Passing the Flame of the Gospel

   Bob looked anxiously at his watch. His plane would be late getting into Tokyo, so he'd better email ahead to let his partners know he'd be late. Getting out his laptop, he wished he could use his cell phone to call his wife back in Boston; he wanted to know how his son's baseball championship turned out. In his mind he reviewed today's schedule: first the video conference with colleagues in Los Angeles, tied in with the firm in Boston and his venture partners here in Tokyo. After that, a look at the computer language translation software that promised to make communication problems between his companies on different sides of the world a thing of the past.

     We do live in amazing times, don't we? The Internet, email, video-conferencing, and better, quicker transportation have indeed caused our planet to shrink considerably. There was a time when calling another country was difficult and expensive; today, you can pick up the phone and dial across the world as easily as calling your neighbor - and fairly cheaply.

     Amsterdam 2000 has come and gone, leaving us with a renewed vision to reach the world with the Gospel of Christ. That vision must necessarily take into account the vast changes in technology that have occurred and the ways those changes have impacted our own perception of reality.

     We use the term "globalization" to explain some of these modern phenomena. It was coined about three decades ago, but the word has mushroomed in the nineties. It can refer to several different world-encompassing movements, such as global commerce or conservation of the planet. Globalization in missions relates to the extension of modern technology to the entire world and the compression of time and space that comes with it.

     We all realize how time and space have been compressed by technological advances in transportation and communication; we feel somehow closer to those people on the other side of the world. At the same time, however, rapid decentralization is occurring; there is no single center of political power. Economically, there is more interrelationship between nations; no country can "go it alone" even if it wants to. The world is not only becoming more interconnected, but people are also becoming aware of the interconnection. All of these phenomena make up the concept of globalization.


     As we evaluate what is happening today in terms of globalization it helps to have an understanding of the "big picture" - the grand sweep of God's redemptive history since the beginning of time. We should understand that King Jesus is sovereign in the processes of history and is orchestrating them in spite of sin in the world and the machinations of the adversary, who is at work in the children of disobedience. God is superintending and overruling them to order events in such a way that He will carry out His plan. A global missions perspective asks the question, "Where do we, in this time and place, fit into God's plan to redeem a people for Himself?"

     Globalization makes us realize that all on earth are in this together. The hand cannot say to the foot, "I don't need you." I can't say to the person who lived 500 years ago, "Who cares?" or to the people who may live -- if Christ tarries -- a century from now, "So what?" or to the church in Africa, "We have nothing to learn from you." The whole church must take the whole Gospel into the whole world.

     We also must understand that the players in God's drama change places. Did you know that the majority of the evangelical church today, perhaps seventy per cent of it, lives below the equator in the Two-Thirds World? The United States is still the single strongest remaining enclave in the Northern Hemisphere, but more evangelicals live below the equator. Northern Europe and the British Isles, where the Gospel was once strong, are now mission fields. Thank the Lord they sent out missionaries. Now, missionaries may need to be sent back to these lands.

     God is not committed to one ethnic group as He was in the Incarnation. He is committed to His purpose to draw people from every tribe, nation, people, and tongue to the Gospel. He wants to expand the covenantal community of all believers throughout the centuries in the culmination of His plan. Individuals and national entities are not permanent fixtures on the planet. What is ultimately eternal is God's plan for the Gospel, the return of Christ, and the fruit that will be eternally lasting.

     In The New Context of World Mission (MARC, 1996), Bryant Myers shows graphically the movement of Christianity over the centuries (see map). It began at the eastern end of the Mediterranean in Palestine and traveled to Asia Minor. In Stage Two, it moved across North Africa and Southern Europe, along the Mediterranean coast, but was largely eradicated by the invasion of the Muslims in the seventh century. In Stage Three, it moved to Northern Europe, which was mostly Christian by A.D. 1500. Finally, in Stage Four, Christianity jumped the Atlantic and spread to North America. By the mid-twentieth century, however, the church in Europe had declined significantly and the center of gravity now lies in the Two-Thirds World.
Dr. Sam Larsen

     Thus we see that God moves, much as the flame of a candle, according to Dr. Sam Larsen, Assistant Professor of Missions at RTS/Jackson.

     "God lights the candle," explains Larsen, "and that candle lights another, which in turn lights another. If one flame is extinguished, all is not lost; the flame has been passed to another and continues to be passed until it comes back around. It's happened time and again in history. Christianity has moved back and forth several times. The flame of the Gospel is distinguishable from the candlestick that passes it. Our culture is the candlestick; God wants us our candle to burn brightly, but even if it doesn't, He simply passes the flame to the next candle.

     "I love my country," Larsen continues, "but the United States is struggling with many issues now. Ultimately my faith is not in my country. My confidence is in the Christ who reigns, to whom all authority has been given. As we carry the Gospel, we can have confidence that God will attend to future generations. In fact, it may well be that some of the countries to whom we have sent the Gospel will be the very instruments that will bring its life-giving message back to our benighted nation."


