Sunday, August 16, 2009

So I was just thinking about how learning a language relates to sharing the gospel with people in another country.  Of course, there are the arguments about learning the heart language of the people you want to reach, and tons of christian language aquisition materials saying that the language is the key to understanding a culture--if you master the language, then you give yourself the greatest opportunity to effectively share the truth of the Gospel.  

And I am in agreement with these statements 100%.  But then there is the objection that the real work of missions is spiritual.  It's isn't learning grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and phrases that we need to be doing, but reading the Bible and praying.  We need to be spending more time "praying people into the kingdom," as it has been said.  I know of some whose practice of missions is basically to set up a community that worships God, and as the people around them see their worship, they will turn from their sin and to Jesus.  I also agree with this objection, but not in the sense that is implied.

Why?  Because of Romans 10:13-17 and 18-21.

In the first set of verses I see a focus on 'hearing,' and that is physical hearing.  It starts with the statement, "for 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"  Then, it describes, in a way, the reverse of the process that leads to calling on the name of the Lord and being saved.  And at the beginning  of that regression is hearing.  Verse 17, "for Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?'  So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."  In order for someone to come to a saving knowledge of Christ, they must hear the words of the gospel. 

This is a very physical process that involves hearing certain phrases, propositions, and ideas, and responds to the truth of these statements with faith.  Contrary to St. Francis of Assisi's famous quote--"share the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words"--there is no gospel without words.  That is where missions and language learning converge in obedience to God's word.  A person cannot be saved without hearing the Good News in a language they can understand.  We must 'hear' in order to 'call on the name of the Lord.'

This applies for evangelism within our own culture as well.  I can't use the same words when speaking with a 90 year old as I can with a teenager.  Just this afternoon, ValĂ©rie's mother was reading a magazine and she turned to ask, "What does 'bling-bling' mean?"  One way that the church in America needs to grow is in sharing the gospel in a way that the hearer doesn't need to be a Christian to understand.  Words like 'justification' are rich with meaning for a believer (or should be, at least), but to someone who has never read the Bible or been to a church, the word means something different altogether.  We need to be more intentional about learning to share the message in a way that overcomes physical linguistic barriers to the gospel.

So, at least in one sense, missions is very physical.

But in what way is the work of missions spiritual?  Enter verses 18-17.

18But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for

   "Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
   and their words to the ends of the world."

 19But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,

   "I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
   with a foolish nation I will make you angry."

 20Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,

   "I have been found by those who did not seek me;
   I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me."

 21But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."

Verses 18-20 show that just because people hear the gospel, that doesn't mean they will believe it and, "call upon the name of the Lord."  Paul says of Israel, "have they not heard?  Indeed they have, for '...their words have gone out to the end of the world.'"  The nation of Israel had been hearing God's truth throughout their entire history, yet they were still unbelieving.  Verse 21, "but of Israel he says, 'all day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.'"  They were hearing, but not believing.  We need something to carry us from simple, physical hearing to mysterious, spiritual believing.

That something is the Holy Spirit, and the answer to the question, "in what way is the work of missions spiritual?"

THE SPIRITUAL WORK OF MISSIONS IS FIRST AND FOREMOST GOD'S WORK.  Now, when I say this I don't mean it in a general sense.  I mean that when people hear the gospel and respond to it in belief, it is solely the work of God's spirit in election.  That is the spiritual aspect of missions.  Verse 20, "...I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me."  It is God, and God alone, who can bring a dead soul to life.  We are all rebellious, independent, and uninterested in finding Him, but He shows Himself to those who did not ask for him.

What are the effects of this spirituality on missions?  First, I have made it sound a bit like the practical and spiritual aspects of missions are completely independent of and unrelated to each other, but they are not.  We must do our best to learn the language where we are, but we have to remember that our 'success' does not depend on our level of fluency, but on the work of God's spirit.  Yes, we should have the goal of mastering the language, but the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to speak through the most broken Spanish/French/German/Arabic and change the heart of the most broken sinner.  That brings real freedom to a missionary's work.  

Second, this should bring us to depend more on God when faced with a lack of response to hearing the gospel.  Discouragement is a daily, if not hourly presence in the life of anyone in ministry, so this should drive us to the Lord.  The very things that are mistaken for the 'spiritual' work of missions--reading, praying, studying--should be the response of missionaries whose only hope is for God to work.  There is only one encouraging place to be when you feel like a failure, and that is in God's word and in Prayer.

Third, this frees us to see that our job as missionaries isn't to save people, but to sow the seed of the gospel and watch God save people.  Like Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:10, "I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory."  We can be bold and spread the seed everywhere possible, but without the pressure of trying to make it grow ourselves.  As one friend of mine once said, "I want to cast my net as wide as possible so that I can find the few fish I catch."

Again, I'm not trying to lessen the importance of prayer in ministry, it's just that I'm trying to see it in it's proper place, as best I understand in God's word.  If what I'm saying is true, then it should drive us to pray more and more, not less.  Anyway, I'm tired so I'll have to finish these thoughts another day.  Good night.