SBC Life Articles

Many Cultures … One Savior

Editor's Note: The 2004 North American Missions Emphasis includes the Week of Prayer, with suggested dates of March 7-14; the North American Missions Study; and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

There's a reason the description of the United States as a "melting pot" is not used as much these days. Increasingly it has become more of a mosaic, a mesh of distinct culture and ethnic groups that continually find their place in the ever-shifting pattern of national identity.

The hope of Southern Baptist missionaries in this environment — working through the North American Mission Board and its state and local partners — is that one of the bonds holding the mosaic together would be Jesus Christ.

"The World at Our Doorstep," as described in the theme for 2004 North American Missions Emphasis, is more than just ministry to recent immigrants, however. It also touches the diversity of distinct cultures in the United States and Canada, as well as the way that globalization has extended our ability to influence the world from within our own borders.

The following three missionary couples featured in the emphasis represent just a few of the ways that is being done among the North American Mission Board's 5,200 missionaries in the United States, Canada, and U.S. territories.

The Athens of America

Michael Dean knows what it means to have a global influence. As coordinator of ministry to internationals for the Greater Boston Baptist Association, his goal is to plant seeds of the gospel in students, business professionals, and their families before they return to their home countries and share what they've experienced.

It is a role that allows him to share the truths of Christianity with students from countries closed to the gospel, or with businessmen who learn of our nation's Christian heritage as they also learn of its business practices.

"When you touch Boston, you can really touch the world," Dean said of the city known as "the Athens of America."

"There are ways to make strategic relationships here that cannot be made in any other place. So if you reach someone here and they become a Christian, they can go back and not only change their village, their neighborhood, or their million-person city. They can ultimately change the world."

Dean and his wife, Michelle, previously worked in campus ministry as US/C-2 missionaries, and Michael also served as a Mission Service Corps missionary. But their role in Boston developed as the Boston association of churches and its partners saw the need to make ministry to international visitors a priority.

Among the ministries Dean oversees are conversational English classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as introductory Bible study classes for wives of international students who are interested in learning about Christianity.

A comment at one class was typical of a dynamic of mixed belief and unbelief — or not believing "yet," as Michael describes it — that he sees often among internationals exposed to Christ. "It's a little hard for us to believe in God's existence," said one Chinese woman, noting her lifetime of indoctrination into atheism. "It takes a longer time for us to become Christian. But during this process I think we are very glad to learn something about God."

Dean — assisted by his team of long-term Mission Service Corps missionaries, local volunteers, and mission groups helping with short-term projects in the area — is helping more and more internationals do just that.

"… Just like you make a decision to get married and follow [your husband] to Boston," he tells the Chinese woman, "you become a Christian when you make a decision and accept the fact that you know who God is — that He's Jesus, who lived here and died here and rose again long ago. He's not just a philosopher like Confucius or Buddha. He's God."

Language of the Heart

A critical dynamic in any understanding of ministry to internationals is the concept of "heart language" — the language people use when they relate most intimately with God and others. While Dean can share Christ in the increasingly international language of English, the message becomes even more effective when the language barrier is removed.

Mark Hobafcovich knows this from personal experience. When he managed to escape from communist Romania in 1980 and found himself living as a new refugee in Australia, it was a member of a local Romanian-language church who showed up at his door to welcome him in his native tongue.

"Good morning, boys. Good morning!" the man told Hobafcovich and his friends.

"We were kind of fearful, thinking, 'Is this real?'" Hobafcovich said. "We found out that man had gone to the [refugee resettlement] office and asked if there were any new Romanian refugees. We just happened to arrive on that particular day, and he invited us to church."

Hobafcovitch eventually received Christ through that congregation — and later developed a passion for starting churches that could offer the same kind of ministry. As a North American Mission Board missionary he did the same on a national scale for Eastern European and Brazilian immigrants.

His goal was to find emerging communities of a particular ethnic group where there might be a few people interested in starting a church. He then worked with other churches to find sponsors and meeting places so the new church could be started.

He would often begin with research to see where significant numbers of a particular ethnic group were locating.

