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Shaping a missions priority for the 21st century

By Alan Johnson

Nearly a decade into the 21st century, we as a Pentecostal church movement numbering more than 50 million people worldwide face a great challenge. How will we respond to the large blocks of humanity that live in cultural settings with nonexistent or limited access to a relevant witness of the gospel?

While all people are equally lost spiritually, not all people have equal access to hear the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Our ability to respond to the needs of these people is currently hindered by a shift in Christian missions away from planting the church where it does not exist to a practice of sending Christians from one cultural setting to work with Christians in another setting.

 To meet this challenge, we need to revisit a theme that was important to the identity of early Pentecostals and their work. They saw themselves and their task as part of a restoration of apostolic power and practice. Paul’s understanding of an apostle’s work was focused on planting the church where it did not exist and proclaiming Christ where He was not known:

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20, NIV).

“... there is no more place for me to work in these regions ... ” (Romans 15:23).

“Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in another man’s territory” (2 Corinthians 10:15,16).

At this moment in history, when we are faced with such a stark contrast between places where vibrant church movements exist and where they do not, we must find our self-understanding and identity in mission in this kind of apostolic vision. This means seeing ourselves and shaping our practice of mission around “apostolic function” — a focus on the task of preaching the gospel where it has not been heard, planting the church where it does not exist, and leading people to the obedience of faith so they can be witnesses of Jesus Christ and participate in God’s global mission. This notion of apostolic function does not mean that everyone works in the same way, or that everyone is an apostle, or that missionaries currently working where the church exists should go somewhere else. What it means is that the apostolic vision of planting the church of Jesus Christ where it does not exist shapes our understanding of what we do, why we do it and how we operate.

Acts 1:8 says that we are to be witnesses for Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Applied in a geographic sense, this defines a missionary as someone who goes somewhere else to proclaim the gospel. However, if we see this verse in terms of doing evangelism in different cultural spheres, it creates a helpful distinction between evangelism within one’s own cultural setting (our Jerusalem and Judea) and cross-cultural evangelism among those of a different cultural background.

In the New Testament, local churches were powerful instruments the Holy Spirit used to take the gospel to people in similar cultural systems. From these churches, apostolic bands were called forth by the Spirit to cross cultural boundaries to proclaim Jesus where He was not known. Those within the body of Christ who are specially called with the Pauline sense of apostolic function consider cross-cultural evangelism — reaching people with no access to the message — as having higher priority than those living in settings where an indigenous church exists that is capable of reaching its own people. The issue, then, comes back to access.

In our world today, many spiritually lost people have the potential for access to the gospel from believers living in the same cultural setting. These loving neighbors look like them, eat the same foods, speak the same language and can share their faith in Jesus in a relevant fashion. But other vast populations have virtually no access to the message because no loving neighbor who is a follower of Christ is present to tell them the good news. People living in such settings need an outsider who will cross into their culture to proclaim Jesus and plant His church.

The idea of apostolic function and the distinctions between ministry in a single culture and cross-cultural evangelism should challenge us as a movement to seek a fresh experience of Pentecost. Our 12,000-plus local churches in the U.S. need to be lighthouses within their own Jerusalems while recognizing the opportunities for cross-cultural encounters. We also need to believe God for a new generation of cross-cultural workers who will go where Christ is not named and plant the church where it does not exist. It is not enough to just send our money or send workers to assist national churches in reaching the least-reached and resistant peoples. The Holy Spirit, who loves all people and is not willing that any should perish, is still calling North Americans to play a part in His plan to bring the message of Jesus to those who have no access.

ALAN JOHNSON and his wife, Lynette, are missionaries to Thailand.

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