Thinking About Mission

The Bridges of God


by Dr. Daryl Climenhaga

Back to the Familiar

You recall the incident in Acts 16, when Paul wanted to go one way, but the Holy Spirit directed him another. Luke records it like this: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Have you ever wondered why the Holy Spirit directed Paul and his companions towards Greece instead of further into Asia (modern Turkey)? Paul had spent a lot of time in Asia, and he wanted to go further in, away from the parts that he knew. Instead, the Holy Spirit sent him back into more familiar paths. This is not the only time that Paul didn’t go where he wanted to. At the end of Romans, Paul notes his longstanding ambition to preach the gospel in Spain, going into new lands where no missionary had been; but first he ended up in Rome itself, the centre of the world that he knew.

Why? One basic reason is that God had prepared the people in Macedonia for Paul and his companions. At one level this is one of the most basic motivations for missionary outreach: God called Paul, and Paul went. God calls us, and we go. But I have a hunch that at least one other dynamic was at work. This is an unresearched hunch, and I am prepared for New Testament scholars to reprove me; but it is not a baseless hunch. It explains some things in Paul’s ministry quite well. I suggest that one reason God sent Paul back into familiar territory is that it was familiar. He knew the people; he knew the language; he knew the customs; it was his place. Soon after this event, Paul preached his famous sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, where he showed how intimately acquainted he was with the thought patterns of the people of Athens.

Historical Patterns

This pattern is a common one in history. Consider the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick. Early in the Fifth Century AD, a young lad of about 16 named Patrick was captured by Irish raiders. They took him from his home in modern England across the Irish Sea to their home. About five years later Patrick escaped and made his way home. While he was a slave, Patrick was nourished by his Christian faith; and when he returned to his home, he had a vision. In his own words:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea – and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Patrick returned to Ireland, a mission field for which God had prepared him by making him one of the Irish people himself through the terrible experience of slavery. The church Patrick founded carried on a vigorous missionary outreach. Patrick sent out missionaries across Ireland and Scotland and on into the mainland of Europe. Wherever they went they were what today we would call “indigenous missionaries”. They went to people like themselves, and they invited people to faith in Jesus without making them become Romans. (See George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How to Reach the West … Again, Abingdon Press for an interesting retelling of this remarkable story.)

I have been a missionary in Zimbabwe and Zambia, as were my parents and grandparents before me. In my own experience the value of indigenous missionaries has been clear. Missionaries from North America made the first converts and planted a new church. But the Brethren in Christ Church in Zambia and in Zimbabwe today grew from the work of many Ndebele and Tonga preachers and evangelists and witnesses, who went to their own people with the gospel and brought them to Christ.

The ‘Bridges of God’

This common pattern follows the pattern we see in the life of Jesus, when Andrew went and found his brother, Peter, and brought him to Jesus. The “bridges of God” (as McGavran calls them in his ground-breaking work, The Bridges of God) – relationships and connections within the culture – are available only to indigenous missionaries.

AIM connects with indigenous missionaries because they can act like Paul and Patrick and all the other Christian witnesses since the time of Christ and bring the gospel to their own people.

There is of course no necessary tension between traditional sending missionaries and indigenous missionaries. God still calls people to leave their own home and cross the ocean, making some new place home and preaching the gospel to people far away. God always has also called people to preach the gospel within their own cultures. Sometimes Christians come from other places, such as Nigeria or the Philippines, and they work with us to reach our area: you might call them “traditional missionaries” and call us “indigenous missionaries”. Sometimes God sends us far away, perhaps because we have particular skills needed to bring clean water to people in Rwanda, or to help people in central Asia to translate the Scriptures into their own language, or to live with people in some other country and teach them English as a second language (ESL).

In every case, we remain witnesses to Jesus Christ, in our own home area, and going across cultural boundaries. God has given us great resources (not only financial, but even more in terms of training and experience) that we can share with others. In the process, God also renews our faith in him and revitalizes an again church in North America. I invite you to work with Engage Today in supporting indigenous missionaries around the world, and in being part of the joy of Christian mission in every part of our world.