Looking Up and Out

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We live in the greatest time in all of history to advance the gospel. We live in a most difficult time in which to pastor and lead a church.

Opportunities abound for believers to share their faith, and the kingdom of God is advancing powerfully among many peoples the world over. At the same time, churches in America face new challenges daily. There’s not space to outline the challenges floating in the sea of opportunity, but many problems are placed in perspective by looking up and out – looking up to God in prayer and contemplation upon His Word, and looking out to the world that so desperately needs God’s grace and mercy.

Whenever God’s people gather they must look up to God in prayer for the lost and needy in their community. They should pray regularly for the persecuted and suffering church, and pray also for the missionaries and their children. Pray that God will forgive us and cleanse us and use us for His glory.

Humbly submitting ourselves to God in prayer when we gather is rarer than you might think. Consider, how much time does your church spend in prayer during your worship services? And for what do you pray? Reading the newspaper will help you know what to pray for in your area. Perhaps your church is connected to one or more missionary families. Do you pray for them regularly? Do you pray for their children? The smallest church can have a powerful, worldwide ministry through prayer. If your church gives to missions through the Cooperative Program, and every Baptist church should, you are supporting 3,600 international missionaries and about 2,000 missionary children. Our missionaries serve in virtually every nation on earth. Ten of our missionaries have given their lives for Christ in the past 15 years. They need our prayer and support, as do the 3,000 church planters in North America and 19,000 seminary students attending one of our six SBC seminaries.

A church that looks up to God in fervent, kingdom prayer, will have better perspective on the challenges they face. A church that prays for kingdom concerns will less likely focus on small and petty things. Likewise, a church that submits to the reading and exposition of God’s Word, with a heart to obey God, will be better equipped to deal with the challenges of contemporary life. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Teach them my Word,” but “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a).

Look up to God in prayer and submission to His Word, and look out to the world in ministry, witness, mission and love of neighbor. Paul told the church in Corinth they were “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3). Your church is a letter from Christ to our world. God’s life is in you. You are His ambassador. Feeble and small in number, but powerful as you look up to God and look out to a world in desperate need of Him.

It is a good day to serve the Lord.

A Missions Miracle in Burma

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I recently returned from speaking at the annual meeting of the Chin Baptist Convention in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches, which I serve, includes about 140 churches that worship in languages other than English, including the Chin Burmese language. It was through one of these churches that I received the invitation. I knew nearly nothing about Chin Baptists in Myanmar, but to preach in the nation where the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, served over 200 years ago made this invitation particularly intriguing. What I did not know was that the evangelization of the Chin people is one of the great mission stories of the past century, and it’s a story few know.

My wife and I flew to Yangon, Myanmar, which is a Buddhist city. About 90 percent of Burmese people profess Theravata Buddhism as their religion, and Yangon has hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhist pagodas, the largest of which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. At 325 feet in height, it is covered in an estimated nine to sixty tons of gold. In addition, millions of dollars in gems are set in the orb and vane atop the pagoda. I’ve never seen anything like it. The relic that such wealth honors is eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha. Ugh!

From Yangon we flew to the ancient city of Mandalay, another Buddhist city in which scores of pagodas are visible from almost any location. From Mandalay we drove 14 hours to Hakha, the capital of the Chin state. The road was tortuous and rough, probably the worst I’ve ever travelled over that distance. During the first several hours Buddhist pagodas were the dominant feature. Then, at the border of the Chin state, we witnessed an amazing transformation in the religious architecture. There was a cross on a hill, then a church at the high point of a small community. When we reached Hakha we discovered we had entered a territory in which churches were the dominant feature, especially Baptist churches. The Chin people are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent claiming Christ as Lord.

So how did the Chin people, who were animists and wholly illiterate, come to faith in Jesus Christ in such great numbers? I don’t know the full story, but it started when American Baptist missionaries, A.E. and Laura Carson, arrived in Hakha in 1899. It took over six years before the first Chin person received Jesus Christ. He was baptized on Jan. 1, 1906. Rev. Carson died the following year of appendicitis, but Mrs. Carson continued her ministry until 1920 when ill health forced her to leave. A few other missionaries came, with the last one being expelled from the country in 1964. The Chin state was then closed to all outsiders for over 50 years. Because of persecution they were allowed to come to the United States as refugees, which explains the large number of Chin people in our country. Only recently has the national government of Myanmar allowed outsiders into the Chin state and my wife and I were among the first to travel there.

