Monday, June 7, 2010

Panta ta Ethne -- It's No Laughing Matter

A Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian and an atheist were riding together in the same car. Sorta sounds like the start of a joke, doesn't it. It's not.

The other day I was in a Starbucks when a friend, a fellow church member, came in. We were talking about how much Houston is changing. "It was really weird," he said. "We were working on a project at work and broke for lunch. Four of us decided to go together. We were a kind of mini-UN (United Nations). I drove. There was a tech guy from India. He was Hindu. A guy from Pakistan. He was Muslim. And another guy from the US. I know he's not a Christian. I'm not sure he has any kind of faith. And there was me. [It was close to Easter.] I was playing Christian music on the radio and one of the guys started asking me about it."

Houston is changing, diversifying. Folks from all over the world come to our city to live, work and play. The mission field has come to Texas. As Christians we know we have a responsibility to share the gospel with everyone. The Bible tells us to go into all the world and share the gospel (remember Acts 1:8). Leaving home, going abroad to share the gospel ... that's what missionaries do. And our job is to support them with prayer and finances. But what is our responsibility toward the world citizens who now live in our city?

Let's do a little Bible study. On one occasion Jesus said to his followers, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations [panta ta ethne]..." (Matthew 28:19). When most folks read this they assume nations means a country, like India, China, Pakistan. But look closely at the word ethne which is translated nations. Remind you of any word in English? Right! Ethnic. Now read it again using the word ethnic in place of nations. Go and make disciples of all ethnics. That gets closer to what Jesus meant. Why? Because the word nations has morphed (words tend to do that ... charity doesn't mean today what it did to the King James translators).

Now go to Acts 2. The story of Pentecost. Remember what happened? The disciples were gathered in prayer when the Spirit of God fell upon them and they began speaking in different languages (2:4). It was Passover in Jerusalem. Folks from all over had come to the city to celebrate. It's obvious from the listing of countries in Acts 2:9-10 that they came from countries spread across the Mediterranean, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. As the disciples spoke, the people there understood what they were saying. It didn't matter where they'd come from, what language they spoke, what people or ethnic group they represented, they all heard the gospel in their native language.

The miracle at Pentecost is a picture of what God desires for people around the world and in our cities today. God desires that everyone have a chance to hear the gospel in their native tongue so they have a chance to be saved. That means that the 350+ ethnolinguistic people groups living in Houston, speaking 215+ different languages all deserve to hear the gospel in their native language and to have a church that reflects their distinctive culture and tradition to disciple them.

What is our responsibility? As churches we are responsible for reaching across cultural and linguistic barriers to reach folks who may not be like us. Most churches never do this and have no strategy in place to change! Just look around your church this Sunday. You'll probably only see folks who are like yourself ... white, black, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, Vietnamese, whatever. We all do it. That's not necessarily bad. We like to be around folks who are like us. It's only bad if the church doesn't have a strategy for reaching those who are not like themselves as well.

Folks who are not like us are all around! Take a look. See who lives in your neighborhood, who you encounter as you shop, maybe who you see when you go into the city. If you are really adventuresome, drive into parts of the city where you don't live. Look for folks who don't look like you. Stop by the Galleria. Notice the many different ethnicities. Drive down Westheimer. Notice the restaurants. How many different kinds of food (Chinese, Thai, Indian) can you identify? Can you find street signs in languages other than English? Can't get out? Turn your radio on during the daylight hours and cycle through all the AM channels. How many different languages did you hear? Start looking and listening for the panta ta ethne. They're here and they are our responsibility.

Back to my friend. He is in his car with a Hindu, a Muslim and another fellow who was not a Christian playing Christian music when one of the others in the car ask about the music. What does he do? What does he say? Nothing. He just turns off the music so they can talk. Why? He didn't know what to do, what to say, how to respond. And that's true of many churches today. It's not that we don't care. It's that we just don't know what to do. That's where the associational staff can begin to help.

For a good while now we have tried to learn how to be missionaries in our own culture and context and to teach others to do the same. We've learned from missionaries and gone to the mission field for first hand field work in order to be able to help our churches reach all the people, the panta ta ethne, in our city. It's all part of UBA 4.0. More next month.