Well, sort of.
This is part one of a two part entry. This entry is reflections before my involvement with Chicago Urban Program (CUP). Part two will be written March 11, after my involvement in which I will give my conclusions.
On March 5-10 I have the privilege of participating in a ministry of InterVarsity called “Chicago Urban Program.” The ministry, which has existed for over 20 years now, connects college students with various communities in Chicago to present them with the opportunity to interact with issues such as reconciliation and social justice. This is a time for students to ponder and work through important issues while getting hands on experience. Throughout their involvement they are given biblical and spiritual training to help them work through the theology of what they are experiencing.
I am extremely excited about being a part of this ministry. Issues revolving around social justice are huge right now within missiology and the church. Understanding how social justice and the proclamation of the gospel fit together is a common discussion, and even a tension point within the evangelical church today. Short-term missions trips have helped fuel the confusion as to what God really expects for us as His witnesses. Is giving someone some food or change really a proclamation of the Gospel? Is painting a barn or building a house really missions? Is simply telling people about Jesus as their hope of salvation really enough? (Are we even telling people about Jesus in the first place?)
My goal is not to get into this issue here (if you want to read about it, you can go to Jim Plueddemann’s blog). However, these are the questions that people are asking, and they are having a hard time finding answers. My generation is eager to help the poor, the needy, the “widow and orphan” of James 1. But because they are not getting answers to the questions they have about how social justice fits into God’s plan of redemption, the responses are varied and are usually incorrect.
Short-term missions trips have indeed added to the confusion. Generally speaking, students who go on short-term missions trips go to areas of the world which are defined by poverty, devastation, or disease. And after coming back from these trips students (and adults) have a hard time processing the two different worlds in which they have now experienced. What a student many times concludes as the overall lesson to be taken from the mission field is that they should be thankful for what God has blessed them with here in America because there are so many other people who are not as fortunate as they are. But is being more grateful for what God has blessed us with in America when contrasted to other parts of the world really the proper response?
To show better what I mean, I will give an actual testimony of a student I met after she had come back from a short-term missions trip. This student told the story of walking down the street of an impoverished area of Africa. Because so many are poor there, children roam the streets, homeless and dirty. To keep themselves amused they play with whatever they can get their hands on, which is usually trash of some sort. She remembered a specific child playing in the street with a cap off something like a soda bottle. She said as she saw that, her heart was moved by the fact that a bottle cap is what children have to play with. She went onto to say that when she returned to America and bought a bottle of soda from the vending machine she was reminded just how fortunate she was as an American. Now every time she sees a bottle cap she is more grateful for all that God has privileged her with here in America.
She gave that story after I asked her what the greatest lesson was that God taught her while on the missions trip. But I’m not sure if we should be satisfied with that answer. I don’t think that that should be our conclusion as we interact with those in worse conditions than ourselves. But this is more often than not the overwhelming response of those coming back from missions trips. Why is this the case? And how should we, as people that have indeed been blessed with monetary wealth and prosperity, be responding to the poor around us?
These are some of the questions that I am thinking about before I personally interact with those living in poverty. How do I respond in a way which treats everyone with dignity and respect? How do I interact with those in poverty in a way that shows them that I love them as a brother or sister, and not in a way which seems like I am so nice that I, a middle-class graduate student, would make such a sacrifice of my time to spend giving to those in poverty? It’s not a sacrifice. It is an expectation. It is not going beyond what is expected of me. It is simply helping out someone who needs to be shown that God loves them and that because they were made in God’s likeness, they are valuable.
How does one spend six days in the midst of poverty without it turning into “poverty tourism” as some have put it. (See the article in the Huffington Post on a girl’s experience with CUP and the comment a user made at the end). Indeed, this experience is not like a reality TV show in which I become a contestant for a week and then go on living a life which appreciates the material things in my life more. It’s reality.
