Translating the Great Commission


Produced by Barna Group in partnership with Seed Company, Translating the Great Commission examines aspects of Christian missions, including knowledge of the Great Commission, the definition of missions, the relationship of evangelism and social justice, and the role and value of Bible translation. As usual with Barna reports, Translating includes a mix of quantitative and qualitative research, together with expert Q&As and infographics. It offers a valuable snapshot of current opinion about these aspects of Christian missions.

Book Reviewed
Barna Group, Translating the Great Commission: What Spreading the Gospel Means to U.S. Christians in the 21st Century (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018).

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Do Miracles Really Happen? | Influence Podcast


Easter is a few days away. Around the world, Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event, so pivotal to Christian faith, is a reminder that Christianity is an inherently supernatural religion. Unfortunately, in the modern era, many disbelieve in miracles, their skepticism fueled by appeals to science. So, the question naturally arises, do miracles really happen?

To answer that question, I interviewed Lee Strobel about his new book, The Case for Miracles. Strobel began his career as the award-winning legal editor for The Chicago Tribune. After his conversion from atheism to Christianity, however, he turned his attention to apologetics and evangelism and has written bestsellers like The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for Grace. He currently serves as professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University as well as teaching pastor at Woodlands Church.

If you’d like a video of Lee Strobel making the case for Jesus’ resurrection, which you can download and use in your church, go here.

P.S. This is reposted (with minor edits) from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. Here are my two previous podcasts with Lee: (1) “Why Evangelism Needs Apologetics” and  (2) “Raising Your Church’s Evangelistic Temperature.”

The Future of the Global Church | Book Review


Patrick Johnstone is best known as editor of the first six editions of Operation World, a prayer guide for Christians interested in fulling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20). Now in its seventh edition, and edited by Jason Mandryk, Operation World presents data on the geography, peoples, economy, politics, and religion of the regions and countries of the world, which is drawn from sophisticated databases maintained by WEC International, an interdenominational missions agency. This data helps readers pray intelligently about the needs of those regions and countries throughout the year.

In The Future of the Global Church, Johnstone has drawn on those databases to create succinct narratives about and visualizations of the growth of global Christianity. The book can best be described as an historical atlas of the past, present, and possible future of world Christianity. It is a helpful resource for readers who want a concise presentation of the relevant information.

Johnston divides his material into nine chapters. Chapter 1 describes nine global challenges currently experienced around the world: population growth, migration, urbanization, pandemics (such as HIV/AIDS), climate change, income inequality, sustainable energy, political and social freedom, and water resources. Throughout the book, he highlights how environmental challenges such as these affect the movements of people—physically, intellectually, and spiritually—both in the past and at present. Doing so reminds readers that the course of history is not shaped merely by human thought and action. Larger forces are at work (such as natural disasters, pandemics, and birthrates), shaping the context in which people receive and propagate religion and nonreligious ideas and practices.

Chapter 2 summarizes the global growth of Christianity from its first-century origin to the present. Each of Christian history’s twenty centuries is summarized on two pages (except the twentieth century, which receives more extended treatment). These pages present maps depicting the faith’s global growth, tables summarizing relevant demographic information, and bulleted lists summarizing major events in the world at large and the church in particular. For readers interested in a quick summary of Christian history, this chapter is invaluable.

Chapter 3 identifies six major streams of Christianity. Listed in descending order by size, they are Christian (32.5 percent of global population as of 2010), Muslim (22.6 percent), non-religious (14.8 percent), Hindu (13.7 percent), Buddhist (6.5 percent), and ethnic/other (10 percent), the last category including religions such as animism, Sikhism, and Judaism (65). Johnstone provides several pages of data and visualization for each religious stream on succeeding pages.

Chapter 4 then turns its focus to the Christian stream. Johnstone divides Christendom into six megablocs: Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, Independents, and Marginals, by which he means “[a]ny group that claims to be Christian but displays one or more of the following characteristics,” characteristics that focus on heterodox doctrine, non-biblical sources of revelation, and extreme sectarianism (114). Johnstone predicts that in the future, Christian growth will slow “due to the slowing of population growth” generally, but also that “Christian areas [such as Europe and North America specifically] will see their majorities eroded by secularism and diluted by non-Christian immigration.” This will be offset, however by “continued growth in Africa and Asia—especially China, India and [Southeast] Asia.” And Johnnstone predicts that there “are likely to be increasing numbers of conversions to Christianity in some countries with large Muslim populations,” Islam being the chief religious competitor to Christianity globally (118).

