by Richard P. Bailey
We grew up hearing about sending missionaries to reach people overseas, and now they are living here. It seems our North American world of “missions” is turned upside down. What is God doing?
Recently John Rocker of the Atlanta Braves gained notoriety making derogatory comments about the people of New York City, including all the foreign-born people on the number 7 subway line. He gave expression to what a lot of Euro-American people are feeling. In our cities a person can hear almost every language in the world. Sometimes it seems like our country has become a foreign nation. We grew up hearing about sending missionaries to reach these people overseas, and now they are living here. It seems our North American world of “missions” is turned upside down. What is God doing?
GOD’S "KAIROS" AMONG THE "ETHNOS"
Although God’s ultimate purpose of “…taking from among the nations a people for His name” (Acts 15:14) remains the same, he often accomplishes it in ways different from what we think. Listen to what he says through the apostle Paul in Acts 17:26,27:
“…He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (NASV).
The Greek word for “times” in this verse is not chronos (clock time) but kairos, meaning opportune moments or epoch-making occurrences. Richard C. Trench, in his book Synonyms of the New Testament, gives the following explanation of the use of this Greek word:
“…’the seasons’ (kairos) are…the critical epoch-making periods foreordained of God; when all that has been slowly, and often without observation, ripening through long ages is mature and come to the birth in grand decisive events, which constitute at once the close of one period and the commencement of another.”
God has appointed special times for nations to be in certain places. He allows some to rise above other nations, thus moving into new areas and mixing with those nations to form new nations, or splitting into several other nations, etc. Daniel the prophet spoke of this when he said, “He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them” (Daniel 2:20,21).
Some epic-making events are obvious:
- the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century;
- European navigation of the oceans after 1500, leading to the imperial period and the beginning of the modern missionary movement;
- the communist revolution in China in 1949, setting the stage for development of the underground church movement;
- the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, bringing disillusionment with Islam;
- the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, opening the way for the gospel.
Others are less obvious, but just as real in their effects on certain people groups. Each of these kairos events affects certain peoples, but not necessarily others.
This process has continued until today. The USA is a prime example of people from many nations all over the world moving to a new place and forming a confederation of new people groups. Most of the peoples of this country are here because of “times” of famine, war, brutal slavery, religious persecution, and economic or political oppression in other countries. Those coming today are no exception.
GOD’S PURPOSE IN HIS "KAIROS" SEASONS
These “epoch-making periods” are not always pleasant, but God’s purpose through them is good. He says the reason he has determined appointed times for them to live in certain places is “…that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him…” (Acts 17:27).
Indeed, God is moving people around today in what may be the greatest migration the world has ever seen, and his purpose is that these people may find the light of his salvation through Jesus Christ.
Here are a few examples:
1. Afghans: Since Islam entered Afghanistan in the late 7th century that country has been almost totally closed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the very day (July 17, 1973) that the government bulldozed the only church building in the whole country, there has been continuous revolution and war. Out of 25 million Afghans, one million are dead, two million wounded, 7 million homeless, and more than three million are refugees living in other countries. God’s good purpose is to draw Afghans to himself. He has raised up workers among them both in Afghanistan and among the refugees in at least two other countries. Some are now responding and turning to Christ, and the very first Afghan churches in history are now coming into being.
2. Chinese: The number of believers among the peoples of China is at least 10 times greater since the kairos of communism than before. It is not insignificant that the percentage of Christians among the “overseas Chinese” throughout southeast Asia (many of whom fled China because of communism) is even higher than among those still living in China.
3. Migrants in western Europe: Population growth in prosperous western Europe is declining, resulting in huge movements of people from the east to fill the need for workers. The Lord has placed his workers along migration routes in places like Greece to share Christ with migrants flowing into western Europe from the Middle East and Central Asia.
4. Albanians: Hundreds cross the sea to Italy in boats at night because there are many jobs in Italy but almost none in Albania. After fifty years of atheistic communism the once Muslim and Orthodox people of Albania are turning to Christ in great numbers, both in Albania and elsewhere.
