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Journey Outside the Invisible Wall

A personal account of a mobilizer who realized that God is interested in people outside the invisible walls of ones’s culture. It includes personal reflections from Bible passages and an account of challenges faced in journeying with churches in the Philippines and how these were overcome as the churches recognized their invisible walls and grew in courage to venture beyond the walls.

Jojie Wong has been serving as a missions mobilizer with the Philippine Home Council of OMF since 2000. She has an MDiv in Biblical Studies (Singapore Bible College) and an MA in Global Missions (Redcliffe College, UK). She is currently in SBC’s Doctor of Ministry program.

Journey Outside the Invisible Wall

Mission Round Table Vol. 11 no. 2 (May-August 2016): 32-35, 37

Download this edition of Mission Round Table (2 MB)

The invisible walls

Growing up in the far south of the Philippines means living in a multicultural context. I am Filipino-Chinese (that is, a Philippine-born Chinese) and my family speaks a Cantonese sub-dialect, making us a minority compared with the Hokkien-speaking Filipino-Chinese. I learned the local Cebuano dialect since that was the lingua franca of the area. My family owned an electronic parts store frequented by Filipino-Cebuanos. Once in a while, a Muslim would drop by. Often we would chase off tribal people who came down from the hills to trade. We would occasionally stare at the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Amerikano” as he picked up something at our store.

One might assume that after I became a Christian in college, I would have developed a burden to share the gospel with the people around me—differences in culture or race notwithstanding. Interestingly, many of these people remained “invisible” to me where the gospel was concerned. My priority was sharing the gospel with my family and friends—perhaps understandably so, as we tend to care more for the salvation of those we have a relationship with than those we don’t.

But that led me to an important question. Why didn’t I have a relationship with people from the other ethnic groups that I saw so frequently? Why didn’t it occur to me that these people also need Jesus? It was only much later, as I grew in my walk with Christ, that I realized that I had grown up inside an invisible wall—just like every other ethnic group within my context. We could all live in the same city—Muslims, Chinese, tribal people, and Christians—and still be so clueless about each other and uninterested in each other’s needs.

The longer I serve as a missions mobilizer, the more evident the invisible wall is to me. Churches in the middle of a Muslim majority area meet regularly but don’t reach out to their Muslim neighbors. Christians on tours to Buddhist lands show appreciation for the architecture of temples but don’t not quite understanding its spiritual significance. A Christian who belongs to a church known for solid preaching made this remark on her feedback form after our mission awareness event: “I didn’t know there are still people who have never heard of the gospel!”

But being able to see that one lives inside the invisible wall is itself a journey of realization. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it does not happen unless God brings certain situations or people into our lives.

Venturing outside the invisible walls

A few years after university, I found myself working in an Indochinese refugee camp in the northern Philippines. This was another multicultural environment where I worked (and lived) alongside Filipinos from all over and expats from the U.S., Europe, and other Asian countries. I served Indochinese refugees who came through: Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians. Sometimes Hmongs came through and, on rare occasions, even the hunted Montagnards as well.

Having left the invisible wall in Davao, I somehow ended up not building new invisible walls at the refugee camp. Perhaps this was partly caused by a spiritual “growth spurt” I experienced in the refugee camp where I could sense God’s heart a little more deeply.

I didn’t realize it then, but those three years working in the refugee camp were part of God’s process of mobilizing me. He slowly dismantled the invisible walls and gently pushed me to venture out and interact with peoples very different from me in many ways. As I engaged with these peoples, my curiosity about them slowly turned into a burden for their souls.

At that point, I knew next to nothing about missions or missionaries. The little I did know never gave me reason to think it had anything to do with me.

Things changed when I went back home to Davao and served in what would later be my sending church. The senior pastor had a burden for missions and it somehow rubbed off on me. I helped him promote missions in the church and when the missionaries supported by the church came through, I also helped to take care of them. Then during one of our church missions weeks, a visiting speaker did an exposition of Isaiah 49. It spoke to the situation and the struggles I was facing at that point in my life. Verse 6, in particular, brought home the point for me.