"Sometimes we make the local association or state convention aware of the new people in their area," he said last year. "We have research and relationships with networks of other people groups, and we work together to come up with a specific strategy for reaching that particular people group."

In January of this year, Hobafcovich's influence was broadened once again as he accepted a staff position with the North American Mission Board, where he coordinates the work of national missionaries working to help start churches among all language and ethnic groups.

Their role, as his was previously, is to serve as encouragers and facilitators, giving pastors and churches the resources they need to accomplish the church-planting vision God has given them.

"When a pastor has God's passion and his heart has been changed," he said, "… he ought to be excited about either sponsoring a new work, praying, giving, or physically helping in whatever way he can for another work to be established."

Unreached Cultures at Home

"The World at Our Doorstep" can also be applied to home-grown cultural groups that, for a variety of reasons, have had little exposure to Christians. Among them are the most-avid participants of a sport as pervasive in many parts of the upper Midwest as football in the South: ice hockey.

"It's kind of a subculture of the regular population here and across the country," said Stephanie Smith, who has spent the past ten years representing Christ among prep and amateur hockey players while serving as an athletic trainer. "It's reported that more Minnesotans watch the high school hockey tournament than watch the Super Bowl."

Smith and her husband, Ross, now operate the Twin Cities Northern Lights — a non-profit member of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League — while Stephanie also serves as youth evangelism missionary for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Southern Baptist Convention. Their focus on Christian values now permeates the team, which partners with churches to make each game an opportunity to demonstrate Christ's love to players and fans.

"Because the hockey community, typically, isn't going to go to church and Christians, typically, aren't going to the hockey rinks, we had to create an environment where they could meet," Stephanie said.

"We want to teach the players that what they do on the ice is just one part of their identity and purpose in life," Ross noted. "We want to prepare them to be men who will be successful in college, their careers, and their family lives. Our code of conduct is biblically based, and our staff have committed to living their faith in front of the team."

Players for the Northern Lights must sign a contract agreeing to abstain from using tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. They are also required to complete 100 hours of community service each year and embody the values of integrity, character, and commitment.

The Rosses' experiment defied expectations when teams throughout their league saw what a difference a Christian influence would make; they won their league championship in their first year of operation.

"It's amazing to me that God has allowed us to be a part of what He is obviously orchestrating," Smith said. "He is trying to get the attention of the hockey community and let them know that He loves them and that He would like to have a personal relationship with them. To so many people we've met this is brand new information. I know God has put us in this place at this time to help reach the hockey community for Christ."

For more on all eight missionary couples featured during the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.



Annie Remains Role Model for Missions Commitment

The woman for whom the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions was named lived from 1850 to 1938, but her boldness and commitment to missions during her lifetime continue to serve as a model for today.

Her strong commitment to taking the gospel to Native Americans and immigrants came as a result of listening to missionaries' stories about the needs of these groups. She personalized that commitment by serving her church and leading women to minister to immigrants arriving at the Baltimore pier. She also traveled to Indian territory to minister personally to the Native Americans. While she could not be hands-on all the time, she encouraged women to make up boxes of supplies for missionaries in order that they could be better equipped to take the gospel to all people.

Annie also served as the first corresponding secretary of Woman's Missionary Union (WMU), which began in 1888. It was a job she did wholeheartedly and without pay. Writing about her work, Annie said, "I am more and more persuaded that all that is required of those who have the work in charge is faithful seed sowing. The harvest is bound to follow …. No matter how heavy the burden, daily strength is given, so I expect we need not give ourselves any concern as to what the outcome will be, but think 'go forward.'"1

Annie indeed "went forward" with her support of missions. Her capacity to write letters advocating mission work has been well documented. She wrote literally thousands of letters every year, and in one year alone that number topped 18,000.

She spoke in churches to spark the interest of women to take seriously a commitment to missions and support Southern Baptist missionaries. It was fitting that the offering which benefited the missionaries she so dearly loved and supported was named in her honor in 1936.

Annie Armstrong died in 1938, and her tombstone reads, "She hath done what she could." The question for all Southern Baptists is, "Have we been faithful to do the same?"

1 Bobbie Sorrill, Annie Armstrong; Dreamer in Action, 1984, Broadman Press, p. 155.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson