What do spices, Solomon’s temple, and Seattle have to do with making disciples in every nation?
Maps of the ancient Near East usually include caravan trading routes, and show how they intersected on the coastal plains of the eastern Mediterranean—the crossroads of the world, where Europe, Africa, and Asia meet. Caravan traders from many nations, dealing primarily in spices, crisscrossed this area.
It was not without plan that Jehovah placed his people in this very land, so the quality of their life as his people would attract the traders to the living God. This way, God’s promise to Abraham could be fulfilled-
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3)
Moreover, the people of God were told,
“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33–34).
I picture myself as a spice merchant from Mesopotamia on my way to Palestine, resting for the night in a caravansary, on the banks of the Euphrates River. The camels have been taken care of for the night and as we relax in the tea shop I hear traders returning from Palestine telling stories of the high moral quality of the Hebrews: their sincere love, their joyful and harmonious family relationships, and the magnanimous hospitality they show to foreigners. The traders go on to say that the Hebrews attribute all this to the one true and living God, who lives among them and even works miracles on their behalf.
This is how the word would get around to the nations, for there was no other communication system.
Solomon’s temple would represent the means by which foreigners could be exposed to the quality of worship of the Hebrews. Solomon had world vision. When he was dedicating the temple to God in about 960 B.C., he prayed,
As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (1 Kings 8:41–43)
God’s primary Old Testament pattern of missionary work was to bring the representatives of the nations to the community of God’s people, attract them to Jehovah, and have them take the message back to their own nations.
God’s people were to be a light to the Gentiles—foreigners, non-Jews—and the scope of God’s plan of salvation was “the ends of the earth.”
Perhaps the most vivid picture of this actually taking place was in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, an event recorded in Acts 2. Shortly before this day, Jesus had promised his disciples the empowering of the Holy Spirit so they would be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Perhaps in order to give these disciples a running start in reaching the world, God timed the first evangelistic message in the history of the church so that the audience included persons from at least sixteen language groups (Acts 2:5–11). What an ingenious missionary strategy! Many of these people believed, and took the message back to their countries.
But God’s primary New Testament pattern of missionary work was to send his people to the nations, in contrast to the nations coming to God’s people as in the Old Testament. Yet the church has not taken this task seriously much of the time.
How does the Lord work through historical events and trends to fulfill his purposes?
We have already noted the importance to his purpose of the trade routes that criss-crossed Palestine, and the presence of so many nationalities in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Other examples can also be cited.
The Greek empire contributed its language to the entire Mediterranean area, so that by the apostles’ time people everywhere spoke Greek, making it easier to communicate the gospel.
The Roman empire then developed a system of roads, which along with other developments allowed the gospel to spread faster than would have been possible otherwise.
Centuries later, the spreading of the British empire opened up much of Africa and Asia to the rest of the world, and in the wake of this the modern missionary movement began, giving the gospel a much wider scope.
This is not to say that we should view military, political, and economic imperialism as a blessing. The point is that, despite their negative aspects, historical movements with major implications for the spread of the gospel do take place, and if God’s people are alert to understand their times they will see God giving them new opportunities.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY?
So what major movements in our day is God using to help his church fulfill the Great Commission?
This influx of foreign students is occurring throughout the western world, but we will look here primarily at the United States.
It so happens that no single nation in history has ever had as many Christian evangelical resources as now exist in the United States: churches, student organizations, mission agencies, and evangelistic associations; Christian schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries; books, magazines, recordings, films, and radio and television programs; conferences and training seminars; and so on. The number of resources is staggering.
In the wisdom of God, he has worked in history so that this country is also the major center of technology, and as such the United States now attracts millions of international students to high schools and universities every year.
Meanwhile, there are at least thirty countries that have a no-admittance policy toward Christian missionaries. Yet most if not all of these countries have sent students to the United States.
God is very serious about the Great Commission. If we can’t go to them, God brings them here to us. But do we see what he is doing, and will we adjust our missionary strategy to fit accordingly?
THE FRONTIERS ARE HERE
Mark Hanna has aptly stated, “The frontiers of foreign missions are no longer only in Tibet, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, and China. They are also in Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, for they have come to us in the presence of international visitors.”
A friend of mine is translating the New Testament into the major language of a landlocked Asian country that is still unreached by the gospel. Because the country is inaccessible to missionaries, the translation work is going on in a neighboring country.
It so happens that one student from this country is enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I live. Could God be saying that I can reach this Asian country from right here in Madison?
The heads of state in some forty nations today have studied at universities in the United States, not to mention others who have studied in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the European continent. Imagine the blessed impact on the nations of the world if these and the thousands of others in places of influence in their homeland—people whom most traditional missions never reach—had been reached for Jesus Christ while they were students!
Ho Chi Minh went to study in Paris looking for Christian fellowship, found none, and was won over to the Marxist camp. The refugee “boat people” are a vivid testimony to the tragic results of his failure.
