In missions, there is a lot of discussion about reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on what source you read, there are anywhere between 5,000-7,000 unreached people groups around the world. This amounts to roughly 2.7 billion people. There is an area where most of these people call home. In global missions, this area is commonly referred to as the 10/40 window (located between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator) which is comprised of northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Many missions sending agencies focus on sending their missionaries to these areas of the world. These countries are typically dangerous to Westerners, especially to those who are preaching the Gospel where some can be kicked out of the country, imprisoned, and in some cases face execution. There is a large need for Christian workers to go to these hard to reach places and introduce the abundant life of Jesus Christ into these people's lives for the first time… offering them salvation, hope, and joy that comes through having faith in King Jesus.
But, what about the billions of people around the world that do not fall into the 10/40 window? There are many countries in the world that are considered "reached". But, many of these countries have such a low population of believers of Christ that they are really no different than some unreached countries. In many of these countries that have been reached, generations have since passed and now we have a new segment of society of either unreached people groups or devout atheists. For example, here in the country of Albania where we serve it is considered a "reached" country. But, the percentage of born-again, truly transformed believers of Christ is nearly infinitesimal (less than 1%). Right out the front door of our house there are hundreds of people in our neighborhood who have never heard the Gospel before. But many of their parents or other family members have seen the Jesus Film many years ago. When Communism fell in 1992, missionaries from the West flocked to Albania eager to introduce millions of Albanians to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. This, after being closed off to the West for 40+ years. Every village in Albania had been essentially reached. There was even an influx of thousands of newly professed believers of Christ. And, Albania was figuratively checked off the "unreached" list by many missions sending agencies. As a result, many of these missionaries left, with little or no follow up. Many churches that were planted early on have since died out. And now we are once again back to square one, a country with a very small population of believers and with a large segment of society whose generation today have never heard the Gospel.
And, of course there are countries that have long ago been considered Christian countries, once beacons of light to other countries around the world sending thousands of missionaries to the darker recesses of the world. Most of these "Christian" countries exist in central and northern Europe, but also including North and South America. However, in these countries we are now actually seeing a reversal of people coming to faith, where the Christian population is actually declining and many are leaving the Christian faith and the church they once grew up in. Many have become disenfranchised with traditional “Churchianity” and are embracing alternative religions or no faith at all. For the first time last year in America, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religious faith, being outnumbered by a combination of other faiths or no faith at all. As a result, missionaries from other countries like South Korea and Nigeria are actually sending Christian missionaries to the US and Canada, introducing Americans to Christ and involved in new church planting efforts around the country. And in Europe, in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, churches are now being converted into mosques, museums, and market places. And, some of the highest populations of atheism are no longer found in Communist countries, but in places like Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and The Netherlands.
So, what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the declining population of those who profess a faith in Christ? What do we do with the increasing population of atheism? Well, global missions should truly remain global, not confined to a certain segment of the world's population; encompassing the entire globe, not just a focus on the "unreached" people groups of the world. I propose we open the window a bit more. Let's not limit it to the 10/40 window. Let's open it up 20 degrees more to include the former "Christianized" countries of the world such as Europe and North America. The way I see it, if we don't open the window, we will be calling America and Europe "unreached" countries 25-30 years from now. And, I mean that literally; where generations will have passed, and newer and younger generations will have never heard the Good News of Christ.
