At ten years old, I understood the importance of Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18–20, when he said to His disciples,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Yet, ten years later, as a college student living in a fast-paced, achievement-driven environment, it can be easy to forget about the mission to which the people of God have been called. While many of us who grew up in the church can rattle off the words of the Great Commission, obedience to it is often absent from our lives.
Many of the distractions in our lives begin as a well-meaning pursuit of a career, family, and relationships, but over time the zeal that many of us once had for the nations dissipates. In order to cultivate a heart for the nations, we must fight against the grain of our culture.
One particular temptation is the urge to drift towards the comforts of cultural tribalism, which The New Yorker defined as “blind allegiances and huge passions of partisan affiliation.” We must be wary of having a “blind allegiance” to our tribe, and we should never be driven simply by what our culture dictates is important. Instead, we need to fix our eyes on the scene presented in Revelation 7:9:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
What a beautiful picture of eternity. No matter how broken the current political or socio-economic climate seems to be, this vision of a diverse people from all tribes, peoples, and languages standing before the throne should capture our attention.
In order to push back against our tendency to ignore or sideline this global mission Christ has given to his church, I’d like to offer three suggestions for college students.
1. Commit to a Local Church
“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25)
At first, it may seem irrelevant or even counterintuitive, but I believe that the first step in cultivating a heart for the nations is to commit to a local church. As J.D. Payne, Professor of Christian Ministry at Samford University, says,
Everything the local church does needs to be a part of the long-term discipleship process, including short-term trips. God’s plan for reaching the nations is, first and foremost, through his local church.
If Payne is right, and, according to Scripture, I think he is, then a desire for the nations to know the Lord starts with our commitment to the local church. Missions should happen in the context of discipleship.
When I look back at the best short-term trips that I have been on, they are trips that grew out of discipleship that was already taking place in my local church. These trips would have been far less successful, enjoyable, and even biblical if they had taken place outside of the context of discipleship. If we care for the nations, then we start by committing to a local church that prioritizes proclaiming the gospel to the nations.
2. Spend Time in Another Culture
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Due to increasing globalization, reaching the nations may not require a plane ticket for many college students. The reality is that the nations have been brought together through work, education, and perhaps even religion. Even at my relatively small Baptist university, I have friends who speak different languages, come from different cultures, and hold different beliefs. When I spend time around them, I am able to learn from my international brothers and sisters and be a witness to those who don’t know Jesus.
While there is value in this kind of domestic cultural immersion, there is something unique about going overseas and spending time in a cross-cultural environment.
Seasoned mobilizer and former professor Jeff Lewis put it well when he said,
In biblical discipleship, if you look at the way that Jesus discipled his disciples, there is the cross-cultural element that is seamlessly integrated in their development. When we disciple, we have to always communicate discipleship in a global context, always push them beyond their cultural bias locally, and provide opportunities for cross-cultural engagement outside of their own homeland.
Lewis essentially argues that these short-term international trips should happen through the flow of discipleship.
In John 4, Jesus and his disciples come upon a Samaritan woman. Far too much of our attention focuses on the woman, while we often forget that this was, in a sense, a short-term mission trip. Walls came down despite the massive cultural barriers that existed between the Jews and Samaritans.
Just a chapter earlier, Jesus uttered the famous words of John 3:16, declaring that God “so loved the world,” and now just a few verses after the initial interaction with the woman, the Samaritans declare, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
In this story, we see a glimpse of hope shining through the darkness. Jesus is intentionally exposing the disciples to cross-cultural ministry. This will cause them to go beyond the Jewish cultural and religious bias that was so ingrained in their minds. By spending time in another culture, the disciples will get a better glimpse of the mission of God.
3. Pray for the Unreached
“And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation …” (Romans 15:21).
In my small group, we have begun the regular practice of praying for an unreached people group each time we gather together. It is a simple yet consistent way to have a heart for the nations, particularly for those places and people groups where the church is small or non-existent. (The Joshua Project is a helpful resource to those who want to learn about and pray for unreached people groups but feel overwhelmed by the enormous amount of data.)
For example, we prayed for the Dongxiang people in China. They are a Muslim minority group involved in corruption and immorality, and therefore they are looked down upon by both the Han Chinese and the other Muslim groups in China. In fact, they don’t even have a Bible available in their language.
When we commit to praying for the unreached on an ongoing basis, we remind ourselves of the global scope of the gospel and the unfinished work “where Christ has [not] already been named.” It is so important to remember that prayer is not primarily about what we do, but about what God does. When we believe God is sovereign, we see the value in praying for people whom we may never meet in a country we may never visit.
All of Us
In my conversation with Jeff Lewis, he reminded me of the following truth:
The cause of Christ will be accomplished among the nations, not through the vocation called missionary, but through the mass deployment of the people of God in the context of the mission of God.
God has called us all to participate in his mission by making disciples in our workplaces, schools, and families. He doesn’t simply reach the nations through those who sell their belongings and move to rural Africa; rather, God is deploying all of his people to be his ambassadors in their communities. We can begin reaching the nations right where we are. And as we do, may we echo the words of Paul in Ephesians 6:19–20:
And [pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.