with David Moore:
Read: Revelation 7:9-12
Summary by Rebecca Smyth from the NH Media Team
Here is the goal of the gospel and the mission of the church, a great multitude gathered to worship our God in heaven forever. It always helps, as we make out choices in life, to know what our goal is, so that we can direct our energies most effectively toward achieving it.
What do you notice about who makes up this worshipping multitude in v9? They are from every nation, tribe, people, and language. How did such a diverse body ever come together?
The ultimate answer is that it is under the sovereign saving work of the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit; but in doing so our triune God normally works through means, which usually requires that those who are already his people cross boundaries of various forms to be able to make Christ known to others from all these groupings.
Think for a moment about what types of boundaries exist in our world and must be crossed to make Christ known to others (sometimes only one, but often more, perhaps many may be involved). Here are some you may have thought about: geographic, linguistic, racial/ethnic, socioeconomic/class, cultural, educational, employment, gender, faith commitment, political outlook.
Now, think about your circle of friends; the place where you live, and the congregation to which you belong.How similar are the people you are thinking about to one another? How like you are they?
All I want to illustrate by that exercise is that many of us live, work and worship with people who are similar to us on lots of different levels, which means we do not have to cross boundaries very often. Not having to cross boundaries reduces potential conflict. It makes us feel safer, more certain, and more relaxed. But when it comes to the mission of the church it does beg some questions.
If we live, work, and build churches which are comprised only of people who are like us, how will the multiple boundaries that exist in our world be crossed for Christ? How will the worshipping multitude of Revelation 7 ever be gathered before the throne of God above?
We thank God that the Apostles Peter and Paul, along with many others crossed the boundary between Jew and Gentile, so that the gospel might eventually be passed on down the centuries until it reached us, here in Ireland. We thank God that William Carey and others who were the pioneers of the modern missionary movement overcame barriers of various kinds to bring the gospel to the other parts of the world, where now it flourishes, and is now, in turn, sending others out to all nations with this good news.
If we are honest, the idea of crossing boundaries for Christ feels rather uncomfortable for us, doesn’t it? It means setting aside what is familiar, known and reasonably predictable, for what is unfamiliar, unknown and about which we can predict nothing.
In this seminar, I want to encourage you to be one of those people who are; who will not let any boundaries bind you from bringing good news to others as we have been called to do by the Lord Himself, in the Great Commission Matthew 28:19. To do that I want to look at two examples, one from scripture and one from my own experience to help you think about and respond to this challenge to cross boundaries for Christ.
In John 4 we see Christ cross a geographical border (v4), a racial/ethnic boundary (v9), religious practices (v20), and culture and gender issues (v23-24).
What was the outcome of all this, v39-42? No Jew could ever have thought it to be possible, yet because Jesus was not bound by the boundaries He faced, but instead crossed them for the sake of the gospel, many (v39) and many more (v41) became believers. Isn’t that inspiring and encouraging?
The second example is from my own experience, not because it ranks anywhere near to that of Jesus, but as an illustration which may help to inspire and encourage you.
I am from Holywood, born into the unionist community, with all that includes. God called my wife Elaine and me to work for 17 years in the Republic of Ireland with PCI, first in the border counties of Cavan and Monaghan, then much further south and east in Leinster.
While we were sure of God’s call, I had several things about which I was concerned, largely through my own ignorance and prejudice, all of which proved to be totally unfounded. Instead, what we discovered was that crossing those boundaries for Christ opened many opportunities to share the gospel, and we found an openness to discussing the gospel which we found refreshing.
Last year, after 10 years of ministry back in East Belfast, Elaine and I were appointed to cross some other boundaries for Christ when we were called by the PCI Council for Mission in Ireland to the West Belfast Special Project. Although it was a call to the same city where we had been living, in my mind there were many more boundaries to be crossed than when we went south. We were going to a community about which I knew so little, had visited seldom and about which I had many preconceived ideas mostly unfavourable, largely because of growing up, as I did, through the Troubles.
I discovered therefore that one of the greatest boundaries most of us face in contemplating such a move is not external, but internal.
The biggest barrier we may encounter to sharing the gospel with the other side of the community here in NI is not in them, but in us. And how wrong we can be.
What we have found is the warmest of welcomes. This has surpassed even our most optimistic expectations of what might happen and reminds us that as we respond to God’s call to cross any boundary for Christ, He goes before us, preparing the way.