This leads me to another question. How do we reach those who are already reached? How do we reach out to those who have indeed heard the Gospel before but for whatever reason have chosen to reject its message? My guess, and I’m not claiming absolute certainty on this, is that many of these “reached” people are hearing a form of Christianity that is both westernized and institutionalized. A form of Christianity that finds it basis from an Enlightenment-era form of reasoning, focusing more on morality, debate, the afterlife, and following a list of do’s and do nots. And, I don’t believe this is the same Gospel message that Christ taught. People need to see love in action. Not only do they need to hear it through proclamation, but it needs to be modeled and demonstrated through our lives and our actions. They don’t only want to hear what you have to say unless they truly know you care about them… now. People want to know how can a belief in Christ possibly benefit and change their life now, here, while on earth. One of my favorite quotes that I think best encapsulates the paradox of abundant life now and life after death is this:
“Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.” (Shane Claiborne)
We need Christians to not only mobilize around the world to distant and far off countries, but to remain in their own cities, towns, and villages. We need Christians to share the Gospel through both word and deed in their communities. And, I don't mean the stale, institutionalized form of Christianity to be propagated. I mean, the get-in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty form of missions. Where we no longer focus on rules and morality, but focus on helping others, loving the least of these, and bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. We need to stop obsessing over immorality and obsess with loving others no matter who they are. And, I’m willing to bet this will require leaving the comforts of our own environment and our own biased socio-political ideologies. We need to bring the Light to the darkness and not expect the darkness to be the Light before we bring it.
A couple of examples come to mind of what it looks like to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to people through both word and deed:
I am reminded of my friend Don who lives and works among a shunned people group called the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. He has relied solely on faith to open a workshop in the slums of Tirane, Albania, enabling local Roma and Albanian men with new works skills and an opportunity to provide a better income for their families. At the same time, he spends time investing in the spiritual lives of these men through sharing the Gospel and conducting small Bible studies in his home or workshop.
I am reminded of Pastor Jeony who also lives and works near the slums in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He has helped facilitate a school program that enables children and their parents to receive an education and job skills, allowing them to leave their lives working in the disease-infested city trash dump. This educational program doesn’t go without hearing and learning about Christ. Each morning the children gather at the school to sing praises of worship to Jesus and learn more about God through the reading of Scripture.
Closer to home I am reminded of Shane who essentially moved from the comforts of his middle to upper class background and decided to live among the homeless of Philadelphia. This led him to start a new community revitalization project in what many would consider a gang-infested, drug-laden, and impoverished neighborhood. He, along with several others helped restore what was dismissed as hopeless, into a newly revitalized beautiful community where the homeless now live and thrive. All of this was accomplished alongside the teaching about God’s love, grace, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in action. This is how I believe we reach the reached with the Gospel message. There is certainly a place for the public proclamation of the Gospel, especially in unreached countries. But, in places where the Gospel is already being promulgated in churches, on TV, the radio, and bookstores; love in action is where people will truly see who Jesus is. And, this is what I believe the new wave of missions is to look like. Incarnational and holistic approach to ministry. Bringing justice where there is injustice. Enabling the poor to leave poverty. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, the unloved, and the oppressed. Helping men, women, and children see themselves for who they are, loved by God. Restoring them into the people that God intentionally desires them to be… created in His image, reconciled, rescued, and redeemed. Not for just the life after we die. But, for the life here and now. Making all things new. And, bringing God’s kingdom onto earth just as it is in Heaven.
American Christians have for centuries envisioned a Christian utopia in which their society is governed by Christian officials with Christian laws and morality in place. After all, this is what the Puritans from an oppressed Europe envisioned as they made their way toward the New World during the early 17th century. The vehicle through which American Christians both yesterday and today often use to attempt to create and maintain this utopia is not through the church, but through the American political system; to which they also believe was divinely orchestrated by the very hand of a Christian God. Any deviation or opposition to their perceived Christian political or social order is considered evil, ungodly, or even Satanic; often branded with the label of “liberal” or "socialist" which almost always have negative connotations to them. These Christians often resort to exclusion and isolation as the means to distance themselves from others who either oppose or simply think differently from them. This often leads to a form of “us vs. them” tribalism causing much strife and division in America's culture wars. Sadly, much of this envisioned utopia is driven and powered by fear-based rhetoric and propaganda. They claim that if their society does not submit to or agree with their political and social order, then surely their country will crumble, ultimately falling into the very hands of the Devil himself.