The Chin Baptist Convention that invited us has 64 churches and was formed in 2012. They have broken away from the larger group of Chin churches over theological liberalism and they want connections with Southern Baptists. To my amazement they were familiar with the Baptist Faith and Message. They have researched our beliefs and they know of our commitment to missions. They feel a kinship with us and they want to know us better. One thing I was impressed by is their own commitment to reaching the other peoples in Myanmar. Although they are a poor people, they have sent seven missionaries to unreached peoples in their own country. They have also started a theological college that provides three years of training, including two years of Greek study. Their commitment to educating their teachers and pastors is strong. They want American pastors and professors to come and supplement their teaching with one or two-week intensive classes.

I must say, that in all our years of ministry, our experience with our Chin Baptist brothers and sisters was among the best and most humbling experiences we’ve ever had. Never have we met a more generous, gracious people. It was overwhelming. One leader told us, “We know that the hotel and food we have for you are not up to American standards, but we have given you our best. We are trying to do our best.” I don’t think my wife opened a door, or carried a package, while we were there. I thought I was a gentleman, but the Chin men showed me I could do better.
One man summed the Chin people up quite well. He said, “In the Chin state we have no natural resources. We have no factories or manufacturing. We have no seaport and we have no airport. We have only one thing – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we have … and that is the best thing.”

The Chin people are still largely isolated in the mountainous, western part of Myanmar. It’s difficult to get there, accessible only by roads that are quite treacherous. During three days of our 5-day stay, the city was without electricity, though generators were plentiful so we didn’t go without much. So troubled were our hosts about us not having hot water that each morning someone delivered water in canisters which had been heated over a wood fire. Indeed, they did their best. In every way, they did their best. And their best was plenty.

My wife and I are planning a return visit next year. We want to help them get books for their theological college. We want to advocate for them in whatever ways might strengthen their work in reaching the people of Myanmar. And we want to see our friends again. On one occasion when their leadership was apologizing for what they could not do, I said to them, “We often look at ourselves and see what we are not. But when I look at you I see a people of courage, perseverance, generosity and deep faith.” Those weren’t just words. They are an apt description of an isolated and persecuted people, who have so effectively shared Christ across the villages in the Chin hills, that they are more Christian than almost any people, anywhere, in the entire world.

Make Disciples: Part 3 – Discipling a Church

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Parts 1 and 2 of “Making Disciples” focused on discipling the nation and the community. In Part 3 the focus is the local church, which is the means God uses to disciple individuals, a community and a nation. A community becomes more Christian when local churches take the gospel to their community, love their community, and lead the individuals in their community to Christ. But for this to happen there must be a church in the community that behaves “Christianly.” What does it mean to behave Christianly and how does a church do it?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple all of the nations” is followed by two actions steps – baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded. Baptism is the public act of identifying with Jesus Christ and His church. In the New Testament, baptism followed immediately after one’s personal profession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Making disciples begins with gospel witness (evangelism) by which individuals, and sometimes entire households, come to profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in believer’s baptism.

Following baptism, making disciples is described by the phrase “teaching them to observe” all of the commands that Jesus gave to the eleven remaining disciples (Matt. 28:20). Those who commit to Christ must learn to obey all of the teachings of Jesus. Now, here’s an observation: many churches are better at teaching the meaning of the Scriptures than teaching obedience to the Scriptures. In sermons and Bible lessons the “What?” is often taught, but not the “Now what?”

So how do church leaders teach the church to obey Christ commands? You can do so by doing these three things.

1. Destiny – Teach every believer that he/she has a purpose in God’s kingdom. Every person “in Christ” has a destiny, a reason for being and a role to fulfill in the Body of Christ. Every person matters. Throughout the New Testament we see this, and God’s people must be taught to read the Scriptures with a view to discovering their own purpose in God’s work. Every believer has spiritual gifting and therefore each has a purpose in what God is accomplishing in the world. The purpose of the church, and of each believer, must be addressed from the pulpit monthly at the very least. It must be taught in small groups. And we must teach our children, in the home, and in the church, that they have a destiny to fulfill in God’s kingdom.

2. Opportunity – Provide the church with opportunities to obey the teachings of Christ. With varying degrees of effectiveness, churches provide opportunities to worship, to contribute to God’s work financially, to walk with God’s people in unity, and to serve God through the ministries of the church and in their daily lives. But some churches are much better at giving people specific opportunities to answer the question “Now what?” Every sermon and Bible lesson should answer this question. The programing and ministry of the church should provide opportunities for God’s people to “do acts of obedience.” Things like evangelism training and sharing the gospel, mission projects, serving widows, and serving the poor and needy, help give opportunities for God’s people to obey Him. Church leaders should regularly ask the question, “How can we show God’s love to our community? How can we take the gospel to our community and to peoples beyond?” These questions will lead to opportunities for serving God (talk to civic and school leaders to get a better understanding of community needs). Also, don’t forget to provide opportunities to celebrate what God does and to pray for God to work through the opportunities provided by the church. How much praying does your church do on Sunday morning that focuses on loving the community and sharing Christ? Are you giving your people opportunities to pray for community leaders, pray for the lost, pray for missionaries, and pray for the persecuted church? Each local church needs to connect with the worldwide church through prayer. A small church can have a huge impact by praying for big things.

