Much has been made in recent years of the fact that the church in the Third World has taken on the mantle of missions instead of simply being its recipient. I would like to issue a challenge to the North American church to regain the evangelistic fervor so evident among many Third World Christians. As the apostle Paul put it, let us follow them as they follow Christ.
My recent crusades at El Paso-Juarez (Texas/ Mexico) and Bristol, England, showed me the sharp contrast that exists in the level of evangelistic energy within the evangelical church. Great hope and a sense of thrill grip the church in Latin America (including the many Hispanics of El Paso-Juarez). Pastors are preaching the pure gospel without apology. Laypeople share their faith with authority.
In North America and Europe, however, I find that while there is much discussion about evangelism, real evangelism is hard to detect. "There simply isn't the same enthusiasm for evangelism there was ten years ago," Anthony Bush, the mission chairman for the crusades in Bristol, told me. Unlike the El Paso experience of revival, Britain greeted us with empty, frigid cathedrals that serve as little more than museums of long-ago revivals. For all but a small percentage of the people in Britain and Western Europe, Christianity is ancient history, not a living relationship.
As an evangelist, I measure the pulse of the church by its evangelistic fervor. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette writes that throughout its history, "the primary emphasis of the Church was upon the salvation of the individual for eternal life." Charles H. Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century British preacher, believed that "the work of conversion is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labor with all our might." And John Wesley reminded preachers, "You have nothing to do but to save souls."
The evangelical Christians of North America cheerfully pay any amount to go to a concert. They fill the civic center for worship sessions and even intercessory spiritual-warfare conventions. But when it comes to face-to-face warfare, which is talking to people kindly but directly about their need for Christ, suddenly the numbers diminish. In too many churches the response to the challenge to proclaim the gospel to their city is, "Why should we be doing this?" and "This is expensive."
I thank God for the continuing health and strength he is giving to Billy Graham. I thank God for the wonderful evangelistic work of Franklin Graham, Greg Laurie, and many other young evangelists, some of whom are partners with us in the Next Generation Alliancesm. The ministries of Alpha, March for Jesus, Prison Fellowship, Promise Keepers, and Willow Creek Association advance the kingdom of God around the world. Everywhere I go I meet Christians who gave their lives to Jesus Christ after hearing the gospel on radio or viewing Campus Crusade's Jesus film. The growing interest in revival, prayer, and fasting, spurred on in North America by Joe Aldrich, Bill and Vonette Bright, David Bryant, Evelyn Christenson, Ed Silveso, and others is truly a great thing.
But the church must match those efforts with a vision for evangelism that confronts millions upon millions of people with the gospel in every generation. In the West, only small fires of passion for evangelism are lit, not the conflagration that ensures fulfilling the Great Commission. If the church does not take seriously its responsibility to evangelize, to whom does the Lord entrust this priority? The world has experts for everything else of concern to our churches, but the church alone is an expert in evangelism.
Gone "fishing" or golfing?
A few years ago the missions committee of a large church notified the various mission agencies it had been supporting that they were cutting their giving by as much as 50 percent. Paraphrased, the letter said, "Giving is down. May God provide for your needs." In the same envelope, however, was the church's weekly bulletin. One announcement caught my attention: "The pastor and 20 men in the church will be leaving this week with their wives for a golf tournament in the Bahamas." Was I wrong to conclude that in this church hitting and chasing a little white ball was a greater priority than missionary evangelistic ministry?
In the Spanish-speaking world, the church is showing its evangelistic priority through missions. Argentina, Brazil, and other nations in Latin America have joined Asian nations, such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as missionary-sending nations. The division between missionary-sending and missionary-receiving nations has been obliterated. "From all nations to all nations" is happening.
My colleague James M. Williams, who directs our Latin American ministries, recently returned from El Salvador where a church welcomed home a couple who are planting seeds of the gospel in an Arab country. In fact, many Latin Americans are being sent to the Middle East. As I discovered earlier this year in Cairo, there is a cultural affinity among Latin and Arabic peoples.
Called to cities and children
This transnational movement gives me hope for America's cities, which are a ripe mission field. The national majority in America, the Anglo-Saxons, must overcome its fear of the city, where minorities—African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics—are the majority. America's cities are the target of political action, social action, and all sorts of government programs with good intentions, but most of the ruling people, which include those in middle- and upper-class churches, have no idea how to relate to minorities spiritually.
The cities need missionaries and the boldness they bring—a sense of purpose and clear-cut commitment. We should have the same missionary purpose in our own culture. We ought to be just as bold and courageous and unashamed in confronting our neighborhood and our city with the claims of Christ. But it seems to be much harder.
