By Elizabeth Turman —
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Great Commission- Therefore go and make disciples…
As a child of Southern Baptist missionaries, I grew up with the charge of the Great Commission ringing in my ears. This was my family’s mission statement and the raison d’etre for the missionary community in which I was raised. Each annual missionary gathering–“mission meeting”–we would hear heart-felt vibrato renditions of “People Need the Lord.” Our coffee tables were graced with copies of “Operation World” where we could pray specifically for unreached people groups (UPG–people groups with less than 2% of Christian converts) who still needed to hear the good news of the gospel.
Heroes within evangelical missionary circles were often the missionaries that went into “closed” countries where missionaries were not legally permitted, usually predominantly Muslim countries. To me growing up, these courageous individuals had the intrigue and sexiness of a mission-minded 007s. They were in Muslim countries with work visas to provide a skill like teaching english or business classes, but they had a secret life….english teacher by day, church planter by night! They witnessed, had spiritual conversations, and offered furtive Bible studies, all with the threat of being thrown out of the country or even jailed. When they wrote to their home churches in the US, they used special code to talk about God, converts, and church gatherings. It was all very exciting. My family was not of this elite variety, but since we served in Africa, we had our fair share of elephant adventures and malaria survival that was almost as good.
Like any other person raised in an imperfect family, I’ve had my own journey working through my family and faith heritage. In my twenties I struggled deeply with my faith but realized much of my angst was with church and culture than with God. My childhood love of Jesus endured. As I reach middle age, I find myself in another expression of the church–the new monastic movement. This part of the church is in the justice stream and uses language such as solidarity, reconciliation and peacemaking to describe missional living.
While I am thankful to have a more holistic view of salvation that addresses systemic forces in our world as well as the individual, I still hold dear the challenge of the Great Commission which sometimes isn’t emphasized as much in social justice circles. As I seek to be a good neighbor, a person of peace and work towards reconciliation in my city, I long for the struggling, the lonely, and the restless that I meet in my neighborhood to experience the goodness of Jesus, his healing and redemptive love. In a world of growing polarization, I long for Christ to reconcile the extremism, violence, and isolation that increasingly characterize our country and communities. I find myself yearning along side those in my Southern Baptist childhood for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven as the gospel is shared to the ends of the earth.
But what happens when the ends of the earth come to you?
We live in a time of great change. There is a sense that the old order is crumbling and something new is emerging but it is not clear what that new thing is.
One of the changes is the current global refugee crisis. There is a historically unprecedented amount of displaced people in the world right now, some 65 million according to the UN Refugee Agency. I find it interesting that millions of the people in formerly “closed” Muslim nations such as Afghanistan and Syria are standing and knocking at the doors of predominantly Christian nations hoping to find welcome and refuge.
Yet will they find refuge? Will they find welcome?
With every terrorist attack around the globe, there is a growing fear of Muslims both inside and outside the church even though the chances of an American dying from a terrorist attack by a foreigners is one in 3.6 billion. This fear has led to a national debate in the US about whether or not to open our country’s doors to refugees from Muslim countries. One glaring problem in closing our nation’s doors to people from Muslim countries, Americans (and the American Church) are turning our backs on some of the most vulnerable and desperate people in the world. We are shunning those who have already suffered greatly- punishing the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS. As Ed Stetzer, chairman of the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College writes: “Fear is a real emotion, and it can cause us to make decisions we wouldn’t have otherwise made. Fear leads us to fix our eyes inward instead of on the “other.” …But at the core of who we are as followers of Christ is a commitment to care for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the abused and the wanderer.” In Matthew 25 and throughout the Biblical story, the call is clear. God’s people are called to welcome the stranger and the least of these as they would welcome Jesus himself. Will the American church live faithful to this call?
Stories I have read from England and Germany tell of how there is a growing movement of Muslim migrants and refugees who are converting to Christianity. Diverse news sources from Fox News, Christian Broadcasting News (CBN) to the British Guardian, report how immigrants are giving new life to dying European churches. These conversions are complicated and controversial because baptized refugees are more likely to be given asylum in their host country, so the churches are having to create rigorous discipleship to prove the authenticity of conversion before providing baptism. Yet despite the messiness of these stories, it is clear that God’s Spirit is at work calling the “lost”, those desperate for good news and salvation (in a spiritual and literal physical sense) to Himself.
Jesus’ Great Commission is clear that we need to “go and make disciples of all nations.” When I read this verse growing up, I often pictured getting on a plane and traveling to foreign lands to share Jesus with others. This has been the predominant paradigm for American Evangelicals. But what if this paradigm needs to be upgraded?
What if instead of sending out missionary 007s, God is calling his people to seek out the unreached nations that are represented in our own cities? Instead of spending thousands of dollars to fly across the globe to bear witness to Christ’s love, youth groups could show up at the airports to welcome weary and worn-out refugees with balloons and hugs as they arrive to the US for the first time. What if mission was redefined to look like befriending and supporting the Muslim family at the end of our block? Could it be that evangelism can be as simple as welcoming others as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God?
This could be the moment where God is answering the prayers of His people. Perhaps God is responding to the countless Sunday mornings and Wednesday night prayer meetings where earnest intercession was offered up for lost souls in “closed” countries, prayers that people in Muslim countries could encounter the gospel and experience the love of God. Could it be that God is giving His Church an unique opportunity to live into the Great Commission that we’ve been praying for? But here’s the twist, true to form, God ways are not our ways. This answer to prayer would not be by heroic missionaries in foreign lands but by us, ordinary Christians in our own backyards.
Just like undercover missionaries who risk their lives for gospel, living out the Great Commission in our neighborhoods will require courage and the willingness to be uncomfortable. It is a risk, there are no guarantees of conversions to Christianity though I can almost guaranteed that these cross cultural relationships would change us and break down our stereotypes. There are no guarantees of national security however reaching out to the outsider to where they feel welcomed and a part of society could be argued to be one of the best security measures.
As we engage these questions, it takes us to the center of the struggle for the minds and hearts of God’s people. How will the Church view these tumultuous and rapidly changing times in which we live? Will our lens be one of fear or faith? Fear keeps us in place of self-protection whereas viewing our world through eyes of faith helps us see the surprising ways God is at work bringing about redemption and His Kingdom. We get to join in with what God is doing.
May we, ordinary Christians, ask God for eyes of faith to see what the Spirit is doing and for courage to live as the Body of Christ in this world, welcoming and embracing the stranger in our midst!
Elizabeth is a mom of young children, a wife, a lover of theology, a good cup of coffee and the outdoors. You can learn more about her work at www.radicalhospitalityfortherestofus.com