Jacob,* age 8, probably isn’t up to speed on the cultural and spiritual struggles going on in America.
He’s a kid, for one thing. He doesn’t live in the United States most of the time, for another. His parents are Southern Baptist workers in North Africa and the Middle East.
He doesn’t understand why far more violent conflicts are exploding around him and his family, either. He just knows that he misses his friends.
See, Jacob is sort of a refugee. His family had to leave the country where they were serving because of potential threats. They’re serving in another place for now, but leaving the home and people they love has been hard on all of them – especially Jacob.
“This past year I have had to move around a lot,” Jacob wrote in a recent prayer message to American kids. “I love playing sports and meet lots of friends by playing sports at clubs. I have lived in three different countries in [North Africa and the Middle East]. In each of those countries I have friends that I have made by playing sports.
“These friends are just like me,” Jacob said. “But they don’t know about Jesus. Please pray that these friends of mine would come to know Jesus. Also pray for them to be safe, as they all live in very unsafe countries where there are wars and bombs and really bad people. Pray that these bad people would come to know Jesus, too. Pray that it would be safer in these countries, so I can go back to them and see my friends.”
I could leave it there, since Jacob’s words are more powerful than anything I might add. But I read his simple plea for prayer as Southern Baptists, at their 2014 annual meeting in Baltimore June 10-11, were doing some soul-searching about struggling churches, declining baptism rates and the lack of evangelism in an increasingly secular culture.
“God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the Good News of the gospel with those in our community,” outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter prayed during the meeting, after noting that 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person per year between the ages of 18 and 29.
“America is rapidly … turning into a pagan nation,” Luter said, and the cure – the only cure – is the name of Jesus.
But do we really believe that?
Do we really believe that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation and personal relationship with God?
Beyond all the debate about the best evangelism tools and strategies and approaches to employ in a rapidly changing culture, that is the fundamental question: Do we still believe it ourselves?
In an aggressively “inclusive” environment, perhaps the most countercultural words in the Bible come from Jesus Himself, shortly before His death and resurrection:
“Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him’” (John 14:5-7, NASB).
This is the heart of the gospel of Christ, according to the New Testament. There are any number of ways to communicate it and demonstrate it effectively, lovingly and redemptively. You can accept it, reject it or ignore it. But there is no way around it. Jesus is the way to the Father.
Several years ago, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed that the American evangelical church was “losing its voice” just as the opportunity to declare the gospel worldwide is greater than ever. The issue, he said, is a “failure of theological nerve – a devastating loss of biblical and doctrinal conviction. Put bluntly, many who claim to be Christians simply do not believe that anyone is actually lost.”
The death of missions inevitably follows such a loss of nerve and conviction, since there is no reason to preach the gospel among all nations if preaching it and hearing it aren’t life-or-death matters.
That brings me back to young Jacob in North Africa and the Middle East. He might not have all the theological arguments and explanations worked out, but he loves his friends. He’s also concerned about the “bad people” who are setting off bombs and hurting others, even though he’s been forced to move because of the havoc they are causing in the region. He knows they are lost, friends and enemies alike, and that it is indeed a life-or-death matter.
He knows Jesus is Lord and wants them to know it, too. That’s all the theology Jacob needs to obey Christ’s command.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.)