by Alistair Matheson
Cutting edge Christian leaders have long championed the slogan church without walls, appealing to the missional DNA of church. And we’re all pretty good at saying ‘Amen!’ to it.
But what this past year has revealed, as never before, is that we increasingly find ourselves in a world without walls. If anything, the world’s boundaries and borders are coming down at a faster pace than those of the church – or, perhaps, not so much coming down as being swept over by tidal waves of digital information and online communication.
I’m guessing most of us could fill this blog with inspiring stories of encounters and relationships that have sprung up and flourished during the supposed isolation we’ve called lockdown. Church and world alike, locked out of our buildings and sentenced to social confinement, have retired to the spare room and found on our laptops and mobiles something akin to Dr Who’s Tardis … Time And Relative Dimensions In Space!
Wai Veng (anonym)
I’d like to share Wai Veng’s ongoing story here because it’s anecdotal to three areas of great opportunity in a Gospel harvest field that is now white for the reaping.
Wai Veng is an Asian professional who came along to our church’s Street Connect cafe outreach in Glasgow as a volunteer in late 2019, during a year of postgraduate study in the city. Wai made it clear from the outset that, while he was attracted by our compassionate ethos, his persoanl beliefs did not extend beyond the ideology of his atheistic Government.
Yet the Holy Spirit began working in Wai’s life, not least through the sensitive witness of Christians who were natural and unapologetic about the place of Jesus in their life and conversation. ‘Force feeding’ the Gospel doesn’t work, but so called ‘preaching without words’ goes too far the other way, failing to honour the One who alone should get the credit for the best we come up with.
Whether Wai was conscious of it or not, it seemed clear to us that the Holy Spirit was drawing him, not least when he attended and even contributed to our church’s International Celebration Sunday in November 2019. Sadly for all of us, Wai’s time ended all too soon as he returned home with the parting gift of a Bible from the Street Connect team.
Then, in December 2020, our hearts were thrilled with glad tidings from the East. We received a long-distance delivery of generous personalised Christmas gifts and messages, accompanied with the most wonderful news: Wai was now, to use his own words, “a follower of Jesus!”
But like so many testimonies of discipleship with cost, we were not shocked to later receive this from our new brother in Christ … “… I need to tell you how evil the culture here is. We do not have your freedom and the situation is so regrettable. Evangelisation is forbidden. One of my workers told me that policemen will come if too many people attend his church. He is a young Christian feeling confused about the way the church is treated …”
And yet, confined though he feels in his distant homeland, Wai remains on our cafe outreach support group via WhatsApp, praying for us each week as we go out onto the streets of Glasgow with the message and mercy of Jesus.
Wai’s story thrills me in so many ways, but here are just three …
First, the Gospel is for the goodly as much as waifs and strays
Street Connect’s policy is to welcome the participation of non-Christians in volunteer outreach activities, with the confidence that this need never diminish or dilute our evangelistic thrust. Wai’s testimony, like others recently observed, is that opening this door has widened our mission into another fruitful field of Gospel outreach: those who through ‘good works’ are often actually engaging in a personal search, whether they realise it or not.
Don’t you love how Jesus asked the woman at the well to give him a drink of water? This was the Evangelist at work. When we allow or – better still – invite someone to help us, we open their hearts to receive from us too. I can think of no better example of the biblical dictum, “He that wins souls is wise,” (Proverbs 11:30) than the story of how Jesus, by allowing that Samaritan woman (John chapter 4) the honour of serving a prophet, opened her heart to the One to Whom she would soon lead the men of her city. Jesus used her usefulness to draw her in.
When Luke sees fit to include in his introduction of Tabitha her description as “one who was always doing good and helping the poor,” (Acts 9:36) and then, just a few verses later, Cornelius as one who “gave generously to those in need,” (Acts 10:2), he is not promoting a gospel of salvation by works. No, no, no – he is painting a picture of two passionate seekers after God, led all the way to miraculous personal encounter by a pilgrimage of good works.
I wonder how many such travellers, sometimes mistakenly identified on church roles as Christians, are in fact seekers yearning for spiritual encounter? They’re not ‘pretending’ to be saints, or trying to earn their way into heaven – they’re just searching, perhaps even longing for someone to show up with the true riches. If such people entered the room and volunteered to help in our outreach programmes, and we closed the door to them, would that not be silly? Or blind? Or lacking confidence in the power of the Gospel and the Spirit to meet genuine pilgrims on their journey?
Second, the global mission field has come to us
Stencilled above the window in the turret of our prayer tower overlooking the main thoroughfare of the University of Stratchlyde in Cathedral Street, awaiting the post-lockdown return of tens of thousands of students, most of them internationals, my view is framed with the biblical text: “Look to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)
Wai is one of countless short-term residents constantly passing through our university cities. These travellers are often from intolerant Muslim or atheistic secular regimes from where they have entered the most amazing window of spiritual freedom they might ever find. Now is their moment.
We live in days of historically unprecedented opportunity for us to reach the nations by them coming to our own front door! When Saudi students squeeze past our church entrances, Mohammed has quite literally come to the mountain! My heart stirs as I recall a lovely Kuwaiti Muslim wife and mother attending our English language course, learning about the biblical texts where so many of our idioms of speech originated from, and allowing us to pray for her and the situation she was returning to. We don’t know what was going on in that lady’s heart, things she couldn’t tell us.
Wai’s testimony, however, goes even beyond this. We can now not only reach these precious souls while they’re here, but remain in fellowship with them after they’ve returned home. Just think: a disciple not only bearing the Good News in a closed nation but simultaneously engaging in frontline outreach in a Western nation! Which leads me to another exciting aspect of Wai’s story …
Third, technology opens up whole new fields for equipping indigenous leaders
Missiologists have known for a very long time, and written at great length – and I highly recommend a classic work, The Indigenous Church, by the late Melvin Hodges – about indigenous leaders being far more effective at reaching their own people than even highly trained arrivals from alien cultures.
One of the biggest, most stifling, weaknesses of leaders in general and missionaries in particular, is our own strength. We have a default mode, which must be intentionally resisted, of doing things ourselves because we think we can do them quicker and better. This is, of course, short-sighted and yet it’s an inclination we so easily, often unconsciously, resort to … unless we physically can’t get there to do it.
When I consider Wai now following our weekly Sunday services on YouTube as he seeks to grow in his new-found faith, I wonder if our cyber corridor isn’t just providing him with the spiritual nurture he needs but also aiding, with less of our ‘help’, the incarnation of Christ through him into his own culture?
The worldwide church is alive and growing, even in the kind of repressive environments that make our Covid-19 lockdown seem mild by comparison, and Wai’s regular messages from a ‘closed country’ are another of countless current examples of modern means of social media opening up previously unimaginable avenues, not just of Gospel communication but for the raising up and equipping of disciples and church planters … without Westerners getting the chance to ‘do it better’!
Yes, big issues, and even bigger opportunities, are highlighted by our dear new brother, Wai. Please keep him in prayer, both for his own spiritual growth and protection, and for the spiritual wisdom he will need as a new disciple of Jesus in a secular and professional leadership role of significant influence.
2 thoughts on “A World Without Walls”
How so touching. Gospel without borders!