In West Belfast another boundary we are crossing involves working with refugees the majority of whom are of a Muslim background, Elaine works more in that area than I do. I am glad to say that we have been able recently to appoint a community outreach worker to focus on the refugee/newcomer community.
One of the other things we would love to happen emerging out of our work as we seek to plant a church, possibly even churches, in West Belfast is to inspire and encourage others to cross similar boundaries, particularly here in the North. Are there areas known to you in which there is no gospel witness? What are the boundaries that appear to hinder that witness? Do you have a vision to cross them for Christ? Why not begin to pray and seek God’s way of doing so for His glory?
I think I was asked to take this seminar because of the work we have begun in West Belfast, which obviously involves crossing several boundaries, some of them very physical and obvious, such as the many peace walls which exist in the area. We can talk about that in a moment.
But as seminars are meant to provide the seed of an idea to simulate thought and discussion, I want to do so in a related area by suggesting another boundary to cross for Christ which is perhaps less obvious, even invisible.
When Elaine and I began our work, we initially believed it might not be best to live in Nationalist/Republican West Belfast. We now know we would have been welcomed. Instead, we lived as close as possible on the Unionist/Loyalist side at the top of the Ballygomartin Road, in what way I termed as the greater Shankill area. We have joined West Kirk Presbyterian on the Shankill itself. The contrast between both sides of the peace line is stark and very different from what we expected. On the far side, the green side if you like, we have found a confident, energetic, purposeful community of vision and hope.
On the side where we live, the orange side if you like, it is divided, leaderless, uncertain, fearful, and a community bereft of hope. It is not for the lack of people of goodwill seeking to make it better, but for multiple reasons, it is a very discouraging picture, indeed it would move you to tears.
It is a hollowed-out community. Many people, industries and businesses have left. Those who remain feel they have been abandoned. The vacuum that has resulted has been filled by the paramilitaries, who often trap those that remain in their malign clutches.
I have become convinced that the only hope for the area is the only other alternative leadership that has not left, the churches. But sadly, many of these are numerically weak and struggling in the face of so many challenges. In the last few months, two congregations have closed, simply too small to be able to continue.
How did it to come to this on the Shankill Road, where even now there are still more churches than pubs?
What I have observed on the Nationalist/Republican side is that when someone from a working-class background succeeds in education and employment the resources and skills, experience and vision are often shared with, and invested back into the local community.
By contrast, when the same thing happens on the Unionist/Loyalist side those who achieve success do not tend to return to reinvest in the same way. Frequently they leave the area and in some cases are reluctant to even admit where they came from.
What concerns me most is that among them are followers of Jesus Christ. I wonder if they have confused the middle-class dream of upward mobility with the gospel itself so that the former has consumed the latter.
Unionist/Loyalist working-class areas are among the most educationally and socially deprived areas in the UK, but even if we live just a few miles away it is a hidden problem to us, since Christians are better educated, have greater resources, and do not live or interact with these communities in any way. Until I lived there last year that was certainly true for me.
The problem is huge and overwhelming. Where would we even begin to address it? I suggest you pick up a copy of the book recommended for this seminar, The Least, the Last and the Lost by Mez McConnell.
Mez heads 20 Schemes, a mission that aims to reach the two largest council estates or schemes in Scotland for the gospel, places of huge material and spiritual need. It is not a comfortable read. You will not agree with everything in the book. I don’t. He is controversial. He does not hold back. But you should read him and if you disagree consider why you do. Is it for gospel reasons or otherwise?
He will challenge you to cross boundaries for the gospel which will have deep and far-reaching implications for you and your family.
He urges people to move into working-class areas, to help build the local church and be the salt and light of Christ in the life of these communities. The churches in your area would value your support. If you are up for radical discipleship, this is it. Head to the estate agent.
I shared what I was saying with a minister in a loyalist working-class area, and he wanted me to add that there are good things to be found there amidst challenging situations – generosity, a wholesome self-deprecating sense of humour, a love of storytelling and love for their communities. He wanted me to stress also that they are not a different species from the middle class, but those just like us made in the image of God, needing to know the love of God, harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
Might God call you to live and work among them, and love them in Christ’s name.
A word of warning. If you do come, please do so as a servant, not a saviour.
It is not always easy to cross boundaries for Christ, but it is always worth it. Think of that great company from every nation, tribe, people and language praising God in heaven. Under the sovereign saving grace of God, what part will you play to that ultimate end? What boundaries will you cross for Him?