Missions is something that happens overseas. That’s why missionaries need to be sent, missionaries need to be supported, and short term mission trips are taken. That is the common wisdom anyway. Let me be clear, I wholeheartedly agree that missionaries need to be supported and that overseas missions are vitally important. But I think too often we focus on overseas missions and neglect the mission field all around us.
I am not talking about simple evangelism of our neighbors (which we absolutely must do), rather I am talking about reaching out to the non-American people groups that surround us. When I think of missions, I start my thinking with the great commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It is clear here that Jesus is telling the disciples to pursue the nations, those who are not ethnically Jewish. In other words, people who are not like them. And as I noted when discussing the great commission in relationship to forming a philosophy of missions the command in the passage is not “go” it is “make disciples of the nations.” “Go”, or “as you are going,” tells us how we are to fulfill the main command to make disciples.
And frankly speaking, for most of us reaching the nations is something we can do as we are going, or at least we can accomplish it without going very far. Many, or maybe even most of us, live near large non-American ethnic communities. They may be Latino, they may be African, they may be Asian or maybe something else entirely. Most of us don’t have to go overseas to reach the nations because the nations have come to us.
In fact, everywhere I have lived there have been large ethnic communities. Growing up in Pittsburgh, although I seldom left my neighborhood, I was aware that there was a very large Indian community. In fact one of the sights that told me we were nearing the turnpike when we went on family road trips was the sight of a huge Hindu temple on the hillside that loomed above the Parkway East. The nations were there.
Then I went away to college in West Virginia. While you might think that if there is a corner of the country where you would be hard pressed to find an overseas style mission field, it would be West Virginia, you would be wrong. A relatively short drive from campus was a huge center of Hare Krishna worship, that drew “worshippers” from all over the world, known as the Palace of Gold. The nations were there.
After college, I headed west, moving to the Denver area, smack dab in the middle of the country. What did I find there? The largest Ethiopian community in the world outside of the nation of Ethiopia. And large Spanish speaking communities as well, including Mexican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan enclaves. The nations were there.
After nearly 20 years in Colorado, I moved to the San Fernando valley in Los Angeles to attend seminary. Initially I lived right across the street from The Master’s Seminary, and I quickly learned that there was no majority first language in the neighborhood. Filipinos who spoke Tagalog at home, those who spoke Thai at home, those from various countries who spoke Spanish at home and those of us who spoke English as our first language were represented in roughly equal numbers in the neighborhood. In fact, the building that dominated the neighborhood was a huge Thai Buddhist monastery and temple. When I married and moved to Burbank, my neighbors included families from India, a family from Bahrain, young men from Mexico, and Montana Gus, recognized by the Gene Autry Museum as the last living Hollywood singing cowboy, who was actually from Prague. The nations were there.
Here in Northern Virginia, my next-door neighbors are from Columbia, and my landlord is from India. A typical Sunday at our church finds those from Nigeria, Mexico, Barbados, and Germany worshipping together (and we are a very small church). The nations are here too.
The North American church is in a position that is unique. We don’t have to go overseas to reach the nations because the nations have come to us. That means we can make disciples of the nations right here, we don’t have to go there. It is a blessing!
But we have to intentionally take advantage of the opportunities that are around us. Identify the ethnic communities around you, and work with your church leadership (yes this is a call to personal service) to formulate a plan to minister to those communities. Then be a part of putting it into action. By all means support overseas missions, but be careful not to overlook the mission field all around us.