The Rev. Dr. Rob Nash is the Global Mission Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, headquartered in Atlanta, GA.
Not too terribly long ago I made my way up to a first church in a rural county seat town in the South to deliver the Sunday morning message. As I drove into town, I nearly ran off the road when I saw a sign just in front of a little brick ranch home that said "Laotian Buddhist Temple." It was certainly the first Buddhist temple that I had ever seen in that part of the country. And I scratched my head in wonder and amazement and drove on up to the church.
Upon ascending into the pulpit, I said to the congregation, "I notice you have a Buddhist temple here in town. I'm assuming you folks have been out to the temple to welcome the Buddhists to your community." The congregation just stared at me, and an uncomfortable silence filled the sanctuary. I decided to push on. "Well," I said, "I tell you what I'm gonna do. On my way home this afternoon, I'm going to pull up to the temple and meet the monks and tell them that the First Church is going to be coming out to see them and to welcome them to town." I saw a few nods around the church that seemed to give me some license to fulfill this crazy mission.
After church I made my way to the temple, knocked on the door, shared a Coke with the monks in front of the image of the Buddha, and told them about the people of the First Church. And the next Sunday morning I crawled back up into the pulpit and reported on my success. "The Buddhists are so excited that you folks are coming to see them," I said.
At the end of my sermon and to their credit, the women of that congregation met me down front and asked me how they ought to approach this significant task. I noticed no men were among their number, and I thought the men ought to be involved on some level, so I said, "Just get your husbands to bake up a batch of chocolate chip cookies and take those out to the temple and give them to the monks as a welcoming gift." I'm glad to report that those women did just that-well, except for the part where the husbands made the chocolate chip cookies. And when I visited the congregation several months later, they reported to me that they now viewed the monks as friends and not as strangers when they saw them on Main Street downtown.
We live in a new and rapidly shrinking world. We've got Buddhists and Daoists and Hindu temples in towns with names like Aiken and Hattiesburg and Rome. We can have a whopper from Burger King in Bangkok and dine on pad Thai noodles on the main streets of many of our smaller American towns and cities. All of this shrinking and flattening is terribly exciting and sometimes rather sobering for all of us. But it is certainly a bit of a shock to a faith like Christianity within the U.S. context that's grown quite accustomed to being the only faith in town. Oh, I know there's some exceptions and that parts of the country have been quite diverse for a considerable period of time. But, still, many parts of the country have witnessed this religious diversity only in the last decade or so, and many of us continue to wrestle and struggle with what it all means for me and for my church and my faith.
There's lots of good news in it. A diverse world demands more of us as Christian people. It forces us to examine our own motivations and our reasons for engaging otherness and difference in the world. We have a unique opportunity to embrace people from all over the world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. The challenge of this engagement with otherness and difference is a significant one, because I'm convinced that you and I are now living in the century of the local church, the local congregation when it comes to the Christian engagement with the world.
I am a church historian and as I look back across the history of the evangelical church in particular, I realize that we have jumped tracks just about every century over the last 400 years when it comes to the Christian engagement with the world. The 18th century was the century of the individual missionary, like William Carey in India and Burma, who begged and pleaded and cajoled the church toward global engagement. And the 19th century was the great century of the mission society, and the 20th century was the century of the great denominations. And now we live in the century of the local church. This truly is the century of the church. The church is the place where God is at work in the world. This reality excites me and frightens me all at the same time. I'm not sure most U.S. congregations are ready for it. For a couple of centuries now, we have prayed that congregations would become passionate about sharing the love of Christ with the world in word and deed, and we're finally receiving what we've prayed for. Congregations are indeed becoming passionate about global engagement.
I was interested to discover recently that the number of U.S. Christians participating in short-term mission experiences has increased from 18,000 people in 1988 to something approaching 3 million in 2004. U.S. Christians are passionate about meeting human need around the world and about sharing the love of Christ, and such enthusiasm is indeed contagious. At the same time, I'm frightened by the prospect. Too many U.S. Christians and U.S. congregations are not prepared for the kind of engagement that is demanded. We all struggle with it.
Not too long ago I was sitting in a hotel restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, having breakfast with a colleague from Argentina. Apparently, during the night a group from the United States had arrived in Ecuador on a mission trip. It was obvious they were there to take Ecuador by storm. Fifteen of them descended on the restaurant for breakfast. They loudly called for the waiter, and he hurried over to their table with some orange juice. "Would you like some orange juice, sir?" he asked the gentleman at the head of the table. "Oh, no, I don't want any orange juice," the gentleman responded. And he looked down the table and said to the rest of his group, "Now remember that we aren't supposed to drink the orange juice in these countries, because it's made with dirty water." If it was attention these people wanted, it was attention they were getting. Ecuadorian coffee cups all over the room were pausing on the way to mouths and Ecuadorian newspapers were being lowered. One by one every person at the table refused the orange juice.
All of us are in need of transformation as we seek to engage the world with the love and grace of Christ. And that transformation is going to be painful because of what it means. It means that for the church global engagement begins right where God has placed us and within the pluralistic world that we find all around us. We've got to bless the nations and peoples that live around us before we can bless the nations and peoples that live way out there. We must overcome our fear of otherness and difference and engage in loving relationships with people who are radically different from us. Every U.S. Christian bears this privilege and this responsibility.
Not only must churches be ready to engage otherness and difference in the world, but congregations also must be intentional and proactive in their own engagement. The world is full of hurting and marginalized peoples who deserve an intentional caring, corporate, and relational response to the huge spiritual and material needs that exist in their lives. God needs deeply committed Christian people who understand that their calling is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to bless the world through lifelong commitment in love and service.
About a year ago I made a visit to Asia to attend a conference of Christian leaders in that part of the world. We Anglo-Americans and Western European types listened as church leaders there talked about the ways in which we and they worked together. I'll never forget the words of one leader who stood up during a time for dialogue and made the following request. "I want to ask those of you from the West to do something for us. We need your churches to come alongside of us in this part of the world and to be our partners as we share Christ's love with the world. Please send us your churches and please receive our churches as we join together in ministry." His words caught me a bit off guard. I've been a strong advocate of a real global engagement on the part of the American church, but I wondered just how many congregations in the United States are ready for that kind of engagement, how many churches are ready to stand alongside churches in other parts of the world and engage in partnership together that can transform churches there and churches here.
The truth of the matter is that we need help from the global church. We need help in reaching out to the world that God has brought to us, and often we're unsure about how to do it. We're given a bit of a clue here in the commission of Jesus to the church found in John's Gospel.
"As the Father has sent me," Jesus says, "so I send you."
Jesus' sending was an all-encompassing sending. It was a day-in and day-out sort of calling. Ours is no different. Every moment of life is to be lived under the lordship of Christ. We're called to engage the world for the good of the world. We're not just called to pull a few people out of a congregation and send those folks into the world. We're all called into the world to be the presence of Christ, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to minister in word and deed to those whom we meet. Global engagement is not the responsibility of a few of us. It is the responsibility of the whole church, and thus it is the responsibility of my church and your church and the church down the street and the church on the other side of the world.
The transformation will not be easy, but it will mean there will be more and more congregations around who watch the Buddhists move to town and who offer them a cup of cold water, clean or dirty, or a chocolate chip cookie in the name of Jesus. And who in the process turns strangers into friends.
Let us pray. Lord, we ask for courage to risk. In a day in which far too many of us shy away from otherness and difference in the world, help us to celebrate the differences that exist at the very heart of who you have made us to be. Enable us to reach out to others with your love and grace and even as we reach, to receive with openness the love that others desire to share with us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.