I stand before you this morning tired in body but inspired in soul. We didn’t get back until late yesterday, and for the last ten days it has been my privilege to be with folks I consider true heroes of the faith, folks who are on the front lines of the advancement of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We were part of a conference for pastors and lay leaders serving in countries closed to the gospel. Working in consultation with the International Leadership Institute, Kristen Jones, our missions’ director, Dan, her husband, and I were there to provide a curriculum that has been designed and tested over the last several years to build up and empower emerging Christian leaders in difficult situations.
The people coming to the conference came from a number of different areas and represented the variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds you will find in Central Asia: Europeans, Asians, Eurasians, Indians, and Mongols. All loving Jesus and all ministering in very trying circumstances. All had been threatened. A number had been beaten. A number, if their roles as Christian leaders became known, could be killed. Many worked in areas of great poverty. They were gathered together for encouragement and inspiration, but also for training, so that these who were leaders could be equipped to train others. There were only 25 there, but they had been hand-selected for their ability to train others and so grow the church by multiplication.
In addition, while the primary purpose of the event was educational, one of the greatest parts was the opportunity for us simply to be with these who are making such a difference for the Gospel, and let them know their American brothers and sisters are praying for them and spiritually stand with them in the very tough situations they face. For example, we brought them shoes and small toiletries and things they might not be able to get in the places where they are ministering. That became a very personal act of love from you for them, and they were touched by your caring.
Of special power was the moment they distributed the prayer letters that we carried with us. Members of our congregation wrote letters of encouragement and prayer for the conference. When they distributed the letters, of course, the folks there do not speak English. The majority language in the room was Russian, so there were interpreters who translated everything from Russian to English and back again. Or, as one of the interpreters said, “Texan.” So, when they distributed these prayer letters that so many of you sent, the people could not understand them at first. As they were translated, though, and the people understood what you all had written — oh my goodness – what an impact it had.
I will never forget especially some of those men, just wonderful, spiritual men, and yet so hard looking, so tough. They had been through so much. They had faced such almost overwhelming odds for so many years serving the Lord Jesus Christ. As the letters were translated, they didn’t move a muscle, but then you could see the tears coursing down their weathered cheeks and you noticed their hands begin to tremble. And when there was an opportunity, every one of them came up to me to put his arms around me and hug me and say “spacevo,” which means “thank you” in Russian.
Can you imagine how alone so many of these people have felt for so long? It was a moving experience, sisters and brothers. And it was especially moving because as I sat there looking at this room filled with so many people from so many ancestral backgrounds, I realized that what was happening there was actually a sampling of what is going on all over the earth. There is a great movement of the Holy Spirit occurring on this planet right now as people from so many backgrounds, so many walks of life, so many nationalities are stepping forward with power for the Lord Jesus Christ. This is often under-reported in the media and by political commentators, but it’s real and it’s having consequences and it’s going to have more consequences in the future.
Did you know that in the last hundred years the nation of Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, has gone from being less than one percent Christian to being 45 percent Christian? The growth of Christianity in South Korea is almost as spectacular. In South Korea in the last hundred years, Christianity has gone from less than one percent of the population to 41 percent of the population. In Asia during this time, Christianity has increased ten fold, from 27 million to 278 million. That’s a lot of people, folks, and it’s happening all over the globe.
In India, 15,000 people a day on the average are stepping forward to be baptized and profess the Lord Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In Latin America it’s 10,000 a day. In Africa it’s 20,000 a day, stepping forward to be baptized and profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In fact, in Communist China there are now more Christians than Communists! In Communist China in 1950 there were 500,000 Christians, half a million. Today in Communist China there are 75 million card-carrying Communists and the number is declining by the day. There are 130 million born again, Bible-believing Christians willing to let their names be known to the authorities and their number is climbing by the day!
Now, there are countries that are not honest about what’s happening, because they don’t want to admit how many people are coming to Christ. That’s just a political reality, and often the numbers you hear used by commentators about how many of each faith exist around the world are not accurate, because they often use numbers provided by governments which do not want to acknowledge the growing Christian communities. Yet, it is happening everywhere and you cannot find a country that does not have people stepping forward in powerful ways for the Lord Jesus Christ.
And what’s driving it? Folks just like the folks there in that conference room. One person telling another. Three people forming a Bible study. Twenty people forming a house church. Individuals risking themselves for the sake of telling others about the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, I asked the people at the conference, “What’s driving you?” I mean this surge toward the Lord Jesus Christ is not happening because a lot of bright Americans sat down and decided to do a media campaign created by Madison Avenue. There’s nothing commercial, nothing manipulative, nothing controlled about it, except the control coming from the Holy Spirit. It’s happening person to person, people willing to risk persecution to share the Good News of Christ. And it’s happening throughout the world. So I asked them, “What drives you to do this?”