For people who are interested in evangelical Christian missions worldwide, it is an interesting and exciting time to be living. Globalization has allowed for conversation between the quickly growing Christian populations throughout the “Global South” and the West. Christian voices from Africa, Latin America, and Asia are being sought and being heard from in the West. The dynamics have and are continuing to change.
Recently, 4500 Christian leaders met in Cape Town, South Africa for a two week conference to discuss what Christianity looks like, and what needs to be addressed, worldwide. Most people were under 40 years old and not from the United States or Western Europe. It was the third Lausanne conference for world evangelism. A movement started by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1974. This huge endeavor has potential to heavily influence and impact the way Christianity is shaped and grown worldwide. The topics discussed are the topics that will be brought back to the seminaries and also to the local churches around the world.
Three professors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the graduate school I attend, were privileged to go. (Dr. Peter Cha, Elizabeth Sung, and Dr. Tite Tienou) After they returned, a group of about 50 students listened to their overall impressions in a panel discussion headed by Dr. Craig Ott last Thursday. (Dr. Gary Fujino, a graduate of TEDS, who also attended Cape Town 2010 was there in place of Dr. Tienou). The themes and impressions that they returned with I found to be interesting and useful in helping me understand what the focus of world evangelism and missions looks like for the near future. It was also interesting for me to compare some of the topics they brought up with the topics that were mentioned at Urbana 09 last December, which I was privileged to attend.
There are themes and trends which seem to be more in discussion for Americans and others in the West than in most of the rest of the world. For example, the hot topic of the balance between social justice and missions/evangelism. As we here in America continue to battle what the balance should be of alleviating current physical suffering versus addressing future eternal suffering through proclamation of the Gospel, others in the world simply do not even realize there could be a dichotomy between the two. For them, to do missions is to be holistic. There is simply no other option. When a woman is starving, or someone has AIDS, to simply preach to her about the gospel is not enough. It is inhumane. At the same time, to just help the individual in their current suffering and not give them the hope of the Gospel is unfaithful and unthinkable. The two must be done together. It is not seen as evangelism. It is not understood as missions. It is just simply being a “normal” Christian. The problem arises here in America and other wealthy countries because we can completely seclude ourselves from the physical suffering of many people. This leads us to putting priority to proclamation of the gospel and ignoring physical suffering and needs. John Piper, at Cape Town, answered this issue in an interesting way. Christians care about suffering, but they care about eternal suffering more. Perhaps this may help bring the mindset of those who see proclamation as being first and foremost see that suffering does need to be addressed. But ultimately it may still fall short of really helping bring the two sides back together.
I say two sides because that is sadly what has happened in America and the polarization only has seemingly gotten stronger in recent years. Someone recently brought up in a discussion about social justice and missions the fact that the strong split between fundamentalism and modernism really helped bring this false dichotomy arise. And we today are trying to still find the middle ground in this issue. While there are those who value the proclamation of the Gospel as first and foremost (and I cannot disagree that it must be done, and done very clearly) there are also those who have said that doing social justice is a way, if not the way, to proclaim the Gospel. They would say that preaching isn’t necessary if we are showing them Christ’s love through our actions. (Side note: Perhaps the growth of short-term missions has helped this view grow stronger as people many times go and help build and paint houses and do other types of physical labor without much evangelizing). Yet, to not proclaim the Gospel leaves the people we help, feed, etc., without the possibility to place their faith in Jesus Christ. They may see our good acts, and we may have done it as unto Christ, but in the end they are still lost.
So, as I have already said. This is a big topic within the evangelical world today, especially in the realm of overseas missions. But it seems to really only be a topic that troubles us here in the West. It’s not something that causes much divide elsewhere. Plus, it’s not like over the last century the missionaries that have gone have proclaimed the gospel while ignoring the social issues they are surrounded by. When the debate really picked up, it wasn’t like the missionaries shut down the hospitals they started or shut down the clinics, schools, or orphanages they had been working in. It is something that has actually found quite a healthy balance throughout the world and really seems to only be a problem as we turn to American short-term missions. But that is a completely different topic.
