Thursday, November 29, 2012

Converge: A History Lesson with Significance for Today

While visiting Shiloh Hills Fellowship in Spokane two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fellowship with Bud Malmsten, a retired pastor with Converge Worldwide. Bud's grandfather had actually been a founding member of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis in 1871. His father Rev. H. Wyman Malmsten (memorial) served with distinction on the staff of Bethel University. Bud helped me to understand the rich heritage of Converge Worldwide (aka the Baptist General Conference, formerly the Swedish Baptists).

First Swedish Baptist Seattle, now a parking lot.
Bud regaled me with many stories about his family, ministry and the history of Converge, but one of these tales stood out in my mind. He shared how, prior to the second World War, the Swedish Baptists sent their missionaries overseas under the leadership of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society of the Northern Baptist Convention.

At the time it was becoming common for smaller ethnic Baptist denominations to formally join the Northern Baptists (now known as the American Baptist Churches USA) or work in close partnership with them when it came to missions. In fact, according to Bud, the Swedish Baptists were very close to merging with the Northern Baptists as the Danish and Norwegian Baptists had for the most part already done. Wikipedia says, "Swedish Baptists had maintained an alliance with the American Baptist Publication Society, American Baptist home and foreign missions... Some Swedish Baptists expected to merge with that body."

That was until the 1940's when a major schism in the Northern Baptist Convention occurred. Concerned with the growing influence of liberal criticism of the bible, a movement began within the denomination to make sure that any missionaries being sent out with the ABFMS were consistent on their understandings of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The disagreement over liberal theology eventually tore the denomination apart, and in 1943 a new denomination was founded called the Conservative Baptist Association.

According to Bud, this split had a profound effect on the Swedish Baptists. Different voices within the denomination suggested merging with the American Baptists or one of the splinter groups. However, at an annual meeting, Bud's own grandfather Wyman Malmsten promoted a vision for what he thought might help set a new direction for the denomination. The idea was called "52 by 52."

With the Northern Baptist Convention coming apart at the seams, the Baptist General Conference had begun sending their own missionaries in 1944. At the time the number was very small, but the feeling was that if there were a significant number of foreign missionaries being supported by the BGC, then that would warrant their continuation as an independent and separate denomination. Wyman was instrumental in putting forth the vision of sending fifty-two missionaries by 1952 (which happened to be the centennial anniversary of the founding of the denomination). This would be the litmus test of their resolve to trust God and be faithful to the Great Commission.

The number seemed outrageous at the time that it was first proposed, but by 1950 they had already sent out more than fifty-two missionaries! Wyman's calculated gamble paid off and the denomination rallied around their missionaries. The missionaries sent out became the glue that held the denomination together. Wikipedia's less sensational version corroborates the story, "The conservative Swedish Baptists pulled back from growing liberalism of the Northern Baptists, and in 1944 formed their own Board of Foreign Missions. This moved them toward independent existence, which they have maintained to the present."

In a book published by the denomination entitled, "Fifteen eventful years: A survey of the Baptist General Conference of America: 1945-1960" it says:

In June, 1944, the Swedish Baptist General Conference took one of the most momentous steps in its history... it adopted a series of resolutions which led ultimately to the creation of an independent Board of Foreign Missions. Until that time the official missionary program of the denomination had been carried on largely through the agencies of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. The year 1944 holds special importance for Conference Baptists, for it marks the beginning of an independent program of foreign missionary endeavor. 
The significance of this step in the history of the Conference was very great indeed. The decision represented a new-found confidence in the future of the denomination and a determination to discover a distinctive role for Conference Baptists within American Christianity and in the world mission of the church... the new foreign work had special importance as a rallying point for Conference Baptists, and the launching of the new program contributed immeasurably to the change from pessimism about the future of the denomination to optimism. (p. 63)
Two quite different kinds of motivation lay behind the decision to create an independent foreign mission society. Some leaders were motivated primarily by a concern for the theological integrity of the Conference missionary participation. Some others were motivated primarily by a concern to promote denominational unity and loyalty through a vigorous world-wide outreach. The reasons for the Advance were summarized in an official publication of the Board of Foreign Missions in 1950:  
Two reasons for this new action were: First, our churches wanted to be sure they were supporting only missionaries who were true to the Word of God and who were under the direction of a board that was faithful to the Bible; second, since God had kept our churches together as a Conference fellowship, showing us that He had continued work for us to do, we were convinced that we must accept as our own the obligation of going with the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. (p. 70-71)
In 1945 a six-year plan for the development of the new work was adopted. The plan called for the appointment of at least three missionary families and one single worker each year. It was hoped that by 1952, the year of the denominational centennial, there would be fifty-two Conference missionaries under appointment.
... Five mission fields were opened in the first six years: China in 1945, the North Bank of Assam, India, in 1946, Japan in 1948, the Philippine Islands in 1949, and Ethiopia in 1950.  (p.72)

I already liked many things about Converge Worldwide, but learning this history has made me even more excited to serve as one of their missionaries. After establishing the separate mission board in 1944, they opened up five new fields in 1948--one of these was Japan. Next year will be the sixty-fifth year of Converge missions in Japan! This is a denomination with a serious commitment to missions, and one that has made missions part of its DNA. It is also a reminder that as I visit different churches I am serving to link them together with other churches in the body of Christ as we work together to advance the Kingdom of God!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pray for Japan! The Silent Tsunami

The words 'Pray for Japan' flooded twitter and facebook feeds in March of 2011. As waves engulfed the coastal cities of northeastern Japan, the world's focus affixed upon the land of the rising sun--but as with most natural disasters, attention spans were short. Soon the news media found other stories to cover.

