Every tribe and nation

God calls us to go: to go and meet people in their context. Then, once we have gone, we can invite them to come: to come and meet with Jesus, joining with other disciples as the Church.1 Go; then come. The order of these two events cannot be overstated in our current cultural setting. Let me explain. In the “Western World,” since the fourth and fifth centuries AD right through to perhaps the 1960s, Christianity has (by-and-large) enjoyed a position at the centre of our society. Church the institution – along with the Bible as its founding document – has influenced everything from our art and education, to our laws and lifestyles. Granted, there have been exceptional missionary efforts in our history, but for the average church within Australia, the need to “go” before inviting people to “come” hasn’t always been obvious. It was as though we had a Christian monopoly over the “religion business” and our customers were guaranteed. The success of our evangelism largely hinged on our big program: we could invite people to an event connected with the Church, let the “expert” present the gospel, sit back and reap the harvest.

Times have changed! Perhaps you have noticed. In Australia today, only 15 percent of our population attends church.2 People aren’t interested, have other priorities, are too busy, and think they’d have more fun watching the grass grow than sitting in a religious ceremony. In fact, not only has the Church become less important, it has also been identified as arrogant and ignorant for claiming that “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In a secular society, such exclusive claims – especially when spoken from a position of power such is the person with a microphone behind a pulpit – seem as dangerous as an extremist strapped to a bomb. Instead, we celebrate tolerance, beyond the equality of all people, to the equality of all beliefs and ways of life. Since the 1960s we’ve experienced a massive influx of immigrants, and the government and the media have worked hard to meld a multicultural identity out of our “kaleidoscope nation.” The media, especially, has latched on with a bias toward the new and unusual, exposing us to the smorgasbord of cultures, religions, and moral preferences.

Christianity has been reduced to just one option among many, losing its pride of place. Apart from the introduction of new cultures and religious practice to the mix, it appears that “Christianity has an image problem.”3 Nationally representative polling from the USA indicates that sixteen to twenty-nine-year-olds outside the church perceive Christianity as anti-homosexual (91 percent), judgemental (87 percent), and hypocritical (85 percent). Christians are identified primarily by what they oppose rather than what they affirm. We are viewed as “old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing.” While Jesus is generally perceived positively, Christians, in contrast, appear unwilling to engage in genuine dialogue, simply seeking to shout down the opposition.

Given these factors, it is difficult to imagine why the average “outsider” would want to turn up to one of our evangelistic events. They won’t come to us. We need to follow Jesus’ model and “go” to them. But how? Our typical response to the call to go is friendship evangelism: using your natural networks with non-Christian friends and family—whether through work or play—to build friendships, to listen and engage, care for their needs, and over time to share your story and the gospel. Indeed, building genuine relationship is a crucial part of sharing the gospel, and yet, on its own, the friendship evangelism strategy still falls short of the Great Commission. Take a quick look at Matthew 24:14, 28:18- 20, and Revelation 5:9.

Jesus has called us to go and share the good news with every nation. Before you start feeling guilty about not being a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa, consider that the word “nation” in the Greek is eth’-nos, and its best understood not as “country,” but instead as tribe or ethnic grouping. Wherever we find “cultural and language distinctions that make it hard for the gospel to spread naturally from one group to the other,” that is where we need to go!4 Let’s consider youth as an example. Generation Y is Australia’s “most racially and ethnically diverse, and least-Caucasian generation.” Ninety percent have friends of a different race.5 The results of Patricia Hersch’s long-term ethno-graphic study of adolescent culture were published in her book, “A Tribe Apart.”6

Not only are teens a type of tribe or eth’-nos, they are tribes within tribes. The old-school
hierarchical system – the sporty ones, the geeks, the nerds, the alternatives – have morphed into innumerable groups and variations on a theme: skaters, goths, emos, rednecks, lebs, each mixing and matching on their own terms.7 Into this setting, we send the Christian kids to reach their particular adolescent clusters. Will this kind of go work?

Pete Ward calls this “nucleus-fringe, or inside out outreach”8 and it reflects what the Church currently emphasises: friendship evangelism. It’s crucial, no doubt, but it’s not enough. Why? Look around your church. Does it reflect the kind of diversity, the kind of eth’-nos variety that you see in our society as a whole? If the majority of people in your church, like they are in mine, are white, middle-class, and generally conservative in their outlook, if you don’t see a whole lot of tongue-piercings and tattoos, skaters and street-kids, gang-members and goths, if you don’t see the prostitutes or tax collectors who were obviously Jesus’ priority, then you have your answer. Pete Ward puts it like this: “For
every young person that does join the church there are probably ten or twenty other young people who have tried to find a place within the church but who found the social make-up of the congregation too uncomfortable. They feel that they do not fit and so conclude that the Christian faith is not for people like them.”

What’s the solution? In short, incarnational “outside-in” outreach.9 It’s not until you and I, and even the Church organist, make the costly, sacrificial decision to cross cultural barriers that we will reach the growing numbers of people in our cities who are outside Church culture. Without “incarnation,” the
vast majority will never hear the gospel. If you want to recapture the challenge and glory of incarnation, get down to the video store and hire out “End of the Spear” (2005).10 It traces the real-life journey of “the young missionaries entering into the most violent society ever documented by anthropologists: the Waodani tribe of Ecuador. This movie is a timely reminder that the call to go is accompanied by suffering, both the price and the means of carrying out the Great Commission (Matthew 10:16; Luke 21:16-18; Colossians 1:24). To quote John Piper, “Our suffering becomes
an extension and presentation of Christ’s suffering for those for whom He died. Suffering is not an accidental result of obedience. It is an ordained means of penetrating the peoples and the hearts of the lost.”11

Ask yourself, what sacrifice of my time, money, comfort, and security am I willing to make to incarnate Christ’s love in the eth’-nos Jesus has laid on my heart? For another movie exploring similar themes of incarnation, check out Avatar (2009). Granted, it’s a fantasy, but it powerfully reveals that to truly understand another tribe, we must enter in, and walk in their shoes (or body!). This is the role of a true agent of reconciliation. I’ve seen this costly incarnation expressed simply by those offering tutoring to Nigerian refugees, helping them learn English, and then opening up their homes at Christmas, or freeing up their time to take them on coast trips to experience Australia. I’ve seen it expressed by the believers who go into prisons to play volleyball with inmates, and then offer them accommodation and a job once their sentence is complete. And I’ve seen this with friends keeping their eyes open for God at work while walking around the city. The homeless man asking for money and that sad looking lady crying at the bus stop, are invitations for incarnation.

Finally, at a practical level, consider how God has wired you with particular likes and dislikes. Often our interests cut across people groups, so we can find a common bond with those very different to us. You can even have fun in the process. Maybe it’s motorcycles, photography, soccer, or dancing. Whatever your interest is, rather than starting a special interest group within the church (come), join a group of people outside the church and enter into their lives (go). Listen, love, care, and as opportunity affords, share the grace of God and point them to Jesus. Whatever form it takes and wherever it takes you, keep an open ear to the God of the incarnation, who came to earth that we would go to all the tribes of the world who desperately need to hear good news in their own language.

“Every tribe and nation” by Dave Benson, Evangelism Pastor at Kenmore Baptist Church in Queensland. prac10.