by Francis Sunderaraj
Since the first Asian Missions Congress held at Seoul in 1990, Asian missions has developed remarkably. Increasingly, local churches have become missionary minded, many more indigenous missions agencies have been formed, young people have gone out as missionaries, and the church has grown significantly in countries like China, Nepal, and Mongolia.
Since the first Asian Missions Congress held at Seoul in 1990, Asian missions has developed remarkably. Increasingly, local churches have become missionary minded, many more indigenous missions agencies have been formed, young people have gone out as missionaries, and the church has grown significantly in countries like China, Nepal, and Mongolia. At the same time, we have also witnessed disturbing trends this decade, such as growing persecution and resistance to the gospel. Within the church, some still hold to liberal theology, denying the authority, authenticity, and much of the historicity of the Scriptures, resulting in indifference to missions.
As the church enters the 21st century, she is faced with many crucial issues. Let me share some of them, followed by some unchanging scriptural principles that can help us navigate through these changing times.
SOME CRUCIAL ISSUES
1. The growing influence of modernity. As is well known, the spirit of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement, emerged in Europe in the 18th century, resulting in science-based secularism and the secularization of the society. Their combined effects are often referred to as modernity. This new reality is rooted in the assumption of rational order, human progress, and management of social life. With these core ideas, modernity became the worldview of the West, rapidly influencing almost all walks of life. It envisioned a world without limits.
With the conquest of almost all the countries in Asia by the Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, Asia began to experience the combined effects of science-based secularism and secularization. This trend continued even after the major political changes that took place in the Asian scene between 1946 and 1969 because of the determination of the newly independent countries to improve their peoples’ standard of living. Indeed, modernity has improved Asia’s quality of life through better job opportunities, better education and medicine, good communication, and faster transport systems, along with the recognition of human dignity and rights.
At the same time, it also caused cultural fragmentation and individualism. In the Asian context, although these adverse effects are not as evident as in the West, the slow erosion of tradition, community, and family life is evident.
As the years have gone by, however, the idea that “the rational individual is the center of reality” has given way to the belief that the human condition is relative, pluralistic, and accidental. This new shift is labeled postmodern-ity. In this era, secularization is identified with information-intensive industrialization and globalization.
2. The dominance of information technology. The world recognizes that information technology is the strategic resource of the future. In 1995, an independent, nongovernmental Global Information Infrastructure Commission was formed by industry leaders. It makes information highways available within each country, which are internationally interconnected. In today’s competitive world, electronic mail neatly meets the need to keep in touch. Cheaper than conventional communication, e-mail enables information to reach its destination with minimal chance for error during transmission over the Internet.
3. Rapid urbanization. Nearly one-third of Asia’s population lives in cities. With millions of people flocking to urban areas in search of jobs and better living conditions, the number of Asian cities with a million or more people continues to grow steadily. The continuous migration of people within a country, and to affluent countries, has turned Asia’s urban centers into grand mixtures of different cultures and religions. However, the new migrants are not prepared to live in their new cultures and environments, by and large. Faced with new religious and ideological alternatives, some respond with utter confusion and uncertainty.
Overpopulation in the cities results in housing shortages, inadequate sanitation, and the breakdown of infrastructure. Many who abandon theirrural lifestyles end up either underemployed or jobless. Slums mushroom in urban centers. Poverty leads to prostitution, begging, and violence. The poor become victims of ruthless exploitation.
4. A vast rural population. Despite rapid urbanization, there is a vast rural population in some parts of Asia. Most of these people are involved in agriculture, as big or small farm owners and as field laborers. The rural population in some Asian countries consists of a large number of tribals. Generally, rural populations are bound by tightly knit closed communities, with powerful leaders.
Every village in some countries has its own protector god, worshiped by the majority of the religious community. In such a situation, converting from the ancestral faith is shameful, unthinkable.
5. Growing sensitivity to one’s religion and culture. Asian religions and cultures are enjoying a resurgence. Of course, as long as people respect the values of other religions and cultures and avoid intolerance, hatred, and violence, this sensitivity is not a problem.
Unfortunately, respect and tolerance are often in short supply. Not long ago a group of Muslim activists in my city attacked the principal of a Roman Catholic school and desecrated a statue of Jesus Christ because suddenly they discovered disrespect toward the founder of their religion in a moral science textbook the school had used for the last nine years.
Whatever the causes, the fact remains that people are becoming more and more sensitive to their religions and cultures. Such a sensitivity polarizes the political scene in Asia, sometimes causing communal and ethnic wars. Religious minorities are suppressed and, in many instances, persecuted. Where the religious majority has become the ruling political force, persecution and suppression are on the increase.
