6:07 a.m., Last Morning in Chiang Mai
I’ve been thinking a lot about missions, and what it means to surrender my time, talent, and heart to the Lord to use in whatever way He wills to bring His Kingdom to the hearts and minds of all men, women, and children. Last night, I had the opportunity to spend time over dinner with some brothers and sisters I met at a local church in Chiang Mai. As they are here largely to bring the Gospel to the people (native and foreign born), we got into some interesting conversations about sharing the Gospel cross culturally and communicating to those back home about what God is doing here.
We talked about how best to share the truth about Jesus to a different culture without morphing His truth into something particular to our culture. (I know all of you who’ve studied missiology are probably getting excited right now. 😉 ) It’s a very good question though not without a good answer. The need to know the language and culture of the people we want to engage is very important. We have to learn how to communicate effectively and find points of connection no matter where in the world we may be. And I believe, we must truly value and care about all people, who all have their source in the Creator and were made in the image of God, because that is what Christ calls us to do.
(Interestingly enough, I find those particular concepts to be key in developing great user experiences online, and they serve as the main driver for my work back home.)
Now there is the question of how to communicate the Gospel effectively (for those back in the States, the word “relevant” is a more ubiquitous term when discussing this issue), and I believe there’s importance to distinguishing the two. Method versus message. The truth is that there’s no need to change, adapt, or tweak the Gospel into something palatable for those we seek to engage. That may seem almost obvious to some, but think of the times when you’ve been tempted to soften the Gospel in order to gain a hearing. I think in our zeal for people to understand the truth of Jesus Christ, we all face that temptation at one point or another. However, as Paul the Apostle said, if I or even an angel dares to preach another Gospel than what God has given through His revelation, let him be accursed!
It’s pretty simple, friends. There’s no need to water down the message. Sure, we need to communicate in ways people can understand, but it’s the authority and power of the Gospel of Jesus as is, even if we risk offending by it’s bold message or of being rejected because of it’s scandalous claims, that is the message that will transform hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit of God.
I’m reminded of an article I once read many years ago my sophomore year of college. My professor in Foundations of Ministry class gave us an article to read by Billy Graham in which he addressed how God could use him to reach many people for Christ. He said simply that he just presented the Gospel as is and that the authority of the message in Scripture as revealed by God is what brought people to turn their lives over to Him. Twelve years later, that truth continues to ring in my ears.
We need not be ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Wherever He takes us, we simply must proclaim Him as He’s revealed Himself in Scripture, history, and to us personally. The fruit of His Spirit is love, so know that He will not lead us to speak the truth in any way that is not in line with His will.
Another reading that comes to mind is from Leslie Newbegin’s The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. He offers a similar take on the matter underscoring that the truth of Christ speaks clearly and directly to all people, all cultures, all lands, just like this cross-cultural message was proclaimed to us Westerners many years ago.
“To an unknown god…” so read the inscription on by an idol that Paul encountered in a Gentile land. As the account in Acts shows us, Paul observed the people, found a point of connection, and led by the Spirit wisely used it as a launching point to unabashedly proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ while valuing the people, which is contradictory in anyway but truly Christianity in action. It makes me smile just picturing the Apostle in the forum of the thinkers and philosophers of that day. Again, it’s not about changing the message but about humbling ourselves to learn how to communicate and engage others in a way that demonstrates the truth of which we speak.
And even after all of that, we must remember that it is God who does the work! He simply allows us to partner with Him in what He’s already doing, molding us, preparing us, and leading us every step of the way. What a joy that We can be part of the Father’s work in the world, focused on His business no matter our profession! He uses all that we are, our successes, our failures, our joys, our sorrows, our desires, and our abilities to give Him glory and ready us to take up out God-given role in the Kingdom. Nothing is wasted! And it’s by His Spirit, not our might, power, or cleverness of mind, that He transforms the human heart to love, obey, and follow Him in response to His call.
After doing my fare share of touristy things in China and Thailand, it’s so clear the spiritual battle that’s going on. I think that once you’ve seen one Wat (temple), you’ve pretty much seen it all. I think back home, we figure that idol worship happens but not really, yet the truth is, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes, and it’s heart breaking. I’ve seen the prayers and bowing before lifeless statues. I’ve seen the garish beauty of Wat after Wat that is filled with such a profound sense of emptiness. I’ve seen the shrines and statues and offerings at homes and hostels, car dashboards and boats. I’ve seen some of the injustices and heard heart-wrenching stories of the oppressed.
Now, are the people nice? Oh yes! I’ve met some of the friendliest people who are so welcoming, particularly in Thailand. Are they easy to relate to? Most definitely. Do they love life and enjoying the world we live in? Of course! These things are true because they are made in the image of the One true God, whether they realize it or not. And is there brokenness, hurt, sorrow, and confusion here too? Yes, because just like all of us, we have sinned and fallen short of His glory, but through Jesus we can be saved. We only need believe in His name, confess Him as Lord now, surrender our ways, and follow Him wherever He leads.
In connecting with other believers last night, I was so encouraged to hear of God’s work in this land. I have seen some Christian churches around but they are definitely in the minority. Buddhism (among other religions) is as ubiquitous as 7-11 out here (or Starbucks or McDonalds back home), and you can’t go anywhere without being reminded of it. As He continued to move my heart with compassion, I just kept praying for God to reach this land and all of the people in it. Praise God that He gave me the opportunity to hear what He’s doing through Gideons in bringing thousands of Bibles, through Wycliffe and their translation and language ministry, through individuals called by God to organize and tell the stories of the missionaries and serve the border refugees on the fray in Thailand. I also see how He’s using me in the way I am uniquely made to show His love to others. My heart is greatly encouraged!
There is much more work to be done, but praise God that He is faithful to do it!