     The effects of technological advances have had (and will have) an immense effect on missions. For example, language translation is on the cutting edge of computer technology. In less than twenty years we will probably have universal translators - speak into it in your language and out comes a foreign one. Imagine mission work with such communication tools! Advances in transportation will facilitate trans-nationals traveling anywhere and being able to survive and interact.

     What technology cannot do, however, is translate culture; fully half of our communication is at a non-verbal level. Being able to communicate at a profoundly deep level -- a soul level -- requires, apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, the missionary to become submersed in the new culture, to get to know the people and their culture. She must not just use the word "A" for "alpha" but must also understand the nuances, meanings, and associations "A" carries with it.

     Missionaries must also be able to come alongside and understand a culture's worldview. Not only must a missionary understand the history of a worldview, he must also understand how that worldview was formed and possibly transformed. Worldviews are dramatically different, especially in non-Western cultures.

     "We must be able to understand the assumption and implications behind a worldview," says Larsen, "and discover an entry point for sharing the Gospel. To use Evangelism Explosion's first two diagnostic questions with a Buddhist or Hindu without understanding their interpretation of my terms could have a very negative effect. There are 'bridges of God,' to use McGavran's term, and we need to find them. The Holy Spirit guides us into doing that."

International Students Fellowship

     God prepared the worldview of the Israelites for 2000 years before Jesus came. If Jesus had been born sooner, perhaps instead of Isaac, the people would not have been ready. He came when the time was right. Even then, because of human sin, he was rejected by his own nation. Today, some nations need a lot more preparation than others to be ready to hear the Gospel.

     If we can take the message of the Gospel across cultural boundaries in such a way that it is understood by and fits within the new culture, it will bridge that culture and confront people with the claims of Christ and the conviction of the Gospel. In some ways globalization makes that easier, because of advances in transportation and communication.

     In other ways, it's harder now because cultures are becoming increasingly fragmented. Experts call it balkanization, and we see it in America. Having many cultures within our borders can be a great strength, but only if we have what Peter Berger calls the "sacred canopy." That is to say, many different sub-groups within a society agree at least on certain basic values and commitments and contend within certain boundaries; they agree on the arena and the rules of the rink.

     What we're seeing is an increasing inability to come together and agree on the rules of the rink. Postmodernity has taken us away from a basic set of principles that will apply everywhere in one way or another. Instead everything is disconnected and there's no rule that works for everyone. That has resulted in a polarizing form of pluralization of society and finally fragmentation.


     In the coming years Christians must work together. We must share resources in personnel as well as perspectives and insight into Scripture. No country can think it is somehow privileged; the Word of God is privileged, not our culture. All cultures stand under the judgment of the Word of God, but all also have some common grace from God, something to preserve the good in it, allowing bridges for the Gospel.

     Second, we are under a mandate to take the Gospel to other nations. Many times people feel they must solve the problems in their own countries before going somewhere else. But that's not how God thinks. The Bible does not tell us to testify in Jerusalem, then go to Judea and Samaria. We are to go while we are testifying in our own Jerusalem, and trust God to take care of our country's problems.

     Next, we must train the missionaries being sent out from the Two-Thirds World. These servants are often no better prepared than those who went out a century and a half ago; frequently, they knew very little about cultural dynamics and missionary anthropology, but God used them in a mighty way. Thank God people went! But we don't want to repeat all the mistakes from which God allowed us to learn in terms of cultural sensitivity.

     "These developing countries have very few missionary training centers," observes Larsen. "We can and should help them. At RTS, we are working to be one of those training centers with a Reformed world and life view and with five different missionary degree programs. The new doctoral programs at RTS will help train the trainers from around the world."

     Our missionaries will also need to participate in intentional multi-national teams. God uses a variegated array of groups and individuals in His service. One culture picks up things that another culture misses and vice versa. The one truth of the Gospel has many aspects, and we begin to appreciate that truth more deeply as we understand the various aspects of it.

     "I intentionally mix cultures in my classes," says Larsen. "They must work together as a team for a grade. You can't learn this sort of thing in a lecture. Multi-national ministry is difficult, and the few who have tried it have often not been very successful. Cultures are very diverse and react differently to almost everything. But I believe there are solutions, and we can work toward them."

     Finally, churches at home need to prepare their congregations to receive returning missionaries. Most people don't know how to nurture missionaries who are home on furlough or debrief short-termers coming back from a year or two abroad. Churches are not just sending someone away, but are to be with them in that ministry because they will benefit from it when the missionary returns. That returning warrior will be able to see corrective, challenging, and useful points to which we are blind.

     "Missions is at the heart of God," Larsen reminds us. "It's purpose is to bring glory to the Triune God through the fulfillment of the Great Commission which God the Father has given to God the Son Isaiah 49:6, and in which the people of God are privileged to participate as partners by Christ's divine invitation and command, (Matt. 28:18-20 and John 20:21), through the enablement of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). As we see our place in God's plan during this millennium, may we take advantage of the technology before us for His kingdom."

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2000
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 11-8-2000.