, potentially risky contact.
But not everyone, even in evangelical circles, buys into that concept.
“People have different views of missions, religious people,” Elliff observed during the missionary appointment service. “Not everybody is for it. Well, they’re ‘for it,’ but they’re not for it. … When it comes down to saying it involves your being His hands, being His heart, being His voice, that’s a little costly.” Especially if it costs you your home, your culture, possibly your life.
He reminded listeners of William Carey, another young man who nervously stood up during a meeting of older, wiser pastors in England in 1789. When Carey asked whether Christ’s command to make disciples among all nations still applied — and whether they were, in fact, obligated to follow it — one leading minister replied: “Sit down, young man. … When God wants to convert the world, He can do it without your help.”
Undaunted, Carey persisted. His revolutionary 1792 call to obedience, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” laid the foundation for the evangelical mission movement. Words like “conversion” and “heathens” might sound uncomfortable to our contemporary ears, but this document is as fresh and relevant today as it was then (read it at http://www.wmcarey.edu/carey/enquiry/anenquiry.pdf). Remember, also, that Carey personally obeyed his own call to “use means” to extend the Gospel where it was unknown. He lived, taught and preached the Good News among the Bengali people of India for four decades, serving in countless practical ways where others sought to exploit.
I was bemused recently by a journalist who cautioned his readers about folks who embrace a “literal reading” of Matthew 28:19-20, Christ’s call to make disciples among all nations. Please. What other coherent reading is there for this passage? Either Jesus said it or He didn’t. If He said it, He clearly intended it as an action plan for the spread of His church among all peoples. It flows seamlessly from God’s promise — 2,000 years before Christ — to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3b).
The Gospel’s most powerful foes, however, aren’t skeptical journalists, hostile cultures or persecution. They are Believers who don’t take the message seriously enough to share it across any and every barrier. The Good News isn’t Good News if it never arrives.
I don’t know about you. But if someone hadn’t “used means” to share Jesus with a wretch like me, I’d still be lost — and probably dead. God help me not to ignore others in similar circumstances.
Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.