5. Immigrants in North America: America, too, is in the midst of one of the greatest immigrations of its history. This time, however, it is not just people from Europe, but also peoples from Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim societies coming just as our forefathers came.
Some of God’s kairos events are sudden and unexpected, like an earthquake. The underground stresses silently grow over time until the earth suddenly splits apart. The revolution in Iran in 1979 was completely unexpected and brought tremendous turmoil and change to the Iranian people. Ashton T. Stewart, Jr., a veteran missionary among Iranians, calls this “God’s touch.” He writes that “God has chosen to touch the Iranian people at this point in history.”1 He estimates there were only 3,000 Iranian believers before the revolution, but today there are between 25,000 and 40,000, most of whom are Muslim converts. More Iranians have turned to Christ in the past 20 years than in the preceding thousand years.
God’s prepared instruments in this movement have been primarily the Iranian believers and foreign missionaries who before the revolution were already involved and equipped to minister God’s Word in the Farsi language and the culture of the Iranian people. Many of these special people were forced to leave Iran and have become God’s means of salvation for Iranian refugees around the world. They didn’t cross off the Iranian people as a “closed” mission field, but instead moved along with the Iranian diaspora and are reaping the ripened harvest among them.
Often transitional peoples are the most open to Christ. Tat Stewart states that as a result of the revolution in Iran, 4 million refugees now live in 33 different countries outside Iran. While many have come to Christ in Iran itself, the Lord seems to be touching the lives of Iranian refugees even more. Today more than 50 Iranian fellowships of believers (mostly from Muslim background) exist outside Iran, many of them in North America.
Other kairos periods are more like volcanos. They rumble with increasing warnings long before the violent eruption takes place. In China a series of events took place with increasing turmoil and change before the communist revolution. Again, we see God’s hand in the number of believers, estimated to have grown from 1.5 million to 50 or 60 million in the last fifty years under communism.
The China Inland Mission saw what God was doing. When they could no longer stay in China itself, they moved their workers among the scattered overseas Chinese throughout southeast Asia and changed their name to the Overseas Missionary Fellowship in the process. The fallout from the kairos of communism in China continues to produce spiritually searching people, and people coming from China are among the most open people groups in North America today.
Many thousands of Chinese, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims have come to North America in the last 30 years open to change because of their search for economic and social advancement. Often a searching for spiritual truth accompanies the search for new opportunities. Hundreds of these people are turning to Christ.
The sad thing is that these kairos windows of opportunity close after a while. Thousands of these uprooted immigrants are open to the gospel when they first come, but a few years after arriving in their new homeland, most become even more dedicated to their traditional religions unless someone has cared to reach out to them with the love of Christ.
POPULAR AMERICAN CHRISTIAN IDEAS ABOUT MISSIONS
For whatever reasons, our popular Western, evangelical ideas about “missions” are not always fully biblical. We may be in danger of allowing our traditional ideas about missions to prevent us from recognizing what God is doing among the nations, particularly among the peoples he is bringing here to North America.
Below I have listed six interrelated aspects of our popular understanding of missions.
1. Missions is about geography, and missionary work is done in a geographic place. Many of our churches have a map of the world somewhere with pictures of the missionaries they support. Along with the map, the information given about each of those missionaries is probably also geographic. Beneath the names of the missionaries are names of geopolitical countries or states. Seldom, if ever, will you find such a map with the names of the people groups those missionaries are reaching. The conclusion is that “missions” is done “in Equador” rather than “among the Spanish speaking Mestizos,” and “in Kenya” rather then “among the Kikuyu tribe.”
Our disdain for caring to learn anything about the peoples of the world is blatantly evident when we think that saying “India” is as good as identifying any of the thousands of people groups2 of that vast sub-continent. Because of this geographical perspective it is natural for us to talk to missionaries or prospective missionaries about “where” they are going rather than “to whom” are they going.