6. Erosion of moral values. Moral values have eroded for three basic reasons. One, we live in a highly competitive world characterized by hot pursuit of quick material gains. Profit-oriented ends are justified by any means. Two, morality has become relativistic. Right and wrong are determined by the situation, by the context, and not by some external and absolute law. According to this new morality, a person cannot be bound under all possible circumstances by any absolute. Three, in a success-oriented society, even those with Christian faith and in the Christian ministry have come down with the success syndrome. Success relating to position, power, and activities takes precedence over faithfulness to the God of absolutes.
7. Social exploitation and poverty. Millions in Asia are poor. Poverty results in malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, brain damage, loss of dignity and hope, and painful death. Most of them are poor because of sheer exploitation. Robbed of the opportunities and freedom to enjoy their rights, and held ransom by exploitative systems, they are denied justice. They are obliged to work and slog but are not free to enjoy the meaning and fruits of their labor.
The Bible makes it clear that God created man in his own image. The historical events and teaching of the Old Testament; the life, ministry and teaching of God incarnate; and that of the apostles in the New Testament reveal that our God is sovereign over all; and that his redemption through Christ is for all, and that the God of creation and redemption does not approve any form of exploitation.
These crucial issues are indeed opportunities for the people of God to advance the kingdom of God. Recognizing human dignity and freedom, acknowledged and promoted by modernism, gives the church an opportunity to help the people find true dignity and freedom in Christ.
In the midst of these crucial issues and opportunities, we must gird ourselves in obedience to God’s Word to be more fruitful in missions in the coming years.
1. We must gird ourselves with spiritual and truthful worship. “Worship him in spirit and truth”—John 4:23.
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” sang the angels who numbered“thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” (Rev. 5:11, 12). And every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea answered, setting forth the divine worthiness: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever” (5:13). The account of this part of the apostle John’s vision rightly ends, “the elders fell down and worshiped” (5:14).
The Hebrew word for worship is shachah, which means “to bow down,” or to prostrate oneself. It is used of Abraham when he offered up Isaac, of Solomon in the new Jerusalem temple, and in such verses as, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The Greek word in the New Testament is proskuneo, which appears in John 4:23. So, worshiping God is declaring the worthship of him by our humble acts of reverential regard.
We call the period of Sunday worship in a church or elsewhere worship service. We are asserting our intent to serve God by proclaiming together his worthiness to be served. Of course, our worship must be spiritual and truthful, and not merely in appearance by our participation in outward ceremonies. A truly spiritual and truthful worship enables us to be fruitful witnesses in our private and public life, responsible members of the body of Christ. Such a worship plays a crucial role in building a strong spiritual community.
The Great Commission was given in the context of worship. When the 11 disciples were on the mountain in Galilee where the risen Savior had told them to go, he appeared to them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Then Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations. . . .” (Matt. 28:17-19). Missions begins with worship, and fruitfulness in missions depends primarily on the desire and quality of the worship of the people of God.
There are various forms of worship in the body of Christ. Whatever the form may be, our worship must be genuine and meaningful. Let us gird ourselves with spiritual and truthful worship so that all our missionary efforts will be abundantly fruitful.
2. We must gird ourselves with united prayer. “Pray without ceasing”—1 Thess. 5:17.
Says the hymn writer, “Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.”
In the life of Jesus Christ, prayer is of primary importance. He began, continued, and ended his earthly ministry in prayer. Even now he is interceding for us. When he saw the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few, he told his disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.
The church was born in the atmosphere of prayer (Acts 1:4 and 2:4). Its early leaders were men of prayer (Acts 9:40; 10:9; 16:25; 28:8). In times of difficulty they looked to God in prayer (4:23ff. 12:5, 12) and urged fellow believers to pray with them (20:8, 36, 21:5). The church has grown in an atmosphere of prayer over the years. The history of mission is full of instances in which God has acted in response to prayer. Thank God that today he has raised hundreds of prayer cells with prayer warriors in Asia who regularly plead before the throne of grace for missions, and missionaries. Many fast and pray. We must make all efforts to strengthen and expand the prayer movement in Asia, as “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of the dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).
Many people allow themselves to be controlled by spirits and evil forces. They are haunted by the fear of demons, because to them the demons have vast influence and terrible malignity, existing for the purpose of hindering or destroying what man wants to accomplish. Jesus says, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Missionaries report how by the power of God they are able to deliver people out of satanic bondage to freedom in Christ. The good news is that Christ conquers the evil forces, frees those who areafflicted, and gives them new life.