Chapter 5 examines “renewal movements” in Christianity, which Johnstone divides into three broad categories: Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. Evangelicals are “characterized by a theology based on the inerrancy of the Bible, a personal experience of salvation by faith through grace and a desire or obligation to witness to that salvation” (121). Given this definition, all Pentecostals are evangelical, and most Charismatics are. Elsewhere, Johnstone defines Charismatics as “those who testify to having had a renewing experience of the Holy Spirit and who exercise the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and miracles” (xii). Given this definition, all Pentecostals are charismatic. What distinguishes Pentecostals and Charismatics is largely denominational affiliation. The rapid growth of these movements is noteworthy and will likely continue well into the future. “If present projections prove accurate, by 2050 charismatic Christians will comprise one-third of all Christians and one-tenth of the world’s population” (125). This is remarkable growth, given that however one dates the history of modern Pentecostalism, by 2050 it will only be approximately 150 years old.

Chapter 6 outlines the history, growth, and geographic distribution of Evangelicals Evangelicalism in its many forms (including Pentecostals and Charismatics) provides “the main thrust for world evangelization” today, Johnstone contends (139). One of the most notable trends among the world’s Evangelicals is the demographic shift from North to South. As a share of regional population, Evangelicals are declining in Europe, North America, and the Pacific, but growing exponentially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Despite the fact that Christianity is the largest religious stream globally, and that the most evangelistic components of that stream are its fastest growing segments, major regions of the world still exist without effective evangelization efforts by Christians. The unevangelized are the focus of chapter 7. “In the 1990s,” Johnstone writes, “5% became accepted as the dividing point between ‘unevangelized’ and ‘evangelized,” by which he means 5 percent of the population that “professes Christianity” in some form. He concedes that this is an inadequate definition, but it is nevertheless illustrative of the challenge of evangelization. Using that definition, in 2008 numbers, 2.5 billion of the world’s inhabitants are unevangelized because their people group consists of 5 percent or fewer Christians. Another 2 billion inhabitants live in people groups where Christianity is a statistical minority. And approximately 2.3 billion live in people groups where Christianity is a statistical majority (172).

Chapter 8 then turns to a consideration of what kind of missionary resources are necessary for the world’s people groups to be effectively evangelized. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between the number of missionaries serving each of the six religious streams. Most missionaries serve in countries or regions where Christians constitute the majority of the population. Thus, 43 percent of Christians serve in Christian-majority countries. In descending order, 17 percent of missionaries serve among the ethnic religions, 15 percent among Hindus, 9.7 percent among Buddhists, 8.1 percent among Muslims, and 7.2 percent among the non-religious (231). The disparity is especially noteworthy with regard to Muslim-majority countries or regions. Though Muslims constitute the second-largest bloc of religious persons worldwide (after Christians), missionaries to Muslim-majority countries constitute the second-smallest bloc of total missionary personnel. Clearly, that needs to change if effective evangelization is to take place.

Johnstone concludes The Future of the Global Church by quoting the Commitment of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, which took place in South African in 2010:

Let us keep evangelism at the centre [sic] of the fully-integrated [sic] scope of all our mission, inasmuch as the gospel itself is the source, content and authority of all biblically-valid [sic] mission. All we do should be both an embodiment and a declaration of the love and grace of God and his saving work through Jesus Christ (239, emphasis in original).

Given the data Johnstone has presented to this point, the Lausanne exhortation provides the exact right exhortation with which to end the book.

Book Reviewed
Patrick Johnstone, The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Missional Public Opinion Researchj


Twenty-some years ago, I served as a counselor at a weeklong Christian summer camp for abused and neglected children. For chapel, one evening, a puppet evangelist told the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22) as an example of the Father’s willingness to sacrifice His Son for us.

A graduate student in theology at the time, I remember thinking there was something wrong with the ventriloquist’s analogy. Wouldn’t Jesus be like the ram God provided, not Isaac? I thought. Then I noticed how quiet, still, and wide-eyed the kids were. Slowly, I realized that many of these kids had witnessed horrific acts of violence perpetrated by their parents or guardians against them and their siblings. In fact, over the course of five years as a counselor, two of my campers — brothers — had witnessed their dad murder their mother and kill himself.

In my opinion, this well-meaning puppet evangelist failed to communicate because he didn’t understand the audience he was preaching to. Ministerial education focuses on teaching pastors the proper exegesis of the biblical text, but in my experience, we need more help in the proper exegesis of our culture.

That’s why I’m an avid reader of public opinion research. When Pew, Gallup, Barna, or similar organizations release a new study, I pay attention. Credible data on what people believe and value helps me better understand the people and culture God has called me to serve as a witness to the gospel.

