Four eager young missionaries set out on a long journey to their assigned village deep in the rural interior of a remote island. As far as they knew, the message of the Gospel had never penetrated this isolated region. It would be a marvelous challenge to learn the language and customs of these tribal people and find appropriate ways to introduce the Good News into their culture. After several days of exhausting travel, trudging muddy trails and crossing treacherous rivers, the committed young missionaries finally arrived at the village that would be their home for the next several years. Their arrival created quite a stir in the settlement and soon villagers and missionaries were engaged in animated gesturing, curious touching, and exchanging of gifts. An older man who seemed to have a leadership position beckoned the missionaries to follow him on a tour of the village. Passing through uneven rows of sturdily constructed thatched roof buildings of various sizes, he led them to an opening and pointed proudly to a large open-sided pole structure - a gathering place of some sort. The missionary's mouths dropped open in disbelief. There, prominently displayed on the roof of this assembly hall was a finely carved wooden cross. This building was a church!
The missionaries were dumbfounded. This was supposed to be a pagan culture, an "unreached" people group. The mission agency intelligence sources had obviously been incorrect. Somehow the seeds of the Christian message had been carried to this remote spot and had taken root. A confusing mix of emotions swept over the young missionaries as they struggled to regain their balance. Externally they smiled and made affirming gestures to the village elder. Inwardly, however, they wondered just what kind of strange theological aberrations might have sprouted up in this wild untended environment. Secretly - so secretly that they would not admit it even to themselves - they experienced a keen sense of disappointment since they would not be the ones who would have first opportunity to introduce the Gospel in this place.
Over the next several months the young missionaries would learn to their astonishment that in previous decades several other groups of Christian missionaries from various countries had visited this village. As a matter of fact, they discovered no less than five distinct Christian factions that existed in the region, each believing somewhat differently from the others but all following approximations of the teachings of itinerants who had originally evangelized them. Christianity, however, had by no means become the dominant influence of the culture. There was much redemptive work yet to be accomplished here. Much blood was being spilled in violent retaliatory attacks over longstanding grievances, and the people were plagued by widespread venereal disease spread by rampant sexual promiscuity.
The young missionaries were faced with a confusing dilemma. A judgmental spirit had somehow infected the indigenous Christians and the various fellowships would have little to do with each other. If the missionaries were to align themselves with the group that fit most closely their own theological biases, they would surely alienate themselves from the other groups. On the other hand, if they set about evangelizing on their own, they would likely create yet another religious faction within the culture. Perhaps their first priority, they reasoned, should be to attempt to unify the fragmented Body of Christ. If indigenous Christians could be persuaded to begin talking to each other and learn to work together, perhaps a whole new spiritual energy could be released into the society. However, this was not exactly the evangelistic strategy for which they had been trained, nor was it the task to which they had been commissioned.
Tough dilemma? It really shouldn't be. Their mission was based on faulty intelligence, which would obviously necessitate a modified strategy. Right? Well.... The mission agency voiced its clear preference for the establishment of a new, denominationally connected church that would teach trustworthy doctrine. The work, after all, was supported by the denomination. It would be far easier, experience had taught them, to sustain stateside funding for a distinct new work bearing the denomination's name than to mix identities with other groups. And if the missionaries were successful, their church would grow large and strong and have great impact on the culture without having to interrelate with the other factions. To launch and sustain such an effort would obviously require significant funding. It was agreed, then, that a new church would be started and the missionaries would give themselves fully to the tasks of evangelizing and, when possible, recruiting believers from the other groups to join their new body.
There was a slight problem, of course. Though the missionaries had adequate physical resources to push forward with their plan, in their zeal to fulfill the Great Commission they had skipped over the New Commandment, ignoring the tougher task required of believers, and the distinguishing characteristic that would identify them as Christ-ones.
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
They had unwittingly traded off an essential command of their Lord - the very behavior that would prove to the on-looking society that they were in fact His followers.
"My prayer is...that all of them may be one...that they may be one as we are one...that the world may believe that you have sent me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:20-23)
Unfortunately, this story is not unique nor is it limited to far away lands. It is a pattern played out routinely in the cities and communities of our own country. Perhaps my greatest surprise when I first came to the inner-city of Atlanta was to discover that there were actually saints living in these crime-infested neighborhoods. I had come to carry the light of the Gospel into the darkness of the ghetto only to find that Christ had already preceded me. The real challenge was adjusting my mind set from single-minded evangelism to embracing what God was already doing in this culture.
Darkness-of-the-ghetto-talk may indeed stir the hearts of donors. But well resourced evangelization and urban church planting strategies which discount indigenous believers have precious little impact on inner-city communities. It is the saints in the ‘hood, though often fragmented by separatist theologies and pulled apart by personality-driven churches, that represent the very best opportunity for illuminating the city with the light of the Gospel. But the Good News, whether in the jungle or the city, will undoubtedly be borne on relationships forged by the New Commandment.