At church, we’ve been going through a study called “Bridges”, a program designed to bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims. In a time when building walls seems to be all the rage, building bridges is the exact opposite strategy – and philosophy. While the class has been excellent, the downside is that in a church of over 1,000 people, less than ten are in the class.
When the Gospel is spread, it is always through bridge-building, never wall-building. Generally speaking, Islamic cultures (particularly in the Middle East) tend to be rather closed and isolated, particularly for women. Muslim men are afforded many other rights and liberties in their cultures, but women often are not. However, due to a variety of reasons (wars, natural disasters, globalism, Internet, etc.), the Islamic world is opening — whether it wishes to or not. In fact, it’s been estimated that more Muslims have heard the Gospel message within the last decade than in the previous 1400 years combined. The largest group of unreached people in the world today are those in Islamic cultures.
Another program at church that’s building bridges into the Muslim/Arab world is ENGAGE, a church-building initiative that provides support to the Syrian refugees that have fled to nearby Lebanon. Many have lost everything and arrive with little more than the clothes on their back; to make matters worse, the refugees are restricted from finding normal employment due to their refugee status, yet many do not qualify for official UN refugee status. The men spend most days either seeking employment or laboring at slave-wages, while the women care for their children and try to acquire food, clothing, etc. for their families. Many of the uprooted children are reduced to begging or menial labor rather than education because of their status and their needs. Though their lives are no longer in immediate danger from warfare, bombs, and terrorism, many refugees are still simply trying to survive.
The humanitarian needs in Syria and Lebanon today are very great – real, basic needs like clean water, food, medical treatment, shelter, clothing, and education. It’s been estimated that there are at least one million Syrian refugees (though the number is likely much greater) in just Beirut, which is more than 20% of the population. Yet the government is either unable or unwilling to provide assistance, particularly at the numbers which are flowing in. While there are several humanitarian groups (along with UN) providing assistance to the refugees, it still falls far short of their immediate needs.
From the last trip-report from their missions-team in Beirut, the ENGAGE program is having a significant impact on the refugees in the city, though the need is far greater than the church can possibly support. Women and children are being clothed, fed, and assisted with finding shelter, younger children are being educated, and both women and men are being assisted with training and employment. As a result of the church’s initiatives and other humanitarian efforts, the Gospel is spreading the fastest among the refugees who have lost so much. Building bridges by meeting real human needs — loving others as God loves us — is working. The Gospel isn’t merely spiritual, but rubber-meets-the-road practical. The Gospel builds bridges — not walls — first between us and God, and then us with one another.
People are natural wall-builders — it comes easily and naturally to us. We build physical, emotional, and spiritual walls to keep others out or even ourselves in. Often we do it for safety, privacy, and simple peace-of-mind. Physically speaking, walls of any sort can be thrown up quickly, easily, and cheaply. But bridge-building? That takes far more planning, effort, and patience than any wall ever will. Emotional and spiritual walls are no different; it’s far easier, safer, and more comfortable to shut others out than open up and be vulnerable. Yet walls rarely foster spiritual or emotional growth – but bridges do.
In contrast to us, God is a bridge-builder. From the Beginning, He has been creating, building, and giving of Himself. From even the moment of the Fall, He’s been reaching out to us and trying to bridge the gap between us and Him. It was He who sought after Adam and Eve after the Fall, not them — they ran and hid, but He sought and pursued. When God does put up walls (such as with the Temple and tabernacle), it’s to protect us from His holiness that would otherwise consume us. Throughout history, building bridges and restoring relationships has always been in His heart and actions, though it may not seem like it at times. Often, He initially divides in order to build and restore later – sometimes much later!
