As Lutheranism in North America has experienced major reshuffling the past few decades, many congregations are being challenged to get directly involved with Global Mission. But this can run headlong into a major obstacle hidden just below the surface.
Does the church still have a message to proclaim?
The bus was crowded as we rolled across the Russian countryside in the foothills just west of the Ural Mountains. It was standing room only, which was pretty common on the buses and marshutkas (little minibuses) that provide public transportation across this vast country of 145 million people. I have been in close quarters many times since, but never quite like this. But it wasn’t the crowd — it was what happened spontaneously that night that I’ll never forget.
It was October 1992, in the early months of freedom after the collapse of the USSR. I was riding back to Nytva with the local pastor and musicians from the church worship team. It had been an encouraging evening, our first evangelistic meeting at a movie theater in a neighboring town where we were in the early stages of planting a church. There were perhaps 20 of us from the church, including my team of six Americans, but the bus easily had 60 people packed inside.
Suddenly someone in our group began to sing some simple worship songs about Jesus in Russian. I recognized the melodies and softly began to hum along. Soon others joined them, and before long the bus was filled with voices singing praise to God for His gift of life in Jesus Christ. One song followed another, hymns and choruses, with many more beyond our group singing along with smiles and laughter.
Those in our group who sang along were celebrating the truth about Jesus Christ. There was great joy among them because the movie theater had been full of people, young and old, who responded in great numbers to the preaching of the Gospel just an hour before. I savored that unforgettable half hour on the bus as I watched many celebrate the freedom to publicly sing about God after two generations of what Lenin decreed as “scientific atheism.”
As we traversed the starlit landscape, I marveled that this was happening on a public bus, 6,000 miles from my home, in a country where 18 months earlier this would have been impossible. It was truly a transcendent moment that night, in a very public place, as the uniqueness of God’s gift of His Son Jesus was unashamedly, and unexpectedly, proclaimed.
We live in an increasingly pluralistic culture.
And even some Christians have a tough time with the radically exclusive statements Jesus made about Himself:
“I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
— John 14:6, NIV
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
— John 6:35, NIV
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
— John 14:9, NIV
Even in Jesus’ day some found these and other truths hard to hear, so they turned aside from following Him. But the test of the truth of Jesus’ words is not found by popular vote or public perception.
For Jesus’ disciples, and those who believed through their word, taking the message to people wasn’t hindered by fear of disturbing the worldview or sensibilities of their hearers. They knew they had a message that all needed to hear, and the Risen Jesus had commissioned them to do just that!
James Kallas reflected on the radical message and unflappable courage of the Early Church when he wrote:
For the first three hundred years of its existence, the earliest followers of Jesus were battered and beaten, beheaded, thrown to lions, torn asunder. And what was the charge? Atheism! The Church flatly refused to recognize the legitimacy of any other form of worship. The Roman gods were empty idols. The Pantheon was powerless. The key word for those who left father and family and fishing net behind to follow Jesus was not diversity, but exclusivity. Thus, they wrote of Jesus that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
— James Kallas (from “Destructive Tolerance.” FOCL News 18, no.1, Fall 2007.)
A generation or two ago, Christians in general and most Lutherans in particular didn’t have much of a problem with what Jesus said about Himself. For the Early Church, and for many prior to this last generation, it was simple: Jesus said it, the Bible taught it, and many of us simply believed it.
I once worked with an old Lutheran evangelist from the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement (LEM). He liked to say:
“God said it and that settles it, whether I believe it or not.”
What happened to undermine this kind of bedrock confidence in the Word of God? The relativistic, pluralistic thinking of our day works its way into the church, as many increasingly buy into the maxim that “everyone’s truth is equally valid.”
Moreover, it is quite difficult to get enthusiastic about sharing the Gospel with the lost if everyone is already going to heaven!
The command of Jesus to His disciples, His church, is to take the Good News of the Gospel to all people! We are not accountable for the way God has chosen to reveal Himself and redeem mankind. We must not abandon the truth that Jesus is still the light of the world and He asks us to go into the world with His light. Bringing His light is not merely bringing peace, justice and good will. It is proclaiming the Cross of Christ, the liberating truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that Jesus died for sinners so we could have eternal life.
Paul’s question, his appeal, is more than rhetorical, and calls for an answer:
“…there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”
— Romans 10:13-15a, NIV
How will we respond?
How will people hear?
Who will send, pray for and support those who answer the call to go?
The next generation of missionaries will come from our Sunday schools, confirmation classes and youth groups. Congregations large and small do have an essential role in the Great Commission. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is ours to proclaim.
With Paul, we too can say with our lips and our lives:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
— Romans 1:16-17, NIV