Obviously, public opinion doesn’t determine what you and I say. The Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant Word. Our message about Jesus Christ comes from its pages, not from the pages of a newspaper or website.

On the other hand, public opinion can help us shape how we share our message. Think of how the apostle Paul preached the gospel to different audiences in the Book of Acts. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul preached a sermon to fellow Jews in the synagogue on the Sabbath that was a master class in the exposition of Scripture (Acts 13:13–52). In Athens, on the other hand, Paul cited Greek poets more than Scripture in his dialogue with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:22–34).

What accounts for the difference? Paul knew that the Jews shared his commitment to Scripture. So, he reasoned from the Bible with them. On the other hand, he knew that Greeks didn’t share his commitment to Scripture, so he reasoned to the Bible with them. In both cases, what Paul said was substantially the same, but how he said it was radically different.

Late last year, Barna Group released Barna Trends 2018, which is chock-full of good information about how contemporary Americans both inside and outside the church view culture, life and faith. I was particular impressed by the feature article, “The Truth about a Post-Truth Society.” It identified five reasons why Americans have such a hard time agreeing about anything: (1) distrust of authority, (2) an erosion of the sacred, (3) a battle between feelings and facts, (4) unbelievable (“fake”) news, and (5) the rise of tribalism.

The challenge for pastors and church leaders is how to cultivate faith in a culture characterized by systemic distrust. We can only begin to do this when we understand the reasons for that distrust, which comes by paying careful attention to our audience’s beliefs, values and practices. The better we understand them, the better able we will be to share the gospel with them.

Unlike that well-meaning puppet evangelist, who was never invited back to camp.

Book Reviewed:
Barna Group, Barna Trends 2018: The Truth about a Post-Truth Society (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 2017).

P.S. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Influence magazine and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

This Gospel | Book Review


The first time I heard veteran missionary Dick Brogden preach was in August 2014 at the Centennial Celebration of the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Missouri. Karl Adams once quipped that Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans dropped a “bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” After hearing Brogden’s sermon, I commented on social media that he had just dropped a bombshell on the playground of comfortable Pentecostals.

That sermon — “Abide, Apostle, Abandon” — is included in This Gospel (pages 85–94). “We’ve probably all heard about what has happened in Iraq,” Brogden began. “Children butchered, women raped, men forced to convert to false religion, villages attacked, fear spread throughout the region, heads cut off and displayed to intimidate any who dare resist.”

Most thought, reasonably enough, that he was talking about the depredations that ISIS was committing at that very time. But Brogden was talking about “the Assyrians in the time of Jonah, 2,500 years ago.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems. “To me,” he went on, “the miracle of Jonah is not that the sea calmed when Jonah was thrown in or that the fish swallowed Jonah in order to save him.” Rather, “the great miracle is that the intimidating, bloodthirsty, disobedient, false-religion-spouting city of Nineveh repented!” If God could do that then, He can do that now as well. “All He needs are a few Jonahs.”

Modern-day Jonahs, Brogden explained, will be characterized by three traits: First, they will abide (John 15:5) “We must return to and maintain the simplicity of just having Jesus.” Second, they will apostle, that is, “advance together in planting the church where it does not exist” (Romans 15:20). And third, they will abandon. “We must embrace suffering for Jesus’ sake as part of our normal reality” (Acts 9:16).

Summarized this way, Brogden’s points may not strike you as all that bombshellish. But it seemed to me when I first heard this message, and it still seems to me as I reread it, that his points are indeed explosive, for they confront the comfortableness of American Christianity.

Take abide. Jesus said, “If you remain [i.e., abide] in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Here, abiding and fruitfulness are sequential. Do the one, and the other will result. But how often do we rest our hopes for fruitfulness in ministry on our wealth, education methods, programs, worship styles and whatnot rather than on spending “extravagant time with Jesus”? This challenges the depth of American Christian spiritual discipline.

Or consider apostle. “Missions is not even strictly an issue of lostness,” Brogden writes, “for there are lost people everywhere in the world.” Instead, he goes on, missions is “an issue of access. Missions means that we take the gospel where it has not gone.” The problem, though, is that today, there are too few missionaries in those regions of the world that have the least access to the gospel. This challenges the distribution of American Christian missionary resources.

Then, abandon. The idea of embracing suffering as normal challenges the American Christian expectation of prosperity at its core. So much so that Brogden builds a biblical case for the notion that Christians will suffer as they take the gospel around the world, drawing especially on the example of the apostle Paul, whose missionary commission included the promise of suffering (Acts 9:11–16). Of course, Paul was to simply follow Christ, so, Brogden asks: “Christ loved us enough to die for us. Do we love Christ enough to die for Him? If the price of world evangelization is our own discomfort and demise, will we not willingly and joyfully pay it?” That strikes at the core of our desires, does it not?