3. Responsibility – Lead each of God’s people to take personal responsibility for answering the call to love God and to love their neighbors. Each believer needs to take responsibility for God’s work. Opportunities provided must be seized by God’s people as they take personally the task of sharing Christ with the lost and loving their neighbors.

From a programming perspective, individual churches will address these three things in different ways. But think about those in the Scriptures whom God has greatly used. Think about those throughout history, and even those you know personally through whom God has done great things. Each of these people had a sense of destiny. Each of them created and seized opportunities. And each of them took personal responsibility for serving God. A church that leads its people to do these things will become a dynamic church, greatly used of God, no matter its numerical size.

Make Disciples – Part 2, Discipling a community

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In Part 1 of “Make Disciples” we focused on the wording of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus told the Eleven that they were to “disciple all the nations.” Working on the premise that the greatest mission success of the 19th Century was the Christianization of the United States, I suggested that discipling the U.S. was a matter of evangelization, resulting in church starting, followed by the formation of Christian ministries and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages, among other things.

Now, let’s think about “discipling the community.” When I served in the Bible belt state of Oklahoma I learned that while Oklahoma was more churched than Washington State, there was still great variation from one community to the next regarding church attendance. In some communities well under 10 percent attended church on a given Sunday, while in others more than 40 percent were in church. In the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), while church attendance is below that of southern states, and the number of churches is lower for the population, there are some exceptions to this. There are communities in the Northwest that are quite Christian and church attendance is high.

So how does a community become more Christian? First, we must understand that it takes generations to disciple a nation or a community. Discipleship implies more than making God’s Word known to a community or a people. It requires that God’s Word penetrate into the distinctive ways of thought, relational networks, and those special ways of doing things that give a community its commonality, coherence, and identity. Discipling a community means that biblical truth and thinking must enter the patterns of thought and life of that community. The way a people think and make decisions, the bonds that hold a community together, don’t change or develop quickly. It is a long process (see Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 50).

Second, some towns are more Christian because exceptional pastors and other godly leaders gave their lives to discipling the community. Spiritual leadership makes a huge difference, especially when a city is blessed with great leaders spanning two or more generations.

Pastors and churches can do several things to disciple their community. First, pray for your community, its leaders, churches, businesses, school and children. Pray for the various groups of people in the community. Prayer might seem obvious, but doing the obvious doesn’t always happen. Most churches devote little time to praying for their community during their public worship services. As one who worships in 40 or more churches each year I can tell you that I seldom hear prayer that lifts up the local community, or any Kingdom or mission concerns.

Second, identify the various networks of people in the community (language and ethnicity, social groupings, occupational groups, sports community, arts community, etc.), pray for them, and explore ways to connect with them. The larger the town the more groupings of people there will be. But even in a small town you will have several different groupings. It could be that your church members are already a part of several different groups.

Third, identify community needs and those who are working/tasked to meet those needs. As you identify needs, explore ways that God might use your church to meet one or more of these needs. Schools and service organizations often welcome churches who offer to help them.

Fourth, build relationships and friendships with community leaders. If you care about your community leaders as individuals, and aren’t seeking to “get something” from them, God can bless these relationships in unexpected ways.

Fifth, focus on children and young people. When discipling a community, do not neglect the young ones. In childhood we develop our sense of right and wrong and personal disciplines. A child can and will learn almost anything, and they can become anything God wants them to become. The older we get the harder it is to change behaviors, values, careers, everything. Decisions we make as adolescents will shape our entire lives. Nothing a church does is more important than what it does to love and reach children for Jesus Christ.

Sixth, orient the ministry of the church to obeying the teaching of Scripture in ways that connect with the needs of your community. Your town is unlike any other town. There is no “model church” doing what your church needs to do because each community is different and the particular composition of the Body of Christ is different for each local church and for the local churches in a particular community.

There is much more that could be said, and examples that could be given, to elaborate and illustrate how to disciple a community. But one final thought might help – learn to both “love” and “like” your church and your town. If we don’t find a way to love and like the people where we serve we will limit our effectiveness. God’s work is all about our relationship with Him and with others. Both must be strong for Him to use us to disciple our town.

