Authored in late 2007
As we enter 2008 we note serious challenges that must be overcome if we are to obey Christ’s commission to disciple all nations. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan (which some are aptly calling World War IV) and the turmoil in nuclear-armed Pakistan because of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto serve to remind us of the face of the enemy during the last days. The homicide bombings, atrocities, and other unspeakable horrors committed by extremists in the name of their religion testify to the deceptive power of the spirit behind it. It is very difficult even to imagine how the Church can realistically complete the Great Commission to the one billion-plus adherents of this resurgent religion. Then there are the Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of witchcraft that populate large swaths of the planet. Yes, there are encouraging reports from Communist China where half a century of official atheism left many people hungry for the things of God. Nevertheless, fulfilling the mandate Christ gave us in the rest of the world would appear to be hopeless in view of the Church’s track record in missions using current methodologies.
Why would Christ command us to do something that seems impossible? Not only that, the Great Commission must be fulfilled before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in the last days (Matthew 24:14). Many are convinced that we are now in those last days. How can the Church accomplish such an overwhelming task before His presumed soon return?
Perhaps we have not been executing the task as Christ intended. Let us re-examine what Jesus Christ commanded us to do.
What is the Great Commission?
Matthew 4:19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said.
Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go andmake disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus commanded us to follow him and then to make disciples of all nations. He did not specifically command us to become “Christians” and then to “christianize” the nations. The term “Christian” came into usage only well after Christ ascended to heaven and thus was never mentioned by him while he was with his disciples. It was not until the time of Acts in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). As important as it may be for a person to “become a Christian,” Jesus himself never commanded us to do so. In some contexts—especially in the West—becoming a Christian may be very much in order. In other contexts it may not be advisable, as we shall see later. Moreover, Jesus never commanded his disciples to “go to church.” While in the West it may be very important for a new believer to start attending a local Christian church, it is not absolutely necessary to “go to church” in order to be discipled or to worship God in fellowship with other believers. This can be done elsewhere. As we shall see, it will be better in certain contexts for some new believers not to be seen in a Christian church at all.
What does the word “Christian” mean to the world?
According to Webster’s Online Dictionary, the word “Christian” in adjective form means, among other things, “professing Christianity.” A Christian is inextricably linked to Christianity. So what does Christianity mean to the billions of people in non-western/non-Christian countries who follow other religions? Institutional Christianity to them refers to a rival religion of western—and thus primarily foreign—origin. Therefore, Christians are those who follow this foreign religion. This is where the problem begins.
First of all, it is clear that only a minority of those who call themselves Christians and profess Christianity are truly following and obeying Jesus as his born-again disciples. America—the birthplace of liberal Hollywood and the liberal media elite which seek to do away with biblical values—is thought overseas to be a “Christian” country. In Third World nations as well, the majority of so-called Christians do not distinguish themselves from adherents of other religions by their way of life. They have little positive witness for Jesus Christ. The only thing that may distinguish them is that they adhere to the foreign religion known as Christianity. Herein lies another problem.
The problem of history
History records the takeover, at times by military force, of pagan countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East followed by their occupation and colonization by western powers. These western nations were invariably “Christian.” Missionaries, sensing opportunities for the gospel, would follow—and in the case of China, actually accompany the gunboats—and bring the good news to the subjugated peoples. They taught them to renounce their pagan religions in order to convert to Christianity. It was inevitable that these people would identify this religion not simply with the foreign missionaries, but with the foreign invaders as well.
Centuries ago the Dutch conquered Indonesia, occupying and exploiting the land for 350 years. Now independent, Indonesia has more adherents of the “religion of peace” than any other country in the world. Many of them have not forgotten that the religion of the Dutch is (or was) Christianity and that their former colonial masters were “Christians.” Not all Third World nations experienced such things at the hands of the West to the same extent, but modern history is replete, whether for better or worse, with instances of colonialism by “Christian” countries.
Thus we can see why it may not be in the best interests of the Great Commission in some areas to talk about formally renouncing one’s religion in order to convert to Christianity and becoming a Christian. In fact, it is against the law to do this in certain countries. The government of Malaysia, for example, prohibits the majority Malay people from converting to Christianity. However, we know that Jesus himself did not require us to convert to Christianity. What he requires is for sinners to repent of their sins and to follow him as his disciples. This is very different from what the lost in Third World countries understand as converting to Christianity.
When a follower of the “religion of peace” converts to Christianity, it is well known that there can be a heavy price to pay. Conversion can result in being disowned by one’s family, in persecution, torture, loss of property and job and rights, death threats and actual attempts on one’s life. In countries where conversion to Christianity is illegal, there can be arrest followed by a trial and imprisonment. Such consequences make it very difficult for the lost to convert. Then there are the broader consequences of conversion.