So this topic was not a big topic discussion for Lausanne III as many might have thought here in the West. A topic that was discussed however was how to reach out to the diaspora people scattered throughout the world. This is a topic that wasn’t so much addressed through the plenary sessions as much as around the tables and in the hallways. This was also a topic briefly mentioned at one of the sessions that I attended at Urbana 09. It is not talking about immigrants scattered throughout the world. It is talking about groups of people, mass movements, in certain countries. To be a missionary to a certain people, you do not have to go to their home country anymore. To reach out to the Indian people, you can go to Canada. There are 26 million refugees in the world, and those who are away from home are softer to the Gospel message.
This is a topic that is being discussed and it doesn’t look like it is going to be leaving us anytime soon. It is growing more and more prominent in the discussion among the missiologists and those interested in global evangelism.
There are other topics which are hot issues that as time goes on will continue to mold the way missions is addressed in this quickly changing world. Population growth, extreme poverty, rapid urbanization, reactionary fundamentalism, growing violence, globalization, fragmentation and nationalism, the growth of Islam, and religious pluralism are all topics which are shaping what 21st century Christian missions looks like. We’ll see how God continues to shape His kingdom in this quickly changing world.
20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Powerful words of Jesus Christ. Jesus had done many signs and wonders among the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Yet these people were unrepentant and they were not changed by Jesus Christ’s declaration of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Jesus says to the people of these unrepentant cities that if the same mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, two pagan cities that they would have been well aware of, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Jesus goes on by saying that it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgement for that reason. This is a mind blowing statement. This assumes two things:
- There are different degrees of punishment1
- God knows not only all things in the past, present, and future reality. But God also knows all things possible in the past, present, and future.
Let me begin with number one. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:22, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment. This infers that there are different degrees of punishment at the judgment. It seems to be linked to the amount of revelation revealed to and the response of the individual to what has been revealed unto him. So the more truth we have been exposed to the more we are held accountable in the eyes of Christ at the judgment. The ultimate destination is the same for all unbelievers, but the amount of punishment is seemingly determined by how much truth they were exposed to.
Along with this understanding comes with the understanding that God owes salvation to no one. Yes, Jesus Christ died for all mankind, but only those who humble themselves, repent, and believe who He is (the LORD and Savior of all mankind) are given gift of salvation. God owes this gift to no one. This is why missions is so important. The only way people will be exposed to the truth of the Gospel is if we tell them. As Paul put it in Romans, “How will they hear without a preacher? How shall they preach except they be sent?”2 Understanding this aspect helps us understand this whole discussion.
Jesus even goes on to tell them them that because they would not repent that is shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for them. It was well known that Sodom was a land and of people of gross sin and immorality. Yet, Jesus says that if Sodom had seen the mighty works that these unrepentant cities had seen, Sodom would still be around because even they would have repented. This to me seems very powerful.
This brings us to number two. Not only does God know all realities past, present, and future. He knows all possible realities past, present, and future. This to me is phenomenal. God knows that if Sodom would have had the same things preached and had the same mighty works done in it, they would have not been unrepentant as were Chorazin, Betsaida, and Capernaum. Does this mean that God does not judge Sodom? No. He still judges them based upon reality. But this passage does seem to infer that he keeps in account all possible realities. Sodom finds themselves utterly demolished here on earth, and its inhabitants in hell. But perhaps the degree of their punishment is influenced by the possible realities.
One again, this brings back to understanding that God owes salvation to no one. So God is not doing any kind of injustice by judging Sodom for their sin even in light of the reality of not having these mighty works done within it. He judges them fairly based upon their reality of living in sin and immorality.
