Make Disciples – Part 1, Discipling a Nation

Standard

Church historians sometimes call the 19th Century the missionary century. Following William Carey’s publication of An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen in 1792, and his subsequent move to India the following year, hundreds followed Carey in obedience to the missionary call. They travelled to Africa and Asia and South America and to the remote islands of the South Pacific Ocean. Those who survived became legends and heroes of subsequent generations. David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, John Paton and Lottie Moon are among those we revere.

But of all the 19th Century missionary endeavors, none was as successful as the effort to evangelize the young, expanding nation called the United States of America (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 4; also Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 227). Rodney Stark documents how this happened in his excellent book The Churching of America. In summary, the United States was churched, not so much by missionary heroes, as by ordinary believers, some of whom were preachers, who evangelized and planted churches as the nation grew to the west. The most successful of these were the Baptists because they were not stymied by denominational polity or steep educational qualifications.

So what did those 19th Century pioneers do to reach the United States for Christ? Simply put, they discipled the nation. Every church leader knows the Great Commission. Or do they? What comes to mind when you hear the term “Great Commission?” If you’ve studied Matthew’s version you know that the key verb is “make disciples,” and it is an imperative verb, a single word in the original language. The command is to “disciple all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Think about that command – “disciple all the nations.” What does that mean? How do you do it? What does a discipled nation look like? Many have understood the command to mean that we are to make “some” disciples from among all the “people groups” in the world. But is that what it means, or does it mean that we are to do precisely what it says – “disciple all the nations?”

Personally, I have never been convinced that our evangelism and missionary strategies should be fashioned so as to “win at least a few converts” from among all of the many thousands of nations (people groups) in the world, so that each will be represented around God’s throne in glory. Yes, all the peoples of the world will be represented before the throne, and this will be a “great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9). But the Scripture also says of God that “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). That means that God doesn’t want a single individual to perish, not one.

I don’t intend by this to disregard or lessen in any way those who are spending their lives among isolated peoples, in difficult places, sharing Christ and spending their lives so as to see the first converts from among an unreached people. These missionaries are my heroes and should be supported and encouraged in every way. They are doing the incredibly hard work of going from zero believers to one believer, and zero churches to one church. I’m simply saying that in our preaching and strategizing we should strive to share the gospel with every single individual, in every house and hut, on every hill and in every valley, and in each language spoken on the earth. If 90 percent of the people of a nation have heard the gospel, but my loved ones are among the 10 percent who have not heard, that is a personal disaster which would cause me to deeply grieve because the destination of a person without Christ is hell.

I’ll address in a subsequent article how “discipling all the nations” can be applied to a local church or individual, but let’s think first about how the United States became a discipled nation (Note: To say that a nation is discipled is not to say that it will remain discipled. Historically many nations were once more discipled than they are at present, including the United States).

In large measure the first Europeans that moved to the land that became the United States were Christians. They weren’t all Christians, but they certainly weren’t Hindus or Muslims or Zoroastrians. The governing document of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact, stated that they had undertaken “for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith.” Early on, men like John Elliot sought to evangelize Native Americans. The early immigrants were largely a Christian people. I don’t mean by this that they all knew Jesus. I simply mean that our nation was largely settled by a people with a Christian background.

When the First and Second Great Awakenings happened in the 18th and 19th Centuries, many colonists and Americans were spiritually converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Differently than converts in Saudi Arabia or India today, however, these early American converts did not “leave” a religion and join a new religion. In many cases they came to a saving faith in the God they already claimed to confess as God.

As the new nation migrated westward, believers did as well. Along the famed Oregon Trail were Christians like David Lenox, who, finding no church where he settled, started one in his cabin west of present day Portland, OR. Lenox was not a preacher, but a Baptist layman who founded the first Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains on May 25, 1844. Twelve years later there were 26 Baptist churches in Oregon, not because of missionaries sent from the East, but because of laypeople and preachers who started churches wherever they settled.

Evangelizing people and starting churches are the first steps toward discipling a nation. Then, in the United States, schools, and even hospitals, were soon started by Christian settlers. In Portland, OR, Rev. Horace Lyman and Rev. N. Doane were among those who started schools in the early years. A Google search of the first schools in most any town, universities included, will reveal that most of the first schools in the Colonies and in the U.S.A. in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were founded by Christians. The same is true of hospitals, orphanages, anti-slavery organizations, and temperance societies. Thus, I would propose that the United States became a “discipled nation” because churches were founded, and these churches moved out from the church to begin schools and other organizations that benefited the communities and furthered the mission of the churches. Churches penetrated their communities and transformation occurred as a result.

What does this mean for your church and your community? How do you disciple your community? How do you disciple a church or and individual? These are questions we will explore in subsequent articles.

