Posted in missions & evangelism

Peoples transformed: sharing Christ cross-culturally

Early_Benin_1If transformation is a key biblical concept, then grace is what makes it happen. Grace – a metaphor for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – is one of the most powerful forces known to humanity. When God’s grace changes a person, it spills over to touch members of the entire family, even whole communities.

Yet the book of Acts doesn’t stop there. The power of the Holy Spirit – like sound waves from a sonic boom – travels outward, transforming everything in its path. The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is the divine sonic boom, and the rest of Acts records the echoes.

No one culture or nation can trap God in a bottle, cork it, and taunt: “We have God in a bottle and we’re not sharing!” The good news of Jesus Christ is good news for all, or it is not good news at all.

Into the nations: from centripetal to centrifugal

In Matthew 28, our risen Lord appeared to his disciples on a hill outside Jerusalem. These were his parting words before he returned to his Father. What would he say to the men with whom he had spent 3 amazing years? Verses 18-20 (CEB) capture the moment:

I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 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, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you until the end of this present age.

This is the moment when disciples (followers) became sent ones (apostles). In physics, a centripetal force draws an object and keeps it in a fixed orbit, preventing it from flying outward. In the Old Testament, the people of God were to be centripetal. This is Isaiah’s vision: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).

But something radical transpires in Matthew 28. Standing outside of Jerusalem – the very city alluded to in Isaiah’s vision – Jesus does not call the disciples to a centripetal mission. Instead, their mission is to be centrifugal. Think of the mud that cakes on a tire. The faster the tire spins, the more mud that flies off in all directions. Now, God doesn’t call us to fly off and make the world dirty! But the point remains: Jesus calls us not to stay but to go and transform. In the New Testament, the people of God are centrifugal; in the new order, God sends us on a cross-cultural mission.

Timothy Tennent describes the church’s task and the centrifugal force that enables it:

The central way the Holy Spirit brings the New Creation into the present is through empowering the church to proclaim the gospel in word and deed in the midst of all contextual challenges that the present evil order presents.

An Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2010), 96.

Getting out of our comfort zone

Those whom the church sends on a cross-cultural mission to other peoples are known as missionaries. Though the word “missionary” never appears as such in the New Testament, the Greek noun apostolos captures its meaning. An apostle is one who is sent with a message. In Acts 13:2-3 (CEB) we read about the first missionary sending service:

As they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Appoint Barnabas and Saul to the work to which I have called them to undertake.’ After they fasted and prayed, they laid their hands on these two and sent them off.

For centuries, many believed that the command from Christ in Matthew 28:18-20 – sometimes called the Great Commission – was only intended for the early church. William Carey (1761-1834) is known as the father of modern missions because he challenged that idea, insisting that every generation has the  responsibility to obey the “go” command from Christ. Carey is said to have pleaded with fellow pastors in England about the necessity of going to other parts of the world to evangelize those who knew nothing of Christ, people who – insensitively by modern standards – were labeled “heathen.” He was interrupted by a senior minister who railed:

Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.

William Carey, the 18th century father of modern missions
William Carey, father of modern missions

Whether we justify our inactivity with a deterministic theology like that of Carey’s skeptical colleague or some other way, let’s face it:

Missions pushes us out of our comfort zone.

For Carey, God sent him to India where he had to learn a new language and where he and his wife faced many hardships, including the death of their 5 year old son, Peter. Yet that kind of sacrifice can be repeated today. In Cotonou, Benin (West Africa), my wife, sons and I were part of a tight-knit group of missionary families who met every Sunday night for Bible study and prayer. It rocked our world when James – just 8 years old and the son of another missionary family – succumbed to malaria. His parents and brothers went home to mourn, taking his body for a funeral and burial. Many would have understood if they had stayed home, but a year later, they returned to their Bible translation work in Benin. From their perspective, the choice was clear: People in darkness needed the light of God’s Word in their own language.

What is at stake?

Missions is multi-faceted. Some relocate to foreign nations to serve as nurses or doctors. Others organize remote villagers without clean water to help them dig a well. A few pilot planes, ferrying workers and supplies into remote areas. Still others put computer tech skills to work, helping keep essential tools for ministry humming. Many missionaries serve as preachers and teachers of Bible and theology, equipping believers responding to God’s call to ministry as pastors, evangelists, or chaplains who will impact the world’s great cities. Whatever the assignment, the motivation behind service is the same:

I’m not a missionary because I can; I’m a missionary because I must.

A sense that God has spoken and said “go” will keep a missionary at his or her post when the going inevitably gets tough. Equally importantly, missionaries believe that something crucial is at stake, and that “something” are someones, human beings for whom Christ died and rose again. Knowing their suffering – both physical and spiritual – and the transforming work of New Creation that God longs to work in their lives keeps missionaries motivated. Likewise, to care for creation and work for the preservation of the Earth is to care for the people whose welfare is wrapped-up with the the planet that is our home.

Because missionaries love people, they also are willing to spend long hours to learn new languages. Communication in a people’s heart language is essential in order to winsomely invite others to be reconciled to God through Christ. Missionaries point forward to resurrection, to a time when God will make all things new, establishing a new Heaven and a new Earth where God’s own will live together in harmony and forever worship the Three-in-One God. What a promise, and what an incentive to surmount linguistic and cultural barriers with the Good News of Jesus!

Together on the rescue mission

A little girl fell down inside a dark well. The village rallied together to rescue her. The well was narrow and only one man was skinny enough to fit inside the narrow shaft. Others formed a human anchor line and another found a rope. “I need your help,” the man pleaded as he tied the rope around his waist. “I’m going into the well now, but I need all of  you not just to lower me down but to keep holding the rope.

Could you sacrifice something optional so others can have something necessary?

God’s great rescue mission is a team effort. There’s a job for everyone to do. While many can participate in life-changing short term mission trips of 1-2 weeks, not all can be sent long-term; vocational missions is for those well both in mind and body. Yet there are many things believers who stay home can do. Faithful prayers offered for lonely missionaries deployed far from home make a difference, and an encouraging note by e-mail or social media saying “I prayed for you today” often comes at a missionary’s lowest moment. If God has blessed you with resources beyond your daily needs, make a monthly pledge to help pay a missionary’s salary. Even those with modest income may be surprised how much can be given if one gives up a designer cup of coffee or sugar-laden soft drinks. Your health will benefit and so will the cause of global missions.

Summing it all up

 Jesus commands us to go into all the world to make disciples. God the Holy Spirit empowers the church, sending her across language and cultural barriers with the message of the Gospel. The New Creation message is that God wants to renew all things, the Earth and all who inhabit it. Transformation happens when people are reconciled to God through Christ, yet this rescue mission will only succeed if the whole church works together. Each of us has a part to play. What will your contribution be?


Image credits

William Carey –

Coffee –


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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