Make Disciples – Part 1, Discipling a Nation

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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.

We are Family

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If you’re over 50 the phrase “we are family” might bring the Sister Sledge 1979 pop song to mind. But recent events have reminded me that Baptists really are family. For example, when Jimmy Stewart of the Alaska Baptist Convention received devastating third degree burns in July, he was flown to a Seattle hospital. Upon arrival NWBC persons and pastors were onsite assisting the family with transportation and housing needs. A similar request came when a mission team member from Alabama was flown to a Seattle hospital in September. Staff at the Puget Sound Association responded to a request from his Alabama pastor who knew that his Baptist family in Washington would minister to his church member.

Requests like these are not unusual. Recently a Baptist family member in the south requested that we find an Oregon church to help a friend in crisis, and we did. Another shared that when their child moved from Oregon to Massachusetts they contacted our Baptist family in Boston who helped this young couple move into their apartment.

In August our Northwest Baptist family sent 163 from 32 of our churches to minister to 1,100 family members (missionaries) serving in Asia. Our missionaries depend on us to support them through the Cooperative Program, but they also need their Baptist family to pray for them and join them on their mission field. They invited us to help them in their training retreat because we are their family. Twenty-two of these same missionaries will spend nine days with us in early October, helping us know better how to reach Asian peoples living in the Northwest, among other things (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org).

This summer we received an application from a church that wants to affiliate with the NWBC. This church has a large ministry, with thirteen members attending seminary and several serving in international missions. Their small group ministry includes learning Old Testament Hebrew and others studying biblical theology at a very high level.

So why do they want to affiliate with the NWBC? They are looking for family. They are a church without the extended family that Baptists have. They don’t have associations, conventions, seminaries, mission boards, and a support system beyond their own town. As Baptists, we even have an insurance and retirement system for our pastors (GuideStone).

Like all families, we have our disagreements, crazy uncles, loudmouthed cousins, and dysfunctional branches on the family tree. Sometimes these things frustrate us. But where would we be without our extended family?

In November the NWBC family will gather in Spokane for our annual meeting. We will celebrate what God is doing in our Northwest family with abundant testimonies and worship. Our family will even gather around tables Tuesday, Nov. 15, for a prime rib dinner (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). It will be a sweet time of fellowship. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Northwest Baptist Mission Team Returns from Asia

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The following is an email I sent to the volunteers who served several hundred missionaries and their children living in places throughout Asia. The Northwest Baptist Convention constructed a team of 163 individuals from 32 of our churches to do this good work.

Dear Asia Mission Team,

Well done! Remarkable really. When you consider that 163 of us travelled to Asia to minister to hundreds of missionaries and their children, that we all arrived safely, remained quite healthy, and got home in good shape, and left our missionaries with profound gratitude for our having served them and their children so well, it is most appropriate to call it a work of God’s grace in our lives.

I don’t think our minds could have conceived of a better or more consequential mission trip. As a good ball coach might say, “You left it all on the field.” You gave everything of yourself, all of your energy, all of your love, and then you gave some more. The days were long, and there were 10 of them in a row for most, not counting travel and prep days. But you did it. I trust that in the days to come you will get to share some of what you experienced. I also know that we will never fully understand what this retreat meant to our field missionaries. You gave their children a gift more profound than we will possibly understand this side of heaven.

Few Southern Baptists have ever gotten “up close” to so many of our international missionary families. We were privileged to experience some of the result of our Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon International Mission giving. We have great field missionaries and they have many precious children.

We also demonstrated what cooperation looks like to our NWBC and the greater SBC family. To pull individuals and groups from 32 churches together, and to gain the support and prayers of our other 430 churches, was a work of faith. Regarding the work part of it, I must say that Project Coordinator Sheila Allen did an outstanding job in every way. Our sub-coordinators Lance Logue, Sara Eves, Dan and Laurie Panter, and Nancy Hall, were equally outstanding in the leadership they provided. I hesitate to mention others because each of you deserve special mention and each of you has a story to tell about your experience. I hope you get to share your story with many. At our NWBC Annual Meeting on Nov. 15, 2016 in Spokane, we will celebrate our East Asia partnership and this trip. If you can be present that will be truly special.

Perhaps the most affirming thing of all is that our mission leaders want us to serve them again in 2018. They gave you a “10” for your service and I would certainly concur.

Jesus is worth all that we can do and more, and the peoples of Asia need to know Him like we do. Thank you for helping 1.7 billion people have a chance to hear the good news of Jesus Christ through the missionaries into whom you poured your lives.

It’s a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest, and from the Northwest to the world beyond!

Randy