Much to the dismay, I am sure, of some my Junior High and High School teachers, I enjoy reading history. My interest in the subject took a giant leap forward many years ago when I was pressed into service as a history teacher in a Christian school. If you are familiar with the Christian School movement, you probably know that sometimes small staffs require teachers to “stretch” out of their specific fields of training. Fortunately, the administration of the school had the good sense to keep me out of the physics lab and the French class, but they suspected that perhaps I could stay a chapter or two ahead of my students in the history book and, using the lesson plans of a former history teacher, make sure they knew the contributions of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt to the United States.
Since that time I have continued to read histories and historical biographies as I have had opportunity. Lately, I have been reading a fair amount of Baptist History. It is good to know our past, and even better to apply the lessons of the past to our own age. As I have read, I have been struck by the natural way our early European forefathers obeyed the Great Commission. While there were certainly missionaries in the traditional sense of the word, in many cases the first Baptists in many countries were those who had been saved and discipled in other lands who then returned home, sharing their faith.
A group of Hungarian carpenters were saved under the ministry of Johann Oncken, the missionary considered by many to be “the father of German Baptists”, when he was serving in Hamburg. Soon they returned to Hungary and began to share their faith, establishing Baptist churches in the process. Two Austrian families returned to Vienna, spreading the word, after sitting under Oncken’s ministry in Germany, as well. A young Dane returned to his native Denmark after working with Oncken, faithfully sharing the gospel with his countrymen. One of the first missionaries to Norway was a Norwegian who got saved in the US and went back home plant churches in that country. In Sweden, Romania and France the story was the same: native sons returning home bringing the Good News that they had heard in other lands back to their homelands. Some of these simply labored as laymen, but they were faithful to follow the biblical mandate to “make disciples.”
This philosophy of evangelism and discipleship (or training, or teaching, or development or whatever you chose to call it) was apparently intrinsic in their formation. “Missions” was not something relegated only to specialists, it was to be the usual course of the Christian life. This was evidenced not only by those who returned to their own homelands, but by those who emigrated to other countries as well. Leon McBeth mentions the “evangelical immigrants who came down from southern Russian into Romania” (The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, Broadman Press, 1987, page 490). This reminds me of those believers in Acts 11, forced out of the city of Jerusalem, who shared the gospel in their new home towns, establishing, among other things, the great church at Antioch (Acts. 11:19-21).
I am also reminded, of course, of the scores of faithful servants that I have met who came to my country in search of the “American Dream”, who went back home with something greater. Many of these men are now faithful missionaries, church planters and pastors in their own home countries. Unlike “foreign” missionaries, they can immediately immerse themselves in the culture, language and customs of the region, reaching out to those around them with the gospel. I am reminded of those who we have the privilege of teaching in their own countries, learning each week in their own churches, preparing themselves to be used of the Lord right there, or in the next town, or on the other side of the country – or even the world – if the Lord so calls them.
So the great lesson, then, should be that the great commission is central to our faith. It is not something merely to be considered at our annual Missions Conference, or entrusted solely to “professional” missionaries (though I thank God for every faithful missionary). We are all responsible to participate in a variety of ways, both personally “at home” and indirectly through the work of others on foreign fields.