A second ripe—but often overlooked —mission field is children. There are a hundred million abandoned children around the world. Yes, we must feed them and educate them, but we must also win them to Jesus Christ. For 34 years Colleen Redit, a doctor and a single woman from New Zealand, has labored on behalf of abandoned and orphaned children in Madras, India, where more than a third of the population is homeless. Redit herself is mother to 15 or more children at any given time. She supervises educational, nutritional, and vocational programs at the overcrowded Haven of Hope mission, where several hundred young women and teenage girls discover a future. But in the midst of all these vital programs, Redit always makes "the main thing the main thing," helping children to put their trust in Jesus. On every visit to the mission, it is beautiful to see the beauty of the Lord Jesus in their lives.
Dreaming of Jesus
This evangelistic fervor of which I am speaking is sometimes found in the most unlikely places. I have hope for the Arab world because there is such a stirring among Christians there to reach out in love and respect while clearly inviting others to follow Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Savior and Lord. The Arab world is in a state of deep-seated change. There is a growing hunger to know God. Pastor Menes Abdul Noor of Kasr El-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo, where I preached the gospel this past March, told me he talks individually to a hundred searching people every month. Quietly, great numbers of women and young people are coming to Christ.
And where Christians like Noor are moving ahead in faith, God seems to have prepared the hearts of those they are reaching. Every Arabic Christian I have talked to who converted to Christ from a non-Christian background relates a dream or vision in which Jesus, dressed in white as in the Transfiguration, speaks directly to them, telling them he is the Savior of the world. A woman whose father is a top leader in her nation—a nation where there are no church buildings—was converted through a dream in which Jesus revealed himself. The first five years of her Christian life she didn't even have a Bible.
Christians in the Middle East, many of whom are respected professionals with postgraduate degrees, expect God to work in this way. They believe in his supernatural intervention. If God is God, he is going to do supernatural things. No barriers can thwart or frustrate God's redemptive plan. Who could have imagined that Marxism would collapse overnight? But God made it happen. I believe something just as unthinkable will happen to the resistance to the gospel in the Arab world. Already I sense a momentum from God in the Middle East that no one will be able to stop. The gospel still meets strong resistance—in some cases, violent resistance—but I believe that within the next 20 years that is going to change. I am persuaded of this by faith and by Scripture, which says God the Savior wants "all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." God will work events, as Isaiah 46 says, so that his purposes will be accomplished. I look forward to the day when I will preach in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, or Tehran, Iran.
When the door opens, let us be ready to take advantage. After World War II General MacArthur called for ten thousand missionaries to Japan. But after ten years, hundreds—not thousands—had gone. By then the doors began to shut. In Japan today, only 2 percent of the population claims to be Christian.
The relative recent openness of the People's Republic of China is another fact that ought to give us hope. Although there are pockets of religious oppression and need for more freedom, compared to 20 years ago the freedom is enormous. The number of Christians worshiping there is so high that I can foresee in China a similar collapse of the Marxist ideology that we saw in the Soviet Union. The change could be even more pronounced because so many overseas Chinese have been converted to Christ. Along with seminary-trained pastors and biblically knowledgeable lay leaders, thousands of successful businesspeople in the churches of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are eager to take the gospel back into China.
Climbing through open windows
Though Christians in the Third World must address their own weaknesses—many practice intense evangelism but lack a biblically grounded and reasoned understanding of Christian doctrine—they also present a living challenge to those of us who have lost our evangelistic fervor in a secular culture that values toleration and denounces confrontation. The overwhelming sense I have as I travel is that we live in a time of great opportunity. We must go on saturating the nations with pure, simple evangelism and solid Bible exposition while these opportunities last. For they will pass, as history teaches us. In some now-open areas, persecution is rising, and already evangelism is becoming much more difficult.
It was wonderful to see Christians in Western nations pouring into the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe with Bibles and the gospel when the window (it was hardly a door) opened, even though criticism—some unfair—was launched against this activity. As someone who has lived in a nation under dictatorship and who reads church history, I think this was one of the best moments in world missions. Far better that we are berated for perceived excesses of evangelizing the once-closed countries of Eastern Europe than miss the opportunity altogether.
Our world is in flux. Large populations and ethnic groups are moving from country to country, region to region, city to city. According to missiologist Donald McGavran, such times of transition provide the best moments to lead people to God through Jesus Christ. My prayer is that the church of North America would once again awaken to the Great Commission Christ gave us. Let it begin today with the unsaved around us and then move on to the many lost throughout our world. Now is the moment—perhaps a unique moment in history that may not return for several hundred years. Let us press on.
Born in Argentina, international evangelist Luis Palau, 63, has proclaimed the gospel to 13 million people through crusades in 67 countries. He is president of the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, based in Portland, Oregon. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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