by Erich Bridges
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Hamlet Act 1, Scene V.
Shakespeare should have been a missiologist.
Hamlet's cautionary words apply to most human endeavors, particularly mission outreach. Cross-cultural ministry requires good strategies, careful planning, intensive training, cultural sensitivity-and a healthy dose of human helplessness.
That last ingredient allows God to step in and work His wonders in His way. Good strategies set the stage for effective ministry. Strategy, however, never won a single soul to Christ. That is the province of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, a Southern Baptist missionary in Africa went to the beach to pray and study after an exhausting stretch of ministry. Too tired to think, he sat in silence, listening for the voice of the Lord. The Spirit prompted him to strike up a conversation with a man sitting nearby. He told the man how he had had met Jesus, then shared key stories from the Bible about man's sin, God's righteousness, and His offer of salvation.
With tears in his eyes, the man prayed to receive Christ as his Savior. He turned out to be from a Muslim-dominated region where Baptists have no work-a region to which missionaries had been working to gain access.
In Brazil, a last-minute scheduling cancellation left missionary Bruce Wenger scrambling to fill three afternoons with activities for an arriving volunteer team. He visited a slum area with a new Brazilian church member. "As we walked and prayed, I sensed that God wanted the group's afternoons to be spent in this area," he recalled.
When Wenger told the church member of his impression, "he looked at me in amazement and shared how that very morning he had prayed specifically for a way to tell everyone in the favela (slum) about the new social project that would begin in his house in 10 days. This was God's answer to his prayer."
The volunteer team spent several days in the slum, visiting door to door and offering children's programs. Neighborhood parents and other relatives eagerly came to watch and participate with their children. Many also learned about the church member's new social ministry, and 40 people came the day he started the project.
"It's exciting to see how God is going to use him in the future and to see how God answered his prayer, Wenger said.
In a major Middle Eastern capital, mission workers search for ways to spread the Good News in culturally appropriate ways. They're marveling, however, at how the gospel is taking root in one part of the city. A young Muslim woman turned up at the doorstep of a house church attended by members of a group traditionally despised by her people.
The woman came, she said, because of a vivid dream God had given her. She has since become a follower of Christ, along with two other Muslim women. One of them, "Amira," went home and told her husband, "I met Christians who are not Christians!" (The word "Christian" carries much negative social and historical baggage in the area.)
The next day she returned to the house meeting with her husband, "Ali." He asked many questions about Jesus' crucifixion and deity. The church planter leading the group answered all his questions and told the story from Luke 5 about how Jesus forgave and healed the paralytic. Then he asked Ali, "Who alone has the power to forgive sins?"
"God!" Ali answered with conviction-and at that moment his eyes were opened to the reality of who Jesus is. With his wife beside him, he gave his life to Christ on the spot.
"We can only watch in wonder and awe at what is happening," a mission worker admitted. "It doesn't make sense that a small pocket of Christians, surrounded by a sea of Muslims, would be reaching out and drawing in people they have little in common with. It doesn't make sense that Muslims would come to faith in such a short amount of time.
"But we continue to learn, with much humility and thankfulness, that God will use whatever people, whatever means and whatever timing He desires, to reach the lost of this city. (He is) a creative, masterful and surprising God who continues to amaze!"
Planning and preparation are essential in missions and any other Christian ministry. But they're useless without the creative vitality of God, who began His work of salvation among the nations through a wandering band of shepherds-and finished it in a King born in a stable.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board