Ever since I was a teenager my greatest spiritual hero has been Adoniram Judson. I’ve mentioned him before in this blog. I recently did a short video for a group of teens in New York State about his life. He even gets a shout-out in Missionary Max and the Jungle Princess.
For those who may not be familiar with Mr. Judson, here are some highlights of his life and ministry: He was the first American missionary to Burma. He helped to found the first Baptist missionary society in the United States. He translated the Bible into Burmese. He began work on a Burmese-English dictionary, which was about half complete by the time of his death. He lost two wives and three children on the mission field. He was instrumental in planting over 100 Baptist churches in Burma. Today Burma has the third largest number of Baptist churches in the world, coming in behind the United States and India.
One of Judson’s greatest legacies was among the Karen (pronounced kaREN) people. His first encounter with this tribe was with Karen man who had been a slave until Judson set him free. Upon his conversion and baptism, this man went back to his tribe and began to preach the Gospel. The Holy Spirit did a tremendous work, and many hundreds professed faith in Christ.
As a boy I would read the stories of Judson’s life (the above is just the barest of summaries) and thrill to his adventures with the Gospel. His grit and determination have been an inspiration and encouragement throughout my own missionary career.
Imagine, then, my absolute delight this past Sunday when I walked into the foyer of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Ithaca, NY, and saw an announcement about a Karen service that would be held there that afternoon. It turns out that there is a group of Karen believers that meets there every Sunday.
After our service was over I hung around in the back as the Karen believers came in. As I was introduced to them I shared my joy at meeting spiritual descendants of Adoniram Judson. They seemed just as thrilled to meet someone who knew of their history. The pastor of the church told me they celebrate “Adoniram Judson Day” every July.
Some Relevant Reflection
The above meeting has coincided with recent conversations I have had with pastors and missionaries from around the world and with some reading I’ve been doing, and the barest outlines of some practical outworkings are beginning to develop in my head. Three major truths are influencing my thought process.
1. Western missionaries made huge inroads for the Gospel over the last two centuries.
Ever since Adoniram Judson sailed for Burma, throngs of missionaries from the US have swarmed to every continent preaching the gospel. Their impact cannot be underestimated. And then there are the English, Scottish, Irish, and representatives from other European nations who have been obeying the Great Commissions since the days of William Carey – or before. They worked amidst tremendous hardships, facing danger, disease, and even death. They faced down pagan tribes on one side and ruthless colonial powers on the other, often giving their lives in the process. While they were by no means perfect, their overall legacy is of tremendous advance for the Kingdom of God.
2. Western missions is in steep decline.
The secularism, materialism and neo-paganism that has taken hold of Europe and the US has put a stranglehold on missions. A lowering birthrate means that the churches that have traditionally supported missionaries are shrinking. Bible colleges dedicated to training pastors and missionaries are disappearing at an alarming rate.
We feel these factors on a personal level in northeast Brazil. Since we arrived in 2005 only one other couple has joined our team, though several have left. Currently there are only six couples and one single missionary spread out over a field where, at one time, there were over twenty. The same trend can be seen across mission boards and in fields around the world.
3. The spiritual children of missionaries are coming to the West.
At the church in Ithaca it is the Karen. Before Itacyara and I went to Brazil there was a small Mexican congregation that met in the annex of our sending church. Now the Mexican church has its own building, which is bursting at the seams. Their pastor is a friend of mine, and he speaks fondly of the American missionaries who took the Gospel to him in Mexico.
And that church is by no means an outlier. A casual drive across Florida will reveal many old church buildings whose signs are now in Spanish.
The above facts do not represent the only current trends in missions, but these more than others have led me to draw the following conclusion:
Through their spiritual descendants who are coming to the US and Europe, those pioneer missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries may become the salvation of the Western church.
Let me explain. In these international churches that are springing up around the country, the first generation of immigrant believers will worship in their mother tongues. Their services will look much different from ours. However, their children will be more Americanized, and the third generation will be fully amalgamated into American society. As the churches gradually lose their ethnic flavor (and more importantly, their language barrier), potential for fellowship and partnership with traditional churches will increase.
We have often focused on reaching the lost among the immigrant communities – and rightly so – but perhaps more of a focus at the believers who are arriving is warranted.
If I were a pastor in the US at this moment, I think I would be looking for opportunities to establish working partnerships with these international churches. I would try to develop a rapport with the immigrant pastors and leaders. I would offer the use of facilities, invite them to preach in my church (using an interpreter where necessary) and, perhaps most importantly, invest in the training of their young men for the pastorate and mission field.
I believe that the current trends will be very difficult to reverse. But maybe…just maybe…the spiritual descendants of Adoniram Judson will return his favor and plant the flag of the Gospel once more on our shores.
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