Some students at Wheaton College had already been holding a weekly prayer meeting for Japan long before the disaster took place. This event only intensified their intercession for the island nation and its people. Their prayers for Japan were the result of an even greater disaster occurring in Japan every day, invisible to the naked eye.

There is a Silent Tsunami that affects all of Japan. Each and every week more Japanese die without a saving faith in Jesus Christ than died in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Image: Reuters
Less than one percent of Japanese people have responded to the message of the Gospel, making the Japanese one of the largest 'unreached people groups' in the world. Because of the size of the Japanese population the task of reaching them is immense.

There are approximately 128 million people who call Japan their home. According to the census data about 1.146 million Japanese people died in 2009. That is about 22,000 people each week. That is quite shocking considering that only 15,870 people died in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Considering that only about 0.5 percent of Japanese people have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus, that means that over 20,000 Japanese people are entering a Christless eternity each week.

Few people are aware of this silent tsunami but I pray that you would join me and truly begin to 'Pray for Japan.' Does it take a natural disaster to drive us to our knees in prayer for the Japanese?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Source flickr: Leaf Image
The more things change, the more they stay the same. With the changing seasons, I am reminded that some things never change.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on Colossians chapter three. While preparing for the sermon I outlined the book of Colossians and studied several commentaries about the epistle. One of the commentaries quoted a big chunk of one of the earliest Christian writings (circa A.D. 200) outside of the bible, entitled, the 'Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.' While not inspired, chapter five and six of Mathetes caught my attention because of its missiological significance. I would encourage you to read the following quotation from Mathetes in light of the current state of Christianity in the West and also because today many Christians in the United States will be heading to the polls to vote.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. 
The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. 
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 
They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.

The author of this early Christian writing is an evangelist writing to a non-Christian. This context helps us to appreciate the previous quotation even more! Ideally, Christians are only distinguishable from those they live among by the life of Christ living through them--they are salt and light living in the midst of a dark world. They are the preserving agent; or as this writer has put it, the soul of the people they are living among. As much as things in the broader culture change, Christians have a call to live in the midst of their communities as ambassadors of a heavenly Kingdom!

A few days ago I posted this same quote on facebook, and upon re-reading it, I found it was even more relevant to our current circumstances than at the first reading. One sentence stood out: "They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed." This quote reminds me that Christianity started in a context where infanticide (the Greco-Roman alternative to abortion) and sexual immorality were the norm. The issues of human dignity and traditional marriage have been at the forefront of American politics for the past several decades. Despite the appearance of losing ground, it is actually a return to the status quo.

The more things change, the more things stay the same--one of the things I have been reminded is that humans are still in rebellion against God. Christians cannot change this fact by legislating morality. In fact, as the apologist Mathetes illustrates in his epistle to Diognetus, the Christian church is supposed to live differently in the midst of the world--not by wearing different cloths or eating different foods, but by living holy lives.

Friday, November 2, 2012

One Step Forward...

Today I saw Guy Fieri and his red muscle-car in Olympia, my home town. He seemed to be filming a segment for his show 'Diners, Drive-ins and Dives' at a local restaurant called Darby's. I was actually on my way to meet with the pastor of a local church who I had connected with by e-mail. I stopped to get a picture of Guy with his car and then went to the church. 

I am still getting the hang of meeting Pastors and sharing about my future ministry in Japan. I want to be honest and vulnerable about my weaknesses and past failures in ministry--but I also want them to have the impression that I am knowledgeable and experienced; it is an interesting balancing act, and one I haven't quite figured out yet. 

Guy finished by filming a commercial segment in which he shared that his restaurants would be giving fifty percent of their proceeds to help with the disaster recovery in the Northeast. Whatever you think about Guy Fieri, he is a master publicist and appears at home in front of the camera. That is not how I felt meeting with the Pastor later--I feel out of my element. 

I have already had several churches and pastors tell me that they will not be supporting me (or are incapable of supporting me). It has been discouraging each time. Some churches and individuals that I thought would be most excited about the opportunity to join together in the vision that God has given me have been the quickest to turn me down. 

That being said, I have had some very encouraging encounters as well--and some that even though they may not be open doors now, may become so later. Please pray for me that I will not be too discouraged, but that I will continue to plant seeds and share about this opportunity with passion and clarity.