Showalter: Bridges of God

Apr 29, 2019 by

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The power of new ideas in the global spread of Christianity is perhaps nowhere more strikingly illustrated in the modern church than in an understanding of the “bridges of God.”

Richard Showalter

Showalter

Donald McGavran used the term for the book title of his now-classic 1950s missiology. At the time, he was still a strong participant in the ecumenical Christian dialogue, though increasingly marginalized along its evangelical edges. Later he moved decisively to the center of the global evangelical movement with new approaches to “church growth” and “hidden peoples” in the foundation of what is now the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies.

By “bridges of God,” McGavran meant the people and patterns God uses to spread Christianity from one culture to another. His promotion of these bridges has shaped global missionary practice ever since. In one example, his colleague at Fuller, Ralph Winter, pioneered the use of the term “hidden peoples” — distinct ethno-linguistic people groups — to identify places where the church does not yet exist.

A second example is Bethany International University of Singapore, which trains, deploys and mentors Asian and African missionaries. BIU may well train and send more new workers (about 2,500) each year than any other Western or Korean organization through its rapidly growing network of training centers. BIU President Tan Kok Beng is a Mennonite church planter in Singapore.

What are these “bridges of God,” and how do they work? One illustration is people with deep roots in two or more cultures. These are “bridgers” who can effectively transmit spiritual truth from one of their cultures, where Jesus is known, to another, where he has not yet been introduced. The Apostle Paul was one such bridger — a devout Jew who grew up in Greek-speaking Tarsus, sharing the gospel in Aramaic and Greek. What happened in tiny Palestine, Paul trumpeted to the Greek-speaking world, writing one-third of the Greek New Testament in the process. Why Paul? He was a bridger.

I saw it this spring in Pakistan. Three generations ago, British and American missionaries planted churches in what is now the Pakistani Punjab. Today there is a vibrant, if small, evangelical movement in these towns and villages. More than a decade ago, a young Pakistani believer from these churches found his way from New York to the International Christian Center, an expression of the Anabaptist movement in Honduras.

He was so impressed by what he saw in Central America that he kept returning whenever he could, always at his own expense. At first, he asked whether he could become part of the Central American group, but its leader, Rene Penalba, refused. Penalba had gotten dozens of email requests for money from Asia and learned to ignore them. “Here’s someone else who is just interested in my money,” he thought.

But the Pakistani was a true bridger. He was working for Jesus, not financial help. He had been gripped by the vision in this Honduran “Jerusalem.” To this day he has never asked for a cent from them. Eventually Penalba was so persuaded of his authenticity that today the International Christian Center embraces him fully as a fellow worker in Pakistan.

English, Spanish, Urdu, Punjabi and beyond — bridges of God, Global South to Global South, sprinkled with only a little bit of the Global North.

Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.


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