Once a month I have an opportunity to lead the worship service at a local retirement home. Although it is a bit long for a blog, I thought I would share it with you all.
I have talked before about my call to missions and future plans. In short, I felt the call to missions while on a short term missions trip to South Africa when I was 14. Through God’s perfect planning, he blessed me by bringing my wife Derricca into my life when we were both 16. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she also felt the call to missions at a young age. It didn’t take long to realize that God’s plan for our lives included us being joined together in marriage, and working as a team to further his kingdom. And that is what we have done, we are a team and we could not do what we do apart from each other.
What has changed is what we envision our ministry to look like. When I thought of being a missionary, I pictured myself moving to some remote village, deep in the jungle, miles away from any preacher or doctor. That is the picture I had of missions, likely based on some of the stories of missionaries in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. I imagined myself setting up a clinic to serve the village throughout the week, and a church to preach the gospel on Sunday. Of course, within a few years the villagers would all be converted to Christianity and in perfect health due to my amazing medical abilities, and I would move on to the next village…
What is wrong with that picture? You could probably point to many things, but one thing in particular stands out to me, and it probably isn’t the most obvious. The more I think about it, the more I dislike the phrase: “Convert to Christianity”. I think it is such a poor description to what we are called to do, what our life should be about. Now that may sound blasphemous, a missionary (another word I dislike more and more each day) who does not want to convert people to Christianity? But let me explain.
Have you ever had someone try to convert you? Living in America, it is probably pretty unlikely that you have had someone try to convert you to another religion, unless there was a time when you were not a Christian and another Christian tried to convert you. There are rare exceptions; maybe you have answered the door only to find two guys in white shirts trying to convert you to Mormonism or to become a Jehovah Witness. Let’s say you are a huge Hawkeye fan. What if I tried to convert you into being an Ohio State fan? Just think about how good Ohio State is, they beat Iowa in football last year, went to the Rose Bowl, have had a lot of success the last decade, and let’s not even get started about basketball… How successful would I be? I wouldn’t be, no matter how convincing I am that Ohio State is better, you are a Hawkeye, and I can’t convert you.
If someone’s sports team can be so resistant to conversion, how much more difficult is it to convert someone’s religion? Nearly impossible, there is no way I can convince a Muslim that he should become a Christian. Not long ago I had a long telephone conversation with a couple Muslim men in the area. I was doing my best to talk to them about Christ, and they were trying their best to convert me to Islam, neither side would budge, it just doesn’t work.
So if I cannot convert someone, what can? Well the obvious answer is God can. Through the Holy Spirit, God can convict a person and turn their heart toward Him. Notice I said, can turn their heart toward Him, not He can convert them to Christianity. What is the difference? It depends on what your definition of Christianity is. The basic definition of Christian would be “a person who follows Christ”. But I think the definition of the Religion of Christianity is much different. The Religion of Christianity brings with it a lot of baggage and extra biblical customs and rules.
Let’s look at prayer. How does a Christian pray? Head bowed, eyes closed (no peeking!); maybe hands clasped together and every prayer must end with those magical words that make the prayer work “in Jesus Name Amen”. What if I prayed out loud, with my hands palms up out in front of me and my eyes remained open? This is how a Muslim typically prays. Does God still hear prayer if we have our eyes open or our hands in a different position? What if we don’t dress up a certain way for church, or go to worship services on a Friday instead of Sunday.
So can a person be called to God, but pray and worship differently than we do? We can look to the scripture for a similar debate in the early Church. In Acts 15, several Christians were teaching that the new Gentile converts were not saved unless they underwent circumcision, as called for by the Old Testament. As you can imagine, this is not a pleasant thing to go through and would be a barrier to many Gentiles coming to faith. Church leaders got together and determined that this was not a requirement for salvation, that grace was sufficient. Similarly, we must keep in mind that some things that are contained within the Religion of Christianity are not required for salvation. A person can be submitted to God, saved by His grace, yet worshiping or praying different than we are used to.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus can be found showing extreme grace toward sinners, and being extremely hard on the religious leaders of his day. One example of His criticism of the religious leaders if found in Matthew 23:15:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one convert, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
Wow, talk about harsh. What was Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders here? It would appear that the Pharisees were not winning these converts to God, but rather to their own religious traditions. These people were being converted to “Phariseeism” so to speak, but not to God. They were winning people to their corrupt practices and the traditions of their sect, but not to God. The scary thing about this is thinking about the fate of these converts. By getting caught up in the details of the Pharisees’ additional laws and regulations, they completely missed God. Jesus says they were made “twice as much a son of hell as” the Pharisees themselves.
Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23 says:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven, Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
What a scary thought. These people are there, expecting to get into heaven, but are turned away. They have spent their lives in the Church, doing good things in the name God, but missed something. They missed God. They never knew Him. These people were converted into the Religion of Christianity, but missed Christ, the person, the savior.
I started off talking about my call to missions and how I imagined what that would look like. What I was picturing was a conversion to the Religion of Christianity. Using apologetics, I would convince them that Christianity is obviously the only religion that can get you into heaven. They needed to start going to my church service on Sunday and begin learning how to pray the right way, what songs they should sing to properly worship God, and all the right and wrong words to say. If I had gone through with that vision of ministry, oh how astray I would have lead them.
Whether you are called to full time missions in some far away land, or just want to see those family and friends close to you saved from an eternity in Hell, we must keep the following in mind. Do we seek to expand the Religion of Christianity, building more churches, seeing more western style worship (pray like this , dress like this, worship like this), or do we seek to grow God’s kingdom, seeing more people seeking to know and follow His will for their lives, and following the teachings of Christ?
My wife and I still feel the call to serve God overseas. Shortly after medical school we intend to move overseas, to a nation with few known believers, but the vision we have today is much different than the one we had 12 years ago. Our new vision can probably be summed up best by a quote most often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Allow the substance of a Christ altered life to impact those around us.