5,000 die in aftermath of Crusade
When I was in Africa, I heard from The Elijah Challenge Coordinator for Africa, Emmanuel Abdullahi, about what happened after a well-known evangelist held a large Crusade in the extremist hotbed of Northern Nigeria. Because of the great miraculous healings that took place during the Crusade, many decided to follow Jesus Christ which involved converting to Christianity. However, this precipitated riots by the followers of the “religion of peace” resulting in the death of a reported 5,000 people, not to mention the destruction of church buildings. The evangelist wept upon hearing of the loss of life that followed his meeting.
We are learning that the open Crusade approach might not be the best way of proclaiming the gospel of peace in areas hostile to it.
Jesus commanded us to “heal the sick, and tell them the kingdom of God is near you.” Entering the kingdom of God is not about renouncing a religion and then converting to another one called Christianity to become a Christian. Jesus did not address the question of religion as we understand it today. Entering the kingdom of God is rather by repenting of one’s sins, being baptized, and following Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. Without a doubt, doing this will have definite effect on one’s behavior; beliefs and practices of our indigenous religion may need to be changed or abandoned. The Holy Spirit will bring conviction directly to our hearts through the word of Christ.
However, the outward religion with which we label ourselves publicly is of little eternal consequence as long as we follow Christ faithfully and do not deny him. Let not the focus be on religion, especially in places hostile to the gospel. Conversion includes forsaking one’s own religion and then embracing Christianity. And this in turn may lead to yet another problem. In the West we will encourage the new convert to attend a local Christian church for worship, fellowship, and discipleship. However, in areas like Indonesia where the “religion of peace” is the majority religion, this could invite danger to the believers in the church and risk the church building being burned to the ground by fanatic adherents of the majority religion. There is actually a more suitable place where new believers can worship the Lord and be discipled.
Successes of the new paradigm
As an example of this paradigm, let us focus on what is happening in West Java in Indonesia, the home of the world’s largest unreached people group—the Sunda tribe. These forty-four million Sundanese are known to be unreachable and gospel-resistant, stubbornly adhering to the majority religion of Indonesia. Using traditional methods the Church in Indonesia has failed to put a dent in this tribe for the gospel.
In late 2003 we tried a new approach. First we trained the local servants of God how to heal the sick in the name of Jesus Christ to prove to the lost that He is the only way to the Father. At the subsequent evangelistic healing meeting, a number of the Sundanese people were present. They heard the gospel and witnessed the many miraculous healings done in the name of Isa Almasih, which is Jesus Christ in Arabic. Some of the Sundanese people were healed as well and they testified publicly. As a result, over one-half of the Sundanese attending the meeting made the decision to follow Isa as their only Lord and Savior.
They were not asked to renounce their own religion in a formal way and then to convert publicly to the organized religion called Christianity. They remained outward adherents of their religion, but as born-again followers of Isa. They acknowledged him as the crucified Savior. They worshipped God and were discipled according to the teachings of the Bible not in a church, but rather in a home or in a meeting place not publicly affiliated with Christianity. Over time they renounced practices that were in violation of Scripture. However, since they have not outwardly renounced their religion, there has been little persecution to speak of. Moreover, their religion already honors the prophet known in their Holy Book as Isa Almasih. When questioned, they simply say, “We are following the prophet Isa mentioned in our Holy Book.”
In this way, two Indonesian servants of God who were trained in 2003 have now reached thirty Sundanese villages for the Kingdom of God. Even some religious and civic leaders have become disciples of Isa. They are initially drawn by the manifestations of miraculous healing power that Isa gives to His disciples. The Lord has done other miracles to open up this “unreachable” people group to His Kingdom. He has given them supernatural dreams and visions about Jesus Christ. He has demonstrated His clear supernatural favor upon those who believe over those who do not believe on him. The field of one farmer who believed on Isa was luxuriantly green with an abundance of crops. The adjacent field of his unbelieving next-door neighbor was yellow and dry.
Someday soon this unreached Sunda tribe will be re-classified by missiologists as “reached.” No, they will not have been “christianized,” something Christ did not necessarily intend. Rather, they will have in their own community a powerful body of believers that can potentially fulfill the Great Commission to them.
A few of these villages have decided on their own to convert formally to Christianity because they eventually came to realize that Isa is in fact Jesus Christ of the Bible. In the long run, however, this might not be in the best interests of the gospel to the Sunda tribe.