Suggestions for Churches Concerning Refugees and Immigrants

Standard

On Tuesday of this week the Los Angeles school district cancelled classes in all 900 of its schools because of a terroristic threat. This comes less than two weeks after 14 people were murdered during an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, CA in a terrorist act in which one of the perpetrators was a recent immigrant to our nation via a fiancé visa program. The Disney Resorts, and others too, are revamping their security procedures, which will include various methods of detecting weapons and bombs. These acts and actions followed significant political debate on whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees who have fled the murderous chaos in their country. The ongoing political debate regarding terrorism and immigration is exacerbated by the fact that we are in the midst of a presidential election.

I have noticed that issues such as these are often discussed in our churches, and sometimes they are addressed from the pulpit. Pastors and Bible teachers struggle with whether to address some of the hot issues of the day, and, if they do address them, they wrestle with how to speak to such matters. I do not claim to have all of the answers, but I’d like to offer some suggestions that I pray are helpful when addressing the various issues surrounding immigration, including the immigration of Syrian refugees and others from predominately Islamic nations.

First, the people who attend our churches and Bible classes do not attend to hear what the pastor or Bible teacher “thinks” about the issues of the day, they come to hear what God’s Word says about the issues. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address the hot issues of the day from the pulpit. I believe that we must do so, and that failure to do so can make us less relevant. But we are not called to preach what we think or to express our opinion. We are called by God to preach and teach His Word.

So, regarding the topic of Syrian refugees, or immigration policy in general, I would suggest that we address the believer’s responsibility concerning newcomers to our community, and the churches responsibility to make disciples of all nations. Whether certain peoples should be allowed into our country, and how many should be allowed into our country, is a political issue that cannot be addressed with biblical specificity or authority (Should we admit 10,000? 100,000? 10,000,000? Zero? Do you have a Bible verse for this?). There are biblical principles regarding the role of the state and her leaders, but the specific application of the principles to the Syrian refugee crisis moves into the area of opinion and politics very quickly.

Furthermore, the local church and the individual believer have little to no effect on how the matter is resolved nationally. I may have an opinion, but what difference does my opinion really make (my vote will be partly based on my opinion, but my sermon won’t be)? That said, the local church and individual believer can have a huge impact on a particular immigrant family that moves into their community. On this the Bible is clear: we are to love our neighbors, love our enemies, and share the gospel with them. The political questions concerning immigration can be debated, but the responsibility of the church to the “stranger in our midst” is not something up for debate. We are to love them and share Jesus with them. In this way, we are not preaching what we “think,” we are declaring and doing what God’s Word says about the matter. Therefore, we should separate what we “think” about proper immigration policy from how we respond to the immigrant that moves next door.

Second, churches do not exist merely to grow their ministry. Churches are intended by God to bring the transforming message of Christ to their neighborhood, their city, and to the nations beyond. The migration and immigration of peoples often presents churches a unique opportunity to plant new churches in their city, churches that are better equipped to reach immigrant communities.

Last week I received a message from one of our newest churches that an immigrant family was arriving in our area. This family speaks Nepali. Of our 484 churches, we have three that worship in the Nepali language. All three are new churches. All three were formed to reach first generation immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan. And all three were started by our NWBC convention of churches to reach an immigrant people that an English language church couldn’t reach. One of our Nepalese language churches met this new family at the airport, and drawing upon the resources of other churches in our convention (the fruit of cooperation!), they are ministering the love of God to this family. Praise God!

Yesterday I went to my doctor for a minor medical procedure and the physician’s assistant who did the procedure told me that she was an immigrant from Vietnam. She said that she was one of the original “boat people” (the boat people were Vietnamese who fled when South Vietnam collapsed and the Communists took control in 1975). She was eight years old when her family fled. They spent a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before a church in America sponsored them and brought them to America. She loves the Lord. She loves that church. And she loves America. Her story brought back memories for me, when, as an eighth grader, I taught English to two Vietnamese boys who were “boat people.” They were the only Vietnamese family that moved to Whitefish, MT. They were welcomed into our school and community. They worked hard, and they did well.

Third, invite an immigrant family into your home and get to know them. Only 25 percent of immigrants are ever invited into the home of an American. When they are, they feel greatly honored. This week, I connected a Chinese family in Beijing, China to an American friend who lives there. The Chinese family was neighbors of ours for about 9 months in Oklahoma City. We met them the day they arrived from China. We invited them to our home for dinner, and they invited us to theirs. We shared Christ with them, gave them a Bible, and loved on their little boy. They moved to Singapore and we moved to the Northwest. But we have kept touch via Facebook. He’s been reading the Bible. The family has taken a huge step toward Jesus. I don’t know if they are there yet, but when they decided to move to Beijing, they asked if I could connect them with a church there. And so I have. What a blessing! It began with dinner in our home.

There are serious political issues and questions that are being debated in our nation. I don’t have much control over what will happen nationally and politically. But I have a lot to say about the immigrant next door. What to do about them is a question easily answered. I am to love them, welcome them, pray for them, and share Jesus with them. On a day soon to come, there will be people from every nation worshipping our Lord. I hope our Chinese neighbors are in that number. I hope the family that arrived from Nepal last week is in that number. I hope your neighbors are in that number as well.