In this ministry of prayer we must join hands to build up a united prayer movement transcending all barriers—among churches, between churches and mission agencies, and among agencies—focusing on the planting and growth of the church of Jesus Christ among all the nations.
3. We must gird ourselves with a Spirit-filled life. “Be filled with the Spirit”—Eph. 5:18.
The Word exhorts the people of God to be constantly preoccupied with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
• The Spirit-filled life is a life of power—power to strengthen us in our inner being so that Jesus Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:16, 17), and in the ministry (Acts 1:8, 4:33).
• The Spirit-filled life is a life of love. Love manifests itself in identifying with people with whom we serve. Without love, all our Christian activity and good works are useless in the sight of God (l Cor. 13). To be filled with love is the most distinctive mark of Christian maturity (1 Cor. 13:11), so it is hardly surprising that so many of the references to growth in Christian life have to do with love (Phil. 1:9; 1 Thess. 3:12). Love enables us to see others through the eyes of Jesus—their sufferings because of injustice and poverty—as individuals whom God loves, and not as numbers to be added to our reports. Behind the scurrying madness and feverish activity, through his eyes we see the fainting heart and the lonely life. Love enables us to identify with those we serve. Scriptural identification is twofold. It considers the sins of others as our own and it puts us where the people are.
• The Spirit-filled life is a life of wisdom. Whereas the Stoics held that wisdom is the application of knowledge, A.W. Tozer went further and said that wisdom is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. Paul prayed in Ephesians 1:17-18 for the spirit of revelation and wisdom that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” We need the wisdom to relate to each other, to know those whom we serve, to understand their beliefs, cultures and tradition, to present the gospel to them in their contexts, and to have fruitful Christian living and ministry.
• The Spirit-filled life means keeping in step with the Spirit. The Word of God says that since we live by the Spirit, we should keep in step with the Spirit. This involves being open to changes in our structures, lifestyle, ways of worship, and methods of reaching out without diluting the faith. Church history shows that whenever the people of God have courageously made changes, sometimes radical changes, in these areas, the church became effectively relevant to the context. During the Industrial Revolution in England, when the Anglican Church had alienated the poor and the working classes, John Wesley, taking a risk, went to these people where they were. Thousands of them responded to the gospel.
4. We must gird ourselves with a renewed commitment to equip the people of God. “Prepare God’s people for works of service”—Eph. 4:1.
Every local church in its context is the visible expression of the universal church. It represents the universal church in carrying out God’s plans and purposes. Every local church must be equipped to be missions-minded.
A systematic, Bible-centered missions education is vital for every local church. National evangelical fellowships or a national missions coordination association must try to prepare a simple curriculum with subjects such as a biblical understanding of missions, current crucial issues, mobilizing the whole church, apologetics, other religions, concepts of cultures, and so on.
Equipping also must be done in discovering and developing spiritual gifts, and helping believers to use them for the growth of the church. As we read in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians, the triune God has blessed every believer in the body of Christ with a spiritual gift or gifts for the edification and spread of the church.
The local church needs to be equipped to be an agent oftransformation, to be a witness of Jesus Christ in love and righteousness. It needs to be sensitive to the spiritual and social issues in its context. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church needs to permeate the society to arrest the decay, to make it better and to guide it in the right way. Church history is full of godly men and women who stood against evils in their society and were the instruments of God in changing it by his transforming power and love.
Persecution is inevitable in Christian life. Jesus said, “If the world hates you . . . remember the word that I said to you. ‘A servant is not greater than His master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you’” (John 15:18-20). In the coming century, the church may face more and more persecution. Therefore, the local church must be equipped for persecution.
5. We must gird ourselves with the unflinching determination to maintain unity in the body of Christ. “That all of them may be one as we are one”—John 17:22.
Before he went to the cross, knowing the immensity of the task that was ahead of his people and the need to be united in him in fulfilling that task, Jesus prayed for unity among the believers so that the world may believe that he was sent by his heavenly Father. Faith in Christ leads to unity in Christ. A visible expression of this unity in Christ brings others to faith in him.
We may come from different Christian traditions and strands of evangelicalism, but all of us are believers in Christ, in the authority and authenticity of the Bible, in the uniqueness of Christ and his salvation, in justification by faith in him alone, and in his physical resurrection and his second coming.
Thank God that many evangelicals have begun to realize that in the midst of diversity we share certain commonalties. We must focus on them and work to build up relationships to advance the kingdom of God. We must manifest our unity in Christ by encouraging one another, by being accountable to one another, and by working together in building up the kingdom of God.
Francis Sunderaraj is general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia. This article was originally presented as a paper at the Asia Missions Congress II in Pattaya, Thailand, October 1997.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 40-47. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.