Pastoral Perspectives

The God Who Fills In The Gaps

For missionaries, the Apostle Paul is often held up as the ideal role model. He travelled far and wide boldly proclaiming the gospel. He faced great persecution but never gave up. He was faithful till the end. Much of our Christian heritage today can be attributed to his faithfulness and so there is much that any aspiring missionary can learn from his story.

However, I’d like to draw attention to one time when things didn’t go according to his plan. You see, there was a gap in his plan. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are in the city of Lystra and have just healed a lame man. However, instead of believing in Jesus, the people mistook Paul and Barnabas as Greek gods who have come down to earth and wanted to worship them.

Despite their violent protests, the two hapless apostles are unable to stop them. It seems that Paul also didn’t know the local language, Lycaonian, which would have hampered his ability to correct their understanding. In the end, Jews who opposed their work came and turned the crowd against them. Paul ended up being stoned and his body left outside the city.

Prior to Lystra, Paul’s strategy was to first visit the local synagogue and debate with the Jewish and Gentile believers there. From there, he would share the gospel to the masses. However, Lystra were not along major trade routes and had few Jewish people living there. Therefore, there was no Synagogue for Paul to visit. This would be his first time addressing an all-gentile group without any prior understanding of YHWH the God of Israel.

Had he known the local language, he would have taken immediate action to ensure that there was no confusion as to who had performed the miracle. But God’s spirit was still at work and once they came to realize the gravity of the situation, they sprang into action to stop the impending sacrifice.

Gaps in Missions Past

Missionaries today also must be careful that their methods do not hinder the understanding of the gospel. Since missionaries are often entering a different culture than their own, misunderstandings can and do often happen.

In Japan, I have often heard that the choice of the Japanese word ‘kami’ to represent ‘God’ in the Japanese Bible was probably not the best word. This is because the word kami, or spirit, is very strongly associated with Shintoism where anything and everything, living or non-living can also be regarded as a kami. To the people who are unfamiliar with Christianity, they will undoubtedly find it hard to understand that the ‘kami’ referred to in the pastor’s message is actually referring to the one true God who created heaven and earth. They may continue to be confused unless someone points out the unique identity of YHWH to them.

Missionaries can also unwittingly create barriers to the growth of the church in unexpected ways. For example, erecting an European style church in a non-western context might give the impression that Christianity is a western religion. Even today this misunderstanding persists much to the detriment of mission work. One somewhat notable example is how people in modern day Turkey (or Türkiye) reject Christianity as a western religion when the early church was in fact established within their very country!

One positive example, Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Missions, worked hard to ensure that that he didn’t do something like this. He learnt to speak Mandarin, wore Chinese clothes and never disparaged the local culture and customs as long as they did not contradict God’s own laws. His is a good example of contextualizing the gospel, and to not create a western style church in Chinese soil.

However, despite all these efforts that modern day missionaries make to make the Gospel pleasing and acceptable to their fields, there will always be gaps that we cannot bridge through our own efforts. It is thus important to remember that success comes but from the Lord working through our human hands.

Paul’s Example

Returning to Paul’s example, his time in Lystra appeared to have ended tragically; he was stoned and actually left for dead! But God protected him and miraculously he got up and walked to the next city Derbe some 50 miles away.

Next, he must have learnt his lessons from the experience in Lystra because in Derbe (another Gentile city without a large Jewish presence) his efforts were more successful as many people came to the faith. While Paul’s persecutions didn’t stop, he never caused such confusion over the gospel through his actions again.

Lastly, despite the hostile reception in Lystra, the Lord blessed Paul’s efforts. Acts 14 verse 20, mentions that disciples gathered around him, meaning that some people in the city heard the gospel and believed. Paul eventually planted a church and encouraged the believers on his journey back. In Acts 16, the Apostle Timothy is recorded as joining Paul and was a great encouragement and blessing to him. Timothy’s hometown was Lystra and his faith was a possible result of the church planted there.

The Lord filled the gaps in Paul’s methods, turning a bad outcome into a good one.

Filling the Gaps today

To this day, the Christian church has continued to grow, and the gospel is reaching ever more ears that have never heard it before. All this is because of the Spirit’s work to extend God’s kingdom and the willingness of people to partner with Him. Notably, mistakes have been made and some countries still bear the scars of these gaps in the missionaries’ methods.

However, where different cultures, languages or misunderstandings create gaps that divide people, the Spirit is actively filling or bridging them.

It is this close working with the Spirit that allows Missions to keep growing and changing with the times. Firstly, our methods of evangelism can continue to evolve. Thanks to the wisdom and guiding of the Spirit. Secondly, we are not defined by our mistakes or past actions. Through God’s grace and forgiveness, God’s people can repent of their sins and be freed from the chains of the past to continue in the work of missions. Lastly, the unity of the trinity reminds us that churches in different cultures do not have to look the same as long as they are honoring and glorifying God in their own unique way.

Still, at the end of the day, our methods can only go so far. There will always be gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Every endeavor of man will be imperfect and so we rely solely on the Lord to bless the efforts and to grow the harvest.

Brothers and sisters of True Way, what is the Spirit speaking to us specifically that He wants us to partner him in? May our hearts always be open to this calling of the Spirit!

So let us keep actively praying and seeking the Lord’s ways with all our might that He would overcome our deficiencies and fill in the gaps in our knowledge and understanding. May we then trust in Him for the outcome as we partner Him in the extension of His kingdom here on earth.

In the grace and peace of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, I greet you all.