This brand of Christianity comes from the idea that it is up to the true followers of Jesus to pre-establish God's kingdom upon the earth. This is accomplished through human might and power leading to a form of theocracy in which the Christian God will rule their nation through divinely elected Christian men and women. This is the very same ideology that permeated 1st century Judaism as they waited in eager anticipation for their prophesied Messiah to deliver them from the great oppressor and establish a great Jewish utopia. When Jesus the true Messiah came to Jerusalem not on a majestic steed with pomp and circumstance, but instead on an obscure colt with only a few ragtag disciples trailing behind, the Jews were most assuredly disappointed. Only later did they witness this Jewish King being flogged and ultimately executed upon the Roman instrument of death known as the crux, or cross. Little did they know that the Kingdom of God was indeed in their midst. But, the way in which Jesus became King and Lord over all was not by might, power, and politics, but through the sheer love, grace, peace, and sacrifice toward others. Not a single sword was raised, nor a single political action signed; His kingdom was ushered in by individuals willing to love and serve others at the expense of sacrificing their own lives just like their King.
How many American Christians today envision their utopia in much the same way 1st century Jews did? We Christians seek to establish a Christian kingdom through our elected officials, political action committees, and socio-political protests, turning a blind eye to the King who sits atop a colt in our midst. But, it is only when our society witnesses the true kingdom power of Christ in the form of holistic, incarnational ministry, and peaceful evangelism will our society truly be transformed. When we Christians seek to love and serve all people from all walks of life, even those who we may deem our enemy, will the true power of Christ radiate like a beacon of light on a hill capturing the souls of those who need Him most. Until then, the American church has a lot of introspective soul-searching and idol-smashing to do... namely the idolatry of the American political and government system found within the confines of the American church.
Politics and government in of themselves are not evil; in fact they are established by God himself (Romans 13:1). But, when they become the vehicle, or the alternative, for which the Christian church should be otherwise interacting with, engaging, and transforming our society, then it becomes evil. For then it merely becomes yet another government imposed policy of Lord Caesar and not the humble and loving servanthood of Lord Jesus. And, we know lives are not changed by forced policies, but only by the voluntary freedom of the soul. After all, the reason why the American government is so large today, is not because of some liberal socio-political agenda or conspiracy, but because we the church have delegated Jesus' command to "love thy neighbor" to Uncle Sam. It’s time we the church give Uncle Sam the boot and change our society not through the might of Caesar, but through the power-under, servanthood, and humility of Christ. Not through the institutionalized civic religiosity of Constantine, but through the down and dirty, in-the-trenches, relational aspect of kingdom Christianity.
Works. We are not saved by them. We are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). But, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are replete with examples and commands to love and serve others through our deeds and actions. It is not enough to only have faith in Christ to be a Christian in the truest sense. To be a Christian, we must have faith in Jesus Christ, yes. But, there should be something tangible to show for this. This outward showing of our faith is what the Bible often refers to as “fruit” (Matthew 7, John 15). And, this fruit is most demonstrated in the way we interact with the world and those around us.
The way I see it, as especially evident throughout the Gospels, is that there are two ways that we can be a great example of sharing and showing the love, the grace, and the truth of Jesus Christ. It is through both word and deed. And, there is no better example to look to than Jesus himself.
Almost always, Jesus showed His love to others by having compassion upon them. He healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, lepers, and paralytic. He dined with sinners and saved adulterers. He had compassion upon a bleeding woman, and wept with Mary and Martha. He brought back to life a young man named Lazarus. And, He healed a little girl with a high fever. He fed thousands of people with bread and fish, and cast demons out of many who were possessed. He looked to a widow for a lesson on faith. He loved those who were outcasts from society, including a Samaritan woman at the well and a prostitute who poured perfume on His feet. And, even while Jesus was dying He showed mercy for a criminal who was being crucified on a cross. This not to mention the greatest act of love the world has ever known… Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for all of mankind in order that we may be forgiven, saved, and reconciled to God. He did all of these things through His deeds and actions.