A similar approach is being utilized for unreached villages in India. The local servants of God do not come identifying themselves as Christians or associated with the Christian church. The Christian religion can at times be a stumbling block to the lost who would otherwise come to Jesus Christ. The servants of God enter the village looking not like western evangelists dressed in jacket and tie, but dressed and looking exactly like Indians. They invite the villagers to join them for a feast, and the villagers are happy to come. Before serving the food to them, they preach Jesus Christ (or Isa Almasih, as the local situation may demand) to them as the only way to the Kingdom of God. They heal the infirm in the name of Jesus to demonstrate that the Kingdom is near. Villagers are healed and testify publicly. Then the workers invite the villagers to repent of their sins and to follow Jesus. They are not asked to renounce their religion and formally convert to Christianity. Because of the confirming miracles and the word of God, the villagers believe on Jesus. After that the feast begins. The servants of God and the villagers sit down together to eat and build personal relationships with one another.
In this way untouched villages are being reached for the gospel. Fellowships of believers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are being started in these villages. They are deliberately not called churches and the believers are not called Christians; they are simply called “believers.” The very sensitive issue of religion has been wisely sidestepped.
When the gospel cannot be preached with words
In some areas, it is illegal or very risky to share the gospel openly. We have seen how a reported 5,000 people lost their lives in Northern Nigeria after miraculous healings at a Crusade led many non-believers to convert to Christianity. What can we do?
In such a situation, we need to be “as shrewd as snakes” and plan for a relatively long-term outreach. We send to the hostile area local workers who have been trained and are proficient in healing the sick and casting out demons. These will not be known to outsiders as disciples of Jesus Christ and ideally will appear to be adherents of the local majority religion. They will invite the people to come to be healed of their infirmities in the name of Isa Almasih. The infirm will come, and as hands are laid on them in the name of Isa, the Lord will heal them. However, the gospel will deliberatelynot be preached to them. All they know is that they have been dramatically and supernaturally touched by Isa.
Miracles and the supernatural are very powerful tools for reaching the adherents of this religion. There are marvelous reports of their leaders having vivid dreams in which a heavenly man wearing a white robe appears to them. When later they find out that the man was Jesus Christ, they believe on him as Lord and Savior on their own, without someone first sharing the gospel with them. Obviously we have no power or authority to give such dreams to them; it is God who gives dreams. However, according to Scripture, we disciples of Jesus Christ have authority to heal their infirmities miraculously for the sake of demonstrating to them that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the only Savior. This authority is available to be used as often as needed to demonstrate the truth of the gospel to the lost.
When we establish our presence in such a hostile community by showing patient love as we heal the infirm without condition—without preaching, proselytizing or trying to convert them to Christianity—we will slowly over time gain their favor. It will not take place overnight. But they will come to know that God is at work in us because of the many powerful healings—miracles that their religion and leaders cannot perform. Some of them will wonderand on their own begin to seek after the Isa whose powerful name delivered them from their suffering. They will remember that no payment or anything else was asked of them. They only saw unconditional love expressed through God’s healing power. We will trust the Holy Spirit Himself in this way to convict them, teach them, and lead them to salvation in Christ Jesus with minimal outward involvement from the Christian Church. Of course, they must eventually have access to Holy Scripture.
We are describing a slow and gradual process that will require much patience and step-by-step guidance from the Holy Spirit. After all, an attempt is being made to change an age-old mindset regarding the true identity of Jesus Christ as the crucified Savior and the only way to Heaven. It may take years or even a generation to see fruit. But this approach may be what is required if we are to complete the Great Commission to these hardened people groups. Ultimately we hope to see a widespread, indigenous people movement to Isa Almasih that appears to originate from the followers of the local majority religion. Outwardly, they will remain adherents of their religion and will not have converted to another. Outwardly, they may have little or nothing to do with the established Church of Jesus Christ, but will in their own right be the body of Isa Almasih within their own people group.
We have not yet had the opportunity to attempt this radical approach, so at this time we are not able to lay out the details. There will arise questions that will be answered only as we step out of the boat onto the water. But we know that this approach is now possible. God has already revealed to the Church understanding sufficient for the time being on how to heal the sick effectively as Jesus taught his disciples in the gospels when he sent them out. Servants of God are today being trained to heal the sick in that way for the sake of the gospel.
May the Lord in these last days raise up bold disciples who will dare to attempt this in obedience to the Great Commission.
To recap, there are two components to the new paradigm for fulfilling the Great Commission to the gospel-resistant in the Third World:
• We heal the sick, and tell them “the kingdom of God is near you.”
• We only preach the Kingdom of God, repentance for the forgiveness of sins and following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
o We do not preach public conversion from one religion to another and becoming a Christian.
o We do not encourage new believers to “go to church,” but to be discipled and to fellowship with other believers elsewhere, possibly in secret.
o Where it is not allowed by law or inadvisable, we do not preach the gospel but simply heal the sick in the name of Isa and trust the Holy Spirit to bring conviction.
We are not saying that the traditional paradigm is not effective. Indeed it has produced some fruit for the gospel in the West. But in the rest of the world inhabited by hardened and unreachable people groups, the new paradigm will be far more effective.