By Thomas Murphy
Well-executed mission trips are beautiful to behold. Christians enjoy the singular purpose of sharing the good news that Jesus saves sinners. They experience in a unique way the truth of being, as Bonhoeffer says in Life Together, a community in and through Jesus Christ. They share an active sense of dependence upon God in all things and experience exhilaration when God answers their prayers. They realize that evangelism itself is a habit, a lifestyle which is not always easy, but which is rather easier than they suspected it could be. Furthermore, they share an immense, crushing, heart-rending burden for the lost.
Once, on a mission trip, I was sitting in a parking lot watching a seemingly unending line of traffic on a busy highway. I was suddenly torn by the tension of two truths: salvation is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ, and statistics tell me that almost none of these people believe in Him. Therefore, I was witnessing a veritable highway to hell. Almost every single car contained souls en route to business meetings, family gatherings, weddings, dates, movies, hobbies, and a Christ-less eternity.
Such a burden, hopefully, is a common one on all mission trips. It ought not to be born of a fundamentalist desire to conform men and women to precisely my view of how they ought to live. Rather, it should be born out of love for God and love for people, since God deserves glory and people need God. This shared sense of burden for the lost, evangelistic l passion, dependence upon God in all things, fellowship, and singular purpose all combine to make mission trips awe-inspiring and God-glorifying events.
My contention is that the Deep South itself is a mission field. It should be considered so by the churches God has placed within its region. The zeal demonstrated by southerners in foreign missions is precisely what is needed precisely where they live, and not just when they are traveling abroad. Of many, two factors stand out:
First, Postmodernism continues to rule American culture. At the academic level, its credibility and sustainability may be diminishing. At the level of practical experience, however, it continues to display a dominant sway over the way men and women think. We are masters at separating religion from the “real world”. The commonly prevailing (though not often articulated) philosophy is that one’s life is not, nor need it be, grounded in overarching reality. There is nothing that is ultimately and necessarily true for everyone. (Never mind the classic problem of there being absolutely no absolute truths). In a bookstore, I recently heard someone talking about the gospel to a friend. Not surprisingly, the response of the friend was, “That might be true for you, but not for me.”
Internet and television are not necessarily, in and of themselves, bad. However, because of their existence, most households in the Deep South interact daily with media that preaches postmodern views of reality. No longer do you have to physically visit New York City to hear powerful, persuasive, and utterly non-biblical ideas about reality. Just get online. Turn on your television. It is evident then that even among those whom we might describe as “typical southerners” or “good ol’ boys”, there is an increasing disconnect from biblical Christianity.
Second, the Deep South is a mission field in the sense that it is becoming increasingly international. Lost people (and peoples) are moving in from backgrounds and locales where hearing the gospel had been either difficult or impossible. This is a tremendous and wonderful opportunity. God has brought the nations to our own doorstep. Most of us have been able to experience this first hand as Hindus have built temples across the street from our homes, or as Muslims have built mosques close to our workplaces. These people must be thought of as men and women who are deceived by false teaching and who need to be reached for the Gospel.
Also, they are real men and women whom we should love whether they come to Christ or not. I suspect a large part of our evangelism within an international context (especially in our traditional geographic locations) will be spent learning how to first be good (and loving) neighbors. It will involve learning how to articulate and interact with other worldviews. For the sake of these relationships, you might even consider learning a new language. Of the many far reaching implications of immigration that could be addressed, though, only one needs to be highlighted here. The Deep South is a mission field if for no other reason than because in it one has ample opportunities for international evangelism to men and women who may not otherwise be confronted with the truth of who God is and what He requires of them, and what he provides for them in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Several things rightly make mission trips beautiful and wonderful experiences, but when we return from a trip and land back on American soil, we have not left the mission field at all. In fact, the Deep South itself should be regarded as a place in urgent need of a missionary-like zeal to share the gospel. It is increasingly showing symptoms of unhealthy allegiances to a false philosophy of reality common among Americans who speak English as their first language. It is also increasingly populated by international residents who have been deceived by false religions. As these needs become more evident, it is of paramount importance that churches in the Deep South respond accordingly, equipping their members with deep knowledge of Scripture, ingraining familiarity with other worldviews, and supporting them as they obediently go out into their own neighborhoods and workplaces to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Murphy brings an international perspective to being a southerner. Born in West Africa and raised in Brazil, he received his B.A. from Southwest Baptist University in Missouri. He is currently a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter at @KnowltonMurphy.