Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Imagine a generous husband who gets a big bonus and decides to buy his wife a diamond ring for Christmas. It comes in small package, and when she opens it, she admires it, thanks him, but then sets it to the side. In the midst of all the Christmas-day chaos, the small but valuable diamond ring gets knocked off the end table, covered in Christmas paper, and lost.
In going to the Bible to get our bearings for Christmas, it’s packed with good stuff: shepherds and angels and wise men and mangers. But at the heart of the story is a small but powerful nugget which continually brings us back to what Christmas is all about. The angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream told him that his wife, Mary will “bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The key, like the diamond ring, is to protect this core message so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
The point of Christmas is that God is acting to save his people from their sins. It is the culmination of promises that God made all through the Old Testament - to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Isaiah. The reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is to save us from our sins. This isn’t simply the core of Christmas, it is the heart of the gospel and the central message in the Bible.
The New Testament churches described in Acts perpetually challenge me for this reason: they were consistently probing opportunities to advance the gospel of Jesus. And no church exemplifies this spirit better than Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). Not content to build a local dream team of pastors, when the leaders spent time praying and fasting and listening to the Holy Spirit, their response was to send their best guys (Paul and Barnabas) on mission. Rather than trying to hang on to gifted people, they were compelled by the command of Jesus to 'Go!' (Matthew 28:18-20).
I was recently with a group of leaders in Vienna, praying and considering gospel opportunities in Europe. When pastors get together, it is easy to let local church issues dominate the agenda. The consistent challenges facing us in pursuing effectiveness in local church ministry is more than enough to keep us busy. But following in the footsteps of Antioch, we must consistently rise above the horizon of our local needs and think with a continental perspective.
Europe needs the gospel. For example, the population of Germany is over 80 million. The majority of towns and cities in Germany with a population of 5000 or more do not have an evangelical church; in Bavaria, that statistic is over 75%. In Denmark, 50% of the population claims to be agnostic of atheist. So whereas there are some great churches in Europe, in terms of the need for the gospel, there are not nearly enough.
When I think back to the church plants I've been involved with, they've all happened in various ways: in L'viv, God sovereignly opened a door; in Ternopil, a contact invited us; in Novodnistrovsk, a woman whose family moved from Ternopil started sharing the gospel; in Edinburgh, the Holy Spirit put the city on our hearts; in Bathgate, we were asked to start a church.
Every one of these church plants has a different story. But the common denominator is that we were willing and ready to go through open doors that God seemed to be opening. In addition to that, we were willing to probe and knock and seek and explore.
The accidental outreach in L'viv still remains the most remarkable two days of my life. What made it strategic is that God opened a door for ministry on the university campus - the University of Ivano Franko. Without intending to, we stumbled into an amazing network of people and relationships that gave us an open door for the future. The great thing about reaching students with the gospel is that they are open, they are available, they are the future leaders, and they can be trained and mobilized for gospel ministry.
As we look back over 2016, I’m incredibly thankful for all that God has enabled us to do together.
- We conducted training boot camps in Ukraine, Marseilles
- We developed a global leadership training curriculum for pastors
- We taught pastors, church planters, campus ministers, and missionaries in Manila
- We began working on plans for a ministry and training centre in Scotland
Those are just some highlights; It’s been a good year! As we look to the future, we are determined to be proactive: we will take scouting trips, exploration teams, follow open doors, and seek out new contacts. Following in the footsteps of Antioch, we will resist the temptation to get comfortable with building local church dream teams, and we'll send our best to pursue gospel opportunities across the continent. We are looking at new places, new universities, and new cities that need the gospel.
The best is yet to come!