Bonfires in the Desert: The Strategic Nature of International Churches
A Cessna pilot pulls off a successful emergency landing, but he finds himself without water or radio, in the middle of a remote desert at midnight. The only way he’s getting rescued is if searchers can spot him in the pitch dark. The pilot locates a flashlight but quickly realizes how little it cuts through the darkness.
So the downed pilot starts sifting through the wreckage for anything he can use to start a fire. Gathering pieces of wood, boxes, and fabric to fuel the blaze takes tedious work. While building a bonfire is much harder than flicking on a flashlight, it’s much more effective at dispelling the darkness. He’s much more likely to be found.
As we think about advancing the gospel to the most unreached places and peoples, there remain some frontiers where importing a few flashlights (think missionaries) is the best we can do. But the world is globalizing quickly, and English is becoming widely known. As a result, we have opportunities to build bonfires to God’s glory—that is, biblically faithful, English-speaking international churches. From North Africa to Central Asia to the Middle and Far East, God is opening doors for healthy international churches in unreached contexts. And these congregations are advancing the gospel far beyond their own walls.
Healthy international churches are often overlooked in conversations about missions, but they present a strategic opportunity for evangelism and disciple-making. Let’s consider three ways this is happening.
1. Pillar and Buttress of the Truth
As Paul instructs Timothy about the church, he calls it the household of God as well as the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Timothy pastored in Ephesus, a place known for its rampant idolatry. Many Ephesians bowed the knee to the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23–25). The church in Ephesus would not have stood out. The surrounding city might have overlooked—and even despised—God’s church, but it was nonetheless a pillar and buttress of the truth. The living God dwelled in their midst.
And so it is in many idolatrous cities and nations today.
Because every local church that is driven by God’s word testifies to the truth, it’s strategic to plant or reform biblically faithful churches in unreached contexts. As English-speaking Christians in international churches unite around God’s Word, as they adhere to orthodox belief and godly behavior, they will display the gospel in dark places. They will live up to their status as a pillar and buttress of the truth.
Many missionaries have historically complained about international churches for failing to protect sound doctrine. Unfortunately, this complaint is often deserved. Too many international churches celebrate being international more than they celebrate being churches.
By God’s grace, the international church landscape is changing. On the global mission field, there are more and more churches that wonderfully display “the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10). Pray that this continues.
2. Catalyst for Gospel Ministry
Healthy churches—no matter where they are—stoke more gospel ministry. When creating a strategy to advance the gospel in a city or region where little good work is happening, a faithful international church anchors that community of believers. Those believers then proclaim and display the good news to their neighbors.
But the benefit of healthy international churches isn’t just evangelistic. In our own church, we have seen people from Africa, Europe, East Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East come to faith through our congregation’s witness and then mature into skillful gospel workers. As these members are faithful to the gospel when the church scatters, the gospel paves roads into homes, workplaces, and schools that no single believer—and certainly no Western believer—could ever access.
Of course, healthy international churches invest in more than just their own members. They equip, fund, and encourage missions among the lost. As missionaries make inroads into unreached communities, these international churches sustain and sharpen those workers. Healthy congregations offer missionaries spiritual respite while also sharpening their theology and methodology.
In the 10/40 window, for example, international churches train national pastors and church leaders to lead their local congregations. They also provide a model for what biblical churches should look like. In doing so, they strengthen the weak doctrine that persists among national churches. I know several examples of this kind of work happening all over the 10/40 window.
3. Display of the Wisdom of God
Paul wrote to the Ephesians that now “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”
(Eph. 3:10). He didn’t qualify that sentence. When the Lord opens doors for a biblical church to take root in any city, he makes his wisdom known to a dark and idolatrous world. And because the church’s work reveals God’s wisdom, we can be sure the church’s work is key to carrying out God’s purposes.
Of course, God’s commitment to use his church does not absolve individual Christians of our responsibility to learn other languages and cultures in order to spread God’s glory among the nations. Sound international churches don’t minimize the need for missionaries in unreached cities; if anything, they increase opportunities for missionaries to be properly trained and sent out. Any church that faithfully practices what the Lord commands proves instructive to a watching universe.
Globalization comes with many challenges and at least some blessings. A more interconnected world delivers more opportunities for international churches to spread the gospel to unreached contexts. The twenty-first century affords us chances to display the gospel of God in spiritual briar patches. So let’s capitalize on these opportunities by setting “gospel bonfires” all over the spiritual deserts of this world.
As these churches faithfully promote and protect the gospel in hostile regions, they advance the gospel and display the wisdom and glory of God.
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