“Abide, Apostle, Abandon” is one of 25 “missions sermons” included in This Gospel. The others expand on these themes or introduce new ones. I’ve selected the Centennial sermon because it captures the core of Brogden’s convictions as a missionary, as well as the central practices of the Live Dead movement, in which he is a leader.

A final, personal note. Dick Brogden is a friend. His messages are earnest and to the point. What words on a page don’t capture, however, is the spirit of joyfulness that Dick exudes personally. That’s something to keep in mind as you read these sermons, which challenge but also inspire.

Book Reviewed
Dick Brogden, This Gospel: A Collection of Missions Sermons (Springfield, MO: Live Dead Publishing, 2018).

Value, Worship, and Evangelism | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20

 

The Christmas story in Luke 2:1–20 teaches us five lessons. We looked at the lessons of sovereignty and humility yesterday. God rules over all creation, directing the course of history toward the fulfillment of His purposes. And one of His purposes is to draw all people to himself, which He does by sending His Son in the humble form of a baby in a manger. Today, we’ll look at three other lessons the Christmas story teaches about value, worship and evangelism.

What is most valuable to you? All right-minded people will say they care most about their relationships. The value of a loving family and good friends far outweighs that of material possessions. God values relationships too, to a degree that we will never fully understand. Most of our significant relationships are mutually beneficial; we supply what our friends lack, and they supply what we lack. But we have nothing God needs or wants. He loves us, not because of any benefits we provide Him, but simply because He loves us and because we need Him.

We see God’s values at work in the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. In Jesus’ day, shepherds rated low on the hierarchy of valuable relationships. They were considered dishonest and disreputable. And that, it seems to me, is precisely why God sent an army of angels to shepherds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was His way of reversing worldly values and saying, “I value these men. I love them. I want to save them.”

At Christmas, we ought to pay special attention to people whom the world doesn’t value, precisely because that is what God does.

Worship is a way that we express God’s value to us. Notice the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (verse 14).

This song makes two statements: (1) that glory belongs to God and (2) that the byproduct of grace (divine favor) is peace among people. Unfortunately, we too often focus only on the second statement. We want peace on earth. But peace comes as the result of right values. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33). The only way to have “all these things,” including peace, is to seek first God’s kingdom. God values you. Do you value God?

If you do, the next obvious question is this: Do you share God with others? The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (verse 10). And the shepherds shared the good news of Christ’s birth with everyone they talked to. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (verse 17). The Christmas story is the gospel, and all who tell it become evangelists.

God values you. Do you value Him? And are you helping others to value Him? Those are good questions to ask yourself at this time of year.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Through Us, Not Without Us | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

In this passage, Zechariah teaches us something important about Jesus Christ and something important about ourselves. Yesterday, we looked at what he teaches us about Christ. Today, we will look at what he teaches us about ourselves. Pay careful attention to verses 76–80.

Notice, first of all, that this is a statement about John the Baptist. Zechariah is telling us who John will be (“a prophet of the Most High”) and what he will do (“prepare the way” for the Lord). Each Gospel mentions John’s ministry in some way or another (e.g., Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:3–8, Luke 3:2–17, John 1:19–34). And in each Gospel, John prepares the way for Jesus.

Second, Zechariah’s statement about John highlights a central theme in the Christmas story, namely, the role of human beings in God’s plan of salvation. Mary accepted the divine gift of bearing Jesus Christ in her womb for nine months. Joseph accepted the divine gift of fathering a son who was not his biological child. John drew great crowds to himself, only to direct their attention and loyalty to another man, Jesus Christ.

In each case, God accomplishes His plan of salvation through human beings, not without them. God does not impose His will on these people. He invites them to place their faith in Him. So, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). And Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24).

Such willing obedience is not easy. It requires great humility. It demands that we think first of God’s will, not of our own wills. One of the most poignant statements in the Gospels comes from John’s lips as he realizes his ministry is drawing to a close: “Jesus must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). God works through us, not without us, and the more we obey Him, the more others can see Jesus through us.

Which brings me to my third and final point: Just as John was an evangelist within his sphere of influence, so we are evangelists within ours. Do we prepare the way for the Lord into the hearts of our friends and family members? Do our lives and words give people “the knowledge of salvation” (verse 77) so that they can find forgiveness, mercy, spiritual illumination, guidance and peace?

If not, why not? God worked through John in the first century. He works through us today, if we become less so that He can become greater.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here: