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I grew up believing not only that Jesus wanted the entire world to be converted to Christianity; I also believed my responsibility before God was to make everyone in my reach a Christian. That's just the way it was.
It was worse than that with much of the Baptist community around me. They not only believed Jesus wanted the world to be Christian, but Baptist. I remember sitting in a church service in my college town where a Baptist missionary made the statement: "There is no Gospel witness in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio." This shocked me, because I knew my uncle was a pastor there and I also knew several others. When I approached the speaker, he said: "There is no Baptist witness there." I quickly protested that my uncle and several other pastors I knew there were Baptist. He then clarified it for me: "They are not General Association Baptists." Do you get it? If people weren't becoming Baptists, then they were not hearing the Gospel message! This is just taking this thinking to its logical extreme and it is nuts!
Think about this myth for a second! Can you really believe that this Middle Eastern message of the Good News of Jesus and the Kingdom is owned by Western Christians and that all others around the world must become Christian in order to have eternal life? How haughty we are?
The greatest damage here in this myth is that Christians take on the attitude that they are the only ones who are right and therefore the only ones who will receive salvation from God. The secondary damage from this myth is that missionary organizations actually stir up more persecution than might have been. When missionaries insist on the natives "converting" to Christianity and to denounce their culture, they have the wrong goal. Of course, members of non-Christian cultures are threatened by this approach and react badly. What's worse is that they miss out on Jesus! Jesus is not the issue in those encounters; cultural conversion is!
I'm convinced that much of the persecution on the mission field is unnecessary. We are finding that when you make Jesus the issue and not religious conversion, there is an amazingly positive reception to Jesus. It's the same reception Jesus had among the non-Jewish encounters He had. Jesus is for the entire world. Jesus never urged anyone to become a part of a Christian culture or to join a Synagogue or Church. His only concern seems to be the person's heart of faith and the subsequent act of whether or not the person becomes a follower of Jesus.
Jesus made it a habit of reaching out to people from all kinds of religious and cultural backgrounds. NOTE just a few illustrations of how the approach of Jesus and his disciples was all-inclusive:
FIRST-In John 4, Jesus encountered the woman at the well. She was a Samaritan with very different beliefs regarding the center of worship. He left her with her cultural beliefs intact, except that He trumped the center of worship by saying that someday the center of worship will not be in a given location, but in your heart. Jesus was not promoting a new religion or defending the status quo; He was offering a personal relationship with God in the heart. This personal relationship would transform both her religion and the Hebrew religion. When Jesus conversed with the Samaritan woman, He didn't make certain to warn her of her false beliefs and be sure to change the mountain where she worshipped. There was no renunciation of her false doctrines. It was all about her relationship with Him.
SECOND-In Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman was a gentile from a godless culture. Her faith was evident in her persistent conversation with Jesus about her daughter. Jesus honored her faith, however He didn't pull her into a new religious system or study class, nor did He have her renounce her cultural upbringing. The presence of Jesus will change a person from the inside out to be like Jesus. God's presence will convict their hearts in His time of what needs to be changed in their personal and cultural ways; NOT US!
THIRD-In Mark 6-7, NOTE Jesus' trip to Gennesaret. Do you notice how many times the Gospel writers refer to going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Whenever they were on the Jewish side, they crossed over to the other side. Why? Jesus performed the same works among the gentile world. He never urged them to change their religious culture, but let them remain right where they grew up. However, they were drawn to Him.
FOURTH-In Matthew 8, NOTE the Roman Centurion. No doubt the Roman Centurion grew up with the Roman gods, yet Jesus does not speak to this at all. His concern was his faith. When Jesus declared the Roman official's faith as outstanding, even greater than He had seen among the house of Israel, Jesus didn't tell this man to make sure to repent and go renounce the many Roman deities or his faith would be for naught. Further in the scene in the healing of the Roman Centurion's servant, Jesus says: "I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." Non-Jews or in our vernacular, non-Christians are going to be at the Kingdom feast. How can this be? It can only be through a personal relationship with Jesus.
FIFTH-In John 10, Jesus mentions "other sheep" that are His. Who are these other sheep? Could it be that they are from the various cultures of the world? Could they be those spoken of in Romans 2:14-15 and 1 John 4:7?
SIXTH-In Acts 15, the first followers of Jesus were all Jews. When the first gentiles (everyone else) came to Jesus, some religious Jews insisted that all followers of Jesus must become cultural Jews. The apostles clearly decided against this. All people could be followers of Jesus without changing their culture!
SEVENTH-In Acts 10, Peter's experience with the non-Jews is interesting and shocking to Peter. After Peter was supernaturally led to the house of Cornelius by a radical vision from God, he told them: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." Did you get that? God accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
EIGHTH-In Acts 17, Paul spoke in Athens: "From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us." God made the nations-all nations; they were made by God in such a way so that all men might seek and find God.
NINTH-Also in Acts 17, when Paul spoke before the gentile audience in Athens, he didn't quote Scripture, didn't use Jesus' name at first, stroked them for their many idols of worship and proceeded to explain to them who this UNKNOWN GOD is that they commemorated. He didn't call for the renunciation of these "gods" and he used their "heathen" poems to explain what God is like (Acts 17:28), yet many believed in Jesus that day. What's that all about? I don't know many with this kind of approach.
TENTH-In Revelation 5:9, the reference is to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Jesus came to reach all of these, not by exporting any given tribe, tongue, people or nation, but from within each of these faith in Jesus naturally emerges. Since the Creator-God is the source of all people, He has already marked all of these people groups. The word translated as "nations" is actually "ethnos" in the Greek. This is where we get the word "ethnic" from; in other words, there will be every cultural group who are followers of Jesus.
Anyone, anywhere can be a follower of Jesus-cultural Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, Agnostics, Muslims, and even Christians can all be followers of Jesus. Christians have said for years that a cultural Jew doesn't have to renounce being Jewish in order to follow Jesus. Following Jesus makes a person's Jewishness more full and meaningful. I believe this translates into the many cultures of the world. Following Jesus brings out the fullness of any and all cultures. A cultural Buddhist can be a follower of Jesus. A cultural Muslim can be a follower of Jesus. It's just like a cultural Catholic can be a follower of Jesus without renouncing his cultural background or a cultural Baptist or a cultural Methodist. Anyone can be a follower of Jesus and still remain within his or her cultural background.
Jesus doesn't want the entire world to be Christian; Jesus wants the entire world to follow Him. This is why Jesus gives us His primary command to carry on His ministry to the world. He says, "Make disciples of all nations!" Make followers of Jesus in all nations; don't try to make them Christians! Introduce them to Jesus.