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”[1]

It not only helped me see beyond my struggles in ministry, it also gave me direction. Just as the Messiah desired that his salvation be extended beyond the Jews, my role in His kingdom work is to go beyond my own people. I realized that I can and must be a part of seeing the Messiah’s salvation “reach to the ends of the earth.”

And so began my journey into missions engagement.

Early life outside the invisible walls

The default questions most Christians ask when they realize that God has called them to missions is, “Where should I go?” or “Which people group should I go to?” The word “go,” a nod to the Great Commission, is almost always part of the question.[2]

As I explored possibilities, it felt like God was calling me to everywhere and to everyone. How could that be? How could I have a burden for all those unsaved and have no special focus on any particular group? In my conversations and readings on missions, it was always assumed that engaging in missions meant going, that is, making a physical move to a different location. I was stuck. I went back to the drawing board and discovered alternative ways of obeying God’s call to be engaged in missions. The process of discovery was hardly a burning bush experience as God spoke through the “ordinary” wisdom of common sense. I discerned that I was weak at evangelism, strong at discipleship, and skilled at communication and building relationships. There were also a few other factors, but, put together, I felt the Lord wanted me to stay so he could use me to help churches and Christians engage in missions, that is, cross-cultural evangelization.

Eventually, I ended up doing this with OMF. My early years of promoting missions (it took a few years before I discovered the word mobilization) were an uphill climb.[3] Sadly, fellow missionaries serving in the frontlines added to the load. I lost count of the number of times I was asked, “So when are you going to the field?” Interestingly, I still get asked that question after having served as a mobilizer for sixteen years.

Over the years, I’ve reflected on why the ministry of mobilization seems like an uphill climb and came up with three reasons: misunderstandings that Christians have about missions in general, misunderstandings that fellow colleagues in missions have on missions mobilization in particular, and the fact that there are few resources to help equip those called to serve God as a mobilizer.

 

Persuading others to come out of the invisible wall

The first issue is the main issue that I grapple with as I mobilize churches for missions. Aware of my own slow journey to venture beyond the invisible wall, I am keenly aware that it can be a long, winding road for the churches I journey with. There are roadblocks along the path that also make the journey arduous: church-centered ministries, church politics, fear of the “unknown,” the misconception that same culture evangelism is already mission work (especially if it takes place outside the church property), the wrong assumption that finance is the only way to engage (ergo, if the church perceives they don’t have that capacity, they conclude that they can’t get involved), and the misconception that missions is a specialized ministry only for, and by, a few.

Sadly, certain roadblocks are placed there by missionaries themselves. In my journeying with churches, I discerned early on a deep distrust toward mission organizations. Churches tend to think that missionaries and their respective agencies are simply out to get their money (mobilization equals fundraising) or their church members (mobilization equals recruitment, or from some churches’ perspective, stealing sheep). To be fair, these perceptions are in some ways true and can partly be attributed to poor mobilization.

With these potential problems in view, how does one start journeying with others along the road to mission involvement? By going back to basics. I find that time needs to be invested in building relationships and ministering to churches before one can even get to talk about the “biblical basis of missions.” As relationships are built, trust and respect develop, and church leaders realize that I am not after their money or their people. More importantly, they discover my desire that they become passionate for God’s wider kingdom work. I want them to discover the invisible walls that separate them from people in need of Jesus. I want to see them grow in courage and passion to venture beyond their invisible walls, spurred on by a desire to participate in what God is doing across cultures.

As much as I work hard at building relationships and sharing from the Word, it is still the Holy Spirit’s work to open people’s spiritual eyes and make them “see” that the walls they inadvertently put up around them have made them blind to the spiritual needs on the outside.

So what happens outside the invisible walls?

What people do when they venture outside the walls presents a huge challenge. Guiding them carelessly or casually could lead to substantial collateral damage. How does this happen? We sometimes forget that when a church catches the vision for cross-cultural missions, it is only the beginning of their journey beyond the invisible wall, not the end. Mobilizers who journey with these churches could prematurely see this as an outcome in itself and cause the church to engage in missions “on the fly.” This has resulted in certain situations like churches sending people directly to the fields without adequate knowledge of the structures that need to be in place or sending people through organizations only to have the workers pulled out half way because of lack of support, care, or prayer, mainly because the churches had not been adequately taught about their role as senders.

