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Cultivating Missions Awareness Through Local International Ministry

A little over a year ago, my family and I transitioned churches. This was not the first time either my wife or I had sought a new church home. Various moves for school and other life transitions had necessitated this kind of move for both of us before. But this recent transition was a bit unique because I was also coming off a church staff and stepping into a missions mobilization role with a parachurch ministry. Having been engrained into the DNA of the church I served for thirteen years, I became familiar with the ebb and flow of ministry and the unique philosophy and polity of that particular church. As we began the search for a new church family, we stepped back into the role of observers and learners and had to process, prioritize, and ultimately pray through those things we held in highest regard for determining where the right fit for our family was. While there were some things we preferred in a church, we knew the primary thing we wanted was a gospel-believing, gospel-preaching, and gospel-sending type of church. Over the course of this last year, as we have settled into covenant community with our new church family, we have spent time understanding who they are, the history of the church, and what their particular passions in ministry are, which has enabled us to know how best to engage in relationship and ministry service.

So, how does this season of learning and discovering for our family tie in with developing missional awareness? In the same way that our family had to take the posture of learners as we looked for a new church home, Christ-followers should seek to learn from those of other religions in places that may be foreign to us but are familiar to them. The difference is that, whereas we sought out a church that was like-minded in biblical belief and practice, our desire for learning from those of other religions is to look for on-ramps to engage in gospel conversations with them. As areas all around the world becomes increasingly cross-cultural, believers have a unique opportunity to reaach the nations in our own backyard.

We must take the opportunity to love as Christ loved by being hospitable and recognizing that we are ambassadors for Christ.

A recent study found that 3.3 million Muslims lived in America in 2015, and it is projected that there will be 8 million by 2050,[1] and that is just one particular people group among many. In Arkansas, where I live, there are 130 different people groups, with over eighty just in NW Arkansas.[2] Ed Stetzer writes, “The Christian Church, in order to be faithful, must consider what it looks like to have a gospel witness in a country composed of many faiths. We believe the answers lies in learning to live in a multi-faith world.”[3] Paul reminds believers in Acts 17:26 that God has determined not only our appointed times and boundary places, but those of peoples of all the nations of the world as well. We must take the opportunity to love as Christ loved by being hospitable and recognizing that we are ambassadors for Christ.


I appreciated Matthew Bennett’s recent article on this site, in which he communicates the importance of knowing your neighbor of another religious background by loving them. He focuses specifically on Muslim neighbors, but the principles he offers could be applied to those of any world religion or people group. He begins by stating that we must love them: “First, taking the time to know some of the basics about your Muslim neighbor’s faith allows you to ask informed questions that provoke deep conversations. As you familiarize yourself with what your Muslim neighbor holds most dear, you convey that you care about them.” Second, he states that one must not only love but also seek to understand their worldview. He writes, “Demonstrating your love for your Muslim conversation partner is not the only reason that it is vital to study Islam. Your understanding of Islamic theology and the traditional accounts of historical development will shape your knowledge of the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity.” Third, he notes the importance of defining terms to bring clarity to the gospel message and avoid confusion. “Assuming a shared foundation can complicate true communication. By developing a sensitivity to where Islam parts ways with Christianity, a Christian can develop reflexes for defining and explaining how these apparently shared concepts and characters feature in the Bible.”[4]

Learning, loving, and living out your faith is part of being on mission every day.

So, once we have an awareness that the nations are within arm’s reach of us and recognize that Christ’s love compels us to communicate the gospel to them, how can we practically live out and share our faith among them? Here are three ways to build missional awareness and evangelistic engagement into the normal rhythms of your life.

Visit World Religion Sites

Look up the nearest world religion site in your town or region. It could be a mosque, a Hindu temple, or another site. Usually, these houses of worship have normal operating hours built around their service/ceremony times. Seek out an opportunity to go and be an observer, and then engage in further dialogue, or even schedule a follow-up meeting, with those in attendance. Use these times of observation to learn, take notes, pray for God to bring salvation, and understand the differences in belief systems. You will find that these efforts result in a deeper understanding, love, and appreciation for those of other faith backgrounds, a boldness to share the gospel, and, Lord willing, a mutual friendship.

Frequent Ethnic Establishments

I love ethnic foods and take every chance I can to branch out and try new places. Food is a very natural way to learn about someone’s culture and continue further interaction around family and religious background. Build in a routine of frequenting the same spots so you can build a natural on-ramp for deep conversations. Get to know and befriend the owners, the servers, etc. so you can learn from them, and love them not only by sharing about your culture, but also by sharing the gospel story and your personal testimony.

Engage International Students

Over 1 million international students are pursuing degrees in United States,[5] but roughly 80 percent of them will never step foot inside an American home during their time in the States. What a sad statistic! I can testify to how enriching it has been for me and my family to befriend international students. I am able to display biblical hospitality as we share about each other's cultures and I look for opportunities to share the hope of Christ with them. Engaging with international students also lets me expose my kids to the nations around our dinner table, at a sporting event, or through a holiday or birthday celebration. While not every encounter with an international student has resulted in them professing Christ, each of them has clearly seen and heard the gospel. Most colleges and universities have an international student office that you can contact to find out how to get paired with a student.


Learning, loving, and living out your faith is part of being on mission every day. Consider it providential that God has seen fit to place you where you are among the diversity of cultures all around you. Embrace the awkward, overcome the obstacles, and expect God to do great things in and through you as you become aware of the opportunities that abound on your doorstep among your neighbors, the nations.


NOTES

[1] Besheer Mohammed, “A New Estimate of the U.S. Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center, January 6, 2016. BACK

[2] “People Groups in Arkansas,” Arkansas Baptist State Convention. BACK

[3] Ed Stetzer, “Islam, North America, and the New Multi-Faith World,” in Islam and North America (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2018), 5. BACK

[4] Quotations from Matthew Bennett, “Know Thy Neighbor to Love Thy Neighbor: Three Reasons for a Christian to Study Islam,” The Upstream Collective, March 30, 2020. BACK

[5] “Student and Exchange Visitor Program,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. BACK

 

Ryan serves as Director of Missions and Operations with Lightbearers Ministries. He graduated in 2022 with a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. He has received an MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2008) and an undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, TN (2005). Prior to joining Lightbearers, he served for thirteen years as a missions pastor in the local church. Ryan lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Rebekah, and three children: Hudson, Annie, and Hattie.


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