Learning Lessons Halfway Across the World

I know that George Fox University is not a church. Because we are an educational institution that seeks to prepare our students academically, some of you may worry that we pay too much attention to the “spiritual side” of life. I do not disagree there can be a tension, but deep in my soul I believe that our soul, mind and body are one. What a Christian university does is engage the whole person in a way that no other educational or spiritual institution is capable. We are committed to the Christian conception of vocation; all are gifted and called to do the work of the kingdom in this world and in that context are full-time ministers. Indeed, it was Jesus who taught us to pray that “God’s will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” We are all to be about kingdom work.

I was recently invited to participate in an event that helped me to think more deeply about the Christian university. A number of presidents of Christian institutions were asked to participate in the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa. The Christian College Consortium presidents made the decision to attend together. (The consortium includes Seattle Pacific, Wheaton, Bethel, Taylor, Gordon, Westmont and Asbury, among others).

Billy Graham and others started the Lausanne Movement in the 1960s, and it has met periodically since the early 1970s (1974, 1989 and 2010). The group draws together church and evangelistic leaders from all over the world. From a spiritual perspective, the event was quite a challenge to me personally. It is the first time I have really engaged the global church since I went on a mission experience to Belize more than 30 years ago now. I served in Belize for about four months to help start a new church in 1978-79 . . . a lifetime ago now!

There were more than 4,000 delegates in Cape Town. The leaders of the conference developed a system that limited enrollment from the United States because they knew if they did not, the conference would have been dominated by Americans and Europeans. There were still 600 of us there. Nevertheless, that left more than 3,500 church people from the rest of the world.

The conference leaders implemented what proved to be a great learning and relational strategy. Each delegate was placed at a table with five other church leaders from around the world. At my table were Natalie from South Africa (white), Philip (Bangladesh), Min Chul (oncologist from South Korea) and Leigh (woman business owner from Canada). Each day we began in prayer and then we studied together through the book of Ephesians (with help, of course, from some of the leading evangelists in the world).

Almost every day we were brought to tears through the testimonies of Christians from what scholars now refer to as the “majority” world who are giving everything to follow Christ. One day, we had a question that everyone in the group had to discuss: In what way or ways are you personally or your church suffering for the presentation of Christ to your culture? Each had examples of how they had been challenged by being a Christian often to the extent of losing jobs or being excluded from their families. When it comes to most of us in America, we really suffer little in comparison to others around the world (and I know the purpose is not to just suffer. The point is that suffering often comes to those who choose to live their lives in service to others particularly in a true Christ-like context).

Many members of the conference could not afford to be here or to stay in the hotels. In order to ensure that Christians throughout the world could attend, churches in South Africa and their members volunteered their homes in order to make the visit of Christians from economically challenged nations possible. So every night when we finished the sessions, most of the members of my group traveled 45 minutes to an hour to their home stays (we finish at 9:30), and then got up at about 6 a.m. to arrive on time the next day. Most of the Americans (and all the presidents) stayed in the Westin, which you can imagine is one of the nicest hotels in Cape Town – not exactly suffering for Jesus. So, I sat there and thought, “When I compare my growth in Jesus and commitment to him on a global scale, it is rather small.”

I say all this only to note that I have not complained about the travel, the cold or the weariness. How can you when you are literally surrounded by persons who have little material wealth but have found deep meaning in their relationship with God and others?

The presidents of the colleges did hold our meetings and gathered as we normally do but, while important, our meetings were not what impacted me the most. I wish you could have been with me as we sat and listened to a brother in Christ in Turkey (Mr. Ziyal Meral) who shared his story. I remember him saying that to be a Christian in Turkey is about more than evangelism or even the initial commitment to Christ.

When someone gives their life to Christ in his country, they generally lose their business, their family and their community. More than 60 percent of those who initially accept Christ in Turkey return to Islam in a few years; they suffer from the separation of all that they know. Therefore, for the Christian faith to grow in many countries it is about more than a one-time evangelistic hit (a big evangelistic meeting). It is about living and working with people who express a genuine commitment to Christ and helping them bridge to a new community.

Mr. Meral ended his message by noting that the evangelistic methods of the 20th century no longer work in this era. The challenge today is to raise the cross so that a new generation of people will find life in the living God. It was a powerful message of engagement and hope. (I often think of the Friends’ church mission to Palestine in this same way). We need Christians who are committed to embedding themselves in communities throughout the world – to know people intimately and to be known in ways that matter to others.

I also loved an African brother, a major Pentecostal pastor in Kenya, who shared about the importance of growing in Christ. He noted in one village they had set up prayer stations that ran from their homes into the grasslands surrounding the village. You could tell who had been “slacking” on their prayer time because the grass had grown up on the path from their home to the stations. He said he challenged his friend with the words, “Brother, I have noticed grass growing on your path to prayer.” Wouldn’t it be good if we all had paths that were visible so that others could see whether our relationship with Christ was authentic?

When the conference ended I came away as a Christian knowing that Christ is active in our world – that he has called thousands of people from all over the world to carry his message to the nations. I cannot tell you how many times speakers talked about people who had “divine” appointments that made all the difference in their lives. I know they chose people with dramatic stories, but it was still true that almost everyone who talked about coming to Jesus Christ came through the testimony of someone who took the time to develop a relationship, to care, and to show the love of Christ to them. It was amazing how many atheists testified that they knew they would never follow God until they met someone who conveyed the love of Christ to them – powerful.

I also came away thinking that we have the mission right at George Fox – we want to educate people well, but we also want to empower them to be part of the global church movement that is changing the world in the name of Jesus. This is true of our undergraduate and graduate programs. I think part of the answer to help our people understand the power of Jesus is to get them out in the world so that they can meet the people I have met. Too often in our culture we are embarrassed by the ways Christians are known in their communities. The church sometimes speaks loudly about the need to believe in Christ but softly when it comes to really living by a faith that results in service to others in need. We never want to be arrogant but we want to speak boldly and to let our lives speak of the power of Jesus. We want our students to “be known” for engaging the world with the power of Christ’s gospel – a gospel that calls for personal and community transformation.

There were almost 200 graduates of Wheaton College at this meeting – far more than any other American college. The reason they were there is that leaders in the 1950s and 1960s at Wheaton had a vision for transforming the world in the power of Jesus’ gospel. They committed to educate and empower students to catch that vision, and they did. Wouldn’t that be great (not to be prideful) if they could say that about George Fox in 20 years – that we prepared transformative people to carry forward the work of Christ in the world?

I know that not all our students know Christ and many who do will not see their mission as I have described above. I believe we have a story to tell to everyone. The message of Jesus brings wholeness and restoration, and if we present our story well, even those who wish no faith commitment will have heard about a different way to live and engage the world.

 

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