In the tradition of Luke/Acts, Jesus “presented himself alive” to the believers “by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). And then, as he prepared to leave the earth, he promised them that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This “Great Commission,” which also appears in Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus directs us to “make disciples of all nations,” is generally considered to be the divine charter for the modern international missions movement. At the dawn of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, few European Christians had nonChristian neighbors. To be honest, it was the colonial expansion of European nations into the Americas, Africa and the Far East, motivated by dreams of wealth and empire, that lifted up the Great Commission again to the minds and hearts of some believers.
Even then, when Baptists in Great Britain and the United States began commissioning and sending out “foreign missionaries” two hundred years ago, there were some of a Calvinist persuasion who believed that this activity was an affront to a sovereign God. “God will save the heathen whenever and however He wills. He doesn’t need our help!” I, for one, am thankful that some brave missionary band travelled over hostile seas and rugged terrain to bring the Gospel to the wild Anglo Saxons who were my distant ancestors! But what about today?
I am glad that First Baptist Church of Portland continues to relate to mission partners around the world, such as Lauran Bethell, Ann and Bruce Borquist, Judy Sutterlin, and our two new partner couples, Dr. Tim and Cathy Rice and Emerson and Ivy Wu. And these are not “colonialist” relationships; these dedicated servants of Christ come at the invitation of and serve alongside of national Christian leaders. But there’s something new going on in Christian missions today.
Many of the original sending nations of the modern missionary movement — England, Scotland and the nations of Western Europe, for instance — have seen their church life diminished by the acids of secularism. Many of the original “receiving” nations, particularly in the global south, have vibrant and growing churches, and are sending out missionaries of their own. For example, Brazil, Nigeria and South Korea are now three of the largest mission sending nations. Currently the largest Christian congregation in Europe, by weekly participation, is a Pentecostal congregation in Ukraine, founded by expatriate Nigerians, but now 98% Ukrainian.
Here in the United States, the Burmese diaspora is revitalizing many American Baptist congregations, such as First Baptist Church of Indianapolis and North Shore Baptist Church of Chicago. Because of their gratitude to the Judson’s, and the American Baptists who sent them 200 years ago, they regard us as their Mother Church. Here at First Baptist, Portland, we are excited by the vibrant group of youth and young adults we have. Many of them are children or grandchildren of our Cambodian congregation, and our former Hispanic congregation.
In Western Europe and across these United States, the greatest wave of mass migration in human history is taking place. Both the inequities and the opportunities of the globalized economy are driving engines, as are the creation of refugees by war and the continuing allure of the American dream. In the near future, global climate change will produce new waves of migrants. This means that every community in our nation will see races, cultures and religions tossed together. In the David Douglas School District, where many of our youth are enrolled, there are homes speaking 89 different languages. In our downtown community, childless urban professionals and hard living folk coexist uneasily with one another and are the neighbors of First Baptist Church. How will we respond?
We can wring our hands and wish for “the Good Ole Days.” Or we can praise God for creating a mission field around us, and fervently pray for God’s guidance to respond. Jesus challenged his original disciples to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” In the first years of the twenty-first century, “the ends of the earth” have arrived at our doorstep.
— Dr. David L. Wheeler