By Frank Decker
We were nearing the conclusion of a training session in which I was teaching about the Kingdom of God when the hand of a South American pastor shot up. “So, does someone have to be a Protestant to be saved?” he asked. His question was obviously born from uneasiness that had been building in him throughout the day. We had been discussing the importance of enabling people to meet Jesus within their own denominational context—as Jesus’ disciples demonstrated. And we had re-examined the meaning of the word “church” (or ecclesia), defining it as simply a gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational affiliation. This pastor’s frame of reference, however, was that Catholics needed to be extracted out of their own background and into his own context (in this case Methodism) as a prerequisite for them to really meet Jesus.
When this type of thinking is the default setting in our cranial software, we are likely to find ourselves spending far more energy proliferating our own denominational organizations or traditions rather than simply sharing Jesus. The distinction may seem rudimentary, but it is crucial. Sometimes the religious lenses we wear cloud our ability to see God’s work in the hearts of the people around us. However, if we are willing to look at those lenses rather than through them, we are likely to position ourselves to more fully experience reformation and renewal. In fact, after my response to the pastor’s query, which was the simple question, “Are you saved by being a Protestant, or are you saved by the blood of Jesus?” it seemed as though a light had come on in the room.
I am encouraged by evidence that this light seems to be coming on in many places. Vincent Donovan, an American Roman Catholic priest, served as a missionary to the Masai of Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s. During his first year of cross-cultural ministry he wrote a letter to his bishop questioning the missionary approach that had preceded him for 100 years in that location. The schools, chapel, and hospital that marked the presence of that mission consumed countless hours of energy, and in Donovan’s assessment produced little spiritual fruit.
In other words, as helpful as these ministries had been to meet specific needs, sustaining them had eventually begun to interfere with—rather than enable—the essential work of pointing people to Jesus. So, instead of resigning himself to spend his time and energy only maintaining these mission mechanisms, this novice missionary decided to invest himself by “simply getting to know the Masai and telling them about God.” His book Christianity Rediscovered bears witness to the result that he became a successful disciple-maker in a locale where previously, in his estimation, not one local Masai had come to faith in Jesus.
Picture a scene with burned-out automobiles and buildings, the result of recent clashes between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria that have left about 400 people dead. It was in this environment that Mission Society staff members Dick McClain and Darrell Whiteman, cross-cultural worker Kirk Sims, and African leaders recently facilitated a Global Engagement Training event attended by 100 pastors and bishops representing seven denominations. As the teaching progressed, it was evident to the Christians present that they needed to think not in terms of spiritually conquering their Muslim adversaries, but loving them into the Kingdom.
A watershed incident took place when one woman stood up and testified, “Because of the conflict, whenever I see a Muslim, I just become angry in my heart. I don’t even want to look at them. But now I see that I need to love them.” She continued, “If we cannot deal with Muslims right here, how are we going to be able to reach them in Senegal or wherever else God sends us?” She went on to say that she intended to begin to pray for her Muslim neighbors and to reach out to them. A spirit of revival broke out during the event that led to the final two evenings being consumed with times of crying out to God for Muslims to meet Jesus. In Sims’ words, “it was almost like scales falling off the eyes of people.”
As I think about the increase of light, I also am aware of the opposition from the forces of darkness. In fact, if I were the devil, I think I would attempt to reduce the biblical message of Jesus and his Kingdom so that it would popularly be understood in a weak and diminished form—as mere adherence to a religion, void of the essentiality of actually knowing the King. Then that perspective, not the perspective of the Kingdom, would become the lens through which devotees would view everything else. Yeah, if I were the devil I think I would try that.
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.