This helps us understand the role of missions in the world. If we do not tell the lost world about God, they will die and go to hell because they are natural born sinners. Without the hearing of the Word, then there can be no faith in the Gospel. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. There cannot hear the word except it be preached, for God has chosen preaching as his method for spreading the Gospel across this world to all peoples of all cultures of all countries. It is the duty of mankind to tell the world of God’s Gospel. If we do not then the lost die without hope of the Gospel of Christ and go to an eternal hell. If we preach to them the gospel, then they are now accountable to Gospel and they are given the opportunity to accept God’s message and experience life and salvation from hell. They will be given the privilege of an eternal, personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. We must go out and tell those who have not heard!
It is not the responsibility of the preacher/missionary to make sure that everyone he proclaims the Gospel to believes. Jesus Himself did mighty works and preached His word, and yet people still were unrepentant. Those who reject the message will be held more accountable and therefore will be punished more severely. It is not the fault of the preacher. The preacher is to do all that he can to encourage them to repent and believe, but ultimately it is a decision that every individual in this world has to make for himself.
So to bring things back home, how does this relate to us? Well, I look around me and I look to our history (Anglo-Saxon) and I see the Gospel presented fairly consistently. There were some high points and some low points in our history, but overall the Gospel can be found. There are thousands upon thousands of recourses such as books and websites which explain the gospel. There are thousands upon thousands of churches which proclaim the Gospel every week. And perhaps you can hear God say, “
“Woe to you, Chicago! Woe to you, Los Angeles! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Calcutta and Beijing, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Lima and Beijing than for you. And you, New York, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Bangkok, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Bangkok than for you.”
1. I believe that it can also be assumed through other passages that there are differing degrees of reward as well. (Rev. 22:12; 2 Tim. 4:7-8; 1 Cor. 3:12).
Last night I ate dinner with a man and his wife from my local church who were missionaries in Nigeria for over twenty years. They now serve with Overseas Council overseeing seminaries and Bible colleges. Throughout our discussion of our lives we discussed missions in general. As I listened to him discuss his involvement in missions across the world, I thought about the great differences in the spectrum of the various mission fields. The mission field is so needy. The laborers are in such need all around the world. But every area is unique from one another. He discussed how the needs in Nigeria were to keep up with the fast growth of Christianity. He discussed that there really are not enough trained leaders to give the Nigerians more depth to their faith. Many Nigerians are swept away with other false doctrines because of their shallow faith. As I sat and listened to him describe this my heart went out to this country. Oh how I wish I could help prevent wolves from stealing away God’s sheep. Oh how I want to get involved. What a need there is in Nigeria.
But then I remember the country of Japan. A country which lives without ever thinking of Jehovah God. A country hard to the working of God. It’s at the complete opposite side of the spectrum. While Nigeria has in essence too many believers to disciple, Japan many times lacks enough believers to even have church services. Where is the greater need? What about places like the jungles of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea? There are people groups begging for missionaries. Places like Japan ignore Christianity. A missionary can go years without one convert. Is it a waste then for me to go to Japan when there are people groups and tribes and nations who would long for me to come to them? It would seem this way from a simple pragmatic standpoint, but we’re forgetting a major element of missions: God’s call.
There is a difference between need and call. In our eyes it would seem that the places begging for missionaries should be the first place I would go. And a part of me wants to help them out as much as possible. There is something bigger than need, and that is God’s will. God does indeed will that all men come unto the knowledge of the truth. And the truth has been placed in our hands to give to the world. If there are people who are desiring to have a missionary, then someone needs to obey God’s call to go there. But I know that I have been called to Japan. Therefore there is no better place for me to go than to Japan. For there is no safer, nor better place to be than in the middle of God’s will.
From a human standpoint it would seemingly make sense for me to go where I am seemingly needed the greatest. But God knows and sees the whole picture. Japan needs someone who is called to them. That is where I fit in. Who greater needs God than a country that does not even think about Him? Someone needs to tell them about Jesus Christ. God loves all people equally. If people are not hearing about the Gospel, it is not God’s fault. It is our own. Indeed it is true, we have no right to hear the Gospel twice while their remains those who have not heard it once.