When I was growing up in Mississippi we sang, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right.” We had to go so “the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright.” People all over the world were waiting for Southern Baptists to come so “Christ’s great kingdom shall come to earth.”
Missionaries went to distant lands (any country other than the United States) to encourage native women to wear shirts and pagan men not to eat missionaries. Their primary responsibility was to recite the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the foreigners in the sinners’ prayer—which must be in the Bible somewhere.
These superstars came back from the mission field to show slides on Sunday nights: “This is the market where we bought goat brains—which tastes better than it sounds.” “This is the stream in which we beat our clothes against the rock.” “This is the hut where the chief and his seven wives live.”
They told heartbreaking stories about children who have never made a Galilean village out of popsicle sticks! They have never sung “Zacchaeus was a wee little man!!” They do not know the motions to “Deep and Wide!!!”
We were the world’s only hope.
Carol and I finally made it to the mission field. We are 4700 miles from home serving a congregation with twenty nationalities and eighteen denominations. Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, does missions. The congregation cares for disabled adults and abandoned girls. The church includes people who would not find a place in many churches. Worship is sacred and joyful. Bible study is lively and thoughtful. And get this, our church in Chile has offering envelopes, but they don’t have a line on which to write your name. I am used to getting credit when I give money—and a tax break.
Carol and I attended a Catholic service in Spanish in a cathedral that was constructed in 1800 (before there were Southern Baptists). We didn’t understand everything, but we recognized “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”—which was not written by a Baptist—Estad por Cristo firmes. We recited the Nicene Creed—written 1300 years before Baptists existed—Dios de Dios y Luz de Luz, Muy Dios de Muy Dios. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. We shared the Lord’s Supper, Este es el cuerpo de Cristo. Worship is filled with hope. The people are filled with Christ.
I was taught that we need to take Jesus to people who were not blessed by God to be born where we were born, but when I got here I learned they have been worshipping Christ for a long time. They are already following Jesus, many more closely than I am.
We interpret the Gospel through the lens of our environment. Churches make assumptions that are not shared by churches in other cultures. Sometimes the individualism in the United States leads to a “just me and Jesus” faith that neglects community. The Chilean people have an amazing commitment to friends and family.
Church functions for many in the United States as a break from their job. In the church I am serving, jobs function for many as a way to live out their faith.
When we tailor the Gospel to fit our desires we end up with a partial gospel. Chileans can’t understand how a “Christian” country could sell handguns at WalMart, a wealthy “Christian” country could allow so many to be homeless, a “Christian” country could support capital punishment, or spend more than half of its discretionary government funding on military purposes.
Maybe sharing the Gospel is just that– sharing the Gospel—exploring the Gospel that is bigger than any country. I will go home to Atlanta with a bigger vision of God and a greater concern for the world. We have a story to tell to the nations, but the nations have a lot of stories we need to hear. We cannot take God anywhere without discovering that God was there long before we arrived. Missions is the opportunity to listen, learn, and share “the kingdom of love and light.”