Not only did Jesus show these acts and deeds of love by example, but He also shared with His disciples a story expressing the urgency and necessity for us to serve and love others.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:35-40)
Another way in which we serve and love others is through word. Or, simply put, telling others about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We tell them about Jesus not out of obligation, but because we genuinely care enough about them to tell them about Jesus and why He came and died for us. To tell them that there is indeed hope, there is more than what this world has to offer, that there is an abundant life much greater than this. And, it is found in a life surrendered to Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ last words before ascending to Heaven to be with the Father were these:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:17-20)
We make disciples of people by sharing our faith, telling them about Jesus, and teaching them the importance of living in obedience to Christ. Yes, Jesus showed love to people by acts of kindness and compassion. But, He also proclaimed truth. Sometimes with such great passion that people were awestruck. So too, we should be eager to tell others about Christ.
So, what do we do with all of this? Do we quit our jobs, sell our homes, give everything away, say goodbye to our friends and family, and move to Africa to become a missionary? Well, quite frankly, for some of you that may be YES. We must all remain open to how God will lead us to be a salt and light to this world. If that means giving up everything here, to go over there, in order that they may see and hear about Jesus, then so be it. We are ALL called to serve others and tell them about Jesus. There is no thinking about it or waiting for a special calling from God. He has already called all of us. Nor, is missionary work reserved for those “special holy” people. It’s for everyone.
For some of you life changing service may simply mean to be much more involved at your church. It may mean that you devote more time to serve your community. It may mean that it’s time to share your faith with that coworker that sits in the cubicle right next to you at the office. For others, it may mean to prayerfully consider going on a short term mission’s trip to Mexico next summer. For others, it may mean to adopt a child from Compassion International or get involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For some of you it may mean showing a random act of kindness by raking your neighbor’s leaves or volunteering at a local nursing home. Maybe it’s time to be involved in a prison ministry or soup kitchen to feed the homeless. Maybe you adopt an orphan from Romania or get involved with a social justice project rescuing little girls from sex trafficking in Cambodia. Maybe you take up the cause of the unborn by counseling pregnant women who are considering abortion. Maybe you consider getting involved with Meals on Wheels and deliver food twice a week to those who are confined to their homes. Perhaps you volunteer at a Children’s Hospital or help out at the Special Olympics each year.
And, last but not least, maybe it’s time… time to prayerfully consider moving to another country where people have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. Hard places like China, Indonesia, or Pakistan, where MILLIONS of people have never heard the name of Jesus. I adjure you to consider these things and ask God not when, but where He wants you to serve now.
In America, when someone chooses to follow Jesus, not much is at stake in the way of danger or persecution. For this, I have been very fortunate and thankful to live in a country with such religious freedom as this. However, in places like Albania where we currently live, when someone chooses to make this same choice they must also give serious consideration to the cost. They know this is not some spontaneous decision to be made based on some emotional plea or moving speech made by an evangelist. They know they may very well be ostracized and teased by others in their community for their new faith in Jesus. And, in some cases they may be disowned or shunned by their own family members.
Two weeks ago, four young men made a public profession of their belief in Jesus Christ. I peered into the eyes of one of these young men that I have recently been discipling as he thought through what it means to become a Christian. And, for a fleeting moment I believe I sensed some fear and apprehension in him as he truly considered the cost. This week, one other young man has surrendered his life to Christ. Covered in tattoos wearing a mohawk, he comes from the "rougher side of town" where drugs and gangs are the norm. He is proud to be a new resident in the kingdom of God and knows what this may entail as he goes back each day to face his friends. Considering the cost.
One of the young men who has been coming to our Bible study who is not a believer... yet, comes from a Muslim home. He tells me his parents are Muslim and he is having to be careful to come to our gatherings. Considering the cost. Another young man who recently professed a belief in Christ has been proudly displaying his necklace with a cross on it to show everyone that he is a new Christian. Last week, a man approached him and angrily ripped the necklace off of his neck saying he didn't "want to see that shit around here!". Considering the cost. And, one other young man who is also a Muslim has been consistently attending our gatherings for numerous months. He tells us he believes that Jesus existed, is real, but is not certain He is the Son of God. Nevertheless, he is drawn to our gatherings each week to hear more about this man we call Jesus. Considering the cost.