Twenty years ago, a missions’ leader named Bob Sjogren spoke at church and provided several excellent insights to the heart of God and why Israel is so important to Him. It’s not that the Jewish people are better, smarter, or stronger than those around them, but that their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) followed Him by faith. Not only that, but why has the land of Israel itself been so important to God? And why does He even go so far as to refer to it “His land” throughout the Bible? Keep in mind that there’s really nothing particularly special about the land of Israel itself – except that it sits in the very center of the three major continents. Not only that, but the geography of Israel is such that the major trade-routes go through that tiny nation, and in fact, the ancient trade-routes would go straight through Jerusalem. And then just as now, the Temple Mount was the focus of Jerusalem.
Since dividing the nations at the Tower of Babel (a judgment of mercy, not wrath), bridge-building has been at the center of God’s plan to draw the nations back to Him. As one people with one language, humanity quickly began to rebel again after the Flood. Therefore He divided the peoples to preserve them and keep His promises to redeem mankind. After the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, God’s plan was to bring the nations to Israel to hear His message and His law. Not only that, but even before they fell into idolatry and were exiled, Israel’s punishment still involved spreading His message: He would scatter them to all the nations, taking His Word with them. Stepping back, it’s almost as if He said to Israel, “Since you failed to tell those who came into My land the message I gave you, I’ll send you out to them! Either way, my message will go forth.”
With the Church, it’s been almost the opposite: from the beginning, He told us to “Go!” but most of us do the opposite: we tend to stay put. In the early church, He would allow or even send persecution specifically to scatter the church abroad, first in Jerusalem and Judea, then Damascus and then to the ends of the earth. In our modern day, it’s been different since there’s little real persecution in the West, though the command to spread the Gospel still stands. Lately He’s been bringing the nations to America (arguably the world’s foremost Christian nation) through immigration, refugees, and the various crises around the globe. Yet many of us continue to resist what He’s doing: spreading the Gospel.
Whatever excuses we come up with to not further His message and mission (intentional or not!), His message will go forth, and He wants to use us to accomplish it. So with that in mind, what should we expect in the years ahead? More crises? More refugee and immigration struggles? More civil unrest and problems? More politization and polarization here at home? Probably — things have a way of getting worse before they get better. Yet His word will go forth regardless. In our day when we can easily go anywhere in the world but often won’t, perhaps He’s saying “Very well, if you won’t go out to proclaim my message, I’ll bring them to you!” Regardless of how badly we fail in His mission for us, His message of salvation will go forth to the nations just as He has promised.
Another insight from both the Bridges class and a survey of global-missions today is that God is moving, particularly in the Muslim world. The largest unreached people-group in the world today are Muslims — over 1.2 billion men, women, and children — and growing fast. At least seven million have immigrated to America (a supposed Christian nation) yet remain unreached. Sometimes He uses dreams and visions to reach the unreachable, but I think He would prefer to use His children to spread His message: us. There will be conflict, division, and problems, but those create opportunities to not only reach them with the love of God, but to reach us and mobilize us into action.
In these days, what does God expect of us? It’s very simple, really: love Him and love others the way we wish to be loved. Get out of our comfort-zones and get involved with what He’s doing, even when it’s tough. The 10/40 Window is open and growing, and the need for both humanitarian effort and the Gospel there is great (87% of the world’s poorest poorest people with nearly zero access to the Gospel or other Christian resources). Before His crucifixion, Jesus declared that the Gospel would be preached to all nations, tribes, and tongues as a witness to them before the End, which means that the 4 billion people in these 69 nations will one day be reached — and because of advances in technology, possibly within our lifetime!
But the thing is, the Gospel isn’t spread with TV or Internet programs, big media schemes, or clever marketing; it’s spread by one person loving another and caring enough about them to share their personal relationship with God. As Christians, we’re all called to make disciples of Jesus; it’s not merely a call given to those destined for the mission-field, it’s for all of us. Discipleship takes time, energy, and effort – it’s about building bridges and relationships, not simply dropping pamphlets all over the place.
Brick by brick, line by line, here a little there a little, His Church is being built all across the world. Person by person, friendship by friendship, the Word is spread and His Family is built. We’re called to build bridges with our neighbors, whether they’re just next door or on the other side of the world.
“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” — Isaiah 2:3b-4