PROFILE : INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
If it is possible to stereotype most international students in the United States, they would appear something like this: able to speak two to five languages, industrious, committed to doing well in their studies, conscious of the honor of their family, devoted to the value of the extended family, lonely, relationship oriented, politically minded, more knowledgeable about the world than American students are, disillusioned about the moral decadence of the United States, disappointed at the lack of interest on the part of Americans to develop deeper friendships, open to new ideas.
If they have not consistently been shown concern and care by Americans during their first year here, these students most likely will form an ethnic clique with other internationals, a clique that becomes more difficult to penetrate as time goes by.
CAN IT BE DONE?
If a country named Smartania with five million inhabitants was suddenly discovered today, churches and mission organizations would commit major effort and expenditures to send missionaries there. Yet our mission mentality has been so geographically oriented that when five million people from other nations are at our doorstep, we don’t assign missionaries to them because they are not “overseas.” One of my supporting churches still classifies me as a “home missionary” even though I minister to people from more than a hundred countries.
So a first step in reaching this world at our doorstep is to develop the mentality that God has brought them here. Therefore, let’s assign adequate resources to minister to those who are “here,” and not just those over there.”
The job is attainable. And how much will it cost? It can cost enormous sums to prepare and send a missionary family overseas; by comparison, the cost of reaching internationals here is almost nothing. This is not to say we should stop sending missionaries. In fact, ministering to internationals here is one of the best contexts in which to train missionaries before they go overseas. I have received many reports of how much better and more quickly people can adjust to an overseas ministry when they already have ministered to internationals in the United States.
I am sure that there are thousands of evangelical Christians in America who at some point have had a deep desire to serve Christ overseas, and even made commitments to that effect. Because they never got there they experience a lingering sense of guilt and failure. They feel like second-class Christians when comparing themselves to missionaries.
This need not be. Their mourning can be turned to gladness. They can be missionaries in Maryville, Missouri; Hoboken, New Jersey; Enid, Oklahoma; or Modesto, California.
I know of an Asian student with no religious background who is studying on a mid-western campus. Through the Christian community there he has been getting acquainted with Christ for more than a year.
Somewhat apprehensive, the student recently wrote his father telling him of his investigation of Christianity. The father replied that he was glad for this, that he wanted his children to become Christians, that he himself wanted to find our more about Christianity, and that the son’s grandparents had also wanted to find out about Christianity.
Any American Christian who is willing to take the time to love this young man and to go through the Scriptures with him could be the spiritual father of a great Christian movement in a remote part of Asia—without ever stepping out of his hometown!
It is necessary at this point to give a warning. Some may think that many of these internationals do not go back to their countries, and that therefore we should not waste our time reaching out to them. They are not really all that “strategic.”
But the truth is that whether they go back or not, God has sent them here to be introduced to the Savior. Secondly, most students do return, and thirdly, the ones who don’t return are well equipped to reach other internationals who come here.
Here are some of the ways you can begin participating in this unique ministry opportunity:
- Surrender yourself to God to reach out to the internationals God has sent to you.
- Pray unceasingly that God will match you up with one or two internationals who would never hear the gospel in their own country, and whose hearts are searching and open—like the Ethiopian in Acts 8, Cornelius in Acts 10, and Lydia in Acts 16.
- If you are a student, start looking for internationals in your classroom, the student union, the cafeteria, the library, the laundry room. Most people neglect them, but they are longing for friendships. They will respond to your initiative to talk.
- If you are not a student, look for them in grocery stores and shopping malls. Call the foreign student office at a local college or university and offer to be a host family to an international student. Most internationals are away from their families and long for a substitute to meet their need for a sense of belonging.
- Let a local Christian campus ministry know that you are willing to get to know one or two internationals. This could be your local church outreach, CRU, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators, or others.
- As you get acquainted with internationals, learn as much about them and from them as you can. One of their major complaints is that Americans (including Christians) aren’t humble enough to learn from others. They will be much more open to listen to your message when they feel you take them seriously instead of merely using them as the object of spiritual salesmanship. This is part of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
- Be prepared at some point to give them a copy of the New Testament or one of the gospels in their mother tongue.
- Many an international—Christian or non-Christian—is willing to go to Christian conferences or training programs, but due to a lack of sufficient funds or restrictive labor laws they cannot afford the costs involved. Providing for these costs either directly or through your church or another organization is a well-placed missionary investment. Without this kind of help, many internationals could never attend such meetings.
ON YOUR DOORSTEP
The last few years have seen a growing interest among Christians in reaching internationals. Although this is encouraging, I believe the greatest resources of able Christians in our communities are not being utilized in one of the most strategic missionary opportunities in all of church history.
Let us find the hidden peoples whom God has sent to our doorstep—and thereby be a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and of Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations.
This article was written by Nate Mirza and originally published in Issue 14 of Discipleship Journal. Nate came to Christ as a foreign student in the United States in the 1950s. He has ministered in Lebanon, India, and Iran, and is now a Navigator.