I am laying witness to what I believe is a great move of God here in our little obscure neighborhood in east Tirane. I am humbled by the young men that God has placed into my life; both those who are new believers in Christ, and those who are earnestly seeking the Truth. I have seen with my own eyes the transforming power of God in these men's lives. And, even though I am supposed to be the teacher who is bringing a message of hope to them, they are in fact teaching me many things. Namely, what it means to truly consider the cost to become a disciple of Christ. I firmly believe these young men will someday become the core of what will become a new church in our community, and who will one day be a great light upon this dark neighborhood. A light where people will see the never ending love, grace, and hope found only in Jesus Christ.
* If you think about it, will you please pray for: Rildi, Erjon, Ledio, Indrit, and Ilir. These are the young men that have recently considered the cost and surrendered their lives to Christ. But, please also pray for Sabi and Masarjo who are both Muslim and are being drawn to Christ, but still have questions and are uncertain at this time.
Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimal means. In the digital and information age we live, things are to be more simple. And, practically speaking perhaps they are. But, in the big scheme of things it seems life has become much more complicated. When given a simple task or a project, committees are formed, multiple documents are created, and strategies are outlined. Budget plans are drafted, polls are taken, and branding packages are visualized. It seems this carries over into ministry and church too. Not to discount these things, but I wonder if we tend to overcomplicate things that don't really need complicating. Are churches and ministries any better off today than they were during the early church years? We go to conferences, read books, and learn how to become better equipped. But, what Christianity needs are less conferences on how to become better equipped and more action with what we're already equipped with.
There really is no right way or wrong way of doing ministry if we truly walk in the Spirit and let the Lord take the lead. Written almost like a Psalm, God declares through the prophet Isaiah, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8) We may think we know how to do things, but may find ourselves wallowing in many failed attempts if we do it our way. Sometimes we just need to dive into the trenches, get our hands dirty, and do as the Spirit may lead.
In the seven months that I have lived in Albania and do ministry amongst the Roma, I have found that the most effective way of doing ministry is... get ready for it... grab a pen and paper... steady yourself... are you ready? Developing relationships. That's it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Simple. Getting to know people, entering into their world, and being real and transparent with them. Sure, some are guarded and others may thumb their nose at me. But, most are not and are actually excited about this new relationship that may or may not lead them into an even greater relationship with God.
Looking back through the Gospels, it seems this is how Jesus' ministry was most effective... developing relationships. Simple. He didn't have committees, daily planners, and proven methods and strategies. He didn't hang pretty brochures on doorknobs or iPhones to resort to for His next plan of action. Sure, He was God... He didn't need these things. But, He was also a man... in many ways like you and me restricted by time and place. And yet, He managed to bring thousands of people near to Him, healing them, feeding them, and expounding deep spiritual truths upon them that transformed their lives forever. How? By engaging people, talking to them, dining with them, holding them, and loving them.
I've argued that evangelism is much more than mere proclamation of the Gospel. Evangelism is what we do in both word AND deed. People will respond to the Gospel by hearing it and others by seeing it in action. If we truly emulate Jesus in all things we do, people will certainly inquire. Joseph Aldrich in his book, "Lifestyle Evangelism" says, "People don't care how much we proclaim to know until they know how much we care." Sure, I tell people about Jesus. But, sometimes I don't. Sometimes the Lord may lead me to simply help them with something. Sometimes this may involve having a cup of coffee with someone at a local cafe and just listen. Other times it may involve driving someone to a nearby clinic. Or, handing an apple to a malnourished child. Getting rid of a hornets nest from a single mother's home. Raking a neighbor's leaves or trashpile. Little things like these tell a lot about Christ. And, they're simple.
I'll close with another one of my favorite quotes that I believe hammers this point home: "Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words." (St. Francis of Assisi)
Do we substitute telling people about Jesus by always meeting a need? No. But, what I am saying is that not every moment may call for a presentation of the Gospel. Instead, it may just require getting to know someone and see where a need is. You may or may not meet the need, but at least you're showing you care... and that alone speaks volumes. Simplicity.