2. Geopolitical countries are our target. Some years ago I spoke in a Bible college chapel service about God’s will for us to do research into the spiritual needs of the peoples of the world. By way of example I said, “How would you know if God wanted you to go to Baluchistan if you had never heard of it?” Later that day a student accused me of deception. He checked and found out that Baluchistan, the homeland of the 13 million Baluchi people, was a province of Pakistan. Because it was not itself a geopolitical country, he felt I was being deceptive in calling it a mission field. Our Lord’s commission is clear.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
“…repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
The Greek word here is “ethnos” meaning ethnic people groups, not geopolitical countries. The Lord’s strategy is important. He has told us to plant a church in the culture and language of each ethnic group, enabling that church to continue spreading the gospel to the rest of that people group.
3. You have to “go” to another country to be a missionary. For many years we have made the distinction between “foreign missions” and “home missions.” Some churches have even decided that they want all of their mission funds to go “overseas” rather than to be used here in North America (implying that this is not the real mission field).
A few years ago one missionary family had to leave an overseas ministry because of problems. The Lord opened a door to work among immigrants from the same ethnic people group in one of North America’s large metropolitan areas. They had changed geography, but not people group. When one of their large supporting churches heard that they had come “home” they dropped their support, saying “Let us know if you ever go back to the field.” In the USA they were working within 50 miles of at least 100,000 people from the same ethnic group and were touching the lives of many of them. After a few years of effective ministry in spite of living under the stress of very inadequate support, they went overseas to a third country to target the same group again. The church immediately resumed their support, even though that third nation contained only 5,000 to 10,000 of those people.
4. The availability of the gospel is determined by geographic proximity, so the more remote the place, the more urgent the need. (Therefore there is little need for missionaries here in America because there are churches on almost every corner.)
We have a long tradition of making heros of the missionaries who go to “the darkest interior” of Africa, “the most remote island” of the Pacific, the “most dense jungle” in the Amazon, the “farthest corner” of China, or “the most frigid area” of Alaska—because of their willingness to endure physical hardship in places so difficult to reach. Yes, they truly are heros. But so are missionaries who have persevered in getting into the lives of more accessible people groups with extremely different cultures and languages.
Cultural and linguistic distance is every bit as real as geographic distance. An illiterate Hindu grandmother from a village in the state of Gujarat in India living next door to a church in New Jersey is absolutely cut off from the gospel unless a believer comes to her speaking Gujarati and wins her friendship through Gujarati Indian hospitality. Because of the barriers of language and culture, she might as well still be living in her Indian village. An unsaved American businessman living in the heart of China who in his loneliness has established friendship with several American Christians is much nearer to the gospel than that Gujarati woman living next to the church in America. Language and culture are far greater barriers to the gospel than geography.
5. You can reach a people only by living in their heartland. Of course most missionaries should go to live in the heartland of a people group, but reaching those who have moved to other parts of the world is often strategic. Again, geography is not the issue, but rather the opportunity to reach a prepared people.
Because over 80 percent of the Christians of India are from the lowest castes of society, many high caste Hindus will not sit with a Christian or listen to the Christian gospel. In North America, however, high caste Hindus are now listening to the gospel and turning to Christ. Recently a church composed almost entirely of high caste Hindus has been established in northern New Jersey. American missionaries are doing in New Jersey what is very difficult for them to do in Gujarat, India. They are daily sharing the gospel in the homes of Brahmins and other high caste Hindus in the Gujarati language.
“Community” results from “communication.” It once was necessary to get near to people physically in order to communicate with them. Now with more rapid and less expensive means of transportation, together with internet-driven, instant, worldwide communication it is possible in today’s techno-society to live anywhere and still maintain intimate and detailed communication. An individual from a developing country may have brothers and sisters living in three different countries. They keep in touch by phone and e-mail, make frequent visits, and are actually closer to each other than they are to the people of other cultural backgrounds living next door to them.
God called me to reach Pakistani Muslims, and it is now possible to do that in London, Kuwait City, Toronto, Abu Dhabi, New York City, Chicago, and many other places, as well as in Pakistan itself. In a very real sense, “Pakistan” is wherever Pakistanis live.
Working among the diaspora of a people group has certain advantages. At least those living in the West have a level of economic and social freedom they would not enjoy in their homeland. Because of this a Muslim background believer living in America can share Christ with his relatives back home without fear of becoming destitute through social boycott. Additionally, individuals living in the West have gained a certain prestige that causes their family members to give more credence to the things they say.
