(Our last picture in St. Andrews ...)
But all of this is very good news. For that which God has been calling us to can finally begin to take fuller shape. In view of this transition from PhD to full time missionaries, I would like to write about some convictions which God has been working into Lisa and I about the gospel and the church.
As our calling to Sierra Leone has developed over the past eight years, we have said that we want to create a wholistic ministry which would restore people in 4 ways: physically, spiritually, socially and intellectually. Thus the "4" in Leaders 4 Life. To build a hospital and minister to amputees would obviously meet some physical needs, an educational orphanage would fill a social gap, and a seminary to train pastors would be, largely, an intellectual endeavor. All of these, done in the name of Jesus, would be good things. But over the years, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of a "spiritual" component which has caused me to ask more and more in my prayers, "Lord, what about the role of the gospel in our mission to Sierra Leone? What about the role of the church in our efforts?" In answer to those prayers, two central convictions have re-ignited themselves in my soul over the past months.
First, I believe in the gospel. I didn't grow up in the church. I had never read a page of the Bible before my teenage conversion. Rather, I spent my days sliding deeper and deeper into all that the world has to offer in "sin city"--my hometown of Las Vegas. I lived a life of decadence and depravity, smoking drugs, breaking into cars, and a whole host of other activities which are well beyond an "R" rating. But when my sister Heather shared the gospel with me--how Jesus had died for my sins and was raised to life to reconcile me to God and that I needed to make a decision to receive him and follow him--after a season of resistance, I believed. I had a radical conversion to Christianity and had peace in my life for the first time. And I have never looked back. If it weren't for Heather sharing God's gospel of peace and reconciliation with me, I wouldn't have a PhD in New Testament, I wouldn't be headed for the mission field in the world's poorest country which has been wracked by an 11 year civil war. If it weren't for the gospel and Jesus coming into my life, I'm positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would either be in prison or dead. Most people who meet me today actually don't believe me when I tell them of my past. Such is the power of the gospel to change a person's heart.
Second, I believe in the church. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek has a great phrase about this. He says, "The local church is the hope of the world." I truly believe that. It's not education or medicine or technology which will ultimately solve the problems of this world. Nor will our universities, businesses, or governments save us. The Bible declares that the problems of our world ultimately stem from within the human heart. James 4:1 asks, "What causes wars and conflicts? Don't they come from your desires which wage war within you?" Likewise, Jesus' declares that, "out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, blasphemy" (Matthew 15:19). Microsoft cannot solve the problem of evil in the world. Neither can George W. nor Obama can change the human heart. Only the gospel can do that. And it is the church which is the steward of this life-changing message of redemption. The church, while not perfect, nonetheless carries the message of the gospel and gathers those who have believed. The church truly is the hope of the world.
Eighteen months ago these two convictions--belief in the Gospel and in the church--began to shape our mission to Sierra Leone which is now on the horizon. A year and a half ago Lisa and I began to square my gifts of teaching and preaching, my training as a New Testament scholar, and my calling as a minister of the gospel with the mission as we had outlined it--to build a hospital, orphanage, and a seminary. The conclusion we came to was that if I was to be faithful to my calling as a minister that the gospel and the church would have to be central to our mission efforts.
So, you might be wondering, "Chris, you went to Bible school, Seminary, you now have your PhD in New Testament and you're just figuring this out?" Well, not exactly. I think when a person is beginning something such as a mission to the most underdeveloped country in the world, it's important to think through exactly what you're all about so that you can be as effective as possible. I have researched NGO's, I have observed parachurch ministries, and there is a centrality about the church and the gospel which I think is missing in many of these organizations. Yet at the same time, I have found that much of the church's mission efforts (at least in the Protestant tradition in which I came to faith) is sadly lacking in any kind of socially oriented expression of the gospel. It seems that the church has a difficult time striking a healthy balance between sharing the gospel with people and more socially oriented gospel-acts such as feeding them physically. Hybels recently talked about how when their church began they were very high on evangelism and how years later they swung way over to racial reconciliation and the feeding of Chicago's homeless. They have recently swung back over towards evangelism and are trying to find a balance between the two poles. Likewise, Rick Warren's unabashedly evangelical message has of late been supplemented by his work in African with AIDS, education, and the like. Franklin Graham began his ministry with the relief effort of sending practical necessities, toys, and Bibles in shoeboxes to needy children during Christmastime in "Operation Christmas Child." Roughly a decade later he began focusing upon evangelistic campaigns on par with his father's ministry. For me personally, I think I've come full-circle. I began my Christian journey with a powerful Gospel-conversion. My study of the Scriptures over the past 15+ years awakened in me God's very large concern for justice, physical healing, and the like. So where as we began with a vision to do lots of socially oriented ministry, this is now being balanced with a vision to preach the Gospel and to do so in and through the church.
So what does all of this mean for our mission? It means we must be church-based and Gospel-centered.
About six months ago, a friend of mine sent me the best article I've ever read on how to help Africa. The title says it all and sums up what I'm getting at: "As an Atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God: Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset." Read it here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece. What struck me in the article was how the author--walking through various mission compounds around Africa--could see a change upon the peaceful faces of those who lived there. And this even an Atheist could recognize--the power of God changing people's hearts with the gospel. Or, in the words of a missionary on the ground in Sierra Leone, "I am convinced that Sierra Leone will remain the poorest country in the world by UN standards as long as the hearts of the people remain the same. ... What is the solution for Africa? It is found in Jesus alone." Without a central core of the gospel and the church, we wouldn't have a mission ... it would only be yet another humanitarian effort done in merely human power. But by drawing upon God's power by preaching the gospel and by building up the church, I believe we can truly transform Sierra Leone.