International Ministries

Here and there...

January 20, 2011 Journal
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"So, as you travel to all these places, what mission challenges do you see that are common to them all?"                                                                                                    

The questioner was a bright, thoughtful young man who had been paying close attention as the evening's conversation unfolded. He had waited patiently during the Q&A session after my presentation about what it meant for Jesus to "move into the neighborhood" (as Eugene Peterson nicely renders John 1:14) in Vietnam and other places.  He had clearly picked up on my message that "mission" is something God is working on everywhere, not just in faraway places.

So, as the evening drew to a close, he was not going to let me off the hook with vague claims about mission "from everywhere to everyone" (which by the way, is part of the subtitle of a wonderful little book by my inspiring friend and colleague, Samuel Escobar [The New Global Mission:  The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone, IVP: 2003]).  What, in fact, did the challenges facing rural and small town Indiana churches really have in common with the challenges facing missionaries halfway round the world?

Us.  As that brilliant social commentator and sometime theologian Pogo once famously put it, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The young man's question was a wonderful way to "bring it home," to move from a detached discussion of the faraway, to real, personal engagement.  I sincerely thanked him for the question.  For, the mission of God is not about somebody else's transformation.  It is about mine.  And yours.  Likewise, it is not only about transforming the way we talk, or the ideals we claim to believe in (though it certainly includes all of that).  It is about transforming the way we act--and that, right at the source.  I mean, sources.  The heart--yes, absolutely.  But also the world around us, the environment we both shape and are shaped by. 

Long before we become self-aware about the impulses of our innermost selves (our "hearts"), those common human impulses for both good and evil have already been given labels in a specific language and contours drawn with the pen of a particular culture.  As it moves into each specific neighborhood, the gospel of Jesus Christ finds much to affirm and much to challenge.  That is a constant across all cultures.  But this mission constant has myriad expressions, due to our wonderful cultural diversity.

So I responded to the young man's question by saying that in every context, the mission of God seeks to carry out a deeper human transformation than anything we've yet seen, since even those who seek most sincerely and intentionally to follow Jesus make innumerable compromises with our particular culture's way of giving expression to human sinfulness.  To get concrete, I mentioned the struggles Vietnamese face regarding ancestors and those we Americans face regarding money.  In Vietnam, the pastors had shared with me a little of their challenge of living out a Biblical way of honoring ancestors (Exodus 20:12 sounds very different to traditional Vietnamese ears than to, say, 21st century American ears!) while turning away from any hint of idolatry or spirit worship.  In America, the folks at regularly remind us that our own problems with syncretism lead most American Christians to find a way to make "tithe" mean something close to 2% (Paul's warning to Timothy [1 Timothy 6:9-10] seems to make little headway among us... and gets utterly swept away wherever the "gospel of prosperity" takes root).  This was an easy example to cite, since everyone in the room had just come through another cycle of our culture's celebration of wealth.  My deepest identity may be hidden in Jesus, but I still "get it" when Lexus, BMW, Zales and Kay barrage me with the message that I really should have surprised Cathy this Christmas with a very special gift (whether found in the driveway with a big bow, or under the tree with a little bow, the gift would be "very special" simply because it was Very Expensive). 

So, whether our "mission field" is a faraway place of strikingly different language and culture, or the neighborhood our family has lived in for generations, it remains a place where the gospel both celebrates what is good and also seeks ever-deeper transformation of all that is less than God's best for human beings.  Scripture promises and presses toward--and calls us to anticipate--a blessed hope that goes far beyond a "you & me, Jesus" getaway to a heavenly retreat center.  It inspires us to look for and live toward the time when "The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ" (Revelation 11:15).  It tells us the story of One whose patient work to make all things new will one day be fully unveiled in a "new heaven and new earth."

In the meantime, mission continues, as Samuel Escobar puts it, "from everywhere to everyone."  I am grateful to be on this journey not only with the Lord, but also with you.  May the Spirit empower us all to live toward the transformed future God is bringing.


p.s.  I have been meaning to tell you about a wonderful tool for learning and reflecting about mission that has recently become available to anyone with an internet connection--for free!!  I have subscribed to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research for years, and find it consistently informative and thought-provoking.  At you can easily and quickly gain access to this terrific resource.  The current issue includes brief articles on the 4 major mission consultations held around the world last year to both remember and transcend the great mission conference held in Edinburgh in 1910.

p.p.s. If you have ever wondered how many Christians (and Muslims, and Hindus and Buddhists) there are in the world, or wanted to know facts and figures about Christian mission, this is an especially good moment to visit  For, each January the IBMR devotes a few of its pages to an update from the latest research on global Christianity.  Have a look!