The American culture trains us to be devastatingly independent with a front-runner, do it your own way approach. The Lord, however, desires us to humble ourselves to be willing to learn from each other and those who have gone before us. Just as members of the body of Christ benefit one another with diverse gifts and talents, we can also greatly benefit one another by learning from each other’s faith and previous experiences. In Hebrews 13, God encourages his people to follow the example and way of life that the leaders who taught them the word of God modeled and in 1st Corinthians 10, God outlined the gross sins and faithlessness of Israel so that we would learn from their mistakes and walk in a different way than they had walked in the wilderness. Likewise, here are five important lessons learned while living on mission among diaspora people that I would now like to pass on so that you might be more prepared as you go make disciples of all nations.
If we want to see people come to Jesus, let’s ask the Father. ‘You don’t have because you don’t ask’ (and sometimes we don’t ask because we don’t want it that much).
Of course God’s generosity isn’t on a ‘prayer tap’. But the first 6 months here – when I often took an hour on solitary dark mornings to walk around Clarkston praising God and asking for him to act – they ‘paid off’ in answered prayers right till the day we moved out. I really should have done less direct outreach and more praying! I kind of discovered an adrenaline rush(!) in being God’s priest under Jesus, representing the spiritual needs of lost people to Him, and knowing He was listening.
2) Roll your tongue.
Pick a language and learn it.
Yes, the Holy Spirit can supernaturally bridge language barriers. But I think he usually does it by giving you the love and patience to start learning that person’s language. How often in our outreach do we find that someone can speak some English and so, without further thought, we try to reach their hearts for Jesus without learning a word of their heart language? If I could rewind a year, the biggest thing I’d do differently would be to determinedly focus on one language group, learn the words ‘please teach me your language’, and then find ways to spend whole days humbly learning from those refugees, without speaking English. Within 6 months, I imagine I’d start to be on the ‘inside’ of that whole group, and have a trusted position as friend to share Jesus with them in their own language.
3) Cramp your style.
I have a tendency to want to fly solo as a lone missionary; it’s more efficient, and somehow more gratifying when you see progress…but completely wrong-headed.
An African proverb advises: ‘If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go further go with others’. If I’m going to visit my Eritrean friend, who can I bring with me to introduce to him? If I’m connecting to my Iraqi neighbors but don’t know how to share Jesus with them, have I tried looking to find an Iraqi church, and asked if any of them will come along and help me? If I can see that an apartment complex needs to be prayed for, have I thought about finding the Christian families who live there and mobilizing them to do more of the praying than me? If someone wants to make the step of following Jesus, have I thought about asking ‘who else in your family might like to make this step with you?.’
On our last day in Clarkston, our dear Nepalese friends sat in our living room to say goodbye, and told us that they all want to be baptized and follow Jesus, but before they do, they are spending the time explaining to their Hindu family members what they are doing, in the hope that those family members won’t simply cut them off, but that many of them might decide to join them and follow Jesus too. As we in Australian and US cities scratch our heads wondering ‘how do we reach these nations on our doorstep?’, one important answer is ‘Don’t go alone. Work in partnership with the believers embedded in those communities.’
4) Know your enemy.
I’ve learned to think more in terms of power dynamics as we reach lost people.
If people are in darkness, then spiritual powers are keeping them there. And we need to pray against those forces. In Clarkston, I’ve had that shiver of ‘fight or flight’, as I’ve come across people who seem to embody these spiritual powers: The imam who comes to a family and says ‘if you welcome any more Christians ’round your house, we will cut you off from our community’. The senior family member who will disown his niece and her parents if she ever chooses to renounce Buddhism. The strict Muslim family in Baghdad who will possibly exact terrible revenge on an Iraqi man’s parents there if, on the other side of the world in Atlanta, he is baptized into Christ (true story). But if we direct our hate against these people, we won’t win the battle, because ‘our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against …the spiritual forces of evil in the heaven’ (Ephesians 6).
There were two imams in particular who I needed to learn to love and honor, rather than hate. I also needed to learn where true power is. Yes there are ‘fake’ powers (religions whose rules never truly change someone’s circumstances, like the Quranic school in our apartment complex training 10 year old kids to rote-learn ancient Arabic) ), and there are ‘false’ powers (idols that promise freedom but only enslave, like American consumerism). And then there is true power: the Lord that God raised from the dead, who can transform your whole life permanently.
5) Plant deep not shallow.
You only need one family for the Kingdom to grow and multiply. If it goes deep.
My wife and I have been challenged to not seek ‘I prayed to become a Christian’ believers, but avid disciples of Jesus. Disciples who make disciples. The plants that ‘produce a crop 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown’. I’ve been challenged to at least consider seriously Jesus’ method of investing in 12 and sharing his life with 3 (Peter, James and John) – going deep with a few. In the past, when people tried to convince me of this, I reacted like it was a naive, guilt-inducing pyramid scheme.
But then we saw people do it as a way of life, both with Christians and non-Christians. The Nepalese family I mentioned who want to be baptized told us that the decisive turn happened for them when a believing couple moved in with them for 6 months and asked if they could share the rent and learn their language. A big investment, perhaps! But from those 20-odd weeks we’re now seeing spiritual fruit that will last generations.
And of course Jesus doesn’t ever want pyramid-style ‘convert-makers’, he wants people who practice all his commands, including the least convenient: love nasty people, forgive family members who’ve hurt you, be generous to the poor, pray out of expectation not duty. The Kingdom will grow precisely because it’s about far more than numbers of conversions.