Filipinos are known to be passionate people and, ironically, even as the mobilizer helps ignite that passion for God’s work outside the wall, he or she also becomes the one who should temper that passion. The mobilizer should help passionate, mission-minded individuals and churches think about how to engage effectively in missions, with long-term impact and sustainability of the worker and church partnership in mind.

Personally, journeying with mission-minded individuals has required much patience, not only for the individual, but also for me. Being a mobilizer, I find myself stretched as I mentor them toward a more mature understanding of missions—seeing not only who the unreached people groups are, but also what needs to be prepared to engage well for the long haul.

God led Peter out of the invisible walls

It can be a challenge to journey with people. Sometimes, no matter how much you build relationships with them and share from God’s word, they either don’t seem to “get it,” or if you don’t follow them up, they retreat back to the safety of the invisible walls. I sometimes wonder if it is worth all the trouble.

At one point, a personal reading of Acts 10, during which I concentrated on the context of the preceding chapters, gave me a better perspective of the ministry that God has put me in. The chapter starts with Cornelius, a Gentile centurion who feared God, heeding God’s instructions to look for Peter. But actually, more than Cornelius, this chapter is about Peter. God zeroed in on Peter and made him move out from behind the invisible wall that he had built around himself.

But just for a little bit of background, Peter had been discipled by Jesus for three years and in those three years, he was privy to Jesus’ positive regard for Gentiles and the individual commendations he gave to some of them for their faith. Julius Scott observed that:

Other gospels also include hints of a universal purpose in Jesus’ mission.… There were cases in which Jesus healed and/or carried on ministry to individual Samaritans and Gentiles. Mark 11:17, in recording Jesus’ teaching in connection with the cleansing of the temple, includes the full quotation from Isa 56:7b: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” … John 10:16 relates Jesus’ reference to his “other sheep, that are not of this fold, (whom he) must also bring.”[4]

We see Peter, post-ascension and post-Great Commission, hemmed in behind that invisible wall, despite his journey in ministry with Jesus. He ministered to Jews primarily, and by God’s grace the church grew but stayed within the confines of Jerusalem. In contemporary Christian circles, Acts 2:41–47 is widely used as a model of what an ideal church community should look like. But somehow, the Jerusalem church remained within invisible walls as it ministered mainly to Jews. Much of the spiritual activity or ministry stayed within Jerusalem until the great persecution documented in Acts 8:1. It was only then that there was a more extensive (albeit accidental) evangelism that crossed cultures (Acts 8:1, 4). Interestingly, the next chapter documents Paul’s conversion and his calling to preach Christ to Gentiles (read: cross-cultural missions; Acts 9:15; 22:21; Eph 3:1). It seemed that God had become a little bit more overt about partnership with his followers in the work of cross-cultural evangelism.

So Paul was delegated to reach the Gentiles. Does this mean that the Jerusalem church could go ahead and focus on the Jews? There would have been many “logical” reasons to do so—the church was struggling with personnel as it continued to grow; it was still a very young church that needed to work on a deeper theology that would inform its practice; it still did not have the necessary structure for sending, and it was being persecuted. Surely all these point to the need for more self-care within the early church?

While my human mind would see this as logical, God operates on a different plane. He calls and prepares Paul for cross-cultural work. Interestingly, God then hones in on Peter who was considered one of the leaders of the early church.

Up to this point, Peter’s primary focus in evangelization was the Jews, despite Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:16–20 and then again in Acts 1:8. So Peter gets a more in-your-face directive from God followed by immediate application.

In the memorable rooftop scene in which God reveals to Peter a vision of unclean animals and gives the command to eat them, two things stand out: (1) God had to repeat this vision to Peter three times, and (2) Peter’s knee-jerk reaction in saying, “Surely not, Lord … I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:9–16). It struck me that what the Lord revealed and instructed him to do was so against Peter’s Jewish identity and culture that God had to patiently show him this vision three times. Furthermore, Peter, who had been courageously obedient since Pentecost, had the audacity to say no to the voice he already had identified as the Lord’s!