Now, let’s be honest here this morning: that’s a good question isn’t it? I mean, you know as well I do that our young people are growing into a world different from anything the adults experienced. It is a world more connected, with more cultural and religious conflict than we used to experience. And as that conflict develops and religions collide and you hear so many people arguing in the name of God, don’t you sometimes get the feeling God Himself must be a million miles away?
My grandmother used to say, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” In a world with so much confusion and sometimes conflict, why risk yourself to talk about Jesus Christ when in fact you can get persecuted if you do? I mean if folks are Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or they practice native religions, why not just let them be? And do you know what the folks at the conference answered when I raised that question? They said it in different ways, but it was always the same answer: “We do it because we love our neighbor, and we know that even as we need the Lord Jesus Christ, so do they. It is not love to hold His Word back.”
Isn’t that a good point? Isn’t it easy for us, whenever we talk about comparative religions, to miss that most important point? They said in effect, “It’s not about us. It’s not about them joining us. It’s about them having a chance to get to know Him. It’s all about Him.” Doesn’t that statement bring great clarity? For, isn’t that a focus we can sometimes miss? When we talk about comparative religions, can’t we get hung up talking about good points and bad points, and in that act miss the main point?
Think with me about this for just a moment. We were in an area of the world where Islam is the majority religion, at least at the moment. So, think about Islam. There are good points about Islam. Did you know that Mohammed started out as a friend of the Christians? Back in seventh century Mecca, Mohammed stood up to challenge pagan worship, the worship of idols, and the Christians agreed with him. In fact, when Mohammed called God “Allah,” he was using a name for God the Christians had been using for 200 years. “Allah” was an Arabic term used by the Christians meaning “the God”. Then, when Mohammed had to run for his life from enemies in Mecca, it was the Christians who hid him and provided safe refuge until he could get further away. And if you know anything about Islam, you know that some of its core teaching concerns soberness, discipline, obedience, humility, openness to God, charity to the poor. Those sound pretty good, don’t you think? That sounds pretty close to the Bible to me. So, as you start thinking about Islam, there are some good things.
Then, of course, from a Christian perspective, there are some not so good things: teachings on vengeance, and holy war, and the subordination of women. Interestingly, when you get to these more offensive teachings, most of them took place in the latter part of Mohammed’s life when he was not in as close proximity to the Christians.
Now, I know as soon as I say this that there will be folks hearing me who say, “Wait a minute! There aren’t that many of these passages in the Quran.” And I need to say to you as gently as I can, “Friends, there are.” I do not mean anything about our Muslim friends. Most Muslims are good and decent people, and something we have said here many times before is that we honor God by treating every person of every faith background with respect and with care. I’m not saying anything against Muslims as individuals at all, but I do think it’s important to get the facts straight. If you read the Quran honestly it’s impossible not to understand, for example, how extremists end up thinking holy war is a beautiful thing. For in fact, once Islam got going, that is how it spread: by capturing large portions of the earth and their populations with the sword, and in many cases keeping them to this day with the sword.
I know I’m going to get some calls and emails about what I just said, but what I’ve just said is true. What was interesting to me at the conference, though, was the people there never talked this way. They would have agreed with me about everything I just said about Islam’s good points and bad points, and they would have said it is true, but that was not their focus. Their focus was on a deeper truth. Their focus was on Jesus, and they didn’t waste any of their time on all these other issues, whether good points or bad points. They simply wanted to talk about Jesus. They said in effect, “If we don’t need Jesus, then Islam and all these other religions may be fine. All of them, in one way or another say, ‘Do this, do that, keep these rules and, if you do it well, you’ll be blessed in this life and you’ll receive paradise or Nirvana or spiritual enlightenment in the next life.’ The problem is that none of us can do it that well.”
In other words, none of us are that good. None of us are that strong. All of us are weak. The best of us has more evil inside than we hope will ever see the light of day. So if we are depending on only our efforts, then we will live lives of futility and quiet desperation and end in defeat. What we need is someone to help us. What we need is someone to free us. What we need is someone to forgive us. What we need is someone to make us stronger. What we need is someone to help us grow into the people we most want to be. What we need is a Savior. What we need is Jesus Christ! And even as we need Him so does every man, woman or child on this earth — and if we are not willing to do all we can to share the One who alone can meet every human need with every human being possible, then it is a betrayal at the deepest level of love, love of our fellows and love of our Christ who came to save all.