BIBLICAL IDEAS ABOUT MISSIONS
The list at the end of this article compares current popular American Christian ideas with what I believe is the Biblical teaching regarding missions.
Jewish ideas about the Messiah at the time of Christ. In Acts 17:1-9 we read how on just three Sabbaths two outsiders (Paul and Silas) persuaded a significant number of worshipers in the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica to embrace what seemed to be some very new beliefs. No wonder the Jewish leaders were “jealous.” They couldn’t understand why Jews everywhere were being persuaded to believe such seemingly absurd ideas. Just imagine! They were teaching: 1) that the Messiah had to suffer (be put to death) and rise from the dead, and 2) that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.
We may not realize just how “upside down” those ideas were unless we consider the popular ideas most Jews of that day had about the Messiah. In general their popular beliefs were: 1) the Messiah would be a great king and military general like King David; 2) the Messiah would conquer the Romans in order to restore the kingdom to Israel; and 3) the Messiah would certainly be recognized and acclaimed by the Jewish religious leaders.
So what Paul and Silas were teaching must have sounded like nonsense. I can imagine the hearers saying something like, “This Jesus person was nothing more than a poor carpenter turned street preacher, clearly rejected by the priests and rabbis, and so powerless against the Romans that they put him to death. The Romans are still very much in power, ruling over us while these uninformed, village followers of Jesus are preaching some unbelievable foolishness about Jesus being resurrected from the dead.”
But still, everywhere the followers of Jesus went, people were believing their message and following them. No wonder the angry Jewish leaders were yelling, “These that have turned the world upside down have come here also” (KJV).
But wait a minute. Who really was turning the world upside down? It was God who had raised Jesus from the dead, enabled Paul and Silas to perform miracles in the name of Jesus, and put such a fire in the hearts of these followers of Jesus that they wouldn’t stop preaching about him even after being whipped and thrown into prison. God was the one turning the world upside down; these men were only telling what they saw and experienced. What a sad thing to see these Jewish religious leaders and teachers of the Old Testament Scriptures so unable to recognize what God was doing in their day.
How about us? Could we be so closed to “different” things that we fail to realize what God is doing today? Are we seeing what God is doing, or is Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees true of us as well: “you cannot interpret the signs of the times (kairos)” (Matthew 16:3)?
Yes, God is turning the mission field “upside down,” and if we are looking for God’s wonderful purpose among the nations, we will be really excited at what he is doing. We will be seeing the world right-side up, because:
“…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times (kairos) will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:9,10, NIV).
1. The Keys to the Iranian Heart.
2. There are 19 distinct language groups, each with from 5 to 200 million people, plus several smaller language groups, all with many subgroups. Altogether a 1991 survey identified 4,635 communities or people groups among the 975 million people of that great geopolitical country.
POPULAR IDEAS ABOUT MISSIONS/BIBLICAL IDEAS ABOUT MISSIONS
Popular idea: Missions is about geography and missionary work is done in a geographic place.
Biblical idea: Missions is about peoples ("ethnos") and missionary work is done among a people group.
Popular idea: Geopolitical countries (land with boders) are our target.
Biblical idea: Ethnic nations (people groups) are our target, wherever they may be living in the world.
Popular idea: You have to "go" to another country to be a missionary.
Biblical idea: You have to "go" to people of another culture to be a missionary.
Popular idea: The availability of the gospel is determined by geographic proximity so the more remote the place, the more urgent the need is. (Therefore, there is little need for missionaries here in America because there are churches on almost every corner.)
Biblical idea: The availability of the gospel is determined by cultural and linguistic proximity, so the greater the linguistic and cultural "distance" (difference), the more urgent the need is. (Therefore, there is a growing need for missionaries in the USA.)
Popular idea: You can reach people only by living in their heartland.
Biblical idea: You can reach a people only by living among them, whether in their heartland or among the disapora.
Dick Bailey has been a missionary member of Christar since 1957. He served in Pakistan for 13 years, and is currently a member of Christar’s North American field, involved in full-time church planting among Muslims (especially Pakistanis) in the greater New York area.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 50-57. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.