It all became clear to Peter when Cornelius’s men arrived and told Peter about Cornelius’s story. To Peter’s credit, he obeyed and, as it was, ventured outside his invisible wall.

That trip was obviously a huge paradigm shift for Peter, who, after hearing Cornelius’ account and witnessing what God was doing amongst the Gentiles, exclaimed, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35) and “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

God used Peter to influence the early church leadership to open their minds (and hearts) about this invisible wall. It was not an easy journey for the church. Peter himself, when he returned from his paradigm-shifting trip, was confronted by fellow leaders and believers in the early church who, very tellingly, focused on the fact that he went to the “house of uncircumcised men” (Acts 11:3)[5] instead of actually rejoicing that “Gentiles have also received the Word” (Acts 11:1). Peter had to recount everything he went through before they realized that “even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).[6]

A multiplication of mobilization has interestingly taken place in Acts 10 and 11. God mobilizes Peter, and Peter in turn mobilized the church towards cross-cultural missions. I use the term mobilization here to describe what happened to Peter and his unintentional influence on the leaders in Acts 11 in its most basic form of movement into missions rather than its typical usage by modern day mission agencies.

It is mobilization in the sense that God made Peter aware of the need to remove the invisible wall that limited his ministry so that he could see God’s longing that those outside of Jewish culture and tradition might also be given the opportunity to hear the gospel. In turn, having been made aware of this by God, Peter inadvertently did the same with the leadership when they questioned him about entering a Gentile home.

This was obviously just the beginning, but still a hopeful one. It paved the way for Paul later on when he set out with Barnabas and when he grappled with the Jerusalem church over how Gentile followers should express their faith.[7]

Reflections on breaking the invisible wall

As much as my reading of Acts 10 has given me a stronger impetus to mobilize—that is, to help people recognize this invisible wall and accompany them on their journey outside the wall—it has also given me a deeper impression of how difficult this ministry is.

Peter and the early church, with Jesus’ ministry and teaching and missional directives still ringing in their ears, still needed that extra (and supernatural) push to engage in cross-cultural ministry. Can we expect less of the present day church with all its complexities?

Then again, that “extra push” from God also provides hope in this difficult ministry. If God is so passionate about making sure that the gospel crosses all borders and breaks every invisible wall, surely he will make it happen. I believe that as much as he desires that the church partner with the work of cross-cultural missions, he also desires that there are people in place to challenge, inspire, and journey with churches toward that end.

[1] Only later in my journey did I realize that was actually the same Scripture verse Paul referred to in Acts 13:47 when he preached in Pisidian Antioch. Interestingly, hearing this verse drew Gentiles to come to faith that day.

[2] Although the verb “go” is not the main verb in the Great Commission recorded in Matt 28:19, it is greatly emphasized in popular Christian culture and it influenced my own thinking about missions early in my journey towards missions involvement.

[3] I am aware that the word “promote” presents a number of problems as people tend to associate it with marketing and advertising. But Merriam Webster has one definition of promote as “to help (something) happen, develop, or increase.”

[4] J. Julius Scott Jr., “Gentiles and the Ministry of Jesus: Further Observations on Matt 10:5–6; 15:21–28,” Journal of Evangelical Theology Society 33, no. 2 (June 1990): 162, http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/33/33-2/33-2-pp161-169_JETS.pdf (accessed 17 March 2016).

[5] It is sad that their reaction to the news that Gentiles had come to faith was not to rejoice. The leaders were so caught up on the breach of religious tradition that they were blind to the wonderful truth that lost souls were actually saved!

[6] It may be worth mentioning that the account from the time it started with Cornelius to Peter’s own experience had God’s supernatural fingerprints all over it, from the appearance of an angel, to Peter’s rooftop vision, to the Gentiles’ baptism of the Holy Spirit. There was no way Peter could have been accused of acting on his own accord.

[7] It should be noted that Peter’s rooftop encounter with God in Acts 10 had a pivotal role in the decision made by the Jerusalem Council when the leaders discussed the issue of whether Gentile Christians should follow Jewish traditions as part of their faith-expression (cf. Acts 15:7–11).

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