For all the young people here, as you hear comparative religions discussed in the future, please remember this. You can discuss good points. You can discuss bad points. You can say this about one religion. You can say that about another religion. For Christianity, though, it’s not about good points or bad points. It’s about fellowship with the living God through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the power of Christianity is that at its heart it is not a system of religion but a relationship. That relationship is what too many of us miss when we talk religion, when in fact it’s the only thing ultimately worth talking about.
This is what drove Natalia, a wonderful lady I met there. She’s building a church. She doesn’t preach, she doesn’t teach, but she never met a stranger. She doesn’t speak English, yet if she visited here, she’s the kind of person who would know half your names by the time she left. A friend was considering Christianity and took Natalia to a prayer meeting. Natalia was stunned to discover the hope and grace and forgiveness of Christ, and especially the blessing of being able to pray directly to God. Through the Holy Spirit, she now rejoices to know God is walking with her intimately through the day, to give her guidance and strength and help. Now she’s bringing every person she knows to that church, and she knows a lot and they’re finding Christ.
This is what drove Andre. Andre came to Christ. He started a Bible study. The Bible study kept growing. It got so big he had trouble hiding it. Finally, he couldn’t hide it any more. Twice the police have called on Andre in the middle of the night, and told him to end the Bible study or there will be consequences. Andre thought about it, prayed about it, and decided that with that kind of threat there was only one possible response. He’s going to start more Bible studies! He’s got that one going, so he’s going to create a network throughout the community.
I could tell you so many more stories like that, amazing stories of people with a clarity of vision that is transforming; people who are driven in every aspect of their lives by their love for the Christ who loves them and who, living in His love, want to share it with everyone they meet.
Can you imagine what that part of the world is going to be like with that kind of clarity of vision playing out over time? And as you think about it, can you imagine what our part of the world would be like if that clarity of vision was possessed by each one of us, and was playing out in our lives here even as it is over there?
For, as you listen to their stories and think about it honestly, isn’t there something inside you whispering that maybe, over the years with all that we have as Americans, maybe, just maybe, we’ve lost something, something we used to have in this country, and that we are not better for having lost it?
Just before the end of our time there I had a young man come visit with me. His name was Vlad. Vlad is a brilliant individual who graduated at the top of their schools, then came over to this country and graduated at the top of ours. He got job offers from all over North America and Europe, but decided to go back to his country to work for less money to be a part of the changes they are trying to bring about in his homeland. As we talked, he asked that we pray for his people after the conference was over. I got ready to respond, but before I could he said, “But, Pastor, let me say one more thing.” He said, “When you ask your people to pray, please also let them know that I don’t think people in America realize how much we need them.”
He said, “I don’t mean your money. We need the financial support you give. The help you give us is earnestly needed and we are deeply grateful for it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. We need you. I don’t think you realize that Christians in our situation see America as the best hope of the world! Yet, when we come to your country as young people and meet your young people, we see them so often with their sexual relationships, and abuse of alcohol and drugs, and loose lifestyles. They say, ‘We have choice.’ We say, ‘Yes, but you also have Christ. What about Him?’ Then he said, ‘And we step back and we look at the economics of the world, and whether you know it or not, everybody in our country knows that the number one exporter of guns and pornography in the world is the U.S.A. And I don’t mean to offend you. We love you. We need you. But we don’t understand. Pastor, how could Christian America do these things?”
And I tried to explain about a free society, and I tried to say how some of us were trying to fix things, but then suddenly all I could think of was the courage and consistency of their witness there, and how erratic our witness so often is here, and I just stumbled to a stop. Finally I said, “I tell you what, Vlad. We’ll pray for you. You pray for us.”
Friends, Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples.” And I’m here to lift a word of thanksgiving for the fact that it’s happening. In our day and in our generation a movement of the Holy Spirit is occurring that people could not have dreamed of even fifty years ago.
For all of you who through your generosity and sacrificial giving are supporting the ministries of this church to touch lives both here and over seas, thank you. When you die and go to heaven, you will meet people you do not even know who know Christ because of you, and they will honor you before the throne of glory. For all of you who are wrapping the ministries of this church and the ministries of the church all over the world in prayer, thank you. That prayer is their power. Don’t ever underestimate how God can use your prayers when they come from the heart.
And for all of you who live remembering that when Jesus said, “Go into all the world,” part of that world is Houston, and people like Vlad over seas are counting on us, thank you. They are watching. May our witness be as strong and consistent, both individually and as a church, as theirs already is –and in that shared witness, may God’s Kingdom come.